LA Premiere of "Boy Erased"

Garrard Conley, the author of Boy Erased, is one of the writers visiting the Unbound Book Festival this year.

The fourth annual Unbound Book Festival has begun, and with it comes a new slate of novelists, poets and bibliophiles converging in Columbia. No matter your favorite genre or subject matter, here, you're bound (pun intended) to find a story you love.

But if you're new to the fest, or a long-time fan wondering where to start this weekend, Vox sat down with the festival founder Alex George to hear a few panel highlights. You can't pack everything into your schedule (though we recommend you try!), so here are a few options for what not to miss. 

Keynote speech with George Saunders

George Saunders is a notoriously captivating speaker — and a bit of a character himself. The Man Booker Prize Award-winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders will kick off the real festivities for Unbound on the evening of April 19. No one knows exactly what he might say, which gives you all the more reason to grab your seat early.

When: April 19, 7:30 p.m. (Attendees are asked to be seated by 7:15 p.m.)

Where: Missouri Theater

"Ghosts in the Machine" featuring Monica Ferrell, Laura van den Berg and Natalia Sylvester

George touched on the festival’s desire to pair authors together by mashing up genres and focusing, instead, on subject matter. This panel includes three women who have written about ghosts or spirits in some form. Monica Ferrell, Laura van den Berg and Natalia Sylvester will talk about how both poetry and novels can be used to dissect ideas of death and the legacies our loved ones leave behind.

Born in New Delhi, India, Ferrell is both a poet and a novelist who recently published You Darling Thing, a book of poems exploring different meanings of marriage and vows. She will sit with Sylvester, who moved to the U.S. at the age of four from Lima, Peru, and is also a novelist. She recently published Everyone Knows You Go Home, the story of a woman named Isabel, who is haunted — and visited each year on the Day of the Dead — by her father-in-law's spirit. The authors will discuss such ghosts with van den Berg, a writer born and raised in Florida. She's published two short stories and two novels, her most recent being The Third Hotel, another tale of a shocking encounter with the afterlife. 

Although all three women have each told very different stories, they will be able to bring different perspectives to the panel depending on their writing styles, George says.

When: April 20, 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. 

Where: Recital Hall, 100 Waugh St.  

"Some Notes on Notes" featuring Joan Morgan, Wesley Brown, Kevin Coval and Donna Gaines

Writers Joan Morgan, Wesley Brown, Kevin Coval and Donna Gaines are coming together to trade notes on notes — music notes, that is. Rock, jazz, hip-hop and beat poetry are all topics up for discussion.

Last year, Morgan, a renowned feminist hip-hop journalist, published She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which celebrates the famous singer-songwriter-rapper's first solo album. Gaines, a sociologist, social worker, music journalist and author of Why The Ramones Matter, will present her own expertise on the importance of rock 'n' roll. Coval, founder of Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, is a poet and professor of hip-hop, and has published and edited stories about both hip-hop and beat poetry. Finally, Brown, a literature, drama and creative writing teacher, will discuss his book of short stories about jazz musicians in the early 1900s. 

George says this mixture of musical genres and expertise will make for a rich, fascinating conversation. And who knows? Maybe someone will crank up the stereo. 

When: April 20, 11:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.

Where: Macklanburg Playhouse, 100 Willis Avenue

"Writing and Activism" featuring Garrard Conley, Walida Imarisha and Treasure Shields Redmond

This panel dissects the idea of authors as both activists and writers. Conley will also be participating in this panel, where he'll discuss Boy Erased and his fight to eradicate conversion therapy.

He'll be joined by Walida Imarisha, a writer and a public scholar who studies topics including Oregon black history, alternatives to incarceration and the history of hip-hop. Conley and Imarisha will sit with Treasure Shields Redmond, a published poet who co-founded a funding collective for black artists called The Black Skillet, as well as a podcast highlighting voices of color: "Who Raised You?"

All three writers will explore how their activism has guided them. They will try and answer the difficult question of what comes first: the writer or the activist?

When: April 20, 2:30-3:45 p.m.

Where: Macklanburg Playhouse, 100 Willis Avenue

"The Long and the Short of It" featuring Joanna Luloff, Rebecca Makkai and Lauren van den Berg

In this craft-centric panel, National Book Award finalist Rebecca Makkai will join Joanna Luloff, author of Remind Me Again What Happened, and van den Berg to discuss the love of short stories. All three women have also written novels, so their conversation will center around the benefits of both forms. Which story type suits which genre? Is one form easier than another? Why? 

This is a perfect panel for local writers looking for more insight on the mechanics of writing. 

When: April 20, 2:30-3:45 p.m. 

Where: Chapel (Firestone Baars Chapel), 1306 E. Walnut St.

"Unbound Goes to the Movies" featuring Steven Rowley, Garrard Conley and Joanna Rakoff 

This panel brings together authors who have films that are either in the process of being produced or have already been produced. Portland, Maine, native Steven Rowley has two novels in the process of adaptation: best-seller Lily and the Octopus is currently in development with Amazon Studios, and Rowley is writing the adaptation for his second novel, The Editor.

Garrard Conely’s memoir, Boy Erased, which follows his childhood experience with gay conversion therapy, has already been turned into a movie starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, My Salinger Year — a peek into her time as an assistant to J.D. Salinger's literary agent — is currently being adapted. 

George says that this panel will be a fun, lighthearted one comparing the pros and cons of watching your work on the silver screen. 

When: April 20, 4-5:15 p.m. 

Where: Macklanburg Playhouse, 100 Willis Avenue

Other highlights

If you can't make it to the above panels, George stresses there are many other exciting events happening throughout the weekend. 

Alex George

Festival founder Alex George is a lawyer and author — and the organizer of many of Unbound's events. 

If you're captivated by our current political climate ...

Head to the Macklanburg Playhouse at 10 a.m. on April 20 to hear Sarah Gambito, José Orduna and Sylvester discuss their experiences as writers and as immigrants (or the children of immigrants). 

If you're a sucker for live storytelling ...

Watch famed performer Milbre Burch present seven spoken-word stories from the seven predominantly Muslim countries listed in President Trump's travel ban. She'll begin these tales on April 20 at 11:30 a.m. at the Senior Hall Parlor. 

If you have young children in tow ...

Catch a thrilling presentation from one of three children's authors — Karma Wilson, Javaka Steptoe and Derrick Barnes — from 10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. on April 20 at the Warehouse Theatre. 

If you're a podcast addict ...

Take one last trip to the Macklanburg Playhouse on April 20 at 5:30 p.m., when the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast will record an episode with George Saunders and his wife, Paula Redick. Created in partnership with the bookish news and essay website Literary Hub, the podcast will explore "Race, Identity and the 2020 Democratic Presidential Field." 

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