Squinting into the afternoon sun, Jian Ghomeshi is seated on the back patio of the Fairmont Chateau Whistler when a brief and quizzical look flashes across his face. Longhaired, unshaven and dressed in blue jeans and a Ramones T-shirt, everything about him yells rock 'n' roll, and in this sedate setting it's the off-season silence he finds so curious.
“I can see how this could facilitate writing,” he says. “I say that with some surprise, because I see Whistler as created for a lot of tourists. Whenever I've been here it's been like that, but I'm getting a sense of this being a real place of tranquility.
“It feels kind of detached from the rest of the country. Like you're one step further away from the issues of the day. I don't want to paint it as idyllic, but it feels like you could exist here without the frenetic energy of concern as you do farther east in Toronto, or Montreal or Ottawa.
“I went for a walk today and it was something else, man. I thought, 'Wow, why didn't I write my book here?'”
That book, a memoir titled 1982 published last year, has reached the end of its publicity run, but that short amount of time hasn't dimmed the author's star in the literary world.
While there are some prolific and heavyweight authors attending the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival this year, Ghomeshi will likely have drawn the most attention. The 46-year-old co-creator and host of CBC radio's hugely popular arts and culture program, Q, is a champion of the Canadian arts scene. His commitment to the written word, in particular, is stalwart—whether through his past columns in the National Post, or in hosting both the Canada Reads competition and the awards gala for the Giller Prize. Then there's the essay he writes every morning for the opening segment of Q, a body of work for which he's probably most widely known, but which Ghomeshi himself takes in stride.
“My daily essays, even in the world of the internet, they're ephemeral. Everything's gone the next day. There's a new essay to take its place. But a book, a book is permanent. It's a record of where that person was in their lives, even if they're writing fiction.”
It's for that appreciation of authorship that organizers of the Whistler Reader's and Writers Festival invited him for several public engagements last weekend. From living legends like Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, to iconoclasts like Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, authors feature regularly on Ghomeshi's program. He knows their work, their styles, and even their personalities. There are few others more qualified to engage an audience of readers. Not a bad catch for an intimate event in Whistler.
“I love the Canadian tradition of authors' festivals — the support and celebration of writers in this country,” Ghomeshi says. “I see this (Whistler's festival) as a continuity of that, and I'm not surprised it's growing as fast as it is.”
From modest beginnings in organizer Stella Harvey's living room 12 years ago, the festival's growth has been deliberately slow to help maintain its intimate appeal. With that preserved, the attendance this year of powerhouse authors like Will Ferguson, Patrick deWitt and Lisa Moore will serve to elevate Whistler's image from one of purely athletic pursuits to those of a more cerebral Canadian experience — at least for one weekend of the year. All this while still maintaining the festival's celebration of independent writers, says Ghomeshi.
“The local is important, but you build it with the support of the national or international… to use Q as an example, if we could put an upcoming, local, independent author on a show with Eddie Izzard on it and Ray Davies of the Kinks performing, the forum for that author is elevated so more people can see and hear them.
“To me it's the mix that builds the possibility for the local, for the rising talent… hyper-local alone is never the way to go.
“This country is tuned in as readers. You can feel it. Our writers disproportionately punch above their weight class around the world. Whether it be at the highest calibre, as with Alice Munro, or at any other level. Canadian writers, per capita, are exporting in a really powerful way.”
And it's the permanence of a book that Ghomeshi hopes will lend it lasting appeal, contrary to newer media. It's a deliberate style of writing an author must embrace and explore, rather than deliver as reactive words through newspapers, blogs, or even the essays so popular on Q. Ghomeshi says he will most certainly write another book. In the meantime he'll keep his chair on the other side of the page, interviewing Canada's prolific pool of talent and reading their works to the tune of four or five books per week, as he contemplates his own next project.
“I loved writing my book. Writing a book is a personal challenge. You're walking up this mountain, you're on this journey, and you're necessarily doing it alone. There's no arbiter of how good you're doing, except for yourself in that moment of creation.”