Virginia Is for (Book) Lovers

A new lit fest comes to Winchester.

Virginia Is for (Book) Lovers

I’d never been to Winchester, Virginia, so I didn’t know what to expect when I drove down there earlier this year. Sean Murphy, the director of 1455 Literary Arts (formerly the Virginia Center for Literary Arts), had invited me and buzzed-about debut author Angie Kim to participate in his monthly author n program.

And, as a nice twist, he wanted to incorporate musicians with our readings. I was accompanied by the multi-talented Kim Venetz (DJ Alkimist) on viola; Angie’s gifted son Steve accompanied her on piano.

We arrived near evening for the performance, and I was struck by Winchester’s sunset loveliness. The small town is only an hour outside of DC, but the ride takes you through Virginia’s soft countryside.

Our event was at historic Handley Library, a grand limestone building that looks like every book lover’s secret fantasy: an entrance under three reaching arches; an inside overstuffed with books and filled with friendly staff; and a magnificent cavernous auditorium where the four of us read and performed to an enthusiastic audience of book lovers.

Afterward, Angie and I signed books and talked about how much fun we’d had and how impressed we were with Sean’s work — both in regard to the organization of the event and his enthusiasm for bringing writers to readers. So I was excited when he announced several months ago that 1455 would be putting on its inaugural literary festival.

It runs today through Saturday (July 18-20), the location is Winchester, and the lineup is fantastic. DC heavyweights like Louis Bayard, Christina Kovac, Bethanne Patrick, David Swinson, and over 50 other writers will entertain readers in panels ranging from literary fiction, poetry, suspense, journalism, and children’s literature.

I spoke with Sean about the festival and what visitors can expect.

You've been doing a variety of events at 1455 for some time now. What prompted the change to turn it into a full-blown festival?

Hopefully not hubris! To be honest, my original vision was to have a one-day or even half-day event, just to sort of dip my toes in the water. Once I started putting pieces together, it escalated into something bigger, and I figured it was a sign I should just go for it and attempt the best event possible. There’s also been an organic aspect to this: My own network has inevitably pulled their networks into this larger orbit and, collectively, it’s certainly grown beyond what I could do or imagine on my own.

What are some of the elements of a good literary festival or a good panel, both for writers and readers?

I think it’s critical to provide content that engages a diverse audience but is also gratifying for the folks on stage — something that challenges them but also allows them to shine. It’s not enough to have people who are sufficiently competent or experienced; it’s essential to identify people who are passionate and excited about interacting with other writers.

Put another way, talent and credibility are essential, but artists who are generous (with their time, with their knowledge, with their platforms) tend to make for irresistible panelists, and I attempt to attract as many of these people as possible. I think we’re also seeing a very welcome and refreshing blurring of lines within the industry: People historically on the outside are not as beholden to literary gatekeepers, and that makes for stimulating discussion.

One of the things I enjoy about your approach is your willingness to buck convention or encourage experimentation. I love that, but I've found that writers and readers can occasionally be a staid audience. Has that been your experience, and what's the best way to introduce something new?

I think it behooves anyone who organizes readings (or panels or festivals, etc.) to respect tradition but try to approach new — and old — problems in novel ways. For the monthly author series I introduced in 2018, the format combines a straightforward reading (so the author can showcase his or her work), a conversation about their writing and career trajectory, but also time for audience interaction.

I suspect this involves a combination of preparation and intuition. We live in an era where there’s never been more free content available, so competition for eyeballs and attention is intense. Any perception of routine or repetition is a non-starter, so I’ve made a point to balance the series with fiction, poetry, nonfiction, journalism, [and] bestselling names and first-time authors. This is as much a personal as practical approach, since I’d be the first one bored by monotony.

The lineup looks terrific, especially for a debut festival. Do you have plans to grow the festival even further?

Absolutely. Build it and they will come, right? (Just kidding.) But having organized this festival from idea to execution, I can attest that it’s not unlike writing a book: You start out full of optimism and purpose, you have what you believe to be a realistic and reasonable view of the time and effort involved, and, at a certain point, you marvel at how naïve and delusional you were…and then you either give up or you keep pushing ahead!

Fortunately, for me, it’s absolutely a labor of love, and it gives me a chance to help celebrate creativity and build community. The more the merrier: If there are enough people interested and available, there’s no reason this could not be super-sized, and we can get even more amazing writers and artists into the mix!

E.A. Aymar’s new novel is The Unrepentant.

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