Interview: Rick Kisonak

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the first in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

To kick things off, we interviewed Festival founder, Rick Kisonak, who lives in Burlington. You may know Rick from his work as a film critic for Seven Days. We’re grateful to Rick for bringing such a wonderful group of authors to Burlington and for his support of Literary North.

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Literary North: What’s the history behind the Burlington Book Festival? Have you been involved with it since it began? How has the festival changed and grown over the years?

Rick Kisonak: I lived in Boston and worked at the Phoenix at a point in the late 70s and loved going to the Boston Globe Book Fair. I couldn't believe the number of personal heroes it was so ridiculously easy to meet and engage there—P Donleavy, Tom Wolfe, John Updike—it was crazy.

In 1981, I moved to Vermont to work at Burlington's Vanguard Press (the weekly from which Seven Days descended). That's where I began my illustrious career as a professional film critic. One morning in 2004, I woke up with a thought: Hey, the Queen City has a festival for everything: food, jazz, crafts, art, beer, you name it. But it did not have a literary festival. I ran the idea by a few cultural movers and shakers, who all loved the notion, and put on the first one the following September. Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley, and Russell Banks were among the headliners. We were off to a good start.

Since then, the Festival's reputation has spread throughout the literary world. I was stunned, for example, when I called John Irving one day, Richard Ford on another, and was told they'd heard great things. That kind of thing helps lure world class artists. Of course, Lake Champlain doesn't hurt.

LN: What Festival events or authors are you particularly excited about this year?

RK: Everyone who's coming this year is a rock star, among the most accomplished at what they do. The poem Sharon Olds has in this week's New Yorker is spooky good. Dan Chiasson is the magazine's poetry critic and a really fine poet himself. He's promised to read a collection I wrote in my twenties and tell me whether I should have chosen a completely different life path. I feel bad for him but he's an extremely nice guy. I suspect he's going to say film critic was the smart move.

Mary Jo Bang appeared years ago and became a friend so it will be wonderful to see her again. It's going to be a particular thrill to meet Mark Leyner. I've been an obsessive fan since the 90s when My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and Et Tu, Babe were the biggest books in the country. Just a dizzyingly inventive mind.

LN: How do you choose the authors for the BBF?

RK: That's the part of the job I find most fun. It's a combination of choosing from among the writers who've gotten in touch to say they'd like to come and tracking down authors whose work I personally enjoy. I'm not a big fan of meetings. Never have been. My management style is more or less dictatorial. Which works fine since I'm my only employee.

LN: What sets BBF apart from the other literary festivals in New England?

RK: Lake Champlain?

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

RK: A movie script Mark Leyner wrote for a streaming giant (we've become e-mail pen pals). I can't share much in the way of details but am happy to report his mind just gets more dizzylingly inventive by the day. That Sharon Olds poem was pretty mind blowing too. Can't wait to hang with her.

  Rick Kisonak, by Ed Koren

Rick Kisonak, by Ed Koren