Mayor Julián Castro opens the Literary Death Match. Photo by Melanie Robinson.
Mayor Julián Castro opens the 2014 Literary Death Match. Photo by Melanie Robinson.

It’s a one-day festival in downtown San Antonio fueled by brainpower rather than beer. Thousands of people who attended the free event came because they were attracted by a shared love of writing, the pleasure of reading and the importance of libraries in community life.

The second annual San Antonio Book Festival took place on a chilly April Saturday, but the unseasonable weather won’t be what people remember.

For me, the day was a reminder that this city has great spaces I do not visit often enough, namely the Central Library and the Southwest School of Art, where modern architecture and historical preservation comfortably reside, side by side, in the urban core.

The day reminded me how much it means to readers to meet authors, to listen to them talk about craft, to share a brief conversation in a signing line, and to take home a personally inscribed book.

The outdoor tents that bridged the library and art school were alive with cooking demonstrations and animated writers thrilling children with their performance readings. Live music and competing food aromas filled the air. Twice I returned to my nearby car to unload the weight of new books and then return for more as people wrapped in warm clothing hustled to their next author interview.

San Antonio Book Festival 2014. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Public Library.
San Antonio Book Festival 2014. Photo courtesy of the San Antonio Public Library.

If only the festival were two or three days. With nearly 10 authors appearing simultaneously, counting the cooking demos, it was a tough choice: who to see and who, alas, to miss. I considered hopping from one presentation to the next, but inevitably, once inside and caught in the conversation between author and moderator, I stayed put.

Big D

My day began in the session with Bill Minutaglio and and Steven Davis, co-authors of “Dallas 1963,” a book I had read with great anticipation and equal satisfaction only days after its publication. Cary Clack, one of many local writers and artists who served as moderators yesterday, was the right choice for this exploration of America’s most racist, paranoid city of the Cold War era.

"Dallas 1963" by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Publisher: Twelve (October 8, 2013).
“Dallas 1963” by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis. Publisher: Twelve (October 8, 2013).

You might think the era of the assassination of President Kennedy is a story fully told. Not true. This book is rich with new material. It isn’t even an assassination whodunit, rather a no-holds barred exploration of a city and the extreme characters that dominated the city’s politics and commerce.

One such story known to few is leftist Lee Harvey Oswald’s botched assassination of right-wing fanatic Gen. Edwin Walker, and the bumbled police investigation that followed, enabling Oswald to escape prosecution and remain free to kill JFK.

I was a young reporter there in the late 1970s, yet I learned more from this book about the city’s segregated African-American community in that era than I ever learned while at the now-defunct Dallas Times Herald, a progressive daily for its time. Like most newsrooms then, it was virtually empty of blacks, Latinos, or women in positions of power.

Big Bend

True confession: I first moved to Texas in 1974, yet I’ve never stepped foot in Big Bend National Park. I’ve made many a trip to Marfa, Fort Davis, Marathon and Alpine, enjoyed long West Texas bike rides, and on more than one occasion, peered through powerful telescopes at the McDonald Observatory. I’ve never set foot in the park.

I was ready to jump in my car and head west after listening to journalist, writer and down home storyteller Marcia Hatfield Daudistel talk about the making of “Authentic Texas: People of the Big Bend.” Bill Wright’s photographs of the West Texas landscape shimmer with color and light and his portraits of locals that are rendered in black and white communicate genuine authenticity. Unfortunately, he was ill and unable to attend.

"Authentic Texas: People of the Big Bend" by Hatfield Daudistel.Publisher: University of Texas Press (October 20, 2013).
for “Authentic Texas: People of the Big Bend” by Marcia Hatfield Daudistel.Publisher: University of Texas Press (October 20, 2013).

Moderator and artist Scott Martin lives in Southtown and travels far and wide to practice his distinctive night photography. He’s worked in Big Bend for many years, and it showed in the flow of conversation, which meandered wonderfully as if we were all floating the Rio Grande, moving from canyons to cliffs to crossings.

The people of Big Bend live in a world where nature matters more than technology, where neighbors matter more than what’s one television.

“These people have no need or interest in their 15 minutes of fame,” the author said as she described the art of building trust with each of the book’s subjects.

I love a well-told outdoors story as much as the next hunter-gatherer. Hatfield Daudistel’s story of an orphan javelina is one of the best critter stories I’ve heard in some time. I won’t do it justice, but it seems the little pup was rescued as a juvenile from a highway ditch and raised lovingly by the couple who found it until maturity and hormones caused the animal to run away from home in pursuit of a herd of females.

Still, the male javelina returned home from time to time, leaving its female entourage in the front yard while it slipped through the back door for some indoor loving and nourishment. Eventually, after the years had passed and the hormones diminished, the aging javelina, cut out of the herd as the dominant male, came home for good to resume its full-time job as the family pet. Get the book, it’s worth it.

Big Boom

I put on my own moderator’s hat on to share a conversation in the library auditorium with Russell Gold, the senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal, who lives in Austin and from 1996-99 worked at the San Antonio Express-News.

His book, “The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World” is the definitive work to date on the subject. For locals who want to better understand the complexities of oil and gas exploration and the environmental, regulatory and cultural issues surrounding the boom, this book is an informative and entertaining read. Two of the larger-than-life characters in the world of fracking are profiled in the book.

"The Boom" by Russell Gold. Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 8, 2014).q
“The Boom” by Russell Gold. Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 8, 2014).

One is George Mitchell, the Houston-based Father of Fracking, who died last year, but not before he gave away more money (nearly $1 billion) in 2013, second only to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The second is Chesapeake Energy founder and former CEO Aubrey McClendon, whose ambitions for business growth and lust for wealth and trophies, from vintage boats to vintage Burgundy, ultimately brought him down. Undaunted, he would rise again.

These are snapshots of my day at the public library. Talk to another book festival attendee and that person would have an entirely different set of experiences and memories. That’s how it was in the festival’s first year, and again Saturday.

The real difference between year one and year two was something called the Literary Death Match, staged at the Empire Theater, hosted by Adrian Todd Zuniga, produced by Clay Smith, the festival’s literary director, and opened by Mayor Julián Castro.  It’s an event waiting for its own slot on Comedy Central or maybe National Public Radio.

Castro praised the San Antonio Public Library Foundation, the festival’s executive director Katy Flato and Smith, and sat down front for the first half of the show. Zuniga followed him on stage, much as a tornado follows a quiet day, declaring he had never before been introduced by a big league mayor.

Zuniga is a zany and youthful hyped up stage host, a beanpole figure in a retro, three-piece suit with a knack for generating literary trivia, most of it true, delivered like water gushing from a fire hose.  It was Zuniga’s job, in between the chatter and the laughter, to referee two pairs of competing writers, each of whom rose from an on-stage sofa (“see, they’re really friends!”) to perform a 5-7 minute piece before getting the proverbial hook via a telltale note struck on a xylophone.

Owen Egerton‘s entertaining lecture from a repressed gay minister to adolescents at summer spiritual camp triumphed over Roxana Robinson‘s serious passage of a U.S. war vet’s haunted homecoming flight from the war in Iraq. Then Antonio Sacre, a self-described “leprechaun-o,” the product of a Mexican father and Irish-American mother, prevailed with his autobiographical striptease confessional over Malín Alegria‘s saucy quinceañera memoir.

Three judges sat on stage and vamped their way through a series of well-lubricated critical reviews, assessing the performers on literary merit (Jake Silversetin, editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly and soon-to-be editor of the New York Times Sunday magazine); performance (María Cristina Marrero, editor-in-chief of Siempre Mujer magazine in New York); and, “intangibles” (Molly Cox, chief of engagement for SA2020).

With help from some random audience picks (including Rivard Report contributing writer Melanie Robinson), Finalists Sacre and Egerton (and audience helpers) then faced off for a hit-the-buzzer literary quiz. Zuniga read obscure descriptions of famous literary titles, with the first team to strike the xylophone answering quiz show style. Sacre (and Robinson, et al) prevailed in a down-to-the-wire thriller.

From left: Author Antonio Sacre, Melanie Robinson, and fellow teammate laugh and compete in the closing quiz/contest at the Literary Death Match. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
From left: Author Antonio Sacre, Melanie Robinson, and fellow teammate laugh and compete in the closing quiz/contest at the Literary Death Match. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The evening at the Empire wowed a sold-out audience that arrived earlier in the evening not knowing what to expect at this first-time event. This was performance theater at its best; everyone left energized by the evening and wanting more. The Death Match will be a very hard ticket to come by next April when the San Antonio Book Festival celebrates its third year in 2015.

*Featured/top image: Mayor Julián Castro opens the Literary Death Match. Photo by Melanie Robinson.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.