Lawrence shows off its literary highlights with Paper Plains Festival (now delayed)
Update: The Paper Plains Literary Festival’s live events have been postponed until 2021. However, the festival will still be offering free online events with several of their previously-scheduled authors, including Grady Hendrix and Natalie C. Parker, and a Young Adult panel featuring Julie Murphy, Tessa Gratton, Adib Khorram, Sarah Henning and Amanda Sellet. A full listing of Paper Plains’ online events is available at paperplains.org/events.
Lawrence, Kan. has a proud literary tradition. William S. Burroughs lived there, as did the Sci-Fi author James Gunn. Langston Hughes spent most of his childhood in Lawrence. Today, the writing community in Lawrence–as well as Kansas City–is perhaps stronger than it’s ever been, with successful young adult authors, true crime writers, poets and noted sports statisticians calling the place home.
Danny Caine, owner of Lawrence’s Raven Bookstore, is a proud member of the region’s thriving literary community, both as a local bookseller and a published poet. He says this area’s geographic centrality is a big factor in what makes it such a good place to be a writer.
“There are things that the Midwest feels first. There are things that start here and spread outward,” Caine said. “I think there are also things that the Midwest feels more than the surrounding regions or the coasts. If you want to write about what it means to live in this country, you can’t ignore the experience of the Midwest, and Kansas is as middle as it gets.”
Caine is helping highlight the great work of regional authors–and showing off the area to exciting voices from other areas of the country–through the creation of the Paper Plains literary festival, happening April 23-26. All of the festival’s events are free to the public, which Caine says was a vital factor in the organizing process.
“This is a chance for authors and creative people to attend these talks and events and network and be inspired and create a lot of energy by being in the same room,” Caine said. “We’ve tried to make sure through venue selection and scheduling and not selling tickets that the access is as wide as possible.”
Among the authors appearing at Paper Plains are Pulitzer-winning novelist Colson Whitehead, award-winning poet and scholar Natalie Diaz, and Kansas-based author Sarah Smarsh, a National Book Award finalist for her memoir Heartland. The festival also includes a Young Adult track, and events such as a bookstore crawl and the world’s first book club parade.
Caine says the mix of authors provides as much an opportunity for the invited artists to network and grow their readership as it does exposing audiences to writers.
“About half of our writers have Kansas roots, they either live here or have a deep connection to the region,” Caine said. “That’s a big stage for those authors to share their new work, and connect with new audiences and other writers in the region.”
“Turn it into a party.”
The featured authors at Paper Plains cover a variety of genres and literary forms, as well as a variety of presentation styles. One featured author, Grady Hendrix, has thrown out the traditional idea of a reading and Q and A altogether.
“I did (a traditional reading) for my first book in 2014, and I just wanted to jump off a bridge. So, I just started making things bigger and weirder and crazier,” Hendrix, who says to expect “chaos” at his event, said. “Now, what I do instead of an author event is almost like a one-person show.”
Hendrix creates a unique presentation themed to each new release. To accompany his latest book, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires, Hendrix is focusing on the history of vampires in literature.
“You start asking a simple question like ‘what is a vampire?’ and you get answers that range from everything like an evolutionary offshoot of mankind to people with a disease to reanimated corpses to psychic energy vampires to leprechaun vampires. It gets endless,” Hendrix said. “I plan on sort of grabbing the audience by their collars and dragging them into this rabbit hole with me, and hopefully we’ll emerge at the end better people.”
Hendrix’s new novel pits a vampire against a book club of southern suburban moms in the 1990s. He says he was inspired by his own mom and her book club, which has been going strong for 35 years.
“You say the words ‘book club,’ and people think of a bunch of housewives drinking too much wine and laughing too loud and all those things that women do ‘too much’ that we want to reign in as a society,” Hendrix said. “I know I felt that way about my mom’s book club when I was a teenager. As a kid you just sort of see them as moms, and as an adult, you see them as people, and you realize they gave up a lot to raise their kids, and went through a lot to keep their families safe. That’s a dicier proposition than I thought it was when I was a kid.”
Hendrix says that events like Paper Plains, beyond connecting readers and authors, are vital to the life of a healthy community. “There are so many people I know who feel so alone, and I do too. It’s easy to get caught up in Facebook or text or Netflix, and it is fine in doses, but we’re social creatures, and it’s so isolating,” Hendrix said. “There’s something so beautiful about getting your ass out of the house and going where the people are.”
A space for young readers
In addition to the headliners, Paper Plains will also host a young adult track, organized by Lawrence-based YA writer Natalie C. Parker (author of the Seafire trilogy). Parker says the goal of the track is to help connect young readers and creators with artists, and inspire them to tell their own stories.
“The opportunity for teens to connect with authors and authors to connect with teens is really exciting for everyone involved,” Parker said. “Having a dedicated space at the festival gives young readers an opening and an invitation to a book festival that might otherwise feel a little intimidating or too advanced for them.”
The track promises a diverse group of authors from Lawrence, Kansas City and beyond, including Julie Murphy (Dumplin’), Adib Khorram (Darius the Great is Not Okay), Sarah Henning (Throw Like a Girl), Niki Smith (Crossplay), Justina Ireland (Dread Nation), Tessa Gratton (Lady Hotspur) and Amanda Sellet (By the Book).
“I wanted to make sure when we were creating events for our readers, that we made an effort to have our participant list be as inclusive as possible,” Parker said. “I wanted to contact authors who might help us be more representative and make sure that we’re representing stories from a variety of races, sexualities and cultural backgrounds.”
Parker says the regional YA writing community is a rich group of creators, and she hopes to include even more authors in future years. “Between Lawrence and Kansas City, we actually have more than what will be represented at the festival this year,” Parker said. “We’ve reached a density that makes it pretty easy to pull together.”
Forging a Community
With Paper Plains, Caine is hoping to shine a light on Lawrence, Kansas City and the surrounding region as a generator of great art. However, that’s not the only goal. As a bookstore owner, Caine also believes his store has a duty to further arts in his community.
“We can’t compete with our biggest competitors on speed or on price, so we have to do something to show our value other than selling books at a low cost,” Caine said. “There are lots of ways to do that, but the bookstores that I admire the most drive creativity in the community.”
Hendrix agrees, saying that as he’s toured as an author, the most successful bookstores he’s encountered have gone beyond just selling books.
Someone told me recently that in the book business, generally what’s regarded as a super reader is someone who buys 7-10 books a year, and that’s less than 10 percent of readers. That’s a tough market to keep bookstores alive,” Hendrix said. “I go out and I see small bookstores and the ones that are thriving are having events and forging a community.”
Parker says that her experience helping organize the festival has shown her that in Lawrence, that community is strong and supportive. “It’s been so cool to see how many people in Lawrence are excited to pull this together, and how ready they are to be generous with their time and their resources and their contacts,” Parker said. “Seeing this organization happen on the community level has been so amazing.”
Caine says independent bookstores like his have a special role to play in helping regional authors, and nurturing the intellectual life of readers. “I think we’re uniquely positioned to shine a light on authors the bookstore thinks are worthy of attention,” Caine said. “a bookstore can be a leading force in gathering momentum to further the arts and culture scene in its community.”
Paper Plains Literary Festival
April 23-26 in Lawrence, Kansas Delayed due to Coronavirus.
Admission to all events is free.
Find the schedule and featured authors at paperplains.org/