Down East 2013 ©
Photo Credit: Peg Shanahan Photography
Chaos broke out at last year’s Maine Literary Festival. Near the end of the Saturday night reading in a Rockport art gallery, the power went out. But the darkness did nothing to dim the enthusiasm of the dozens of bibliophiles crowded into the space. Flashlights came on, and an impromptu group sing-along, in addition to a supply of pumpkin whoopie pies, kept things lively. Several people observed that the theme of the event — “Mayhem, Money, and Mirth” — had proven ironically appropriate.
Don’t let anyone tell you there’s nothing to enjoy about Maine in that seemingly bleak time between leaf peeping and Thanksgiving. The Maine Literary Festival, which attracts roughly three hundred people to downtown Camden early each November, isn’t a writers’ conference. Instead, it is a festival in the truest sense — this gathering of readers and authors has become a celebration of the written word that has filled a cultural gap in both the midcoast and the state.
Tess Gerritsen, a Camden resident and best-selling author who participated in 2007, agrees that the festival offers something unique in the Maine literary world. According to Gerritsen, festival chair Maryanne Shanahan “has a knack for bringing together writers who wouldn’t normally run into each other — novelists, historians, literary authors. She chooses writers from across the board, not just the latest best sellers.”
That legacy of choosing great writers comes from the festival’s precursor, the Maine Author Series, a fund-raiser coordinated by the Midcoast Branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Proceeds from the series (and now from the Literary Festival) funded the Midcoast AAUW’s scholarship program for young women and girls who might otherwise be unable to attend college. After thirty successful years of the Maine Author Series, Shanahan and a group of women had the idea to create a full-fledged festival in its place.
And thus in 2006, the first Maine Literary Festival was born, a festival that “is for people with a passion for reading and for authors who love to connect with readers and share their own passion for what they write about,” says Shanahan. This interaction is facilitated by the intimate settings in which participants and authors gather for lectures, discussions, book signings, and wine receptions. Most of the festival takes place in the historic Camden Opera House (with occasional detours to other local venues for receptions), but the vibe is definitely casual, inviting engagement. Panel discussions consist of authors settling down in comfy couches on stage and then joking back and forth about how they first got published or how they got all that juicy inside information on the subject of their most recent biography. During the breaks, participants rush upstairs to a traveling version of Camden’s Owl and Turtle Bookstore to have books signed by writers they’d never thought they’d meet.
This year’s festival, taking place from November 7 to 9, is themed “For This Earth: Visions in Literature.” The roster features such well-known natural history writers as Verlyn Klinkenborg, Bernd Heinrich, and Sy Montgomery, and a fine group of environmentally aware Maine poets. It might seem surprising that the event also features Ruth Reichl, the editor in chief of Gourmet, and several noted Maine chefs, including Sam Hayward and Melissa Kelly, until one considers the environmental value of eating local, organic foods. The dual emphasis is not only socially relevant but also tasty, with Saturday night’s “Church Supper Redux” — produced with local Maine foods prepared by Maine chefs — just one promising feature. As Gerritsen affirms, “This festival tries to reach for another level.”
The positive impact of having the festival in Camden is noticeable, especially during a traditionally slow time of year. As Shanahan puts it, the festival “creates a cultural opportunity that also extends the season and enhances the businesses in this community. And it contributes to the state’s creative economy.” Attendance by visitors outside of Maine has increased since 2006, with attendees from as far away as California and Florida. The featured writers, who come from across the country to donate their time to support the AAUW’s scholarship program, stay in rooms donated by local inns.
Ultimately, says Shanahan, the festival is a reflection of the character of this quirky state: “It’s all part of that amazing and wonderful aspect of Maine, that it has the kind of people who have these [writing] talents. The festival’s real theme is Maine — what attracts people here, the number of writers drawn to Maine, all the bookstores up and down the coast. We couldn’t have accomplished this kind of thing in New York.”
For more information or to buy tickets go to maineliteraryfestival.com