A New Beginning at Litquake

Litquake's New Executive Director is Firmly in the Driving Seat for This Year's Festival, October 5–21

By Norah Piehl

Norah Piehl, Litquake's New Executive Director

Ever since I started as Litquake’s executive director in July, people have been asking me variations of the same question: How does it feel to be handed the wheel by the founders of this beloved literary festival? Of course, I feel beyond fortunate that my hard work (plus, sure, a few lucky breaks) has brought me here. And I am immensely grateful that, after shepherding Litquake through good times and leaner days alike, founders Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahl — not to mention the talented and energetic staff they’ve assembled — are leaving the organization on a firm and stable footing (though don’t get me wrong—we always need new donors and supporters, so let’s talk).

After nearly three months on the job, listening to stories and memories and trying to absorb so many new names and faces, I’m also deeply humbled about how much I have to learn, despite the decade-plus I’ve spent organizing literary festivals in Boston and Berkeley. And perhaps it’s foolhardy to admit this in print, but working to win the trust and confidence not only of Jack and Jane but also of the whole extended Litquake family, can feel, on some days, more than a little scary.

When it’s one of those days, I’ve found it comforting to remember that Jane and Jack were once new at this, too. As I’ve been thinking ahead to my first foray into Litquake, and peeking over the horizon to our twenty-fifth anniversary next year, I’ve also been looking back at where it all began, and reflecting on how aspirations and apprehensions always go hand-in-hand when you’re starting something new. I came across an article Jane wrote for the SF Examiner back in 1999, on the eve of the very first festival (called Litstock back in the day). Reading it now, I’m struck by the buoyancy and infectious optimism Jane and her fellow organizers brought to that brand-new venture, when the mission was simply to throw the “the coolest, grooviest thing seen around these parts in a long time.”

I asked Jane what her past self would think of what Litquake has become in 2023 — a 16-day festival that spans the Bay from October 5–21, with more than 400 writers sharing their work. “She would be shocked,” was the reply. “Honestly, Jack and I never planned for this to take off the way it did.” But take off it did — thanks, Present-Day Jane speculates, to the festival’s welcoming, inclusive attitude: “interested parties recognized it as something they could participate in — as a writer, reader or organization involved in the written word.”

Litquake as an organization is all grown up now — we’re a bona fide nonprofit, with a year-round staff, a board of directors, education programs, and the support of such venerable entities as the National Endowment for the Arts. That maturity shows up in our programming — this year we’re hosting authors nominated for some of the biggest awards the literary establishment dishes out, as well as a special “Litquake edition” of beloved NPR staple Selected Shorts, which features Hollywood actors bringing short fiction to life on stage. But we’ve never lost that free-wheeling “let’s put on a show” attitude — October’s events include drag queens reading excerpts from celebrity autobiographies, as well as an evening with novelist Jonathan Lethem in a classified location. Interested? Buy a ticket and the good folks at City Lights will slip you the location and password in an unmarked envelope.

Like many attendees, I’m especially excited for Lit Crawl on October 21; that’s the night when Litquake takes over the Mission, with more than three dozen separate (free!) events cramming storefronts, bars, and bookstores, daring anyone to contradict what Jane wrote about San Francisco back in 1999: “This is the best writer's town in the country.” Asked whether that’s still true today, she doesn’t hesitate: “I would argue that this is the best area (if not ‘town') for anyone aspiring to write! Despite the Bay Area’s reputation of being tech central, authors and aspiring writers still own a huge chunk of the culture.”

My hope, for this year and beyond, is for Litquake to do what we can to keep that culture thriving and boldly, brashly visible — to continue celebrating, and surprising, the Bay Area’s one-of-a-kind community of writers and readers. And, as Jane prepares to enjoy her well-deserved retirement (which includes finishing up her middle-grade novel manuscript), I asked what advice she had for me as I embark on my own new beginnings. That, at least, is simple: “Enjoy it!” Thanks, Jane—for trusting me to carry the cool and groovy spirit with which you imbued this festival into its next quarter century.

Litquake 2023 • 90+ events • 500+ authors
October 5 - 21

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