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NARROWSBURG, NY — It’s Sunday night and Aaron Hicklin, owner of One Grand Books on Main Street, is just finishing up his monthly book club meeting at home.
The writer is taking a break from planning for the Deep Water Literary Fest, an ambitious three-day event set to kick off Friday. Across the street, a production team is entering into the umpteenth hour of discussions for the festival.
“I think there’s real pleasure to be found in being able to create something magical in a small place that is about enriching people’s experience of that place.”
Hicklin, who woke up panicked at the beginning of the week, is, for just one night, feeling confident.
“I’ll probably be freaked out again by Friday,” he says.
A freelance lifestyle writer and the former editor of Out Magazine, Hicklin conceptualized the festival originally as a way to “show off Narrowsburg,” as well as bring in artists and writers from elsewhere. More than anything, though, the festival has the same aim that consumes most of Hicklin’s life: involving people in literature—even those who may not want to pick up a book.
One Grand is an atypical approach to bookselling, inviting well-known people to curate their own shelves. Deep Water brings that same energy, spurring literature to life, by inviting interesting people to come up with interesting ways to retell a story. This year’s textual centerpiece, Grimms’ Fairy tales, lends to that retelling.
Apart from talking animals and whimsical old-world settings, fairy tales as we know them are often born from traditional oral storytelling. Cinderella is one of several tales that can be traced back thousands of years, repurposed and packaged. That tradition is central to Deep Water Fest. “It’s this very simple idea of, what if we just take it back to what storytelling is all about?” Hicklin said.
Last year, a marathon of readers took on Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey,” a text that’s been interpreted numerous times since its inception, but transformed again in its first treatment by a woman. The weekend included exciting theatrical performances of the text, as well as calm, candlelit readings by the likes of Booker Prize winner Marlon James.
This year, local actors Dylan and Becky Ann Baker and Melissa Gilbert, as well as poets, musicians, authors and filmmakers will be taking on fairy tales at venues in town, ranging from the Narrowsburg Inn to the Emerald Ballroom to The Union. Established artists will transform fairy tales written by Sullivan West high schoolers into tangible artworks. The weekend will also include a panel of essayists discussing the future of their craft and a performance by the Farm Arts Collective.
Hicklin modeled the venture on the Hay Festival, an event in the small town of Hay-on-wye, Wales that The New York Times has referred to as the “world’s leading literary festival.”
“I’m nothing if not ambitious—so I thought, ‘Why not try to recreate that here?’” Hicklin said. He loves the idea of a literary festival taking over the entire town. “I think there’s real pleasure to be found in being able to create something magical in a small place that is about enriching people’s experience of that place—not just their own lives through stories, but the place itself.”
This place does present one particular challenge. “One of the things we’re always conscious of [is] the way that Narrowsburg has, like a lot of communities that are within spitting distance of New York City… two halves,” Hicklin said, divided between a “Main-Street community” and a “non-Main-Street community.”
Hicklin hoped to connect those halves last year by including the Lutheran Church—an obvious local cornerstone headed by Hicklin’s friend, Pastor Phyllis Haynes—as a venue.
This year, the work of Sullivan West students will bookend the festival. Their written interpretations of fairy tales will be on display at the “Dream Room,” 108 Main St., opening night, and read aloud at the same location on Sunday. The work, commissioned from artists including Honesdale’s Samuelle Green, will be auctioned off, with the proceeds split between the high school and the festival.
Other local performers include the LAVA Dance Company, taking the stage Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Tusten Theater, and the Farm Arts Collective, which will lead a festival procession down Main Street at 12 noon on Saturday, followed by a performance of “Little Red Riding Hood” at the Narrowsburg Union.
Plus, the festival is free. No easy feat, Hicklin points out, for a literary event of this magnitude.
Hicklin promises that readers and performers are upping the ante on audience engagement this go around. “Then we create something that’s… much more visceral and exciting than just someone standing up and reading,” Hicklin said. For one performance, by actresses Lucy Taylor and Tilda Swinton, members will be expected to engage in the “impossible tasks” frequently featured in fairy tales. Brooklyn-based artist Kameron Neal will return to the fest with an interactive video based on the Grimms’ fairy tale “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage.”
On Hicklin’s screened-in porch Sunday, yet another rainy summer night makes the greenery glisten and threaten to overwhelm the landscape. Hicklin looks out at his yard—behind him, a plump groundhog picks at the grass. He points out that there’s perhaps no better place for a weekend dedicated to fairy tales.
“So much about fairy tales is about our relationship to nature,” Hicklin says. “Scary things happen in the woods: wolves might eat you, you might get lost, you have to leave a trail of bread crumbs, or of stones, you’re surrounded by trees… [but] magical things happen to you.”
For the full schedule of events—day, time and venue—visit www.deepwaterfestival.com. Elizabeth Senja Spackman, Manon Manavit, Leslie LeFranc, Maurice LeFranc, Meghan Udell and Cecilia Parker make up the festival’s production team. Catherine Chesters designed the Deep Water Literary Fest poster this year and last.