Talking books at the beach

Judy Fleagle, co-founder of the Florence Festival of Books, which begins Friday, says organization is key to the event.

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Editor’s note: Lori Tobias’ interview with Judy Fleagle, co-founder of the Florence Festival of Books, was originally published on Sept. 12, 2021, by NewsLincolnCounty.com.  It is reprinted here with permission.

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Besides co-founding the Florence Festival of Books, Judy Fleagle is known as the “bridge lady of the Oregon Coast” for a pair of books she has written on coastal spans. Photo courtesy: Florence Festival of Books
Besides co-founding the Florence Festival of Books, Judy Fleagle is known as the “bridge lady of the Oregon Coast” for a pair of books she has written on coastal spans. Photo courtesy: Florence Festival of Books

This year marks the 10th year of the Florence Festival of Books — Sept.17 and 18 — which should have been last year, but we all know the story of 2020.

Co-founder Judy Fleagle likes to say she was tricked into starting the festival after her friend and Florence First Citizen Dick Smith overheard her complaining about a similar event being held outside. The wind was a nuisance and Fleagle wondered out loud why it wasn’t held indoors. Next thing she knew, her name, along with co-founder Connie Bradley’s, was on the Florence Events Center schedule as director of the Florence Festival of Books. Eleven years later, Fleagle’s still loving it. 

I’ve been there with my novel, Wander, for three festivals and have my table reserved this year for Wander and my memoir, Storm Beat — A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast, released one year ago this month by Oregon State University Press. It’s a fun time. Lots of people, most eager to meet the authors and talk books. This year, there’ll be social distancing and masks, but I’m betting it’s still going to be a great weekend.

I caught up with Fleagle for a look behind the scenes.

How has the festival grown?

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Fleagle: That first year, we hoped for 20 people to sign up, and within the first week we had 20 people and the next, 40 people and the next, 60 people — authors and publishers. So, right from the start, people signed up for it. We really didn’t know what we were doing. Now, most years, it’s about 75 to 80 authors and about eight to 10 publishers. But this year, because of COVID, it is limited to 48 tables.  Some of these are shared tables with two different authors.

How many show up to buy books?

We get anywhere from 300 to 500. I think one year we had 600. The year we had the most, there was an Oktoberfest by the port. We had a big storm. It was pouring and the tents wouldn’t hold and everyone came to our event inside.  

What do you enjoy most about it?

For me, it’s seeing other authors and connecting with them. I hate to say networking, because that sounds like you are trying to get something.  Just the friendliness, the camaraderie, the feeling of, “Hi, I haven’t seen you since last year.” Authors work alone. So, it’s neat to connect with other authors who do the same thing.  

What do you think visitors like? 

Visitors usually come to see specific people. They’ll come in and check out where they are and go right there and then they’ll wander around. People like seeing people that they’ve read.  It’s a fun thing. I always tell myself I am going to buy a book or two and end up buying five or six. 

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I’ve had really fabulous experiences with my books. Engineering types like to talk about Crossings: McCullough’s Coastal Bridges. They will come to my table, hold my hand, look into my eyes and say, “I love your book.” I say, “We’ve just met.”  

How is this festival different from other book festivals? 

It’s at the coast. That’s the key. People like any excuse to come to the coast. It is also, we’re always told, well organized. People like that. The reason we are so well organized is I used to teach first grade. The key to teaching first grade — most people think it’s patience — it’s organization. If you have to spend two minutes looking around for anything, you lose them.

You just launched a new book. Tell us about it.

The title is The Cancer Blog — For those who have had cancer and those who haven’t. It’s a week-by-week look at navigating chemo. I love the way it turned out. I write a blog post every Friday. I have since 2011. During the time I was undergoing chemotherapy over a  five-month period, I continued to write every Friday. Each chapter is dated. When you are reading that chapter, you don’t know what is going to happen in the future. Some are really humorous, like when I had my head shaved and tried on all these wigs. It’s humorous as well as positive, and the bottom line is I survived late-stage lymphoma. My only chance of beating it was if I could handle the chemo. I handled it.

I write about the things they tell you to expect and I write about the things they don’t tell you. You have a period where the chemo hits you and you have sort of a black hole you go into and you have no energy. I live by myself with a cat. The first time around, I didn’t have anybody here to help me. You get up, go to the kitchen, feed the cat, go back to bed. You just have to rest every two seconds. As you go through it, your body weakens and each time it zaps you a little further. It wasn’t easy, but I could handle it. I’ve been around people who couldn’t, and that’s bad. It’s not a fun experience. The only way you can survive it (mentally) is if you have a support system and a positive attitude.

The reason I put this into a book is because, as I would meet people who were either going through chemo or knew somebody who was, I’d say, “I have these blog posts.” I shared them with 15 or 20 people who then shared them with more people and almost all said, “You ought to put these into a book.” I said, “I have plenty to do, I don’t need another book.” At Christmas, I ran them off for a friend. I hadn’t read them in years. I said, “Whoa, these would make a good book.” Once it was my idea, I jumped right on it. And now I have a book.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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