Friday, June 27, 2014

Parting Words from Somerville writer Nora Piehl...

Norah Piehl--Director of Communications and Development for the Boston Book Festival

Parting Words from Somerville writer Nora Piehl

Interview with Doug Holder

Well I am sad to report Somerville is losing a talented member of its literary community.  Nora Piehl is reluctantly leaving town and moving to the suburbs with her young family. But I nabbed her for questioning before she departs these fertile grounds.

 Piehl is the Director of Communications and Development for the Boston Book Festival. A former children's bookseller, Norah has also worked in the publishing industry for both university and trade publishers. She is an active writer whose essays, interviews and reviews have been published in Publishers Weekly, The Horn Book, Brain, Child, Skirt! magazine, National Public Radio, and many other publications, as well as in several print anthologies. Her short fiction has appeared in Literary MamaThe Linnet's WingsThe LegendaryPrinter's Devil Review, and the anthology Battle Runes: Writings on War.

Tell me about how you got involved with the Book Festival and bit of its history?

The Boston Book Festival is now in its sixth year. It was established in 2009 after our founding director, Deborah Porter, noticed that Boston was virtually the only major city in the world without a book festival. That first year, the organizers were expecting between three and five thousand people, and they got nearly twelve thousand attendees! Clearly the demand for this kind of programming was there, and we've continued to grow and expand ever since.

I started at the festival in 2011. I had worked in book publishing for a number of years and had also developed some experience in arts administration through some volunteer work I'd been doing. At the time, I was freelancing and not really looking for a full-time job, but when this opportunity presented itself, it seemed too perfect to turn down. It's such a small nonprofit (we have 2.5 employees) that I get to do a little bit of everything, and the job is anything but predictable or dull.

Can you tell me about the highlights of this year's festival?

This year we're featuring five keynote presenters. We're starting off on Thursday, October 23, with a great kickoff session featuring Herbie Hancock in conversation with Berklee president Roger Brown. Herbie has a memoir coming out in early November. On Friday the 24th Susan Minot, whose most recent novel is Thirty Girls, will be in conversation with young African journalist Dayo Olopade. And on Saturday the 25th we have three featured presenters: kids' keynote Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series), noted architect Lord Norman Foster, and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. I don't know if it's a highlight exactly, but one thing people will definitely notice this year is that, due to construction at the Boston Public Library, we're unable to use any of their venues for programming. Instead, we're stepping outside of our Copley Square footprint to use venues all over Back Bay.

How about your own background as a writer...what are your ambitions?

Lately I've mainly been publishing book reviews, so my biggest ambitions are to meet my deadlines most of the time! Seriously, though, I've recently stepped back from my volunteer arts administration position (see above), so I'm hoping to dedicate some of that newly-liberated free time toward writing--I've been kicking around a few essay ideas, particularly related to issues of parenthood and place, both of which are much on my mind lately.

How was your stay in Somerville? You said you love the city--tell me why.

I've lived in Somerville for the past four years. After living previously in some other Boston suburbs that will remain nameless, I was eager to be back in a real city, and to live on this side of the Charles for the first time. I've really come to treasure the people I've met and befriended while I've lived here, through my professional interactions, personal relationships, and activities like a writers' group I've attended periodically. I like that the neighbors on my street include educators, tradespeople, activists, musicians, and plenty of other "creative types." It's a great mix of long-time residents and newcomers--lots of families and kids, too. And I love being able to walk to everything, not just to my office in Harvard Square but also to the farmers' markets in Union or at the Armory, to my favorite restaurants and coffee shops, to the bookstore in Porter, to the cinema in Davis, etc., etc. 

Any great anecdotes that you can recall that you experienced during the Festival?

Some of my favorite anecdotes actually happen right after the Festival, when I can see and hear what it meant to people. I remember the first year I was involved, in 2011, I was completely wiped out at the end of the Festival day--and starving, too. My boyfriend (now my husband) and I landed at the S&S in Inman. While I devoured a sandwich, I overheard a group of people at the next booth in vigorous discussion and debate--about one of the sessions they had just attended at the BBF! It really reminded me, even through my exhaustion, why the Festival is so important. It brings people together around great books and can start conversations that extend far beyond a single day.

 Tell me about the BBF Unbound program that has been a great success at the Festival.

Yes, this has been a really great program for us. BBF Unbound started in 2012 with two sessions that were proposed to us by community groups. Both of those sessions--one on prison book and writing programs and one on writing by recent veterans--surpassed our expectations for quality and for attendee interest. So in 2013 we expanded the program to include several sessions all day, on everything from a survey of multicultural books for kids to an analysis of how the story of the Boston Marathon bombings was told in words and pictures. We love providing a way for individuals and groups to have a real voice at the Festival, and we're constantly surprised and delighted by the new topics people propose to us, most of which would never have occurred to us to develop on our own! We're accepting submissions for this year's program through July 15. 

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