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  Traverse City — Almost every month a prominent or emerging writer shares the stage at the City Opera House with a guest host for a meaningful conversation about books, writing, reading, history, humanities, and a host of other subjects.

The list of authors over the years reads like a who’s who list of men and women of American and international letters, including Richard Ford, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jodi Picoult, Anna Quindlen, Peter Heller, Geraldine Brooks, Richard Russo, Ann Patchett, Alice Walker, and (Michigan-based) Mitch Albom and John U. Bacon. Many authors have visited more than once.

Launched as the National Writers Series a decade ago, the readings have become a part of the cultural fabric of Traverse City, typically drawing hundreds of readers for each event. Sometimes more than one writer visits each month. The program also has developed and supported creative writing programs for regional students.

Until now, if you wanted to catch an author, you had to be in town or watch a rebroadcast on an NPR affiliate in Michigan or on the National Writers Series website.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has created a rare opportunity for widespread participation. This month’s author, Terry McMillan, will converse with host Rochelle Riley on Zoom, a first for both the National Writers Series and for McMillan.

“I’m excited for a number of reasons,” said McMillan, speaking from her home in California. “I like Rochelle. She does great interviews. I’m excited to read. I’ll read for 15 minutes. I have a good time when I read. I’m not going to read anything depressing. I’m also looking forward to answering questions from the audience.”

Traverse City and Detroit were among the stops on McMillan’s national book tour, which was canceled because of concerns about the coronavirus. A Michigan native, McMillan is the author of the best-selling novels “Waiting to Exhale,” and “How Stella Got Her Groove.” Riley is  Detroit’s director of art and culture.

To help local businesses closed by the pandemic, NWS has offered doorknob delivery of McMillan’s latest book, “It’s Not All Downhill From Here,” and a dozen custom cookies from a local bakery and coffee shop, Morsels, and named after the author — “Cherry” McMillan.

The pandemic has also inspired the National Writers Series to collect people’s stories of how the coronavirus is affecting their lives. Diary-like submissions are welcomed from anyone 5 years and older and can be shared on the website, lifeinthetimeofvirus.org. Prizes will be awarded to adults and children from the counties surrounding Traverse City.

“We believe this is a historic time and want to capture stories from all ages,” said Anne Stanton, executive director of the nonprofit organization, which she helped establish with her husband, Doug Stanton, and a local attorney, Grant Parsons.

The winners will be announced on Aug. 22 when Susan Goldberg, editor-in-chief of National Geographic, will take the stage to help celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the National Writers Series.

Taking shape

The National Writers Series began to take shape more than a decade ago after Doug Stanton noticed a vast change in the literary landscape during a promotional tour for his second book, “Horse Soldiers,” an historical account of a small band of horse-riding soldiers who battled the Taliban after 9/11. There was no media attention and crowds had dwindled.

“The system was broken. It was getting harder and harder to meet readers,” recalled Stanton, whose first book, “In Harm’s Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors,” reached the top of the New York Times bestsellers list.

Stanton believed there had to be a better way for writers to engage with readers.

He tested ideas in his hometown, opting for a “grander” venue than a bookstore and to offer something beyond just a reading. The initial result was a conversation with Army Col. Mark Mitchell, a key figure in “Horse Soldiers,” which was also a New York Times bestseller.

A similar event with the late crime and suspense novelist Elmore Leonard followed, and the National Writers Series was launched. Its first author was advice columnist Amy Alkon.

“Authors are always shocked by how many people show up at these events. They get here and it’s this little town and when they get to the Opera House, there’s this enormous audience,” said Anne Stanton, a former journalist. “It ends up being one of the biggest audiences of their tour and it’s in Traverse City. It’s pretty cool.”

To date, the National Writers Series has hosted 158 author events.

“It’s a great series. I have nothing but admiration for what they’re doing,” said Steve Luxenberg, who recently visited to discuss his latest book, “Separate: The Story of Plessy V. Ferguson, and America’s Journey from Slavery to Segregation.” “It’s hard to get the kind of people who would draw big crowds, but they do find a way to get celebrities to come and they’re good to people like me.”

The National Writers Series covers author travel expenses and meals and offers an honorarium for their participation with students in creative writing programs. Most authors arrive as part of a national book tour. The organization’s funding comes from ticket sales, fund raising, grants, sponsors and donations.

Program helps develop talent

The National Writers Series literary footprint extends well-beyond downtown Traverse City.

The organization provides college scholarships to young poets and writers, sponsors creative writing workshops for students at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, and poetry workshops for elementary students.

Two other programs include participation from visiting writers.

A creative writing program for high school juniors and seniors, called Front Street Writers, includes visits and master classes from authors. The students — many of whom live an hour away — attend classes five days a week and have their work published in the NWS Literary Journal. They also share their work on stage during National Writers Series events.

“I give them so much applause for starting the Front Street Writers program,” said Luxenberg, who has visited students on both of his author trips to Traverse City. “The first time I came it was at a high school and now it’s at the Career Tech Center and draws from a much larger area. It’s a big commitment by the school systems as well. It’s great to have all that thoughtfulness going to help the next generation of writers.”

One of the group’s best known endeavors is the annual Battle of the Books competition, open to fourth- and fifth-graders. The students read books in a wide range of genres and participate in team-building activities. The program culminates with a “battle,” a book-based quiz competition, and an appearance by a best-selling author.

This year’s championship was canceled because of the pandemic.

“It was a huge disappointment to the two finalists teams,” Anne Stanton said, adding about 500 students were expected to attend.

A loyal following

The writers series has attracted a steady, loyal following, including Don and Renee Fedrigon, who live in nearby Williamsburg. The couple attended their first event in 2010, with Tom Brokaw. They miss a writer only if they’re out of town. In all, the couple has been to more than 100 events.

“We were just thrilled to have that kind of event in our town,” said Renee Fedrigon. “They present a great variety of authors and genres. They’ve really introduced me to new authors whose books I probably wouldn’t have picked up without going to an event. I end up reading all their books because I get hooked.”

Those authors include Greg Iles, Lisa Scottoline and Harlan Coben. Her husband has enjoyed the historical authors and writers whose work focuses on Detroit and Michigan. The conversations, she said, run from informative and educational to fun and entertaining.

A few years ago, with prodding from the National Writers Series, Traverse City officially declared itself a “Book City.”

It’s an accolade well-deserved, said Amy Reynolds, co-owner of Horizon Books, one of two bookstores along the city’s main street and a supplier of books to NWS events. Visiting authors also sign books at the other bookstore, Brilliant Books.

“They’ve really gotten people in the community on the same page,” she said. “The series creates a lot of enthusiasm. Not only are people talking about literature and authors but also social issues. It really gets people together and talking and adds a lot of cultural value to the community.”

Greg Tasker is a Traverse City-based freelance writer.

An Evening with Terry McMillan

7 p.m. Thursday, April 9

Streaming on Zoom, and the National Writers Series YouTube channel and its Facebook page

Go to: https://bit.ly/TerryMcMillan

A tutorial is available at:

https://files.constantcontact.com/2e0bd65d001/92e4021e-809d-49df-a682-289b0e0d9fe5.pdf

For a schedule of upcoming National Writers Series events, go to: nationalwritersseries.org/upcoming-events-calendar-look-who-will-be-here/

To submit entries to Life in the Time of Virus, go to:

http://lifeinthetimeofvirus.org.

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