Last winter at the Wagon Wheel Saloon, just a spit over the border from Mexico, Jesse Sensibar hunkered down for a swath of time with the watering hole’s most famous guest.
Jim Harrison, author of such iconic novels as “Legends of the Fall,” agreed to appear at this year’s Northern Arizona Book Festival. But in late March, he passed away at the age of 78.
Now the book festival — ready to kick off a week full of readings, signings and workshops for writers at all levels — is dedicated to the late author of a canon of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.
From children’s literature to wild adventure tales, there is a satiating read for varied tastes as nearly 50 authors from Arizona and far beyond convene Monday, Oct. 10 through 16 for a week full of readings, signings and workshops.
Events are free except the Coconino Center for the Arts reading Thursday, Oct. 13 featuring Diana Gabaldon, Erin Stalcup, William Trowbridge and Nicole Walker; and “A Tribute to Jim Harrison” Friday at the Orpheum Theater featuring Harrison’s author-friends Doug Peacock, William Pitt Root and Pamela Uschuk.
See a full calendar of events, scattered throughout Flagstaff and on Northern Arizona University and Coconino Community College campuses, and at NazBookFest.org.
Apples to apples
Book fest president James Jay and executive director Sensibar rebooted the festival, on hiatus since 2013, and migrated the non-profit under the umbrella of the Narrow Chimney Reading Series. Last year’s run proved successful to the organizers, now able to compare apples to apples heading into year two.
The methods have worked, said Jay, noting, “We were thinking about more local-regional [authors], but at the same time we’re not going smaller by any means — and I think this year is a good example of that.”
The team tossed their net out wide, reeling in writers with both regional and international acclaim, and who have recent works to celebrate, Sensibar added.
For example, NAU professors Stalcup and Walker recently published books while Flagstaff-born writer Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling page-to-screen series, “Outlander,” has been picked up for a third Starz season premiering in 2017.
Sensibar first crossed paths with Peacock and Uschuk because of the mural on the side of his home in Tucson. All 16 feet of Harrison’s striking black-and-white portrait by Flagstaff’s Jay Willison are hard to miss, and brought the famed authors over for a visit.
One of the organizers’ main goals since reconvening the festival was to act as a fiscal agent for smaller nonprofit adventures. Last year, the book festival received a small one-time grant from Coconino County. Jay recounted that since it was not eligible again, they helped the Telepoem Booth collect it instead.
New funds have also poured in, and a grant from Full Circle Trade & Thrift has contributed to other free readings such as Barley Rhymes and Poet’s Den — two events, incidentally, looking for new host venues. Jay and Sensibar encouraged any interested parties hoping to foster mutual support between locations and these events to contact them.
Jay noted, too, that for the first time in festival history, direct support came from the President’s Office at NAU. And, after last year’s state-level budget slash, NABF received an Arizona Commission on the Arts grant.
Jay and Sensibar also commended small business and a contribution from the Arts Council-distributed Arts and Sciences Fund.
Many may note a change in the festival’s timing, too. The main reason the book festival is setting up in October, Sensibar said, is to encourage teachers at both FUSD and university levels to incorporate Book Festival authors and events into their curriculums.
It is also unexpectedly aligning with NAU’s unsanctioned Homecoming party, Tequila Sunrise. Controlling this organic event, NABF organizers said, was outside their capacity, but offers room for creative scheduling.
Jay also noted the book festival's strong attendance — expected to increase from last year’s 1,100 attendees — that could spur beneficial partnerships with downtown businesses, separate from events like Tequila Sunrise.
Saturday, instead, will see a cadre of events from a publishing workshop at Barefoot Cowgirl Books to the Young Reader Fest at the Downtown Public Library and a Writing from Place workshop with Mary Sojourner in Buffalo Park.
Evening readings with NAU alumni Sean Carswell and Miles Waggener will celebrate the “Return of the Writer” as U of A letterpress demonstrates how books are printed.
Every twist thrown at the Northern Arizona Book Festival machine has allowed the organizers and participants to rally for the sake of high-caliber literature available at home and beyond.
Jay added, “I’m amazed by what we can pull off.”