The Twin Cities has always been known as a hub of literary activity, with numerous publishers, booksellers, and other literary organizations hosting events that invariably draw crowds of local literati to bookstores, libraries, university auditoriums, and the Open Book literary center. Now there’s another game in town that’s pulling in audiences more likely to frequent coffee houses than bookstores. The Cracked Walnut reading series, a two-year old reading series begun as an experiment in 2011, is hosting a month-long literary festival featuring more than 100 authors and musicians performing at 21 different venues – mostly coffee houses -- all over the Twin Cities, as well as an art gallery 150 miles north, up in Duluth. Participating authors include fiction writers, poets, memoirists, and spoken word artists, with a mix of both regional writers and nationally known names – including Charles Baxter, Deborah Keenan, Sheila O’Connor, and Katerina Vandenberg.

The Cracked Walnut Lit-Festival kicked off on March 18 at Coffee Shop NE in Minneapolis with six authors and musicians performing, and concludes on April 12 at Coffee Bene in St. Paul with another six authors and musicians performing. Satish P. Jayaraj, Cracked Walnut’s founder and the festival’s primary organizer, says, “It’s met with such a great reception; I’m very happy.” Events have been held almost every evening during the month before full houses, with audiences ranging between 30 on weekdays and more than 50 on weekends. The Duluth performance, featuring five authors and one musician, held on a Wednesday evening, drew about 30 people to Prove Gallery -- a mix of the city’s literati, students, and local hipsters, who all lingered afterwards to browse books, chapbooks, and CDs made available for sale by the performers.

“I’ve been seeing new people, and people showing up for multiple events,” Jayaraj told PW, explaining that he organized Cracked Walnut in 2011 and this year’s literary festival to make literature “accessible to as many people as possible.”

Jayaraj, a Hamline University MFA graduate, who has previously organized readings in funeral homes, ethnic grocery stores, and other nontraditional venues, is adamant that he wants an “audience of listeners” beyond the “writing world.”

“I wanted to actively reach beyond the loving writing community of the Twin Cities to bring our good work to new people who will crave more of it,” he explained, adding that it’s a “point of pride” to him to attract “non-writers” to literary events.

Inversely, Jayaraj invited emerging writers to join more established published authors on stage during the Lit-Fest so that those “who don’t have many outlets for their work [could] get out there.”

After all, says Jayaraj, who writes fantasy fiction, and self-published a novel, Secret of the Naga Dragons, and read from his work at the Lit-Fest’s 10th event on March 27, “That’s why we write: to read to an audience.”