Boston Book Festival has its own plot


Deborah Porter, executive director of the Boston Book Festival, founded the BBF in 2009 and Boston’s One Story, One City program the following year. Today she oversees a staff of three and a corps of about 200 volunteers. In the past five years, as the festival has expanded to multiple days, attendance has risen to 25,000.

Q. Why did you decide to stretch the festival to three days?

A. It was an effort for the fifth anniversary to prolong the celebration. Three days is harder than two, I can tell you that. Next year and the following year, we can’t use the library — they’re doing a huge renovation of the Johnson building . . . and they don’t want to host us. We’re looking around for other venues, and I suspect the number of authors will be much smaller next year because, [while] the BPL doesn’t have our biggest venues, it has a lot of them.


Q. Where might it be held?

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A. We’ve visited a lot of the other churches in the neighborhood. If anyone wants to come forward with a venue. . . Back Bay has a lot of seats, and I don’t know if there’s another part of town where we could find that many venues that can hold 300 to 1,000 people. It’s challenging. It’ll be a different kind of thing.

Q. What else has happened over the last five years that you didn’t anticipate?

A. What I really didn’t foresee was how quickly it became a thing. I remember, that first year, walking around the festival thinking, Where did all these people come from? I had no idea that many people would show up. There was a lot of activity on the website before the festival started, but I didn’t know how to interpret that — I had no experience in doing anything like this. It’s been so gratifying how people have become fans.

Q. As the BBF has become more established, it feels more like the official books festival of the city. Has that mantle come with any drawbacks?


A. Everyone thinks the city or the library puts it on, and they don’t. We are an independent nonprofit, and we put this on pretty much by ourselves. We know that people think that because they write it on our surveys and tell us that when we’re out and about. [But] we don’t worry about it too much.

Q. Last year, you introduced BBF Unbound, where you invited guest curators to devise sessions. This year, you’ve expanded it to six sessions. Why?

A. We wanted to have a way to engage the audience so that we weren’t just saying from on high, “Here’s what you’re going to listen to.” We wanted people to follow their own interests and propose their own sessions. It was surprisingly successful last year [because] there is an audience for that. I think [the festival] grows because there are so many great people, and we wanted to cram them all in. Also, we want to be inclusive to local authors. It kind of mushroomed in spite of itself.

Q. How else has the audience shaped the festival?

A. We give out surveys, and the first year someone wrote we should mark bathrooms on the map . . . We found out there’s a dead spot [for sound] in Trinity Church that our [audiovisual] person had to fix. A lot of people will say, “Get Stephen King. Get Margaret Atwood.” We invite Stephen King and Margaret Atwood every year.


Q. But you have horror icon Wes Craven. How did he get involved?

A. Because I have friends who know him really well — he has a house on Martha’s Vineyard. My husband and I met him the summer before last, and it turns out that he’s a really nice guy. I was already planning this session on writing about terror, and I was wondering who I can get that has a different perspective.

Q. Which of this year’s presenters is your biggest coup?

A. Obviously [keynote speaker] Salman Rushdie — that was huge.

Q. How did you score him?

A. I go visit publishers in the winter and see who’s got a book coming out in the fall and try to immediately [determine] if that person would be our keynote. Sometimes that works beautifully on the first try — Michael Ondaatje was settled in March the year before. Other times it’s a little more difficult. [Event] proposals go out in March or April, and sometimes we don’t hear for 10, 12 weeks. The bigger the author, the longer you have to wait. It’s quite hair-raising. I thought I had Malcolm Gladwell until June. This year, I was talking to Homi Bhabha from the Mahindra Center at Harvard, and he said, “Who do you want that you haven’t had? Have you had Salman Rushdie?” I said no, and he said he’d ask him. Like everything else in life, it’s who you know.


Interview was edited and condensed.