Pat Conroy was a ubiquitous presence at the AJC Decatur Book Festival in recent years. He was often seen hanging out in the University of South Carolina Press booth, signing books in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution tent, dining at area restaurants and taking the stage to talk about his books and the books of others he admired.
So it’s fitting this year that the festival’s keynote event is a tribute to the author, who died of pancreatic cancer in March. The free event, to be held Sept. 2 at Emory University’s Schwartz Center, will feature Conroy’s friends and loved ones sharing their remembrances of the author and reading from his works.
Participating authors include Conroy’s wife, Cassandra King Conroy (“Moonrise”), novelist Ron Rash (“Serena”) and nonfiction writers Rick Bragg (“All Over but the Shoutin’”) and Bronwen Dickey (“Pit Bull”).
“Pat was a big presence at the festival even before he was programming for us,” said Daren Wang, executive director of the festival. “He was kind of a big presence in his absence. We tried to get him for years.”
The one year Conroy wasn’t invited to the festival — Wang believes it was 2012 — the author just showed up. He was there to talk to authors about the launch of his Story River Books, an imprint with the University of South Carolina Press. That’s when Wang got the idea to invite Conroy to guest program a portion of the festival, which he did in 2014.
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“We were looking forward to the day we might convince him to keynote the festival,” Wang said. “Sadly, we won’t have that opportunity. With that, we thought the thing to do was a celebration of what he meant to us all.”
The tradition of inviting a high-profile author to guest program each year has become a festival tradition. Roxane Gay did it last year, and this year the honor goes to Whiting Award winner Alexander Chee, author of “The Queen of the Night,” an epic novel about a 19th-century opera diva and her colorful past.
Among his picks are journalist Rebecca Traister (“All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation”), poet Idra Novey (“Ways to Disappear”) and novelist Sunil Yapa (“Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist”).
The kidnote speaker this year is Dav Pilkey, creator of the Captain Underpants and Dumb Bunnies series. He will launch his new children’s book “Dog Man,” about a crime-busting character who is part dog, part man.
Other highlights include National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson (“Brown Girl Dreaming”), who brings her first adult novel in 20 years to the festival. “Another Brooklyn” is a coming-of-age story set in the ‘70s.
There is a decidedly local flavor to the festival this year.
“When we started putting the festival together 11 years ago now, one of the things that drove our thinking was that Atlanta had this great vital writing scene, and we wanted to celebrate that. And we did that for a long time, but I think that emphasis went away in the last few years,” Wang said. “At the core of this festival, that’s a big win for us, to celebrate the great writing community we have.”
High on that list is Atlanta author Thomas Mullen (“The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers,” “The Revisionists”), who launches “Darktown” at the festival. Already optioned for a TV series executive-produced by Jamie Foxx, the novel is a police procedural set in 1948 Atlanta that simmers with racial tension when a black woman, who was last seen with a white man, disappears.
Race relations is the topic of several books featured this year, including those by local authors Patrick Phillips, who examines the history of racial injustice in Forsyth County in “Blood at the Root,” and Emory professor Carol Anderson, writing on “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.”
Other local notables include New York Times best-selling author Emily Giffin, who presents her new novel “First Comes Love”; Emory professor Frans de Waal, director of the Living Links Center of Emory’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, who discusses his book “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”; and Emory professor and poet Kevin Young, who will read from his book “Blue Laws: Selected and Uncollected Poems.”
The AJC Decatur Book Festival takes place Sept. 2-4 in downtown Decatur. All events are free.