Q+A with Steph Opitz


Steph Opitz is the literary director of the Texas Book Festival, fiction co-chair for the Brooklyn Book Festival, and books reviewer for Marie Claire.

She answered questions by email.

Thao Votang: How did you discover your passion for reading and talking about books? Was there an ‘Aha!’ moment or particular book/experience that set you on your path?

Steph Opitz: There really wasn’t an Aha! moment. I just really like reading, and didn’t give much thought to that being something special. Well, my mom used to incentivize reading by giving me a dollar for every book I read. She doesn’t like when I tell that anecdote but, come on, mom! I’m basically reading as many books as possible for money now, so THANK YOU!

But, later, I think the most important fork in the road was grad school. I was working on my Masters in English and thinking I’d go on to a PhD and go the professor route. But I kind of hated the class discussions. I’d look forward to talking about this incredible book, and then my classmates would ruin it by proving how smart they are and bring up totally unrelated random books just to say they had read them (sorry, if you’re one of the four people from my class reading this: you ruined all the books!). This was 2005, and I remember *vividly* getting out of class one day and reading this. And was like, yeah, I can’t do this for a living. At the same time, I was interning at a small press. The conversations at the press about books were focused and interesting and not a competition, and I felt like: maybe there is a way to talk about books every day without being in a classroom. So, that felt like a big aha!

TV: What does it mean to you to be a reader versus a writer or editor?

SO: I guess I’m not totally sure, since I’m only one of the three, and many people are two or even three of three. But it certainly has something to do with the way a text is approached. I usually associate reading for work with working out. Sometimes it’s arduous, and I don’t feel like doing it, but when I’m into a good groove/book, it’s completely joyful. I wonder if that’s how writers and/or editors feel?

TV: This is the third Texas Book Festival you have organized. How has it evolved so far? Where do you want to take in the next five years?

SO: It’s really hard for me to see how it’s evolved because I hadn’t been to the book fest before I started working for it. I’ve heard people talk about the growing notoriety, and am so happy to hear it. Being a festival that authors and readers talk about as being special or particularly great/valuable isn’t something you can force. We just all really work our asses off, and it pays off.

I think there are a lot of different directions it could go in the next five years. And, as a nonprofit, a lot depends on funding, staffing, and resources. But, what’s important to me is that the festival is highly and carefully curated each year. Since we celebrate new titles, we’re confined to what is published in a given year and, of course, who’s available. So, I want to keep pushing what it means to have hundreds of the best and most articulate thinkers in the country all in one place and what we can do with that to engage and inspire more and more attendees.

TV: I know you’re excited about the entire fair, but I’d love to know which authors you’re particularly excited to have​.

SO: I am really excited about Amelia Gray, I’ve followed her career pretty closely, and she just also happens to be an Austin favorite, so I think she’ll be a big hit. I saw Heidi Julavits and Attica Locke both speak at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this spring and was so impressed I invited both to Texas the following week.

My favorite book right now is Fates and Furies, so I’m thrilled Lauren Groff is coming. I’m a Food52.com JUNKY. Like, everything I cook is from that site, so I’m excited we’ll have demos and talks from some of their best.

And, Taye Diggs. He has a great children’s book out in October about a kid finding out what it means to be mixed-race called Mixed Me. He feels like a particularly special get (not just because a celebrity, obviously, brings a wider range of attention to the festival) because I was originally told he wasn’t available. And, through a funny and complicated stroke of luck—I had tickets to see him play Hedwig on Broadway in September, and was emailed last week saying the tickets were being refunded and the show run was being cut short so I contacted his publicist that day and asked again—he is able to join us (I haven’t turned off the Rent soundtrack since). Yay Taye!

TV: You’ve lived all over the U.S.—Minneapolis, New York City, Los Angeles, Houston, and now Austin. What are you loving about Austin that you couldn’t have anywhere else?

SO: The obvious answer is a true answer: breakfast tacos and Barton Springs.

TV: What are you reading right now?​

SO: I’m listening to Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari on audio, absorbing Charlyne Yi’s drawings and stories in Oh the Moon, and reading Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not among several other great books in preparation for the Festival.

(note: Aziz Ansari and Charlyne Yi are not coming to the Texas Book Fest, I’m just enjoying those books)

Thao Votang is the director of communications at the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founder of Tiny Park.

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