Bay Area Book Festival 2015 by Richard Friedman

Cherilyn Parsons risked it all on Bay Area Book Festival

When Cherilyn Parsons quit her job to start the Bay Area Book Festival, she had no funding and no experience producing large-scale events.

At the time, Parsons was director of development and strategic initiative at the Center for Investigative Reporting, where for four years she helped cultivate the nonprofit journalism world; to take that job, she had moved from Los Angeles, where she was friends with Los Angeles Times Festival of Books co-creator Narda Zacchino.

“Thanks to her, I was observing that festival from behind the scenes, and it was my favorite weekend of the year, every year,” Parsons said. “I also volunteer at that festival every year, and when I moved to the Bay Area about seven years ago, I thought, ‘Wow, there’s no weekend, walkable book festival here, so someone should start one.’

“Then, after being here a few years, I wanted to do some work that was really close to my own heart, and so I decided … I really took a risk, I mean, I left a good job, and launched into the complete unknown of whether we could even pull it off, of creating the book festival.”

That risk has already paid off. Last year’s inaugural event brought an estimated 50,000 people through Berkeley’s Civic Center Park and nine surrounding blocks, with 300 authors from around the world giving keynotes, interviews, panels and performances in every conceivable genre. Parsons says ultimately her passion for books is what inspired her to take the risk.

“They open worlds, they give perspective — you’re able, in a very safe space in a book, to try on other lives and other perspectives, and that can be scary to do in ‘real life,’ and books let you do that,” she said.

“There’s this trope in literature, of a secret door, a wardrobe, or a train platform, or a secret garden, whatever it might be — and you enter that world, and a book is like that: You step inside, and you’re able to sample all these other views, all these other worlds; you grow in empathy, you grow in tolerance, and I think as a sort of core value that’s why I wanted to start this book festival, to promote that experience and to share it, to share what I love.”

Parsons began to voice her ideas behind the festival to anyone who would listen, gaining early support from a multitude of publishers and individuals. Of particular help were City Lights’ celebrated book buyer Paul Yamazaki and Berkeley Arts & Letters producer Melissa Mytinger, who is now the festival’s full-time program manager. Mytinger recalls her first meeting with Parsons:

“It was a very clear, broad vision, laid out with great energy,” she said. “I was struck then by her wide-ranging outreach to people who might share her interest and enthusiasm, and her desire to learn as much as people were willing to share with her.”

Mytinger said the process of creating the festival’s programming has changed over this past year; what began as a sort of informal league of literary advisers has evolved into a program steering committee.

“Everybody who is working in the core group has antennae up year-round, in terms of who’s writing what, who’s publishing what, things that we have personally loved to read, writers that we’ve just discovered, things like that,” she said. “Everybody on that steering committee is also responsible for listening to other people outside the group, and sort of synthesizing requests and desires, and wishes, and bringing them to the group for conversation.”

“It did start as a one-person vision, but it goes nowhere if you don’t bring in other people to help develop it,” Parsons said. “That was really when it began to take off — when other people got involved.”

Among those on the committee are former National Book Critics Circle President Jane Ciabattari, Editorial Director of Graywolf Press Ethan Nosowsky, Google’s Ann Farmer, and Green Apple Books manager Stephen Sparks. The festival is being presented in partnership with The Chronicle.

Though they’re still learning what makes a program a good fit for the Bay Area Book Festival, Mytinger says what they’re looking for is “fresh, unusual, (with) some literary rigor and different points of view.”

This year’s much-expanded schedule features children’s programming and events related to poetry, current affairs and the environment. Beginning with a panel on subversive speculative fiction that includes Jewelle Gomez, Ayize Jama-Everett and Charlie Jane Anders, the first day includes a panel on the secret histories of Chinatown and the Tenderloin, a conversation between California’s new Poet Laureate Dana Gioia and U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Kay Ryan, and a conversation on time and memory in contemporary fiction, with French writer Jean-Philippe Blondel (“The 6:41 to Paris”), Chilean Norwegian novelist Pedro Carmona-Alvarez (“Rust”), Swedish actor and author Jonas Karlsson (“The Invoice”), and Norwegian writer Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold (“The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am”), moderated by the Center for the Art of Translation’s director, Michael Holtmann. And that’s all before noon.

Author events

Other highlights include Richard Russo in conversation with Lori Ostlund; a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera; a panel on the New Globalism, with Yaa Gyasi, Ali Eteraz, Sunil Yapa and Marie Mutsuki Mockett; a conversation between Mona Eltahawy and Chinaka Hodge; a panel on Disrupters: Writing for Social Change, with Rebecca Solnit, Aya de Leon and Julia Serano; and appearances by Colm Tóibín, Daniel Clowes, Cristina García, Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Lethem, Sen.Barbara Boxer and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang encouraging kids to read outside of their comfort zones.

There’s also the return of the popular 50,000-book outdoor library/art installation, Lacuna, and the debut of a film series in partnership with the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Since so many of last year’s programs were at capacity, with people sometimes turned away for that reason, this year up to half of each session’s tickets may be purchased in advance for $5; the rest of the seats, which are free, are reserved for people standing in line.


Bay Area Book Festival: 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 4-5. Free. Various locations in downtown Berkeley.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Richard Friedman