Published November 28, 2022

This fall, Kalela Williams joined the Virginia Humanities team as the new director of our Virginia Center for the Book. Kalela comes to us with a wealth of experience managing book programs for the Free Library of Philadelphia and before that with James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center, as well as in other public programming roles in Central Virginia.

The Center for the Book produces programs for readers of all ages across Virginia throughout the year. But arguably the biggest and most visible is the upcoming Virginia Festival of the Book happening March 23-26, 2023. Kalela joined us well into the normal planning season and has been busy reviewing applications from authors and putting together a plan for this much-loved annual event.

We caught up with her to talk about her return to Virginia, how she’s going to put her unique spin on the Festival of the Book, and (of course) her cats.

You recently returned to Virginia and settled in Staunton. A small town in the Shenandoah Valley seems pretty different from Philadelphia. What made you choose Staunton?

So, this is actually my second go-round in Staunton, Virginia. I lived in Staunton from 2009-2012, at first simply because it was in between Charlottesville and Harrisonburg, both cities I worked from at the time. It turns out, I loved it. And now, I love it even more.

Staunton is downright picturesque, with the clock tower and hills and so many Victorian houses with lovely lacework and vast front porches. My partner Davey and I live in an apartment in one of these homes, and it’s got tons of space for what seems like our millions of books. The quiet is a big change from Philly, but I never feel there’s a shortage of things to do outside of work: whether it’s a Bad Movie Night at my favorite brewery, a play at the American Shakespeare Center, or live music all over the place. Or there’s simply getting a little work done at my favorite coffee shop, sitting outside if the weather’s nice; or hanging at one of the town’s wine bars, noshing on fancy cheese.

What I like best is that it’s so darned easy to make friends here—folks are really nice and just overall awesome. There are so many cool people, fun things to do, and ways to live a chill-yet-vibrant life. Like a lot of Virginians, I’m digging the small-town vibes.

The 29th Festival of the Book is coming up in March. You’ve really had to hit the ground running. It usually takes more than a single year to plan each Festival of the Book. But you’re doing it in record time. What’s that been like?

Record time is right. A festival like this should take a full year at full speed to plan, and I’ll be honest: it’s been daunting, having such a huge learning curve, and such big shoes to fill after a longtime leader left. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with Aran Donovan, the Center for the Book’s Assistant Director, who has a festival year under her belt and who was holding it all together and moving everything forward, solo, over the summer. Out of sheer necessity, we’ve had to decide on some changes, right away.

We’ll host a shorter and more streamlined festival, with fewer events than in past years. Making difficult choices and being economical with time are two of my hard-won abilities. I’ve managed huge program series with minuscule staffs—sometimes a staff of one (you’re looking at her in the photo, though she wasn’t smiling at the time). And I’ve hosted creative programs that explore literature in new ways. So in 2023, we’re planning a couple of events that go beyond panel discussions to be more interactive and engaging.

And although 2023 will be an efficient festival, it’ll be expansive in other ways. We’ll be hosting a preview weekend, with events taking place in other parts of Central Virginia: Staunton, where I live, as well as Richmond, and possibly one or two other localities. Virginia is a cornucopia of regions and communities, each varied and different. My dream is to one day hold Festival of the Book programs across the state.

Of course, the Center for the Book is more than just the Festival. We’ve got a vibrant Book Arts program, and we’re looking to a new year of other literary events beyond that week in March. There’s been so much to do, to catch up on, to learn. I can count on making a couple of mistakes and putting out some raging fires. But Aran and I make a great team, and we got this.

You’ve dedicated most of your professional life to programs about books, literacy, reading, and writing. Why is this work so important to you?

I was raised to understand the power of books. Both of my parents grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s segregated South, and they realized how books paved a path to the future they hoped for themselves, and for me and my siblings.

Growing up in Atlanta, I remember whiling away hours in the public library; or blazing through a gymnasium at the Scholastic Book Fair with kid-in-a-candy-store eyes. Bookstore trips felt like holidays. My mom would drive us all the way to Buckhead, on the other side of the city and another world from our modest East Point neighborhood. We’d eat gourmet sandwiches (I was always so excited–sandwiches from a restaurant!), then we’d splurge at Oxford, Too, a used bookshop. Then there were the Saturdays she’d take us to West End, where we’d get hot Krispy Kreme donuts before browsing away at Shrine of the Black Madonna’s bookshop before taking a stack of books home, the scent of incense clinging to them long after I first opened the pages.

I could read for hours and hours, and I could write for days. During school breaks, my mom would have to bring me food, otherwise, I was too busy scribbling brain-loads of stories into composition books. Life wasn’t always rosy for my siblings and me, so books helped me make sense of everything, to imagine a world I wanted to see for myself.

I believe we all can dream through books. And that we can make these dreams come true.  

In conversations around the office, I’ve heard you mention a few cats. Tell me about your pets.

Thanks for asking! Like any good cat lady, I just looove talking about my critters. I have three. My partner Davey brought two of them into our relationship after my elderly kitties, Louie and Ella, passed away. So now we have two black shorthairs, Courage and Trapezoid, both eleven years old. Trap is slinky and sweet-natured. He loves fuzzy blankets, as well as Purdue basketball and Liverpool Football Club because it means Davey watches TV and Trap gets his all-time favorite lap. His brother Courage is terrified of strangers, loud noises, any noises really, his own shadow, etc. He’s also ungainly. He likes walking on my hair when I’m in bed or jumping on my chest with the grace of an antelope (a dead one, falling from the sky). But he’s a dear.

I found Wheatley, a tortoiseshell tabby, five years ago. She was meowing her head off on a busy street corner, and I couldn’t leave her to the mercy of South Philly drivers—they have none. Unlike her namesake (Phillis Wheatley Peters), she isn’t much for the written word, but she’ll rip up any piece of paper you put in front of her. She’ll also rip your hand off if she feels like it. But most of the time, she’s so sweet, it makes your teeth hurt.

You have a forthcoming young adult novel of your own called The Tangleroot Papers. What’s it about and what inspired you to write it?

Cemeteries. That sounds a little dark, but that’s where my inspiration began.

In my early 20s, I worked for a non-profit that kept me on the road, driving through counties in Central Virginia. Sometimes I’d see these small, forgotten cemeteries, once on the lands of long-gone plantation homes: weathered headstones carved with names, dates, lines of scripture. These were white families’ cemeteries. I knew enslaved people’s gravesites were marked with wooden crosses lost to time, or fieldstones overtaken by nature—or nothing at all.

What emerged in my mind was the story of Noni, a Black teen at odds with her mother, especially after she has to move with her from Boston to Central Virginia. When Noni finds the grave of the unmarried daughter of an enslaver, who is buried with her infant son, she knows there’s a story there of someone else who disappointed her parents. But what Noni unearths are her own family secrets as she searches libraries and old records. And in the process, she must find a way to heal the gaping rift between her and her mom.

The Tangleroot Papers is a YA novel, slated for publication in 2024 by Macmillan’s Feiwel & Friends. I’m not-so-secretly hoping that it’ll get teens interested in historical research and primary sources. Maybe it won’t be as viral as Lizzo playing a 200-year-old flute, but if I can get one kid into some archives, I’ve done my job.

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Stay tuned for some announcements about Festival of the Book speakers and panels coming up in December and early January! Subscribe to the Festival of the Book e-newsletter to be among the first to know.

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