Jane Ganahl: A Literary Earthquake

Kimberly Cunningham
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Founder of San Francisco’s Litquake

It is hard to imagine Jane Ganahl being described as frightening. She stands little over five feet with the kind of red hair photographs can never capture. Her lipstick is perfection; she floats through the oak double doors of the Town and Country Starbucks.

But her intellectual breadth intimidates me; she is a literary Amazon, the kind of woman whose existence encompasses the Bay Area writing community. Co-founder of Litquake, San Franscico’s Literary Festival and its artistic director, she has written a full-length book, Naked on the Page, as well as hundreds of columns and articles. She occasionally teaches at the S.F. Writer’s Grotto and Book Passage. She has interviewed Amy Tan and Tracey Stewart, organized luncheons with Piper Kerman and Paul Theroux. A true feminist sigil of notoriety, she has even been lambasted by Rush Limbaugh for her unapologetic writing on the modern single woman.

Despite her literary acclaim, she grew up in Woodside, California, when it was still a small town, before the millionaires moved in. She tells me that Palo Alto and Stanford used to be the local youth hangouts, featuring weekend dances.

“To me, that was pretty exotic, coming from a small town,” she says. She pushes the sleeves of her knee-length cardigan up to her elbows, revealing constellations of cinnamon freckles on her arms. She leans back into a pyramid of sunlight. “I remember feeling embarrassed by the fact that my clothes were all kind of neat and tidy. Seventeen-years-old going, ‘Shit, I need to go home and shred my jeans.’” She smiles, amused at her younger self.

She tells me about stuffing envelopes at Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, ogling the cute war resisters. “That was a heady time,” she acknowledges, rearranging her black and white polka dot scarf. It is impossible for me not to laugh.

“I’m still involved, not so much in counterculture, but in the cultural arena,” she muses, glancing out the window. Her eyes are gold on the inside and green-blue on the outside, like an eclipse reflecting off the sea. “You know, when Jack [Boulware] and I co-founded Litquake sixteen years ago, we would have laughed if somebody had said we would be the co-directors of this huge festival.” She shakes her head. “We never intended it to get this big.”

The first Litquake was called Litstock in 1999; it consisted of 22 authors performing ten-minute readings at the Bandshell in Golden Gate Park. In order to pay for the event permit, Jane asked her then employer, The Examiner, for a sponsorship of three hundred dollars.

She shrugs. “That’s how easy that was. And you know, because The Examiner did a few little ads that first year we ended up with 400 people.” She shakes her head gently. “We were astonished. We thought we’d get fifty.”

She describes the exponential growth of what evolved into Litquake, a nine-day literary bacchanal in San Francisco’s Mission District. Last year, the festival featured more than 800 authors from countries around the world. During this week and a half event, bestselling authors and emerging writers swarm the Mission’s cafes and bars, eating and drinking, reading and signing previously unpublished manuscripts, award-winning excerpts, and poems. But most participants do not understand the year’s worth of planning, coordinating, and fundraising that makes this event possible.

“This is a volunteer-run organization. Every year, we get new people to help. Those people would be left, curled in the fetal position saying, ‘never again!’ Totally traumatized, because it’s a free event and anything can happen, and does happen. A whole lot of chaos.” She shrugs, stirring her latte. “You have to be adept at rolling with it.”

Jane Ganahl does not roll with the chaos; she stands apart from it. She is unfazed by the constant clamor that surrounds us, the couple squabbling behind her, the businessman looking for an outlet for his iPhone, the metallic scraping of spoons and steam wands against milk pitchers, the constant hum of music and a dozen voices. Instead, she sips her latte and tells me about organizing events and sponsorships for Litquake, about caring for her 94-year-old father. Her hair remains elegantly pushed back in a single bobby pin.

She is explaining to me the collapse of the freelance market when a grey-blue pitbull walks through her purview. Her face melts and her voice becomes sugary, childish. “Oh my goodness! Look at that pitbull!” She smiles. “I have such a thing for pitbulls.”

“Me too,” I say, remembering the twin pitbulls I grew up with as a child, big logs of muscle and fat who let me pull on their tails and ears.

Jane senses my sympathy. “I think for a pitbull to become aggressive and vicious means that it’s been treated viciously. There’s still so much misunderstanding out there.” We both stare at the dog until its owner leads it from our view. Jane tells me about her real passion project: spaying and neutering the feral cats of Half Moon Bay.

She started five years ago; she was sitting in a café across the street from her house, staring into the strip mall’s parking lot, when she noticed a pair of cats eating Pad Thai out of a Styrofoam box. She asked a friend who worked at the café about the cats and her friend informed her that the Thai restaurant next door fed them sometimes. These two cats were not alone: there were about seven or eight who lived in the ravine next to the parking lot.

“It was sort of a classic, you know, e.e. cummings, ‘the eyes of my eyes are opened,’” she says, tapping a square-cut emerald ring against her paper cup. “I walk through that parking lot all the time and this was the first time that I had seen them. But after that moment, I could not not see them. They were everywhere. Not just them, but the ones that were more shy that would hide in the bushes and come out at night… kittens…. Oh my god—”

She trails off, voice close to breaking. We stare silently out the window into the parking lot.

Since that day, she has trapped and fixed dozens of cats. The vet spays or neuters the cats and then gives them back to Jane. If she does not feel the cat can be socialized, if the cat has been feral too long, she returns the cat to the street. If the cat is maimed or does not have long to live, Jane will keep it. Otherwise, she tries to find homes for the cats among her friends and family. In the past five years, she has adopted out over thirty feral cats.

“I’ve just finally gotten a nonprofit status with a friend so we can raise some money.” Her voice sounds tired, monotone. “It’s really expensive. I’ve forgone vacations just from the money that I’ve spent working on this, spaying and neutering and food, which is staggeringly expensive even when you give them crappy food—”

She closes her eyes and breathes deeply, finding her silent reward.

She begins again, her words heavily rolling out of her mouth. “There are cats that will never let you touch them.” She smiles a little, opening her eyes. “It’s so rewarding when they will kind of come up and just sit there and stare you right in the eye, like, I got it, this is as close as we’re ever going to get. Leave me my food; I will be grateful in my own way. But I will never thank you.”

“So they’re like children, then?”

She smiles, but it is a serious smile, tightening the corners of her mouth. “Exactly. I don’t think a human being is risking enough of themselves until they do something for somebody or something who will never thank them.”

We grow silent in deference to the weight of her statement.

She shakes her head. “I’m just becoming one of those classic, cartoonish, unpleasant animal rights people. I mean, I am watching it happen to myself before my eyes and I don’t really care.”

I laugh, and she smiles confidently. “I’m 63, you know? I’m entitled at this point to get on my high horse about things. At least it’s for something good.”

She moves the topic back to Litquake and fundraising. “It does make me feel like I’ve always got the tin cup out rattling it in front of strangers,” she admits with a half-smile, thrusting her now-empty cup out in front, shaking it above the table.

“But that’s the nature of writing, isn’t it?” I ask playfully.

She puts her cup back down and nods. “Exactly. I’m always begging.” She winks.

I ask about her writing, and she tells me that currently, she is only working on a young adult book with two cat-tagonists, Marvin and Mocha. The cats’ lives mirror those of the first two strays she saw in the strip mall parking lot eating Pad Thai. The main purpose is to entertain, both her audience and herself; she views writing this book as a reprieve from the stress of ‘being an adult.’ But Jane also wants her book to educate young readers on the hardships faced by feral cats.

“I want people to see them,” she tells me, referring to the cats, “because if you really see them then you can’t un-see them. You can’t turn a blind eye and go, ‘I don’t care.’”

It is the idea of not being seen that makes Jane empathize with the cats. She tells me how much of her nonfiction writing has inevitably circled around the feeling of remaining unseen. Invisible.

“I wrote about being a single woman at middle age and how that makes you completely invisible, not just to men, but in meetings,” she says, looking out the window. Despite acting as the fundraiser for Litquake, she describes people deferring to her partner, Jack, to make economic decisions for the festival. “I don’t think I ever wrote this plainly, but if it were me and Jack in a meeting with potential sponsors, they’d kind of go, ‘right, so Jack—’”

She trails off, thoughts disappearing into the air. Then she shrugs. “It’s something that women have to fight against.”

After more than thirty years in the publishing industry, Jane isn’t finished pushing back against the glass ceiling. “People are retiring at my age. Sixty-three.” She points at me. “Write that down.” She impersonates me writing about her, intellectual fingers deftly grasping an imaginary pen. “At sixty-three, she’s still going strong.” I can’t help but laugh in agreement.

Editors note:  Read more about Jane and Litquake, San Francisco’s literary festival. 

*This essay first appeared in Reed and is republished here with the author’s permission.

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About Kimberly Cunningham

Kym Cunningham will receive her MFA from San Jose State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry. She acted as the lead Nonfiction Editor of Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine West of the Mississippi. She received the Ida Fay Sachs Ludwig Memorial Scholarship and the Academy of American Poets Prize for outstanding achievement in her writing. Her writing has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Writing Disorder, The 3288 Review, Drunk Monkeys, Zingara Poet, and Reed. Her writing is forthcoming in South 85 Journal, Caesura, and Claudius Speaks. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

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