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A group of people gathered on UAF's Fairbanks campus this summer attracted a lot of attention simply because they held an uncommon title: author. The first annual Alaska Book Festival, held July 13–14 as part of Summer Sessions, spotlighted more than 30 writers--including notable UAF alumni--as well as a number of university employees, past and present. Of the 30 authors who participated, more than two-thirds were affiliated with UAF in some way.

The idea for the festival evolved over years of discussion and wishful thinking on the part of Michelle Bartlett, director of the Summer Sessions program.

"I'd always heard about book festivals but had never been to one," Bartlett said. Her solution? Make it happen here.

"I talked with people about it. But talking about it, and having the partners to make it happen, those are two different things." After months of work, partnerships with Rasmuson Library, UA Press and Auxiliary Services came together, sponsors signed on and the Alaska Book Festival was launched.

Presenting author readings, panel discussions and book-signings, the book festival took the pulse of local literary pursuits, with a uniquely Alaska inclination. Poetry, history, cooking, science fiction and mystery genres were explored by panelists and guest speakers, including Mike Sfraga, Peggy Shumaker, Seth Kantner, Terry Boren and Frank Soos. Photographers Charles Mason, James Barker and Barry McWayne added photography publications to the mix. The illustrated children's book realm was represented by authors like Debbie Miller and David Monson. Monson co-wrote Granite, about a big-hearted sled dog, with his late wife, Susan Butcher. Even publishers had their say, in a session moderated by UA Press Director Robert Mandel.

The festival covered a lot of ground--literally and figuratively--as writers made appearances all over town, from Gulliver's Books to McCafferty's Coffeehouse, the Alaska Coffee Roasting Co. to Noel Wien Public Library. Most of the action, however, swirled around the Wood Center, where panel discussions and book-signings brought writers and fans face-to-face.

For many audience members, the most interesting aspect of the first annual Alaska Book Festival was the chance to sit in a room full of others interested in writing and listen in on the open forum. A common question that arose in several of the discussions revolved around the future of writing in this era of the Internet, or variations on that theme.

History writers noted the ease of research on the Internet--to find sources, but not to actually use as a primary source of facts. Their concern over the nuances of "creative nonfiction" dominated a great deal of the discussion, too.

"In a work of nonfiction, everything should be true," said panelist Dermot Cole. "If someone is quoted, they need to have actually said it."

A criminal defense lawyer from the crowd noted that there's always a black hole for the truth. John Taliaferro, another panelist, replied that there are always factual errors.

"The power of persuasion, the voice and presenting a credible story," is what matters in writing, as in legal cases.

"The power of persuasion, the voice and presenting a credible story" are what matter in writing, as in legal cases, Taliaferro said. "Does it have the ring of worth and meaning?" He said he sees history as more of an art form, in the same way that justice and medicine are as much or more art than science.

"History is not the perfect truth," he said. "It's the pursuit of truth."

It was uplifting to follow the thread of conversation in the poet's corner as well.

"When we start naming battleships after poets, and when we sing our babies to sleep instead of putting them ... in front of the TV," then there is hope for the future of poetry said Ann Chandonnet. Amber Flores Thomas shared her own optimism, saying, "In times of war, we turn to poetry."

Other good signs for the poetry genre are reflected in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner's new column about poetry, and the enthusiastic reaction from students when taught poetry in schools. But a prominent reason for confidence in the future of poetry was offered up by Derick Burleson.

"It's the same as the previous 5,000 generations--poetry is not going anywhere," Burleson said.

The overall feel of the festival, particularly the panel discussions, was of a lively group bathed in the warm glow of ideas and conversation.

The overall feel of the festival, particularly the panel discussions, was of a lively group bathed in the warm glow of ideas and conversation usually associated with a dinner party--intriguing banter, playful witticisms and provocative philosophies, served up in an intimate setting.

Plans are solidifying for next year's book festival to encompass even more venues, over a longer period of time--and perhaps include just such a dinner-party setting.

"The exciting thing is that we have a commitment from all of our sponsors (PDF 20K) for next year already, so that is very good," Bartlett says, noting that new activities could also be featured, such as a sit-down dinner benefit with authors, workshops and a partnership with the school district.

"It is going to be even more of a community event," she added.

Alumni authors crowd the shelves

Many people dream of writing a book, but few actually put enough words and sentences together to make it happen. UAF alumni have overcome writer's block to produce hundreds of books since the university's founding. A few UAF alumni authors highlighted the role the university played in launching their writing careers.

Marjorie Kowalski Cole
Patrick O'Neill
Linda Schandelmeier

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