You ain't getting in to see Don DeLillo, so you might as well read about Seymour Hersh, Laura Bush, and Eli Wallach rolling around in the green, green grass together. Get your mind out the gutter! It's the Claiborne K.H. Smith connection.
Alas, also included in the Chronicle's errant and regrettable report was the promise of an exclusive in this very space this very week, so I suppose we should follow through on that. I took tea with the aforementioned Smith on Tuesday morning at Central Market, just before he would start his second day as the Texas Book Festival's new literary director.
"The 'literary director' title, it wasn't my sort of stab at grand eloquence," says Smith, whose byline in this publication, it must be said, was at one point "Claiborne K.H. Smith" during the early days of his career. (He would go on to alternate between Clay Smith and Claiborne Smith. For the time being, it's the former.) "The title had been 'program and communications manager,' and 'manager,' to me, sounds like someone who just makes the reservations for authors to come here. I wanted a title that indicated to the public the publicists and authors that I'll be working with, namely that there's a great deal of editorial negotiation and thought that's put into who we select. I thought that the title needed to have 'book' or 'literary' in it. [Director] Mary Herman agreed, and seemed to like 'literary director.'"
In the end, Smith's new title should prove apt; with the guidance of the Author Selection Committee and the help of the TBF's three other staff members and hundreds of volunteers, he will be responsible for planning, programming, and executing a weekendlong gathering of authors that last year numbered more than 200. That weekend will involve panels, forums, signings, readings, bands, several venues (including, of course, the state Capitol), a small outdoor fair, bookseller tents, a gala, parties, and more. Smith's vision for the festival includes changes both sweeping and cosmetic, and they could affect all aspects.
For instance, to kick it soundbite-style:
"You get to bring all of these various minds together, and admittedly, it's only for 2½ days, but when it does happen, it's a very intangible but memorable thing. You have all of these conversations happening, and those sort of drift away into the air, but the impact the festival has for the state's libraries and, more generally, just for the culture here is something I really wanted to be a part of."
"There's always been a kind of interesting tension for me about the festival. It's called the Texas Book Festival, so it does highlight Texas authors, and it was founded with that idea, but steadily over the years, more and more national authors have been invited in who don't have really any connection with Texas. They're not writing about Texas, they've never lived here. I don't think that that's a bad thing, the regional vs. national, cosmopolitan camps. All I can tell you right now is that I can see both sides of that argument."
"I think that L.A. and Miami [book festivals] are the benchmarks. I mean, I think that [the TBF] is up there it's maybe not right at their level and when I say that I'd like to make it more ambitious, that's what I mean. Whether that means extending it for a week or reducing the number of authors, I don't know. ... I, personally, would like to expand the festival in many ways, but that's maybe an idea for down the road. I may have ideas, but the committee would have to go along."
"We need to rethink the panels. I can say this criticism pretty openly, because I was a member of the Author Selection Committee in the past: We can't have any panels anymore where there are several authors thrown together who may have a topical, thematic alliance. Say, a panel about women writers. Well, you know, maybe women writers do think differently about their craft than men, but I tend to think not. I think that we can maybe find deeper alliances for the panels."
"In the interview, I said that the festival needs to be a little bit more hip, and they hired me, so I think that they want that, too. When I say 'hip,' that doesn't mean 'get all the first-time authors,' it doesn't mean that at all. It doesn't mean necessarily young."
"As far as the festival having any kind of Republican bent, I want to correct that right now. I have two words for you: Seymour Hersh [a 2004 TBF attendee]. The idea that [founder and Honorary Chairman] Laura Bush is censoring the festival is about the funniest thing I've ever heard. Politics are a divisive issue especially now, especially in Austin and the festival should reflect that, as well as any other relevant trends in the culture."
Among the many specifics Smith discussed were the possibilities of exclusively Spanish-speaking panels, the emergence of practical publishing-industry-primer panels, more effectively "selling" the participating authors to the public, and more social alternatives to the authors' gala. Meanwhile, we already have a lead on one author who might attend the 2005 festival. "I love the serendipity of this job," says Smith, pulling a galley copy out of his bag. "Eli Wallach has a new memoir out, and I came across that he had gone to UT. Who knew? We could have invited him if he hadn't gone to UT, but the fact that he went there makes him particularly attractive to us, to me. I'd like to invite him."
Eli Wallach, y'all! Scoop that, Statesman.