The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis has announced plans for an annual writers festival to begin in 2019, featuring various venues, readings, conversations and parties, held over two hopefully sunny days each May.
It will be called Wordplay, to convey the sense of fun that organizers hope the festival will impart.
“It was something that we as an organization have been talking about since I interviewed here” in 2015, said Britt Udesen, the Loft’s executive director. “We really believe that books deserve a party.”
Stretching between the Loft headquarters at Open Book on Washington Avenue S., the Mill City Farmers Market along the Mississippi River and the Commons park near U.S. Bank Stadium, the festival is expected to bring in about 100 authors and attract about 10,000 visitors from around the state its first year. Some of the events would be free, while others would require a ticket.
Minnesota is already home to the Twin Cities Book Festival, sponsored by the nonprofit literary journal Rain Taxi, which has been held for 17 years.
“We were very mindful of that when planning this,” Udesen said. “We wanted to be incredibly careful and supportive of this existing program that we love. We believe that we have a community that can support two festivals.”
The Rain Taxi festival takes place in October and in recent years has been held at the State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights. It features a ticketed reception on a Friday night, followed by free events all day Saturday and has grown from about 1,000 attendees its first year to about 6,000.
It has hosted national and international writers such as Rupert Thomson, Roz Chast, Joy Williams and Daniel Handler, as well as local and regional authors.
“We support any local initiatives that bring attention to books and authors and readers in our community,” said Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer. “I guess it remains to be seen if there’s going to be similarities or overlap, but right now we heartily endorse anybody taking on any activity that helps the literary community. This could end up being a real opportunity to see and hear from more voices.”
Wordplay is the joint vision of Udesen and Minnesota native Steph Opitz, who worked for both the Texas Book Festival and the Brooklyn Book Festival before moving back to Minnesota this year. The Loft has hired her full time to plan Wordplay, among other duties.
“Minneapolis and St. Paul are huge literary hubs,” Opitz said. While there are already many events, Wordplay would be “another way to celebrate.”
No authors are yet confirmed, since it’s not yet known who will be touring in spring 2019. But organizers are hoping for a wide variety — high literary, popular fiction, mystery writers, children’s writers and cookbook authors.
“If an athlete comes out with a book, we would want them here,” Udesen said. “If a TV star comes out with a book, we would want them here.”
She envisions few staid author readings and more offbeat events, such as conversations between authors of different genres, or cooking demonstrations, or yoga, ping-pong or bike rides with writers.
And parties, Opitz said — lots of parties.
Opitz has enlisted a dozen or more writers to sit on an advisory board for Wordplay, including Twin Cities writers Charles Baxter and Danez Smith, as well as John Freeman, Ada Limón, Celeste Ng and others.
“This is a good book city with a lot of enthusiasm for books and their authors,” Baxter said. “We have a lot of authors here. We have our small presses here. It seems like a logical place for such a thing. My only concern is that it might take the wind out of the sails of the Twin Cities Book Festival,” which brightens up “the dark fall days, when we need it.”
The Loft is in the process of securing funding for the festival, seeking donations, corporate sponsors and grants.
“We’re still working on the budget, but our guess is that it will be hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Udesen said. “It’s a large financial commitment for us and it’s the biggest leap we have made as an organization in many years.”
The funding for the Rain Taxi festival comes mainly from a grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council as well as money from Target and the Minnesota State Arts Board. The Loft might be looking in some of the same places.
“I think we will have some crossover,” Udesen said.
How much is too much?
It remains to be seen how many literary events the Twin Cities can sustain. Between Books & Bars, Club Book, Talk of the Stacks, Pen Pals and Talking Volumes, as well as author events hosted by colleges and bookstores, an interested person already can attend a literary event nearly every night of the week.
Opitz sees room for more. Most of those events take place in the fall and winter, she noted, and Wordplay will be in the spring. She also expects the new festival to attract people who don’t currently attend bookstore readings or author events. And she hopes Wordplay will grow over time to something as large as the 35-year-old Miami Book Fair, one of the nation’s oldest book fairs, which runs for a full week and attracts between 300,000 and 400,000 people.
This year, “we had about 600 authors come, and it was great,” said Mitchell Kaplan, owner of the Books & Books bookstores in Florida and one of the founders of the Miami fair. “We had 18 rooms going at once. It’s pretty wild. It’s been a gigantic boon for the city. It’s a big to-do.”
He noted that Miami also hosts the O, Miami poetry festival, and his nine bookstores host 500 author events a year. “I think there’s room for a lot of different voices, particularly if they’re trying to be different and attract different audiences,” he said. The fact that the Rain Taxi festival is in the autumn and Wordplay will be in the spring “is a good thing.”
“The more the merrier, for literature,” Kaplan said. “Particularly in such a literate town. If the Twin Cities can’t support two book fairs at two different times of year, I don’t know any city that could.”