The undisputed best moments for Bill Starr during his tenure as director of the Georgia Center for the Book were those nights when he’d introduce an author to a packed house of 1,000 people, and after the reading the audience would rush out and line up to have its books autographed.
Then there were the other nights.
The ones when fewer than half a dozen people would show up for a reading. The author would wait in the wings, dejected. That’s when Starr would tell the glum writer the story of author Robert “Bob” Olen Butler, who once found himself with an audience of one and decided to give his full presentation anyway.
“And after Bob was done, he asked, ‘Are there any questions?’ The guy in the audience said, ‘No, not really, but I was interested in hearing what you had to say because I’m going to be a judge on a Pulitzer Prize committee, so thank you.’ And, wouldn’t you know it, Bob wound up winning a Pulitzer for the book.”
Respect the audience no matter how small. Push the book. Read. Read. Read. For the past decade that has been Starr’s mandate as director of the center.
Housed in the DeKalb County Public Library in downtown Decatur, the center is one of the state’s most consistent venues for author readings. At least 1,000 writers have sat in a chair on that auditorium stage and created supremely analog moments of just the written word spoken easily to eager ears. Pat Conroy, Walter Mosley, Madeline Albright, Jeffrey Toobin, Rita Dove, Butler. Starr has introduced most of them. This Wednesday will likely be the last time. Starr is retiring, moving later this month to Walpole, N.H., population 3,734, with his wife, Michele, to be closer to children and grandchildren.
“The population of New Hampshire is about 1.2 million, and I see that many people probably in an afternoon commute here,” Starr said. “But I’m 72, and it’s time to get out. When I started we said we wanted to turn this into a statewide organization and we’ve done that, so it’s time for fresh blood.”
The center will remain, of course, and the search will begin soon for a new director. It’s actually a program of the Library of Congress, which, since 1977, has chartered a center for the book in all 50 states. Some are based at college campuses, public libraries, state archives or humanities councils. But their missions are essentially all the same: promote the written word, get people reading. (Operating funds for Georgia’s, about $100,000, come from the DeKalb County Public Library’s annual budget). But some states have been more successful in that effort than others.
When Starr came to the Georgia center in 2003, he took it as a post-retirement job after having worked 30 years as a newspaper editor in Columbia, S.C. Georgia’s center was only 6 years old at that point and not rattling any cages. Charged by his boss at the time, then-DeKalb Library Director Darro Willey, Starr set out to change that. He had already established the highly respected South Carolina Book Festival during his tenure as arts editor in Columbia, he had already written two books (his third was published in 2010), and he had a laundry list of publishing contacts.
“Bill created a critical mass of interest in both the library and within the community because he understood how to make ‘the book’ a public event,” said Jamil Zainaldin, the president of the Georgia Humanities Council.
Getting authors to speak at the center’s evening reading series in Decatur did not prove to be so difficult. Metro Atlanta is a destination, and Starr, an Atlanta native, was able to secure about 100 authors a year. In Moultrie, Vidalia and other small towns throughout the state, that was a tougher sell. Starr began persuading authors and their publishers to add a day onto their Decatur appearances so they could make day trips to Albany, Thomasville, Valdosta, towns with little hope of landing a big-name writer. Readers rewarded them.
“I remember we took Wil Haygood, who wrote the biography of Sugar Ray Robinson, down to Vidalia, where Sugar Ray was from,” Starr said. “It was a really stormy, ugly night, and we thought, ‘Oh, well.’ But we walked in there and people had packed that library. They were just so excited that the weather didn’t matter.”
As the DeKalb library system’s budget shrank dramatically during the recession, the out-of-state author visits all but came to a stop. Yet when it came time to renew the center’s charter earlier this year, John Cole, founding director of the national Center for the Book program at the Library of Congress, didn’t hesitate to renew it.
“This is a very healthy center for the book, and Bill is the major reason,” Cole said. “Even though he has fewer economic resources, it’s a remarkably well-rounded program.”
What did survive tightened purse strings was the Georgia Literary Festival, a weekend event that Starr also developed. It’s put on once a year in cities across the state through a $5,000 annual grant from the state humanities council. It’s a relatively small festival, especially compared with the Decatur Book Festival, which is now the largest independent book festival in the country. But then again, Starr had a strong hand in the founding of the Decatur festival, too. Back in 2005, Starr was at the table when creators Daren Wang and Thomas Bell were trying to figure out how to get writers such as Jonathan Franzen to give up their Labor Day weekends to participate in the festival.
“I remember one time going to him during a year when we were having trouble securing a keynote author to headline the festival,” Bell said in an email interview. “Our June press launch was fast approaching, and I was worried about arriving at the press launch without a keynote author to announce. Bill calmly pointed out two things: Though we had no keynote yet, our author lineup was very strong and impressive, with many big-name authors who would stir up a lot of excitement. And the festival’s reputation was already very strong; we would certainly secure an excellent keynote author soon. Well, sure enough, the very next day we confirmed our keynote author, and I was able to announce not only the keynote but a very strong author lineup at the press launch.”
Once he gets settled in Walpole and unpacks the 1,000 books he is taking with him (whittled down from a count of 10,000), Starr plans to introduce himself to the town’s most famous current resident, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. He may even write a new book, about a Southerner confronting life in New England.
“Yeah, no matter how you try it, I suspect you can’t grow okra in New Hampshire,” Starr said.
And once he’s done with that, he plans to look into something else. He thinks the Granite State might have the potential for a much, much larger book festival.
Every three years the Georgia Center for the Book releases its list of 25 Books All Georgians Should Read, selected by the center’s 20-person board. The list will be released again this fall but long after the departure of the center director, Bill Starr, who is retiring to New Hampshire after 10 years. We asked him to give us “Bill Starr’s List of 10 Books All Georgians Should Read.”
“Look Homeward, Angel” — by Thomas Wolfe. “I read it as a much younger man and fell in love with Wolfe’s words and the power of his raw emotions. In some ways, it persuaded me I wanted to write, to try and put myself into words. Many people consider the author a gasbag, but rereading this book many times only deepens my affection for it and for Wolfe’s artistry.”
“The Pickwick Papers” — by Charles Dickens. “No it isn’t Dickens’ best book. But his first novel is his funniest and sunniest, and it is a source of unending refreshment with a hilarious cast of characters and situations.”
“The Burden of Southern History” — by C. Van Woodward. “For a lifelong Southerner, this book has always been essential to an understanding and appreciation of the richness and horror of the Southern past. There is no better place to start on how we got to where we are.”
“The Poetry of Robert Frost” — by Robert Frost. “Often viewed as the poet of rural New England, Frost wrote dark, deep but accessible meditations on themes that confront all of us, and his words have long resonated in my mind and pointed to new ways of seeing myself in and of the world.”
“The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty” — by Eudora Welty. “With quiet mastery, Welty inhabits the lives of Southerners with a deep and honest feel for place and idiom, and her stories offer us timeless insights into what is most important: our families, relationships and communities.”
“Paul Revere’s Ride” — by David Hackett Fisher. “In a most astonishing history that stands for many of my favorites in this category, Fisher’s book probes beneath the cliched story of Paul Revere’s midnight ride to present a full and revealing look at America and its people on the cusp of revolution.”
“Mary Chesnut’s Civil War” — by Mary Chesnut, edited by C. Van Woodward. “Mary Chesnut’s extraordinary Civil War diary, which we now know was fashioned in a literary effort after the war, is nonetheless a great firsthand recollection of many of the people and events that figured prominently in the most important event in American history.”
“Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories” — by Flannery O’Connor. “Georgia’s greatest writer, O’Connor is too often diminished as merely a Southern Gothic writer. In these memorable stories, she finds the universal in the grotesque and presents us with a real and sometimes frightening tableau of our humanity.”
“Life of Johnson” — by James Boswell. “In this, the greatest of all biographies, the intrepid Boswell, a biographer’s dream on his own, conveys a remarkable life of the 18th century man of letters, Samuel Johnson, while sharing an unrivaled portrait of two men and their tumultuous times.”
“Whisky, Kilts, and the Loch Ness Monster” — by William W. Starr. “Well, it’s my list, so why not? And besides, it was the grand excuse to follow the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson through Scotland nearly 2 1/2 centuries after their daunting and unforgettable journey through a breathtaking landscape.”