On the face of it, Suellen Lazarus might seem an odd person to have started a book festival. She was a banker, not a professional bibliophile or bookstore owner or writer.

But in a way, it was her other busy life which led her to start such an event on the Vineyard six years ago. For she associates reading with downtime.

She is one of those people who always packs five or six books when she goes on vacation. Even if she doesn’t get around to reading them all, their mere presence is a happy indicator of leisure, a calming thing.

So then what better place for a book festival than the Vineyard, this famously literary place, in summer.

The genesis of the idea came in the fall of 2001, just after Sept. 11, when she attended the national book festival in Washington, D.C.

“They had 10 tents, and every 40 minutes there was a different author,” she recalled. “You could buy your books, get the authors to sign them, and more importantly, you could hear authors speak about works you had just read.

“That just seemed a great thing to me.”

At the time, she was organizing the evening lecture program at the Chilmark Community Center.

“We often had authors as speakers. And there were only so many Thursday nights, and so many more authors,” she said.

It seemed logical to expand it.

“I thought, a big field next to the Chilmark Community Center, a library next door, a place where in the summer everybody reads, lots of authors in our midst. David McCullough could just come over from Music street and we’d have a party.”

It was not that simple, of course. Ms. Lazarus did not herself have all the necessary connections in the literary world, although she did have other requisite skills.

“I used to organize a big meeting of 350 bankers at the World Bank every year. So I can do logistics,” she said.

In 2005 she organized the first festival, and it was a success. But not an unqualified one. There were lessons learned, and there still are lessons being learned.

“It’s gotten more finely tuned over the years,” she said. “That first year, we let everybody in. There are a lot of authors on the Island and a lot of different books — photography books and home decorating books, you name it — all by Island people. That first time, we just said, sure, to anybody who wanted to be in it.”

Since then, the parameters for entry have been refined a lot.

“We dropped children, which sounds terrible but we felt the tent format didn’t lend itself to children’s authors. It wasn’t story hour,” Ms. Lazarus said.

“We had tried to partner with a children’s bookstore, to do something earlier in the day, but it didn’t work and eventually we just decided there were other things for children, and this should be just for adults. Not even young adults.” She continued:

“We don’t have poetry because I don’t feel competent to distinguish [work which merits inclusion from work which does not].

“And we don’t have self-published books, because so many people have self-published books and again it’s hard to distinguish,” she said.

There are odd exceptions, though. One year they did feature a self-published book about Craig Kingsbury, written by his daughter, because he was an Island character and there was a lot of local interest.

And this year they invited Adam Mansbach, whose book “Go the F to Sleep” was first published on the Internet, and emulated the style of a children’s book, although it was really for young parents. But he couldn’t make it.

“What we’ve gotten better at is having just a couple of books from each category. And making sure that we’re appealing to all the different demographics of the Island,” Ms. Lazarus said. “There is fiction and nonfiction. A couple of cookbooks, politics, environment, history, those are the areas we try to cover.”

Although the founder is a keen reader herself, she certainly is not the sole decider of which books get in and which don’t.

“We have a wonderful relationship with Edgartown Books owner David LeBreton. Edgartown puts in a lot of work. We have a conference call every week or two. Sharon Shaloo at the Massachusetts Center for the Book is good at knowing who is available in the state. The Chilmark library people help. Steve Fischer of New England Independent Booksellers Association is a big help. Island authors make suggestions. Geraldine Brooks has been great,” she said.

And she herself goes to other festivals and keeps an eye on the top-10 lists.

Over the three previous biennial festivals, she said, one event stood out above all others. That was in 2009 when Henry Louis (Skip) Gates was scheduled to speak about his latest book on issues of racial identity.

He was invited, and agreed to speak, before he was arrested while trying to force entry to his own house in Cambridge, an unfortunate, racially-tinged episode which eventually made news all the way to the White House, where President Obama held the famed “beer summit” with Mr. Gates and the arresting officer.

“That was like the gift that kept giving for us,” said Ms. Lazarus.

Suddenly Mr. Gates’s appearance at the Chilmark festival was in the national news. The question was, did the festival need to take steps to protect him from potentially intrusive media? “He was very gracious about it,” she said. “He was just, ah, let anyone ask anything. Don’t manage it. You don’t need to protect me.”

And, as it turned out, it was all good publicity, for him, his book and the festival.

So what’s new and different this year?

“This year was a big year for fiction,” Ms. Lazarus said. “We also have three memoirs. But what we’re really trying to focus on this year is engaging younger readers — the 20 to 40-year-olds. My 18-year-old son is a big reader of The New Yorker, and one day in the winter he came to me with their list of 20 up-and-coming authors who are under 40.

“Chris Adrian [born in 1970] is one of those. Alan Heathcock is also younger.”

Also now, said Ms. Lazarus, the festival has become “a bit of a destination.”

“People plan their vacations around it. There are specific authors people want to hear. Book clubs come. I love the way it appeals to all the different reader demographics on the Island. It’s not just a summer-people event, but one for everybody who’s here.”


The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival kicks off on Saturday with a screening of Charlotte, a film by Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Kusama-Hinte about the Gannon and Benjamin boat yard, at 8 p.m. at the Chilmark Community Center, copresented with the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. Discussion with the director, subjects Nat Benjamin and Ross Gannon and the author and photographer of Schooner: Building a boat on Martha’s Vineyard, Tom Dunlop and Alison Shaw. Tickets are $14, online at tmvff.com.

The book festival is on the lawns of the community center on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For a full guide, see section C in today’s Gazette.