The Pebble Beach Authors and Ideas Festival will return Friday, bringing around 20 of the country’s top authors and speakers to the Peninsula to present on a variety of topics.
Jim McGillenco-founded the festival with his wife, Cynthia, after they listened to Irish-American writer, Frank McCort, give a talk in Sun Valley and were inspired to bring a similar event to Carmel.
“Initially we thought we were only going to do it one year and we thought that would be enough,” he said. “But the feedback was very positive and we decided to do it for our second year, and now we’re going into 16.”
Produced by the nonprofit Carmel Ideas Foundation, the 16th annual festival will take place from Friday through Sunday at the center for performing arts at Carmel High School.
Some of this year’s presenters include: David Eagleman, Stanford University neuroscientist, international bestselling author and Guggenheim Fellow; Indre Viskontas, musician, neuroscientist and host of the popular podcast, Inquiring Minds; Alan Shipnuck, Carmel resident, sportswriter and best-selling author; and Deepak Srivastava, president of Gladstone Institutes, an elite biomedical research institute.
McGillen said the best part of putting on the festival – and the most tedious – is finding 20 of the year’s top speakers. A lot of time and care goes into picking who to invite to speak at the Authors and Ideas Festival, McGillen explained. First, he and his wife call universities and other lecture series across the nation and ask who they believe gave the best presentations that year. Then, McGillen researches the suggested picks before deciding who to invite to the festival.
This year’s festival takes place at a new location – the Center for Performing Arts at Carmel High School – because of two other events taking place during the weekend: the 2022 PURE Insurance Championship Impacting First Tee golf tournament and the 65th annual Monterey Jazz Festival.
Last year’s event was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with restrictions limiting the number of attendees and many of the speakers presenting virtually. And although 2020’s Authors and Ideas Festival was held completely virtually, McGillen explained that it was maybe “one of the best.”
“Every year is a challenge, especially when you’re close to 90 years old, it gets to you,” said McGillen, who is 82. “But it’s just terrific. It’s invigorating and I think (from) the feedback we’ve gotten for 15 years, the community enjoys it.”
Although the festival has gained recognition for bringing acclaimed speakers and authors to Carmel, McGillen said the most important aspect of the festival is the student portion through the Student Ideas Festival.
He explained that for the first year of the festival, he and his wife invited some teachers and students in the community as a bit of an afterthought but regretted that more students weren’t able to participate in the event.
“After that first year, we both decided, ‘let’s devote as much as we possibly can to the students,’” McGillen said. “So that’s why we go out of our way to invite underserved school districts.”
The Pebble Beach Authors and Ideas Festival partners with students and school districts throughout the county in a variety of ways.
McGillen invites school districts in the county to bring students and teachers to the event, starting with the districts that typically don’t receive invites to similar festivals. This year, McGillen said he expects nearly half of the festival’s attendees to be teachers and students.
For the students who are unable to attend, the Pebble Beach Authors and Ideas Festival will send some of the event’s speakers to various schools throughout the year. The program, titled Festival 2 Schools, is in its 10th year and partners with underserved school districts where just one in three students in grades six through 11 have advanced English language skills.
New this year, the festival will kick off Friday morning with seven speakers presenting their talks to students at the Monterey County Office of Education in Salinas. The talks will also be recorded and streamed to schools throughout the county, reaching over 20,000 students.
“I think from the student standpoint, the speakers inspire them that there’s a different world out there,” McGillen said. “To me, it’s the student portion and the student festival that’s the most important.”
But for McGillen, the highlight of the weekend will take place Saturday morning, when students who participated in the Migrant Education Region XVI’s annual Speech and Debate tournament will introduce the day’s speakers.
McGillen said that he asks all of the festival’s speakers to spend at least 30 minutes with the student who introduces them, and many of the event’s past speakers have kept in touch with students.
“Since we began our collaboration, the Authors and Ideas project has offered migrant students from throughout Monterey County an exciting and unique opportunity to hone their public speaking skills and stage presence,” said Robin Cohen, the migrant program specialist for the Monterey County Office of Education, in a letter about the event. “One of the most rewarding aspects is watching these student/speaker casual interactions, observing how the featured speakers put the students at ease and make them the center of their attention, building their self-confidence and ensuring that they see themselves as a valuable part of the event.”
Tickets for the event have remained the same price they were 15 years ago, according to McGillen. From Sept. 25 through Dec. 1, tickets for next year’s event will be $500 and once those tickets sell out, the price will increase to $1,000.
McGillen acknowledged that the price of tickets can be steep for many. He said that for those who can’t afford to attend but would love to come to the festival, he offers a unique proposition: write a letter.
“All I ask is that you (don’t) send me an email. You have to put it on a letter or a card and you have to take it to the post office,” he said. “Just say on the note, ‘I’m on a fixed income and if possible, I would like to have two tickets for (the) festival. And we’ll do that, no questions asked.”
Letters can be sent to Post Office Box 509, Pebble Beach, CA 93953.
But for those who have bought tickets for this year’s event, McGillen is confident that the 16th Pebble Beach Authors and Ideas Festival will not disappoint.
“We’ve always said from the very beginning, if you buy a ticket and it’s not one of the best weekends you’re ever spent, I’ll give you your money back,” McGillen said. “And in 15 years, we’ve never had to give back any money or tickets.”