Booked in Aurora
The western suburb makes a case for literary relevance.
Chicago’s suburbs have produced a fair number of prominent authors. Oak Park was famously home to Hemingway, and recent best-sellers like Elizabeth Berg and Sara Gruen live in the area. But no one is likely to ever flag Aurora as a literary hot spot. It doesn’t exactly feature prominently in Chicago’s literary history, or contain any sites worthy of placement on a literary map.
But this weekend’s annual Midwest Literary Festival, in its fourth year, is changing that perception, transforming the city’s historic downtown into a veritable salon for both established authors and aspiring writers. Held both indoors and outdoors in downtown Aurora, the festival began in 2003 as an attempt to attract tourists to the ’burb.
“Each year we’ve been very fortunate, but I think [this year] we’ve really blown out all the stops,” says festival organizer Sue Voss, dropping guest-list names such as Joyce Carol Oates (another former Oak Parker), Dennis Lehane, Harry Shearer and White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Voss was onboard with the city’s Economic Development Commission when it started the ball rolling, and remained as the organizer when the mayor’s Office of Special Events took over.
Though certainly smaller than Chicago’s Printers Row Book Fair, the festival proved itself a worthy complement to that Chicago Tribune–backed behemoth last year by luring luminaries such as Berg, Jodi Picoult and Peter Straub. Voss credits Henry Perez, the festival’s director of author booking and marketing, for securing the talent and scouting other prospective guests.
Perez, in turn, ascribes his success to his tireless networking forays. He cultivates his connections with an annual pilgrimage to BookExpo America, the industry’s roving, enormous trade show. Oates’s appearance this year is the culmination of a pursuit that began at the festival’s inception, and past presenters , like Elizabeth Kostova and Kevin Guilfoile, enjoyed the experience enough to make a return visit.
“When I contact [authors] now, they know they’re being invited to a quality event,” Perez says.
A full complement of panel discussions, book signings and audiovisual presentations (such as David Morrell’s presentation on turning his novel First Blood into the hit Sylvester Stallone movie) are on tap in addition to children’s activities; a book fair featuring small presses, used-book stores and rare-book collectors; and food and drink vendors. Other events and entertainment scheduled throughout the festival are free, except for appearances by Thomas (reading from her new Watchdogs of Democracy?) and Shearer (goofing on his new novel, Not Enough Indians), which cost $15 ($50 for a meet-and-greet that includes copies of the books).
And for the second year running, Perez has also coordinated a daylong workshop, beginning 7:30am on Friday 15, that gives would-be authors the opportunity to interact with publishing professionals in an intimate setting. “We were very successful, both last year and this, in getting not only some authors to participate but really top-quality publicists, agents, editors and publishers,” Voss says.
The workshop costs $125 (paid in advance) and includes a series of break-out sessions addressing the craft and business of writing, individual manuscript critiques, and pitch sessions with both publishers and literary agents. “It allows participants to immerse themselves for a day in the world of publishing and writing,” Perez says. “It’s an experience that could launch a career.” Last year, one participant walked out of her pitch session with representation, a rare event indeed.
“The thing that was so impressive was the generosity of the authors and professionals within the publishing industry that were part of that event,” says Voss of last year’s workshop. “Most of the talent are so very accessible and kind with their time, and enjoy making a connection with the audience beyond just signing a book.”
The festival runs Saturday 16 to Sunday 17. See listings for details.