The Times Festival of Reading Brings Award-winning Authors and Thousands of Book Lovers to USFSP
(Dec. 4, 2018) – On a brisk, sunlit Saturday in November, some 5,000 people peppered the USF St. Petersburg campus for the 26th annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading. They were in attendance to hear talks by over 40 writers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, veterans and up-and-comers in fiction and nonfiction.
Since first hosting the free festival in 2005, USFSP has provided a picturesque setting for book lovers from around Tampa Bay to explore the world of words. Throughout the day, authors gave talks and held book signings for readers eagerly clutching recent releases. Many of those who came empty-handed left with copies purchased from one of the many vendors at the outdoor book market.
Dr. Ray Arsenault
Among this year’s authors giving glimpses into their latest works were no fewer than four whose careers began or blossomed at USFSP. They included Dr. Raymond Arsenault, Professor of Southern History and author of “Arthur Ashe: A Life;” Dr. Hugh LaFollete, Professor of Philosophy and author of “In Defense of Gun Control;” and alums Dr. Jack E Davis, Professor of History at the University of Florida and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea,” and Tyler Gillespie, who is author of “Florida Man: Poems.”
Times Book Editor Colette Bancroft has served as director of the festival since she assumed her role 12 years ago.
“We try to appeal to as broad an audience as possible,” Bancroft said. “Fiction and nonfiction books for adults, books for young readers, well-known authors, debut and lesser-known authors, national and local writers. We’re always juggling to get that range of authors.”
Making sure there’s something for everyone is one of the most tedious parts of organizing the event. Bancroft and her team work proactively with publishers, casting invites early to reel in some of the bigger literary names, as there is stiff competition on the book festival circuit.
Meanwhile, local and up-and-coming authors are selected through an application process made available each April. Putting together the one-day event proves to be a yearlong affair. “I’m already looking at who will have new novels and nonfiction books for next fall,” Bancroft said.
The hard work pays off. Previous years have featured well-known authors like R.L. Stine and Carl Hiaasen. This year, book lovers were met with similarly esteemed authors, including Tayari Jones, whose novel, “An American Marriage,” was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, and Joyce Maynard, whose memoir, “The Best of Us,” details her marriage to her late husband who died of cancer less than two years after they said their vows.
St. Pete and it’s readers hold a special place in Maynard’s heart. In the mid-80s, she wrote a nationally syndicated column about the joys, trials and tribulations of raising a family. When she divorced in 1989, the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) was one of the few papers that continued to run her column.
“I got hundreds and hundreds of letters from St. Pete readers at the time,” Maynard said. “And many of those readers still show up to my readings. I wasn’t really on a book tour but because of my relationship with St. Pete readers, I made a special plan to come to this festival.”
Dr. Ladee Hubbard also shares a special connection to the city. In her debut novel, “The Talented Ribkins,” which follows an extraordinary family’s road trip through Florida, the Professor of African studies at Tulane University draws on the summers she spent as a child with her grandparents in St. Pete.
“A lot of the main character is actually based on my grandfather,” Hubbard said. “And the premise is somewhat based on the childhood experiences I had in Florida, and in St. Petersburg specifically.”
Attending reading festivals like this offers Hubbard a break from the requisite seclusion many writers endure, and helps revitalize her energy for the craft.
“Writing is such a solitary undertaking, so it’s really nice to get out and share my love of literature with other people,” she said. “I really like hearing other people read. I find it very inspiring.”
As Director of the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Tampa, Dr. Erica Dawson is in touch with tons of literary talent. Still, the author of a recent collection of poems, “When Rap Spoke Straight to God,” said the Festival of Reading helped highlight the treasure trove of creatives in the Tampa Bay Area.
“I realized how much talent we have here,” she said. “It’s great as an author to hear other authors talk about their experience writing about their subjects. There’s such community in us all getting together to share in the celebration of creativity.”
It was Dawson’s first time at the festival.
Dr. Hugh LaFollete
USFSP’s own Dr. Hugh LaFollete also gave his first talk at the Festival of Reading this year. He leverages such festivals to actually develop his next project. At a past event, the Professor of Philosophy manned a booth, where he invited attendees to help him write his most recent book, “In Defense of Gun Control.” A couple dozen signed up, and through face-to-face meetings they assisted LaFollete in refining and clarifying his work.
“People made very good points and asked very good questions,” he said. “They pressed me in ways I needed to be pressed—to be clearer about some ideas, develop better arguments, be fairer to opposing sides and defend my view as well as possible. It definitely benefited me and I’d like to think it benefited them as well.”
This year, LaFollete again asked attendees during his talk to sign up if they were interested in working with him on his next book, “Grace, Gratitude, and Government,” a philosophical exploration of the foundations of civil society. He received a handful of signees and expects to collaborate with up to 25 people once again.
To learn more about the authors at this year’s event and their work, visit the Festival of Reading webpage.