If you follow me on any kind of social media, then you’re probably aware that I spent last weekend in the mountains at my first ever Whistler Writers Festival. Technically, I have attended WWF events in the past, but they were virtual events during the pandemic. I don’t want to downplay them because they were great experiences and they were the best anyone could do at the time, but there’s something about being in a room and listening as a writer reads from one of their works. What a special opportunity.
I’ve been aware of Whistler Writers Festival for many years. In fact, I’ve been in Whistler during the event on several occasions. Something I don’t always talk about when I talk about books is that I am involved with lacrosse during the summer. Every October, the BC Lacrosse Association has their AGM in Whistler on the same weekend as Whistler Writers Festival. So, while I’ve been attending meetings and events related to lacrosse, my heart has been telling me to break free and check out some of the writing events instead. When the BCLA had to commit to their weekend in 2022, there was so much uncertainty about whether in person events would be permitted by that time – it’s a huge event that would require significant booking and well in advance – that they opted for a virtual AGM again this year. It was sad for the many, including us, who look forward to the event all year as an opportunity to relax and build relationships with others committed to the sport, but for me it was an opportunity.
When I floated the idea by my partner, he was all for it and encouraged me to book hotel and start making plans right away. While I identify as an avid reader, he does not, but one of the ways in which we are most compatible is that we are equally up for anything. I knew he wouldn’t be attending the whole weekend with me, but he would certainly be game to make an appearance at a few of the events.
The festival kicks off on Thursday night, but due to work commitments, we were unable to make it up until Friday. We left just after noon, encountered some good old Sea to Sky traffic delays and rolled into Whistler at 4pm. We checked in to The Fairmont Chateau Whistler where the majority of events were taking place and took a few minutes to chill out and shake the commute off. Once we were feeling rejuvenated, we headed out to hit up our first event, The Literary Cabaret.
Now, I had no idea what a literary cabaret was or what to expect, but we showed up to Maury Young Arts Centre ready and willing to have a good time – and have a good time, we did! The Arts Centre was displaying The Teeny Tiny Show, an exhibit of more than two hundred pieces of art that are smaller than three inches squared. It was fun to inspect the little pieces and to contemplate what they meant and how they were made. Just before the show was scheduled to start, the theatre where it would be taking place opened and we were ushered in. Still unaware of what we were about to witness, we chose one of the first rows that was still free which landed us towards the top, stage right.
What is a literary cabaret? It’s a series of authours reading from their works to the music of a live band and it is brilliant! The band in this case was West Coast Front and the authours included Joseph Dandurand, Norma Dunning, Amber Cowie, Tamar Glouberman, Hasan Namir, Gary Geddes, and Shyam Selvadurai. Some read poems, others read excerpts, and all of it was accompanied by a beat and many a melody.
One of the other highlights of this event is that it also features the presentations of the winners of the Whistler Independent Book Awards. It was really interesting and exciting for me to access a few new acclaimed books that were specifically from the area. I included a copy of The Guest House by Shannon Terrell, the winner for non-fiction in the growing wish list I was tallying in my head and picked up a copy the next morning.
After the performances were done, the gallery was open again for mingling and book purchasing. I don’t think I picked up any books on the first night because I knew Armchair Books was going to be on site throughout the entire festival and at that point I still wanted to pretend that I was going to be discerning in my spending, but, to be honest, I may have. It’s all kind of a blur.
The majority of my festival took place on Saturday and I attended six back to back (to back to back to back to back) events over twelve hours. They were:
- Writers of Non-Fiction Panel
- Poetry: Deeper Conversations
- Thrills and Chills: Mystery and Crime Writers Panel
- Writers of Fiction Panel
- Sharing Stories Together: A Festival Celebration & Fundraiser
- Saturday Night Gala
Each had its own high points and really rewarding moments and I walked away from all of them richer. My favourite and one of the events I’d been most looking forward to, was the Saturday Night Gala featuring guests Iain Reid and Méira Cook and moderated by Marsha Lederman. I had been interested in hearing Reid speak because I really loved his book I’m Thinking of Ending Things and I read his latest book We Spread a few months ago. (I haven’t read Foe yet, but I have a copy on my nightstand.) I was delightfully surprised when Lederman proved to be just as talented as host as everyone has made her out to be. She asked really thoughtful questions and did a really great job of bringing together a pair of authours who, at first glance, have little in common. It was quite a treat to witness.
Another of the events I had been really excited about was my only one on the final day of the festival, the Sunday Book Talk with Cody Caetano, Lisa Moore, Heather O’Neill and Jamal Saeed. What a panel of writers to listen to! The combination of memoir and fiction specialists was uniquely attractive and the balance and comparison between then was very thought-provoking. It was a very nice way to close out my experience of the festival. I thought a lot about some parts of the discussion over the remainder of the day and on the ride home.
Although there were a lot of sessions to attend, they were spaced so that once one ended, you had just enough time to take a stroll, stretch your legs, get a drink or buy a book or have a chat, then come back for the next event. I never felt rushed, but I never felt like I was waiting too long for the next thing to happen. Having attended a fair number of conferences, I have to say that this is an art that is rarely executed to this degree.
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler was a perfect location for the festival. The natural beauty of the property and surrounding areas allows attendees to get away for quick breaks and indulge in beautiful walks and crisp, fresh air at any time. It has a classic ski resort vibe and plenty of places to relax, hang out and read all the books you buy!
This year’s event was a hybrid in that all the events were available both in person and online. I want to really emphasize how much I appreciate the organizers’ commitment to accessibility for the festival. After two years of finding alternative ways to do things differently, I am so disappointed at organizations who have reverted back to the old model of everything only being available to people who arrive in person. I spent 2020 attending literary events all over the globe and it gave me exposure to books, authours and events that I would never have known without the option of attending from a distance. Whistler Writers Festival kept up the options for people to attend remotely and I love them for that.
One of the great themes of the weekend was the passing of the torch from festival founder Stella Harvey to new Artistic Director, Rebecca Wood Barrett. Throughout the events, many comments and stories of gratitude and appreciation for Stella were shared, from recollections of Harvey hosting the early iterations of the festival in her own home to her unwavering support and encouragement for local authours. By the end of the weekend, I felt like I knew her even though I had only seen her at a distance. Wood Barrett, on the other hand, I did get to spend some time with and in her friendly and enthusiastic hands, I’m confident the festival will continue to thrive.
Attending Whistler Writers Festival was really important to me because it introduced me to a very vibrant literary community and opened my eyes to the wealth of options for reading the works of local authours. This is a friendly group of people who are very proud of what they’ve built and enthusiastic about sharing it. So many people I spoke to shared their history with the festival and the local writing community with almost no prompting. I’ve always been a champion of Canadian books, but the more opportunity I have to zoom in on areas closer to home, the more I discover there are many incredible reading options in my own backyard.
Ever since the start of the pandemic and when festivals and organizations started rolling out their modified events, I have encouraged people to look out for and attend them, whether virtually, or now, depending on comfort level in person. There are so many beautiful opportunities to connect with others and learn more out there and they really are worth the investment of time and/or money.
I’m deeply grateful to the team at Whistler Writers Festival, especially PR and Marketing Coordinator Alli Vail and to Rebecca Wood Barrett for the warm welcome and for their advice and guidance throughout the weekend. I’m already looking forward to returning to the festival in 2023!
And, just in case you were wondering, these are the books I picked up throughout the weekend:
- Chasing Rivers by Tamar Glouberman
- The Guest House by Shannon Terrell
- Jameela Green Ruins Everything by Zarqa Nawaz
- The Junta of Happenstance by Tolu Oloruntoba
- Last One Alive by Amber Cowie
- The Long Road Home by Debra Thompson
- Lot by Sarah de Leeuw
- Nevertheless by Gillian Jerome
- The Punishment by Joseph Dandurand
- Standing on a River of Time by Jónína Kirton