Paul Grondahl is director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany, the author of several books and a weekly columnist for the Times Union, where he spent 33 years as a reporter. He is a UAlbany distinguished alumnus in arts and letters.
Favorite poet: Tyehimba Jess. Not only is he a brilliant poet, but he wants to bring the beauty of literature to underserved communities. I spent an amazing three hours with him in a New York State prison talking about poetry and writing and life with 100 inmates.
Favorite writers: William Kennedy, a no-brainer. I go back to the classics: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Mark Twain, and more contemporary writers including Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson.
Books that I must own: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Anything by John McPhee.
The cover of the Albany Book Festival program. More than 100 authors and booksellers and 5,000 booklovers attended the event on the University at Albany campus.
University at Albany graduate D. Colin, right, was one of dozens of local authors who attended the Albany Book Festival. Her first collection of poems, "Dreaming in Kreyol," focuses on her Haitian heritage and history.
Backstage at the Albany Book Festival
By Paul Grondahl
Doris Kearns Goodwin was missing in action, wandering somewhere along Edward Durrell Stone’s daunting rows of columns, lost amid the mirror-like angularity of the famed architect's Modernist vision. Here was a metaphor, perhaps, but I was looking for something far more practical. We were missing our headliner.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and best-selling presidential biographer was due on stage in 15 minutes, and she was AWOL. I was supposed to greet Doris, a longtime friend, and welcome her to the inaugural Albany Book Festival. The driver who transported her from New Hampshire, where she spoke the night before, dropped her off behind the Campus Center several minutes before I arrived.
“Where did she go?” I asked.
“That way,” he said, and pointed toward the podium.
She was nowhere in sight.
I started to set off in search of her, but almost immediately, we got word that another headlining author, Khizr Kahn, had his flight delayed. He might miss his afternoon panel discussion on Memoir Writing by New Americans. Writers Institute program coordinator Jennifer Kowalski, who oversaw logistics for the event, kept getting updates on Khan’s ETA. It did not look promising.
Just then, we learned that the person who donned a thick, furry Bleecker the Owl suit, who had been entertaining kids in the Children’s Literature area as mascot of the Albany Public Library, was locked out. He had gone to use a bathroom and was stranded in an out-of-the-way alcove. He was sweaty and tired and was due at a family event. Bleecker the Owl also happened to be Albany Public Library executive director Scott Jarzombek. He is a friend of mine, too, or at least was – before we locked him in an entryway to the loo.
The beauty of book festivals is that no two attendees experience the same event. With concurrent options, people are free to choose who and what they want to see. It is all about choices, democracy in action. With an estimated 5,000 visitors and more than 125 authors, publishers and booksellers leading talks, workshops, panel discussions, discussions and signings at the Albany Book Festival, that meant a lot of variety.
I will share impressions of my own, personal Albany Book Festival experience. It was unlike anyone else’s. It is a backstage view of the event and offers glimpses into the stressful, funny, moving, inspiring things I witnessed on Saturday, September 29 at the University at Albany’s uptown campus.
As the Writers Institute director, team leader and an organizer of the Albany Book Festival, it fell to me to serve as official greeter and roving ambassador. The event was spread out and I tried to be in several places at the same time. I learned this is not possible. I should have gone back and consulted my Newton’s laws of motion. Physics is an uncompromising master.
Back at the main check-in desk, a large volume of people arriving from all directions and requiring assistance soon overwhelmed our small band of Writers Institute volunteers, Campus Center staff and student helpers. Most attendees were first-time visitors to campus and confused about how to get to the various venues. We gave them directions and a program with a map and schedule, but many needed to be walked to their destination. Luckily, Writers Institute volunteer Tonya Frickey, a former English teacher, librarian and leader of two book groups, stepped in with her daughter Sam and took charge at the information desk.
The crowds kept coming. They quickly depleted 1,000 free Albany Book Festival tote bags we were handing out. My 13 freshmen students in the World of Writing Living-Learning Community were very helpful, assigned to the parking lots, giving people directions and walking visitors to the various venues. Linda Krzykowski, assistant Vice Provost of Student Engagement and leader of the Living-Learning Community, took charge of a platoon of student volunteers and dispatched them like a seasoned field general.
I caught a glimpse of Writers Institute graduate assistant Cassie Andrusz Ho-Ching, short of breath, with a mound of inflated purple and gold balloons at her feet. A couple of student volunteers were helping her blow up balloons and tie them to long sticks that they were staking into the grass on pathways leading to Book Festival venues.
It was a total team effort.
We had taken a leap of faith. We’d never organized or run a book festival before. It taught us never to underestimate the resourcefulness of writers, the passion of readers, the generosity of volunteers and the transformative power of literature.
My book festival kicked off with our morning dance party led by Radha Agrawal, co-founder and CEO of the wildly popular global morning dance community Daybreaker. She is a social entrepreneur and author of Belong: Find Your People, Create Community & Live a More Connected Life. She has visited dozens of college campuses around the world and gets students to connect, self-express, sweat and dance in a healthy, drug-free and alcohol-free party atmosphere.
Radha wore a black fedora, a flowing sun dress and a white jacket covered in signatures and happy messages. She also happened to be seven months pregnant, but did not miss a beat as she whipped up the crowd with a brief meditation and then cranked out a booming mix of hip-hop, classic rock, R&B and rap.
I found myself in a pogoing, writhing mass of dance-loving Albany High School students, led by librarian Kristen Majkut, who brought a busload of joyous readers to the book festival. I joined the students, who tried to teach me to do the floss, a youth dance craze, and a moonwalking, hopping, leg-grabbing move whose name I never learned. I was terrible at it, but the students were so infectious in their inclusiveness and exuberance that they never noticed I was terribly out of sync. Soon, others joined in the dance party in the Parents’ Fountain area and the music echoed off the Campus Center and Science Library walls. I danced with the teenagers as well as octogenarians. It was a beautiful way to inaugurate our inaugural Albany Book Festival.
Sweaty and winded, I left the dance party and segued into the hunt for Doris Kearns Goodwin. Luckily, another volunteer,
Maryann Riviello Brennan, a UAlbany alumna, came to the rescue. Maryann found the wandering headliner and was walking her to where she needed to be. “No worries,” Goodwin said. The two were smiling and chatting and I took the relay and brought the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian to meet her old pal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Kennedy, our founder.
We sat down, caught our breath and snapped a photo. She and Bill reminisced. We had five minutes to spare. I introduced her on the tent stage and she gave a riveting, 40-minute talk that offered an overview of her just-published bestselling book Leadership: In Turbulent Times.
“These are my guys. I have spent a lot of time with them,” she said, summarizing the book’s four main characters: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.
Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl welcomed Albany High School librarian Kristen Majkut and her students to the Albany Book Festival at the University at Albany.
Dancing at a book festival? Of course! (John Carl D'Annibale / Times Union)
Fans queued up for a book signing with Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin at the Albany Book Festival on Saturday, September 29, 2018. (Patrick Dodson / UAlbany)
Ty Allan Jackson, right, award-winning children’s book author, literacy advocate and publisher, shared his loved of reading in the Children's Room at the Albany Book Festival.
Goodwin had published full-length biographies on each of the former presidents and she writes with a deep understanding of their personal histories, distinct personalities and unique reservoir of resilience and leadership qualities that helped them lead the country effectively in difficult times. She had a standing-room-only audience of more than 500 people laughing at her delightful anecdotes and not-so-subtle jibes at President Donald J. Trump.
I fast-walked my way over to the Campus Center Ballroom, where dozens of local writers arrayed their books on tables and chatted with Book Festival attendees. Many were friends and former colleagues. I stopped to say hello. We took some selfies, I bought a few books and got them signed.
Over in Assembly Hall, I ran into emeritus professors, teachers I had in the UAlbany English graduate program in the early 1980s, including Gene Garber and Gene Mirabelli. They were signing books and reuniting with former students and fellow retired faculty members. There were plenty of serious literary conversations underway. The vibe was happy and festive, multi-generational and welcoming. It reminded me why I loved being an English major, and how books have the power to connect us and reinforce a communal spirit.
The last few hours of the Albany Book Festival were a blur. At noontime, I went down to the Children’s Literature area and, together with Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, we handed out Book House gift cards to winners of our student essay contest. The mayor and I posed for pictures with the winners in categories from kindergarten to eighth grade. Their parents swelled with pride and took photos. Siblings applauded. It was a proud moment for these families, many from low-income neighborhoods who came to campus courtesy of free bus passes provided by CDTA.
Afterward, Mayor Sheehan read children’s stories to children on a CDTA bus parked in front of the Campus Center. It was all part of our literacy project in which we enlisted collaborators in the local not-for-profit community to help us promote literacy and a love of reading and writing in children in underserved communities. The Albany Public Library, Albany City School District, the Mayor’s Office, Grassroot Givers, 15-LOVE, CDTA and Skribblers magazine for children (who purchased the gift cards) partnered with us on the literacy project.
The crowds continued to swell. I got word that booksellers were selling out of books, which I insisted was a good problem. Author Mary Valentis, an English faculty member and member of the Writers Institute’s Friends of Writing advisory group, rushed up to me. She was breathless, and wide-eyed. “We’re overrun,” she said. Her writing workshop had room for 15-20 people, but 100 showed up.
“We can’t fit in the room. What should I do?”
“Get creative, Mary,” I said. “We don’t have any other rooms available.”
Professor Valentis came up with a Plan B. She led her throng of aspiring authors out into the Parents’ Fountain courtyard, where the morning dance party kickoff was held. Plenty of room. The weather was sunny and September warm. Problem solved.
The final sessions began on time at 3 p.m. – amazingly, we had stayed on schedule throughout the day – including the panel discussions on New Americans memoirs. Still no Khizr Khan. But we just got word his plane landed in Albany. The panel was scheduled to end at 3:45 p.m. It was going to be close.
Meanwhile, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Gregory Maguire, a UAlbany distinguished alumnus, had long lines of fans waiting to have books signed. The two are friends and they reminisced, sitting side by side at a signing table.
Goodwin was pinned down at a table for a couple hours by a line of people that stretched a hundred yards.
I asked her if she wanted me to give her a break or to wrap up the book signing session.
“No, I don’t want to leave anyone waiting or unhappy,” she said. She continued to sign until the last person had a chance to chat with her and snap a picture.
Her driver picked her up. She was due at her next book event in Manchester, Vermont in a few hours.
“This was fun. I love Albany, the Writers Institute and Bill Kennedy,” she said.
On the tent stage, I introduced Walter Mosley, who talked about his newly published literary novel, John Woman, and why it took him a couple decades to finish it. That was an unusually long gestation period for him. He has published more than 45 books, including the bestselling mystery series featuring Easy Rawlins. The audience audibly gasped when, in response to a question, he said he never succumbs to writer’s block and he is continuously working on two manuscripts at a time, year in and year out – writing one draft while he is proofreading the galleys of a soon-to-be-published book.
“That’s just the way I work,” he said, with a shrug. “I don’t find it unusual at all.”
A small roar from a large crowd in the Campus Center went up as Khizr Khan strode up to the stage, just 10 minutes before the conclusion of the panel. He received long, sustained applause.
As Mosley concluded his talk, I asked the audience a question from the tent stage:
“Should we do this again next year?”
“Yes!” they shouted. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Our inaugural effort of the Albany Book Festival exceeded all our expectations: the size of the crowd, enthusiasm of the audience, level of community engagement and strong sales from booksellers, publishers and self-published authors.
I fetched a couple bottles of red wine from our visiting writers’ dinner supply and we sat around, discussed the day, and toasted our success. Authors Bill Kennedy, Gilbert King and Jonathan Santlofer, volunteers, members of our team, my daughter Caroline (who came up from New York City) and friends of the Writers Institute raised a plastic cup.
To writers. To books. To publishers. To booksellers. Most of all, to readers.