Duke University Alumni Magazine

The Ultimate Book Bash

Harmon: spreading enthusiasm for the power of the word
Photo: John Fulford
alk about making a splash. After a decade of tossing the idea around, Seattle's book, business, and arts communities came together to launch a major book festival. It would have been perfectly understandable to begin modestly and add programming in subsequent years. But the inaugural event, held last October at the city's Pier 48, filled every inch of the 110,000-square-foot space and attracted more than 200 authors and 23,000 book lovers.

     "People advised us to start small and grow, but as we kept coming up with wonderful ideas, it became clear that we needed to burst upon the scene as a full-fledged event," says Northwest Bookfest executive director Katharine "Kitty" Harmon '82. "When I looked out the window on Saturday morning ten minutes before we opened, and saw a line of people waiting to get in, it finally hit me that it was really happening."

     With hundreds of author readings and book signings, panel discussions, interactive activities, and multimedia presentations, Northwest Bookfest is an all-ages celebration of the written and spoken word. Guest speaker Studs Terkel, who appeared with ninety-seven-year-old environmentalist Hazel Wolf to talk about the joys of aging, said the festival was one of the best he'd ever attended.

     For the second annual event on October 26-27, Harmon says she and her staff are making the festival even better. Included in the author lineup are Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson, Barry Hannah, John Edgar Wideman, and Jonathan Raban, as well as locally and self-published writers. New York Times crossword whiz and National Public Radio "puzzler" expert Will Shortz will be on hand to explain how a crossword puzzle is born. Booksellers dressed in lab coats and stethoscopes will conduct bibliotherapy, offering "prescriptions" (book suggestions) for people stuck in a reading rut.

     "We want to avoid having just straight readings, because those take place all over Seattle," says Harmon. "We provide an opportunity for people to engage authors in conversation about a given topic." Book clubs, for example, can sign up to meet with participating authors to discuss their work in small-group settings.

     Workshops and panel discussions promise to be both entertaining and informative. Titles include "Stop! You're Killing Me!" (mysteries), "Snake Oil May Be Good For You After All" (alternative healing), "Literary Caffeine" (books that will keep a reader up all night), and "Move Over, Kerouac" (on-the-road books).

     This year will also mark the return of "Seattle Writes A Novel," where visitors can contribute to the storyline of a novel-in-progress. There's a Young Writers and Readers area where children can create their own hardcover books, read from stories they have written or books that they like, and listen to popular children's authors read from their works.

     Rather than exclude any genre, Harmon and her staff have intentionally opened up Northwest Bookfest to celebrate the many dimensions of writing and reading. "There are other literary festivals around the country, and each has its own character," she says. "Some are quite literary and others are more popular fiction-oriented. We've made an effort to run the gamut."

     Revenue from Northwest Bookfest helps spread the benefits of reading beyond the fall weekend. While the event is free, a voluntary donation of $5 is requested, and all proceeds go directly to literacy groups throughout the five-state Pacific Northwest region. Smaller events throughout the year, such as a city-wide "Read Aloud" initiative in Seattle's public schools, will serve as reminders of the festival's goals.

     "Although we call this event a book festival, it's really about reading," says Harmon. "Literate people tend to forget how powerful reading is, both as a skill that improves lives and as a source of enduring pleasure."

     For Harmon, a lifelong bibliophile, reading is also a means of escape. When asked what she looks for in a good read, she says, "Anything that takes me as far away as possible from the details of running a book festival." She cites Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington and A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene as recent diversions.

     A comparative-literature major at Duke, Harmon was accepted into the Radcliffe Publishing Course following graduation. After a stint as publications editor for the nonprofit organization Catalyst, Harmon was chosen as the Oscar Dystel Fellow in Book Publishing at New York University. The two-year program placed her at Bantam Books, where for a year she spent one month in each of the company's departments.

     After a cross-country trip with her partner, John Fulford '82, the couple settled on Seattle as their home. Harmon worked as marketing director for Sasquatch Books for several years, and then worked in South Africa for the Congress of South African Writers, coordinating the publication of an anthology of women's writings. When she returned to the States, she found herself free to tackle the launch of a Northwest Book Festival.

     With the generous support of corporate sponsors like the Seattle Times and Microsoft, Northwest Bookfest has in short order joined the country's top literary gatherings both in financial backing and in inventiveness of programming. The only drawback to its present location is the chilly climate inside the unheated Pier 48 space. Ever the creative thinker, Harmon has come up with some ways to generate warmth.

     "We're encouraging people both to appreciate the historic significance of the building and to come bundled up. We've persuaded an airline to donate thousands of lap blankets and Starbucks has just come on board as a corporate sponsor. The latte will be flowing."

--Bridget Booher

Visit the Northwest Bookfest web site at www. speakeasy.org/nwbookfest

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