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” costars Tom Hanks and Sally Field.
Both happen to have books to promote, but just getting them to come to Atlanta was an impressive feat. And no surprise: both events are sold out.
“If only we could have gotten them together,” mused festival volunteer co-chair Bea Grossman. “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.
“We were so pleased with the lineup,” said book festival executive 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 festival organizers have built a solid reputation with book publishers, which has helped make the festival among the largest nationwide among Jewish centers.
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.
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 like the assistant of an assistant, and is now a director of publicity eight years later.
Morton “is like a detective,” said Grossman. “She can sniff out when someone has a book being released and uses every connection she can find to make it happen.”
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 occurs Oct. 21, nine days before the festival’s official launch Oct. 30 with Hanks.
Since this is a Jewish book festival, most of the authors outside the big names are Jewish. A significant number come through the Jewish Book Council network. Every year volunteers fly up to New York City in May to listen to 250 pitches from authors, two minutes apiece. “It’s like speed dating,” said festival co-chair Susie Hyman.
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 list is winnowed down to 40 or 45 authors. Some authors make solo appearances, while others appear on panels with authors who wrote compatible books.
In picking the authors, the committee tries to represent 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 cyber warfare to feminism to interfaith issues to entrepreneurship,” said Grossman.
As someone who loves to read books, Hyman said she likes hearing 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.