When Stella Leventoyannis Harvey first started the Whistler’s Readers and Writers Festival in 2001, she was surprised when 20 people showed up in her living room for the rather intimate affair.
Eleven years later, with hundreds of tickets sold and a robust list of acclaimed authors set to attend, that sense of intimacy is still what drives Whistler’s premiere literary event, running this weekend (Oct. 12-14).
“It’s just so important to us to maintain that intimacy,” said Harvey. “We’ll never be a festival of thousands, we’ll always keep it within the number so that you can sit down and have lunch with a guest author or a drink with a guest author or go for a walk even, and really get to know them, and they get to know you too.”
More than just appealing to the tweed-sporting, urbane intellectual, Harvey wants to offer diverse programming that will inspire the bookworm and the philistine alike.
“I think that making something accessible means partnership, means getting other artistic pursuits involved and making sure that we have a program that anyone can look at and find themselves in,” she said.
Harvey and her handful of volunteers give every festival attendee an evaluation form to see what worked at the event and what didn’t. Harvey reads every comment and incorporates the suggestions into the following year’s programming decisions.
She recognized the importance of offering unique events like Saturday’s debate and lunch at the Fairmont, where a panel of local writers and rugged mountaineers will discuss the true meaning of mountain culture, and Sunday night’s ever-popular Pecha Kucha event at Maxx Fish, an eclectic mix of spoken word, storytelling and music featuring poet Jillian Christmas backed by the melodic guitar plucking and soulful stirrings of singer Chelsea D.E. Johnson.
Headlining the fest are some of Canada’s most highly regarded wordsmiths, including Alistair MacLeod, who along with his renowned short story collections, is widely regarded for his 1999 debut novel, the elegiac No Great Mischief, Lawrence Hill, the award-winning author of the national bestseller, The Book of Negroes and Susan Juby, who’s Alice MacLeod trilogy was adapted into the television series, Alice, I Think.
To complement some of the bigger names featured at this year’s fest are a slew of local writers and artists — Paula Shackleton, Stephen Vogler and Michel Beaudry to name a few — that should be instantly recognizable to any culturally-inclined Whistlerite.
The idea to “shine a light on authors in the literary arts that might be just emerging” is an essential aspect of the festival, said Harvey, who has nurtured Whistler writers since she founded The Vicious Circle, a local writing group that has been going strong for over a decade.
Harvey is an emerging writer herself, and will discuss her debut novel, Nicolai’s Daughters at the opening night gala Friday at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which will feature MacLeod, author and journalist Zsuzsi Gartner, Juby and Scottish-Canadian historical fiction writer Jack Whyte.
The weekend will also offer several iterations of a literary festival mainstay: the workshop. With several seminars on topics ranging from adventure writing, poetry, young adult fiction and mushrooms — yes, mushrooms — there should be a workshop that hits every colour of the literary rainbow.
With hopes for the continued growth of the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, Harvey wants to secure long-term funding in the future so someone can take over her director’s position on a paid basis. At the moment, Harvey doesn’t take home a penny from the event and receives roughly $8,000 in local and provincial funding. She estimates the costs of running the festival at $25,000, covered mostly by The Vicious Circle’s year-round fundraising efforts.
“There’s the financial realities of putting on a multi-day, multi-venue, multi-artist event,” said Harvey. “Why do people come (to the festival) as opposed to going anywhere else? Why they come here is because of its intimacy and that’s always, for me, going to win out over bucks,” she added.
She said it was daunting at first trying to promote a cultural event in such an “adrenaline-focused” community, but that the character of the town is ultimately what led to its success.
“You wonder how a literary festival could do in a town like this. But I think what it is, is that because of its nature, because of the people here, they’re always looking for new and different things and they embrace new and different things.”
For more information on all of the events at this year’s Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, including the ones not mentioned here, go to www.theviciouscircle.ca, where you can see the weekend’s lineup, ticket prices and all of the writers and artists taking part.