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Choice Author Lineup at Sonoma Valley Authors Festival, April 26 – 28

By Holyn Thigpen

Spring in Sonoma Valley begets growth and new beginnings: blooming flowers along coastal trails, sweeping scents of fresh lavender, and scenic horse rides through miles of vineyards. It’s also a time of intellectual growth and exploration, as the town becomes host to hundreds of visitors for the annual Sonoma Valley Authors Festival (SVAF).

Now in its seventh year, SVAF will take place at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn from April 26 to 28, and bring together dozens of top authors for stimulating, TED-style lectures and community breakout sessions. With “Authors on the Plaza,” the Festival extends its offerings to the town’s historic center and cultural hub, transforming its green space into a stage for thoughtful dialogue on everything from politics to poetry. 

In past years, the Festival has hosted top writers and public figures from all areas, including Isabelle Allende, Dave Barry, Tom Brokaw, and Captain Scott Kelly. This year’s lineup of 20+ authors and speakers is no less impressive or diverse, promising an exciting weekend of unique literary and cultural programming.

David Grann, whose 2017 bestseller “Killers of the Flower Moon” is now an Oscar-nominated Martin Scorsese film, takes the stage this year to discuss his latest nonfiction thriller, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder.” Grann will discuss his creative process and the demanding research required to document larger-than-life warship stories. 

Long praised for her poignant portrayals of complex family ties and the immigrant experience, Amy Tan brings her wisdom (and drawing skills!) to the festival, this time with her brand new, illustrated nonfiction work, “The Backyard Bird Chronicles.” Inspired by the wildlife outside her Sausalito home, Tan recorded her foray into birding in a series of daily journal entries and probing questions about the natural world.

Novelist, memoirist, and short story author Yiyun Li also joins the SVAF lineup, marking her long-awaited homecoming to Northern California, where she lived for over a decade. However, even since leaving, California has remained important to Li’s work. Her new short story collection, “Wednesday’s Child,” features many stories set in California. As Li puts it, “Sometimes, you get to know a place, and that place is always with you.” 

Li considers her first California-set novel, “Must I Go,” to be a major turning point in her career. “I was just fascinated by California and its history,” Li says. “After I lived in California for decades – despite my coming from China – I knew California much better than people, say, on the East Coast…they have a sort of version of California, which is fictionalized.

“Wednesday’s Child” is Li’s first short story collection since her 2010 work, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl,” but as Li explains, she never stopped writing stories. “The collection is 13 or 14 years of work,” she notes. “Because you spend so much time on it, I feel like a hen laying eggs. I cannot just focus on this egg; I’m focusing on the next egg. I love all my eggs!”

Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James G. Stavridis, co-authors of the 2021 speculative thriller, “2034,” will discuss the new, second installment in their trilogy, “2054.” Set 20 years after a catastrophic war between the U.S. and China, the book centers around existential political threats caused by the rise of artificial intelligence worldwide. 

Ackerman and Stavridis, who have both served in the military and worked across politics, are all too aware of their books’ eerie prescience. As Jim explains, “The reaction to the first book in the trilogy was ‘This feels very real…the thing that you missed is the date – it’s gonna come a lot sooner.’” 

SVAF stands apart from other literary events in its intentional integration of literary arts with the sciences, delving into the latest advances in medicine and technology. In past years, the festival has shed light on everything from Google AI systems to Alzheimer’s research to elephant communication, and this year will be no less fascinating. One speaker to look out for is Dr. Arthur Benjamin, the current Smallwood Family Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, who will showcase his mind-boggling mental math skills to festival goers.

Having a science background herself (she holds a master’s in Immunology from the University of Iowa), Li believes that Sonoma’s integration of arts and sciences offers a valuable learning experience for attendees.

“I feel like there is some kind of artificial animosity that’s set in today’s world, Li says.”  There’s science and technology and then there’s arts and humanities, and they're at war with each other, which is so not right…they should be working together.”

Ackerman, too, praises SVAF’s interdisciplinary reach.“[Books] have always just helped me understand and contextualize the world in which we’re living,” he says. “I think that if you’re a reader – and, frankly, any type of leader, too – you have to have an associative mind. The practice of reading allows us to make associations, and through those associations, we can often find solutions.”

The festival’s encouragement of learning extends to Sonoma Valley middle and high school students, who receive copies of visiting authors’ books free of charge. On Students Day, SVAF invites speakers across disciplines to present their work to students through multimedia presentations, Q&As, and interactive productions. Last year’s Students Day speakers included 2023 U.S. Poet Laureate, Ada Limón; Oscar-nominated Pixar cinematographer, Danielle Feinberg; and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, Stacy Schiff.

David and Ginny Freeman founded the Sonoma Valley Authors Festival in 2018 with the belief that “at a time when the art of listening seems to be disappearing, the need for civil discourse has never been greater.” Since then, their vision for meaningful community-building across the arts and sciences has made spring in the Sonoma Valley all the more exciting.

→ Sonoma Valley Authors Festival takes place April 26-28, 2024
Visit svauthorsfest.org for ticket information, or to volunteer.

Holyn Thigpen
Holyn Thigpen
Holyn Thigpen is an arts writer whose work has been featured in international literary journals, humor publications, and culture magazines. She holds an MA in English from Trinity College, Dublin and spends her free time reading true crime books and solo traveling.
Holyn Thigpen is an arts writer whose work has been featured in international literary journals, humor publications, and culture magazines. She holds an MA in English from Trinity College, Dublin and spends her free time reading true crime books and solo traveling.
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