Go behind the scenes of the Texas Book Festival with Executive Director Lois Kim.
By Courtney Runn, Illustration by Madison Weakley, Photos courtesy of the Texas Book Festival
Lois Kim plans all year for one weekend. It is her magnum opus, the culmination of 12 months of excel sheets, meetings, research, marketing, tastings, networking and anticipation. While Zilker is still recovering from Austin City Limits Music Festival and South By Southwest is just a looming twinkle in downtown’s eye, the Capitol enjoys its moment in the festival spotlight. The largest of its kind in Texas and one of the most renowned in the nation, the Texas Book Festival attracts more than 300 authors and 50,000 readers to Austin every fall for a weekend of literary bliss.
This festival requires no glitter and gauzy skirts or business cards and blisters; free to the public and family friendly, there is no social-media clout to be gained (unless you got a selfie with Tom Hanks when he came to the festival in 2017), only a love for books.
Former first lady Laura Bush started the Texas Book Festival in 1995 to “bring authors and readers together in a celebration of literature and literacy.” A Friday-night gala kicks off the festival weekend each year with a high-end night of the who’s who of the Texas literary scene. Less glamorous and more raucous, an after-hours Saturday night “lit crawl” takes readers and participating authors to a variety of bars for poetry slams, read-a-louds, awards and a “literary death match.” The main event, the festival spans the weekend with panels, cooking demonstrations, readings and author signings.
With hundreds of volunteers and a full-time staff of six, what could be a logistical nightmare is a well-oiled machine. The weekend of the festival, Kim wakes up early Friday for author readings at local elementary schools and she doesn’t stop until Sunday night.
“I don’t know why I don’t get sick because I should,” she says. “I don’t sleep, and I work 24/7 but I think it’s just adrenaline.”
During the festival, Kim is everywhere. She introduces speakers, presents the Texas Writer Award, checks on venues and puts out fires. Despite the logistics of transporting hundreds of authors and the celebrity of some speakers, there have been relatively few hiccups, the most memorable of which when Nick Offerman missed his flight to Austin, pushing his afternoon session to the evening. Kim remembers he stayed for hours, meeting every last fan.
On Monday morning, it’s time to start planning for next year.
One of the first significant steps in securing the festival lineup is Kim’s yearly trip to New York. In March, Kim and the team’s literary director Julie Wernersbach visit the major publishing houses and a back and forth based on availability, interest and logistics begins. For the big asks, like John Grisham and Tom Hanks, the conversation starts early. Local authors or writers without the backing of large publishing houses can submit their books for consideration and while many publishers budget for their authors to speak at festivals, the Texas Book Festival also offers travel stipends to authors otherwise unable to come.
Wernersbach is responsible for curating the lineup and while nationally acclaimed authors are certainly on her radar, she is also looking for the unheard voices.
“In a way, I think curation is not just about giving people what they want but what they should read,” Kim says.
To critics that suggest the book festival can be too political, Kim retorts that the festival is nonpartisan, but books are written by people so “of course books are political.” Kim also sees the natural cycle of publishing reflect the national conversation.
“What is the culture talking about? What is the culture trying to figure out? Those are the conversations that rise to the top so those are in books which is why they’re at the festival because it’s an important conversation and debate happening right now,” Kim says.
Immigration, identity and the 2016 election are central themes to many books at the 2019 festival and Kim predicts the next few years will see a wave of books on climate change.
Throughout the year, the Texas Book Festival team visits book festivals around the country for research. This August, Kim attended the National Book Festival, also founded by Bush. The Library of Congress was stunning, but what caught her eye were the volunteers. They carried sticks that read, “Ask me a question.” Could that be helpful at the Texas Book Festival? Kim filed it away with all of her other festival ideas.
While insignificant in the scheme of a festival, details like volunteer signs are what make an event shine. The real beauty though is in between the planned and the unexpected. Before the 2017 festival, Kim heard that someone wanted to propose to his girlfriend after Tom Hanks’ book reading. He knew his superfan girlfriend would flip merely sitting in the same chair the celebrity had sat in. Kim mentioned it to Hanks’ team, not expecting anything. Instead, Hanks planned the proposal himself, bringing the couple on stage and helping him pop the question. The video went viral. That same year, Bush attended the festival on her birthday to hear her twins speak about their debut memoir. The entire house chamber sang “Happy Birthday,” a moment Kim describes as “sheer joy.”
“I think that’s the part that’s really hard to convey to people,” Kim says. “I’m a homebody just like everybody else. I don’t want to leave my house. But when you do, you never regret it. You never know what you’re going to see or feel or experience when you’re at a live event.”
Like a politician dutifully engaging with potential voters at schools and bingo halls and community centers, Kim is always ready to sell people on the magic of the book festival, regardless of the time of day. On Sept. 25, that means a 6:45 a.m. check in to speak at the University of Texas Metropolitan Breakfast Club. She had spent the previous night attending a volunteer committee chair meeting then socializing at a literary party at the University of Texas chancellor’s house but only 31 days out from the festival, every event is a crucial marketing opportunity.
Members of the weekly breakfast speaker series kick off the morning with a rousing round of introductions and self-promotional pitches for their businesses, cracking inside jokes and playful puns.
“These are morning people,” Kim whispers. She is decidedly not a morning person.
When Kim takes the mic, she asks how many people have been to the festival; about half of the crowd raises their hand. She fills them in on the festival’s history, explains the many facets of the nonprofit and drops a few names (Margaret Atwood came in 2016 and was “very cool.”). After her presentation, she sticks around for a few questions before heading back to the office.
Currently, it’s an all-women team (“The Venn diagram overlap of nonprofit and books tends to draw female.”) with the “rare male intern.” Kim and Maris Finn, the financial and administrative coordinator, meet in the conference room to work on the seating arrangement for the gala. Neon sticky notes cover the floor plan, different shades denoting varying levels of sponsorship. The two go table by table, swapping stickies. It’s a strategic waltz known to any event planner; one wrong step could leave a guest miffed at best and cost a sponsor at worst.
“I don’t think she expects a super high-level table so let’s leave her there.”
“Where were they last year?”
“This is a really good table.”
Friend groups are kept within a table’s reach; people unhappy with last year’s seating get bumped up; Kim moves her own table back.
At 1 p.m., Kim has an appointment at The Four Seasons. Tucked in the corner of the dining room, she and her team taste course after course, analyzing each garnish and sauce.
Her question after each dish is the same, so common the Four Seasons staff anticipate it: “What did we do last year?”
Mac ’n’ cheese balls, Brussel sprouts and pork on sticks and tostados arrive as appetizer options. The tostados have the best presentation in tasting glasses, but could someone eat that while holding a cocktail? The mac ’n’ cheese is informal, but it is the Texas Book festival.
The dessert sparks an equally conflicted debate: Does the gold-encrusted tiramisu outweigh the creamy marshmallow on the s’mores tart? Does presentation matter more than taste? No, they decide; gold flakes could never compete with the time-honored blend of chocolate, marshmallow and graham cracker.
On to the next decision: gray tablecloths or Champagne tablecloths?
Kim and her board members deliberate, weighing the merit of each color before discussing the length of drapes behind the stage.
The details are endless but they all matter. The seating arrangement and centerpieces matter because the gala matters because the donations matter because keeping the festival free matters because helping kids get excited about reading matters. While the festival only takes up one weekend of the year, the work of the Texas Book Festival continues year-round. In its 24-year history, the festival has donated 180,000 books to Title I schools and more than $3 million to public libraries.
The nonprofit’s program Reading Rock Stars invites renowned authors to read in elementary schools that qualify as Title I in cities throughout Texas. Every student takes home a copy of the book and often it’s the first book they’ve ever owned.
In Kim’s own childhood, books were foundational. When she was 2 years old, her family immigrated to the United States and the public library became her second home, her teacher.
“There weren’t a lot of stories to understand an Asian American experience as much…I think we’re seeing now that gap being filled,” Kim says. “Without having those stories that process of identification was still happening because I managed to and loved those books. I was probably not that reflective or thinking about it, but I just did identify with Laura Ingalls or whoever it was or whatever little girl in the story or boy that was having an experience that was just compelling. Literature provides that but I think it’s better now especially that you can see there are more options and that people of color aren’t forced to have to identify through a white identity, that there are other stories out there.”
Books have remained a backbone in her life. She majored in English in college and studied Shakespeare in graduate school at the University of Texas. After working for UT in a variety of capacities, someone from her book club suggested the Texas Book Festival role. For a woman who has been in the same book club for 25 years and says she never tires of talking about books, it seemed like a perfect match.
Ironically, as the festival ramps up, Kim has less time to read. As the director of a nonprofit, she struggles to set boundaries. How do you stop working when you’re directly helping others, when you’re offering children the mirror you never had?
“This is often said that literature is the ultimate act of—project of—empathy,” Kim says. “When you dive into a deeply well-told complicated story to learn a perspective and to feel perspective that is not your own and live in that space…that usually leads to understanding and tolerance ideally.”
The festival is Kim’s project of empathy. There is still work to be done; while Kim says the festival has made great strides in a more diverse lineup and crowd, the festival is actively trying to cater to the state’s rapidly growing Latinx population. The role is challenging and “all consuming,” but Kim loves every minute. The clock is already ticking for the 2020 festival—the 25th anniversary—and soon she will be starting the cycle all over again.
“I never get tired of talking about books and sharing book ideas or wanting to share a book I’m excited about with other people,” Kim says. “The only frustrating thing is not having enough time to read.”