Best of the 2018 Texas Book Festival: An Observer Staff Guide
Six can’t-miss author events hand-picked by our writers.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year for Texas bibliophiles, an estimated 50,000 of whom will descend upon the Texas Capitol this weekend for the 2018 Texas Book Festival. From big names like Julián Castro and Susan Orlean to up-and-coming novelists such as Xhenet Aliu and R. O. Kwon, the 280 authors in attendance offer something for every reader — and it’s all free and open to the public. For the third year in a row, there will also be bilingual readings at the Latinx Lit Tent, a welcome development after organizers drew criticism in 2013 for a lack of Latino representation. Organizers worked hard this year to create one of the most diverse lineups we’ve seen in the event’s 23-year history.
Choosing your own adventure from the full schedule is always a little daunting, so we’ve put together this list of Observer favorites. Happy reading!
Immigration experts share their work
At the Eighth and Congress tent on Saturday at 11:30 a.m., learn about the difficulties of reporting on immigrant detention from a trio of top-flight immigration journos: Lomi Kriel, the Houston Chronicle’s immigration ace; Ginger Thompson, senior reporter at ProPublica; and Alfredo Corchado, the Dallas Morning News reporter who just published a new book that’s part-memoir, part-history of the decades-long rise and fall of Mexican migration to America. Author and occasional Observer contributor Stephanie Elizondo Griest will moderate.
If you’re less keen on listening to reporters talk about our jobs, there’s a second chance to catch Corchado and hear about his new book. At the Texas Tent at 3:00 on Saturday, he’ll be tackling “What It Means to Be Texan,” along with the legendary Lawrence Wright.
—Gus Bova, immigration reporter
Short fiction and gelato
For eight years, the Observer’s own short story contest has been an outlet for up-and-coming creative writers of all stripes. At least two past winners have gone on to publish novels: Brian Carr (Sip) and Ling Ma (Severance). As part of the festival’s more casual lit crawl, this year’s winner, Heath Dollar, and finalist Jenny Staff Johnson will read from their stories, which we’ve published in full here and here, at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday at Gelateria Gemelli. You can also catch this year’s contest judge, Natalia Sylvester (Everyone Knows You Go Home), speaking on panels both Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
—Rose Cahalan, managing editor
A Texas literary legend
Don’t miss spending a little time celebrating James Magnuson, one of the finest writers and most benevolent presences Austin has ever known. The longtime legendary director of the Michener Center for Writers, handpicked by James Michener himself, Magnuson retired from that post only last year and carries more delightful insights into the world of books than most people on the planet. He’s the 2018 recipient of the festival’s Texas Writer Award and will speak in the Capitol Auditorium at 11 a.m. on Saturday.
—Naomi Shihab Nye, poetry editor
Local favorites preview their latest
At noon on Saturday in the Capitol extension room 2.026, Esmé Weijun Wang, Fernando A. Flores and Elizabeth McCracken will discuss their highly anticipated new releases, moderated by American Short Fiction’s Adeena Reitberger. Wang’s book of essays, The Collected Schizophrenias, won the Graywolf Press Prize for Nonfiction and the prestigious Whiting Award. Her writing is penetrating, inquisitive and deeply personal. McCracken, chair of the fiction program at the James A. Michener Center at the University of Texas, shared a lovely excerpt of her forthcoming book Bowlaway at an event in Austin earlier this month. And Flores, whose book Tears of the Trufflepig comes out next May, is perhaps my favorite local writer. Catch him now, while you can.
This is a Friends Pass session, so only folks who donate to the festival can attend. Worry not, though — Wang and McCracken will be at other panels through the weekend. Flores, a 2016 finalist in the Texas Observer short story contest, can be found slinging books at Austin’s preeminent establishment for literary enthusiasts, Malvern Books.
—Sunny Sone, assistant digital editor
Frank talk on class in America
For a spot-on portrait of life as a poor white farm kid, consider checking out Sarah Smarsh’s new memoir, Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. Smarsh, who has written about class in the United States for the New Yorker, Harper’s and theObserver, recounts her life growing up on a Kansas farm, where her family has been shaped by poverty and generations of domestic violence. Smarsh will speak at 3 p.m. on Saturday in the C-SPAN tent alongside Alissa Quart, author of Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.
Reading Heartland forced me to consider our country’s oft-unspoken class system, where we so easily judge people based on where they live and how much money they have. The book compelled me to confront the unconscious assumptions that I make about others — it may prompt your own self-reflection, too.
—Chris Collins, rural reporter
A stranger-than-fiction look back at 2016
With Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, award-winning Dallas author Ben Fountain delivers an expansive series of essays and campaign reportage from the 2016 presidential trail. He stitches the day-to-day twists and turns of the election into the historical fabric of this country with vivid character sketches of the contenders — from Trump to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz (whom he memorably describes as having “the skin of an avid indoorsman”).
If you’re looking to revisit the heady days of the 2016 election right before we hit the 2018 elections, Fountain will join Chasing Hillary author Amy Chozick at 1 p.m. on Saturday in the C-SPAN tent.