Culture Club: Crossings and Crossroads


The Washington Island Literary Festival celebrates 10 years of reading and writing

by ELIZABETH SACHS, member of the festival committee

En route to Washington Island in 2014 for my first experience of the literary festival I had heard of, I caught the mystical 10 p.m. “late boat” in Northport. I had driven straight from Buffalo, New York, and was both exhilarated and exhausted after 13 hours behind the wheel.

I strolled the decks, listening to the rumble of the ferry, swaying against its swells, sucking in the air from the lake. I was also trying to remember how to light the oil stove in the cabin, because as a schoolteacher I rarely have the opportunity to travel “north of the line of tension” after the summer.

Miraculously, I had escaped the stranglehold of my hectic life on the continent for a glorious autumn literary weekend. It would be like the luxury of reading in front of the rustic fireplace in my family’s cabin, only better: I’d be in the company of other avid readers, at an event created by avid readers who understand that Washington Island + Books = magic.

I noticed a man who seemed as excited as me. He walked up and down the steps of the ferry, leaning over the rails or staring at the starry sky. He too looked like he couldn’t believe his luck, encountering such an adventure at the end of the Gate.

“I bet it’s the poet,” I thought. And of course, it was 2013 Wisconsin Poet Laureate Max Garland, on his way to present at the festival.

Later he told me, “I’ve been all over Wisconsin. Everywhere. But that is different.

“It’s out of this world, isn’t it?” I said. Max nodded.

Island literature enthusiasts Helene Meyer, Betsy Wallman and Kathleen Dixon founded the festival in 2012. Their experiences operating and working Island Time Books and their jaunts to bookseller conventions and literary festivals large and small , led them to believe that a festival could succeed on the island. Helene’s husband, Gene, a longtime director of the Trueblood Performing Arts Center (TPAC) on Washington Island, has consistently advocated for the company.

Upon Gene’s unexpected death, the director of TPAC approached Helene, asking how Gene’s memory could be honored. His quick response was a new event: the Washington Island Literary Festival.

The first iteration included 11 authors from Wisconsin, 80 readers in attendance, and a few aspiring writers. The event featured unique and beautiful sites on the island, including the Rock Island State Park Boathouse. Participating writers and attendees got a real sense of the island, its remote beauty and adventurous togetherness.

Since 2013, the festival has crossed and recrossed familiar territory while expanding its borders and reach. Alongside regional authors, nationally and internationally acclaimed writers have come through the Door of Death to join the ranks of presenters at an event that now focuses on just five to seven presenters each year.

In addition to the main Saturday session of presentations, meeting opportunities, book signings and fellowship, the festival has grown to offer workshops for writers and readers on Fridays, as well as a creative lab Thursday which is free and open to all.

“It’s – magical,” said author Jane Hamilton, featured in 2019 with fellow cast members Luis Alberto Urrea, Rebecca Makkai, Scott Russell Sanders and Bao Phi.

After my own first festival, I was hooked and jumped at the chance to join the team of enthusiastic volunteer organizers. Hosting a gig on an island can often mean packing your car with pump coffee makers, coolers and pumpkins; carry flowers from the Farm Museum at TPAC to the Red Barn; or set off to travel the island in search of a lost writer.

Venturing near the seat of our pants was exhilarating, yet chaotic, so it was wonderful in 2020 to find a safe administrative harbor with Write On, Door County, under the umbrella of longtime festival volunteer Jerod Santek. This port provides wider and better ways to build connection avenues with literature enthusiasts throughout Door County.

After a virtual presentation in 2020, the festival returned in person last year, enjoying the island in a variety of beautiful outdoor settings, including the open-air TPAC pavilion.

The theme for the 10th Annual Washington Island Literary Festival is “Crossroads” and features authors Cara Black, Lyanda Haupt, Andrew J. Graff, Michael Torres and Toya Wolfe. We will listen, read, write, discuss, create and reflect at the crossroads: where we are and where we are going. Participants will reunite for the weekend – or even just a day – as a special and mystical late ferry on Saturday evening will bring them back to the mainland.

Find more information at and browse featured festival books at

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes to the Culture Club throughout the summer season, is a coalition of non-profit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and defend the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.


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