Shelly LeMahieu Dunn has been the director of the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College for over a decade. A lot has happened in that time. Shelly took time out from the busy pre-festival season to answer a few questions for us. This year’s festival will be held April 10-12 with speakers including Anne Lamott, Gene Luen Yang, James McBride, and Rachel Held Evans.
Q. What are the biggest rewards of working with the Festival of Faith and Writing?
A. The rewards are many. Every two years, we have the privilege of hosting a three-day celebration for people who love books. More than that, the Festival provides an encouraging, safe place for people to talk about the challenges and opportunities of being faithful readers and writers. It’s a joy to help create and foster that environment and bring a group of people who love words and writing into a place of community and belonging.
It’s also especially rewarding to watch students from the English Department interact with—and learn from—the presenters. One of the great joys of this job is that through the Festival, the department is able to provide for our students models of what it means to be readers or writers of faith—to show our students how best to navigate being faithful Christians and excellent writers.
A somewhat unexpected reward is that the Festival gives authors a place to openly discuss their writing as it relates to faith—and to connect with others who are doing the same. There are not many other places where writers are able to do this, and a number of them relish the opportunity to engage with readers in this deeper, more significant way. It is also rewarding to see the encouraging community that develops among the presenters during the Festival, and to know that some of those friendships will continue long after the conference concludes.
Q. I'm sure you have had some surprises come your way, for better or worse. What are some of your most unforgettable moments?
A. Unfortunately, most of the moments we as Festival staff remember best are when things have gone wrong (or nearly so)—delayed flights, last-minute cancellations, room mix-ups—but our hope is that those are the moments that few other people see . . . or remember!
Q. What are you currently reading?
A. Lots of Festival books: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride; Esther Stories by Peter Orner; Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe; Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer; and Paul Among the People by Sarah Ruden.
Q. What are a few of your favorite (all-time) Festival reads?
A. There are too many to count, but a few that have stayed with me include A Good and Perfect Gift by Amy Julia Becker, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz, and Lit by Mary Karr.
Q. How has working with the Festival changed going to a bookstore for you?
A. I make a point to look at what book clubs are reading, and I’m always scanning literary magazines and book-related publications to look for interesting books and up-and-coming authors who might be a good fit for the Festival.
Q. The Festival aims for “discussing and celebrating insightful writing that explores, in some significant way, issues of faith.” Have you run into problems with people misunderstanding the purpose? If so, how do you deal with that?
A. We try to be very open about what the Festival is—and what it isn’t. Many, but not all, of our presenters do self-identify as Christians, and Reformed Christianity is at the heart of what we do here. Yet some of our presenters are from other faith backgrounds. Others have grown up in a particular tradition but have perhaps abandoned it or are questioning it. And yet all of them share an interest in exploring how the written word can effectively and seriously explore issues of faith and belief. Having such a multiplicity of voices represented only enriches and enlivens the conversation about faith and writing.
Q. What do you read when you are not reading for the Festival?
A. I’m always reading for the Festival!