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Maine's Book Event: A Real Page Turner
U.S. Festivals Honor the Written Word

By Elise Hartman Ford
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Midcoast Maine in mid-autumn is glorious: The weather is crisp and clear, golden leaves drift to earth in the dwindling sunlight, harbors uncluttered by tour boats reveal views of wooded islands across the water, and the small towns up and down the coast settle back into their off-season selves.

But don't take my word for it. Consider this more personal take, penned by a famous Maine writer:

"Each October for the last several years, my daughters and I have climbed nearby Mount Megunticook, which overlooks the ragged midcoast. From the cliffs at the top, the village where we live sits almost directly below. If the sun is bright and the sky cloudless -- and such a day will always be available in mid-October -- the reflection of light off the ocean can be almost painful, its shimmer musically surreal. Toss in a couple of schooners under full sail, just barely identifiable for what they are from such a height, a vast carpet of peak foliage extending as far as the eye can see, and a plain white church steeple or two, and a middle-aged man with two smart, college-bound daughters just might -- despite his hereditary inclinations -- find himself guilty of optimism."

If you've ever visited Camden, Maine, you might recognize it from this description. And if you haven't, you might want to consider a visit this fall. In addition to all the joys of the season, something else is afoot that adds further reason to travel there. What have you got on the calendar for the first weekend in November?

On Friday, Nov. 3, the little town of Camden launches the state's first literary festival, with the theme "Celebrating the Spirit of Place: The Maine Literary Tradition." The excerpt above is from an essay on autumn written by Pulitzer Prize winner and Camden resident Richard Russo, and there's plenty more where that came from. Over the course of the weekend, festival-goers will experience Maine and its literature in heady combinations as they listen to 21 authors present Maine in their own words. Russo keynotes the festival Friday night and closes the event Sunday. During breaks or in the evening, the picturesque host town of Camden awaits: mountains and sea, fine inns, good restaurants, irresistible shops.

Maine is not only the latest, it's also the last state to jump on the literary festival bandwagon. Every other state stages at least one annual festival, with Florida claiming the highest number, 15 at last count and, arguably, the most popular: the Key West Literary Seminar, whose location and stunning array of big-name panelists make it a sold-out event every January.

Anyone looking for an excuse to travel, if excuses were needed, will find it in these literature fairs. The Library of Congress, no less, is your enabler. Go to the Library of Congress's Center for the Book Web site, http://www.loc.gov/loc/cfbook , click on "Festivals/ Events," and behold the variety of annual book events and locales on tap, listed alphabetically, chronologically and by state. Many entries include a link to the festival's Web site. Fancy a trip to Martha's Vineyard? Chicago? Honolulu? Would you like to: Hear cowboys recite poetry at home on the range? Celebrate the literature of Arkansas in Little Rock? Attend a symposium on John Steinbeck in Salinas, Calif.? From sprawling, convention-center-size book fairs, whose main purpose is to sell books, to intimate gatherings intended to promote a particular genre or author, multiple choices present themselves every single month.

"Some are humanities-based, some more literary, some are storytelling festivals," says John Y. Cole, director of the Library of Congress's Center for the Book, as well as author coordinator for the capital's own National Book Festival, held on the Mall each September. The events offer festival-goers a chance to hobnob with favorite writers, enthuse over books, feel connected to a community of readers and writers, and enjoy the location's attractions.

Best of all are those festivals that offer attendees a different sort of travel experience -- one that wraps them in the language and lore of the region, arms them with historical and literary perspectives upon which to draw as they tour the town, and creates a context for understanding the interplay between a place and the people and voices that emerge there.

Here's more about Maine's festival, and two other appealing choices, to give you a taste. Then take a look at the Library of Congress's list and decide where you'd literally, and literarily, like to go.

· Maine Author Series and Literary Festival, Camden, Maine, Nov. 3-5.

Program: To kick off the festival, E.B. White and Katharine White's granddaughter, Martha White, will read from the "Revised Letters of E.B. White" (to be published by Harper Collins in November). (New Yorker magazine writer E.B. White frequently wrote about Maine, where he lived on a farm with his wife, New Yorker editor Katharine White.) Russo then delivers the first E.B. and Katharine White Memorial Lecture, focusing on humor in writing and how writers discover their artistic personality. Saturday will be a day of lectures, presentations, panel discussions and readings "that set the stage establishing Maine's place in literature, and the character and personality of Maine," says festival chairwoman Maryanne Shanahan. Topics include "Men of Letters and Maine: Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, Thoreau" and "Contemporary Maine Voices: Writing In and About Maine." The festival finishes up Sunday with Russo, film director Robert Benton (who brought Russo's novel "Nobody's Fool" to the screen) and others relating behind-the-scenes anecdotes about taking fiction to film.

Locale: Nearly all festival events take place in Camden's Opera House, a restored 1894 three-story brick structure in the center of town, within walking distance of inns, restaurants and shops. Camden is a quintessential New England village, complete with church spires and village green, 70 miles north of Portland on Penobscot Bay. In early November, recreational boating is over for the season, but hiking trails abound in the hills that hover just to the west of town.

Famous literary landmark: The statue of Camden poet Edna St. Vincent Millay in Harbor Park overlooks the bay. If you hike to the top of Mount Battie, which rises above the town, you'll stand in the same place and admire the same view that the poet did in 1912, when she wrote her famous poem "Renascence," which begins: "All I could see from where I stood was three long mountains and a wood. I turned and looked another way and saw three islands in a bay."

Cost runs from $50 for Friday night's lecture and gala reception to $125 for the entire weekend. Maximum attendance: 400. Details: 207-837-2827,http://www.maineliteraryfestival.com. Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Congress: 800-223-5459,http://www.camdenme.org.

· Key West Literary Seminar, Key West, Fla., Jan. 10-13, 2008.

Program: Now in its 26th year, the seminar continues to sell out a year in advance, its popularity a tribute to the conference's uniqueness, according to executive director Miles Friedman. "This is a reader's, not a writer's, conference, a celebration of literature, where people actually get to spend time with authors because the event is so small," says Friedman. (Four days of writing workshops -- small groups of no more than 10 people who work closely with a particular writer -- precede the seminar.) Festival-goers immerse themselves in readings, lectures, conversations and panel discussions, delivered by some of the most acclaimed writers of our time, mingling informally throughout the day and at lively parties at night. The seminar is now accepting reservations for 2008; writers expected to attend include Judy Blume, Annie Dillard, Zadie Smith, Lee Smith and Billy Collins. "Established writers are going to introduce new writers, crossing genres and generations" as they each talk about what it was like getting started, Friedman says.

Locale: The tiny 2-by-4-mile tropical island is the southernmost city in the continental United States. Key West's rich literary heritage as the home and gathering spot for writers, from Ernest Hemingway to Annie Dillard, means that seminar participants experience the true, untouristy Key West. Most seminar events take place at the historic San Carlos Institute, honoring Cuba's cultural heritage, with receptions and parties at the Audubon House, Kent Gallery, Custom House Museum and Key West Lighthouse.

Famous literary landmark: The most famous is Hemingway's House (907 Whitehead St., 305-294-1136), where the writer lived for eight of his 12 years on Key West and produced some of his best works, including "To Have and Have Not."

Cost: $450 for the seminar and $450 for individual writing workshops preceding the festival, or $850 for seminar and workshops. Maximum attendance: 400. Details: 888-293-9291,http://www.keywestliterary http:// http://seminar.org. Key West Chamber of Commerce: 305-294-2587,http://www.keywestchamber.org.

· National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Elko, Nev., Jan. 27-Feb. 3.

Program: Although other cowboy poetry festivals exist, this is the original, and the only official "national" gathering, so deemed by Congress in 2000. The 2007 gathering is the 23rd celebration, a grand melange of exhibits, workshops, poetry readings, musical performances, dancing and discussions. "Cowboy poetry is an old tradition dating from the 1850s and 1860s, when cowboys would entertain each other around the campfire, reciting their own poetry," says Darcy Minter, director of communications for the Western Folklife Center, which organizes the festival. Organizers knew they were on to something at the first gathering in 1985 when 1,000 spectators showed up to an event expected to draw only about 60 people. Since then, the gathering has evolved into an eight-day extravaganza during which more than 70 performers take to stages throughout the town of Elko. Highlights this year include music and verse of the gathering's special guests: French cowboys, known as "gardians," who still work cattle on horseback in the Camargue region of France.

Locale: Elko is about 300 miles east of Reno and 230 miles west of Salt Lake City in northeastern Nevada. This is wide-open ranch country, with the 11,000-foot-high Ruby Mountains framing the town. Casinos and brothels are legal, and Elko has a number of both. In late January and early February, "the weather ain't pretty," admits Minter, but it's the best time of year for ranchers to participate. Events take place primarily in the headquarters of the Western Folklife Center and in the Elko Convention Center.

Famous literary landmark: No single landmark, but the town itself qualifies, as the place where the genre of cowboy poetry came into its own.

Events require tickets or passes. A three-day pass is $41 ($51 if purchased after Dec. 21). Prime days: Feb. 1-3. Anticipated attendance: 8,000. Details: 888-880-5885,http://www.westernfolklife.org. Elko Convention and Visitors Authority: 800-248-3556,http://www.elkocva.com.

Elise Hartman Ford last wrote for Travel about renting apartments abroad.

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