Kate Rattenborg will tell you that Northeast Iowa is "a place where people are willing to talk about books and writing."
She ought to know. Her store, Dragonfly Books, in downtown Decorah is stocked with books written by local, regional and nationally known authors, proof that you don't have to live in Manhattan to have a rich reading and writing life.
Surrounded by books in Amish-made shelves and walls painted Norwegian red and blue, Rattenborg said, "By reading you experience a life, a place, ideas and dreams without leaving your armchair. Reading broadens your experience, your knowledge and allows you to question."
Given this rural area's interest in writing and reading, it's no surprise that the Luther College Writers Festival is slated for Sept. 27-28 on the Decorah campus. According to festival director Nancy Barry, the event's aim is to "explore the deep and diverse ways in which highly crafted literature in all genres explores the human condition and illuminates the spiritual and moral imagination of readers."
The festival will showcase nationally known authors Mark Salzman and Anne Lamott as keynote speakers.
"The library's abuzz about Anne Lamott coming to town," said Lorraine Borowski.
The Decorah Public Library director includes herself in that sentiment as she borrows the title of Lamott's collection of essays "Traveling Mercies" as a "personal blessing" when saying goodbye to people she wants to come back safely. Believing in the importance of readers being able to "observe, hear and interact with authors," Borowski is reading Salzman's "Lying Awake." Of course, she checked it out of the library.
Hosted by the Luther English department, the literary celebration also will draw on other literary voices by involving regional and local authors in readings, panels and a poetry slam.
On Saturday, the festival includes panels on topics such as New Writing-New Media, Writing Spiritual Lives, Writing About War and the Holocaust, Editing College Literary Magazines and Considering Anne Lamott: Word by Word. Poets and prose writers will read selections from their own work. Presenters from across the country will speak to the craft and ethics of writing.
Poets performing original work in a poetry slam is the festival's Friday evening special event.
Sponsored by Dragonfly Books, the slam is presented by Decorah's ArtHaus, a nonprofit offering instruction in arts to all ages. According to ArtHaus co-director Kristen Underwood, "At a poetry slam there's a diversity of perspectives that's surprising and addictive. It's an incredible mix of the expected, like Luther students, and the unexpected - writers from the community who come out of the woodwork."
Another remarkable mix is two high-profile, prize-winning authors from California visiting small town Iowa on the same weekend.
Salzman, a novelist and nonfiction author as well as cellist who played with Yo-Yo Ma at Lincoln Center, writes on a variety of subjects that have the notion of truth-seeking at their core. His contemplative novel "Lying Awake" concerns a cloistered nun's crisis of faith while his memoir "True Notebooks" portrays his work as a volunteer writing teacher in Los Angeles Juvenile Hall, a lockup for violent teenage offenders. His latest nonfiction book, "The Man in the Empty Boat," examines writer's block and family tragedy.
Salzman's keynote address and book signing opens the festival at 4 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, in Valders 206.
Telling the truth
Readers of Lamott's "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" are familiar with her mantra: "good writing is about telling the truth." In nonfiction, essays and novels, Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Lamott tackles topics of motherhood, substance abuse and religion. Her collections of autobiographical essays on faith include "Traveling Mercies," "Plan B," and "Grace (Eventually)."
"I appreciate the kind of faith that Anne articulates so clearly - one that is insightful, honest, funny and graceful," said Luther assistant professor Karla Suomala, a festival panelist.
Lamott's keynote address and book signing, slated for 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28, in the Center for Faith and Life, closes the festival. Her forthcoming book is "Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair."
While the Salzman and Lamott keynote events are free and open to the public, other festival events require registration - onsite or online. Festival registration includes reserved front section seating at the Lamott keynote address, poetry slam admission, admission to panels and readings, refreshments during breaks between panels, Saturday evening dinner and conversations with people whose lives are enriched by the written word.
If Rattenborg's successful experience of hosting readings by and discussions of authors in Dragonfly Books is any indication, Luther's festival should live up to its mission "to leave room for conversation and exchange among readers and writers, as well as showcase the literary and spiritual imagination that keeps us alive."
As for what the Luther College Writers Festival--the third in its history--offers to people who attend, Rattenborg said, "As with any professional conference, the keynoters and smaller panels offer the nuts and bolts and inspiration. True excitement about craft and making changes."
All people who want to celebrate the world of prose and poetry are welcome to attend the festival. For cost, online registration and further details see luther.edu/writersfestival.