By Heidi Simmons
Right after author T. Geronimo Johnson read a descriptive passage from his award-winning novel Welcome to Braggsville, he told the packed audience to raise a hand any time for questions or comments.
A hand went up immediately. Johnson pointed to the person in the middle of the room. A woman, moved by the colorful setting and insightful character she just heard read aloud, complimented Johnson on his beautiful writing. He responded graciously with “Thank you,” and then charmed the audience when he revised his statement saying, “I’ll take questions, comments and compliments any time.”
The Rancho Mirage Writers Festival most certainly stimulates questions, generates comments and inspires compliments. It is an ideal opportunity for readers and writers to engage in thoughtful conversation. It was with ideas in mind, that the Writers Festival took root in 2014. In three short years, the festival has quickly become one of the countries finest literary festivals, if not the best festival for writers and readers!
“From the very first festival, it was always our intent to highlight nonfiction,” said David Bryant, Rancho Mirage Library Director. “We want to be a house of ideas. This festival is the total opposite of ‘political correctness.’ Our approach is to be open-minded and welcoming of all ideas.”
Held at the beautiful Rancho Mirage Library and Helene Galen Auditorium at the Annenberg Center for Health Sciences, the festival brought together 40 authors, ten moderators and 1,000 readers.
Over the three-days, a combined 80 hours with over 50 events, proved to be another fun-filled, idea-rich and intimate affair where readers and writers hobnobbed and celebrated the written word and freedom of expression.
The Rancho Mirage Public Library, with fresh paint and new carpet, was thoughtfully reorganized this year. It created specific areas to accommodate authors and literary fans. Temporarily renaming library spaces for iconic authors, seating was arranged to allow for more than 900 attendees with additional over-flow space.
The popular Community Room became the Steinbeck Room. The sunny periodical area was transformed into the Didion Room. The new performance space created from the Annenberg Reading Room, became the London Room.
With enhanced audio and visual technology, the quality of the festival also improved. Big — really big — screen televisions, headset microphones for the speakers, raised stages and podiums made the experience easier for attendees to hear and see the authors and panel discussions.
The smaller rooms created a nice intimate space. With three venues running every hour, the friendly and abundant staff smoothly choreographed the queues for each event, helped attendees find seating and managed concierge service.
Barnes & Noble ran a pop-up bookstore in the computer area of the library and did a brisk business after every event. Attendees were able to purchase new volumes or bring in their own books to have them autographed by the authors in a well-organized signing area.
Lunch was included each day at the library. A coffee and tea bar was always stocked, bottled water was stacked at the entrance of venues, and all attendees were given a lanyard with their name on it. Readers also received a stylish canvas tote with custom Rancho Mirage Writers Festival bling. Parking was made easy with mandatory valet service. Now that’s how Rancho Mirage rocks a festival!
But beyond the logistic and festival pleasantries, it is the fantastic content that makes the festival so significant and outstanding. Opening night included military historian Andrew Roberts and Pulitzer Prize-winning author A. Scott Berg. This is Berg’s third time to open the festival and he has become a favorite of attendees.
Each event offered something timely and provocative. Most of the authors have published critically praised books. Here are a few of pass holder favorites:
Peter Bart, former Variety editor and Hollywood studio executive moderated the “Books to Movies” event. He lead an insightful conversation with bestselling author Lee Child – Jack Reacher novelist; David Ebershoff – The Danish Girl; Scott McEwen – American Sniper; Hampton Sides – In the Kingdom of Ice; and Héctor Tobar – The 33. The panel conversation covered the relationship between authors and Hollywood, and the challenges of getting a book adapted to screen.
A fascinating discussion about Vladimir Putin was moderated by CBS’ Moscow bureau chief Cinney Kennard and included local author and former CIA officer Jason Matthews along with Bret Stephens, Masha Gessen and Marvin Kalb.
“The Biography: Lives Lived” event was moderated by the charming Barbara Isenberg and included three amazing women biographers — Sally Denton, Stacy Schiff and Jodi Cantor.
Authors Dave Barry, Ron Lieber and Bob Mankoff provided big laughs and lots of levity during their witty presentations.
Jessica Fellows, whose uncle Julian is the creator of the PBS series, Downton Abbey, delighted pass holders by talking about the characters and setting of the immensely popular show.
For writers and readers, the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival is an opportunity to engage with authors, fellow readers and the world of ideas.
The festival is made possible because the Rancho Mirage Library and supporting community has a love and respect for the power of the written word. They value the freedom of expression enough to give generously.
Mark Hogan is a friend of festival founder Jamie Kabler. The green color of his lanyard identifies him as an Angel. “Angels” provide 70 percent of the festival’s budget. To be an “Angel” requires a tax-deductible donation of $5,000 or more.
“Jamie does an amazing job. I come to support him and to enjoy the speakers,” said Hogan. “The Angels are the doers and the givers. They are successful, intelligent and caring people who like to give back to the Coachella Valley to make it a better place.” Hogan has lived in the CV for decades and points out that he is a guest of an Angel.
Attending the festival every year since its inception, Susan Cigelnik is thrilled to be in sunny Rancho Mirage with her friends. Cigelnik lives in Chicago but has a home in Rancho Mirage. “This is such a great event,” said Cigelnik. “It’s wonderful to be a part of the energy and to be here with all these lovely people.”
If you haven’t heard about this amazing and very special valley event, it may be because it sells out so fast that no advertising is required. Only a limited number of passes are available. So don’t hesitate when tickets go on sale next month for the 2017 writers fest. Or, consider becoming an Angel, which includes VIP passes for all events with special access and other fine considerations.
Intellectual, humorous, informative, engaging, glamorous and fun, the Third Annual Rancho Mirage Writers Festival has found its sweet spot. There is little doubt that this rich and rewarding festival will continue to thrive and grow.