It's surprising to think that Litquake, the Bay Area's now-venerable annual celebration of literature, began as a do-it-yourself affair. When founders Jack Boulware and Jane Ganahl started the festival back in 1999 -- it was originally called Litstock and lasted only a day -- there was barely a scene of budding writers, and careers in writing came in many (often suspect) forms.
"You’d meet people at parties and they’d say 'Oh I’m a writer,' and I remember asking this one woman, 'Well what do you write?' She says, 'Right now? I write for Pampers.com,' Boulware told MARY: A Journal of New Writing early this year. "Clearly those were the options people were considering if they wanted to be a writer."
Flash forward 15 years and the festival has expanded from one day to over a week, with each day packed with events ranging from readings to lunches with famous authors to writing workshops for kids. Also, the events are no longer limited to San Francisco -- several Litquake readings now occur in San Rafael -- and Lit Crawl, the festival-sponsored pub crawl with readings, is held in places as far away as Manhattan, Miami and Seattle.
This year the festival reaches a serious milestone: its 15th anniversary. In true Litquake tradition, its founders are celebrating by not only throwing a quinceañera, but are publishing the first Litquake-related book, Drivel: Deliciously Bad Writing by Your Favorite Authors, which is a collection of awful writing from notable writers such as Mary Roach, Dave Eggers and Chuck Palahniuk.
With such a big celebration coming up and so many years of doing Litquake under his belt, we begged Boulware to answer some questions we had about the festival and luckily he had a little free time to do so.
You’ve been doing Litquake for 15 years – has it gotten any easier?
Some of it gets easier, because we learn more shortcuts over the years. But as the festival and organization keep growing, some of it just takes more time and care and feeding.
What are some favorite memories of past Litquakes?
Besides all of the fantastic readings, even hearing an author read that single sentence that could send sparks through your brain? There’s been plenty of crazy things. The first year of Lit Crawl, an unnamed Valencia St. bar refused to turn down their music, so we all filed outside with a chair, and started the readings right on the sidewalk, in front of a janitorial supply store. Authors stood on the chair and read their work, people were clustered around holding beers, cars were driving by and honking their horns. It was really raw and authentic.
Authors have taken off their clothes and jumped in swimming pools. Someone sent us a furious email canceling our newsletter because it had a typo. At our annual female writers’ event one year, during the Q&A, a man stood up and said, “Why would I want to date any of you?” That did not go over well. Some of the touring authors who live in other states, or other countries, come to Litquake and can’t believe the unique flavor of the festival. U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan did a reading at the Lit Crawl one year, and was visibly amazed at the hordes of people running down the street to see authors, programs clutched in their hands.
Our 2010 Barbary Coast Award show for Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights, at a sold-out Herbst Theater... Tom Waits sitting at the piano, with Marcus Shelby looking over his shoulder and picking out notes on the stand-up bass, and Waits cracking jokes and then performing his original musical accompaniment as he sang the words of Ferlinghetti’s poem “Coney Island of the Mind.” People were freaking out. I was on the side of the stage, and thought, "It’s never going to be like this again."
What led to publishing Drivel? Why now, after doing Litquake for 15 years?
We’ve toyed with the idea of doing book projects, but the industry has changed a great deal in the past 15 years. Anthologies are not being published as much anymore. The Drivel book was a happy and organic accident, which came out of our annual "Regreturature" benefit shows. One of the participants, journalist Julia Scott, immediately saw the live show as a possible book, so we helped her put together a proposal, and it ended up being a wonderful thing.
How has hosting Litquake in the Bay Area been beneficial? Is there any aspect of being here that makes it difficult?
The Bay Area is a brilliant incubator for new ideas, and you could argue that traces back to the early beginnings of San Francisco. There’s always been a restless spirit for innovation, unique ways of looking at things, finding solutions, creating communities, and upsetting the status quo. And it’s a fantastically literate pocket of humanity.
That said, it’s increasingly difficult for any arts organization, or individual, to remain based here, especially in San Francisco. Many of us get evicted from our offices and spaces, in favor of startups with plenty of money to burn. In the not-so-distant past, arts nonprofits have enjoyed great support from the local community’s companies and individuals who place value on keeping the city’s arts scene alive and healthy. Unfortunately, many of the current wealthiest corporations in San Francisco (as well as the U.S.) do not think this way. There is a deepening economic chasm between the newer tech money and the ability of artists and art organizations to survive. It’s drastic. The city is losing vast amounts of creative individuals who can’t afford the rents, or who have been evicted. Many of the newer corporations don’t think in terms of donating funding to the arts. To them, their tech tools are free to anyone to use and that should be enough. Tech employees picking up trash in the Tenderloin may look good on paper, but it’s not giving back to the creative community. It would be a very sad San Francisco indeed if the city were simply a collection of overpriced housing, overpriced restaurants, and tech parties and conferences, with no literary, film, theater, fine arts, or music festivals to remind us all of what it means to be human.
All of us in the arts feel conflicted. It’s fun to have such a surge of money and youth and fresh ideas wash through the city. And Litquake does partner with many of these companies, and many of their employees love Litquake and the arts. But on the other hand, it’s very difficult to raise money to be able to stay here.
How did your friendship with Marc Maron begin?
We met each other in the early 1990s, when he was living in SF. He was doing standup, and I was editing a satirical investigative magazine called The Nose. I think we met backstage at the old Improv comedy club downtown, which is now the Biscuits & Blues club.
He’s well-known for his interviews – Ira Glass once described his show as being the “New York Times of comedy podcasting.” Are you nervous about interviewing him for the Attempting Normal event at Z Space? Do you think you could get him to cry?
No and no.
Bonus: Here are five events worth noting that, unlike Boulware's interview with Maron, still have tickets available.
Best American Non-Required Reading, Oct. 12: This long-running collection of stories and essays never fails in its mission to highlight amazing writing that you might've missed. And with the affable Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket as the MC, expect to laugh out loud a few times during the evening. Tickets and Information
I Watched the World...30 Years After Brautigan, Oct. 13: It's been 30 years since Richard Brautigan took his own life and his work is due for a comeback. Learn more about this writer from friends and family, and see why authors as talented as Haruki Murakami cite him as an influence. Tickets and Information
Literary Death Match, Oct. 14: Well there's a bit of false-advertising in the title as no one is ever LITERALLY killed, but I bet having your writing judged by authors as highly-regarded as Christopher Moore would make some of us want to die. Still, you know it's gonna be a blast! Tickets and Information
Rock’n’Soul Circus: A Cavalcade of Stars, Oct. 17: Writing about music is an under-appreciated art (if I do say so myself) and the writers featured in this event are some real "arteests," who will not only be reading some great examples of music journalism, but will probably have some wonderful stories too. Tickets and Information
Litquake runs Oct. 10-18, 2014 in various San Francisco and San Rafael venues. For tickets and information, visit litquake.org