Fall (Virtually) for the Book

A beloved festival flourishes online.


It’s been six months of social distancing. Hard not to feel wistful, as we approach the end of September, about the lives we used to have. This time of year used to mean the Fall for the Book literary festival. We’d drive out to the Fairfax, VA, campus of George Mason University in the crisp autumn weather and listen to authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tim O’Brien, Stephen King, and Elizabeth Strout.

Sometimes, I was a panel moderator or introduced events. Once I was even a featured author. I’ve listened to talks by Ibram X. Kendi and Mohsin Hamid, met novelists like Delia Owens and Colson Whitehead, waited in signing lines, and bought and read dozens of wonderful books.

This festival is close to my heart. And full disclosure: I also serve on its board and programming committee.

But there won’t be signing lines or dynamic lecture halls packed with people in 2020. Instead, we’re going virtual — at your fingertips, live and on demand. In fact, the virtual festival is already underway. People are tuning in from across the country. And instead of taking place over one October week, events run through November, with many slated to go live each Friday.

Earlier this month, I thought I’d chat with festival manager Suzy Rigdon about the challenges and opportunities facing Fall for the Book in 2020.

“It has been quite a journey,” she told me via Zoom. “I got back from maternity leave as we were deciding to go virtual. [Festival director Kara Oakleaf] and I are part of the festival-director group from around the country, and conversations started quite early.

“I was inspired by the Loft Wordplay Festival, and what they could do. [Like them] we ended up using CrowdCast, which is very user-friendly. It allows us to use some open-broadcast software to spice things up. We’ve been learning the technology and then figuring out how we actually bring events online.”

When we spoke, she had just been editing a Halloween special on shapeshifters. “I’ve been cutting in clips from Nosferatu. I just want to do something interesting and new and exciting. We’re experimenting…I think it’s pretty awesome.”

Only, aren’t we all a little fatigued by online interactions? Suzy agreed it was a concern. “But we’ve really talked about how do you ‘fall for the book’ and where do you ‘fall for the book’? And the beauty of this online content is that, in a lot of ways, they're becoming podcasts.”

She listens to podcasts while doing housework and while her baby is napping. So, here’s a silver lining: No more battling DMV rush-hour traffic to make it to a reading!

As in the past, most events will be conversations between authors, whether that’s a single author being interviewed or a panel. “We have a couple of web exclusives, but for all the events in CrowdCast, there’s also a section where you can chat,” Suzy said. “You can ask a question. There's a lot of interaction that way.”

Some events will be prerecorded. There’s also some children's programming designed to augment the virtual-learning experience.

“We are working to align standards and make assignments,” she said. “We’re working on one video that you would really want to watch: Joy Jones. Her book is Jayla Jumps In, and it's about Double Dutch and community.”

There are children’s programs which include assignments and activities. One, with Shana Keller and her book Bread for Words, is about Frederick Douglass teaching himself to write. Keller will show letters from different alphabets that kids might not have seen before, and which they can then practice.

“That's something that any kid can do because the digital divide can be so big,” Suzy explained.

The festival highlights are authors Tommy Orange (There There), Rainbow Rowell (Runaways), soccer player Abby Wambach (Wolfpack), Edwidge Danticat (Everything Inside), and Dr. Ayana Johnson (All We Can Save).

“But the event that I am looking forward to most is ‘Reimagining the Classics’ with Madeline Miller and Emily Wilson,” Suzy said.

“I read Circe while I was on maternity leave, and it was one of the first books that I could actually get my tired brain around. It was incredible. And, of course, The Odyssey and Circe are deeply intertwined. I think that it’s going to be fabulous.”

A standout event for me took place during the opening week. It was an historical fiction panel with Julie Orringer, Marco Rafela, and Tracey Erenson Wood. I tuned in a little late while walking my dogs, but this time, my “late arrival” hadn’t disturbed the other participants and I could catch what I had missed on the Fall for the Book YouTube channel. Book lovers can watch the videos there anytime. 

“Of course, I’ll miss being in the room with my colleagues, the book-signing lines, and seeing people meet their favorite author, and just hearing the questions live. We can't replace that energy,” Suzy reflected. “But we're trying to offer something that's really interesting, that’s portable, and where people can touch base with authors that they might not be able to otherwise.”

There was a lot of energy and inspiration in some of those dynamic gatherings on campus in the past, especially on the New American Voices night, which I think I’ll miss the most. During that evening, an award was given to an author whose book, as stated on the festival’s website, “illuminates the complexity of human experience as told by immigrants, whose work is historically underrepresented in writing and publishing.”

This year’s finalists are Ishmael Beah for Little Family, Vanessa Hua for Deceit and Other Possibilities, and Lysley Tenorio for The Son of Good Fortune.

“We are changing that a little bit this year for the online platform,” Suzy explained, “announcing the winner ahead of time. I taught Ishmael’s memoir about being a child soldier in my introduction to lit class. I’m sorry that I can't meet him in person, but I'm really excited that he's coming to the festival.”

Many book-related activities have had to adapt during the pandemic. My visits to the local bookstore are no longer to browse but to pick up online orders from a little cart outside, and my book clubs currently run on Zoom.

I wonder about next year. How many independent bookstores will have weathered the economic slump? And the festival itself has lost a lot of funding for next year.

But then I go back to Suzy’s comment about “how do you fall for a book?” Above all, books are an inner journey and, simultaneously, a crucial way of connecting us to other people and other worlds. Even a global pandemic can’t change that.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast “Read Me a Poem” for the American Scholar.

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