In 1999, Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware organized a daylong gathering of two dozen authors. That event has grown into one of the nation’s largest literary festivals, spanning nine days and featuring more than 800 authors. As its 15th anniversary event approaches, Litquake — which has played a defining role in the local literary ecosystem — continues to evolve.
“If there has been a key to our success, it’s our inclusiveness,” Ganahl said in the afternoon dark of the Elbo Room bar in the Mission. “It’s become more like a big umbrella festival for all the organizations and series in the Bay Area.”
“One of the reasons it’s popular is that the community helps curate the festival,” Boulware added. “It allows for the depth and breadth that I don’t think a single group of people could ever possibly imagine or put together.”
A nonprofit, Litquake offers programs year-round, among them monthly author conversations, a podcast and an annual digital lit conference. Last month they published their first book, “Drivel,” and the festival’s Lit Crawl has become a paradigm, expanding in recent years to New York, London, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, Austin, Texas, and Iowa City, Iowa.
“It’s nice to see the DNA of something that spawned so organically in S.F. (be) exciting to other people in other cities,” Boulware said. “It changes with each city, but … I think Dave Eggers said it: It could have never started in any other city.”
Taking a brief look back, Boulware and Ganahl shared a few moments that stand out as one thing has led to another.
1999: After the first event, called Lit-Stock, a woman who’d driven in from Merced, having read about it in the San Francisco Examiner (the day’s sole sponsor), tells a reporter she’s glad she made it to the first event because she wanted to be there in the beginning, before it went corporate. “We laughed about that for years, like, please, somebody buy us out!” Ganahl says. They joke to the media that the following year they’ll probably have a sign onstage saying: “Skyy Vodka presents Litquake”; they’ve had liquor sponsors ever since.
2002: The main inspiration for Lit-Stock were the readings Alan Black organized at the Edinburgh Castle. Irvine Welsh, who read at the first two festivals, is friends with Alan, and (so the story goes) over a pint and a handshake they’d agreed that Alan would put on the first American production of “Trainspotting.” Boulware recalls walking up to a line wrapped around the Castle. “Every single person in this bar with a pint in their hand and they’re laughing — Irvine was so entertaining, and he was one person reading for like an hour, and I think it showed us that readings don’t have to be in a lecture hall, and they don’t have to be formal or stiff.”
2002: The first after-party of the rechristened Litquake was at the Phoenix Hotel in the Tenderloin, which has a big outdoor pool. The festival coincided with Fleet Week, so there was an odd mix of people at the hotel. Poet Kim Addonizio strips down to her underwear and jumps in the pool, swimming a few laps before being helped back out by a small mob of young, wide-eyed sailors.
2002: Lawrence Ferlinghetti was scheduled to open up the first festival, but was almost two hours late. When he shows up, he walks directly onstage and starts reading an original poem he wrote for the event, called “Lit.quake?” (which you can read on the website). Finished, he turns and walks offstage, trailed by Ganahl and Boulware bearing one of the First Place trophies they give to each participating author. He smiles, and asks: “Was I really the best?”
2004: The first year of Lit Crawl, MacAdam/Cage was curating an event at a bar on Valencia Street that refused to turn down its music or its TV, so the publisher picks up a chair and walks through the crowd to the sidewalk. Each author reads from the chair, surrounded by people holding their pints of beer, and a crowd gathers that begins to spill into the street. A car, forced to slow, rolls down the window to ask what’s happening. “It’s a literary reading,” someone says, and the car drives off to applause.
Oct. 7, 2005: At what Ganahl calls their “first really big event,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Howl” at the Herbst Theatre, celebrity authors read from deceased Bay Area authors (Jerry Brown reading Jack London, Daniel Handler reading Gertrude Stein). Armistead Maupin, who would read from Mark Twain, followed Cintra Wilson’s reading of Ambrose Bierce, saying something like, “Looking at Cintra Wilson’s rear is enough to make me question my sexual orientation.” Each author who follows adapts the joke to the previous reader, turning the night into one sophisticated procession of butt jokes.
Oct. 11, 2005: Litquake had organized a night of humorous readings at the old Purple Onion comedy club. Ganahl had recently interviewed Chelsea Handler about her first book, and Handler happened to be performing that night at Cobb’s, so Ganahl encouraged her to show up afterward as a special guest, to read from her book. She does show, but sits in the back, telling Ganahl she’s too shy to do it. Handler will return to Litquake years later as one of the headliners.
Oct. 11, 2005: Poet and professor Aaron Shurin reads from his contribution to Rebecca Solnit’s “Infinite City,” which compares gay men flocking to the Castro to the migration of butterflies, to a Joe’s Barbershop packed with bikers and bears, all motionless and not a dry eye in the house.
Oct. 6, 2007: At the ceremony for the first Barbary Coast Award, presented to Armistead Maupin, Amy Tan “came out wearing a little coolie outfit with the hat, totally politically incorrect,” Ganahl says, “with her high shoes, and then pulls it off and is wearing this leather dominatrix outfit.” “She does that all the time,” says Boulware, referring to her performances with the Rock Bottom Remainders. But not at Herbst.
July 2009: Every year Ganahl organizes a reading dedicated to female writers, and had just edited an anthology called “Single Women of a Certain Age,” so the event was organized around the book. During the Q&A that followed the readings, a man — whose voice Ganahl said felt strange, since the room was almost entirely filled with women — asks: “Why would I want to date any of you? Where’s the charm?” The entire room turns to the guy, some ready to fight; Ganahl is barely able to prevent a brawl.
Oct. 2, 2010: Tom Waits and Patti Smith, in town for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, performed in tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books at the annual presentation of the Barbary Coast Award. They hadn’t crossed paths since touring in the ’70s, and their warm meeting backstage inspires Waits (who played an original adaptation of “A Coney Island of the Mind”) to forgo the photo embargo his handlers demanded. The next day, Smith waxes praise for Litquake in front of the music fest’s 200,000-strong crowd.
July 10, 2011: An event called the New Literary Vanguard, featuring three writers now quite well-known — Charles Yu, along with Jesse Ball and Adam Levin, both visiting from Chicago — was held at the Brava Theater, which holds 350 people. About a dozen show up. “We learned a very valuable lesson that night,” Ganahl says, “which is always check and make sure these touring authors who solicit Litquake to do a reading … aren’t doing another one the night before!”
Oct. 15, 2011: Boulware recalls seeing two-term U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, about to read in the second phase of Lit Crawl, looking around, astonished at the packed room and all the people running by on Valencia Street clutching festival programs. “It really seemed to flip her lid as to what literary events could be and what people get excited about.”
2011: Each festival contains youth programming, called Kidquake. One year, a teacher asked her students to write thank-you letters to Litquake, and Ganahl recalls receiving one letter that says, essentially, until that afternoon one child did not realize books came from people. “Books just are,” she says, “but then you see somebody talking about it and doing a slideshow of the pictures, and reading from it, and it’s not just a lightbulb, it’s like a thermonuclear thing that goes off in this kid’s head: that this was a created thing.”
2011: For Ganahl and Boulware, who each get only one night off from hosting duties during the festivals, it’s a luxury to be able to watch an event. Ganahl remembers going to Seattle for that city’s first Lit Crawl.
“It rained so hard that by the time people got to the final venue — the Seattle Seven, which was some big writers like Garth Stein — I remember the windows in this bar were absolutely … not just steaming, but dripping because everybody was like a wet dog. But they were so excited, and every venue was packed and people were so into it.”
IF YOU GO
Litquake: The festival begins with “Viva Fifteen: Litquake’s Quinceañera 15th Anniversary Bash.” 7 p.m. Friday. $15. Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F. Events continue through Oct. 18 at various venues.
Photo by Shelley Eades