Iowa City may get most of the literary attention as a UNESCO city of literature, but Cedar Rapids wants the world to know love of the book lives there as well.
The written word will be celebrated in the city of five season this weekend with the I.O.W.A. author festival.
“I.O.W.A. itself started out under (four people) and they did it for three years and this is the first year that The Writers’ Room is taking it on,” said Erin Casey, the Writers’ Room executive director. “They stepped off and asked if (we) wanted to take it on.”
Those founders were Cedar Rapids authors Aaron Bunce and Jed Quinn plus book lovers Dana Beatty and Terii LeBlanc. Since The Writers’ Room agreed to take over the festival last year, this is the first year Casey and her team are finding their footing on the project.
I.O.W.A. stands for Imagine Other Worlds with Authors, and will be held over two days this weekend. It starts Saturday in the Cedar Rapids Public Library at 10 a.m. Events for the day end at 4:30 p.m. Sunday’s events will end at the same time, but start at 1:30 p.m.
The Writer’s Room is “a nonprofit corporation that offers a safe space for writers,” according to Casey. The group’s intention since its formation in 2015 has been to foster a community of local writers. They have a number of individual rooms like The Violet Realm, made-up of sci-fi/fantasy writers and The Scarlet Boudoir for those interested in writing romance.
“We actually started (the festival) from scratch,” said Casey of planning efforts from this year. “(Beatty and LeBlanc) handed over supplies and information from previous years, we put out a call for authors, we selected which authors would be coming and we determined our programming.”
In years past, the festival has been a single-day affair held at places like Lindale Mall. Now with the Writers’ Rooms at the helm, there is more varied programming with a smaller pool of authors under the guiding hands of Beatty and LeBlanc making sure they’re on the right track.
“We decided we wanted to do a bigger interactive event,” Casey said. “I.O.W.A. usually is only one day and we wanted the event to last a bit longer so we set it up for two days, so we’re not just doing author signings, but an author read, and also author speed dating.”
Readings will be held with regional authors like R.C. Davis and JoJo Bartlett and a Writers’ Room writing prompt and social event will be held in the library conference room for those who want to social or write their own stuff.
Author speed dating, as described by Casey, gives attendees an opportunity to chat with some of the 20-plus authors at an event. The idea though is that instead of bringing the author out to dinner, one might decide to bring one of their books home with them.
Speed dating will happen on Saturday starting at 1 p.m. in the Greyhound Cafe with romance authors up first. This is followed by two more, one with a “wild card” selection of authors and the other focused on YA/Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors.
“Readers get a chance to sit down with authors for a couple of minutes, ask them a few questions, then someone rings a bell and they move on to the next one,” Casey said. “We want them to realize the authors are people themselves.”
Much as speed dating is set up for everyone to attend any session, scheduling over both days is set up for everyone attending to be able to do everything. There are no overlapping panels or readings.
Casey loves similar gatherings focused on readers and writers, but one thing she wanted to do with this event to set it apart was to make sure everyone could attend everything throughout the day.
“One of the biggest things we wanted to focus on was that nothing we did overshadowed anything else,” said Casey. “That’s why we wanted to make sure that the panels are separated out and not overlapping so everybody has a chance to go to every single thing and they don’t have to choose.”
Author and Cedar Rapids resident Shakyra Dunn first attended the festival a few years ago at Lindale Mall. At the time, she felt her booth was a little bit buried in the busy food court, but she’s hopeful the new venue will give her fantasy books the chance to pop.
Having been writing since age 14, the Chicago-born fantasy author has published books in two series since turning 22. The most recent is “The Final Lesson” duology, which she completed last year.
Her scheduled events include a 10:30 a.m. Saturday panel on balancing work and creative life as well as a 2:30 p.m. Sunday panel titled “So You Wanna Be a Writer 101” in Whipple Auditorium.
“(I enjoy) just being able to talk to all my friends,” Dunn said. “There’s definitely a few people I’ve gotten to know over the years.”
That’s a facet of what Casey wants to encourage with the festival this year, not only readers making connections with authors, but writers forming a community with one another.
“We brought in authors that people might not know all that much about, so we wanted a chance to put the spotlight on them,” Casey said. “If (writers) realize they don’t have to be alone in the community, then it’s been a success.”
A full list of the two days of events is available on The Writers’ Room website as well as a full list of authors scheduled to attend.
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet