The people who created the Letters Festival are very passionate about books and authors and readers. They are also a little terrified. Festivals require money and participants. First-time festivals require an extra infusion of good will and publicity. For the first year of this upstart project, they've scheduled three days of readings, panels, and workshops with nationally regarded authors Scott McClanahan, Roxane Gay, Mary Miller, and Jericho Brown, among others. They're just not sure what will happen next.
Two of the festival's organizers, occasional CL contributor Scott Daughtridge and WonderRoot creative director Stephanie Dowda, along with Alex Gallo-Brown, say many of the invited writers were happy to accept their invitation — which was not what they'd been expecting. "I thought everybody was going to say no. It was so scary," Daughtridge says. Dowda added, "It was definitely like, 'We're crazy. This is just crazy. And everyone's going to say no and it's going to be really sad.'"
It started as Daughtridge's germ of an idea: He runs a monthly reading series called Lost in the Letters and thought, "This could be bigger." The money to finance the event has come in smallish checks from friends and family and donations to an Indiegogo fundraiser, but the Letters Festival also received a grant from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs.
The essayist, blogger, and novelist Roxane Gay, who will lead an author talk on the second day of the festival, says she was attracted to the idea of a grassroots literary event where the festival acts as a kind of bridge between local and national literary communities and ideas.
"We have these local literary communities and oftentimes we forget that there's a whole big world beyond where we live and where we write," she says. "That kind of interconnection is really interesting and important and I think it's really well fostered by the Internet, so that local and national — it's collapsed quite a bit, and so what a festival like this does is bring the Internet into a city, so to speak." Indeed, Gay first met several of her fellow guests through HTMLGIANT, the literary blog founded by novelist Blake Butler, where she was a longtime contributor.
Dowda and Daughtridge aren't too focused on the future, on the idea of the Letters Festival becoming an annual event. If everything goes off without a hitch, they'll get a lot of people talking about a lot of writers and their writing. "I think we would like to [continue], but we also don't want to put something out in the city that no one really cares about," Dowda says.
She first described the festival to me as Atlanta's first "indie" literary event, but that label doesn't mean any one thing exactly. It's more a feeling or a state of mind. That it is shared by the organizers and their guests is no coincidence.
"I see a lot of that kind of spirit, I guess that is a really great word, in this small press, independent literary art form. And how that relates to Atlanta's cultural ecology in general is that there are so many opportunities and ways to do what is true to your own voice and your own art form here, but you really have to like make it," Dowda says. "You really have to do it."