Last year alumna Steph Opitz started a world-class book festival in Minneapolis called Wordplay. The second annual event will take place in May.
Minnesota is consistently ranked as one of the most literate states in the nation, and the Twin Cities in particular have a thriving literary scene filled with writing communities, unique libraries, and independent booksellers, as well as iconic independent publishers like Graywolf Press and Coffee House Press. It’s also home to the nation’s largest and most comprehensive literary center, the Loft.
So when Steph Opitz (B.A. ’04) was asked last year to launch and direct a large-scale book festival for the Loft called Wordplay, she was happy to bring her fellow Minnesotans closer to the wordsmiths they admire.
Opitz double-majored in English and religious studies and minored in Latin at the U of M before getting her masters in English literature at California State University. At the time, she thought she would eventually go on to get her doctorate, but realized that although she loved talking about books, she didn’t enjoy talking about them in an academic environment. Instead, after her master’s, Opitz moved to New York City, where she began working for the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses.
“It was really cool, because I could see what issues people were facing nationally, rather than what one particular press was dealing with,” Opitz says. “It was an awesome learning job.”
For the last decade Opitz has curated and been involved with book festivals from coast to coast—including the Texas Book Festival, the Brooklyn Book Festival, the Portland Book Festival (formerly Wordstock), and the PEN World Voices Festival. At each, Opitz worked to bring together writers and readers to celebrate the written word. Her background also gave her the insight she needed to start what is now considered Minnesota’s largest literary event.
“I knew I could come up with a program,” Opitz says about starting the festival. “I just didn’t know who was going to be in it or who was going to come to it.”
Opitz launched Wordplay in May 2019 to overwhelming success—more than 10,000 people attended, joining over 100 authors, including Stephen King, Tommy Orange, and Amy Tan. The festival included three days of readings, discussions, book signings, writing workshops, kids’ activities, and one-of-a-kind happenings with outdoor stages, quiet reading corners, food trucks, and beer tents.
“The fact that authors and publishers I’ve worked with in the past trusted me to do the job I’ve done elsewhere was really an awesome feeling,” Opitz says.
The next iteration of Wordplay will take place this year on May 9, again in downtown Minneapolis throughout the historic Mill District. This year’s roster will include roughly 100 authors, including Steve Inskeep, Michael Ian Black, Danez Smith, Emma Straub, Jeff VanderMeer, Jessie Diggins, Kate DiCamillo, Natalie Diaz, Laila Lalami, Kao Kalia Yang, Karine Jean-Pierre, and Gene Luen Yang.
Aside from the excitement of having “celebrity” authors share the stage with exciting new ones this year, Opitz says the idea of a book festival is important to her because she believes deeply in sharing the joy of reading. And while Opitz grew up in a family that encouraged reading, it was a literary theory course at the U of M that gave Opitz a deeper appreciation for the written word.
“It was one of those mind-blowing moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, my god, language is so complicated and cool,’” she says of the class. “It was a real eye-opening experience for me in terms of how to be a better reader.”
Opitz says that one of the less obvious benefits of a book festival like Wordplay is exposing kids to reading, and having them see adults’ enjoyment of literature as a part of daily life.
“You can bring your whole family, and have kids see adults running towards the stage to see Stephen King,” Opitz says about last year’s event. “And that kind of nuanced education is irreplaceable.”
A lot of work goes into a festival the size and scope of Wordplay in order to make special moments like those happen, she notes, from putting authors together for discussions to keeping track of what books are coming out in a given year—as well as the more mundane tasks of getting street permits, signage, and wondering how many recycling bins to have on hand. But for Opitz, it’s all been worth it.
“To start a book festival from scratch in my very literary hometown is beyond thrilling,” Opitz says. “And to have Minnesota show up in such a meaningful way to a thing that they’ve never heard of before was a huge vote of confidence.”
Steve Neumann is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.