Litquake, Two Decades On

by Liam Passmore

The acclaimed literary festival spreads it wings to 20 cities

In my very first year working with Litquake, Tobias Wolff handed me some quarters and asked if I wouldn’t mind putting them in his meter. Time was ticking and he still had not taken the stage to read and appeared concerned. I’d spent the good 15 minutes prior waxing on to him backstage about his wickedly elegant but brutal short story, "Bullet in the Brain," and he’d been patient with my revved up, fan-boy praise and parsing. I sprinted two blocks through the Tenderloin in the rain and put two quarters in the meter and thought to myself, "Wow, Tobias Wolff drives a Miata! How weird and unexpected is that?’ If memory serves it was blue. I’m not sure that really matters, but I thought then (and still do) that Tobias Wolff Driving a Blue Miata would make for a memorable painting by Warhol or Hockney.

Six years later, in 2010 when Litquake honored Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Booksellers with its Barbary Coast Award, Tom Waits and Patti Smith were the special guests. They wanted to pay homage to him and the bookstore/publishing house for being a crucial spark for their literary imaginations when they were young. During a run-through early in the evening, I passed Patti on her phone, sitting off in the corner when she suddenly blurted out, “George Maharis!” Maharis, for those who may not know, was a very handsome actor and semi-celebrity from the 1960s who starred in "Route 66" and whose arrest was the inspiration for David Bowie’s "Cracked Actor." Turns out, Patti was playing a phone-based trivia game to pass the time and stay relaxed, and she’s apparently wickedly good at it. Later she performed an astonishing and intimate "Wing" before Tom Waits sauntered out to entertain the crowd with anecdotes as only he can about growing up and his love of words. To close, he took to the grand piano and cast a hush on the spellbound room by performing a glorious "Coney Island of the Mind."

These remarkable moments and others would not be possible without Litquake co-founders Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahl, who have steered the festival through many twists and turns since they rounded up 30 authors and an audience of a couple of hundred to brave the wind and chill at Golden Gate Park in 1999. Since then, literary luminaries such as Daniel Handler, Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan, Emma Donohue, Boots Riley, Ishmael Reed, Chelsea Handler, Irvine Welsh, Marc Maron, and Rebecca Solnit have all made memorable appearances, some multiple times.

As of 2019, the festival has produced more than 8600 author appearances for an audience closing in on 200,000. And to celebrate turning 20, this year sees not only the return of Tobias Wolff to an all-star lineup, but a roster featuring an entire cast of close to 800 authors. See a sampling of highlights below, and visit for more.

Kristin Hannah and Ellen Sussman

Bestselling author Kristin Hannah
celebrates the paperback release of "The Great Alone," a riveting portrayal of
homesteading in Alaska in the 1970s.

October 10, Copperfield’s Books, Petaluma.

Eureka! California’s Best Authors Read by More of the Same: notable California authors,
including Tobias Wolff, Ishmael Reed and Ingrid Rojas Contreras will read from the works of writers who have inspired them.

October 11, Swedish American Music Hall.

Baby Don't Hurt Me—An evening with Chris Kattan: the actor and comedian known for his inimitable style of physical comedy, as well as his many roles in film and television will discuss his new memoir with Isaac Fitzgerald, followed by a book signing.

October 12, Alamo Drafthouse.

Words Around the World: Family Trauma and Literary Catharsis: a panel of authors that includes Linda Boström Knausgård, the famously-present-but-never-heard-from-in-his-books and now ex-wife of Karl Ove, in conversation with SF Chronicle book columnist Barbara Lane. October 13, Hotel Emblem.

The Ego Has Landed: New York Times Technology Reporter Mike Isaac comes to Litquake with his new book, "Super Pumped": The Battle for Uber in conversation with Roger McNamee, author of "Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe." 

October 15, Swedish American Music Hall.

Frankissstein: An Evening with Jeanette Winterson: As artificial intelligence redefines our future, one of Britain's finest novelists reimagines Mary Shelley's iconic Frankenstein story for the 21st century in an eve of animated readings and performance exploring transhumanism and queer love. October 15, JCCSF.

Austin Kleon: Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad: Bestselling author Austin Kleon presents his latest, "Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad." One piece of advice from the author: Get outdoors and take a walk. As director Ingmar Bergman told his daughter, ”The demons hate fresh air.” October 16, Counterpulse.

Tope Folarin: A Particular Kind of Black Man: Caine Prize recipient Tope Folarin reads from and discusses his debut novel, "A Particular Kind of Black Man," which follows Tunde Akinola, a child of Nigerian immigrants for whom small-town Utah has never felt like home. October 16, Museum of African Diaspora.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory: From the creator of the acclaimed Netflix series "BoJack Horseman" comes a  fabulously offbeat debut collection. Written with his trademark scathing dark humor, Waksberg’s stories will make you laugh, weep, and shiver. October 16, JCCSF.

On Forgetting: Scientists, Writers and Memory: an evening featuring writers, poets and scientists that includes the luminous insights of poet and essayist Jane Hirshfield.

October 17, Genentech Hall, UCSF.