"Somebody's always got to throw an anchor around my ankle so that I don't just float off into the clouds when we're brainstorming," says the community relations manager for Barnes & Noble in Fayetteville.
Luckily for Atlanta, someone apparently tied Whitley-Head to a chair long enough for her to dream up the Atlanta Literary Festival, kicking off next week across the city.
What was first conceived as an event for loyal Barnes & Noble customers has ballooned into a sprawling celebration of the written word, as well as a fund-raiser for literacy education. Suddenly Whitley-Head has found herself heading up a newly founded nonprofit organization and partnering with the Georgia Writers Association to produce perhaps the largest book festival this city has seen in close to decade.
Growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of the city, Whitley-Head says she modeled the festival partly on the city-wide scale of New York Is Book Country, one of the nation's premier literary events. Organizers of the Atlanta festival also looked to the Miami Book Fair International and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books for guidance on throwing a large-scale literary event. The result is a mixture of an outdoor, family-centered book market on Saturday with various author appearances around town during the week.
What remains undecided is whether Atlanta, never known for its literary acumen, will embrace the event or kick it to the curb like so many predecessors. Whitley-Head is dreaming of the former.
"I think the city's really ready for something like this," she says.
Indeed, organizers of the Atlanta Literary Festival say they've encountered little resistance in putting the fest together. Though some bookstores were initially leery of getting caught up in what they thought would be "a Barnes & Noble marketing event," Whitley-Head says she's gradually convinced folks that the festival's goals are loftier than that and indeed inclusive.
A tougher audience to convince may be Atlanta readers. With the exception of the Jewish Book Festival, which brings an impressive lineup of Jewish authors to town every fall, the city has yet to support a large-scale general interest literary festival. The most recent effort, the Atlanta International Book Festival, tanked in the early '90s; a previous street-fair-type fest had attempted unsuccessfully to put Buckhead (of all places) on the literary map in the late '80s.
Whitley-Head acknowledges the city's spotty history with most things book-related. While attending a national trade show for booksellers recently, she gained a new perspective on how Atlanta is seen by publishers: "They don't think we read very much." And given the unsteady economy, she says publishers sending authors on tour are less likely to treat Atlanta as even an after-thought.
That anti-Atlanta bias, combined with the festival's infancy, is apparent in the lineup of authors. Familiar names like Reynolds Price, Robert Morgan and Jim Grimsley grace the schedule, but the focus remains on largely local and mostly unknown writers.
Despite such dubious obstacles, Whitley-Head is convinced the festival will become a new fall tradition for the city; in fact, she's already working on events for its 2004 outing.
"There are a lot of people in this city who have wanted to do a literary festival like this, and in a big way. But you just have to step out there and actually try. ... You have to start somewhere. You know it all starts with a pebble. "
Atlanta Literary Festival highlights
Sept. 24-29, Various venues
Books Alive: Call it the multi-talented local boys' club: Atlanta authors Paul Hemphill, David Fulmer, Jamie Allen and Gary Corseri bring a blend of music, dance and spoken word to the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library. 7 p.m. Tues., Sept 24. Free.
A Celebration of the Written Word: Notable Southern author Reynolds Price arrives at the Margaret Mitchell House to read from his new novel, the disturbing Noble Norfleet. 7 p.m. Thurs., Sept. 26. $8.
Night of 100 Authors: Actually, it should be 144 Authors, but who's counting? Names ranging from Terry Kay to Julie Cannon to Peggy Post descend on bookstores scattered across the metro area for signings, readings and (if you're lucky) free food. 7 p.m. Fri., Sept. 27. Various locations. Free.
Georgia Book & Arts Festival: The Georgia Writers Association's annual gathering brings authors, publishers, storytellers and artists to Centennial Park. Expect mostly self-published writers taking part in the booth village and family-friendly events. At 1 p.m., festival organizers are hoping to set the world record for the most people reading in the same place, so bring a book. Noon-6 p.m. Sat., Sept. 28. Centennial Olympic Park. Free.
Goodwill Book Sale: The annual flea market of second-hand titles moves from Northlake Mall to Goodwill's headquarters in East Lake. Book prices range from 50 cents to $3 and proceeds go to the charity's literacy and employment training programs. 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., Sept. 28; noon-6 p.m. Sun., Sept. 29. 2201 Glenwood Ave. Free. 404-486-8410.
Moveable Feast of Authors: If you want to catch authors Robert Morgan, William Diehl, Silas House, Dorothea Benton Frank, Tina McElroy Ansa and others, be ready to shell out $100 per person. The event benefits Project Read, Literacy Action Inc. and Literacy Volunteers of America. Plus you get a catered meal to boot. 6-9 p.m. Sun., Sept. 29. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. $100.
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