A Lark, but No Joke

Famous authors keen to present at Traverse opera house events.
Doug Stanton, NWS co-founder, chats with authors Elizabeth Letts, Elizabeth Berg and Lynne Olson.
Doug Stanton, NWS co-founder, chats with authors Elizabeth Letts, Elizabeth Berg and Lynne Olson.

The story behind the National Writers Series in northern Michigan would make a great book. Pulitzer Prize winners and best-selling authors love coming to the event, which has become one of the top five book stops in the country. Major publishers call to get authors on the schedule. And it all happens in Traverse City, a far cry from New York or Chicago, where one would expect such a series to take place.

Even harder to believe is the series started on a lark. Doug Stanton, a Traverse City resident, got the idea after his book tour for The New York Times best-seller “Horse Soldiers.” He wanted to create an experience where authors interact with the audience that felt like a party. The spirited and sometimes “ridiculous” evenings that take the format of a conversation with the author and moderator are designed to be different from a book reading.

“We didn’t expect it to take off,” Stanton said of the year-round festival that was planned while sitting around the kitchen table with his wife Anne Stanton, co-founder and executive director.

But take off it did, bringing in authors over the years that include Stephen King, Alice Walker, Richard Russo, Anna Quindlen, Nikki Giovanni, Jodi Picoult, Roy Blount Jr., David Sedaris and Tom Brokaw to the town’s beautiful and historic City Opera House, where the series is held.

The National Writers Series includes two seasons. The first starts in January and the second in August. Together, they will feature approximately 18 world-renowned authors this year, and nearly 9,000 people will attend. 

Organizers try to seek out emerging authors and authors of color to make the series diverse.

“We try to mix it,” Anne said. “They’ve got to be big enough to draw an audience.”

She writes on the series’ website they “want to move our audiences toward an understanding of literature, history and contemporary issues. Our goal is to create a deeper understanding of issues and ways of life that exist within and outside of our rural boundaries.” 

Besides the unusual format, Doug credits two other things for the program’s success: low ticket prices and the support from Traverse City. “I really don’t know how we’re doing it to be quite honest,” he said. “It’s a very giving community.”

Linda Odette, Michigan BLUE Magazine.

National Writers Series Spring Schedule
April 9: Terry McMillian
April 22: Pam Houston
June 11: Elaine Weiss
June 28: Anthony Kronman
July 20: Mark Nepo

*Photography courtesy National Writers Series

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