LitQuake 2013: A Spicy Literary Stew

by Sura Wood

San Francisco's nine-day, full-fledged literary extravaganza showcases over 820 authors and 150-plus events.

Since its humble beginnings 14 years ago, when a small, hardy band of San Francisco writers first gathered for informal readings of their work, Litquake has grown into a full-fledged literary extravaganza that was attended by nearly 20,000 people last year. This month, the nine-day annual festival, a magnet for the famous, the almost-famous and those who simply love books, will showcase over 820 authors, many of them from the Bay Area, at 70 mostly free programs; an additional 82 one-off events are scheduled for a raucous closing night tradition called Lit Crawl.

"The festival is for anyone who loves writing and reading, from book lovers and fans of authors, to established and emerging writers, and publishers and agents looking for the next big thing," says Litquake executive director Jack Boulware. "It's also for those obsessed with the art, craft and sheer joy of language, who through the miracle of storytelling learn what it means to be alive and a citizen of the world."

Eclectic doesn't begin to describe Litquake's programming, which reflects the free-thinking mentality of the Bay Area. This year, for example, offerings include "Batter Up: Readings about the Great American Pastime," an opportunity for baseball writers who played the game, covered it as journalists or authored novels about the sport to wax rhapsodic; "Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion," a lively panel of activists, writers and performers who've contributed to "Hot & Heavy," an anthology of stories about "body love, fat awesomeness and losing hate not weight"; a conversation with Delia Ephron, who discusses "Sister Mother Husband Dog," a new collection of personal essays in which she reminisces about love, cooking, growing up with her alcoholic, screenwriter parents in Beverly Hills and the loss of her more famous sister and frequent collaborator, Nora Ephron, who died last year; and a panel called "Sometimes It's Hard to be a Writer: Stories about Doubt, Debt, Drugs and Determination," in which novelist/screenwriter Jerry Stahl is among the panelists who relate tales of woe--his memoir, "Permanent Midnight," recounts his descent into heroin addiction as his Hollywood fortunes soared. (He also wrote the screenplay for the movie of the same name starring Ben Stiller.)

At Litquake, bestselling authors like Stahl participate in events alongside unpublished ones, and valuable platforms are awarded to breakthrough stars like Sicilian wunderkind Viola Di Grado. At the tender age of 26, she has published two books lauded for their distinctive, somewhat strange "shimmering prose," and the press has dubbed her an "Italian Goth" for her theatrical taste in fashion that includes a propensity for dark lipstick, lace gloves and hooded wizard capes. Her dark debut novel, "70% Acrylic 30% Wool," is based on her disorienting year abroad as a young exchange student in Leeds, a grim, perpetually gray industrial city in England, where the lead character lives with her grieving mother and the two communicate without the benefit of language. Her second book, "Cuore Cavo," already released in Italy, is about a girl who keeps a diary of her life after committing suicide.

The prolific, award-winning short story writer and novelist T.C. Boyle may be this year's highest-profile guest. Known as much for his showmanship as for his wicked wit, wild imagination and love affair with words--he has been called a "born entertainer" who's "as flamboyant in person as in his prose"--Boyle will hold forth on his remarkable literary career, the paperback release of his 14th novel, "San Miguel," an historical epic about two families in Southern California, and his latest collection of short stories, "T.C. Boyle Stories II," a 950-page volume of new stories and previously published fiction.

Perhaps the most infamous writer here is best-selling detective fiction maestro Anne Perry, who appears in conversation with San Francisco mystery writer William C. Gordon. The author of some 60 books that have sold 26 million copies, Perry has been unable to escape a sensational episode from her past. Born Juliet Hulme in New Zealand, she was 15 in 1954 when she was convicted of helping to murder her schoolmate's mother. After serving her sentence, Hulme changed her name to Perry and moved to England. The lurid tale of the girls' obsessive relationship and the gruesome matricide were captured in Peter Jackson's 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures." Its release led to the revelation of Perry's hidden identity.

Piper Kerman's brush with the law and her candor about the price she paid for her youthful transgressions has launched an unexpected writing career. Her memoir, "Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison," which tells the story of her 15-month incarceration in a federal prison for a drug smuggling offence that caught up to her a decade later, was adapted for an engrossing original series produced by Netflix. (Kerman, who comes from an affluent East Coast family, committed the crime shortly after graduating from Smith College.) Though the success of her book and its subsequent adaptation has meant a loss of privacy for Kerman, she says she doesn't regret the exposure. "Certainly writing a book about my biggest mistake and moral lapse and the consequences was a little scary," she recalls. "But opening up about that period of my life has had only good results." Although Kerman was released nine years ago and the book covers a chapter of what she now considers "old history," she says not a day goes by when she doesn't remember being imprisoned: "The experience is indelible. It's like a tattoo." Kerman will take part in "Loose Lips Sink Ships," an event where writers recite a six-word memoir and have six minutes to explain its origins.

The seamy side of San Francisco during the 1940s and '50s is the ambient, albeit imaginary, setting for "San Francisco Noir Unscripted," an improvised production from Impro Theatre. Drawing on authors such as Dashiell Hammett, who wrote the bulk of his hard-boiled detective fiction when he lived in the city, the performers build a full-length play around a suggestion fielded from the audience. A tour de force of collective, spontaneous playwriting with impromptu lighting and sound effects, including gunshots--some characters expire unexpectedly, only minutes into a performance--the show promises femme fatales, seduction, murder and betrayal, though not necessarily in that order.

Oct. 11-19. Various locations. Visit website for complete event listings.