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Sonoma Valley Authors Festival shares star lineup with local students

Sonoma Valley High hosted a star-studded literary lineup Friday for a series of lectures about all things writing, research and expression.|

More about the festival

The Sonoma Valley Authors Festival will continue through the weekend, including the free “Authors on the Plaza” event from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Attendees are asked to register in advance. Tickets to attend in person or virtually can be found at https://svauthorsfest.org.

The sounds of several hundred restless teenagers filled the gymnasium at Sonoma Valley High School late Friday morning, but the voice of author Isabel Allende still rose above the din.

“No one can give you the motivation to write fiction or write stories if you don’t have it inside,” she said, responding to a question about where the urge to write begins. “Because it’s not an assignment. It’s an assignment you give yourself because you love the idea.”

Appreciative murmurs and nods came up from the crowd and from moderator Jeffrey Brown, of “PBS NewsHour.” Allende continued.

“If you like the idea, it’s like falling in love,” she said. “No one can tell you to fall in love with this person or that person. But if you are ready for it, it just happens.”

Allende, the acclaimed Chilean author who lives in Marin County, was part of a star-studded literary lineup visiting Sonoma Valley High on Friday for a series of lectures about all things writing, research and expression.

Students Day at the Sonoma Valley Authors Festival featured readings by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and sessions on human genome research with Dr. Euan Ashley (author of “The Genome Odyssey”) and narrative nonfiction from Daniel James Brown, author of the best-seller “The Boys in the Boat.”

This August marks the fourth year of the festival, which continues through Sunday. Ginny Freeman, co-founder of the festival with her husband, David, said it was joyous to see Students Day in action again after a hiatus last year due to the pandemic.

“There’s nothing like learning and being able to make finer and finer differentiations,” she said. “The more you read, and the more you’re exposed to, the more you realize the world is not just black and white. There’s all kinds of different shades of gray in the way people see things, the way they explain things and the way that they learn things.”

In addition to the free lectures, the festival also donates an average of 4,000 books annually to Sonoma Valley High students.

COVID restrictions this year prevented students from getting their copies signed, but Janet Hansen, the school’s librarian, said some authors had taken to signing stickers that could then be pasted inside the cover.

“They’re so into the signatures,” she said of the students.

This year’s Students Day came just weeks into the school year, and to Hansen it seemed that some students were struggling to focus as a result. The festival and Students Day usually are held in May, she noted.

“I can feel a difference with having kids that haven’t been in school for a year and a half,” she said. “But, it’s also a great way to show all the kids what school is really about and what we can offer them when we work with our community.”

In the campus pavilion, students were silent and attentive as ex-New York Times columnist Bari Weiss conversed with writer and lawyer James Strock. Weiss, who made a high-profile exit from the newspaper in July 2020 before launching her own Substack and podcast this year, spoke about her personal writing journey, polarization in the news media and American society.

“The whole trick of living in a liberal democracy, where we don’t have a strongman handing down truth about the world, is that we need to live in a shared reality, even if we disagree,” she said. “If you look at something like the (2020) election, or Jan. 6, or the efficacy of vaccines or what just happened in Afghanistan ... it is increasingly clear — and I don’t have a solution to this — that we just don’t even have a shared reality about the facts of what happened.”

“That, to me, is the deep big existential question,” Weiss said. “That’s the $10,000 question, and maybe someone in this room has the answer.”

“We’re going to hope so,” Strock said.

Leslia Yanez, a senior who was introducing speakers in the gym, said that the chance to hear from top-flight authors and intellectuals has had “an amazing impact” on her life.

“I just think that what you get with watching these authors helps you to kind of think about, ‘OK, what do I want to do, or represent, or stand for?’ It helps each one in their own way, depending on the person.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

More about the festival

The Sonoma Valley Authors Festival will continue through the weekend, including the free “Authors on the Plaza” event from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Attendees are asked to register in advance. Tickets to attend in person or virtually can be found at https://svauthorsfest.org.

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