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MJCCA’s 27th annual Book Festival: how it all comes together

Originally posted Friday, October 12, 2018 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

The Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta this year managed to snag two of Hollywood’s biggest stars for its 27th annual book festival - “Forrest Gump” co stars Tom Hanks and Sally Field.

Both happen to have books to promote but just to get them to come to Atlanta was an impressive feat. And no surprise: both events are sold out with each actor selling 1,350 tickets, the most the center can handle in one of its gyms.

"If only we could have gotten them together," mused festival volunteer co-chair Susie Hyman. "But I'm still thrilled." 

If you miss out on those two, there are more than 40 other author talks to choose from, including Sen. Joe Lieberman, presidential historian Jon Meacham and columnist Anna Quindlen. Total attendance for the event is expected to exceed 13,000.

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“We were so pleased with the lineup,” said book festival director Pam Morton, who is in her eighth year running the event. “This might be as good as it gets. Every year, it seems to just come together.”

The litany of big names that have been drawn to the festival in recent years includes Regis Philbin, Andy Cohen, Ted Koppel, Dan Rather, Alan Alda and Jenna and Barbara Bush.

The festival organizers have built a solid reputation with book publishers and meet with all the major ones annually in New York. This particular book fest is among the largest nationwide among Jewish centers.

Morton said it’s all about developing the right relationships and that's how she nabbed both Field and Hanks. “The publicist of the first author I ever booked as festival director is now the publicist for Tom Hanks,” she said. “She was the publicity assistant and is now a director of publicity eight years later.”

Hyman said Morton "is like a detective. She can sniff out when someone has a book being released and uses every connection she can find to make it happen." 

Of course, big names can harbor some risk. Henry Winkler was booked two years ago but nixed his Atlanta appearance because he was sent to Europe to shoot the second season of NBC reality show “Better Late Than Never” featuring him, George Foreman, William Shatner and Terry Bradshaw. Actress Alicia Silverstone, Morton said, one time ended up in a movie and had to cancel as well.

But that’s more the exception than the rule. The two weeks are jam packed, Morton said, typically with multiple events each day (with Friday nights dark for Shabbat.)

“You’re moving constantly,” Morton said. “You’ve got authors coming and going at the same time. There’s the logistics of getting them to and from the airport.”

Each year, there are authors whose schedules don’t fit into the festival's two-week period and are given special “prologue” events. For instance, the center held a talk last month with Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post reporter who wrote the book “Rising Out of Hatred” about a white supremacist who had a change of heart. And the Field event actually happens nine days before the festival’s official launch October 30 with Hanks.

Since this is a Jewish book festival, most of the authors outside the big names are in fact Jewish. A significant number come through the Jewish Book Council network. About 12 to 15 MJCCA volunteers fly up to New York City every May to listen to 250 pitches from authors, two minutes apiece. "It's like speed dating," said the festival co-chair Bea Grossman. 

Ultimately, they edit those 250 down to about 70. And that’s when the fun begins for about 100 volunteers. In a large room over two nights, the folks who went to New York summarize each book and each committee member receives 22 stickers to place on books they want featured.

In the end, about 40 to 45 authors are chosen. While most appear solo, the festival creates "combo" events featuring authors who wrote compatible books. For instance, two authors focused on women’s issues were paired up, as were two about the Holocaust. 

Hyman said she not only loves to read books but hear the stories behind those books, which is what makes the festival so enjoyable. "It also gives us the opportunity to discover new authors along the way," she said.

Naturally, they try to find a variety of subject matter to appeal to a broad array of MJCCA members and the public at large, be it history, music, politics or pop culture. 

"This year, we've got topics ranging from Israel to antisemitism to Russia to cyberwarfare to feminism to interfaith issues to entrepreneurship," said Grossman.

***

Among the highlights of the 27th annual book festival, all held at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Atlanta, ,678-812-4151, atlantajcc.org

- Actor Tom Hanks (“Uncommon Type: Some Stories,”) 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, October 30, $40 to $80 (sold out)

- Sen. Joe Lieberman (“With Liberty and Justice”) with his son Matt Lieberman (“Lucius”), 8:15 p.m., Saturday, November 3, $18 to $25

- Editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich (“A Very Stable Genius!), 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Novembe 4, $18 to $25

- Photographer William Coupon (“Portraits”), 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, November 6, $15 to $20

- Author Liane Moriarty (“Nine Perfect Strangers: A Novel”), 8 p.m., Saturday, November 10, $18 to $25

- Columnist Anna Quindlen (“Alternate Side: A Novel”), 3:30 p.m., Sunday, November 11, $26 to $32

- Journalist David Sanger (“The Perfect Weapon”), 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, November 13, $15 to $20

- Presidential historian Jon Meacham (“The Soul of America”), 8 p.m., Saturday, November 17, $33 to $38

- Playwright and director Kenny Leon (“Take You Wherever You Go”), noon, Sunday, November 18, $10 to $15

- Radio host Peter Sagal (“The Incomplete Book of Running”), 7:30 p.m., Sunday, November 18, $18 to $25

About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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