Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahl came up with the idea for Litquake in 1999 over pints at the Tenderloin bar Edinburgh Castle. “If you sit in a Scottish pub long enough, eventually you think, ‘We should do something,’” Boulware said of the 23-year-old festival.
According to Boulware, San Francisco’s literary scene back then was small and overshadowed by the dot-com boon. “You’d meet someone, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m a writer—for pampers.com.’”
The long-running festival of poetry and prose returns to the city Oct. 6 to 22 with a raft of free and paid events for those of a bookish bent. While last year’s festival was 50% virtual, this year’s schedule includes only a handful of online events.
The varied programming includes everything from Margaret Wilkerson Sexton on her 1950s-set Fillmore jazz novel to finalists from BART’s first-ever writing competition; events for elementary schoolers to an Elder Project Showcase; an exploration of who killed Jane Stanford to insights from women of the Black Panther Party.
The more than two-week literary smorgasbord culminates with Lit Crawl on the evening of Oct. 22, where a bevy of writers will embark upon a massive pub crawl—stopping in bars, barbershops and bookstores throughout the Mission District.
Bestselling local authors Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame and Pulitzer Prize-winning Andrew Sean Greer will reprise of their sold-out show “Paragraphs on Ice,” in which they share their favorite literary paragraphs on an old-school 1970s overhead projector, breaking down what they love about the excerpts in front of a live audience. Storytelling series Porchlight celebrates its 20th anniversary on Oct. 7 with stories about getting out of town.
Poetry at Grace Cathedral should be divine, and the Generation Women program on Oct. 19 has a standout cast, including Bonnie Tsui—the local author behind Why We Swim—and stand-up comic W. Kamau Bell’s mother, Janet Cheatham Bell.
Russian literary great Vladimir Sorokin—appreciated as the heir to Turgenev or Nabokov—will take the floor at the Mechanics’ Institute to discuss his work and life with translator Max Lawton.
While Ingrid Rojas Contreras has had events across the Bay Area to promote her new memoir The Man Who Could Move Clouds, her appearance at Litquake with Colombian writer Julián Lopera promises to be unique: The book discussion is followed by a cumbia dance party with DJ Telepathic Juan.
These are only some of the many highlights of the deep bench of literary talent in the Bay Area. Local sci-fi writer and host of Writers With Drinks Charlie Jane Anders will participate in multiple panels; Salon.com founder and Season of the Witch author David Talbot will appear with Craig McNamara, son of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; and San Francisco Chronicle columnist and bestselling author Vanessa Hua will be in conversation with local activist and journalist Robert Lovato.
Litquake was clearly filling a need in the literary community and grew organically—and quickly—from a handful of events to a “monster” year when it hosted 950 authors in 10 days, with 104 events in four hours for the Lit Crawl. “It was almost unmanageable at a certain point,” Boulware said, “but people got so excited to run down the street and see a reading in a furniture store or a Laundromat or the police station.”
The Lit Crawl component was added in 2004 and has since become a highlight of the festival. Lit Crawl’s vibe, with its participatory nature, offbeat venues and ever-changing dynamism, captures something of the spirit of San Francisco itself, according to Boulware.
“That's why people move here, because you can renew your life and start over again and name yourself another name,” Boulware said. “You're allowed to experiment and try new things. If they don't work, that's fine. You can always try something else.”
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org