Meet Karen Junker, the creator and director of Readerfest

Karen Junker’s life has always been devoted to books. Though the tiny Washington town where she grew up, DuPont, didn’t have a library when she was young, “I loved reading more than anything.” One of her high school classmates was Robert Heinlein’s niece, and Junker clearly recalls her meeting with the sci-fi great to be a turning point in her life.

“Some people collect comics and baseball cards, and I collect meetings with famous authors,” Junker tells me on the phone, just before relaying an anecdote about accidentally bumping into George R. R. Martin. She’s about more than just the big names, though. Junker is well-connected in the literary community: she knows agents and editors and publishers and booksellers. And she admits that she’s “not afraid to call anyone and ask them for anything.”

Junker says she “likes to introduce people that will help other people.” One of her favorite things to do is to organize events that place a famous writer next to a lesser-known writer, creating the possibility to inexorably alter the course of a career. She’s organized conventions and a popular series of writing retreats called Writers Weekend and all sorts of other literary events.

Junker doesn’t believe in genre. She recalls a moment when she was younger that taught her not to look down her nose at someone for the kind of books they read: “I was working in a bookstore in West Seattle and I was helping a regular customer there and I said, ‘you seem like a really smart woman. Why do you read romance?’ She pretty much dressed me down. And rightfully so!” That customer turned out to be president of the local Romance Writers of America chapter, and she invited Junker to attend writing workshops. “It really opened up my mind and respect for that genre.”

After putting on some romance events, Junker started to branch out. She scored a rare appearance from sci-fi author Mercedes Lackey at a writing group, and then she started to expand her scope into a regular series of writing workshops. And now she’s expanding her scope event further with Readerfest, a free family-friendly book festival at Magnuson Park on Saturday, September 9th. Junker just started planning the festival five weeks ago, but she’s filed with Washington’s Secretary of State for nonprofit status and plans are proceeding at high speed. “I started making phone calls and people are getting on board,” she says. “We’re adding people and sponsors every day.”

“I’m a big fan of the writing community, especially in our region,” Junker tells me. “I started Readerfest because the Northwest Bookfest was so cool, and I feel that this is something I can do to organize a little tiny thing to build that back up again.” She admits to being “scared” by how quickly Readerfest is growing, but “I’ve done these for so long that if you get good people who you know can talk about what they do, I don’t have to manage that. It takes care of itself.”

Inclusivity is important to Junker. Readerfest will feature an indigenous arts tent, and there will be talks by local native artists. The festival will feature conversations about “cultural appropriation in literature, and race and gender representation in steampunk.” The festival does have more sci-fi authors on its slate than Northwest Bookfest, but Junker is looking to expand that slate as much as possible. “I have some poets, I have some non-fiction writers and some comics. We have spoken-word storytellers coming. We don’t have a lot of literary fiction writers yet.”

So what should you do if you want to participate in Readerfest? Junker says interested parties should email her if they’d like a table. The Readerfest site will be updated soon with information for volunteers and, as soon as the organization gets its nonprofit status approved, the ability to donate for future Readerfests.

In the end, Junker says, she just wants to put on an event that will connect people to books that they’ll love. “I just felt the need in the community for this kind of event — one that’s family-friendly but not exclusive of any genre. I’m a fan of all types of writing, and there’s a reader for everything,” she says.