Atmosphere is a necessary ingredient when planning literary events, and it’s tough to nail atmosphere without a well-considered location. Music sounds more like it should when delivered in established venues. Art displays look sharper when hanging on the walls of prestigious buildings. And literature tastes better when served in a place with a little history. Camosun College’s Lansdowne Campus played host to the Victoria Writers Festival Oct. 12–13, and what a host it made.
Matthew Hooton, UVic writing instructor and one of the festival’s moderators, said the relatively small size of Camosun’s campus suited the intimate feel of the festival, commenting particularly on the allure of the Young Building. “I thought there was a really beautiful atmosphere to the event,” he said.
Five writers took to the Young Building’s Gibson Auditorium stage on Friday evening: Tricia Dower, who just released her first novel, Stony River; Arleen Paré, author of the recent mixed genre novel, Leaving Now; Bill Gaston, author of seven novels including his most recent, The World; Anakana Schofield, an Irish-Canadian writer who just published Malarky, her first novel; and Susan Musgrave, who was nominated for a 2011 Governor General’s award for her poetry collection, Origami Dove. When each was called on by event host Maureen Sawa, CEO of the Greater Victoria Public Library, they rose from the audience and walked into the soft, soupy blend of blue, green and purple lights showering the stage from high up the wall. Clusters of pumpkins cluttered the front corners of the platform; on one such clump rested a typewriter.
The panel of West Coast writers first read from their recent publications. Then, as a united front, they fielded questions from the audience. Gaston, the only man amongst four esteemed women writers, did his gender proud, though all were eloquent, illuminating and humorous in their provision of writerly insight.
From there, guests and writers made their way into the Alan Batey Library, where music from a live jazz band filled the air. Audience members sampled finger food and beverages — both alcoholic and non-. Before long, the dancing fired up. A Camosun student commented on how weird she felt to be in the library at that moment, how every other time she was in there, which was often, jazz music wasn’t blaring and occupants weren’t permitted to eat or drink beverages. And there was never, she said, any dancing.
A number of events took place on Saturday including the Pacific Comics Art Festival, which I’m told was a hit. The discussion that followed, “The Wild and the Worldly” — readings from a panel of four respected poets — was so popular that, following its termination time, it moved into another room and continued on for yet another hour. And the creative non-fiction (CNF) affair, “The Bendy Truth,” was later described to me as “controversial.” In the typical us-versus-them, CNF-versus-fiction vein often heard in writing circles,David Leach [E1] jokingly questioned whether fiction discussions had the same capacity for provocation.
The Gibson Auditorium provided the setting for “The Young and the Restless,” a fiction event moderated by Hooton. Steven Price, author of the novel Into That Darkness; acclaimed short story writers Craig Boyko and Daniel Griffin, authors of Psychology and Other Stories and Stopping for Strangers, respectively; and Yasuko Thanh, whose title story from her recent debut collection Floating Like the Dead won the 2009 Journey Prize, all felt the friendly sting of Hooton’s humour before reading excerpts from their books. “Moderating the event was good for two reasons,” said Hooton. “First, it allowed me to get to know the event organizers a little bit and talk to them about the planning of things, which helped me feel like I was a part of it, and it also allowed me to get to know some local writers who I’d never met. Writing is a solitary thing — this helped me broaden my community.”
Poet Robert Bringhurst introduced the Carol Shields Lecture, titled “Surviving Progress,” which was presented by novelist and essayist Ronald Wright. Following this, poet and fiction writer Terence Young brought the festival to a close by hosting a panel that consisted of Esi Edugyan, winner of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Half Blood Blues; Brian Brett, recipient of the 2012 British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award for literary excellence; and Young’s wife, Patricia Young, who has published 11 collections of poetry and has twice been nominated for the Governor General’s Award. As with all the other events, the authors engaged with the audience before signing books.
High expectations and heavy anticipation often nudge events — movies, festivals and the like — into a gully of disappointment. The lofty hopes generated by spectators are often a challenge to fulfill, particularly when the event comes after a several-year absence. But the Victoria Writers Festival, anticipated though it was, barked a hearty laugh as it high-stepped the ravine. The disappointment, if there was any, would only have been because the festival wasn’t longer.