La Mesa co-founder of San Diego’s first Writers Festival expects huge turnout for April launch

Courtesy Photo. Jeniffer Thompson, co-founder of the San Diego Writers Festival.

“Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix’s Emmy-winning dramedy series about one woman’s imprisonment on drug money-laundering charges, has something seriously in common with the San Diego Writers Festival: At one time, neither existed.

In fact, the festival technically still doesn’t, as its inaugural edition is set for Saturday, April 13 at downtown’s Central Library from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

One festival founder and East County resident says that an even larger concept — the ideas that fuel both the series and the festival — are the stuff of miracles. If you don’t believe her, maybe you need some persuasion from the “Orange” memorialist and real-life central figure.

Piper Kerman will be the keynote speaker at the free festival, designed to celebrate writers of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, spoken word material, journalism, music, screenplays, graphic novels and more. Events will include interactive craft and industry-based workshops, live performances, educational panels, meet-and-greets, book signings, readings, music, teen writing workshops and kid-friendly events.

Founder Jeniffer Thompson notes that the roster will include panelists from such groups as Black Stories Matter, Women’s Voices/Different Cultures and LGBTQ Authors Speak. Talks from independent comic book creators, military veteran writers and immigrants are also planned. The full schedule is available at

Founders Thompson and La Mesa resident Marni Freedman are expecting between 600 and 1,200 attendees, adding that they welcome donations, volunteers and sponsors.

Jack London, Robert Frost, Raymond Chandler, John Steinbeck: California’s writing cadre is as rarefied as it is exemplary — unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, none of its league will be attending the festival. Thompson’s undaunted, hinting there’s every chance that the festival could one day become the Comic-Con of its time.

“San Diego,” Thompson said, “has been ready for a festival like this for many years — the time is now. We are a diverse community with many voices and varied backgrounds, [and] every voice matters. We want to put San Diego on the map and make the festival an annual destination for creative writers,” eventually expanding it into a weeklong event that draws tens of thousands.

That’s writing — the discipline whose only boundary lies within the imagination. Kerman, 49, is a case in point, her place in popular culture all the more special amid an adverse series of events.

She was indicted in 1998 on federal money-laundering charges and sentenced to detention at a Danbury, Conn. correctional facility for 15 months, of which she served 13. Her 2010 memoir, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” was adapted into the critically acclaimed program, created and co-written by producer Jenji Kohan.

It has won 46 awards since its 2013 premiere, including four Emmys. Uzo Aduba won a 2015 Emmy for her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, while Taylor Schilling has won a total of eight awards for her turn as lead character Piper Chapman.

In February, the series wrapped production on its seventh and final year.

Kerman, who’d never been published prior to her memoir, credits the story’s success to nothing more than the writer’s predisposition. “A little voice in my head,” she’s said, “reminded me that I might never see anything quite like [incarceration] again and that immersing myself in my current situation, experiencing it and learning everything there was to know, might be the way to live life, now and always.”

The process of writing, she told a Pennsylvania newspaper last year, honors such diligence accordingly.

“We start hearing stories when we’re very, very small,” she said, “and of course, those stories help explain the world around us, but they also explain who we are. And then, at a certain point in our life, we begin developing our own stories about who we are. And that story is always changing because we are always changing; we are always growing.

“Some people’s stories change more, and some people’s stories change less, if that makes sense. In other words, people’s conceptions of themselves can sometimes become very altered in a variety of ways over time as they gain more experience and sometimes not, and that’s a pretty interesting thing.”

“As journalists,” Thompson adds, we (hopefully) do our best to tell the truth — but we will always add it to our own experience. It’s about experience. It’s about your belief system. By the same token, the reader may misconstrue the writer’s intent due to [his or her] own biases and experiences. Each time I read something, I will experience that piece differently based on who I am in that moment.

“Every experience we have shapes the way we view our world. That’s the beauty of stories — they shape us too.”

The Central Library is located at 300 Park Blvd.