Q&A: Decatur Book Festival program director Terra Elan McVoy

The new program director for the AJC Decatur Book Festival is 37, but most people she meets find that surprising, thinking she’s younger.

“It’s all that early moisturizing,” joked Terra Elan McVoy, who is quick with a quip and a smile.

The author of three young adult novels, and the former manager of Decatur’s children’s bookstore Little Shop of Stories, McVoy has a youthful, lighthearted air about her that shouldn’t be read as naive or carefree.

“She’s extremely passionate and has refused to give into cynicism,” observed founding program director Tom Bell, whose company continues to manage the festival’s programming and who hired his friend of 15 years to replace him. “She doesn’t romanticize the world. She just, despite seeing it with all its warts, refuses to give up trying for the more passionate, more perfect life. She never settles.”

Bell, festival executive director Daren Wang and the DBF board felt that McVoy’s buoyant, determined personality was a good fit for the lead programming job after she served as assistant director last year.

It’s a big role: The sixth edition launches Friday with a keynote address by Colin Meloy, lead singer of the indie rock band the Decemberists, and his illustrator wife Carson Ellis (collaborators on the young adult novel “Wildwood”). The free Labor Day weekend festival, which attracted an estimated 80,000 last year, will present more than 300 authors, an array of literary-inspired performances, a street fair and more.

During the crush of final planning, we caught up with the remarkably unruffled McVoy:

Q: The book business is struggling, yet DBF appears to be thriving. This would not seem to compute. How do you explain it?

A: I would say that the book business is changing, more than struggling. Aspects of the industry are certainly struggling, but people are still reading, a lot. They're just reading differently. The fundamental love of storytelling is still very much alive, and you see that especially at the festival.

Q: How has running the programming gone this year?

A: In one sense, of course, it's incredibly intimidating. I mean, the festival is something that's very, very important to a lot of people, myself included. Everyone wants to make sure that it's going to be run as well and as beautifully as Tom has done. "Um, who's this girl?" you know. But at the same time, it's really exciting because I love the festival and have since the minute I heard about it in the very early breakfast table discussions [in 2005].

Q: So you've seen the evolution ...

A: Exactly, and the festival has seen the evolution of me, as well, so we're kind of partners in that. The other thing that's really important is I feel enormously supported. And I have from the moment of even becoming the assistant program director. Because although the program director and executive director may be the face of the festival, what you don't see is this massive number of people — the programming committee, the planning committee, the board, the people of the city of Decatur, all our volunteers, the book sellers — who are all working to make this festival. There's this amazing team of people here to help and who've been very encouraging and forthcoming with advice, and that's made it a lot easier for me.

Q: So there's less pressure on your shoulders?

A: There's a lot of pressure [laughs]! But it helps that it's dispersed.

Q: Are you still having to persuade publishers and authors that they need to participate?

A: In some instances, partly because some publishing houses are so incredibly large, and we may have a connection with one imprint but not necessarily others. But when Tom and Daren started and had their little DBF, people were like, "Is Decatur in Illinois?" Now authors feel that this is an important festival and publishers feel that this is an important festival. They've been able to see the book sales that happen, the organization and how we really take care of our authors. It's a really fun experience.

Q: Selecting your first keynote speaker the year after Jonathan Franzen served in that role, touring behind the most anticipated novel of last year, must have been a special challenge.

A: I tease Tom all the time — "I really appreciate you getting Jonathan Franzen as your final keynote selection." I know [the selection of Meloy and Ellis] is a surprise to some people. It's unexpected, but for me it feels really good because I wanted to do something that was different, rather than working on this literary trajectory where Franzen is at the top.

I wanted to increase the possibilities of what keynote could be. And that’s why I was so thrilled about Colin and Carson — that their book is a collaborative effort and represents the festival with, technically, a children’s book, though I think adults are really going to love it. We’re going to have children and middle-schoolers at the keynote. That hasn’t happened before. That was a big goal of mine: to deliver high quality but also expand the options, for the keynote and the rest of the programming.

Q: Did you feel you were going on a limb by going in a young adult direction with the keynote choice, with the author being a rock star at that?

A: Not every author is for everybody. There's always going to be people who aren't being represented or whose interests aren't being covered. I think — I know — I went out on a limb a little bit with this, but I feel like it is a limb that grows firmly from the trunk of the festival.

Q: Did you come into the job feeling that you wanted to raise the profile of the festival's children's/young adult offerings?

A: The children's events have definitely grown since we began the festival. The stage [audience capacity] has gotten larger. We've developed a teen stage [in 2008]. And we've seen bigger and bigger crowds, and the children's parades have gotten bigger and bigger. So in my opinion, the children's and teen events didn't need my help this year, because they're already a very substantive part of the festival.

The keynote being a family-friendly event is kind of by virtue of what books were coming out, who’s available. I’m sure there are people who think, “What is this, the Decatur Children’s Festival?” I don’t have children, but I would expect as an attendee to find lots of things to do at the festival.

Q: Why is it important not just for the DBF but for the future of publishing for kids to make a connection with books?

A: It's just important. We see all over everyday, book sales, especially for adults, shrinking. Stores are closing left and right. But kids don't read things on their iPads. They need an actual physical book. And so the festival is a great place where they can not only get the physical book but meet the person who created the book that they have in their hands, and that just sparks even more excitement about reading.

I mean, if you don’t get exposure to books you don’t learn how great they are. It’s like escargot or anything else — if you don’t get exposed to it, you don’t know what you’re missing. And I think it’s easier once you hit a certain age to live a life that doesn’t have books in it at all.

Q: Were your parents big readers?

A: I grew up in Tallahassee, Fla., and the family story was that my mom, when I was an infant, would read anything to me, including junk mail. She'd go, "Oh, look what we have here!" [It was] a special offer from, you know, some bank. My dad, when I came home from the hospital, sat down and read a book with me. So my parents were always super into reading aloud to me and both my [younger] sisters every night. And when I was about 4 was when I started writing my first stories. I would dictate to my mom at a typewriter because I didn't know how to write, but I could tell stories.

Q: With three novels out, do you feel you've got plenty of stories still to tell?

A: Some people have stuff that they're obsessed with and love, and reading and writing are mine. I wrote my first novel in sixth grade. I was always a girl who would get a writing assignment and write 45 pages more than you were supposed to do. I was always reading Shakespeare and poetry in high school. I studied it all through college [undergraduate at St. Andrews Presbyterian and master's in Florida State University's Creative Writing Program]. ... I can't imagine being alive and not doing those two things.

Q: As a young adult author, how do you keep up to date on teen voices and concerns?

A: I want to laugh and say I eat the brains of teenagers, but I don't! I work really hard to keep contemporary teenagers in my life. Through Little Shop of Stories, I'm still running two book groups, one of them for girls who are in middle school. I have friends who have teenaged children, and from time to time I will grill them on different things, like, "How do you find music these days?"

I want to keep them in my life because also I think teenagers are fascinating. That’s why I like to write for this age, because it’s a really interesting and hard time of life.

Also, I was really lucky and my parents did a great job of giving me adult friends to go to when I was a teenager. Now it’s important to me as an adult to be able to provide whatever support I can to teenagers I know. It’s my own personal “pay it forward” a little bit, but I know that I’ve benefited from it greatly. And the teenaged friends that I have I think are cooool people.

McVoy In 8 adjectives:

Even before he produced “Wildwood,” the first in a trilogy of young adult fantasy novels with his illustrator-wife Carson Ellis, AJC Decatur Book Festival keynote speaker Colin Meloy of the Decemberists was known as one of rock music’s more literate songwriters. The online AllMusic Guide, which provides a laundry list of adjectives describing the many moods any band’s music evokes, describes the Decemberists as “earnest, literate, quirky, ambitious, cerebral ...”

In that spirit, we asked McVoy’s boss, Tom Bell, to describe his successor with a series of adjectives. Bell’s list: “passionate, fierce, loyal, loving, thoughtful, brilliant, hardworking and uniquely herself.”

3 things we learned about her from her author website (www.terraelan.com)

1. When she’s not working, she enjoys doing crafty things (especially with paper and photography) and cooking or baking for friends.

2. Likes: Fluevog shoes, Blythe dolls, watching movies, playing board games and making up Mad Libs with her sisters.

3. She wakes up hearing songs in her head and lists them on her site a week at a time, such as this playlist posted Aug. 17: “This Sweet Love,” by James Yuill; “Dirty Laundry,” Don Henley; “Laser Beam,” Low; “Candy,” El Perro Del Mar; “Black Water,” the Doobie Brothers; “Love Shack,” the B-52’s.

2 books on her reading list:

● “I’m reading ‘Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008’ (Mariner Books, $14), which I love in part just because of the spirit in which those books are put together. Also there is a terrific interview with Judy Blume at the beginning.”

● “I also recently reread ‘The Writing Life’ (Harper Perennial, $12.99) by Annie Dillard. Some great soul gave that book to me when I graduated from high school, and I return to it again and again, finding ever more useful nuggets of wisdom each time.”

Meet Terra McVoy:

“A Real Girl Conversation About Writing Real Girl Books,” panel discussion with young adult fiction authors Stephanie Perkins, Jennifer Jabaley and Elizabeth Eulberg.

4 p.m. Sunday. Free.

Decatur Library, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. www.decatur bookfestival.com.