The Wisconsin Book Festival celebrates two decades with an impressive and diverse program – Isthmus


That Wisconsin Book Festival launched 20 years ago, a year after the 9/11 attacks in a somewhat different world. There was no iPhone. There was no such thing as a Kindle. Large publishers regularly sent authors on book tours, often stopping in Madison at bookstores like Canterbury or Borders.

In the early years, the book festival started with the “Friday Night Festival of Fiction”, a prominent but convivial reading evening in the Orpheum Theater followed by a party in the theater’s bar/lobby. In the festival’s inaugural year, those big names included Lorrie Moore, Charles Baxter, Dave Eggers, Paul Auster and Jane Hamilton — while impressive, it’s an all-white cast.

Greater diversity and focus are elements the festival has focused on over the past decade during the tenure of the festival’s third director, Conor Moran.

“Who we see coming to events has changed based on who we give the mic to,” says Moran. The festival has worked hard to diversify its schedule; Moran estimates that last year’s audience was “about 35 percent non-white and almost 50/50 male/female.”

Publishing has also changed since the book festival’s inception, Moran notes, with big houses more willing to publish non-white authors and put them at the top of their lists. “Twenty years ago there would have been a white man on the cover of everyone [publisher’s] catalog,” says Moran. He mentions Nerd by Maya Phillips, edited by Simon and Schuster, as a book that may not have been published or received much publicity at the time. Phillips will be speaking about her book on October 14, essays that delve into race, religion and more through the major pop culture fandoms.

Other changes include a greater focus on the Central Library as a venue. While there are always a few other venues (this year the Discovery Center and the Wisconsin Historical Society Auditorium), when the Madison Public Library Foundation acquired the festival from the Wisconsin Humanities Council in 2013, it wanted to foster a greater sense of community around the then-new library building. “The Central Library really comes alive as this hub,” says Moran.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2020 Fall Celebration to go virtual, with three days of performances via crowdcast. Last year’s in-person performances were just one day, with two days of virtual events. This year the festival has returned to four days of in-person performances, and not all will be recorded.

“We’re looking for as many ways as possible to capture as many events as possible,” says Moran, but notes that recording “is a very special level of expertise” and that live streaming isn’t something the festival was able to pull off. His goal is to record 75 percent of events for later playback. What is good; The festival thus reaches a broad audience.

“But there’s something magical about being in this room,” says Moran.

For whom do we reserve the date:

father forgive me

Deshawn McKinney

13 Oct, Central Library, 7 p.m

Deshawn McKinney is a rising voice on the poetry scene. He was a member of the First Wave hip-hop arts community at UW-Madison and earned a bachelor’s degree in creative writing before going abroad to pursue two master’s degrees. I bought father forgive me recommended by Milwaukee poet Karl “Oye” Iglesias and was not disappointed. McKinney handles difficult situations and conversations with grace, love and compassion – and masters the language. Fatherhood in an urban environment of poverty and strife is a difficult challenge. McKinney approaches the subject with an unwavering eye for detail. This chapbook should be added to your fall reading list.

—Oscar Mireles, former Poet Laureate of Madison

rainbow rainbow

Lydia Conklin

14 Oct, Central Library, 6 p.m

Years ago I worked at Naiad Press, which at the time was the oldest and largest publisher of lesbian literature in the world. It was an amazing education. Naiad published 24 books a year – mysteries, romance, eroticism and even westerns and poetry. They almost all had morally decent protagonists and happy endings, which was a corrective to the days of sensational depictions of predatory lesbians. I craved more complex stories, more morally ambiguous characters, more humor, and more nuanced sexualities and relationships. Of course there are more options now, but it’s still hard for me to think of another author who offers more of what I craved then (and now) than Lydia Conklin. Conklin earned her Master of Fine Arts from UW-Madison and clearly developed great storytelling and writing skills during her time there, but it’s her keen curiosity and generous heart that make the stories rainbow rainbow worth the wait.

Rita Mae Reese, Co-Director, Arts + Literature Lab

meet me at the fountain

Alexandra Long

October 15, Central Library, noon

If more proof is needed that the 1990s are alive and well in the zeitgeist, Alexandra Lange and her new book, meet me at the well Appearing on nearly a dozen podcasts would fill the bill. I worked at a mall—Waldenbooks, represented—in the ’90s and can’t get enough of this micro-history of indoor malls, even though my mall didn’t have a fountain to meet at. The book covers topics as light as why cardinal points appear in so many mall names, and as important as the relationship between malls and the “white flight” of the 1950s and 1960s. I look forward to Lange giving Wisconsin Book Fest attendees her perspective on the current state and future fate of the mall, the pretzel stand and all.

– Kyle Nabilcy, isthmus contributor


Laird Hunt

October 15, Central Library, 4:30 p.m

Zorrie is a sleek, quiet, and beautifully true novel set in the Midwest. Zorrie Underwood is 17, has suffered great losses and is homeless in Depression America. Her humble plan is to be of service. She finds brief satisfaction in an Illinois factory that paints radium illuminants on clocks. But Indiana, her birthplace, calls her back. There she finds work in a small farming community and finds deep solace in the land and people. Over the years, Zorrie remarks, “She hadn’t felt the slant and whirl of the seasons like she did on her own farm.” Hunt’s loyalty to the authenticity and cultural milieu of his characters is masterful, and his prose exquisite – his unfussy sentences are enchanting . Hunt is up there with the likes of Marilynne Robinson – he deserves our attention.

– Guy Thorvaldsen, former English teacher, Madison College, and isthmus contributor

Gracefulness and The West Wing and beyond

Cody Keenan and Pete Souza

16 Oct, Central Library, 1:30 p.m

My two passions in life are politics and writing, not necessarily in that order. Barack Obama combined both at a high level. So I’m excited to hear Cody Keenan talk about his book, Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Fight for America. Keenan was Obama’s chief speechwriter. It must have been a daunting task to write sentences for a man who could circle around most other writers. Keenan’s book covers 10 days in the summer of 2015, when he and Obama authored a series of speeches designed to hold the country together amid turbulent events, including a white-supremacist shooting, a Confederate flag controversy, and the fate of marriage equality and Obamacare.

Politics is all about words and pictures. And so I’m also interested in the other half of this session, when I hear from Pete Souza about his book, The West Wing and Beyond: What I Saw in the Presidency. Souza served as the chief White House photographer during Obama’s presidency, giving him near-unprecedented access to the President and his team. Souza now resides in Madison.

– Dave Cieslewicz, former Mayor of Madison and isthmus contributor

The entire schedule can be searched at


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