BY GREG JOHNSON
The year was 2012 and some Lewisburg merchants had decided the town needed an event that would bring locals and visitors downtown in the summer, like the Chocolate Festival in the spring and Taste of Our Towns in the fall. Since there were already two food-themed festivals, what next?
Aaron and Monica Maxwell, the owners of Harmony Ridge Gallery, and Josh Baldwin, the publisher of the Greenbrier Valley Quarterly and a Lewisburg City Councilman, offered an idea: a literary festival with an outdoor art component. They recruited a handful of locals with literary interests, and the Lewisburg Literary Festival was born.
The festival enters its eighth year this summer with a short but eventful history. Since its inception a parade of literary talent has graced the town: Homer Hickam (Rocket Boys), Jeanette Walls (The Glass Castle), Kathryn Stockett (The Help), Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), Garth Stein (The Art of Racing in the Rain), Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), David Sheff (Beautiful Boy), NPR’s Noah Adams (Far Appalachia), West Virginia Poet Laureate and children’s author Marc Harshman, basketball legend Jerry West (West By West), filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me), podcaster Anna Sale (Death, Sex and Money), long distance hiker and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Jennifer Pharr Davis (Becoming Odyssa), and humorist David Sedaris (11 bestsellers and still counting).
In addition to author presentations and book signings, the festival has sponsored a play (Tru, based on the life and works of Truman Capote), screened films, celebrated Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature, hosted a raucous Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Lookalike Contest, presented poetry jams and writers workshops, sponsored children’s activities and sprinkled the downtown with outsized art installations.
The Literary Festival is a community-wide effort. Based at Carnegie Hall and the Greenbrier County Visitors and Convention Bureau, event venues have also included the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, the Lewis Theatre, A New Chapter bookstore, The Open Book, Harmony Ridge Gallery, Lee Street Studios’ Listening Room, Greenbrier County Library, Hill & Holler, The Irish Pub on Washington Street, the Asylum, Lewisburg City Hall and the city’s Green Space.
“One thing that sets us apart from other literary festivals and book fairs is the fact that absolutely everything is free,”
Josh Baldwin, who serves as the festival’s board president, points out. “Thanks to the generosity of our supporters—small foundations and local businesses and individuals—we’re able to underwrite the entire cost. The only thing we’ve had to charge for was David Sedaris, and once again, thanks to sponsors, our ticket prices were less than you would pay to see him anywhere else.”
Chartered as a nonprofit with the goal of promoting reading and literacy in the Greenbrier Valley, the Literary Festival operates on a budget of approximately $30,000 annually. In an effort to help emerging writers find a readership, the board plans to expand the festival an additional day beginning in 2020 to feature more local and regional talent. “We’ll have to do more fundraising,” Baldwin says. “But no pain, no gain. We’ve been able to build the festival by featuring bestselling authors. We want to leverage our reputation and find some rising stars.”
The 2019 Lewisburg Literary Festival will feature two highly-regarded writers, Tobias Wolff and Sarah Vowell. Wolff, who teaches at Stanford University, is best known for his coming-of-age memoir This Boy’s Life, which was adapted as a film starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio as Toby, Robert DeNiro as his abusive stepfather, and Ellen Barkin as his mother. As a teenager Wolff crafted a memorably creative runaway when, to escape his unhappy home life, he forged his high school transcript and reference letters and applied to a series of exclusive prep schools. His fictitious grades and glowing references won him a scholarship at the Hill School in Pottstown, PA, 2800 miles from his Washington State home. Now older and wiser, Wolff is a celebrated novelist, short story writer and teacher. He will take the stage at Carnegie Hall on August 3 at 7:00 pm.
As a tie-in, This Boy’s Life will be screened during the Literary Festival at The Lewis Theatre on Friday evening, August 2, at 7:00 pm, and again Saturday afternoon, August 3, at 3:00 pm. Admission is free.
Sarah Vowell was a commentator for many years on National Public Radio’s This American Life. A humorist, essayist, historian, and the voice of young Violet in The Incredibles and The Incredibles 2, Vowell offers a unique perspective on just about everything. She has been a guest on The Daily Show with John Stewart, the Colbert Report, The Late Show with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. She will be interviewed onstage at Carnegie Hall by local writer Sara Elkins at 1:00 pm on August 3, and she will read from her works. Vowell, who lives in Montana, said she accepted the invitation from the Lewisburg Literary Festival in part because, “I’ve always wanted to see The Greenbrier.”
The festival partners with local booksellers to make its speakers’ works available for signings. A New Chapter bookstore handled sales at last year’s festival and the Sedaris event, and they will have Wolff’s and Vowell’s books on hand before and after their Carnegie appearances.
“We really appreciate the support we get from the community,”
Baldwin commented. “The City has been very generous, and recently the book club at the Shepherd Center took up a collection and presented us with a check.”
Contributions to support the festival can be made by clicking the “Donate” button on their website lewisburgliteraryfestival.com.