Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Superbowl of Books

 Sujata Massey

I write this during my last few hours in the March sunshine of Arizona. How lucky I feel to have had a mystery gathering again during a very drab time of the year in Baltimore. I arrived on March 8 as a guest at the Tucson Festival of Books. This nonprofit event, run by 2000 volunteers, is said to draw 175,000 annually, making it one of largest free public book festival in the country. Yet the vast space of the University of Arizona campus kept it from feeling crowded. 


The festival is operated by a private foundation (including many University of Arizona graduates) and is aided by the University, the Arizona Daily Star newspaper,  Tucson Medical Center, other donors and Friends of the Festival. 


Tucson’s huge success at making books into a kind of state fair on academic grounds amazes a book festival veteran who is used to much smaller venues. How exactly do these organizers gather up six National Book Award winners, the sweetly hilarious comedian Sarah Cooper, and the outstanding mystery novelist T. Jefferson Parker, Lisa See, Abraham Verghese, pictured below, and 300-plus writers of varying levels of fame? How do they inspire so many Arizonans, whether year-round or snow-birding, to sign up for tickets ahead of time, show up early to wait in long lines, and splurge on the writers with kind words and book purchases? 


My guess is this 16-year-old festival has built and built word of mouth recommendations until people can't imagine not going. For Tucson, it's almost like having your own Superbowl--although the tickets are free. But I suppose this analogy may work more for people who are book nuts rather than sports fans.

I came in knowing that I would have the chance to participate on three panels. A bit of work, but it felt like play. Every one of my three panel events, the moderators were well prepared and the conversation between participating authors was thoughtful, with usually a humorous person in the middle of it (thank you, Lev AC Rosen, and Catriona MacPherson). Audience members seemed an even mix of established fans and curious newcomers. An authors’ lounge and a happy hour at an off-campus bar let the writers cut loose with nerdy craft conversations around questions like “Should I be writing  in close third-person?” and “how much time do you really spend writing and rewriting one book?” 


Hotels throughout Tucson provided rooms for visiting authors. I was booked in at an Aloft Hotel on a busy road called Speedway. The best thing about was that it was that just by ducking behind the hotel, I had a pretty and quiet fifteen-minute stroll to the heart of the festival’s buildings on the University of Arizona’s vast campus. One day I made three round trips and was thrilled when my phone app told me I'd clocked 14,000 steps.

On the way there I goggled at the interesting fraternity and sorority buildings that were so different from those I’ve seen at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. These were all single story and fitted smoothly with the Western vernacular architecture featured throughout Tucson. I noticed fake grass installed in front of many of the Greek buildings. This made sense because of the desert environment, although the gardening fairy who lives in my brain was whispering “try native plants, please!” Most of the official University buildings had moved into this direction of minimalist native plantings. One thing I loved about the setting was a sense that the state's premier university belonged to everyone, whether or not they were or students.


The campus itself had a mix of grand turn of the century brick buildings, brutalist mid-century shapes, and newer ecologically smart constructions. I had fun roaming the vast bookstore and then going around the campus looking for turtles in the pond. It's great that a free streetcar system runs along the campus and into the city.

And how was the intellectual component, you ask? The panels were excellent. Everyone I spoke to, who'd been a participant, felt positive about it. My panel topics were The Wide, Wide World of Mysteries, Searching for Social Justice, and Mid-Century Murders. After we spoke, I met new readers and people who were in Arizona for a break, including my mom's friend, Betsy, who was visiting from Minnesota. One thing I loved about the setting was a sense that the state's premier university belonged to everyone, whether or not they were or students. This could be a positive action for other colleges and universities to try.


On Sunday morning, I got my Arizona native plant fix in Oro Valley. I met my friend Patti, a librarian in the Pima County system, at a restaurant set within Tohono Chul park, a 49-acre botanical learning center and park. Thong Chul exists because of the generosity and foresight of Richard and Jean Wilson, a couple who began purchasing small patches of desert in the Oro Valley, refusing many times to sell to developers. When the city condemned an area nearby to allow for widening a road, the Wilsons insisted that the very old and tall saguaro cacti that had grown tall over hundreds of years be carefully removed and planted at Tohono Chul. The Wilsons’ private property developed into a private park in the late 70s and was formally dedicated in 1985.

I enjoyed my delicious egg breakfast combining Mexican and Native American foods in an original hacienda house on the property, now a restaurant called the Garden Bistro. Then it was time to lather on more sunscreen and wander amidst the spectacular, healthy cacti and other desert plants. The desert landscape feels surreal for me, even though I’ve now been to Arizona two years in a row. I admire how these plants store water and nutrients and endure without trouble the blistering conditions that will arrive in a few months.


At Poisoned Pen Bookshop, two hours away in Scottsdale, a refrigerator selling COLD DRINKS stands among the bookshelves. I got water there and so much more when I visited on Monday for an event with one of my fellow Soho Press authors, Stephen Mack Jones. Stephen and I chatted about our recent books and writing mystery series in general. We were happy to meet the bookstores’ regulars: not only Arizonans, but a warm couple from Detroit, where Stephen’s books are set, and friends from Kansas City, who had also attended the Tucson Book Festival and driven out to listen and chat some more.


Maybe the wide desert spaces, towering mountains and endless blue sky bring more than visual serenity to people living here. It could be that they open space for introspection and reading.  I was grateful to be in Arizona, and hope to return.