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Sweet 15: The Whistler Writers Festival grows up

Early growing pains were never enough to derail the little writers festival that could



Over 1,200 tickets have been sold, 61 writers are raring to go, and organizers are crossing out the final items on a long, long to-do list.

The Whistler Writers Festival (WWF) returns for its 15th year and with its unique two-part approach in serving both readers and writers with events, readings and workshops, it has brought authors and their works to the public's attention and supported both established and wanna-be writers in the development of their craft.

My first experience of WFF was in 2008, when I came second in a competition they were running for writing about the Whistler experience. I entered a feature I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the resort's annual BioBlitz species count.

I suspect what might have tipped the balance in my favour was BioBlitz's inclusion of homo sapiens in the species list for the first time because a couple had been caught in flagrante delecto in the forest.  After that, the story kind of wrote itself, but I was happy to be honoured — all writers need the encouragement.

It was a personal taste of the festival's value for writers of all stripes.

Later, I was asked to write a feature for Pique in 2012 about the state of the festival. It was then in its 11th year, and founder and organizer Stella Harvey was unsure she could continue to shoulder the burden of it, not because of lack of love, but because it's bloody hard to organize a festival at the best of times.

Through its entire existence, even up until today, WWF has been run by volunteers, including Harvey. In 2016, 35 of them are selling books by attending authors, shepherding attendees to different events, and handing out surveys — WWF keeps close tabs on what attendees think and what they'd like to see.

But in 2012, Harvey told me that for two months the previous winter there had been no festival, she had packed it in.

She said at the time with a frustrated laugh: "It's a three-day event; we have very little money... Through grants and other fundraisers to put the event on, at the end of the day you never know if people are going to come. People always do come and last year we had increased our attendance again, every year we do. It's just the idea of all this effort and, you know, we hope to break even."

She changed her mind, and — lucky for Whistler, for writers and for readers — she carried on.

In the past four years, WWF has gained charitable status, attracted more funding and sponsors than ever; new events such as Comedy Quickies — to encourage sketch writing and other comedy genres — have joined the roster and proved popular, and Harvey has renewed her commitment to both the festival and her own work, publishing her second novel The Brink of Freedom last fall.

Overall, hundreds of Canadian and international authors have taken part in WWF in the past 15 years, with thousands coming to Whistler to see them.

Below, key figures of the festival over the years share their memories.

The Founder

For Stella Harvey, WWF's founder and executive director, it was a case of growing your own garden, in a literary sense. Having moved to Whistler from Rome in 2000 with a wish to establish her own writing career, she hit a roadblock.

"I was trying to find my way, my place in the community. When I left Europe I decided it was my opportunity to do some writing. I'd never done that before (Harvey was a social worker, later working in mergers and acquisitions). I went to the Whistler Library and the librarian Joan Richoz told me there wasn't a writers' group. She told me to contact (musician and writer) Stephen Vogler and I did. He said there had been sporadic ones, so at that point I thought 'Why not put an ad in the paper?'

"At the first meeting there were 26 people. It's incredible. Because I hadn't done any creative writing at all. I went on a course to Salt Spring Island, where I met (author) Andreas Schroeder. I enjoyed it and the next thought I had was, 'Wouldn't it be nice to do the same thing here?'

In 2002, I contacted Andreas and he came to Whistler. We had the first-ever writers' festival session in my living room with about 20 participants. He listened to their work and provided them with feedback. That happened over a Friday and Saturday."

The Early Years

"Over the years we experimented with different things. I ran for a while with one whole week where we had three different mentors — one for poetry, one for fiction and one for non-fiction — and it was received well. Slowly it moved to what it is today, through experimenting.

"We had to look at how you balance the audience, because it's also for readers and not just writers. What started early were the master workshops where instructors critiqued writers and that has now morphed into our writers-in-residence program. It's a concentrated, two-month focused program versus the festival, which has a quick, workshop feel. At the festival, emerging writers are able to touch different parts of the craft.

"It was important to have an equal number of reading events. And it took a while to find that balance. Feedback is an important part – we ask and people tell us!" (She laughs.) "Where we can accommodate, we accommodate. Everything comes from our audience, from what is going on in the literary world.

"By 2011, I was trying to put it on and my mom passed away. The festival was certainly smaller then than it is now, but it was still a three-day event with multiple workshops and reading events. At that time there was something like 25 writers coming through town. It took a lot for me to put it on. My mom's passing took a lot out of me; on the other hand the festival kept me busy and helped see me through it. But I was drained by the end of it.

"At the debriefing afterwards, I said I was pretty tired and people around me said maybe I shouldn't do it. I went along with that but then I was home with my dad, talking about it at Christmas time, and I woke up in the middle of the night and woke my husband (Dave Harvey). I said, 'I can't! I can't give it up!' He said, 'Do we have to talk about this right now?' (She laughs.) He's always been there.

"When you put in nine years and get a lot of positive feedback, not just from participants but also from guest authors and the community... I guess I thought I'd be letting everyone down. When you build so much and through your stubbornness, I have to say, it's really hard to walk away from such a thing.

"There is a lot of work in the background, connecting the dots. So much work by volunteers. Today, with Whistler trying to establish itself as a cultural hub, it's a question of: With success comes more success. It's the same with business, to grow you have to expand and take a chance, to get to that next level.

"Sometimes, people have to be convinced. So when you're the organizer of an event like this, you have to bring people along. They have to see your passion."

The First Writer

Author Andreas Schroeder, currently the Rogers Chair in Creative Non-fiction at the University of British Columbia, found himself in Harvey's living room in the summer of 2001, with two dozen eager writers looking to him for wisdom and writing tips.

"I'm not sure I was the headliner at that festival so much as I was the only author. Boy, when you think about it, compared to what it is now, what an extraordinary history it has. Stella is a real organizer.

"At the time, I thought I was a visiting writer and it started off, from my perspective, rather alarmingly in that I came up on my motorcycle, which at that time was an old R69S black BMW touring machine — a big, heavy, ancient machine. She lives up a very steep driveway that was covered in broken pieces of shale at the time, so everything started slipping and sliding as I got part of the way up. I stopped and it was too hard get going again... it gives me the shivers thinking about it now, let alone then. So I had this little drama to start it all off.

"It worked out very well. It was quite an amazing crowd. They were a lively bunch and very wide range as to publication experience, ability, dedication and all that. In the end I continued to work with a number of them by email for several years. They weren't all from Whistler, and one was a theology student.

"They were all splendidly dedicated. Quite often with that kind of group, there are a certain number of triflers or people who are interested but not committed all the way. But I don't remember anybody like that. Everyone was really into it.

"There were a number of them from back then who went on to publish and lead the freelance life. One non-fiction writer I remember went on to publish three or four books. There were some very serious writers, which is a very good thing.

"I just went the one time. I approve of a writers' festival not being in the habit of always having regulars. There are so many writers now. I was just talking to (Vancouver Writers Festival executive director) Hal Wake just a few days ago, and he said that three or four years ago he started being overwhelmed with new books. There were people he would love to invite, but he simply didn't have the capacity anymore. Stella, quite sensibly, has tried to spread the impact of this around in her programing.

"Whistler should be just fine. It's in an advantageous position of setting itself up around the time of the Vancouver festival and people can stick around and attend it. It's a good thing to be able to bring some of those authors up to Whistler.

"The festival has its own identity. Every small festival needs its own special niche, and appealing to writers and readers is Whistler's."

The Volunteer

Rebecca Wood-Barrett has long volunteered for organizers and attended the first year of the WWF. Now the festival's programing director, she is also the author of a book of short stories.

"I saw Stella's ad in Pique. It was a little, tiny thing that read, 'Starting a writers group, would you like to come out and join?' So I went to the very first meeting and I've been a steady member ever since.

"It has enriched my life beyond my own ambitions as a writer. Being able to sit in the writers' group once a month to write and critique, it's a very unique situation in life, to share an artistic practice so deeply with other people. I feel like that group knows me in ways my own family doesn't!

"Stella relies on us for advice about who we'd like to bring to the festival, what different areas we'd like to volunteer in. We all pitch in wherever we can and the festival has grown, despite our attempts to tell Stella not to grow the festival! (She laughs.) I can tell you, we've all said, 'Stella, slow down!' But she's a visionary. She's so positive.

"A couple of years ago, I think 2014, I was late and everyone had gone off to the evening Saturday-night gala. We opened the ballroom door and there were maybe 400 people filling the seats. It was a shock to me because I had been to every festival and many of the workshops and events. At that moment, I realized we had become something so much bigger than we could have ever imagined. I was so excited. I thought, 'How did we do this?'

"It's a big job to get those kinds of numbers in Whistler. And it's all from the grassroots. I think that when you evolve something from the grassroots, you realize that it is going to take time to build it if you want a quality event.

"And so it is. The authors like coming to the event, they feel they are treated very well and like individuals, they're special. The people attending, too, really enjoy all of the different elements. The workshops are small enough to be very useful to help people working on their craft, whether they are published or not.

"It's tough to choose a favourite moment. There are so many that stand out. Lisa Moore and Michael Winter both came to some of the early festivals. And what is interesting is that over 10 years their careers have developed. They've won awards and published more books, so they came as fledgling authors and now have elevated statures in Canadian literature.

"Michael Winter, his performance last year at the Literary Cabaret, was spectacular. He memorizes his stories. And many of his stories are based in his own life. I took the writer-in-residence program with him and I asked him about an incident in one of his books: There is a moment where the man in the story falls into an incinerator. I told him it was so terrifying, I had to skip ahead and then go back and read it. My heart was just beating. I couldn't imagine it.

"'How is that possible?' I asked him. He said: 'You know, Rebecca, that actually happened to me!' He decided to tell it from the perspective of people standing to the side and not understanding what is going on. He's an exceptional performer."

The CelebratedAuthor

Commonwealth Writers Prize-winning author Lawrence Hill has participated in three Whistler Writers Festivals. Not an attendee this year, Hill shares his memories of the festival by email.

"I think the first one I attended was around 2007 or 2008 with The Book of Negroes, and again in 2013 with Blood: The Stuff of Life, and in 2015 with The Illegal.

"My fondest memories (of WWF) include hiking just outside Whistler with Dave and Stella Harvey, who are wonderful hosts, and meeting a book club group in the bar of the hotel last September (2015) to discuss The Illegal. They were so engaged and spirited. I also attended Stella's book launches at the festival.

"I first met Stella several years ago, while mentoring her in a program aimed at developing novelists at the Banff Centre. She and Dave have become friends and fellow hiking buddies since then. Stella is ferociously dedicated to the festival, and the people of Whistler — as well as all Canadian writers — are very lucky to have her at the helm of the festival.

"She is tremendously organized, passionate about literature, and kind and friendly to boot. I'm lucky to call her my friend now.

"The importance of small festivals is that they introduce writers and their works to smaller but highly organized and dynamic communities where people care profoundly about literature and creators. In smaller communities such as Whistler, crowds are likely to be as large as or even larger than the groups of people who attend the big-city festivals.

But apart from size, there is quality. People at smaller literary festivals tend to be hospitable, friendly, engaged, helpful, and there is always the opportunity to do something fun like meet a book club in a hotel bar or go for a hike in the woods with the festival organizer."

Whistler Writers Festival 2016

• With 14 reading events and 12 workshops, the 15th Whistler Writers Festival (WWF) is the biggest yet.

• The festival opens on Thursday, Oct. 13, with two competitions and prizes.

• First up is the reception for the Whistler Independent Book Awards – a new competition for self-published authors started by WWF – at 6:15 p.m. There are three categories, fiction, non-fiction and poetry, with the winner of each taking home $500.

• Comedy Quickies: A Night of Hair-trigger Humour follows the reception, returning for its second year. Eight finalists have their works staged, with two awards up for grabs – Best Comedy Writing and the People's Choice Award going towards the best act of the evening. The winners of the Whistler Independent Book Awards will also be announced.

• Daytime on Friday, Oct. 14, is filled with workshops to benefit writers, including Fiction and Poetry in Traditional Publishing (9 a.m.), Speed Dating: Pitch Your Book/Idea to Publishers, Agents and Editors (1 p.m.), and You Should Write a Book (4 p.m.).

• There are three reading events later in the day: A Literary Salon for Readers and Book Clubs, hosted by Genni Gunn (4 p.m.), Tasting the Divine: Cooks with Books (6:15 p.m.), and The Literary Cabaret with Nick Bantock, Rosanna Deerchild, Susan Juby and more (8 p.m.).

• Saturday is the main day of WWF, with 15 events. These include the Globe & Mails arts correspondent Marsha Lederman in-conversation with Author Jane Urquhart (8 p.m.); A writers' workshop on the legacy of Carol Shields (4:30 p.m.), Rising up – The Poetry of Protest (11:30 p.m.), and the Thriller Writers' Lunch with Joy Fielding, C.S. Reardon and more (1 p.m.).

The festival closes on Sunday, Oct. 16, with three events. The day opens with Fiction vs. Non-Fiction? Really? with Jennifer Manuel, Craig Davidson, Endre Farkas and C.S. Reardon (9:30 a.m.). Bill Richardson is in conversion over brunch with writers Emma Donoghue, Gary Geddes, Madeline Thien and others (11 a.m.).

• The final event is Marsha Lederman in conversation with Ronal Wright and Deborah Campbell (2 p.m.).

Free events

For the first time, there are free WWF events open to the public at the Whistler Public Library. These include a look at Young Adult Writing with Susan Juby, Kenneth Oppel and Lisa Moore on Saturday, Oct. 15 (11 a.m.), and a Writing Workshop for Young Writers (aged 10 to 19) with Oppel on Saturday, Oct. 15 (2:30 p.m.).

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.whistlerwritersfest.com.


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