Churches transform into literary temples at Texas Book Festival

Ethan Hawke, left, and Greg Ruth in First United Methodist Church for the Texas Book Festival. Nov. 5, 2016 (KXAN Photo/Andy Jechow)
Ethan Hawke, left, and Greg Ruth in First United Methodist Church for the Texas Book Festival. Nov. 5, 2016 (KXAN Photo/Andy Jechow)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A “homoerotic comic book” featuring actors Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman is most likely not a standard refrain at the First Baptist Church of Austin. Likewise, the description of the boiled brain of a Native American man, during a discussion about Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth’s graphic novel, “Indeh,” is probably not something you normally hear at First United Methodist.

But for the two days of the Texas Book Festival, churches open their doors even wider, welcoming book-lovers and authors that run the gamut.

The festival’s executive director, Lois Kim, says the churches who host book events place no restrictions on what can and can’t be said. “They’re such gracious hosts. They’ve been really amazing.” Kim says it really comes down to capacity. Along with the Paramount Theater, churches around the festival’s stomping grounds on Congress Avenue can comfortably sit hundreds.

Offerman, who spoke at an impromptu Saturday evening event following multiple flight delays, giggled as he surveyed his surroundings — towering pipe organs and a large wooden cross suspended above him. “I need to remember I’m in a church.”

Nick Offerman at the Texas Book Festival, speaking from First Baptist Church of Austin. Nov. 5, 2016 (KXAN Photo/Andy Jechow)
Nick Offerman at the Texas Book Festival, speaking from First Baptist Church of Austin. Nov. 5, 2016 (KXAN Photo/Andy Jechow)

The previously mentioned, 4-page comic, reuniting the two “Parks and Recreation” cast members, can be found within Offerman’s third book, “Good Clean Fun: Misadventures in Sawdust at Offerman Woodshop.” Ministering to the filled pews on the names of his favorite woodworking tools and the appreciation one can build for wood, Offerman may be well-suited to speaking from the sanctuary of a church founded by a carpenter.

If Offerman, hard to separate from his Parks character Ron Swanson, were to be in the world of Harry Potter, “What wood would his wand be made of?” a congregant asked. The crowd oohed and aahed, leaning closer as Offerman thought of his answer. “Scottish bog oak,” he decided — an ancient, revered wood.

The book talk for “Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars” on Saturday was similarly able to grab the audience’s attention, but with heavier subject matter. Hawke, who spoke on the day and in the city of his birth, addressed the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, saying, “We are still taking land away from these people to make money.” Greg Ruth, co-author and illustrator, described watching a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation stand before a judge and defend the idea that land is sacred. “We’re still back there, [in] 1895.”

Even with the gloomy rain, storied writers were able to draw crowds that wrapped tightly around downtown buildings.

Sunday morning at the Lois Lowry event, the gathered book folk leaned toward the edge of their seats during a question and answer. What did she think of the movie based on her bestselling book, “The Giver”? She was flown out to South Africa to watch the filming, but otherwise had no hand in the production. Overall, “mixed feelings,” Lowry said. She praised the enhanced role Meryl Streep’s character, the chief elder, got in the film, but wasn’t a fan of using actors in their 20s to depict children written as young teenagers. Another reflection from the master of children’s literature: the young girl she photographed on the cover of “Number the Stars” has recently turned 50.

As the festival came to a close Sunday evening, a thinning crowd meandered around Congress Ave., before heading home with signed books in hand. Kim says they count around 40,000 attending every year, a number that’s growing. And while security was “extra vigilant” this year, the result of a reported threat made against Texas by al-Qaeda and a high-profile visit by the festival’s founder, former First Lady Laura Bush, it remains an open, diverse and free event.

Now, Kim looks ahead to 2017. Maybe we’ll have better weather next year. Rain or shine, tens of thousands will flock to the same pews in the same churches and the same white tents that line the festival. They’ll come for a variety of reasons: the author they’ve adored for decades making a rare appearance, the charismatic movie star with tales from their latest film, and for the local author — those who make up the literary fabric of the city many of us are lucky to call home.

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