City Paper is not for tourists
On its website, local nonprofit 1455 lays out its goal “to advance the appreciation of and passion for the literary arts through programs that support expression, education, and the sharing of writing and literature.” Right now, in lieu of in-person gatherings, advancing the appreciation of the literary arts means that the nonprofit’s second annual festival will be virtual. From July 16 to 18, virtual festivalgoers will hear from tons of speakers—many of whom are local writers, like Angie Kim and Louis Bayard.
Executive director Sean Murphy spoke with City Paper about 1455’s adjustment to the pandemic, building a writer’s retreat, and the upcoming literary festival. While he expresses joy for writing in this chat, we also asked him, along with many others, to contribute to our cover package on joy this week, which you can read right here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
WCP: How are you pushing through the pandemic to continue your work?
Sean Murphy: One tremendous silver lining that is starting to really emerge from this whole crisis is the way we can take advantage of technology. Having had a lot of experience in the corporate world, I can say that world is very comfortable with webinars and video conferencing. But I feel like everyone just kind of gave that to the corporate world and assumed that was where that type of technology lived. So it’s been very invigorating to see arts organizations and artists take advantage of Zoom and Facebook Live, and realize that they’re really valid ways of connecting.
The mission of 1455 is we’re really just trying to celebrate creativity with a focus on writers, and do that any way we can, which includes author readings, having resources on our website, and conducting a literary festival. The last few months have proven that with Zoom and taking advantage of technology, you really can build a very inclusive community.
WCP: What’s the story behind 1455?
SM: In 2015, I went to my first writer’s retreat at a place called the Noepe Center at Martha’s Vineyard. It was an opportunity to be around 10 other writers for two weeks, and it was a truly transformative experience. I understood immediately what I had missed so much about academia in grad school and that rush of intellectual solidarity, and also writing is so solitary for so many people, to be around other people who take that seriously is incredibly powerful and empowering. I was delighted and surprised when I was given the offer to come up and be the writer-in-residence the following year. I knew that was a once in a lifetime opportunity. So I made a very impractical decision and left a job that I liked with security and took a non-paying gig to go manage a writing retreat. That experience was even more transformational: being around writers for six months, interacting with them, helping them edit their work, conducting readings, and seeing this community explode every week with people meeting each other. I was hooked.
Not wanting to leave Virginia, I’m a born and bred native Virginian, I just began thinking, “is there a way I could create something like that here?” It started out as kind of a thought experiment. I was able to attract a couple of very generous investors, and they asked the key question which is: Could this work? And I said “yeah, it’ll be a piece of cake; you just have to have a lot of money and find the right place.” We started small and tried to find the right place, which is Winchester. I knew trying to do something like this closer to D.C. would be prohibitively expensive, and isn’t really the vibe. I think you need to be someplace where there’s grass and there’s quiet. The vision for this is really just to build and create this year-round retreat, where there’s going to be 11 rooms, and every writer who comes for a two to six week period has their own bedroom, bath, and writing desk. And then there’s two separate buildings with communal public space, with a communal kitchen. It’s based on the model that I experienced at Noepe.
WCP: How has the pandemic impacted the creation of this 1455 retreat?
SM: The universe has its own plans. No matter what we most fervently wish for, sometimes there’s kind of a bigger plan. I started this project in mid-2017. If you had told me in 2017 that we’d be entering 2020 and the place wouldn’t even be open, I would say, “well what’s going to happen between now and then?” The reality is, you’ve got to find the right location, you’ve got to raise the funds, you’ve got to build a board, you’ve got to establish programming. So I actually feel lucky that I didn’t have more success initially, funding wise, because if we were open there would be a tremendous challenge right now trying to fill those spots. While we’re working on the architectural plans and engaging with a local construction company to do the work, we can keep plowing ahead without needing to worry about how COVID-19 impacts that. Certainly, if we’re open, as our goal is, within the next year or so, and the world is still as crazy as it is right now, that will definitely be a consideration. I think after many of us have been locked up for months and months, and avoiding being in public, if we’re fortunate enough to emerge from this in a bit of a safer world, I think the demand for in-person community at a center like 1455 is going to be through the roof.
WCP: And you’re still putting on a literary festival this summer.
SM: We did our first literary festival last summer, and I have to say, it was quite successful. It was very satisfying and fun and it took place in downtown Winchester. We partnered with Shenandoah University to do some programming. So, in late February, I started to recognize that it was probably not going to be possible to do that again this summer. But what we’re doing is we’re going to make the festival entirely virtual. The whole country has seen how easy Zoom and some of these other platforms are, so it’s not weird like it would have been pre-COVID-19. Now, I think a lot of us are leaning into: Why wouldn’t we want to do something that could theoretically appeal to tens of thousands of people, as opposed to a couple hundred who are able to be here in person? Last year, the entire festival was free, and I want that to be 1455’s ongoing outreach—that all of our public programming will be free. I don’t believe in trying to monetize art. For this literary festival to be virtual and free, I don’t presume that will appeal to everyone, but I like the idea that anyone who’s interested can take part in any aspect of the festival.