The third annual Gaithersburg Book Festival is Saturday, May 19 and city councilman Jud Ashman—the festival's founder and chairperson—took some time to talk with Patch about the event and its evolution.
Gaithersburg Patch: You've been involved with the Gaithersburg Book Festival since its inception as its founder and serving as its chairperson. Can you give us a history of the event and how it came to be?
Jud Ashman: Let me just start by saying that, if you told me four years ago that Gaithersburg would be hosting a discussion of presidential debates with Jim Lehrer, a sports chat with John Feinstein, a reading with children’s author Andrew Clements, and a talk about Greek mythology with a debut author, Madeline Miller, a finalist for the Orange Prize for Fiction, among more than 100 other fabulous writers, I would’ve deemed it a cultural success of immense proportions — far beyond my expectations.
Here’s how it started.
In the fall of 2008, the future of my then-favorite DC-area event, the National Book Festival, was uncertain. Its founder, Laura Bush, would be leaving the White House but we didn’t know who’d be coming in and whether they’d continue that festival.
Haunted by the idea that such a fabulous cultural tradition could be at its end, I thought to myself, "Why can’t we do a book festival of our own? Gaithersburg would be a perfect place to host it. There are so many nationally-known authors and journalists based in the metro area, and so many readers, what’s to stop us?" I’d been serving as a Gaithersburg City Council member for about a year at that point, so I was in a position to do something about it.
I brought the idea to the Mayor and my colleagues on the Council, as well as staff. They saw its value and were all immediately supportive. In 2009, we recruited a dozen or so very dedicated volunteers who shared my vision—and my love of books—and started planning the first annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, which took place in May 2010. We attracted more than 50 top authors, and over 6,000 attendees that year, and it has been growing ever since. Last year we had 80+ authors, and more than 10,000 attendees. This year will be even bigger—between our featured authors, local spotlight authors, panelists, coffee house poets and musicians, and workshop presenters, we have more than 140 speakers who will be participating throughout the day.
Gaithersburg Patch: You wrote in your blog on the Gaithersburg Book Festival site that 2010 was heavy on literary fiction, 2011 mystery, and this year is heavy on comedy. Would you say each year takes on a theme of sorts? What goes into planning for these specific genres each year?
Ashman: As I’ve said, on May 19, Gaithersburg becomes “Comedy Central". (How cool is that, by the way!) We have an amazing cast of comedic authors, including: Henry Alford (“Would It Kill You to Stop That”), Cathy Alter (“Wedding Cake for Breakfast”), Larry Doyle (writer for the Simpsons, and author of “I Love You Beth Cooper” and “Deliriously Happy”), 30 Rock star Judah Friedlander (“How to Beat Up Anybody”), Jen Lancaster (“Jeneration X”), Jenny "The Bloggess" Lawson (“Let's Pretend This Never Happened”), and Baratunde Thurston (“How to Be Black”).
Yes, each year does seem to take on its own identity, but that identity forms almost completely by accident. We start by inviting a diverse list of a few hundred authors who’d be a draw and who have timely book releases, and, essentially, whoever says “yes” says “yes”. We don’t have a lot of control over it.
That’s why it’s so special when you get a group like we have this year. I know I’ve focused on the strength of our comedy writers, because it’s such an interesting and unusual twist. But this Festival is strong all over the place: fiction, history, mystery, children’s, sports, politics… everywhere you look, there’s a great story.
Gaithersburg Patch: Who are some of the authors you're most excited to have at this year's event?
Ashman: I’m excited about every last one of them! But I’ll give you a few, just to whet your appetite.
Buzz Bissinger, best known as the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Friday Night Lights” will be talking about his new book, “Father’s Day.”
Jenny Lawson, aka “the Bloggess”, will be here talk about her hilarious new memoir “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened,” which is a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.
Legendary children’s authors Andrew Clements and Michael Buckley.
Judah Friedlander, super stand-up comic, and star of one of my favorite TV shows, “30 Rock”.
Some terrific up-and-comers including Donna Britt, Siobhan Fallon, Alex George, Chris Pavone, and many, many others!
Editor's Note: This is part one of a two part Q&A with Jud Ashman. Part two will appear on Tuesday morning. In addition, interviews with a Montgomery County author and student entrant in the book festival's short story contest will appear on Wednesday and Friday of this week.