Arts September 25, 2018

Booking It to Boise

The Cabin's Readings and Conversations series sparks community discourse

Ticket holders buzz in the dim light of The Egyptian Theatre’s marquee, waiting for the sold-out show to start. They’re not waiting for a concert, a play or a movie, though; they’re waiting to watch a Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer or an author on The New York Times bestseller list.

Boise’s literary fans began packing The Egyptian, and more recently, The Morrison Center, for The Cabin’s Readings & Conversations series in 2002. Ira Glass, of “This American Life” fame, and satirist David Sedaris kicked off the series. Since then, Boise has welcomed authors from all across the literary spectrum, including Dave Eggers, Joyce Carol Oates, Amy Tan, Michael Pollan, Junot Diaz, Sherman Alexie and Gloria Steinem.

According to Kurt Zwolfer, The Cabin’s executive director, what sets this series apart from other readings, is the conversations that occur after the works are read. The audience is invited to submit questions after the reading, which Zwolfer reviews and poses to the authors. Last January, Jesmyn Ward read an essay in which she evoked her fears for her newborn son to grow up in a time in America when it is still unsafe for him to be black. She sparked a conversation about race and whether or not there’s hope for bridging the divide, especially after the 2016 election.

This year, Zwolfer says, the crop of authors is the most diverse yet. Matthew Desmond is kicking off the series on Oct. 9, and Zwolfer says he hopes that Desmond’s New York Times bestselling book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” can foster a conversation about Boise’s housing crisis. He’s followed by Tayari Jones of “An American Marriage” fame on Jan. 16, Idaho native Tara Westover on Feb. 13, David Grann of “The Lost City of Z” (now a major motion picture) on March 13, and Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan on April 25.

Westover’s debut work, “Educated,” is a New York Times bestselling memoir about her childhood. She grew up in a survivalist Mormon household on a mountain in southeastern Idaho, and she’s returning to her home state hoping to spark a conversation about the state of
rural education.

“I actually have only been to Boise once in my life,” Westover says. Growing up, Boise was a theoretical place for her because her father distrusted the government and mainstream ways of life. She visited for research while writing her memoir, but she looks forward to getting to know this part of Idaho.

When their schedules allow, each author also visits a local Treasure Valley school. Students get to ask questions about their work and their lives as writers. Zwolfer aims to match the right author to a school where they could have the most impact. For example, in March 2018, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who won a Pulitzer for his novel “The Sympathizer” that he based on his refugee experience after the fall of Saigon, visited with students in the Bridge program at Borah High School. He showed them that a refugee could survive a painful experience and make their art into a professional career.

Laura DeLaney, who owns Rediscovered Books in downtown Boise with her husband Bruce, says the city’s position as a cultural bright spot has made it a place creative people can find comfort. The store sets up a table at each event, selling books by the authors that audience members can get signed. Rediscovered Books has been a partner of the event since the store’s opening in 2006, and several of the book clubs that use the store as a resource choose books from the series for their discussions.

“I think people get excited to have a chance to meet the author face to face and have that direct conversation,” DeLaney says. “There’s something fabulous about shaking the hand of the person who created a story that means a lot to you.”

This is the first year that Readings and Conversations has sold out in advance, but The Cabin will have individual rush tickets available at each event. Season ticket holders are invited to donate their tickets back to The Cabin for resale when they can’t attend a reading, so they become available at the door for each performance 30 to 45 minutes ahead of time. They’re $15 for students and members of The Cabin and $20 for the general public. Typically, 20 to 30 tickets are available.

In the more than 15 years since the series began, it has expanded into five main events per season, and Zwolfer hopes that the success of Readings and Conversations will make for even more opportunities in Boise’s literary community. The Cabin has even started a second series, called Ghosts and Projectors, that focuses on poetry and experimental fiction in more intimate settings like The Linen Building and Ming Gallery.

Above all, Boiseans like Laura DeLaney at Rediscovered Books hope that the dialogue generated by The Cabin’s events can shape the city’s culture as it grows. “The Cabin believes in community,” she says. “You don’t have a community without a conversation.”

This article appears in the Fall 2018 Issue of Territory Magazine.