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March 14, 2019

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: The 10th Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival is May 18th!


I LOVE book festivals. I admit a little skepticism when I first heard that the DC suburb of Gaithersburg would host a book festival. That was 10 years ago. Everyone should benefit from being so wrong; I adore this day. I was lucky enough to talk to Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman, who dreamed up this jewel of a festival.

Denise Neary: Your Festival combines big-time talent and lots of sweet small-town nods. Tell me how you imagined that coming together.

Jud Ashman: It stems from the foolish ambition to be all things to all people. We wanted to be the place where people come to meet their very favorite authors. We wanted to be the place where you could reliably discover the up-and-coming writers you'd want to meet, but before they broke big. And we wanted to be the place where talented, local authors could catch a break and have a shot on the big stage.

Those are just a few of the ways in which we sought to change the world with a one-day annual book festival.

DN: What’s an element of this year’s Festival that you can’t wait to see play out?

JA: There are a few. This is our milestone 10th year, so we're planning to close the Festival with a concert, which should be great fun. We have our first-ever writing workshop conducted all in Spanish for aspiring Spanish writers. Very cool, particularly in our super-diverse community. And, of course, we have a spectacular lineup of authors and programs that I cannot wait to see.

DN: Who is someone you would love to have speak at the Festival but haven’t yet been able to wrangle?

JA: There are probably a hundred authors we regularly dream about, but haven't wrangled yet. Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Green, John Grisham, Jodi Picoult, George R. R. Martin, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Malala Yousafzai, etc. You know the type: the very authors who least need the exposure. Isn't it human nature to pine most for the ones we can't have?

DN: I’ve had lots of “pinch me” moments at your Festival. (Seeing Jenny Lawson overcome by the response of her fans is one among many.) What’s one (or a few) for you?

JA: So many come to mind! Here are a couple:

The first happened early on and wasn't actually at the Festival. I think it was in the months leading up to our second or third Festival. A friend of mine had come back from a trip to Arizona and called me. He said that, when he was checking his luggage at the Phoenix airport, the attendant, having noticed the luggage tag, said to him, "Gaithersburg. Isn't that where they have that book festival?"

I'm Mayor now (I was a City Council member at the time), and I want you to think about it from this perspective: there are a lot of things we naturally associate with cities. For example, when I talk about LA or Chicago or Miami or Birmingham, what comes to mind? Good things, bad things... it's probably a mixed bag, right? And here, with this random luggage attendant in Phoenix, we had some evidence that our city's identity was being associated with something so undeniably positive and admirable. I was utterly over the moon.

And then the next I'll share was also early on.

Jim Lehrer was speaking at our 2012 Festival. He'd written a book about the behind-the-scenes experiences of hosting all those presidential debates, and just as he was getting started in his talk, a loud freight train came by (the occasional train is one of the charms of our Festival, or so we tell ourselves) and stopped Lehrer mid-sentence. As it passed, Lehrer wandered off topic. He began rhapsodizing about how, when he was growing up in rural Kansas, he'd lie in his bed listening to the trains go by, and he'd dream of getting out, exploring the wider world. Trains were his escape, his ticket out. And for that, all his life, he has loved trains. I stood at the back of the crowd, thinking what a wonderful, serendipitous, communal moment it was for all who were there.

DN: Now that you’re established as a premier book festival, is there anything you miss about your early years?

JA: Yes. The weather. Our first six years were basically all perfect days. Two of the last three have been rainy. Don't get me wrong, our Festival is wonderful, rain or shine. But all things being equal, we'd prefer the latter!

DN: You are determined to be an outdoor festival. Why is that?

JA: Two reasons. First, we want to showcase Olde Towne Gaithersburg. It's beautiful and charming, and we want people to see that. The second reason is more practical: we honestly don't have an indoor facility large enough to host it.

DN: I admitted my skepticism about what you could do. What’s the funniest/most memorable roadblock you recall?

JA: In terms of planning a festival in Gaithersburg, we were very lucky to have great support among our municipal folks and among the residents and volunteers. Let's face it, the area was ripe for a book festival.

But I'll tell you a funny “roadblock” story. Each year, a good number of our authors come down by train from New York. A few years ago, there was a big train derailment in Philly that shut down Amtrak during the very week of our Festival. We had a few authors drop out, claiming that, not only did they not own a car, they also couldn't rent one because they didn't know how to drive. (Come on, New York people!) But there was this one graphic novelist, Pénélope Bagieu, who at the time was seven months pregnant --- very pregnant, as my wife would say. She had just moved to New York from Paris only months earlier, but got herself into a rental and hauled it down to Gaithersburg. She was a trooper! And her perseverance earned her everlasting respect among my fellow GBF planners --- and, conversely, it added just a little bit of derision for those who had backed out on us.

DN: What’s your favorite book?


Don’t believe us about how wonderful the Gaithersburg Book Festival is? Come join us for the 10th Festival on May 18th and see for yourself! You can check out the schedule on their website here. Bring sunblock and an umbrella because this Festival is impervious to the weather!

Happy 10th!!!