Overture Center was packed with people buzzing and talking under the soft, halcyon lights. The audience waited for one man, a slight, bespectacled author whose reading had bombed at a private event at his alma mater, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a couple of nights before. But not so in Madison. The audience hung on his every word. Laughed at all the right places. And generously welcomed him as he read excerpts from his private diary.
It’s true the author and humorist was David Sedaris, who catapulted to fame with his essay “Santaland Diaries,” a hilarious tale of being a Macy’s elf in New York at Christmas. But with the hundreds of readings and book events held locally each year, one thing is clear: You don’t have to be on the New York Times bestseller list for Madison to love you.
One of the great pleasures of living in this city of avid readers is taking part in its thriving literary scene. Bookstores and author events abound. The library system is progressive, working outside the library in the community, and committed, funding a beautiful, green renovation to the central branch that has quickly become a downtown centerpiece. Many writers find the city a bucolic and inspirational home base. And the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s writing programs feed the fascination and fervor. Its MFA program is now ranked third in the nation by Poets and Writers magazine, and graduates are responsible for some of the city’s best literary showcases, such as the Monsters of Poetry series and FELIX: A Series of New Writing, to name two.
Possibly no one has more insight into the city’s bookish tastes and trends than its booksellers. There are many we call favorites: Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, Paul’s, Frugal Muse, University Book Store, Mystery to Me. A Room of One’s Own is another Madison mainstay, with roots in the women’s rights movement that flourished here in the ’60s and ’70s. It began in 1975 devoted to feminist lit but in recent years has expanded its focus to serve a more diverse audience. Co-founder Sandi Torkildson still runs Room today and has witnessed a good deal of Madison’s book traffic over the last forty years.
“When I look at my customers and people who come in to buy graphic novels or hardcore science fiction or for the latest book that was just reviewed in the New York Times, we have a pretty broad spectrum,” says Torkildson. “People are sometimes surprised we have as many customers under the age of thirty as we have over the age of fifty. They tend to think younger people don’t read, and I have not found that to be true. We have a really large base of young people. They read everything from the classics like Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and Steinbeck to contemporary authors.”
Michael Chaim hasn’t been around as long as Torkildson, but he’s seen the many facets of the book world and culture through a wider lens and can characterize it in the context of the national publishing marketplace. Before it shut its doors in 2011, Borders, along with its competitor Barnes & Noble, was one of two national megastores, pioneering the big-box approach to bookselling. Michael Chaim managed the University Avenue Borders store from 1992 until it closed.
“One thing you see very clearly when you work in a bookstore is that Madison is a terrific book community,” he says. “The interests are not the same as they are in all places and cities.”
Chaim should know. In addition to having a long career in bookselling, he also personally owns about 14,000 books. He calls himself a “generalist.”
“There are quite a few good generalists in town who make what I have piled up look minimal,” he laughs.
While the Borders chain eventually went out of business, the local Madison store was always successful. “We made money from the first day until the last,” Chaim says. “We would sell enormous numbers of books on topics you wouldn’t normally expect for Madison to sell. We were ranked number three or four out of five hundred-plus stores in the number of Buddhism books. But that’s not all. Madison is also a great nonfiction town. People areinterested in books of history, politics, science and social science. All kinds of things that drive book events, which are always broader than you might think.”
One popular way readers get closer to the books they love, and expand the reading experience, is to attend author readings. In Madison, such events are plentiful, in the hundreds annually, with the Wisconsin Book Festival being the most high profile and highly anticipated each year.
“Author events take something incredibly personal and somewhat solitary and allow you to meet people that share the same affinity,” says festival director Conor Moran, who attended UW Law School and spent time in Washington, D.C., before returning to Madison.
“We have educated people that love Madison and stay here, and that’s why I’m back,” he says. “We have a really incredible, world-class poetry community here. We have Capital City Comics on Monroe Street, which is internationally renowned for its graphic novels and comic books. Madison really knows what it wants.”
And what it wants seems to be a more localized yet expanded festival experience. Before Moran’s arrival, the Madison Public Library Foundation, the festival’s new administrator, reimagined the event as geographically centered around downtown. This allowed for a more festive, cohesive feel than in years past, where crowds moved in waves from one reading to the far-away next. The Foundation also smartly extended the schedule, offering yearlong programming to increase awareness and hosting authors who publish or tour outside the festival’s October window.
With a more robust calendar and a raised profile, the festival could attract the attention of the elite publishing houses that don’t see Madison as a crucial stop in book tours that include larger Midwestern cities like Chicago and Minneapolis.
But it wasn’t always that way. Torkildson recalls memorable visits by famed writers like Dorothy Allison and Isabel Allende, where the line to meet them literally snaked out the door. At one landmark reading near the end of her life, poet May Sarton found herself challenged by a young feminist crowd. “She held her ground, saying, ‘I’m from a different age and luckily you don’t have the same problems,'” Torkildson laughs. That sort of engaged, passionate exchange over words, life and history is a hallmark of Madison’s literary scene.
One of the biggest literary stories last year was the opening of the Madison Public Library’s new Central Branch. Library director Greg Mickells made the move from Nebraska to run it. He was an outsider to the city’s book culture, with now the ultimate insider’s view.
“I see Madison from the perspective of the library, naturally. The community truly supports the library system,” Mickells says. “They’re very vocal about their support and they use it a lot. You couldn’t ask for a better environment for libraries than Madison because public libraries are totally embraced here.”
While many cities may have a professed passion for libraries, Mickells says Madison backs up its zeal with the necessary funding. For example, the renovation of the new downtown branch was undertaken during difficult economic times. And specialty projects such as the expanding Meadowridge library are enhancing the city’s southwest side. Here, the library is responding to the needs of residents in unique and innovative ways, such as installing a kitchen.
“Much of the community is food-centric, and this will help us teach young people how to prepare healthy food,” Mickells says. “There will be a place they can come after school and fix snacks. We are finding the best ways to provide services to the community and food is a part of it. Now, does a kitchen belong in a library? I think sometimes it does.”
Mickells sees a future for Madison libraries that goes well beyond the book.
“Libraries will always be providers of content. We’re very good in that regard. I think where the shift is happening is that we are embracing collecting content from the community. In other words, for would-be authors and poets, [the library] would publish their works and distribute them to the community, to offer another outlet for creative content.”
Madisonians will be viewed not only as literary consumers, but also as creators. This opens up publishing opportunities to more writers, and also allows the library to function as a sort of time capsule of Madison’s creative class.
The university’s academic prestige and programming play a strong role in nurturing the creative classes of tomorrow, and it’s taken a huge step into the future with First Wave, a groundbreaking initiative that gives full-tuition scholarships to youth from throughout the country to write poetry—urban performance poetry, otherwise known as slam. The result is a multicultural community of young artists who work closely together to study and create hip-hop culture, all the while developing themselves as next-generation thinkers, doers and leaders.
Jonathan Williams is a senior in the program. Having grown up in Milwaukee’s inner city, he never believed he had the educational chops to apply to a school like UW. But when he heard about First Wave, he worked harder than ever and applied. Once accepted, First Wave put Williams and his fellow cohort members through an academic boot camp to prepare them for the rigors of campus life. Williams now travels nationally and internationally with the group. His poetry and accomplishments are a testament to what a devoted arts education can provide.
“There are poetry groups you can get involved with but none with the same stake as First Wave, none with the same energy,” Williams says. “Milwaukee is a city of segregated struggles. Here in Madison, I understand myself in a bigger context.”
With a love of books often comes a passion to live and work in that space as well. Past luminaries such as Wallace Stegner, Saul Bellow and Joyce Carol Oates have put pen to paper or fingers to typewriters here, even if only for a time. And contemporary writers and novelists, including Jacquelyn Mitchard of Deep End of the Ocean fame, have called the city home. Remarkably, more than ninety UW–Madison Fellows have gone on to publish award-winning first books.
“What do writers require of a place?” muses local novelist and former staffer at the New Yorker, Dwight Allen. “Only that they have a room of their own. Heat. I don’t know what else we require, really.”
Allen’s novel The Typewriter Satyr is set in a mythologized Middleton. “Place is important to me. Place is significant. One purpose I have in writing is to try and understand the people I know and the world around me. In some ways, it’s self-exploration.”
Novelist Michelle Wildgen, whose books include But Not For Long and the recently released Bread & Butter, also studied at UW as an undergraduate. After earning her MFA, she is now back living in Madison, where she co-founded an organization called the Madison Writers’ Studio with Susanna Daniel, author of stiltsville and Sea Creatures. “We found there are a lot of people here that want to be writing,” says Wildgen. “Whether or not they’re developing an entire life around it, they want to make it a part of their life.”
Wildgen moved back from the busy New York City area to give more balance to her own life, while still feeding herself as a writer through Madison’s many cultural outlets. “The fact that the university is here and the seat of government is here helps create a nice melting pot to keep the culture alive,” she says. “There are all these little ways it kind of bubbles up and lets me make it a part of my life on a regular basis.”
Like Allen, Wildgen’s set both of her published novels in Madison.
“I’d lived in places that didn’t have any particularity to them. And I liked that Madison had its own weird quirks and way of being. I didn’t understand how to write about setting until I moved to Madison.”
Award-winning children’s author and illustrator Kevin Henkes shares Allen’s and Wildgen’s pride in using the city as inspiration, backdrop, canvas and even muse. Madison parents who’ve raised their children on Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse and Sheila Rae’s Peppermint Stick may not even know his characters were conceived here. Or that his picture book Kitten’s First Full Moon won the Caldecott, and his young adult novel Olive’s Ocean received a Newbery Honor. Henke has been living and working in Madison since his late teens, when he came to study at UW. His first book, All Alone, sold between his freshman and sophomore years.
“The Cooperative Children’s Book Center [at UW] was a big draw for me,” Henkes remembers. “When I came to school here I really felt like the world had cracked open. To me, Madison was a big, beautiful, cultured city, so I was very happy to be here.”
Henkes agrees that place is also important in his work. “Almost all my novels are set in Madison. I’ve thought about setting them in other places, but anytime I have it’s a Wisconsin kid who happens to be someplace else. I’ve always felt most comfortable looking at a place through the eyes of someone from Wisconsin.”
Laura Jones is a Madison-based writer.