THE WORDSTOCK FESTIVAL has never been content to rest on its laurels. Every year, organizers of Portland's biggest literary festival fiddle with the formula, trying to figure out new ways to showcase guest authors while fighting the soul-sucking gravitational pull of the Oregon Convention Center to create an event that genuinely engages audiences.
Sometimes the innovations stick, like a former festival director's bid to expand Wordstock's offerings throughout the city during the festival week (see the sidebar for this year's events). Sometimes they don't, like a short-lived "Graphic Novel Garden" that didn't really succeed in its goal of boosting the visibility of comics at the festival.
"A significant battle that ongoing events have to be aware of is not becoming stale," says Festival Director Katie Merritt. "You have to build in staleness-prevention programs."
There's not a hint of staleness this year, and as for next year... well, first things first.
Blown in on this year's gust of fresh air is Wordstock's first-ever guest curator, Kevin Sampsell, who helped put together the festival's lineup. Sampsell is one of the most important figures in Portland's literary scene—in addition to running his own indie press, Future Tense Books, he manages the small-press section at Powell's, and organizes some of the best readings in town, like his sex-themed series Booty Call, or the more recent summer series held in Colonel Summers Park. For Wordstock, he organized the bar crawl LitHop PDX (see sidebar), as well as helping to book authors for the festival.
"I knew they already had the ears of all the bigger presses, I think they wanted me to direct them to small-press authors that I'm excited about," Sampsell says of his role as guest curator. "I can't wait to see Mike Young and Chelsea Martin together. Those are two of the most original writers in the small-press scene today. Jamie Iredell is going to be exciting to see. Also—holy moly—Alissa Nutting!"
Also new this year is the addition of songwriting as one of the written forms celebrated by the festival, a move Wordstock's Merritt says was a long time coming. "I think it's incredibly fun and important to acknowledge the role of lyric-writing in music," the fest director explains. "Music moves us. On the occasion that music connects us to our common experience through words, Wordstock is keen to acknowledge that."
It's great to see Wordstock remaining so limber, but part of the reason they've had to constantly try out new things is because, though Wordstock is the biggest books festival in a literate city, it's been housed for years in the unforgiving halls of the Oregon Convention Center, a space far more suited to trade shows than author readings or panel discussions. But for those of us who've spent years railing against the inappropriateness of the venue, here's some good news: This year will be the festival's last at the Convention Center. In 2015, the festival will move to Portland State University, in a new spring time slot to better accommodate educators, at whom many of the festival's workshops are targeted. (There will be no festival in fall of 2014, to allow organizers more time to plan for the spring festival in 2015.)
"We were looking for a venue that would allow the best possible acoustics and atmosphere," explains Merritt. "It's all about the audience connecting with the writers, and having meaningful exchanges, so creating environments that are comfortable and conducive to that. And it was very important to us to have the opportunity to create a Portland-specific festival."
So this is Wordstock's last year at the Convention Center—and the lineup is stacked with some serious heavy-hitters. Here are a few of the festival's bigshots, who will be reading and participating in panels and events all weekend long. Much of the fun of Wordstock is in the panels, where authors talk candidly about their work—check out wordstockfestival.com for a complete schedule.
TC Boyle—Beloved author of Drop City and World's End, Boyle is nothing if not a showman; he gives good reading.
Rick Moody—The genre-hopping Moody is equally comfortable writing insightful novels about sad suburbanites (The Ice Storm) as goofy sci-fi mashups (The Four Fingers of Death). He's also indirectly responsible for unleashing Zach Braff on the world, via Garden State.
AM Homes—Best known for her early, provocative novels that deliberately push the boundaries of good taste, Homes' most recent novel May We Be Forgiven goes in the strangest direction yet for the author: It's actually kind of uplifting.
Alissa Nutting—Like Homes before her, Nutting is newly infamous for a novel about a pedophile: Tampa is a darkly funny (or perverted and gross, depending on your sensibilities) look at a predatory middle school teacher.
Jane Smiley—She won a Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres, and now she writes kids' books about horses.
Cheryl Strayed—Good things keep happening for Portland author Strayed, whose soon-to-be-a-movie memoir Wild is tied with the Game of Thrones series for "books people on the bus are most likely to be reading."