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Happy anniversary Texas Book Festival: 25 years and still reading

Michael Barnes
At the Texas Book Festival downtown headquarters 2004, board Chairperson Regan Gammon, left, and director Mary Herman assemble name tags for the festival.

A quarter of a century?

Really? The Texas Book Festival, which usually pulls some 40,000 book lovers to the state Capitol and nearby blocks, has been around for 25 years?

It still seems so daring and new.

In order to reveal cultural heritage, let’s set the stage.

In 1995, the year before the first-ever fest, a still-young Republican, George W. Bush, served as governor of Texas. During these years, he often teamed up with older and more veteran Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock to govern in a comparatively bipartisan fashion.

That feeling of good will — and shared Texas patriotism — spilled over into the Texas Book Festival, co-founded by Texas first lady Laura Bush, a former librarian and the fest’s honorary chairwoman, and the late Mary Margaret Farabee, a liberal benefactor and civic leader who took on the practical challenges of the fest.

The festival arrived in 1996 as some the city’s cultural offerings were growing in scope and sophistication, while others were not. For instance, South by Southwest, founded in 1987, was growing quickly and going global, while the more homespun Austin Aqua Festival, sparked in 1962, was shrinking just as rapidly. Aqua Fest shut down in 1998.

Already an established music city by the 1990s, Austin was becoming more widely known for its film, arts and literary efforts. An enhanced food scene was not far behind.

No other public event announced the city’s literary ambitions louder than the Texas Book Festival, which grew into one of the largest and most respected of its kind in the country. Although national authors became its marquee stars after the first year, the public also showed up in droves for local or regional authors, especially as the fest expanded.

Time to toast the 25th anniversary: To construct the following timeline, I culled memories from Jann Girard, who has been with the festival in various capacities throughout its history and now serves as logistics coordinator, and Lois Kim, festival executive director since 2013. I also employed the archived stories of the many American-Statesman writers who have reported on the fest.

1995: El Paso author Robert Skimin suggests the idea of a book festival to Laura Bush. Independently, Mary Margaret Farabee, who had already been working with friend Carolyn Osborn on a book festival concept, proposes her version of the idea to Bush.

A visit to the Southern Festival of Books in Tennessee had inspired Farabee and Osborn. Farabee spent a year calling around the country to research the logistics of such a project.

In the end, Farabee and Bush join forces to establish the fest, in part to deliver support to the state’s public library system, but also to honor Texas authors and to promote reading.

1996: Bush announces the first-ever Texas Book Festival on March 26 at the Governor’s Mansion. “Imagine big tents over Congress Avenue in front of the Capitol and booths where books are sold,” read the American-Statesman report. “That will be the scene Nov. 16 if everything comes together for the first Texas Book Festival.”

Bill Wittliff, Stephen Harrigan, Sarah Bird, Lorenzo Thomas, Lawrence Wright and Carolyn Osborn are among the authors on hand for the public announcement. The American-Statesman and Texas Monthly sign on as early sponsors.

Farabee estimates the festival — free to attend — would cost about $100,000. Underwriters, along with a a high-dollar charity dinner where Larry McMurtry spoke and a percentage of book sales, would combine to cover costs and benefit Texas public libraries. By autumn, the festival “already has paid for itself before the first book has been cracked,” the American-Statesman reports.

The fest lands on the north side of Capitol — as well as inside the Capitol — and takes up only three city blocks from 15th Street to 18th Street. Some of the Texas authors featured that year include John Graves, Naomi Shihab Nye and Louis Sachar. Festival leaders initiate the custom of drafting a Texas visual artist for a poster and promotional materials.

The first literary director, Cyndi Hughes, remained in that position until 2003.

1997: The second Texas Book Festival moves to the west side of the Capitol on Colorado Street and expands to four blocks. While the focus the first year was Texas authors, the second includes national writers without direct ties to the state.

1998: “It poured rain the whole weekend and we still had a successful Texas Book Festival,” Girard says. “We added in an author's party, which is now an annual event.” Some featured authors this year include former President George H.W. Bush, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Molly Ivins and Frank McCourt.

1999: The fest highlights cookbook writers at the “Bon Appetit, Y'all” event at Shoreline Grill. Gov. George W. Bush performs a surprise reading at the First Edition Literary Gala. That party also honors beloved Texas author Horton Foote, who is the first recipient of the Bookend Award. The now annual award, given to Texas writers for outstanding literary achievement, is later named the Texas Writer Award.

2000: Severe weather arrives at 4 p.m. on the final day of the festival and leaders close down activities early. The Gore vs. Bush presidential election remains undecided during this year’s gala and festival and becomes a widespread topic of chat within sight of the Governor’s Mansion. Edward James Olmos, Maria Hinojosa, Octavia Butler and Hermine Pinson are among the featured authors.

2001: Since the fest was scheduled so soon after 9/11 attacks, skeptics wonder if authors would travel to the event. Only a few drop out. The fest expands, now five city blocks. On the first day of set-up, a huge amount of rain falls, but the storms move out. Clear weather reins for the remainder of the fest.

The fest also launches what has become its signature literacy program, Reading Rock Stars, which brings festival children’s authors into selected Title I schools in Austin. Since then, the fest has expanded the program across the state and brings the program annually to the Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.

2002: The fest adds the cooking tent, a permanent feature since then. Sandra Cisneros, Tim O’Brien and a young Ethan Hawke appear this year. Lance Armstrong, at the peak of his celebrity, hits the festival alongside co-author Sally Jenkins to promote “It’s Not About the Bike.”

2003: The fest expands south on Congress to 10th Street, now a full six blocks long. Leaders pick Austin artist Malou Flato’s “Red Leaves and Cactus” for the commemorative poster. Mary Herman, one of the festival’s most connected leaders, becomes executive director this year.

2004: Among the celebrated speakers this year: Dagoberto Gilb, Bruce Sterling, Dave Berry, Roy Blount Jr., John Graves, H.W. Brands, T.R. Fehrenbach, Don Graham and former Gov. Ann Richards. Ed Nawotka served as literary director for this one year.

2005: Former President Bill Clinton visits the fest along with Salman Rushdie, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Viola Canales. One particularly memorable book from San Antonio Express-News Editor Robert Rivard documents the six years he spent seeking the truth about the murder of one of his Mexico City correspondents. Still a good read: “Trail of Feathers: Searching for Philip True.”

Clay Smith became the literary director this year and serves until 2012. He now fills that part at the San Antonio Book Festival.

2006: Then-Sen. Barack Obama turns out to be a huge draw for the festival. By this point, the fest features more than 200 authors. Gore Vidal and Amy Sedaris amuse the crowds at the kick-off gala. The fest adds another block, so up to seven.

2007: The festival receives the Austin American-Statesman’s “A+ Festival Award” for “Best Festival that’s not ACL or SXSW.” Festival staff begged to differ regarding the qualifier.

At the gala, historian Douglas Brinkley reads from “The Reagan Diaries,” which he edited. Actor and children’s book author Marlee Matlin steals the show, however, with deft jokes about deafness and “a life that is far from tragic.”

2008: Now eight blocks long, the festival becomes the subject of new waves of social media: Twitter is all the fashion at the fest.

Conservative thinker Christopher Buckley and New York Times writer James Traub, among others, provide political insights. “The Texas Book Festival was born amid politics,” former American-Statesman books editor Jeff Salamon writes, “and it has never managed to leave politics far behind.”

2009: Tornadic activity threatens the first day of set-up. Tent company workers take cover inside the Capitol. The fest, however, doesn’t lose any tents.

This year, the focus on fiction highlights the city’s maturity as a literary hub. Some of the featured authors: Rick Riordan, Margaret Atwood and early-career Colson Whitehead.

2010: The fest taps Austin artist Lance Letscher to create the 15th anniversary poster, a collage made from paper. Founder Laura Bush appears as a festival author with her memoir, “Spoken from the Heart.” S.C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon” makes the subject of the Comanches one hit of the fest.

2011: This year, the first Lit Crawl Austin, a “night of irreverent literary programming,” takes off and becomes a regular feature. With renovations of the state Capitol completed, many panels and speeches move back into that august building. The fest grows to nine city blocks long.

2012: Hurricane Sandy wreaks havoc on the festival by forcing cancellations from East Coast authors. The show goes on. The party goes on. Festival friends put up stranded authors. Among the most anticipated speeches comes from historian Robert Caro, who speaks about “The Passage to Power,” the fourth in his monumental series on LBJ.

2013: Current executive director, Lois Kim, comes on board six months before the festival. At the same time, Steph Opitz takes over as literary director.

“It was terrifying and exhilarating to work at breakneck speed to learn everything for the first time and figure out how to put on a huge weekend event plus a fancy fundraising gala plus several author parties all crammed into one weekend,” Kim says. “Thankfully, there has always been an amazing community of volunteers who make the festival happen and run all the tents.”

The fest features Lawrence Wright and Stephen Harrigan this year, as well as short story writer Sherman Alexie and Washington Post reporter Dan Balz. Cookbooks and food demonstrations continue to grow in popularity.

2014: The fest takes over the Teen Book Festival and renames it the Texas Teen Book Festival. Also, the Austin-based Kirkus Reviews initiates the Kirkus Prizes, which each year rewards three writers with $50,000 each. The awards ceremonies become a sort of curtain-raiser for the fest.

Most speakers over the years have tried to please. “Novelist Martin Amis tried hard to offend,” I write of the gala this particular year. “And did. But that's his eternal shtick. His joke about the Kennedys might have elicited groans even at a John Birch Society smoker. It didn't support his point about high standards.”

2015: By its 20th anniversary, the book festival is but one of a dozen significant fall festivals in the city. Some of them begin to share the scarce weekends during the prime stretches of autumn. This year, more than 300 authors entertain and inform more than 40,000 guests.

2016:Laura Bush and Jenna Bush appear for their co-written book, “Our Great Big Backyard,” about national parks. Rain on Saturday does not keep crowds from the festival. Julie Wernersbach takes over as literary director.

2017: Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush kick off the festival with a special session showcasing their book, "Sisters First: A Celebration of Sisterhood.”

“The Bush sisters’ appearance was a really memorable and magical one,” Kim says. “Laura Bush was in the front row with her old friend Regan Gammon — former fest chairwoman — and the girls led the entire House chamber in a round of ‘Happy Birthday,’ as it was Mrs. Bush’s birthday. The smile on Mrs. Bush’s face was luminous and I saw more than one tear in the room. It was one of those magical Texas Book Festival moments that those present will never forget.”

Tom Hanks also appears this year and helps a man with a wedding proposal during his session, a recorded moment that went viral.

2018: Luis Alberto Urrea performs a dramatic reading at the gala from his novel, “The House of Broken Angels.” “He had the entire room mesmerized,” Kim says, “and I remember how the room erupted in howls of laughter and delight.”

More programs are presented in Spanish and English. The Austin360 Book Club starts in partnership with the Texas Book Festival.

2019: Samantha Power, Sarah M. Broom, Chris Ware and Tim O’Brien are among the big names this year. “Probably the most glorious weather weekend in my time as executive director,” Kim says. “The festival went off without an emergency or hitch, and I probably should have known that something was going to be in store for us for 2020 because 2019 was too smooth and easy.”

2020: Nothing previous that happened in previous years could have prepared organizers, authors and audiences for an all-digital festival necessitated by a pandemic. At least the Texas Book Festival organizers have had a number of months to plan for it. A new helper: Matthew Palin, who joined as the latest literary director.

Texas authors gather in the Capitol Rotunda for a group picture commemorating the first annual Texas Book Festival in 1996.