Small Town, Big Names: Midwest Literary Walk in Chelsea
It's hard not to get caught up in Rich Fahle's enthusiasm for the Midwest Literary Walk, which strolls through downtown Chelsea on Saturday, April 29, offering readings and author meet-and-greets.
"The lineup for the Midwest Literary Walk this year is one of our very best, and this year represents an amazing array of authors who work or live in Michigan," said Fahle, a member of the festival's organizing committee and the executive producer of PBS's Book View Now.
The free event also includes Washington, D.C.-area poet, author, and former Newbery Medal winner Kwame Alexander, but the majority of the Midwest Literary Walk's roster lives in The Mitten and has a connection to the University of Michigan.
"That lineup includes Peter Ho Davies and Derek Palacio, both of whom teach at the University of Michigan and have books that appeared on many best-of 2016 lists, including The New York Times," Fahle said. "Heather Ann Thompson is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, a National Book Award finalist, and Pulitzer Prize winner. And Airea D. Matthews lives in Detroit but she is the former assistant director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan where she also earned her M.F.A."
The five author events are all within walking distance of one another, and there's time between events to duck in and out of Chelsea's downtown stores. The event wraps up at 5 pm, which is the perfect time to grab dinner at one of the town's restaurants, or you can continue the literary chat session at the Chelsea Alehouse, which is hosting the afterparty.
We interviewed Fahle about the Midwest Literary Walk's history, its spirit, and other things to look out for in downtown Chelsea.
Q: What is the origin of the event?
A: This is the 9th annual Midwest Literary Walk, originally conceived and hosted each year by the Chelsea District Library. Each year, the event seems to grow larger and more significant. The event was launched in 2009 originally by former Chelsea District Library director Bill Harmer in collaboration with acclaimed Detroit poet and university professor M. L. Liebler. The event continues to thrive and grow under the leadership of current director Lori Coryell and the team of organizers and volunteers.
Literati, the amazing bookstore in Ann Arbor, returns this year as the official bookseller for the Midwestern Literary Walk and will be on hand at all the venues to sell books for all the participating authors this year.
In fact, thanks to the growing stature of the Midwest Literary Walk, Chelsea was recently included on this list as one of “Best Small Towns for Book Lovers.”
Listeners to WDET-FM NPR in Detroit have likely heard some of our authors appearing during Stephen Henderson’s Detroit Today program from 9-11 am. All of our participating authors appear there, and the final two appearances -- with Kwame Alexander and Airea D. Matthews -- will appear on this Friday’s program.
Q: Do you have a sense if people follow the whole walk? I was wondering if the sense of community folks must feel during the walk might just sweep them along to all the events even if a particular writer isn't their cup of tea.
A: There are definitely a core group of attendees who participate in each of the afternoon’s events, but many -- as much as half -- come to town for specific authors or segments that they are most interested in, which we completely welcome. The event is free to attend and people can stay for as much of the schedule as they like.
Without question, we find that many of the participants are introduced to writers and genres that perhaps they did not initially believe was their cup of tea. All of the writers and poets are incredible presenters, with interesting stories and areas of expertise. The poets, especially, seem to be one of the most popular aspects of the Midwest Literary Walk year after year. Even though many of the attendees do not necessarily arrive as poetry aficionados, the leave inspired by the poets and their readings.
Writers for the event are often from the Midwest, or have books with Midwestern settings, though that is not always the case.
Q: The readings are in churches and the train depot, followed by an afterparty at Chelsea Alehouse Brewery. Is the Alehouse aspect of the walk just an informal gathering, or do writers sometimes do impromptu readings or Q&As?
A: The Alehouse is an informal gathering, often including some of our author participants. It’s a place to relax and discuss the day’s events, mostly, though previous years have actually included events at the Alehouse as well.
Q: Any good stories from past walks that you can share with us?
A: We’ve had some amazing luck with our author invitees in recent years. We hosted Angela Flournoy on the week her debut novel, The Turner House, was released. Angela and The Turner House went on to be shortlisted for the National Book Award that year. Angela arrived with her mother -- who was perhaps more excited to discover that Chelsea was the home of Jiffy than in the event itself!
Last year, Robin Coste Lewis joined us to discuss The Voyage of the Sable Venus, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Poetry between the time we booked her and her Midwest Literary Walk Appearance. This year, Heather Ann Thompson just won the Pulitzer Prize for history -- meaning another major award winner will grace our stage this year. And of course, Kwame Alexander, the beloved poet and middle-grade author who will be joining us this year is a former Newbery Medal winner himself, for The Crossover. In 2013, the late, great Elmore Leonard appeared at the Midwest Literary Walk, one of his last literary appearances before his death later that year.
Q: What are a few things that newbies should look for -- or taste or experience -- during the walk?
A: Chelsea is an amazing destination community here in Michigan -- probably best know as the home of actor Jeff Daniels’ wonderful Purple Rose Theatre and The Common Grill restaurant, both of which attracts visitors from all over the state. Beyond that, as I mentioned, the Chelsea Milling Co. is located here, home to the iconic Jiffy Mix in those instantly recognizable blue boxes sold all over the world. There are a wealth of other restaurants in town, including Smokehouse 52 BBQ and others. The Chelsea District Library has itself built an amazing reputation, named The Best Small Library in America in 2008.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and editor of Pulp.