From the Lit Director’s Desk: Heartbeats

In 2010—Texas Book Festival’s fifteenth anniversary year—Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, who that fall had published The Warmth of Other Suns, stood alongside a TBF sign in downtown Austin, and on camera she spoke with an interviewer. She’d just wrapped up, she tells her interlocutor, a spirited conversation in the nearby C-SPAN Tent, and when asked if she’d ever return to the Festival, Wilkerson replies, “In a heartbeat.”

I was reminded of those words—“in a heartbeat”—this past November, when Wilkerson in fact returned with her next book, for another big anniversary year of ours, incidentally: our twenty-fifth. Wilkerson described to conversation partner Saeed Jones, in one of TBF 2020’s most viewed sessions, her creative process:

“I have the gestational span of an elephant. . . . If I’m going to [write a book], it’s got to make a statement, because I’m not putting a book out every other year. So it’s got to be the very best I can marshal. If this is my chance to speak, then I need to say everything I can say.”

How poetic, I thought, the multitudes a “heartbeat” can contain, just how custom and personal a unit of measurement it is—quick, but only relatively so, only as speedy as need be. Within the ten years between Wilkerson’s TBF appearances emerged Caste, after all, a magnum opus.

And in the heartbeat between March and November last year emerged a publishing landscape and a Texas Book Festival we’d hardly begun to imagine a year ago today. Encouraging, though, after the Festival wrapped, was learning from so many audience members—among the tens of thousands who tuned in from around the state, the country, sometimes the world—how much they enjoyed virtual, how convenient it was, how entertaining and insightful and informative the author conversations remained in this new format, how valuable they found the ability to view more sessions, and on their own schedules, than they’d ever been able to in person.

Suggestions came too, as we’d hoped: what we might discard in future iterations, what we might add or change or grow upon. And while most—including the TBF team—missed deeply the energy, crowds, sounds, movements, and, when luck strikes, the delightful fall weather that accompanies the in-person Fest each year, we heard a similar refrain from most corners: that there is a long-term role for virtual literary programming, that it’s here to stay to some degree and in some fashion, worldwide pandemic or not.

So as we continue to follow the news about vaccine distribution and new strains, we are actively imagining how to bring to Texans virtual literary programming throughout the spring and into summer—stay tuned. And of course we’re thinking about the Festival itself, too, in the fall, and what it might look like. Will something in-person be safe and advisable again? And even if it is, which lessons might we bring from TBF 2020, the year of virtual?

Whatever the case, despite how distant the fall feels, it’ll be here in a heartbeat.