What makes RAW run? An inside view of the Milford Readers and Writers Festival

Milford. The festival has been cancelled because of COVID-19 and will return in September 2021. In the meantime, the board is working to bring several exciting mini events to Milford. Learn about the tremendous effort that organizers and volunteers put in behind the scenes to bring this singular festival to the borough every year.

03 Jul 2020 | 10:21

Why is the Milford Readers and Writers Festival (RAW) so successful?

It is the gestalt of creative famous people and events all focused on a love of books — reading them, writing them, and sharing them in intimate, animated conversations.

Milford offers many interesting and fun festivals -- Black Bear Film Festival, Milford Music Festival, Festival of Wood, DanceFest Milford, the Festival of Wood, and the nascent Opera Festival -- but the Milford Readers and Writers Festival‘s meteoric rise in its five years is intriguing and bears a closer look.

John Berendt, author of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and a participant in the festival, said, “In an exquisite scenic enclave only a stone’s throw from New York, Milford’s increasingly popular Readers and Writers Festival has become one of America’s most stimulating literary venues ­– for first-rank authors, would-be authors, and the reading public.”

It all started in March 2016, in a “wish-for” conversation on a cold and rainy night in Bar Louis. The interlocutors were Bob Levine, literary lawyer; Suzanne Braun Levine, author; Ms. Magazine’s first editor, author Amy Ferris, and Milford mayor and author, Sean Strub, who all fantasized about creating a unique literary festival in Milford. They soon posted a notice on Facebook asking for other like-minded volunteers to join them.

The group was intense, dedicated, and well-connected. Many were authors themselves, book lovers, or involved in the literary scene. Within six months, they had launched the first Milford Readers and Writers Festival with a star line-up of authors, including Gloria Steinem, John Berendt, and MK Asante. In successive years, the festival was able to attract Alan Alda, Fox commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano, novelist Anne Perry, war correspondent Frankie FitzGerald, Harper Collins publisher Jane Friedman, author and radio commentator Robin Morgan, Henry Holt publisher Stephen Rubin, and Lee Child, author of the Jack Reacher thrillers,.

The success of the festival is owed to the breadth and depth of its topics, program, participants, formats, infra-structure, and, in no small measure, the borough of Milford itself, which has been a haven for writers and science fiction aficionados since the Virginia Kidd Literary Agency was established in the borough in 1953.

The infra-structure

Pike Artworks is the umbrella organization for the festival. It is a nonprofit and provides an opportunity for festival contributors to enjoy a tax benefit. The 11 board members are also on the festival committee, which is co-chaired by Edson Whitney and Carol McManus.

However, not everyone on the committee is on the board. There are numerous sub-committees where much of the actual details are handled. For example, the Main Stage committee, Finance, Fundraising, Website, Venues, Reception, Volunteers, and Bookstore.

Everyone on the board and the committees is invested and excited. Though there may be differences, the process is inclusive.

“It’s the most energetic board I’ve ever been on,” marvels Bob Levine.

They meet once a month, and everyone has a job. The process works like a well-oiled machine. The committees reach out to the community for volunteers. For example, Barbara Whitney runs the Volunteers committee with about 25 people who help make sure the event runs smoothly. They are timekeepers for audience interaction, ticket takers, clean-up, and other tasks. Patricia Maley, a dedicated volunteer says, “I’m an avid reader ,and being a volunteer gives me a wonderful opportunity to hear and meet the writers.”

Topics at the festival have ranged from the highly intellectual (Our Constitution Under Siege) to novels, poetry, children’s books and activities, fantasy and science fiction, romance, triumph over trauma, the afterlife, the CIA, and resistance throughout history.

RAW is distinctive among literary festivals because it focuses on the intimate conversations between readers and writers. Most literary festivals are about writing workshops, meeting agents, critiquing writers’ works, and the general business of writing. RAW’s mission statement is “to inspire conversations between people who love to read books and people who write them.”

The main stage ticketed events at the Milford Theatre are the highlights of the festival. Writers are in conversation, usually two at a time, with the audience listening and, afterward, asking questions. Some of the writers have won Pulitzer Prizes, Emmys, Golden Globes, and National Book Awards. There was even a two-star admiral.

The events start on Friday night with four panels on Saturday and two on Sunday. Suzanne Braun Levine says, “The product is the programming. We shape and construct the panels.” A weekend pass entitles readers to go to the private author’s reception – another opportunity to talk to the writers. There are also free events all over town -- in the library, at the Fauchere Meeting Center, at Grey Towers National Historic Site, and the TriVersity Center for Gender & Sexual Diversity.

The bookstore at St. Patrick’s Hall gives writers an opportunity to meet their fans, sign their books, and, in some cases, read from their books.

“It’s a wonderful weekend for Milford,” Sean Strub says. “People see writers all around town, all weekend. Festivals are community building. They cross all sorts of barriers. A community that can celebrate the arts together is special.”

The festival has been cancelled for 2020 because of COVID-19 and will return on Sept. 17, 18, and 19, 2021. In the meantime, the board is working to bring several exciting mini events in the style of the festival to Milford to keep us enthralled while we wait for 2021 event. Stay tuned.

What makes RAW special?
The RAW Board Members were asked to describe one thing about the festival that makes it so special. Here are their responses:
Sean Strub, co-founder: It addresses a hunger for intelligent discourse about important issues and engages people throughout the community.
Amy Ferris, co-founder: It’s unique because it is really a festival of words, not like other literary festivals, which are more about the business of writing.
Suzanne Braun Levine, co-founder: Most book festivals focus on writers and their books; we focus on the special relationship between writers and their readers.
Bob Levine, co-founder: Each year’s program is carefully curated to present a balanced weekend featuring a broad range of interesting people speaking about the most wide-ranging subjects.
Carol McManus, festival co-chair, board member: This festival truly brings writers and readers together in an intimate way and opens the mind to new literary discoveries.
Edson Whitney, board chair, festival co-chair: This festival of ideas and conversations with amazing writers and the community of readers brings great energy to this gem of a small town.
Judy White, board vice chair: Extraordinary range of thought-provoking and intimate discussions with exceptional writers whom the audiences often discover are unexpectedly thrilling.
Lillian Longendorfer, board member: These folks (the festival committee) have come together and they work hard to bring it about with everyone having a favorite niche in literature.
Roland Edwards Jr., board member: The Festival brings the publishing community into the Milford community in an intimate way.
Barbara Zappile, board secretary: The Festival fosters meaningful and thought-provoking programs which provide conversations between readers and writers.
Rocco Zappile, board treasurer: The Readers and Writers Festival and Pike Art Works are quintessential Milford!
(Editor’s note: This story has been updated from the original to include the correct titles for Carol McManus and Edson Whitney.)