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How the long awaited Santa Fe Literary Festival came to exist

For a city of just 84,000 people, Santa Fe has built itself an outsized literary reputation over the last 50 years. In 1969 local author N Scott Momaday became the first Native American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with his novel House Made of Dawn, and in the decades since the sun-baked capital of New Mexico has attracted writers as diverse as Blood Meridian author Cormac McCarthy, poet Joy Harjo and A Song of Ice and Fire creator George RR Martin.

“Santa Fe is a place of art and culture,” Mayor Alan Webber told The Independent earlier this year. “We have amazing art galleries, incredible performances, but up until now we haven’t had a literary festival. And yet there are writers and authors in Santa Fe who are some of the most popular in the country, if not the whole world, so to have a literary festival is almost blindingly obvious.”

But now that long-standing oversight has been corrected. This weekend the Santa Fe Literary Festival became a reality, bursting into life with a star-studded line-up featuring the likes of George RR Martin, The Underground Railroad writer Colson Whitehead and The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood. Overseeing it all have been festival co-founders Julia Platt Leonard and Clare Hertel, who have long been in agreement with Mayor Webber that this creative and beguiling city was crying out for its own major literary event. “Clare and I met ten years ago when she handled the public relations for a young adult book, Cold Case, I wrote,” explains Leonard. “We became friends and over the years and many dinners and glasses of wine we kept coming back to this question of why Santa Fe didn’t have a literary festival.”

Planning started in earnest to make that dream a reality two years ago, a period of time which didn’t prove to be the most straightforward for anyone hoping to create a public event with a sizeable attendance. “Covid didn’t make it easy, that’s for sure,” says Leonard. “This is our third date and we’ve had to navigate our way through uncharted waters, like many arts organizations.” The pandemic added a whole host of extra complications on top of all the usual ones. “Starting a festival of this scale from scratch is a logistical challenge,” points out Leonard. “Luckily, we’ve had incredible help from some tireless volunteers as well as the financial support of donors who’ve made it all possible.”

For Leonard, it isn’t just Santa Fe’s reputation as a destination and home for writers, poets, journalists and thinkers that makes the Literary Festival such a natural fit. It’s also the environment and landscape itself. “I think there’s something about the big open skies that encourages us to think, listen and learn more openly and actively,” she says. “When we approached writers to come take part they had either been here before and couldn’t wait to come back or hadn’t been and were eager to visit for the first time. There’s just a magic here – I don’t know of any other place like it.”

As well as attracting a first-rate line-up of authors to speak at the event, Leonard and Hertel were also determined to make sure that the festival would have a positive impact on the local community. To that end they created Story Ladder, a program which works with schools, the public library and other organisations to support literacy programs and spark the creativity of the next generation of New Mexican authors. “We connect writers attending the festival with these groups so they can meet and inspire young people,” says Leonard. “So for example, Sandra Cisneros who wrote the classic House on Mango Street will appear at the Southside Public Library to meet with kids from Ortiz Middle School and it will be shared virtually with other middle schools in the community.”

While Leonard jokes that their main ambition for the festival was merely to “survive year one!”, this weekend’s inaugural event suggests that while it may have taken decades for Santa Fe to get a literary festival to call its own, it won’t be anything like as long until the next one.

“I can see the festival growing,” says Leonard, “But always the goal will be to feature the best writers, both from our own back yard and from around the world in a program that challenges us, and also lets us simply escape into great storytelling.”

The Independent, as the event’s international media partner, is providing coverage across each day of the festival with exclusive interviews with some of the headline authors. For more on the festival visit our Santa Fe Literary Festival section or visit the festival’s website.


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