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A Revered Literary Gathering

By Suzanne Pollak | Photography courtesy of Charleston Literary Festival

Every summer, I become absorbed by the world of books and brilliant minds as I embark on a mission to raise money and plan parties for the Charleston Literary Festival (CLF) each November in historic Charleston, South Carolina. Part of my position includes orchestrating multiple social events that I hope will be unforgettable for everyone. That desire is tenfold when it comes time for CLF, where our guests include esteemed authors, speakers, visionaries, community leaders, donors, and ticket holders. We always strive to leave them feeling well-appreciated and happy to support or attend the event again. This is vital to our area, as the arts, literature, and cultural events can contribute so much to the overall health of a city.

The festival’s foundation is its roster of diverse, highly regarded authors who are most certainly befitting the epithet of “change maker”—often Pulitzer, Booker, Nobel, and book-of-the-year winners. The 2022 lineup alone was a who’s who in thought leadership—see the sidebar for the impressive list. Their sweep of ideas and abundant creativity are enriching and transformative, with discussion topics including race, gender, war, technology, evolution, health, law, art, music, poetry, theater, opera, and more.

Also important are the skilled interlocutors whose conversations with the authors draw us in like eavesdroppers, enabling the guests to connect with the audience, capture their attention, and keep them engaged. From big contemporary ideas to ancient wisdom and personal details, the experience evokes empathy, discovery, and enjoyment.

The festival is an international vacation to the nth degree—all without the need for a passport. An immersive community of reading and dialogue with some of the best writers in the world, the experience provides infinitely better insight than reading alone or listening to a podcast. And the festival is well rooted in Charleston, a port city between two converging rivers, offering wide-ranging beauty that richly stages the events in magnificent venues, including historic private homes, making it a fantastic destination to discover between author panels. Charleston is a critical component of the festival’s success, adorned with eighteenth-century buildings on cobblestone streets canopied with branches of ancient live oaks.

Writers from everywhere want to visit for many reasons. The city has world-class restaurants and bars, as well as churches on most corners, and its complicated past—hurtful and beautiful—sharpens the present with the echo of what went before. During CLF, history, architecture, geography, and well-versed authors merge to create a multidimensional experience for participants and attendees alike.

Fundraising to support this event is essential and challenging. Finding new donors is a never-ending part of my job, and after six years, my understanding of what motivates potential donors has deepened. Within minutes of meeting a new potential donor, I can tell whether the person loves literature, is willing to give, is inspired to help Charleston or some special group, wants recognition, or wants to remain anonymous. It is rewarding to succeed at this job because the work makes an impact: bringing people together and serving an important cause. Our donors and patrons are change makers for good, and we are so appreciative of their passion and generosity.

The parties are also a big draw, creating a buzz that helps bring in authors and build audiences. They are not fundraisers, nor are they cocktail parties; they are special events that stimulate purposeful, engaging, enriching conversation. The settings are personal and magical—scented gardens with live oaks and reflecting pools or historic houses with original paneling and ballrooms intact. The guests are an intriguing mix of friends, strangers, and brilliant authors. Who among us can invite Joyce Carol Oates, Eddie Glaude, or Carl Zimmer into our home and have them show up?

Of course, there is always Murphy’s Law to consider. Last year’s opening party (graciously sponsored by VIE magazine) almost caused my heart to stop as it seemed like everything was going wrong just two hours before the start time. Bike racks were still blocking the gathering space, the reflecting pool fountains weren’t on, storm clouds had appeared in the sky, the rain venue was off-limits, and the outdoor venue’s bathrooms were locked. But as with many other crises, our dedicated team worked out the logistics. The weather cleared, and the Opening Gala presented by VIE turned out to be a beautiful evening under the stars—so beautiful that it became the talk of the city. Jazz musician Wycliffe Gordon and his International All Stars played world-class music for a dancing literary crowd in front of the College of Charleston library.

I’ve come to expect little hiccups in our best-laid plans. As Elsie de Wolfe, legendary decorator and arbiter of twentieth-century taste, warned, “It is not chic to be too chic.” Sometimes parties are more about personality than perfection. In 2021, freezing rain forced the opening party indoors. Although tightly packed, in the beautifully restored nineteenth-century ballroom at 20 South Battery, with lights dimmed and the ETHEL string quartet playing incredible music, suddenly a whole new wonderful vibe was created, bringing with it new connections and some truly awesome memories.

To pull off memorable events that can become change makers in their own right, thinking outside the box is vital. For example, to welcome celebrated authors Tina Brown, Amanda Foreman, Betsy Prioleau, and Jean Hanff Korelitz for the 2022 festival, we hosted a women’s brunch with a fashion show by designer Ala von Auersperg. VIE magazine’s CEO and editor-in-chief, Lisa Marie Burwell, introduced our guests of honor. To attract young professionals to the festival in the past, we also held a party for some of the most interesting people in Charleston, literary and otherwise. Later, one of those guests became Charleston’s most recent poet laureate.

We would not have had such a successful festival last year or in years past without CLF’s artistic director, Diana Reich, whose esteemed tenure has been instrumental in building the program into what it is today.

CLF is also pleased to welcome Sarah Moriarty as its new executive director for 2023. Originally from Dublin, Ireland, Sarah has two degrees in literature—a BA from Trinity College Dublin and an MA from Freie Universität Berlin. Her interests include modern Irish drama, literature in exile, and the writings of Samuel Beckett. For the past ten years, she has built a career as a branding specialist and marketing creative working with tech start-ups, including five years at a short-form audiobook start-up (which fused her love of books with her passion for branding).

Sarah moved to Charleston in November 2021 with her family and has taken the city by storm. Upon arrival, she helped CLF with marketing and other management tasks and established herself as a dynamic, brilliant, and lovely person with whom to work. After a national search, she was selected as the new executive director for the festival as it enters its seventh year. Sarah’s vivacious personality and passion for literature make her an excellent advocate for the event and all it stands for, while her international background will strengthen and expand CLF’s worldwide appeal. She is firm in her commitment to championing the literary arts and embracing diverse audiences and thinkers in Charleston and beyond. The festival and Charleston look forward to her leadership!

It also takes talented and willing friends to help pull off a two-week, multi-venue endeavor such as this. My friend Susan designs our donor lounges, so they feel like living rooms, only more engaging. Once, a young College of Charleston MFA student charmed Imani Perry (National Book Award winner for non-fiction), who was waiting there and ended up wanting to know all about his studies. Other integral people to our success include our brilliant artistic director in London; a committed local leader who invested passion, time, and money; other benefactors who took a chance on our visions; and staff members who gave countless hours of dedicated service.

Keeping an eye on the bigger picture and all the people it takes to organize a change-making event year after year, I have come to know that, first and foremost, we must be a team.

— V —

The Charleston Literary Festival (CharlestonLiteraryFestival.com) is now a preeminent cultural event that provides a forum for experiencing the transformative power of great literature, ideas, and creativity. Visit the website to learn more, and keep an eye out for the 2023 program and tickets coming soon.

Charleston Literary Festival 2022 Speaker Lineup

  • Author Nick Hornby
  • Professor John Mullan
  • Primatologist Frans de Waal
  • Dr. Jennifer Wilhelm
  • Charleston poet laureate Marcus Amaker
  • UK poet laureate Andrew Motion
  • Journalist Marie Brenner
  • Dr. David Adams
  • Former Vanity Fair editor-in-chief and Daily Beast founder Tina Brown
  • Author Betsy Prioleau
  • Historian Amanda Foreman
  • Author Jean Hanff Korelitz
  • Book reviewer Summer Anderson
  • Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson
  • Historian Belinda Gergel
  • Professor Imani Perry
  • Historian Tamara Butler
  • Historian Antony Beevor
  • Professor Margaret MacMillan
  • Author Ian McEwan
  • Professor Geoffrey Harpham
  • Historian Tim Bouverie
  • Dean Edward Hart
  • Journalist Jennifer Griffin
  • Historian Elisabeth Griffith
  • Women’s rights advocate Jennet Robinson Alterman
  • Author Julie Orringer
  • Dean Elizabeth Meyer-Bernstein
  • Author Renee Dudley
  • Digital marketing and advertising pioneer Wenda Harris Millard
  • Author and professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
  • Author and civil rights attorney Armand Derfner
  • Journalist Elizabeth Williamson
  • Editor Autumn Phillips
  • Author Patrick Radden Keefe
  • Journalist and producer Ruth Streeter
  • Author John Taylor Williams
  • xxx
  • Author Regina Marler
  • Professor Tiya Miles
  • Professor Shannon Eaves
  • Author Sandra Newman
  • Journalist Jyoti Thottam
  • Rector Adam Shoemaker
  • Author Hernan Diaz
  • Editor Bill Goldstein
  • Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks
  • Equestrian Anne Blessing
  • Biographer Lyndall Gordon
  • Narrator Edoardo Ballerini
  • Vocalist Alyson Cambridge
  • Historian Harlan Greene

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