When the Charlotte literary festival Novello ended in 2010 after a successful 15-year streak, a huge gap emerged in Charlotte’s creative market. This considerable loss inspired Mark West, children’s literature professor and chair of the English Department at UNC Charlotte, to create a new literary festival to be held on May 6, 2017 at UNC Charlotte Center City.
West and colleagues had held two small festivals in the fall of 2013 and 2014 at UNC Charlotte Center City. While successful, the UNC Charlotte events came to an end when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public Library – which had presented Novello – found funding and started two new fall literary festivals. One was a large fundraising event for the library foundation, while the other was a children’s festival called Epic Fest.
“When they did Epic Fest, one of the things that I was trying to do when I initially created the Center City Literary Festival was being filled again,” West says. “I said, ‘I guess we don’t need to do our festival anymore.’ ”
During the subsequent two years, West realized that the UNC Charlotte festival seemed to have created a space of its own.
“People kept asking, ‘Why didn’t you do a literary festival this year?’ ” West says.
The community’s strong interest is one reason he decided to bring the festival back this year, but he wanted to do so only if it could be a better version. He knew he needed a strong team, financial support and appealing activities to build a unique festival.
West took five introductory steps to ensure the festival’s success. The first step was figuring out when the festival would take place. West wanted a time of year when students could be involved, but also a time that didn’t conflict with any other literary event, which led to Saturday, May 6.
The second step was a combination of tasks.
“First thing we had to do was line up the date,” West says. “Then we had to line up the place, and then we had to line up the money, because none of these things are free.”
UNC Charlotte Center City became involved at this point.
“Their mission at UNC Charlotte Center City is to be more of a community outreach facility where people from the larger Charlotte community can interact with the place, people, and missions of the University,” West says. “Since this festival coincided with that mission, they agreed to provide us some space and funding.”
Their support immediately made the festival different from the previous two. “The other two times I did it, I did it on basically nothing,” he says.
The funding increase has allowed the planning team to provide honoraria for the event’s authors.
“It’s not a lot of money,” West says, “but it’s enough of a payment to make people feel like you respect them, you take them seriously, you value their time, you value their talent, and people often feel better about taking the time out from whatever they would normally be doing to come to Charlotte for this festival.”
The third step he took was recruiting the right people to help, which West describes as one of the most important actions in the creation of a festival.
“My expertise is children’s literature,” West says. “Others have their own expertise that they can bring to this that makes it much greater than what I could have.”
One of the people West recruited to help is Bryn Chancellor, a creative writing professor at UNC Charlotte and an award-winning author. Chancellor has previous experience with creating literary festivals. She has found that all festivals have an important thing in common.
“Ultimately, they are always really rewarding,” she says.
For the fourth introductory step in this creation, West had to figure out what exactly the festival was going to be. He decided to hold it on one day, but to separate the day into two parts, much like Novello’s structure.
The daytime schedule of this festival will be dedicated to the children who attend.
“It will be activity oriented, because kids get restless,” West says. “They don’t care about getting their book signed by an author. They like to do things.”
Chancellor is in charge of the activities for adults. This responsibility entails planning the evening section of the event which will include a reception as well as appearances by guest authors, who plan to give readings, answer questions and sign books. Chancellor is one of the authors.
“I think of children’s literature and literature for adults as interlinked, as supporting each other, so I wanted to do something that related to both,” West says. “And for me, if you want to raise a generation of readers and people who care about literature, then you need to start in childhood.”
The final step for success is encouraging people to come, Chancellor says. All are welcome, she said.
“We just need to be able to get the word out, which is always tricky,” she says. “The plan is to include not only UNC Charlotte folks, but people from Charlotte and around that will want to come.”
As the team pushes ahead with their planning, West cautions team members to prepare for curve balls. His advice holds true for others planning major events.
“Whenever you organize something, you have an idea in your head for what it is you’re going to do, but you should always be receptive to something coming out of left field that you didn’t anticipate,” he says. “Be flexible enough to take advantage of things that just show up as opportunities that weren’t anticipated, planned, or something going wrong that you were sure was just going to work. Any large thing that you plan is a weird combination of planning and improvising.”
Despite the inevitable challenges, West and his team embrace the power and potential impact of the work.
“For me, this festival is a way for us to connect,” Chancellor says. “It creates a sense of community and it’s also a chance to celebrate the humanities, especially since it’s a difficult time right now in a lot of ways. Poetry and fiction are both a means of solace and a means of remembering what’s important, like art. Art is a healer, a power, a force.”
Words: Heather Benson, CLAS Communications Intern | Image from 2013 festival by Fodee Wiles