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Prize-winning authors to grace Boston book festival

Robin Hamilton

Bibliophiles have been grumbling for a while that something in Boston was missing.

“Someone had pointed out to me that Boston was the only major city in America without a book festival,” explains Deborah Porter, founder of the Boston Book Festival.  “Every major city seems to have a festival celebrating books and culture. I naively set out to do one.”

Three years later, after countless meetings, telephone calls and fundraising, Porter will unveil her labor of love Oct. 24 when the hub finally boasts its first book festival.  “It encourages a very positive thing — reading,” she says.

Despite the tough economic climate that has affected the publishing industry, Porter says there couldn’t be a better time for the program.  “Reading and stories are integral to who we are,” she says, “and I don’t think people are going to lose interest in it.”

She adds that this free event will make literature even more accessible to the masses — a message underscored by one of the program’s primary supporters. “We were really lucky to come across one very civic minded organization, State Street Corporation, with Ron Logue,” she explains. “He took this on as a civic engagement activity.”

The festival takes place in Copley Square and will host a range of events, authors and seminars in various genres throughout the day. “It’s in three buildings around Copley — Old South Church, the BPL and Trinity Church. In the square, tents will be set up,” she explains.  “The same building where we will have teens doing spoken word, we will also have the Turkish Nobel Peace Prize winner, Orhan Pamuk. So we have a little bit for everyone.”

Other notable authors include Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Cornel West, and Dennis Lehane.  One author scheduled to be there is receiving a lot of new buzz: Michael Thomas.

Thomas, a Boston native who now resides in Brooklyn, New York, will be a featured guest at one of the panels. He will be presenting his first book, “Man Gone Down,” a novel about an African American man coping with a fractured American dream.

  Thomas comes to the festival riding on the wave of critical acclaim after his debut novel recently garnered the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, considered one of the most prestigious prizes in literature.  “It’s strange,” he says. “It’s this book that is almost three years old, and has gotten a new life.”

For Thomas, the novel has been a long and arduous journey, one that saw him cobble together a life that included raising three children, working odd jobs and writing any free moment he could.

“I always felt compelled to write,” he says. “I always needed to make things.”

He started writing the book in 2003, while an adjunct professor at Hunter College. He took a construction job on the side to make ends meet.

When his agent originally shopped the book around to publishing houses, it was rejected. It wasn’t until the book landed in the hands of Elisabeth Schmitz at Grove Atlantic Publishing, that his novel came to life. Today, he credits the support of Schmitz, now his editor, for transforming the novel into what it has become.

But the woman he truly calls his rock is his wife. Thomas remembers her being by his side when he found out about his award. “We were in the waiting room of a hospital,” he recalls before stopping for a moment. “One of our kids had a scare, bills were coming in, and then I got the call. Then my wife, who is usually very soft spoken, shoves me in shock, and she started crying. The moment was so elegant.”

After 20 years of struggling and working toward his craft, Thomas says that’s what matters. “She’s been with me,” he says. “It’s not about the awards and all that. It’s about the people who have been there for you  since the beginning.”

When Thomas returns to Boston, he will be coming back as a rising new star, and helping a festival — and perhaps giving a few supportive words to budding new writers.