The series at Unity Temple is drawing some big names this fall

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

It started slowly in April of 2010 with an appearance by Vietnam War novelist Tim O'Brien, and it has built gradually, reaching what appears to be critical mass this fall at Unity Temple.

Writers at Wright is now a fixture, not only in the minds of local book lovers but in the datebooks of published authors and their publishers.

Bill Young is the mastermind. The owner of Midwest Media, an escort service for authors, was frustrated that so many writers were skipping the Chicago area on their book tours.

According to Jason Smith, owner of The Book Table in Oak Park, "They would even go to smaller markets and skip Chicago because there was a program already set up at those places with guaranteed audiences."

Young wanted to set up something like that in Oak Park, so he brought together The Book Table, the Friends of the Oak Park Library, and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation to form a unique partnership to produce an authors series that definitely seems to be catching on with the publishing industry.

Oak Park, with its distinguished literary tradition (beginning with Ernest Hemingway) is part of the attraction, but so is Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Unity Temple.

"It's a beautiful space," noted Smith, "and whether they've been here before or just heard about it, it's an amazing space for authors. It's not an auditorium; you can actually see everyone who's there. There's no such thing as a bad seat."

"It's a wonderful space," Smith said, "and we're incredibly lucky to have that here in Oak Park."

The benefit of having four partners, he added, is that they could guarantee enough of an audience and enough book sales so the series is now on the radar of publishers.

"The nature of national book tours," he said, "is that in order to hit the bestseller list, you need to do big events. Books are like movies nowadays. If you haven't hit the proper number of events that first and second week in order to drive you onto the list, it's a problem. So these poor authors are dragged from city to city to city, usually a different city every day, doing large events."

But that makes for a talent-packed autumn at Unity Temple and sometimes very close scheduling. Bestselling authors Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Tan, for example, will appear on successive nights in November.

It also makes for a fascinating mix of creative personalities.

The series begins with a local flavor. Oak Parker Alex Kotlowitz and Audrey Petty, editor of High-Rise Stories, will discuss life in Chicago's public housing projects on Monday, Sept. 16. Former residents of the projects will read first-person accounts from the book. Kotlowitz wrote the book's forward and introduction. This comes on the heels of his two-part This American Life report in which he went to the Chicago high school where the most shootings have occurred to talk to students about how life has changed in the inner city.

"It really changes your mind about things," Smith said, "and anything we can do with Alex is great. I think this will be a fabulous event."

On Tuesday, Oct. 1, youth will be served with a return visit by Tavi Gevinson, Oak Park's fashion wunderkind. The 16-year-old has already built a national reputation with Rookie, an online magazine created by and for teen girls. Rookie Yearbook Two is a second compilation of website content in book form and includes contributions by the likes of Judy Blume, Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling. Several of the website's editors will be on hand to discuss the new book.

"It's a lot of fun," Smith said, "and it's great to do events with a younger crowd. It's nice to see teens and people in their 20s and 30s supporting book events."

More and more, he added, the old-fashioned "book reading and signing" is giving way to multimedia "events," that reflect a more interactive approach. Gevinson's appearance will be a prime example.

"It's smart and it's the way things need to be done now," Smith said. It's important to think of these as events as opposed to book readings, which are not really what we're in the business of doing anymore. It's unfair to the space."

Next up will be former Oak Park resident Stephen Kinzer, whose new book, The Brothers, which focuses on the Dulles brothers, icons of the Cold War in Washington D.C. during the 1950s. Kinzer, an award-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times and author of numerous books, moved to Boston a couple of years ago for a university teaching post.

"The library was kind enough to make the connection with Stephen," said Smith "They had done events with him in the past. So he's coming back home and doing an event with us, which should be great because his name recognition in Oak Park is tremendous and he has a lot of friends who still live here. It's very good to see him back."

Smith, with wife and co-owner Rachel Weaver, made the other author contacts.

"It's built around a system that already exists," he said. "We fit ourselves as a venue within that system. Tours are either built with us in mind now, which is nice, or, alternatively, we make proposals in order to get the authors."

And those connections are paying off with some big names. Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman (about the development of the world's greatest dictionary), will visit on Thursday, Oct. 17, to discuss his new book, The Men Who United the States.

Thomas Cahill, author of How the Irish Saved Civilization, will appear on Wednesday, Nov. 6 to talk about Heroes and Heretics, the sixth in his "Hinges of History" series.

That begins a very intense November with three more "guaranteed sellout events," Smith said.

On Monday, Nov. 11, Alexander McCall Smith will be on hand to plug The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, the latest installment of the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series.

"He'll be wearing a kilt," Smith promised. "He is a real entertainer. I can't remember the last time one of his books was not a New York Times bestseller — and he writes a lot of books."

The following night, Nov. 12, Amy Tan pays a visit. The author of The Joy Luck Club is coming out with a new novel, The Valley of Amazement. Like McCall, she's never had a book that wasn't a huge bestseller, Smith said, "but she doesn't crank them out. It is very exciting for her to have another book."

Both events will likely be sold out, he said, so get your tickets early.

If the final appearance this fall doesn't sell out, it will be because they had to move it to the much larger auditorium at the Oak Park Arts Center, 200 N. Oak Park Ave. (above the Hemingway Museum).

Christopher Kimball, author of culinary bestsellers and the host of America's Test Kitchen on PBS, has sold out Unity Temple twice before, so they decided to go with a 700-seat venue instead of Unity's 350. His appearance will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 19.

Tickets either can be applied to the price of the books or, for two events (Amy Tan and Alex Kotlowitz), the ticket price is higher but includes a free book.

Then everybody takes a deep breath, plunges into the Christmas season, and starts thinking about the winter/spring lineup (which hasn't taken shape yet).

"We have a proud tradition here," noted Smith. "Barbara's used to do great events. That's the reason we did zero events for the first five years we existed. We didn't have to."

Now that The Book Table is 10 years old (as of July) and Barbara's and Borders have left Oak Park, Smith said, "There was a void. Rachel and I love Oak Park. There's a very proud literary tradition. There's a reason we're here. A lot of this is to continue a tradition that already existed."

And the wider literary world is catching on.


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