One recent morning, Toni Blessing heard something that made her stop in her tracks.
“I was listening to the ‘Book Riot’ podcast, and they were talking about a big book event they’re doing in New York City in early October,” Blessing said. “One of the hosts was saying ‘I can’t tell you who the authors are because we haven’t signed the contracts yet, but you’re going to love them, I can’t wait’ — Then he said, ‘Wait, I don’t want to oversell this. It’s not like Neil Gaiman is coming.’”
Blessing, associate director of the Kanawha County Public Library, and Terry Wooten, the library’s marketing and development manager, haven’t been able to meet each other’s eyes for weeks — mention of the “American Gods” author seemed to be everywhere, and they didn’t want to ruin the announcement — that Gaiman will be one of the featured authors at this year’s West Virginia Book Festival, revived after a couple of years of financial uncertainty for the library system.
“This is our first year back [since 2012], and we really wanted to make a splash and get people interested again,” Blessing said.
Gaiman, the No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of more than 20 books, isn’t the festival’s only big name — Jodi Picoult, bestselling author of “My Sister’s Keeper” and “Nineteen Minutes”; Jeff Shaara, bestselling author of historical works that include “Gods and Generals” and “The Last Full Measure”; and critically acclaimed children’s author Jacqueline Woodson, author of “Brown Girl Dreaming,” the winner of the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
“We’re as excited for [Woodson] as we are for Gaiman or Picoult,” Blessing said. “Her book, ‘Brown Girl Dreaming,’ has gotten so much attention, and I can’t wait for people to meet her and learn more about it … Shaara is also really well-known — his father wrote ‘The Killer Angels,’ which is really the book about the Civil War, and Shaara followed up with ‘Gods and Generals’ after his father passed away. His books really are page-turners.”
This year’s Book Festival will be held in the Charleston Civic Center on Oct. 23 and 24, a Friday and Saturday, and will coincide with Charleston’s fall version of FestivALL, Wooten said. In addition to author presentations, the event will feature workshops dedicated to writing and self-publishing, as well as the Kanawha library’s annual used book sale; the marketplace, which showcases local authors and book-related vendors; and the WordPlay area for children.
Gaiman will be featured at the Civic Center coliseum on Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. Picoult will speak on Saturday at 3 p.m. in the coliseum. Both appearances are free and open to the public, as are all events at the festival.
“We have always wanted to keep the Book Festival free, so that anyone who wants to come can be there,” Wooten said.
Sundays during past book festivals tended to be slow, and the library decided to hold this year’s festival on a Friday and Saturday as an experiment, Blessing said. The event’s foray into workshops is also new, Blessing said — Jane Friedman, a former publisher for Writer’s Digest and a professor of digital publishing at the University of Virginia, will teach a self-publishing workshop during the first day of the festival focused on electronic publishing and other ways of self-publishing — modes that have grown increasingly popular in the last decade, Blessing said.
“We get two or three calls a week from self-published authors who would like to donate their book to the library,” Blessing said. “Some people just call and say ‘I’ve written my family history; what do I do with this now?’ We know there’s a need for it — some people don’t want to write a book and hope it’s a big seller. They just want to know how to turn it into a book so they can give it to their friends and family, and this will cover all of that.”
Also on Oct. 23, West Virginia authors Cat Pleska and Fran Simone will host a writers workshop. Simone, a professor emeritus of Marshall University and former director of the West Virginia Writing Project, and Pleska, an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio and a book reviewer for The Charleston Gazette, have recently written memoirs and will focus their workshop on memoir writing and information gathering, Blessing said.
For Blessing, the opportunity to hold the book festival again is elating — this time last year, the Kanawha library was still reeling from the loss of 40 percent of its total operating budget, the result of West Virginia Supreme Court case that determined Kanawha County Schools was not obligated to help fund the libraries. The library canceled the book festival — part of budget cuts meant to sustain its operations — and began campaigning to save the KCPL, a nine-library, county-wide system, from major cutbacks. After a failed attempt to pass a levy attached to a levy for county schools, Kanawha County voters passed a library-only levy last November to bring the library up to its previous funding levles.
The West Virginia Book Festival is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County Inc., the Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette, the Charleston Daily Mail, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, the West Virginia Library Commission and West Virginia Center for the Book. Sponsors for the event are The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation and The Friends of The Library Foundation. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.
Reach Lydia Nuzum at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5189 or follow @lydianuzum on Twitter.