Smile Politely

Meet rising literary stars at Lions in Winter

Three portraits of authors (l-r): Cynthia Pelayo, a light skinned woman with long, dark hair and red lipstick; a black and white photo of Taymour Soomro, a light skinned brown man wearing glasses; Emily Maloney, a white woman with short brown hair and an orange necklace.
L-R: Cynthia Pelayo, courtesy of the author; Taymour Soomro by Jorge Monedero; Emily Maloney by Joanna Eldredge Morrissey

Lions in Winter is a literary festival at Eastern Illinois University. Each winter, three authors are invited to campus to share their work and their practices with students and community members alike. We’ve previously covered the event, as recently as last year, and it’s always rewarding to speak with established and up-and-coming authors, many of whom live in the Midwest. The festival is free and open to the public — a rarity and gift to those of us who are readers and writers. 

This year’s festival takes place Thursday, January 25th and Friday, January 26th, in person, at EIU’s Doudna Fine Arts Center. Charleston is just under an hour from here, an easy drive with high rewards. In addition to attending Lions in Winter, you can check out the final days of The Tarble Arts Center’s excellent exhibition, Who Speaks for the Oceans? .

I recently spoke with Assistant Professor of English at EIU and festival organizer Dr. Colleen Abel. She shared with me what she finds most rewarding about these sorts of events and what we, the attendees, should look for. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Smile Politely: Let’s start with the basics, if you don’t mind. What is Lions in Winter, and how did EIU come to host it?

Colleen Abel: Lions in Winter has been around since about 2012, which is before my time at EIU. I don’t know all the lore, but I believe that the English Department creative writers wanted an event that would fill in the space in January or February that was often a slower time on campus before events start really proliferating after spring break. If I’m not mistaken, Roxane Gay was pretty instrumental in pioneering the festival, and it was originally envisioned as a place where students could hear readings, craft talks, buy books and interact with editors of area lit mags. It’s looked a variety of different ways since then, especially after 2020, but we’ve held on to the central aims it began with.

SP: How is the event curated?

Abel: The creative writing department brainstorms the writers we think would have something really special to offer the community. We also focus our attention especially on writers within the Midwest, broadly defined, and who we consider either emerging or still somewhat underacknowledged in their genre — in other words, we try to bring writers who we believe are on the verge of big careers or who we feel more people should be reading. 

SP: Who should think about attending? What’s the schedule like?

Abel: This year’s schedule marks a shift back to Lions’ earlier days and we’re holding the festival over two days. The first evening, Thursday, will feature a reading extravaganza with all three invited writers reading from their work supported by brief readings from seven EIU students. On Friday, each of the featured writers will give a craft talk for about 45 minutes that will be a more intimate interactive experience. The reading is like a buffet; anyone in the community who loves literature will get a taste of fiction, poetry, and essay. The craft talks are more in-depth and are great for people who write — or want to — and who want to know tips, tricks, and tools for approaching the page. 

SP: Tell me about this year’s authors. 

Abel: This year, the three writers represent the range and depth that we’ve come to expect from featured Lions in Winter writers. Emily Maloney is one of the most promising writers in the memoir space. Her debut essay collection, Cost of Living, exposed the brutal realities of being physically or mentally ill within America’s fraught health care system and was named a Best Book of 2022 by USA Today. I can’t wait for her next book, which will shine a spotlight on her own family history. 

Taymour Soomro is a British-Pakistani writer who has a law degree from Cambridge University and switched careers to become a writer; we’re very lucky he is currently settled in the Midwest and can visit us here in Charleston. His novel, Other Names for Love, explores what happens when a queer Pakistani man returns to his home country to assist his father with managing his extensive land.

Finally, Cynthia Pelayo is a Chicago horror writer whose 2023 collection made her nearly a household name for those of us who love to read books from the dark side. Her poetry collection Crime Scene earned her the honor of being the first Latinx woman to win the Bram Stoker Award, horror writing’s highest honor. She also published Loteria in 2023, a short story collection that draws on her Puerto Rican heritage and is filled with monsters, ghosts, and ghouls. She consistently hops between genres with unforgettable results.

SP: How do author events like Lions in Winter affect students?

Abel: The writers we bring to Lions are writers that run the gamut from prestigious award-winning literary writers whose work has appeared in The New Yorker or who have won National Endowment for the Arts awards, to writers dominating genre spaces in horror, sci-fi, graphic novels, and many more. They show students what is possible in the art aesthetically and professionally; each writer we bring has taken a different path to becoming a writer and to making a life in that field. It’s incredibly inspiring for students to see living, working writers who have carved out that path for themselves. 

SP: I imagine there is a certain air of camaraderie and inspiration at events like Lions in Winter, where you have people in a similar field sharing ideas and excitement about their projects. What has your experience been of Lions in Winter, or what excites you most about an event like this?

Abel: My first Lions in Winter was in January 2020; it was the last literary event I attended before the pandemic pushed these kinds of events online. I also didn’t expect that, by the time we returned to an in-person version of Lions (in 2023), I would be the festival director. I take that responsibility really seriously because I know how transformed I was as an undergraduate writer by the events  like this that I attended. It truly blew my mind to be 20 years old and have a published writer whose book I had studied in class sit at a table and sign my book and talk to me about writing. The idea that I might facilitate that for someone else really drives me. I love watching those connections happen. 

SP: Should attendees do any reading ahead of the event? If so, what do you recommend? 

Abel: It’s not at all necessary to have any familiarity with the writers beforehand. There’s nothing more wonderful than discovering a new-to-you writer by attending events like Lions in Winter. That being said, I would never miss a chance to recommend books by our visiting writers! There’s really something for everyone there. 

Lions in Winter Literary Festival
Doudna Fine Arts Center
Eastern Illinois University
1860 7th St
Free, but you’ll need to pick up tickets at the Doudna Fine Arts Center box office


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