Decatur restaurants, bars and schools attract lots of attention and praise, but Decatur also deserves recognition as a book town, a haven for readers and writers alike. Every Labor Day weekend the AJC Decatur Book Festival–the nation’s largest independent book festival—lures readers and writers out of the library, the classroom and the living room to talk about books and ideas.
This year marks the 13th return of the festival. During the three days of events, more than 600 authors will share their stories, novels, screenplays, poems and cookbooks with an estimated 80,000 attendees. Julie Wilson, the new director of the festival, believes its success can be credited to the community’s collective, curious nature.
“We like to read, learn and explore,” she says. “I love that at the festival someone can listen to a famous mystery writer, a poet, a scientist and a civil rights journalist all within a three-hour window. We’ll have new and old voices that will move, challenge and inspire us, and make us laugh and cry.”
One of those voices is the keynote speaker, Kenny Leon, the Tony Award-winning Broadway and film director who has just released his memoir Take You Wherever You Go.
Another exciting voice belongs to Harry and the Potters, hailed as the founders of wizard rock-a sub-genre of music boasting nearly 1,000 bands playing songs about the Harry Potter books. They will be a part of the children’s lineup.
Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett sums up the value of the festival saying, “Events and festivals in Decatur make our town a special community–and the annual AJC Decatur Book Festival ranks right at the top! We welcome writers, readers, artists, creators, and people of all ages.” In fact, because of the city’s commitment to civic engagement, Decatur received an All-America City 2018 award.
Decatur Authors at the Festival
Many of local neighbors are acclaimed or emerging writers, and the festival is an important vehicle for connecting writers with their audiences. Here are some of Decatur’s own to check out:
Decatur resident Joshilyn Jackson has been to every single Decatur Book Festival as a presenter, panelist or moderator.
“This year,” says Jackson, “I’ll be in conversation with Gin Phillips, an author I greatly admire. We will discuss our newest books, The Almost Sisters and Fierce Kingdom, which are two very different stories that explore motherhood.”
She enjoys the festival because it gives her a chance to connect with readers. “It’s strange and beautiful to ‘gossip’ with folks who have loved, hated, rooted for and cried with people I invented,” she said.
The Almost Sisters was nominated for the Townsend Prize and won a Books All Georgians Should Read Award from the Georgia Center for the Book at DeKalb County Public Library (DCPL).
Of this honor Jackson notes, “I hope it will make more readers aware of my work. My books are a fun ride, but a fun ride that is intended to make people think and talk about the stuff that really matters.”
Each year local freelance writer David Peisner walks down to the Decatur Book Festival to check things out, but this year he will discuss his book Homey Don’t Play That!: The Story of “In Living Color” and the Black Comedy Revolution. A detailed history of the early ‘90s sketch comedy show In Living Color, the book also explores a “hinge moment when black culture was moving from the fringes of the mainstream to being at the very center of it.”
Peisner believes the Festival focuses attention on books at a time when everything else in our culture is telling us communication needs to be shorter, faster and flashier.
“It establishes Decatur as a place that cares about books, about reading, about deep thinking, all of which seem particularly important in this day and age,” he said.
Peisner also received a Books All Georgians Should Read Award from the Georgia Center for the Book at DCPL.
“Knowing that someone who isn’t related to me thinks highly of something I spent so much time on is incredibly validating,” he said.
First-time author and Decatur-ite Cheryl Reid has been a dedicated festival attendee, though 2018 is her first time presenting as an author.
“It is so amazing how this Festival brings people to our city to celebrate books and writing,” she said. “I always leave with several nuggets of wisdom about other authors’ writing processes.”
Her novel, As Good As True, is described as a powerful and haunting tale of a woman’s broken past and the painful choices she must make to keep her family and her home. The DeKalb Library Foundation will feature a set of copies of As Good As True and a chance to have Reid attend a book club as an auction item at its annual A Novel Affair event on September 27.
Area resident Tony Grooms will speak about his book The Vain Conversation with Emory professor Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (The Race Beat) and director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project. Inspired by true events, The Vain Conversation reflects on the 1946 lynching of two black couples in Georgia from the perspectives of three characters. Grooms explores “with complexity, satire, and sometimes levity, what it means to redeem, as well as to be redeemed, on the issues of America’s race violence,” and he aims to speak “to the broader issues of oppression and violence everywhere.”
Grooms has also participated in the festival since its inception as a moderator or presenter. “The festival gives me the opportunity to speak to readers who might not otherwise engage with my work,” he says. “It buoys my confidence by allowing me to associate with members of a broad reading and writing community.”
Grooms’s novel has also been named a Book All Georgians Should Read by the Georgia Center for the Book at DCPL.
Local resident Karin Slaughter will present her novel Pieces of Her. She is an internationally best-selling author as well as a dedicated philanthropist. Her fund, Save the Libraries, has raised more than $300,000 with more than $150,000 directly benefitting the DeKalb Library Foundation. In 2016 she hosted a concert with The Indigo Girls. All profits benefitted the fund. In March of this year, Slaughter held a Facebook Live Fundraiser at the Decatur Library, which raised more than $16,000 for the DeKalb library system.
The Power of a Local Book Club
One of the best ways to connect to your community is to look for or start a book club. In the Lamont-Vidal neighborhood, one book club started in 2004 with several new mothers looking to engage with other adults. The group still meets nearly every month with many of the original members as well as new voices who have joined over the years.
Co-founder Angie Witz recalls that the initial group brainstormed a set of ground rules, such as meeting frequency, size and food and beverage plans. Having a few rules “allowed everyone to have similar expectations about participating.” Over the years, the group has read a variety of books which have been chronicled by member Beth Burmester. In addition, the women have planned outings to movies based on books they read, attended plays and enjoyed visits by local author Lynn Cullen after the group read her books Twain’s End and Mrs. Poe. Most recently, the book club read Joshilyn Jackson’s The Almost Sisters. Members plan to attend her talk at the Decatur Book Festival to learn more about the characters and plot of the story.
Another co-founder, Jill Fossett, reflects on the group’s longevity. “Of course we socialize when we meet, but we always talk about the book. And discussing a book with a group of women helps you get to know each other in ways you might not otherwise,” she said.
More than likely you have a neighbor in a book club, or can find one through the DeKalb County Public Library, which offers numerous book clubs at its various library locations, or at Little Shop of Stories bookstore, which hosts book clubs for both children and adults.
The AJC Decatur Book Festival takes place at the Decatur Square on Labor Day weekend, August 31 to September 2. Check out the full schedule at www.decaturbookfestival.com.