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Vox Voice Podcast: Episode 10 - Alex George

Vox sits down with author, bookstore owner and one of the minds behind the Unbound Book Festival: Alex George

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Alex George Podcast Photo

Alex George joins the Vox Voice podcast to discuss all things Unbound, Skylark and the challenges and triumphs of being an author.

Alex George is an author, director of the Unbound Book Festival, and owner of Skylark Bookshop. A U.K. native, George moved to the United States to be closer to his wife's family in Missouri.

His career trajectory has been anything but ordinary, becoming an author and local figure in Columbia after a career as a lawyer in both London and Paris. George says, after living in Columbia for so many years, that it absolutely feels like home in the most unexpected of places.

Hear about the challenges of running Unbound online this year, his experiences as an author and as the owner of a thriving bookshop in town on this episode of the Vox Voice podcast.

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Episode Transcript

Grace Cooper, 0:04: Few things in life are sweeter to Alex George and giving a book a loving home. even fewer things are more satisfying when those bookworms come back raving about it. After reading and complaining about a slew of bad books, a friend of Alex George told him to put his money where his mouth is and write one himself. So he did. Now seven books, an annual festival, and two businesses later, Alex isn't slowing down. A U.K. native, Alex studied law at Oxford and became a corporate lawyer where he practiced in London and Paris before coming to Missouri. After becoming a full time writer, he came up with the idea of Unbound Book Festival in 2012 while on tour for his fifth book, A Good American. In 2014, he and other local artists and book enthusiasts got together to discuss this idea of a book festival in Columbia. The first Unbound Book Festival took 18 months to plan, and in April 2016, he and his team were met with hordes of book lovers, and from Unbound came Alex's inspiration for opening Skylark Bookshop. The public's enthusiastic response to the festival showed him there was a need for something like this in the community. Although he has many irons in the fire, Alex spends as much time as you can at Skylark placing the right book in the right person's hand. Like so many others, Alex had to adopt new ways of doing things in store and for Unbound Book Festival due to COVID-19. We sat down with Alex to talk about the many challenges and triumphs he's faced as he continues to run multiple businesses and a festival during a pandemic. I'm your host, Grace Cooper. And here's Alex George, with our reporter Alex Nease. Welcome to Vox Voice.

 

Alex Nease, 1:41: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us. Mr. George, thank you for joining us on the podcast.

 

Alex George, 1:45: Of course, you're welcome.

 

AN, 1:47: Jumping right into things I just want to get on the first question. Where are you from and what brought you to Columbia?

 

AG, 1:53: So I'm originally from, from the U.K. I grew up in the West Country, about 70 miles west of London, near Stonehenge is sort of the place where most people know. I went to college at Oxford, and then lived in London for eight years before coming to Missouri, and I came here. I met somebody from Missouri, when I was actually working as an attorney in Paris. And we got married in New York, lived in London, and for a little bit, and then we decided to come back to be close to her family. So that's sort of how I ended up here. And I've been here for 18 years now.

 

AN, 2:30: While you were on tour for A Good American, what was it that inspired the idea of the Unbound book festival?

 

AG, 2:38: Well, one of the things that I was invited to do when I was on that tour was to attend various literary festivals, in a number of different cities and states. And I just remember thinking how much fun they were and how Columbia would be perfectly suited for that kind of event. You know, we're a town that loves its festivals, whether it's True/False, or Roots N’ Blues. And we're also a town that is very literary. We've got a ton of very smart readers here, and also lots of writers. And so, it really just made a lot of sense. Now, theory and execution are two different things. And it took many, many years to get to the point where we were actually able to make it happen. But that was the first gem of the idea — that was where it grew from.

 

AN, 3:31: And how did your law background benefit you in getting all of these things off the ground?

 

AG, 3:35: It helped a little bit in that I, you know, I'm a corporate lawyer, and I do estate planning. And so I was able to, for example, set up a Missouri nonprofit corporation and to get nonprofit status for the company quite quickly, I was also able to do various other sort of corporate boring things, like whether it was minutes or things like that, and was just able to make sure that everything was done correctly. And all the T's were crossed, and the I's are dotted. So that was some help, I think.

 

AN, 4:11: You mentioned running it as a nonprofit. What are the challenges or what is it like really running a nonprofit festival as opposed to a for-profit?

 

AG, 4:19: Well, I've only ever done one so I can't really speak to how it is when you're trying to make money out of it. But I mean, it's a challenge. I mean, running any kind of festival, any kind of arts event is a challenge. Some advice I got very early on, was to get the nonprofit registration moving. It does help when you are asking people for money, which we do a lot since every event that we do is free. And so, we require, we rely I should say, on contributions and donations from the community. And when you're able to say your gift is going to be tax deductible, that's obviously a big, big advantage. So some of the best advice that I got was to get the 501C3 status quickly, which allowed us to be able to help our supporters by making those gifts tax deductible.

 

AN, 5:20: Obviously, with everything going on in the world, there's a lot of challenges as far as getting Unbound online, what were some of those challenges moving the festival to an online format?

 

AG, 5:30: Well, one of the biggest challenges was kind of, you might say, was a nice problem to have in that one of the decisions that we made was to expand the festival, the footprint of the festival, from just being over one weekend to being over the course of three months. And one of the reasons that we did that was because something that people would always complain about, when we did it in person and over the course of one weekend, was that there were too many many choices that needed to be made. So when we did the events on Saturday at Stephens College, there were usually five or six venues with things going on simultaneously, in all five or six. And people would say, well, I have to make a choice, I want to go and see four of these things, and I can only see one. And so one thing that we did think that when we made the decision to take it online, we regarded it as an opportunity to at least finesse that particular issue for one year. So we began at the end of January and are going all the way through to April 23. Which is great, but one of the issues with that was trying to wrangle the authors. When you have the event over one weekend, it's pretty simple. You can go well, this is the weekend, can you come or can you not come? And the answer was either yes or no. Now, when you have effectively scores of different potential dates, for any particular event, it actually gets much, much more complicated because you have well, author A can do dates X,Y and Z and author B can do dates C, D and E, and so just trying to try to get everyone on the same, forgive the pun, the same page in terms of of getting the dates right, that actually was quite difficult to do. But you know, I mean, as problems go, it's as I say, it was a nice one to have. And then we had some issues that we just needed to resolve and make calls on like what platform are we going to use and what's the optimum way of getting the events out to the maximum number of people. And so we spent quite a lot of time looking at the various options before we settled on one. And then once we had done that, we then had to learn how to make it work. And we enlisted the help of some professionals here in town, who ran the first few for us. And then we have a team of four people who now run all of the events for us. We have two teams of two: one on Tuesday and one on Thursday. And they sort of had training, and they were able to and they are now able to run it on their own. So there was a very steep learning curve in a lot of different areas. But it's all, it's all good. You know, we've learned a lot. And I think we've managed to reach new audiences. And so we're happy.

 

AN, 8:26: And, obviously, I think the biggest change for the upcoming festival is the length. But what are some of the other big changes that attendees can expect for this year?

 

AG, 8:35: Well, one of the fun things about doing it online is that we've been able to expand the guest list a little bit. So, as I said previously, you know, you had to be available on a particular weekend. And that's no longer the case. And the other thing that was, of course, we required before is that people had to get on a plane or in a car and actually get to mid-Missouri. And ,obviously, this year that's not been necessary. So we have had some overseas guests that we've never had before, so we've had two from the U.K. and one from Vietnam. That's been kind of fun. And, you know, we've put these events on, the very first event we did back on January the 19th. We had, let me see, we had one person on the West coast, two on the East Coast and then two in the Midwest, and just being able to have that flexibility in terms of where the author's were was wonderful. So that was a huge, huge benefit

 

AN, 9:38: Of the things you've had to do differently due to COVID-19, is there anything that you're going to continue doing after the pandemic?

 

AG, 9:43: Well, therein lies the big question. And the answer is almost certainly we're not quite sure what yet. You know, we want to when the festival is over, we'll take a deep breath and, again, lay down for a week. And then we'll pick ourselves up again, and discuss that exact thing. We'll be working out what we can, what we've learned and what we can keep from this year going forward. You know, I certainly hope that we will be able to record some of the events that we never really did in the past — we did some audio recording — and turn those into podcasts. But I'm hoping that we'll be able to be more focused on that moving forward, so that all of the events when we get back to doing them in person will be able to be recorded, so that we can maintain that sort of scope of the audience and the wider audience that we have got this year. So they will be able to continue to tune in and watch even though then they're not actually in Columbia, Missouri.

 

AN, 10:51: Speaking of Columbia, Missouri, how has running Skylark Bookshop and Unbound Book Festival made you feel closer to the Columbia community?

 

AG, 10:58: Oh, well, I mean, that's a great question. And, one of the reasons why I began the festival was as a way of, for want of a better word, giving something back, you know. I've been here for 18 years now, from the very first day I've been welcomed, despite the funny way I talk. And people have been so kind to me, and it really does feel like home. And so doing the festival was one thing to do that. And to give something back a little bit. And the bookshop too is very much a labor of love. We, my business partner and I, Carrie Koepke, are passionate about books, of course, and about reading. And it's a wonderful privilege to be able to run an independent bookstore in a town like this. You know, as I said before, this town is full of incredibly smart readers. It's wonderful to get to know them, to become friends with them and to be able to recommend books. There's very little that’s more satisfying than putting the right book in the right person's hand. And then they'll come back a week later and say, "That was amazing." You know, that's great. And, you know, obviously, I'm biased, but I think that books are a universal force for good in the world. And the more that we can sell, the better everyone is. So yeah, it's been amazing and a huge privilege.

 

AG, 12:36: You just mentioned that feeling of putting a book in someone's hand and really having them enjoy that. What are some of the other things you enjoy most about operating the bookshop?

 

AG, 12:43: Well, I mean, just having the conversations, being able to know that everybody at the shop loves a challenge. And when somebody comes in and says well I want something for my mother-in-law, she's quite picky and she likes this and she hates this and, blah, blah, and just being able to sort of filter all of that and process it all. And then to come up with a good suggestion or two, is very satisfying. So just having conversations about books, you know, people come in and they want to talk to us, they read a review, they want our opinion, they want to know what we think about this. And so that's wonderful. There's also an incredible community of independent booksellers throughout the United States. And some of the friendships that I have made with other booksellers across the country, those are some of the most rewarding elements of the job as well. You know, there is zero competition between booksellers. We all believe that all boats rise. And so we all support each other. And that has been a really rewarding aspect of it all too.

 

AN, 13:55: You mentioned this great community of independent booksellers throughout the nation. How have you seen that community affected by COVID-19? 

 

AG, 14:03: Well it’s been badly affected. Since the pandemic started, one independent bookstore has gone under every week for the last year. There's actually a piece out in Publishers Weekly today which I'm actually in about the year that has just happened. I think it's called "Booksellers remember the year they want to forget" or something like that. It's been very difficult. You know, many, many bookstores, including ours, had their doors closed for months on end. We did too. But the thing about booksellers is they are extraordinarily creative and innovative. And they find ways around problems. So, for example, one of the things that we did when we weren't able to welcome people into the shop — and that was the case for quite a long time — we were still taking orders over the phone, we were still taking orders by email. And then, at the end of every day, we would climb into our cars, and we delivered books all across the city. And I discovered parts of Columbia that I didn't know existed. But that was what you do. You do what you have to do to keep open and to pay the bills and to keep putting books in people's hands. So, there were lots of things like that, you know, we pivoted from having a very healthy in-store event program to doing everything online. And we had some absolutely extraordinary authors and poets who came to talk before the festival, sort of wearing my Skylark hat. And we welcome many, many people like that. So it's those stories, the same stories that you will see throughout the country. People being faced with these rather dire situations and making the best of them and learning how to adapt. And, it's been an education. And I'm just incredibly grateful that we've received this. We have had extraordinary support from the community and, indeed, from beyond the community. And people have made a point of shopping with us, buying books from us, because they want to see us continue, they want to see us thrive, and we're very grateful for that.

 

AN, 16:28: Shifting gears to your experience, as an author, out of the seven books you've written, what has been your most challenging or frustrating experience as a writer?

 

AG, 16:36: Well, I mean, there are so many, it's hard to say where to begin. I mean, the most recent book that was published last May, was certainly the most challenging book that I wrote. From a technical perspective, it took place over the course of one day. There are four interlocking narrative lines, and they were told in strict rotation, but I also had to keep the chronology of the day going in a seamless projection in one direction throughout the course of the book. So that was an incredibly difficult thing to do sort of technically, and felt very good when I finally managed to unlock that puzzle and make it work. I mean, every book poses different challenges, and they're all hard. It is not the case that the more you do, the easier it gets — unfortunately, far from it. So, the challenges that I had, when I wrote my first book back in the late 90s, are very different to what I'm doing now. But they are just as real, just a different brand of problem, I guess. But that's part of the fun of it is, as a writer, when you're faced with a blank sheet of paper, you rather create your own problems. And, you set up riddles to solve if you like and the riddles change, but that is definitely part of the challenge, but it's also part of the fun.

 

AN, 18:18: On the other hand, what do you consider to be some of the most gratifying moments of your career?

 

AG, 18:23: Well, there's little that is better than receiving unsolicited mail from people who you have touched by your work. Now there's a very famous quote by E.M. Forster, “Only connect.” And it feels that that’s what we as novelists do, or try and do, is just we want to move people. We want to move them and entertain them and make them think, but most, I'm speaking personally, I want to move on. And so when I receive emails or letters or cards from people speaking about their reaction to the book, it's great. It really does feel that, because writing is a very lonely, job you sit in your room and just tapping away quietly. And when you put a book out into the world, it's exciting, but it's also vaguely terrifying too, and because you never know how people are going to react. Well, the one thing you can be sure of, nobody ever wrote a book that everybody loves. Let's say there's going to always be some, adverse commentary and one of the tricks is to ignore that. And then be grateful when people take the time to write and to say how much they enjoyed the book and that is a wonderful thing and it makes that loneliness all worthwhile when you can bridge that gap, in a little way like that.

 

AN, 20:00: Do you have a piece of fan mail or a response that a fan gave you that really sticks out in your mind?

 

AG, 20:06: Not really no, not in particular. I mean, I've been incredibly lucky to receive many. And, I got one just this morning from somebody who read The Paris Hours. And she is a musician and had lived in Paris herself. And there were lots of, you know, she just felt there were lots of connections there, with Proust and with Ravel, and these are all artists and musicians who she had a particular affinity for. And so that was the most, that was literally this morning that that email came in, so that's the top of my mind right now. But some of the most touching ones actually were for A Good American, and in 2012, that is a story of a family, a young couple who leave Germany in 1985. And they come to the States, and they find themselves more by accident than by design in Missouri. And when that book came out, I received a lot of mail with people telling me their own family stories, very similar ones, a lot of people leaving Germany and ending up in Missouri. And that was a very humbling experience. Because these people, they underwent huge sacrifices and challenges to get to America. And the difference, of course, between their stories and mine is that theirs are actually true. I just made mine up. And so that was wonderful. It was a real privilege for those readers to share those stories with me.

 

AN, 21:50: Outside of writing, running the bookshop, planning Unbound and practicing law, what are some things you do for fun? Do you have any lesser-known hobbies?

 

AG, 21:57: Well, I run. I've run three marathons. And, hopefully, we'll do some more. Now, you did ask me, what do I do for fun? I'm not entirely sure if I run for fun. I'm not entirely sure why I run to be honest, but I do. So running is something that I enjoy. And one thing that I have a particular passion for is cooking. My mother was a professional cook and caterer and all of my family are rabid cooks. And we get on Zoom every Sunday and talk and we're always sort of recommending new cookbooks and I love to cook. So there's that. I mean, I'm a dad. And I have two kids and two step-kids. And so we have a busy family life as well. So there's always something going on. Keep me out of mischief.

 

AN, 23:00: I'll just lay this out as the final question to wrap up the interview. What does the future hold for you? Would you like to be able to retire one day? And, if so, how will you know when that day comes?

 

AG, 23:08: Well, one of the great privileges of where I find myself right now is that I have no idea how to answer that question. I am 51 years old; I just had a birthday. And if you had asked me 25 years ago where I would be when I was 51, I would have been able to tell you with a fair degree of confidence what the answer to that question was. And I would have been a partner in the big corporate law firm where I began in London, and that was my life. That was the life that I thought I was going to have. And if you had said to me, well, actually, you're going to be living in Missouri, running a book festival and running a bookshop and writing books. Well, my first question would have been, where's Missouri? And then I would have sort of gone and asked about the other things too. So I feel like and I feel very lucky that, with these four jobs that I have, every day is different. And that feels like a real privilege as well. I mean, this morning, I drafted an estate plan for a client, and I've come in to see you. I'm going to go after this to the bookshop, so every day is different. And that feels like a blessing. Because when I was an attorney, you couldn't say that. Every day was pretty much the same. Just an awful lot of paper and an awful lot of stress. And so I'm grateful for that. As for what the future holds, we feel like we're really just getting started with the bookshop. There are so many plans that we have, which got interrupted understandably because of COVID-19. We're very much looking forward to getting back on track with some of those plans. And just to make the festival grow. I want to write. Another book and then another book after that, and hopefully they'll keep getting better. So there's just a lot. There's a lot, and I feel rather fortunate to be able to say that I really don't know, other than that, what the future holds.

 

AN, 25:17: Thank you so much. Those are all the questions I have for you today.

 

GC, 25:24: Thank you so much for joining us on this episode of Vox Voice. After listening to this episode, stop by Skylark Bookshop, where Alex George can find a book to meet exactly what you're looking for.

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