Festival-goers walk through the tents outside during the 7th annual San Antonio Book Festival.
Festival-goers walk by canopies set up outdoors during the seventh annual San Antonio Book Festival. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A soggy start did nothing to dampen the seventh annual San Antonio Book Festival, with crowds already assembling before the first panels began at 10 a.m. in each of 12 indoor and outdoor venues placed throughout the Central Library, Southwest School of Art, and grounds in between.

Rain had largely dissipated by then, with only intermittent sprinkles falling on lines waiting at food trucks and event tents, including a long line waiting for a chance to win a coloring book, foam microphone, or other trinket from the KSAT 12 tent at the Augusta Street festival entrance.

A major reconfiguration of the festival’s outdoor venues in case of thunderstorms and lightning turned out to be unnecessary, according to Katy Flato, who chairs the festival board, and Clay Smith, its literary director.

“We had a very serious backup plan, but it looks like its all going to be OK,” Smith said. Organizers estimated 18,000 attended, slightly less than the 20,000 reported to have attended last year.

Appropriately, given that April is National Poetry Month, one panel began began the day with poetry, featuring much-lauded Southwestern poet Pat Mora, moderated by occasional Rivard Report contributor Gregg Barrios.

Mora also served as a bridge between some of the festival’s focal points, including children’s and adult literature, and English and Spanish. She read a passage titled “Collecting Words” from Bookjoy, Wordjoy, her 2018 book for children, because “it’s all about the words, isn’t it?”

She continued with passages from Encantado, her new book of poems that tells the stories of members of an imagined community from a town in her native Southwestern milieu.

“It’s a wonderful time in my life when I’ve started working on a book, because everything matters,” Mora said, suggesting that she looks and listens more closely to the stories around her every day.

Nearby, former Mayor Lila Cockrell reminisced with Rivard Report columnist and longtime newsman Rick Casey, who joked that, having covered much of the genteel Cockrell’s political career, she had “dished entirely too little dirt” in her memoir Love Deeper Than a River: My Life in San Antonio.

Tellingly, Casey said he assumed he wouldn’t learn anything he didn’t already know about Cockrell’s life and career but that her book contained some surprises and much new information, including that her family initially moved to San Antonio due to one of the children having tuberculosis.

In the main tent on the Central Library plaza, native Texan Lawrence Wright discussed his memoir-travelogue God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State with Texas Monthly Editor in Chief Dan Goodgame, for a crowd of 200.

In answer to an audience question, Wright specifically addressed the 1,100 new Texans the state gains every day as a potential for both positives and negatives.

A city goes through levels of cultural evolution, Wright posited as he moved effortlessly among versions of what can be considered Texan: rabbit enchiladas in Houston, choreographer Alvin Ailey from Rogers, to Beyoncé, Richard Linklater, and Larry McMurtry. Wright even slipped in a spot-on Ross Perot impression.

Beautiful Country Burn Again: American Democracy, Rebellion & Revolution is discussed with author Ben Fountain (right) and moderator Gilbert Garcia.
Author Ben Fountain (right) talks about Beautiful Country Burn Again: American Democracy, Rebellion & Revolution with moderator Gilbert Garcia. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The water-feature fountain of the outdoor West Terrace on the library’s third floor played host to author Ben Fountain, whose Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion & Revolution chronicles major upheavals in American history. During his talk with moderator Gilbert Garcia of the San Antonio Express-News, Fountain foretold a third American upheaval as potentially life-changing as the Emancipation Proclamation or the New Deal.

“I think we’re close,” to a similar moment, Fountain said of America’s current direction. “Societies, countries, they reach some kind of crisis point, whether it’s an economic crisis or a crisis of politics, where the country goes one way or the other. Are we going to be an arguably genuine constitutional democracy, or are we going to continue to stay on the road to plutocracy?”

Author David Treuer deals with an earlier American upheaval in The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. An Ojibwe who grew up in Leech Lake, Minnesota, Treuer felt a need to pose a counternarrative to the Dee Brown classic tale of Native American tragedy, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Treuer’s book begins in 1890 where Brown’s book ends and looks at Native American history as essential to understanding American history as a whole. “We are deeply enmeshed in the American experiment … and we have been since the beginning,” he said to the crowd of 180, citing the formative Boston Tea Party, wherein white-skinned rebels dressed as Mohawk people, and that founding constitutional principles were based in part on the Iroquois confederacy.

Novelist Tayari Jones also addressed how the word American is defined, saying she was at first uncomfortable with the title of her book An American Marriage. “I’ve never been called ‘American’ without another word in front of it,” said Jones, who is black.

The title sounded to her “like a book about some white people in Connecticut experiencing emotions,” she said, laughing. A mentor finally convinced her to accept it, recalling “how much so many people went through so you can claim that title as a full citizen of your country.”

Children’s author Xavier Garza spoke about loving scary stories since he was a kid, as a way of introducing his new book Vincent Ventura and the Mystery of the Chupacabras. Once a largely ethnic folktale, the story has become a worldwide phenomenon, he said, because new versions of the legend spread in the early days of the internet.

“It’s become more and more part of the common pop culture in America” which he sees a good thing, Garza said, similar to how Pixar’s 2017 movie Coco popularized Day of the Dead traditions.

Carrie Fountain (no relation to Ben Fountain), author of young adult novel I Am Not Missing, spoke to a crowd of 60 on the importance of portraying young Latinas in youth literature, and particularly young half-white, half-Latina women like herself, “representing very confidently that population because there are so many.”

Laura Van Prooyen, a friend of Fountain’s, a poet, and a volunteer with 12-year-old daughter Ivy at the Gemini Ink literary arts center tent, said she moved here seven years ago from Chicago, coincidentally the same year the book festival started. As a former panel moderator, and first-time festival volunteer, she said she appreciated Flato’s reasoning that she wouldn’t want to live in a city that didn’t have a book festival. “I’m grateful,” she said.

Among the last panels of the day was journalist Douglas Brinkley talking with Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard about American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race, which arrives in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Along with 550 million people the world over, Brinkley said, he watched the riveting drama unfold in the weeks leading to astronaut Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, nearly six years after Kennedy’s death.

American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race with Douglas Brinkley (left) moderated by Robert Rivard.
Douglas Brinkley (left) discusses American Moonshot with Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Brinkley later scored a rare interview with the notoriously reticent Armstrong, which led eventually to American Moonshot. Judging from Brinkley’s effortless recall of myriad facts, figures and details, the book presents a trove of information not widely known or discussed about the origins of the American space program in Nazi Germany, protests against it, including from Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader Ralph Abernathy, and options like processing ocean water into fresh water to help world hunger that were tabled in favor of the space race.

Any author appreciates a careful reader, and Brinkley cited Rivard’s detailed knowledge of the book for enlivening the discussion.

As the last panels of the day wrapped up, festivalgoers headed to book signing tents to obtain copies and author autographs in their day’s favorite books. A portion of book sales benefits the annual San Antonio Book Festival.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...