The Big Read Blog (Archive)

READ BETWEEN THE LINES: A Q&A with Houma Regional Arts Council

Houma, Louisiana

Houma Regional Arts Council?s Project Director for The Big Read, Larry Hyatt, participates in the Mardi Gras parade. Photo courtesy of Houma Regional Arts Council

Houma, Louisiana, is working its way through The Big Read canon, having tackled To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, and A Lesson Before Dying before choosing to focus on The Great Gatsby for its 2010 Big Read. With the five-month-long celebration of Fitzgerald?s masterpiece now winding up, Larry Hyatt, Houma Regional Arts Council?s projects director, discusses how his city embraced the jazz age and got its residents to open up about their secret love of reading.

NEA: How did you choose The Great Gatsby for your community?s Big Read?

HYATT: The previous Big Reads help decide for us. Houma Regional Arts Council?s first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, was chosen because it was an approachable novel. It was very well received in the community and was a great book to get the community involved. Our second book, A Lesson Before Dying, was about life in Louisiana by a local author.

After those two selections, we wanted to do a novel that would spark a lot of discussion, something ?not so safe?, so we chose Fahrenheit 451. A lot of our partners (surprisingly, libraries included) didn?t want to be a part of this cycle because of the novel selected, and the theme of sci-fi allowed us to heavily engage a younger audience. This created a great amount of buzz, which we like to think prompted people to read the novel to see what the fuss was about.  That selection was something very different from the other Big Read novels, and it was controversial in that there was some dissent with our women readers because of science fiction.  After alienating our first two audiences, we decided to bring them back with The Great Gatsby. This time we went back to an older classic with broad appeal.

NEA: What were some of the unique activities that your organization planned for The Big Read?

HYATT: Our favorite was being in the Mardi Gras Parades. The staff and volunteers dressed in 1920?s clothes and walked alongside antique cars from the 1920?s. We handed out the Reader?s Guides and bookmarkers and told people where they can get the novel. We also had Mardi Gras ?throws? designed with The Big Read logos featuring The Great Gatsby. We also hosted a ?Gatsby Party Crawl? to promote the novel after an evening arts walk. Participants dressed up in 1920?s clothes and with the promotional Great Gatsby cups could get drink specials from the different ?speakeasies? on the crawl.

Another unique event from last year?s cycle (Fahrenheit 451) was the traveling display which included a mannequin dressed as a fireman to promote the book, and to distribute Reader?s Guides, etc.  This year, we dressed the mannequin as Jay Gatsby in a white suit and continued to use this as a promotional exhibit.

NEA: What has been your favorite Big Read moment, either from this year?s program or past programs?

HYATT: We told Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying, that we were throwing his novel for a holiday parade and he replied ?OK! Well, I hope ya?ll are throwing the paperback version." Also, the Mardi Gras parade was a memorable experience?100,000 people screaming ?THE BIG READ!! I WANT A BOOKMARKER!!?

NEA: What has been the biggest surprise from your experience with The Big Read?

HYATT: I never dreamed that when I was hired to be the Projects Director for the Houma Regional Arts Council to do their Big Read that I would end up reading 29 of the 31 Big Read novels, and I would become the community?s biggest spokesman. This experience has also sparked me to complete a novel of my own and do some freelance writing.  Also, meeting people that I never thought were avid readers, oil-field workers, or people you wouldn?t expect, and close friends who didn?t discuss that part of their lives till I became an avid reader and mentioned it.

NEA: In what ways has your community benefited from The Big Read?

HYATT: Over the past four years, we have been able to give out tens of thousands of Readers Guides, bookmarkers, and other promotional items. The Big Read has allowed us to reach audiences we have never before been able to impact with other programming. It has also allowed us to work with non-conventional partners. We?ve also distributed close to 4,000 free novels to the community. It has started community discussion groups that still meet on a regular basis, and it helped launch a Banned Book Club.

NEA: Why should other cities participate in The Big Read?

HYATT: The entire community wins each time someone picks up a book.

Houma Regional Arts Council?s Big Read continues through the end of June. Visit their page on The Big Read website for more information.

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