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Spotlight on the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts

British Columbia is home to many spectacular literary festivals including the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts (SCFWA) which is running August 15-18 this year. Just ahead of the SCFWA, we chatted with Festival Producer Jane Davidson about the Festival and what to expect on their stages this August.

For those who haven’t yet visited the Festival, tell us why they should check out Canada’s longest-running summer gathering of writers? What can they expect?

First of all, the setting is stunning. The Festival takes place in a heritage park in the seaside town of Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, in the heart of shíshálh swiya, the homeland of the shíshálh Nation. All events take place in the Festival Pavilion, a 450-seat open-air cedar and fir structure that, for its size, is incredibly warm and intimate. A dedicated group of volunteers create the most incredible floral arrangements with flowers and foliage that is foraged or grown in their own gardens. These are not ordinary bouquets; the arrangements stop people in their tracks. Most importantly, they represent the care and pride all of our volunteers bring to the tasks they take on.

In terms of audience, many people return year after year. We know of at least one person who has never missed a Festival since the first in 1983. Opening night feels like the first day of summer camp, with people bumping into friends they see only once a year. The line-ups feel like social events. Making newcomers feel welcome is really important to us and we try to include information on the website and in the program to support them. The office is at the entrance to the Rockwood Gardens, where the Festival takes place, and someone is always available to answer questions or give directions. The Information Booth has everything from bus and ferry schedules to information about restaurants within walking distance.

New this year: the provision of real-time speech to text captioning that will enhance the experience for people who are hard of hearing and make possible the inclusion of people who are deaf.

What are some of the highlights of this year’s lineup?

The Festival’s mandate is to present Canadian writers exclusively. This line-up includes some extraordinary writers who explore a wide range of issues through fiction, non-fiction and poetry. We are very proud to present this year five accomplished Indigenous writers: Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, Darrel McLeod, Alicia Elliott and Lee Maracle, who will deliver the Bruce Hutchison Memorial Lecture, an annual keynote address. As mentioned before, this Festival takes place in the shíshálh swiya. The presentation and celebration of Indigenous voices is a long-time practice of this Festival. We consider this to be a role we can play in the journey toward Reconciliation.

We are delighted to welcome well known and respected writers like Elizabeth Hay, Peter Robinson and Terry Fallis back to the Festival. We also love to see readers discover new and emerging writers. Without fail, the discovery of an author always turns up on the audience surveys as a highlight for many. The full 2019 line-up is at writersfestival.ca.

Almost all your events (except 2-3 each year) feature a single writer speaking to an audience. Tell us about this programming decision and the relationship between author and audience.

This is a programming practice I inherited when I joined the Festival as Producer in 2007. It was made very clear to me by the audience that this is a format that shouldn’t be tampered with! Sometimes it makes sense to have two or more authors explore a specific theme but, for the most part, I have maintained this practice. An hour on stage allows an author to have a meaningful conversation with the audience, albeit one-sided for the most part. They have the time to read from their work and share insights about research, their process and anecdotes that serve to link readings. There is also a Q&A with the audience. An hour on stage gives the writers the time and opportunity to dig a little deeper, something that is not always possible when on a panel.

When not enjoying one of the events, what are some of the ways audiences can enjoy their time on the Sunshine Coast?

The Sunshine Coast Arts Council’s 32nd Hackett Park Arts and Crafts Fair takes place on Saturday and Sunday of Festival weekend just a few blocks from the Festival site. The District of Sechelt has produced a wonderful summertime events and attractions map that is available online. We’ll also have copies at our Information Booth. The Sechelt Farmers and Artisans Market is on Cowrie Street, right outside the main Festival entrance from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Local artists all up and down the Sunshine Coast display purple banners when their homes/studios/galleries are open for visitors. And, of course, there are gorgeous beaches and many hiking and biking trails. There’s lots more information on the Sunshine Coast Tourism website, and arts and culture event listings on the Coast Cultural Alliance website.

Tell us a little more about your curatorial process. With thousands of books to choose from, how do you curate the line up each year? What do you look for?

It’s a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. Programming decisions are made, for the most part, between November and March. I take into consideration a number of criteria including genre, gender, diversity (a big word that covers so much), and regional representation. I  also take into consideration a writer’s ability to engage with and hold an audience for an hour as well as their ability to attract an audience. A new book (Fall 2018 to Summer/Spring 2019) helps in terms of the author’s profile.

In the back of my mind always is achieving that hard-to-describe outcome that all programmers and festival organizers are acutely aware of; that is, the spirit, the essence, the “vibe” of the event – that thing that happens when all the right notes are hit. That means leaving space for acting on a hunch or a gut reaction. The outcome is sometimes impossible to predict and very difficult to quantify. The best we can do is ensure that all of the requisite pieces are in place and strive to create the best possible experience for writers and readers.

Finally, what are you reading right now—and what’s on the bookshelf to read next?

I’m reading three books: A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott, Voice by Adam Pottle and Mistakes to Run With by Yasuko Thanh. What’s next? Whatever calls to me when I’m heading to my post-Festival hammock. Thankfully, there is no shortage of wonderful books by Canadian writers and I’m already excited by the Fall 2019 books that are coming my way.

Discover more about the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, taking place August 15-18, 2019.

Author

Lauren Dembicky