Hanging with the authors
April 9, 2010
Earlier this year, Calvin senior English major Amy Allen got her author assignment. As a student volunteer at this year’s Festival of Faith and Writing (FFW)—held at Calvin from Thursday through Saturday, April 15–17—she would serve as escort and general factotum to author Stephanie Kallos. So Allen got busy reading Kallos’ books, Broken for You and Sing Them Home, and she liked them: "They’re both about broken people, characters who have to figure out how to live when they get tough events thrown at them.”
Allen is looking forward to hanging out with the author. “I just have to make sure she’s knows where she’s going and get her to the venues because a lot of the buildings look the same to people who haven’t been here before,” Allen said, "and make sure she has dinner plans. Just be hospitable.”
Many authors, many hosts
Each of the 54 authors featured in this year’s festival—whose roster includes poet Scott Cairns, Catholic novelist Wally Lamb, pastor and author Eugene Peterson, educator Parker Palmer and memoirists Mary Karr and Richard Rodriguez —will be hosted by a student volunteer.
"They have been told to show Calvin hospitality to this person,” said Calvin English professor Susan Felch, a member of the FFW committee.
That hospitality covers a lot of ground: greeting the authors at the airport, escorting them to events on time, making sure they have water on the podium, guiding them through crowds, taking them to dinner or arranging takeout, making sure the microphone or PowerPoint is operational—and allowing them a little down time.
"We don’t have to be with them constantly ...,” said Maria Geleynse, the senior international development studies major who is hosting Joshilyn Jackson. “We attend to them if they have anything that they need.” Jackson is the author of Gods in Alabama, Between Georgia and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. Geleynse has read the first two. “I think her personality comes out in them because I read some of her blog too,” she said. “She seems very dramatic and full of life.”
The tradition of students hosting authors has been a part of the festival since its beginning in 1990, said Felch, herself a festival volunteer since 1994. Some students request the authors they host. Others are assigned. “In many cases, they don’t know anything about an author, and when they get assigned, they start reading,” Felch said.
Historically, the hosting relationship has served both author and student well. Authors typically take the time to get to know their student hosts and to hear their opinions on Calvin. One festival artist even took the time to tour his student host's art exhibit at the Center Art Gallery.
"One of things we can count on is that writers will be impressed with their student," Felch said. "We get cards. We get thank-you notes .... Often when writers go to an event, they feel ignored or fawned over, so for them to have a poised, attentive student to help them navigate their schedule at Calvin is reassuring and delightful."
Students getting it done
Students serve the festival in other ways besides shepherding the authors: indeed, student volunteers are an integral part of the FFW machinery. Pre-festival they serve on the committee that shapes the event and handle administrative and PR chores: They put up posters, make name tags and copies, and hunt for quotes from previous festival speakers to put in the program. “If we have extra time, we can go over to the offices and help out,” said Allen.
During the festival, students direct people around campus, help with shuttle service, work the registration desk and usher for the plenary sessions. "Of the 2000 registrants, about 400 are students. Fifty of those are the student committee,” said Felch. "The student presence is great, and we’ve worked hard to increase that because ... we’ve wanted to encourage them as readers and writers.” (It was a student, Felch said, who came up with the name for this year's FFW downtown event: Festival in the City. See sidebar.)
And festival authors interact with students other than their hosts. Several are scheduled to do student writing workshops, to visit classes and meet with students from various residence halls. Felch is happy that some of her students will meet Karr, who is known for discarding 1,000 pages while writing her current memoir Lit. "I so appreciate … the way she’s working hard at her craft and her scrupulosity about the truth,” Felch said. "I know students are impressed with that."
Catching up on Lit
Sophomore English major Steven Chevalia was so impressed by Karr’s work, he asked to host her. “I was actually very surprised,” he said about landing the assignment. “I thought they would have a senior or junior escort her.” Chevalia had already read Karr’s poetry collection, Sinners Welcome, during the Festival of Faith and Writing interim last year, and he just finished reading her memoir The Liar's Club. He’s making his way through Lit, and he’s trying to finish it before April 15. “I’m … not a slow reader,” he said, "but I tend to become a slower reader when I’m under pressure.”
Chevalia confessed to a little nervousness at meeting Karr, whose work was praised by his favorite author, Stephen King. “I guess I’m feeling a little healthy apprehension,” he said. And he’s got a few things he wants to chat about: “I’ll definitely want to ask her questions about the publishing industry and how she got started in the writing field. You know, get coffee, talk about our whole lives in five minutes,” he said, laughing.
~By Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing