PORTLAND — It’s all about intimacy.

An effective book festival connects readers with writers in a meaningful way. The Maine Festival of the Book does that by giving participants a chance to listen to what the writers have to say and then encouraging them to mingle and talk afterward.

“Attendees want to feel like they are entering into the writer’s world and really feel like they are getting a glimpse,” said Sarah Cecil, executive director of Maine Reads, which organizes the annual festival.

This year’s festival opens Friday and runs through April 3 at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Most programs feature pairings or small groups of authors talking about a common aspect of their writing.

Subjects include memoir, gardening, mystery, fly fishing, Franco-American history, poetry, and writing and publishing.

Most events are free.

“The big thing that I pitch is programs, parties and performances,” Cecil said. “What you don’t want people to think of when they think about the book festival is old and stale and stuffy. I want it to seem like fun.”

What you won’t see very much of are readings, she added. Libraries and bookstores around Maine already do that, and do it well. The festival should offer more than what is already available, she said.

“We focus on discussions, and a big piece of that is putting writers who will present well together on the same program,”  Cecil said. “I think that is what people crave the most – intimacy, and the chance to interact.”

A good example of that pairing of writers can be found in Paul Harding and Sarah Braunstein, two new writers who have experienced unusual success to start their careers.

Harding, who lives in Massachusetts, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his book “Tinkers.” Braunstein, who lives in Portland, wrote the novel “The Sweet Relief of Missing Children.” The National Book Foundation recently named her among “five under 35” fiction writers worthy of attention.

Together, they will host a program titled “Wrestling a Book into the World.” They will talk about art, hysteria and the laborious process of birthing a book.

Harding has been on a whirlwind since winning the Pulitzer Prize last April.

And yet, he feels fortunate that his book ever saw the light of day.

He began shopping it to publishers in 2005. After amassing three dozen rejection letters from publishers and agents, he was ready to give up. He was discouraged and angry.

“But after I cooled off, I stepped back and become philosophical about it,” he said. “It’s tough to get a book published if you are a writer. It’s tough to get a good role if you are an actor. It’s tough to get good gallery space if you are a visual artist. It’s the hazard of the trade.”

He pledged to keep writing. All his best teachers advised him not to mix up writing and publishing. Writing is not a means to get published, they told him. Writing is the thing itself.

So he continued to write, “because it’s how I want to conduct my humanity.”

And then good fortune crossed his door. One evening while lamenting his fate to a friend, he was given the name of a guy who ran a small, independent press in New York City. Harding sent him the book. The guy liked it, but couldn’t publish it because it didn’t fit with the kind of books the press published.

“But by coincidence, he was having dinner the next night with a woman who ran a newly formed not-for-profit press. He offered to pass the manuscript along to her. I said, ‘Of course.’ ”
You know the rest.

She loved the book, published it on her tiny Bellevue Literary Press, and a year later, Harding won the Pulitzer Prize.

His life changed instantly. Before winning the Pulitzer, he was doing readings for a half-dozen people in friends’ houses and coffee shops. After winning the prize, he’s been all over the world. The book has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

“Tinkers” has deep Maine roots. The initial motivation for writing the book was an abiding fascination with and loyalty to the family stories that Harding’s grandfather used to tell about growing up in central Maine. When his grandfather died, Harding wrote down a few key elements of those stories. The book sprang from those early ideas.

“My grandmother was from Dover-Foxcroft and my grandfather was from Garland,” Harding said. “They talked like Mainers. They lived in Massachusetts, and moved down after World War II.

“But my grandfather had a love for the Maine woods his whole life. I got to know Maine by going up fly fishing with him east of Moosehead Lake every year. West Branch Pond. That landscape became twined with my relationship with my grandfather. One always implied the other.”

Harding is 43 now. That’s not old for a first book, but he’s certainly not a young man anymore. He took a circuitous route to publishing fame. His second novel will be published next year by Random House.
For the past year, he’s done very little but travel to promote “Tinkers.” He loves coming to book festivals, because they reaffirm almost everything he believes in when it comes to publishing and literature.

“These are just the sort of things that keep writing and reading alive,” Harding said. “They are just wonderful ways for people to get together and reassure one another that the art is alive and well, despite persistent rumors to the contrary.

“Being a writer, sometimes you forget that from the outside, you look like a strange and odd creature. But really, the act of writing a book is a gesture of fellowship in the first place. These festivals are a communal gathering, and I love doing them.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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