Onward and upward for Aspen Writers’ Foundation | AspenTimes.com

Onward and upward for Aspen Writers’ Foundation

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie by Beowulf Sheehan +1 917 450 2345 mail@beowulfsheehan.com
Beowulf Sheehan | Beowulf Sheehan

ASPEN – Times are not especially good for the written word. Newspapers are being decimated; book publishers are struggling with a variety of issues, not the least of which is coping with the rise of digital formats. On top of that, reading itself is taking a hit.

“People are afraid of books. Reading books is down enormously,” said Lisa Consiglio, executive director of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation. “It’s much easier for people to turn on the TV – but it’s so hard to escape like that. There’s a million soundbites a minute. It’s not a journey with an author; it’s someone screaming at you.”

Those troubles, compounded by the economy, are reflected in the smaller realm of literary festivals and writing workshops. Several prominent events, including the 36-year-old Santa Barbara Writers Conference, are on hiatus; others are being downsized or moved.

The Aspen Writers’ Foundation, meanwhile, is gearing up for what may be its biggest conference yet. Their Aspen Summer Words Literary Festival and Writing Retreat, which opens Sunday, June 21 and runs through Thursday, June 25, is teeming with activity. The festival features 17 writers, a songwriter, and the organization’s first writer-in-residence. Most prominently, the event will feature the launch of four books, and the world premiere of one: “Let the Great World Spin,” a novel by Irish-born Colum McCann, which examines the author’s adopted home of New York City.

“This is the first time we’ve ever had anything like that,” said Consiglio, referring to both the four launches – meaning the authors have new books that they are in the first stages of promoting – and the world premiere. “This is the first time we’ve had an author where the book has been embargoed up until the minute he opens his mouth on our stage.”

The other books being introduced are “The Thing Around Your Neck,” by Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; “The Signal,” by American Ron Carlson, the recipient of the Writers’ Foundation’s 2009 Aspen Prize for Literature; and “Into the Beautiful North,” by Mexican-born Illinois resident Luis Alberto Urrea. Also participating in the festival is Aspenite Scott Lasser, whose novel “The Year That Follows” was published earlier this month.

There is one notable element eliminated from this year’s event. Unlike the last four years, there will be no focus on the writing of a particular country or region. Instead, the festival is being presented under the World of Words theme, with four continents represented. Consiglio says the move was prompted in part by the merger earlier this year of the Writers’ Foundation with the Aspen Institute. But it is also a way for the organization to take a breath, and acknowledge what it has accomplished since 2004.

“We felt it was important to have a fifth-year anniversary. The rate we’re going, it’s break-neck speed,” said Consiglio, who noted that this year’s festival features more than double the writers of a half-decade ago. She added that, in earlier years, the festival simply pulled the writing instructors from the retreat portion of the event to serve as speakers and panelists.

Being folded into the Aspen Institute has had several benefits. The festival will be held under one roof, at the Institute’s Meadows Campus. And top Institute personnel – president Walter Isaacson, author of historical books on Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin, and Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts – will speak during Aspen Summer Words.

Among the festival highlights: a keynote address by Carlson; the discussions The Future of Print, with Isaacson and Indian-born author David Davidar, and Origin of Story, with African writers Ishmael Beah, who is in residence at the Writers’ Foundation, and Adichie; and the world premier of “Let the Great World Spin,” which will feature McCann and singer-songwriter Joe Hurley performing a song they co-wrote, based on McCann’s novel.

“We haven’t taken one step back,” said Consiglio. “Not one.”


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