If you’re at all a part of the resort’s literary circles, you’re likely already familiar with Stella Harvey, local author and founder of The Whistler Readers and Writers Festival.
Since its inception, the festival has grown from a rather intimate affair in Harvey’s living room to become one of the West Coast’s premier literary weekends.
While the festival’s tremendous growth is due in no small part to the committed team of volunteers that have lent a helping hand, there’s no question that the event wouldn’t be where it is today without Harvey’s tireless efforts. But to hear her tell it, it’s the Whistler community-at-large that should be taking the lion’s share of the credit.
“It’s hard to imagine what started in such a small kind of way has built to such a large event. I look back and think about what made that happen, and it’s really been the community,” she said. “I really feel like in this community people embrace an idea if they like the idea. I don’t think we would have had the growth that we’ve had if it wasn’t for the audience that came and the grant providers and other support groups who’ve come along to help us raise our profile.”
With a star-studded cast of nationally and internationally-acclaimed writers, including Patrick deWitt, author of the universally-lauded and darkly comic western, The Sisters Brothers and award-winning novelist and travel writer Wil Ferguson, the festival has always sought to support established and emerging local authors in equal measure.
One of those blossoming Whistler writers featured prominently at the fest this year is Sue Oakey-Baker, who will launch her gripping story of tragedy and triumph, Finding Jim at Millennium Place on Friday, Oct. 18. This touching memoir has Oakey-Baker sharing the story of her and her husband Jim Haberl, elite climber and the first Canadian to scale K2, who died in an avalanche just two years into their marriage. It’s an intensely personal story that Oakey-Baker isn’t sure she’d have been able to share without the support of her writing group, the Vicious Circle — also founded by Harvey in 2001.
“We meet monthly and take turns submitting, so I had this deadline to produce to. That was crucial for me, and also the fact that it’s such a personal story and it was very raw for me in the beginning, so to have the support of a safe environment to craft that story was also crucial,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without them, the support of the community and the inspiration of the annual festival.”
Event organizers place a particular emphasis on offering practical, hands-on workshops, something that Oakey-Baker has taken advantage, and cover such varied topics this year as historical fiction to magazine writing. It’s an effort that long-time volunteer Rebecca Wood Barrett thinks sets the Whistler festival apart from its literary counterparts.
“The difference from other writing festivals is there are a lot of workshops,” she said. “When you are in a workshop setting it’s quite acceptable to ask the author or the instructor questions either about what they’re talking about or your work, so it gives it that intimate feeling and breaks down barriers.”
Harvey, who hasn’t raised the registration price for workshops since the festival began, said offering affordable programming is another way to give back to the community that has supported her so strongly since Day 1.
“Inclusivity has been really important to me, so I try to make everything — all the workshops, all the reading events — available to anyone who wants to attend,” she said.
“I just don’t want anyone not to come because they can’t afford to come.”
Harvey was also quick to extend thanks to “the small but mighty group” of volunteers — many of whom are returning this year — who make the festival possible, saying they are “a testament to how much they believe in what we’re doing.”
But beyond the committed volunteers or the continued growth of the festival, what’s more rewarding for Harvey is when an aspiring writer — one of the more lonely creative types around — can find a place in a community of like-minded people that she helped build.
“Someone said to me once when they came out to one of our events that she felt as though she’d finally found her tribe, and that’s exactly what we want,” Harvey said. “It’s kind of neat when somebody tells you they’ve found their place, and I think that’s what we try to do.”
The 12th annual Whistler Readers and Writers Festival runs from Friday to Sunday (Oct. 20) at venues across Whistler.
Check out www.theviciouscircle.ca for a full listing of events and workshops.