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By Staff | Sep 30, 2016

The South Dakota Festival of Books is an annual event that involves both books and humans, which explains why it’s conducted by the South Dakota Humanities Council.

Two years ago, when my wife and I attended the Festival of Books in Sioux Falls, I participated in a contest called Pitchapalooza. The idea behind Pitchapalooza is that you first purchase the book “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.”

You are then given 60 seconds to explain to those assembled why your book should be published.

Pitchapalooza led to an introduction to literary agent Danielle Svetcov, who introduced me to Bruce Tracy, an editor at Workman Publishing. Thanks to these introductions, my book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” was published by Workman Publishing in May.

I was able to close the loop at this year’s Festival of Books by attending as an author and presenter.

Among the many highlights for Book Fest attendees was the opportunity to meet more than 70 authors, six of whom had won Pulitzer Prizes.

I chatted with Nebraskan Ted Kooser, a former insurance executive who was named Poet Laureate of the United States in 2004 and was awarded a Pulitzer for his poetry in 2005.

I thanked Ted for penning poems that even an old farm boy such as me can appreciate.

“It takes a lot of work to make it look easy,” he replied. “Each of my poems have been revised dozens of times.”

I attended a presentation by Michael Dirda, who was given a Pulitzer in 1993 for his work as a critic at the Washington Post. He recalled phoning his mother with the news that he had won a Pulitzer.

His mother, who believes that each family is allocated a limited amount of good luck, replied, “Well, I guess there’s no point in me going to bingo tonight.”

My wife and I dined with Chris Browne and his wife, Carroll. Chris’s father, Dik, launched the comic strip “Hagar the Horrible” in 1972. Chris worked alongside his father on the strip until Dik retired in 1988. Chris and Carroll have kept Hagar horrible ever since.

The Brownes moved to Sioux Falls a decade ago after living in Florida for many years. “Florida is hot and humid and has mosquitoes that can carry off small children,” explained Chris. “We get winter here, but we love winter because it kills all the bugs.”

I like to know how the sausage is made, so I asked Chris about the process of producing a world-renowned syndicated comic strip.

“Carroll and I will bounce ideas back and forth,” he replied. “We’ll work on the idea until we both say, ‘Ok, that’s a gag.’ Then I’ll draw a strip to go with the gag.”

I asked the Brownes if they could recall a particularly popular strip.

“There’s one where Hagar is shipwrecked on a tiny rock amidst a stormy sea,” replied Chris. “In the first panel, he cries out to the heavens, ‘Why me?’ In the second panel, the heavens reply, ‘Why not?’

“We still get a lot of reprint requests for that strip.”

At one point during the Festival, I heard a distinctly Southern accent. I followed it to its source, a guy named Clay Stafford. I learned that Clay is an actor, writer, editor, filmmaker and publisher.

It exhausted me just to imagine juggling all those balls.

“I grew up in the hollers of eastern Tennessee,” said Clay when I asked about his origins. “My daddy had a 120-acre farm that wasn’t good for much other than grazing. It was my job when I was a kid to care for our family’s Jersey cow.”

What were the odds that somehow, in that roomful of literary types, two former dairy farm kids would find one another? We were soon swapping dairy cow war stories.

“We kept our cow in a pasture that had a crick running through it,” said Clay. “When I was a boy, hippies would sometimes camp beside the crick. And sometimes the hippie ladies would go swimming in the crick. Naked.

“I would sit up on the old railroad bridge and watch them for hours. Later my momma might ask, ‘Where have you been all this time?’ and I would say, ‘I’ve just been enjoying the scenery down in the pasture.’

“This satisfied her and had the added benefit of being true.”

The Festival of Books was an unqualified success, especially if you define success as meeting a passel of interesting people and coming home with a stack of books that’s tall enough to see you through a long Dakota winter.

Thank you to the crew at South Dakota Humanities Council for bringing books and humans together.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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