A Conversation with Kara Oakleaf, Director of GMU’s Annual Literary Festival

Fall for the Book, GMU’s annual literary festival, is facing lots of changes this year as social distancing measures are shifting the way college campuses operate. I was able to talk with Kara Oakleaf, the festival’s director, about her experience with Fall for the Book and some of the ways the festival is changing. Oakleaf is a writer and teaches in the English Department at GMU, and has been working with the festival since 2010.

MR: How does your experience as a writer influence the way that you work with Fall for the Book?

KO: I came to Fall for the Book to work because I was a writer; I did my graduate degree at George Mason, so first I attended Fall for the Book as a student and first started to enjoy interacting with authors in that way. Then when I was graduating, the job for manager opened up so I applied for that and I’ve been working with Fall for the Book ever since!

I do think it gives me an interesting perspective on how we run our events because I have experience in going to readings, so I have an interesting sense of what it’s like from the author’s side. In many ways that helps me think about what experience we want our authors to have, and think about the different things a festival can do to entice authors to come and participate in readings.

MR: On the other side of that, does your work at Fall for the Book influence how you work as a writer?

KO: It does, I think the biggest influence on me as a writer – and probably what so many writers would say – is that reading is what influences you most as a writer. Fall for the Book is one of the ways that I’ve been introduced to so many writers that I may have never otherwise come into contact with.

MR: The festival is fully online this year, that’s a very big change. How do you think this “new normal” of everything being virtual is changing the way the creative field or the community of authors interacts with each other?

KO: One thing that I really liked about online events, in seeing what we’ve been able to do with FFTB and seeing what other places are doing as well, is seeing that virtual events are, for so many people, more accessible than in-person events are. We’ve had a number of people that talked to us about the fact that because of their work schedule they wouldn’t be able to come to an evening event on campus, but they’re able to listen into it at home while they’re on their phone and doing something else. We’ve been able to reach a different segment of the community who would normally not be able to come to all the in-person events that they would want to.

The other thing that’s been cool is seeing how many people from beyond our community are tuning into our festival – we’ve got a little map going on our website where we’ve been putting little pushpins on every country on the world with viewers; right now we have viewers on every single continent except for Antarctica! It’s fun to see people tuning in from all over the world to see these writers.

It’s also cool to get to host international writers that we normally wouldn’t be able to host. We’ve had a few events where we’ve been able to partner with the Cheuse International Writer’s Center on campus, and they would normally be bringing writers in to do residencies but obviously, that’s not happening now, so one thing we’ve been able to work with them with is being able to host international writers online as part of the festival.

All of our events are still available to go back and watch. Everything that’s been recorded, with just a couple of exceptions, is still up and available to watch on our website. People are able to go back and watch them after if they’re not able to watch them live.