A Short Story Fest 2022 Feature: Interview with Donna Ledbetter

With 2022, comes a return for Short Story Book Club (SSBC). Kicking off in May comes Short Story Fest 2022. Short stories are a great way to get reading into your daily routine, and SSBC has always championed the medium within reading and writing. I had a chance to speak with Donna Ledbetter, CEO and founder of the book club, to ask questions regarding the upcoming festival and what we can expect going forward about future festivals.

Hi, Donna. As a previous book reviewer for the site, I always wondered something. Regarding Short Story Book Club as a whole, what were your main motivating factors in forming the site? Was it a specific decision to focus your site’s attention solely on short stories as opposed to full-length novels? If so, what drew you specifically to short stories?

I founded Short Story Book Club to promote reading and literacy. Throughout its history, that has always been its goal. Over the years, how we’ve taken to achieving that goal has evolved. Today, we are a nonprofit organization with community involvement at its core, and we are expanding into new forms of outreach and engagement as we continue to evolve.

I chose to focus on short stories because at the time I thought the decline in reading in America was due to a lack of time to read. Research has shown that time is only part of the equation. Like any other habit, reading has to be developed and nurtured to become a lifelong endeavor. That is why the book club evolved to address the needs of young readers, not just adults. We’ve stuck with short stories because it’s still an easy gateway to reading other forms.

During the latter half of 2021, Short Story Book Club had taken a hiatus from posting reviews. The site itself remained dormant without word for several months. Did this hiatus impact any decisions made for the 2022 Short Story Fest? Will reviews resume once the festival ends?

With my husband’s passing in 2021, I was not able to manage both my grief and the club. Something had to give. When I returned to the book club in early 2022, I found myself only a few months away from the festival. I decided to focus on the festival and the SSBC scholarship as the things I absolutely must continue. The scholarship means a lot to me personally, and the festival was the last thing my husband and I worked on together. He would have wanted the festival to go on. The book review program will resume shortly, but I can’t give an exact date at this time.

The fact the festival is, in a way, in memory of your husband definitely makes the heart behind the festivities feel all the more put together. Though I have to ask, what were some of your major inspirations for starting Short Story Fest? What makes it special, differentiated, from the regular content posted on the site in the past?

One of the major inspirations for Short Story Fest was actually Book Con. I don’t think that festival exists any more, but what I loved about it was how it made stories come to life for readers. It was a few short days where there’d be some cosplay, panels, author signings, discussions. It was a literary event that was unlike other book festivals I attended that focused solely on author discussions and signings.

Short Story Fest is different because it has all the things people love about literary festivals and festivals in general. As far as I know, we’re the only literary festival featuring musical guests and literary games alongside workshops and discussions. We’re a very diverse festival, which is reflective of the short story genre itself.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been major changes to the festival. What were your original plans for an in-person event, and how did you have to translate these to an online platform?

It is a well-kept secret that Baltimore, the City that Reads, is host to some of the country’s best literary festivals, including Balticon and Poe Fest. Originally, I thought Short Story Fest could be part of that group with in-person sessions and events focused on short stories. The pandemic meant we had to pivot, but we didn’t have to abandon the idea of a festival entirely. There are a lot of things that being online allows us to do, like engaging with people from around the country and the world. Not just people visiting the area.

If the goal of Short Story Book Club, as a website, is to bring attention to short stories as a medium, what are the goals for Short Story Fest? Is it to further bring attention to the medium? Or are there other reasons as well?

Short Story Fest meets the mission of Short Story Book Club to foster the reading and enjoyment of short stories. The festival is a time for people to discover new authors, find new books to read, and develop a community of people who enjoy literature. Our aim is to do this through fun, engaging, and informative sessions. Reading is usually a solitary event. The festival helps turn this around.

If you had to recommend a short story to a general reader, what might you recommend to get them into reading stories in short form?

Oh, boy! This is the hardest question to answer because for one, I believe there is a story and an author for every reader. What one tastemaker might think about a story might be the complete opposite impression that a casual or novice reader might have. So much of what makes a good story comes down to personal experiences. The other thing that makes this question difficult to answer is that there are just so many I would choose from personally. If I had to narrow it down, I’d suggest Jacqueline Woodson’s Red at the Bone or Larry Watson’s Montana 1984. These are two very different stories but common between them are themes about families and secrets.

After 2022, do you plan to continue the growth of Short Story Fest? Will you continue the festival into 2023 and beyond? Will you turn to a physical event or will it remain digital for the foreseeable future?

Yes, I would like to continue Short Story Fest and to see it grow both online and in person. In the future, the festival will likely be a hybrid event. I love what we’ve been able to share with people who join us online. I don’t want to waste that. I hope we can build something that’s the best of online and offline events.

Do you have any closing comments or anything you would like to add?

I don’t have anything else to add. I found your questions quite thoughtful. 

Stay tuned to Short Story Book Club for more news and previews regarding Short Story Fest 2022. The festival will take place from May 21st to the 22nd with sessions by a variety of different people, from authors to book store owners! Please stop by. It’s sure to be exciting!

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