You can't throw a New Yorker magazine in San Francisco without hitting a writer. This fog-bound city might be more famous for steep hills and sourdough, but step inside one of its many independent bookstores and coffeehouses and you'll find more novelists, nonfiction writers, poets and bloggers than in even the most literary Brooklyn neighborhood.
It's this abundance of local talent that inspired the first Litquake festival in 1999. That and beer. After a long afternoon at the Edinburgh Castle, a S.F. watering hole that had hosted a number of successful author readings, future Litquake co-founders Jane Ganahl and Jack Boulware concluded that putting on a literary festival in San Francisco couldn't be that hard, could it?
Turns out, it wasn't hard at all. The two persuaded 20 local writers to participate, booked the band shell in Golden Gate Park for an afternoon and got their one sponsor, the San Francisco Examiner, to cough up $300 for a sound system. To their amazement, 300 people showed up.
It was so easy, they decided to do it again. And again.
This year, Litquake's 12th, the event will stretch over nine days and feature 848 authors reading in venues as diverse as Sausalito houseboats, Mission District dive bars, a police station, an alley and a cheese shop, as well as the usual bookstores and theaters. Best of all, most of these events are free or close to it. Which means that if you are a lover of the written word, Oct. 7-15 is the best time to be in San Francisco. One caveat: With 165 events spread over nine days, there's bound to be more than one at the same time you'll want to attend. To navigate Litquake's day-by-day offerings, you're going to need local advice. (Fair warning: What follows is an abridged and subjective sampling. For the unabridged version, go to
Friday, Oct. 7:
Litquake kicks off with an opening-night cocktail party that is your best bet for mingling with local authors of the famous and soon-to-be famous variety. This year it's being held at the Verdi Club, a social-club-turned-hipster-event-hall. Come see how nicely San Francisco's authors clean up.
Saturday, Oct. 8:
Every hour, starting at noon and lasting until 4 p.m., different writers read about an assortment of topics. Science fiction in a real world. Writing in California prisons. Or maybe, it's a group of publishers discussing whether self-publishing is the new black. All free. All in a comfortable venue on Market Street. Saturday night, I'm leaning toward Tom McGuane in conversation with Litquake co-founder Boulware. How many times do you get the opportunity to hear a writer who is the author of nine novels and a member of the National Cutting Horse Assn. Hall of Fame?
Sunday, Oct. 9:
At 4 p.m. you have two good options. If your tastes run to fairies, maypoles and open-air picnics, head to "The Great Night" in Buena Vista Park with authors Chris Adrian, Andrew Sean Greer and Daniel ("Lemony Snicket") Handler. If you prefer seedier gatherings, then turn up at "That's My F-- cking Stool — Writers at the Bar," at Vesuvio in North Beach, with local bad boy (and girl) authors, including David Henry Sterry whose bio lists jobs as a Chippendales emcee and Disney screenwriter. Later in the evening, two more good options. Will you head to the Jewish Community Center to hear Adam Mansbach talk about the bedtime book with every parent's favorite title, "Go the F-- k to Sleep"? Or settle in at the Herbst Theatre for a conversation with James Ellroy, author of
and self-described "Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction"?
Monday, Oct. 10:
"Whales, Comedy and the Impressionists: A Collision." With a title like that, do I have to say more? How about that this 6 p.m. event features comic novelist Christopher Moore and National Geographic photographer Flip Nicklin? Count on glimpses of Nicklin's amazing photos and Moore's latest novel. The Litquake edition of the Porchlight Storytelling series always sells out, and for good reason. There's something great about having somebody tell you a story. This year's theme is "Are We Good? An Evening of Stories About Apology, Redemption and Outright Begging for Forgiveness."
Tuesday, Oct. 11:
My pick for tonight is easy, "Young
: Emissaries From a New Literary Renaissance" at 8 p.m., which includes readings and a panel discussion from five up-and-coming Irish authors. The venue is the Swedish American Hall, where there's a well-stocked bar, because they're Irish writers after all.
Wednesday, Oct. 12:
Warring events tonight. If your tastes favor the metaphysical, you might want to head to Berkeley and watch Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow duke it out over the future of God. If you're willing to let them settle the issue without you, then your best bet is the Barbary Coast Award presentation. Each year Litquake honors a local literary luminary, and this year's recipient is poet, playwright, essayist and jazz musician Ishmael Reed. Expect the evening to be a mash-up of music, comedy, readings and dramatic performance.
Thursday, Oct. 13:
Foodies will want to attend "Serving It Forth: A Feast of Food Writing," which pairs food and food writing at 6 p.m. Those with a more lyrical palate will savor a "Flight of Poets." What happens when an internationally renowned sommelier pairs six fabulous wines with six talented poets? Find out at 7 p.m. If you want to attend a legendary S.F. tradition, don't miss "Literary Death Match: Litquake Rumble," a no-holds-barred competition among four ruthless (and slightly terrified) authors. Finally, there's "Are You There, Litquake, It's Me, Chelsea!," a one-on-one conversation between author
and Litquake co-founder Ganahl.
Friday, Oct. 14:
One of my personal favorite Litquake events is women's night, and this year's theme is "Murders, Mayhem and Moxie." The locale is the Bubble Lounge Champagne bar, and the readers include some of the best female mystery writers around. If your bloodstream pumps testosterone, you'll want to be at the Hemlock Tavern for "Figure Four Caps Lock: Pro Wrestling Memoirs From Classy Freddie Blassie to the Fabulous Moolah." I believe the title says it all. If you couldn't get enough of girls kicking hornets' nests, you will want to be at the Swedish American Hall for "Nordic Noir: A Dark and Stormy Night of Scandinavian Crime Fiction," with visiting thriller authors from Norway and Sweden.
Saturday afternoon, Litquake is inaugurating "Words on the Waves," an event that promises to become a classic. Four phases of readings by North Bay writers all held on the Sausalito houseboats. There will be words, music and the introduction of a cocktail called the Anchor Out.
Saturday evening is the big event of Litquake, the Lit Crawl. Between 6 and 9:30 p.m., 450 authors will read in 76 walkable venues in San Francisco's Mission District. The readings are broken up into three sessions, each lasting an hour. Everything is crowded, so it's impossible to make all three. My advice is to pick the one reading you're most eager to hear and go early. Or attend a first and a third, and grab a quick bite during the second at a food truck or
. Whatever you choose, at some point you'll find yourself walking down Valencia Street in a crowd of people, and you'll think, you can't throw a Litquake program without hitting a book lover. And that will feel very good.