Jane Rotonda begins a new chapter as director of the Wisconsin Book Festival | Entertainment

Leo Tolstoy is not coming to the Wisconsin Book Festival this year, much to Jane Rotonda’s chagrin. As the festival’s new director, Rotonda is spending her free time reading for the first time the 19th-century Russian writer’s 1,296-page work War and Peace.

“My approach is slow and steady,” Rotonda said. “Not that I need to do this, but to really dive into it, take it in small, small pieces in a way that you can enjoy without being a heavy lift.” Literally and figuratively.”

Rotonda is also taking a slow and steady approach to her new job, which she started last month. The festival’s previous director, Conor Moran, had already planned all of the spring authors’ events before taking a position as executive director of the Madison Public Library Foundation. This gives Rotonda time to watch festival events in action and to consider future programmes. While the Wisconsin Book Festival takes place over four days in October, the Madison Public Library designates all of its book events as part of the festival.

Rotonda, a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism graduate who was a producer at Wisconsin Public Radio, said the position is a dream job for her.

“I don’t think I really could have dreamed of that,” Rotonda said. “It’s so exciting. It’s a matter of timing and place and interests and somehow that everything fits into a really good place. I’m very grateful.”

Rotonda spoke to the Cap Times about her love of libraries, her background in public radio, and the importance of bringing authors and readers into one space.

Tell me about your background. I sense a lifelong love of reading here.

One thing that was quite formative was that I grew up very close to our local library in Grand Haven, Michigan. I got this library card and it felt so powerful. And I think my parents also kind of gave me the idea that books are powerful and can be a tool to access a world that you don’t know or that is unfamiliar, whether it’s actually real or imagined. And so between those two things it was a happy space for me.

Have you had dreams of becoming a writer or working in publishing?

I got into journalism because I read and because I think stories are important. I would study at the Memorial Library. Knowing the campus is like the “serious” library. It’s a beautiful room. The thing about libraries, I think, is that you get that quiet space that can be that little bag that’s yours. And 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 those things you do after college. It was wonderful.

I spent a few years there and then my partner, who is a doctor, went to med school here, so we came back. I’ve worked at the Children’s Museum and done a few other nonprofit freelance jobs, one of which was with Wisconsin Public Radio. I started helping out here and there and eventually got a job as an on-air fundraising manager. So I’m already using skills in this job that I used there. It was very good training for that.

After feeling that I had given everything I could to the development world within WPR, I switched to programming. I was the executive producer on Larry Meiller’s show and I’ve done special programs and projects for the Ideas Network as a whole.

This ability, ingrained in me, that the audience’s experience comes first. The book festival is free and open to the public and hence the public must enjoy and benefit from their experience. So between those two things, I’ve covered the details and organizational things, and also the outward aspects, what programs and talks do we want to have? And which programs are important for our community?

It aligns with so much about what’s important to me. I keep telling people, “I can go to the library to work!”

How has it gone so far?

Conor had already programmed Spring, so I enter an incredible Spring lineup of immense variety, between actual author demographics, book content, as well as the actual subject matter. He kind of kicked it out of the park for this spring.

So the way I experience it is, “This is how we do it. That’s the caliber of what we’ve put together.” And then I can take stock and say, “This is great, what about it?” And start making things for yourself introduce the fall celebration.

How do you program a festival or even a series like Spring and promote diversity in the truest sense of the word?

A critical part of this is that I stand behind every decision regarding author programming. So I have the full scope of… we have these events like we have four women and two men and three black people. I think it helps to have someone behind all of this and have the umbrella image.

Another thing that serves the diversity mission well is our partnerships. The key partnerships for the book festival are endless: the creative writers at UW, between the Center for Humanities, between all the different cultural studies, programs and all these specific sectors within the university but also just within our community. Having access to all of these partnerships and making myself available for all of these partnerships is all another way of building diversity in programming.

For me that is super important. Of course the author, the content of the book is important. But the audience is also very important. Who belongs to this audience? And why are they there? And how and who does not belong to this audience? And why not? Asking these questions is important to me.

Are there other types of events that you think could fall under the festival?

I feel quite committed to the pillars of what the book festival is. It’s about the books, it’s about the authors, it’s about open conversations and dialogues. I think there are interesting ways to involve different groups and have different events and partners in creative ways. But in the end, I definitely want the Wisconsin Book Festival to stick to its core mission and purpose. You don’t want to try to make it loud, “It’s going to be a concert!” or “It’s going to be a dance!” Or “This is going to be a workout!” We’re going to talk about books.

So what’s the value of an author 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 about a central idea or topic. It’s about perspectives and exchange. And I think the value of author and book focus is that all sorts of perspectives and backgrounds can come together and find appreciation and action.


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