Leo Tolstoy didn’t make it to the Wisconsin Book Festival this year, much to Jane Rotonda’s chagrin. As the festival’s new president, Rotonda has been spending his free time reading the 19th-century Russian novelist’s 1,296-page tome “War and Peace” for the first time.
“My approach is slow and steady,” Rotonda said. “Not that I have to finish it, but just allow yourself to really immerse yourself in it, break it up into small, small pieces in a way that you can enjoy it instead of lifting weights. Literally and figuratively.”
Rotunda has also taken a slow and steady approach to her new job, which she started last month. Conor Moran, the festival’s past director, had all of the author events scheduled for the spring before taking on the role of executive director of the Madison Public Library Foundation. This gave Rotonda time to observe the festival at the event and start thinking about future programming. The Wisconsin Book Festival runs for four days in October, and the Madison Public Library is branding all of its book events as part of the festival.
Rotonda, a UW-Madison journalism graduate and former producer for Wisconsin Public Radio, said the position was her dream job.
“I don’t think I could even dream of doing this,” Rotonda said. “It’s so exciting. It’s a matter of time, place and interest, and it all falls into a really good place. I’m grateful.”
Rotonda spoke with Cap Times about her love of libraries, her background in public radio, and the importance of having writers and readers in the same room.
Tell me about your background. I felt a lifelong love of reading here.
One of the things that stood out to me was that I was within walking distance of my local library in Grand Haven, Michigan. Getting a library card feels powerful. And I think my parents also instilled in a way the idea that books are powerful, that they can be a vehicle to enter a world that you don’t know or know, whether it’s real or imagined. So between those two things, it’s a happy space for me.
Do you dream of being a writer or working in publishing?
I decided to major in journalism because of the reading and how important I thought stories were. I will study at the Memorial Library. If you know campus, it’s like a “serious” library. It’s a beautiful space. I think what’s special about libraries is that you get a quiet space, it can be a little pocket of yours. You can focus on whatever you need to focus on.
Where did you go after college?
I moved to New York. personal dream. Bought a one way ticket. Just one of the things to do after college. This is great.
I was there for a few years, and then my doctor buddy got into medical school here, so we came back. I work at the Children’s Museum, and I’ve done a few other nonprofit, freelance-type gigs, including one on Wisconsin Public Radio. I started helping out here and there, and I ended up getting a position as an on-air fundraising manager. So I’ve used in this job the skills that I used there. This is very good training.
After I felt I had given all I could to the development world inside WPR, I turned to programming. I’m an executive producer on Larry Meiller’s show, and I do special programming and projects for the entire Ideas Network.
It’s a skill that’s ingrained in me that the audience experience comes first. The Book Festival is free and open to the public, so the public needs to enjoy their experience and get something out of it. So between those two things, I’ve covered the details and the organizational stuff, and the outgoing side of what kind of planning and conversations do we want to have? Which projects are important to our community?
It fits very well with what I care about. I keep telling people, “I’m going to work in the library!”
How is the situation so far?
Conor has already programmed spring, so I’m walking into an incredible spring lineup with tremendous diversity between the actual demographics of the authors, the content of the books, and the actual topics. He kind of knocked it out of the park this spring.
So I started to experience, “This is how we do this. This is the quality of what we put together.” And then I started evaluating and saying, “This is awesome, how about this?” and started imagining the fall celebration things.
How do you structure a festival, or even a series like Spring, and encourage diversity in every sense?
A key part of this is that I support every decision the author makes regarding programming. So I do have across the board… we have these events, like we have four women, two men and three people of color. I think it’s helpful to have someone standing behind it all and having the umbrella picture.
Another thing that serves our diversity mission well is our partnerships. The main partnerships for the Book Festival are endless: between UW’s creative writing staff in the humanities center, all the different cultural studies, programs, and all these specific departments within the university, but also just within our community. Accessing all of these partnerships, and involving myself in all of these partnerships, all of these are another way of building diversity on the show.
For me, this is very important. Of course, the author, the content of the book is very important. But the audience is also really important. Who is in the audience? why are they there Who was in that audience? Why don’t they? Asking these questions is my top priority.
Do you think there are other types of events that could be part of a festival?
I am very committed to the pillars of the book festival. It’s about books, it’s about authors, it’s about having open conversations and conversations. I think there are some interesting ways to get different groups involved and host different events and partnerships in a creative way. But in the end, I absolutely want the Wisconsin Book Festival to stick to its core mission and purpose. You don’t want to try to make it “It’s going to be a concert!” or “It’s going to be a dance!” or “It’s going to be a workout!” Let’s talk books.
So what is the value of an author standing up and talking to people about their book?
It’s hard to quantify, but I’d say it’s the quality of bringing people together in a room to have a conversation around some central idea or theme. It’s all about views and sharing. I think the value of authors and book focus is that all the different perspectives and backgrounds can come together and find something to appreciate and act through.