Literary Giants Flock to Tucson for Festival of Books

March 5, 2014 |
Author Luis Alberto Urrea is the emcee for the Author’s Table Banquet during the Tucson Festival of Books.

Author Luis Alberto Urrea is the emcee for the Author’s Table Banquet during the Tucson Festival of Books.

Award-winning author Luis Alberto Urrea describes his move to Tucson in the summer of 1995 as “a gesture of faith…like stepping off a cliff.” On advice garnered from famed southwest writer Charles Bowden over a beer at a bar somewhere on Speedway Boulevard, Urrea packed his life in Boulder, Colo. into his jeep and hit the pavement, heading south.

When he got to Arizona, Urrea was already a decade into his research on a distant relative of his named Teresita. An Indian medicine woman from pre-revolutionary Mexico, she came to be known as the Saint of Cabora, though she was never officially canonized. And although his goals here in town were purely academic, Urrea himself was surprised by where he ended up along his journey to bring Teresita’s story to life.

“When I moved to Tucson, that started an avalanche,” says Urrea. “I thought I was going to spend all my time at the Historical Society in the archives, and I spent my time wandering around the desert talking to cactus with shaman.” He laughs. Through a fortuitous twist of fate, Urrea connected with another distant relative while he was here—a woman named Esperanza who herself was the granddaughter of a Mayo medicine woman. The culmination of Urrea’s research ultimately became the best-selling novel, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, and Urrea’s story, like Teresita’s before him, was indelibly tied to Southern Arizona.

Though he has since moved on from our sleepy town at the foot of a black mountain (presently, he teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago), Urrea says that he makes it a point to return every spring for the Tucson Festival of Books, now in its sixth year. Even when other Latin writers were boycotting the Copper State for that egregious civil rights travesty known as SB 1070, Urrea remained loyal to his one-time hometown.

“I invested lots of blood, sweat, and tears there,” he explains, “and Tucson has always been super good to me.” This time, his primary role at the festival is as emcee for the Author’s Table Banquet the night before things gear up on the UA campus, though Urrea says he will be making other festival appearances as well.

Thousands of people attended the Tucson Festival of Books. photo by James S. Wood/

Thousands of people attended the Tucson Festival of Books.
photo by James S. Wood/

The Tucson Festival of Books—billed as “the fourth largest event of its kind”—hosts more than 450 writers, illustrators, entertainers, and educators as well as some 120,000-plus visitors each year through the support of roughly 2000 volunteers and one part-time employee (Executive Director Marcy Euler), according to Festival Marketing Committee Co-Chair Tamara McKinney. McKinney is also Program Director for the youth-focused literacy program Reading Seed. She says planning for the annual Festival is a year-round job. “Really,” says McKinney, “we’ve already started planning for the 2015 Festival…dates are confirmed and we have feelers out already (for talent).”

Featured presenters this year include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo (who will be honored with the Founders Award at the opening-night banquet), mystery master Scott Turow, and a return visit by last year’s Founders Award Recipient, R.L. Stein.

“If you’re a book lover,” says McKinney, “there’s no reason for you not to go.” She points out that a number of hands-on activities and demonstrations will be hosted in Science City and the Children’s Area, as well as live cooking presentations, and even a performance by a small traveling circus, ensuring that the festival has literally something for everyone.

And the impact of the festival doesn’t stop with the two-day event: the budget surplus each year is divvied out to local literacy organizations like Reading Seed. This year, the total amount of money brought in by the Festival of Books for local charities over the course of its six-year existence is likely to top $1 million. What’s a better word than incredible? Extraordinary? Remarkable? Stupendous? Look it up in a thesaurus and pick your favorite—the Tucson Festival of Books is that.

The Tucson Festival of Books takes over the mall of the University of Arizona Campus March 15-16 from 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Admission and parking are free, but space for some events may be limited. Get more information on the Festival of Books, including a featured author list and event schedule, online at Be on the lookout for the ten-year-anniversary release of Luis Alberto Urrea’s non-fiction classic, “Devil’s Highway” out soon from Little, Brown.

Category: Books, Community, Entertainment, Events