Betting the House 

Local writers gather this weekend for the city’s first writers’ festival.

“I had began to bemoan literary festivals,” says Robbins, co-chairman of the festival. “It upset me that Richmond did not have its own literary festival. It had nothing. So while we played we began talking about it. And what came out of it was this notion that we didn’t just want to approach fans and readers. What we wanted was to inspire and teach. What if we were given a platform not to sell books only, but to have an outreach to have an impact and to encourage aspiring writers. And we sat around and said ‘Wouldn’t that be great if we could do that?’”

Little did Robbins know that this idea would come to fruition the very year of its conception. Weeks later while doing research at the Library of Virginia, Robbins struck up a conversation with John Kneebone, head of the library’s Center for the Book. Telling him about the recent poker game conversation that he’d had about the festival, Kneebone offered the Library of Virginia as a location. “When that happened, I was like ‘Oh my gosh,’” Robbins says, “The guy just handed me a locus for this festival.” After several enthusiastic meetings, Robbins brought onboard Phaedra Hise, now his festival co-chairwoman. “When she became involved the thing really started to take on steam,” Robbins says. “She was able to make contact with other writers that we didn’t know and who didn’t know us. But when we connected these circles the ball really got rolling.”

The result is a two-day conference to explore every aspect of creative writing. While the central tenant of other literary festivals is putting readers together with writers, the James River Writers Festival is focused on the craft of writing. The keynote speaker of the festival is offbeat and imaginative writer Tom Robbins, who will be speaking about his approach to fiction writing. But the focus won’t be on his work but on how he can help teach and inspire other fledgling writers. “None of the writers who will appear at our event will be reading from their work,” The Richmond-based Robbins says. “That’s not the point. The point is outreach. The point is inspiration.”

Another part of the festival is the First Novelist forum, a longtime program sponsored by Virginia Commonwealth University’s graduate fine arts program and its libraries. The forum has been folded into the festival this year. It will allow new writers to see the process of making an idea into a book. Not only will writers be speaking, but the agents whose attention the writers captured, will be there as well. Finally, the editor at the publishing house who bought the book and worked with the writer will be there as well. This allows audience members to ask questions about the array of the writing and publishing experience.

While the headline speaker for the festival is one-time Richmonder and VCU graduate Tom Robbins, lots of local talent will be on display as well. “We’ve got really good writers from this city who are publishing at a very high level,” David Robbins says. “Dean King is very well thought of. Phaedra Hise is a wonderful nonfiction writer. Dennis Danvers, science fiction — Tom de Haven is the reigning Library of Virginia Novelist of the Year. Howard Owen is fantastic. Ann McMillan has written four Civil War mysteries.” Robbins likes to compare the Richmond writers with the underground music scene. “You know when you hear that band on the radio and then realize that they’re from Richmond? Well it’s the same thing with writers. This festival will showcase Richmond as a place that fosters literary talent and always has, from Edgar Allan Poe on.” S

At press time, the James River Writers Festival was sold-out. It takes place Oct. 3-4 at the Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St., www.jrwf.org.

But VCU’s First Novelist award and forum is open to the public. It takes place Oct. 3 with a reading by Isabel Zuber, author of “Salt,” at 7 p.m. in the Commonwealth Ballroom of VCU Student Commons. www.vcu.edu. It is free. Also during the festival, the winners of the first Style Weekly Fiction Contest will be announced.


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