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Constance Alexander: The 2020 Kentucky Book Festival will be a virtual trove of literary treasure


Karen Salyer McElmurray writes with a longing for home, and for her that means Kentucky. “It’s my deepest heart’s home,” is how she puts it.

Both sides of her family are from the commonwealth, but she has lived in many other places. Right now residing in Maryland, she describes the feeling as “living in two worlds,” and expresses the hope that maybe when she retires, it could be in Kentucky, where her roots are firmly fixed.

Published by University Press of Kentucky in April, her newest novel, Wanting Radiance, is set mostly in Kentucky. Under normal circumstances, McElmurray would be on her way to Lexington next week to promote her novel and participate in the Kentucky Book Festival, sponsored by Kentucky Humanities. With Covid-19 in full swing, however, the annual fest has been transformed into a virtual affair that started with a series of “happy hours” in mid-September and shifts into high gear November 9 – 14.

The 2020 version of the festival is a departure from the usual format. According to Kentucky Humanities Executive Director Bill Goodman, “We spent several months in consultation with our Board of Directors, staff, and public health officials evaluating the landscape with regard to COVID-19. These discussions all led to the same conclusion—having in-person events this year is not in the best interest of our authors, patrons, volunteers, and staff. While we will greatly miss not being able to gather together, we look forward to a fantastic online event with a tremendous lineup of authors.”

In the past, as one of the participating authors in the festival, I’ve experienced the privilege and excitement of meeting potential readers, signing copies of my books, and meeting other writers with national and international reputations. Last year, nearly 200 regional and national authors were invited, with Kentucky well-represented by stellars like Wendell Berry, Bobbie Ann Mason, Frank X Walker, George Ella Lyon, Crystal Wilkinson, and Gurney Norman, among others.

In 2020, the roster has been pared down to accommodate the virtual format, featuring 60 authors and an array of virtual programming. Thanks to Sara Volpi Woods, the festival director, a silver lining emerged from the dark cloud of unexpected change caused by the novel virus.

“We might not have had an opportunity to have John Grisham, Nicholas Kristoff, David Blight, Nikky Finney and other nationally known authors in attendance at a live event,” she remarked.

Last Thursday night, for example, instead of standing on a stage behind a podium, journalist Nick Kristoff talked to virtual festival participants from his family farm in Oregon. The setting was an appropriate backdrop for his discussion of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, co-written with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Tightrope follows several of Kristof’s ex-schoolmates, kids he rode with on the school bus, near Yamhill, Ore.

“About one-fourth of the kids who rode with Nick on the bus are dead from drugs, suicide, alcohol, obesity, reckless accidents and other pathologies,” the story goes. The book explores “how our country could have let tens of millions of people suffer an excruciating loss of jobs, dignity, lives, hopes and children, and how we can recover.”

The schedule of online discussions and readings between November 9 – 14 could fill anyone’s calendar to overflowing. I’m scheduled to attend “Views of a Place: Writing Kentucky, Then & Now,” on Saturday, November 14 at 7 p.m. eastern time. Silas House, Ashley Blooms, Robert Gipe, and Karen Salyer McElmurray will explore the ways the landscape and the people of Kentucky — the characters and locales of their creative work — have changed over the years. They will share their insights about the impact of place on the stories they tell, and what they have learned while writing about them.

McElmurray has been pondering the theme as she prepares for the conversation with fellow Kentuckians. “I’m from away and from there,” she says, adding that she often asks herself the question, “Am I writing something that was a long time ago, about the ghosts of the past?”

Her musings take a philosophical bent as she refers to the concept of Axis Mundi, those spots on earth that connect us to the sacred. She has encountered a few of those in her life, including the time she lived at the Grand Canyon. But that road leads her back to Kentucky, to her Granny, to a cemetery on top of a hill at Bear Hollow, near Paintsville.

“I sold that property to buy a house,” she recalled. “You can’t get there anymore. It’s a dirt road. You have toleave your vehicle and walk and the road is heaved up. In reality, you can’t even go to the place,” she went on, “but I can still see the tree that Granny buried her doll under.”

McElmurray still has that doll, resurrected from the earth where Granny laid it to rest.

“It has sharp wooden teeth,” Karen Salyer McElmurray said. “That’s part of what I write.”

For detailed information about the 2020 Kentucky Book Festival and a schedule of workshops and presentations, go to www.kyhumanities.org.


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