On Creating the Orcas Island Lit Fest

Ayn Gailey, (left), Jami Attenberg, Robin Sloan, Kim Fu, and Scott Hutchins at the Orcas Island Lit Fest in 2018.
Ayn Gailey, (left), Jami Attenberg, Robin Sloan, Kim Fu, and Scott Hutchins at the Orcas Island Lit Fest in 2018. (photo by Kads Photography)

When my friend Jule Treneer asked me if I wanted to start a literary festival, we were standing in a park, watching his son bounce up and down on a trampoline. It was summer, and I felt, like the boy, that I had excess energy to burn. The festival’s shape and focus were amorphous, but the location was definite. Orcas Island, a beautiful, two-lobed protrusion of volcanic plate in the San Juan archipelago in Washington State, but so far north the island is tucked into Canada. Orcas was a key place for Jule growing up, and his mother had recently moved there permanently. I lived in California, but was besotted with the San Juan landscape and seascape—the long clouds, the purple hills, the fjords. Taking the ferry to Orcas felt not like a boat ride, but a journey into a dream.

Like a poetic form, Orcas imposed constraint. We weren’t looking at a 100,000-person festival, a Miami or a Portland. We’d need to go smaller. But what would that “smaller” look like? Jule and I actually met at a reading—Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing—and our friendship always had books at its center. Talking about them, swapping them, arguing over them. We decided we wanted an intimate festival full of real conversation and aimed at readers. That is, a festival a little like our friendship.

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How do you conjure a festival from thin air? Well, San Juan County supports the arts. Jule created our nonprofit legal organization (a process that will turn your hair gray), researched every angle of what it would take organizationally, brought a proposal to San Juan County, and walked away with $10,000 in starting money. That was half the needed budget—and was the moment I realized we were really going to do this thing. Jule and I roped in our first additional board member, Shannon, who introduced us to Jill, who introduced us to Iris. The Gaileys came on, and then Theresa. Suddenly we had a board. An intimidatingly competent board, from web design to institutional structure to communications to wrangling favors from local businesses. Each member also happened to be a writer, which was helpful for my anxiety. I kept fearing one of them would say, sorry, I can’t do all this work for free. Because we all worked for free, and it was a LOT of work.

Now we just needed writers who were so exciting and interesting they would entice people to an island. It was a high bar, and I thought I would start with people I knew. This was my role, after all. My first invitation was a Hail Mary to Jami Attenberg. She wrote back immediately, “What the heck, let’s do it!” Then we got yesses from two Pulitzer winners, Adam Johnson and Gil King. From there the board worked all our publishing, agenting, and friend channels to get Tara Conklin, Victor LaValle, Rick Barot, Robin Sloan, and many others. Our proximity to Seattle helped us bring in younger writers like Kim Fu and Urban Waite. Willy Vlautin, the novelist and singer-songwriter, said he would read and play a song. Then the panel proposals rolled in. Such bright ideas from such talented writers. We organized a lit walk event, a kid’s event, a late-night literary game show, and a Saturday evening variety show Words + Music.

Spoiler alert: the weekend was fantastic. I worried about timing and people being where they needed to be, but because of the festival’s size I actually got to talk to the attendees. The beer distributor from British Columbia, who’d taken a weekend to come down and see Robin Sloan. The on-island radical leftist who was most excited about Jami. The Seattle thriller aficionado who came for Urban Waite. We also did what too few literary festivals can accomplish: we sold stacks of books. I waited for Victor LaValle’s signing hand to cramp.

Last year, we had a modicum of funding and an abundance of talent. That remains true this year. But our line-up dazzles: Nicola Griffith, Mat Johnson, Terese Marie Mailhot, Judith Thurman, Eric Puchner, Rick Barot (again—thanks, Rick!), Kiwi Smith, Nicole Chung, and many more. Our children’s author and musical excitement is Laura Veirs. Laura Veirs! ZYZZYVA’s own Oscar Villalon will be moderating a panel on the short story and participating in another panel on what an editor looks for in great narrative. Check out the full schedule at oilf.org. (The festival runs April 5-7.)

To my surprise, that conversation Jule and I had while his son bounced up and down has grown into the Orcas Island Lit Fest. A few board members have left (Shannon, the Gaileys); two have come on (Paula and Mia). But we’re otherwise much the same. I hope the festival will develop into a long-lasting and solvent institution, but these early, scrappy years are magical. Out of nothing but an idea, a friendship, an incredible board, and a thousand little and large acts of generosity, we get to bring writers and readers together in a real and genuine way. For an entire weekend, over an entire island, everyone gets to talk about books.

Scott Hutchins, OILF vice president and cofounder, is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University. His novel A Working Theory of Love was a San Francisco Chronicle and Salon Best Book of 2012 and has been translated into nine languages. He lives in San Francisco.

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