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The Hyperlocal Literary Festival in Chicago’s Backyard

The Hyperlocal Literary Festival in Chicago’s Backyard

Rachel Jamison Webster, Stuart Dybek, and Jeffrey Garrett at last year’s inaugural Evanston Literary Festival.

Don’t call it a suburb. Evanston, Illinois—though perched on the shores of Lake Michigan directly north of Chicago city limits—is a vibrant, arts-loving community all to itself, home to one of the nation’s best public library systems, best universities, and best independent bookstores. So when John K. Wilson and Lynn Haller (organizers of the Chicago Book Expo since 2013) moved to Evanston a few years ago, they decided to found another hyperlocal event to showcase the city’s writers: the Evanston Literary Festival, timed to coincide with (and include) Northwestern University’s Spring Writers’ Festival.

Today (May 4) marks the opening of the second annual festival, which runs through May 14 and includes readings, signings, panels, and other events with local authors, many of whom boast an international profile, like Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), Aleksandar Hemon (The Making of Zombie Wars) and Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night). Here’s the festival’s full schedule. All events are free and open to the public.

The Chicago Review of Books spoke with co-founder John K. Wilson about what make Evanston a literary haven, what he learned from the first festival last year, and his hopes for the future.

What makes Evanston a good location for a literary festival?

John K. Wilson: Evanston is a great literary community, with a long history of nurturing writers. With Northwestern University, Bookends & Beginnings bookstore, and an educated audience, it’s an ideal place to have a festival. We’re also fortunate to have so many ongoing cultural events, like the Northwestern Spring Writers’ Festival, which is one of the centerpieces of this festival—every year they bring three writers (a fiction writer, a nonfiction writer, and a poet) to Evanston. Last year they had Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, and Connie Voisine; this year they have Alexander Chee, Sharman Apt Russell, and Laura Kasischke. Our festival is designed to bring awareness to events like this, as well as adding to the conversation.

What sets ELF apart from other literary festivals around the country? From Printer’s Row, in particular?

John K. Wilson: The Evanston Literary Festival is much more about a literary community. Printer’s Row is more about bringing outside authors to speak in Chicago. Although the Evanston Literary Festival does have a few outside authors, most of the speakers live in Evanston or have a connection to it. And because it’s a community event, the festival goes on for 11 days with a variety of different literary activities every day, so it’s possible to go to many of the events and run into people you’ve seen previously, which makes it a more personal experience.

Why was it important for you to incorporate comics, which are sadly absent from so many lit fests?

John K. Wilson: Both of us really like graphic novels, and we admire the work of the writers we’re featuring—Anne Elizabeth Moore, Ozge Samanci, and Keiler Roberts. The fact that Free Comic Book Day (Saturday, May 7) fell during the timeframe we’d picked for the Festival made this panel a great fit for us and for our partner the Evanston Public Library, which participates in it.

What did you learn from the first festival last year?

John K. Wilson: As with any event like this, the first year you’re learning about your partnering organizations—what their objectives are and what you can offer each other. After the first year, you have a better idea of how to work together, and a better idea of how to involve other organizations.

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How will this year’s festival be different?

John K. Wilson: We have expanded this year’s festival by adding a number of new venues and partnering organizations, and doubled the number of literary events. We’re especially excited to be adding great Evanston cultural institutions like the Evanston History Center, Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, Piven Theatre, the Block Museum, and Northwestern University Library to the organizations that are participating this year.

What do you hope for in the future of the festival?

John K. Wilson: We’d like to see even more community involvement in the festival, with more volunteers helping organize it, as well as more organizations holding literary events.

Editor’s Note: Here’s the festival’s full schedule. All events are free and open to the public.

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