Doug Stanton remembers the first time he stood up in front of an audience in Traverse City’s opulent 19th century Opera House to talk about writing. It felt surprisingly good. “We talked, we had food, we had a few drinks,’” says Stanton, a Traverse City resident whose two nonfiction books (Horse Soldiers, In Harm’s Way) were New York Times best-sellers. “I think I said, ‘Let’s do this again sometime” -- and a month later we were back again with Elmore Leonard.” That evening in the spring of 2009 was the beginning of the National Writers Series, which brings a steady stream of celebrity authors to this tiny Michigan resort town for “up close and personal” readings and discussions. At least once each month, a prominent writer is brought to Traverse City to present and discuss his or her work in an intimate and relaxed setting with plenty of audience interaction. “The aim is to have people lean in around the fire of a great narrative, to connect with them,” says Stanton. “And that means having conversation.” Over the three years since it began, the series has featured more than 50 writers like Mario Batali, Roy Blount Jr., Tom Brokaw, Philip Caputo, Peter Mathiessen, Vince Gilligan, Jodi Picoult, Anna Quindlen, James Bradley, Geraldine Brooks and Natalie Bakopoulos. And it has boosted Traverse City’s reputation as an unusually bookish town: Livability.com has listed it among its Top 10 Cities for Book Lovers, and Publishers Weekly ran a full-page feature entitled “Traverse City is For Book Lovers.”
Such salon-style encounters are expected at venues like New York’s 92nd Street Y, but the publishing industry is fascinated by the success of the Traverse City venture. During the past year, the National Writers Series has been featured in stories in several leading industry publications, including a piece in Publishers Weekly entitled “Traverse City is for Book Lovers,” and a Publishing Perspectives article that called it "one of the nation's leading literary series." "When you put together a community that cares deeply about reading and a staff that cares deeply about writers, magic happens, said Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper. “The National Writers Series was one of the highlights of my last book tour.” The NWS organization provides scholarships to area high school students, and has just inaugurated a program called Front Street Writers, that provides a full year of advanced creative writing workshops (for credit) to qualified students. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the Series translates directly into bigger book sales, so the supply of available authors doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Neither is the supply of audience members; most events are sold out fairly quickly, and it’s usually a good idea to reserve tickets four weeks ahead of a scheduled appearance.
Tickets for the monthly events are $15 in advance or $20 at the door, but Stanton and his crew haven’t jacked ticket prices through the roof to take advantage of their success. They offer discounts for book clubs and students (who get in for only $5) – and there’s a great program called “Whatta Book Deal,” where patrons can get a premium seat, a signed book copy and admission to a pre-show author reception for $38. Announcements of coming writer appearances are made twice a year, in June and in February, and the most recent slate is already causing excitement. .