The Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival enters its fourth year in feisty fashion.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
William Shakespeare could rise from the grave, show up in Carmel and offer to talk about great plays and literature as part of the upcoming Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival. But if he couldn’t rock a mic and be as engaging in person as he was in print, Jim McGillen would tell the Bard of Avon to hit the bricks.
With a personality that’s a little Mad Men and a little Rat Pack, McGillen likely would use exactly those words. Philadelphia-born and Ireland-raised, he made a small fortune in the cutthroat world of television production. After his company was acquired – and eventually ended up as part of Time Inc. in the late ’80s – McGillen, then 47, found himself with enough money to do whatever.
That whatever has become a meld of the literary, educational and entertaining at the now-annual festival he launched four years ago with his wife, former KSBW-TV and KSBY-TV president Cynthia McGillen.
Brilliant writing and deep knowledge of the written word are only parts of what McGillen looks for when he puts together his roster of star players.
“The main criteria is that if I ask someone to stand up, they better damn well better be able to command that audience,” McGillen says. “So-and-so wrote a great book? I don’t care. I’m looking for ‘I just heard the greatest talk at this festival’ people.”
Carmel Authors & Ideas has been able to command both – great writers who are also great speakers. In his first year, McGillen leveraged his friendship with Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), using the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s name to reach out to other writers. (“‘If you’re crazy enough to try it, I’ll help you do it,’” was McCourt’s response, according to McGillen.) Having McCourt on board helped McGillen land fellow Pulitzer winner Dolores Kearns Goodwin (The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga) and Elizabeth Edwards (author, attorney, late wife of ex-presidential candidate John). Since the first festival, the roster has expanded to include many more large literary names – this year, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Ridley Pearson, Gene Wojciechowski, Dave Barry, Jeff Greenfield and Scott Turow are just a few of the nearly three dozen authors slated to speak.
Kelly Corrigan, whose 2008 New York Times best-seller The Middle Place recounts going through surgery and treatment for cancer at the same time as her beloved father, will be a first-time Authors & Ideas speaker this year. She has “no idea” how McGillen found her, but thinks it has something to do with a video of her reading an essay on women’s capacity to support each other that received 4 million hits on YouTube. McGillen called her personally to invite her, a move she describes as an especially nice touch.
“When I get stuck writing, I watch TED videos and I get hooked on these idea festivals,” Corrigan says. “These days you can get a sense of someone in two or three clicks. You can get a sense of how they will do in front of a crowd.”
Corrigan, who spent a recent morning reading to a classroom of second graders (“They just love being read to”) and then trying to wrangle her wild labrador, plans to speak about the lessons one learns in a crisis. “I have my own little angle on it. Just try to get to 40 or 50 years old without having one.”
Festival tickets, at $550 for a pass to all the events at the Sunset Center, are expensive and McGillen knows it. He points out that a ticket to the Aspen Ideas Festival costs $2,500 for the right to buy a $1,500 ticket. TED, with prices higher than Aspen and an ultra-exclusive vibe, requires a statement of worthiness (“If a friend were to describe your accomplishments, what would he or she say?” is just one of many questions on the application, along with a reference check section). McGillen doesn’t strive for that level of exclusivity, and says there’s a little secret about the ticket price he doesn’t mind sharing.
“We would never say no to someone who really wants to attend,” McGillen says. “We would have them volunteer or be an usher. We would never allow the cost of a ticket to keep someone from attending.” For those unable to volunteer, shoot McGillen a two-line letter, (“two lines only,” he says), and he’ll consider giving them a ticket.
At least part of the ticket price goes to fund student involvement. Nearly 3,000 middle and high school students from Monterey County public schools will arrive in shifts (9:30-11:30am and 12:30-2pm on Thursday and Friday) to hear various authors. Speaker Julia Bolz, founder of an NGO called Ayni Educational International, which has built and equipped 25 new schools in Afghanistan, also will go to several schools in the district to talk to students.
The festival, says Monterey County Office of Education Superintendent Nancy Kotowski, has given students interactions with people and ideas they might not otherwise be able to get, including face time with Justice O’Conner and former National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.
“There is no experience comparable to this that brings them to a higher order of thinking and brings them into contact with highly accomplished individuals,” Kotowski says. “They are still unpacking the ideas presented to them months after the festival is over, all they learn from the interactions.”
Not only is McGillen trying to foster the next generation of readers. He’s also cultivating the next generation of thinkers.
“In Condi Rice’s closing remarks last year, she said, ‘Never let someone tell you you can’t do something because of the way you look,’” McGillen says. “It was an audience of about 98 percent minorities, they were middle and high school kids, and she definitely connected with more than one of them.”
THE CARMEL AUTHORS & IDEAS FESTIVAL, sponsored by the 501(c)(3) Carmel Ideas Foundation, runs from Friday-Sunday, Sept. 23-25, at the Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at Ninth Avenue, Carmel. www.carmelauthors.com.