The Curation Process: Behind the Scenes at the VWF

In the heart of programming for our October Festival, we sat down with our Artistic Director, Leslie Hurtig (left), and Senior Artistic Associate, Clea Young, to get a behind the scenes look at what the curation process looks like.

You receive hundreds of pitches from publicists and authors in Canada and across the globe. Take us through the process for deciding what talents are included in the Festival each year?

We visit publishers in Vancouver and Toronto each spring to learn about the new titles that are being released in the fall (and to be reminded about hot, spring titles that have just arrived). We are avid readers of book reviews, journals and articles about new books, themes and authors around the world. We are pitched hundreds of books throughout the spring. It’s then our job to try to whittle our choices down to just a hundred; balancing geography, themes, publishing houses, genres and the diversity of our authors. Of course, not every author we invite can join us. That’s one of the hard parts; giving up on a dream author—whom we know our audiences would love to hear from-when it turns out they can’t attend.

Many of the events at the Festival are themed, with writers connecting with each other about key, complementary ideas in their books. Do these connections “jump out” at you when you’re programming events? How do you begin to see those links?

Themes are often dictated by the cultural events happening in the world. Issues of migration, democracy, the #MeToo movement, Indigenous rights, climate change and the retelling of Canadian history have been at the forefront of our news cycles for the past few years. These can’t help but be echoed and enhanced in the fiction and non-fiction being produced by authors and publishers. We look for commonalities in the new work that is presented to us. It is often not difficult to see links, but sometimes harder striking the right balance. Our Guest Curator is integral in helping us solidify themes each year. Their unique voice, and the authors they choose to bring to the forefront, helps to determine the overall tone of Festival week.

What are you looking for when selecting an event lineup. What are you trying to create?

The Vancouver Writers Fest aims to connect people to exceptional books and ideas. We want our events to be both entertaining and enlightening. We hope that the conversations our audiences experience keep them engaged even after the event is over. We want to encourage a love of reading and books, and spark an interest in learning more about an author’s work and/or the issues that they probe. We also hope there’s laughter.

Part of every Festival are—inevitably—lesser-known authors who go on to win major awards. What’s your pitch to attendees to check out some lesser-known voices?

Hearing from remarkable emerging authors and lesser-known writers is one of the great joys of attending a literary Festival. It’s such a pleasure to feel like you’ve discovered something new; a fresh, unexpected book to share with friends and fellow-book lovers; an, “I discovered this author before they were a household name” kind of feeling; this is something we always look forward to in October.

What surprises you most about the curatorial process?

We do our best to keep up with the new releases but not even the publishers can keep us fully up to date on all the books coming each season. We try to balance the smaller, independent publishers’ offerings with those of the larger multinational publishers. In doing so, we can miss out on so many wonderful books along the way. What surprises us each year are all the amazing books that we didn’t manage to program. So. Many. Books.

What do you think would surprise others about the process?

This may sound preposterous, but it’s really hard to get a lot of full-book reading done. When you have hundreds of books being pitched at once, we end up only being able to dip into them and then we try to make informed decisions about who should be invited. It’s often not until vacation time that a full reading of a book gets done. The curatorial process is based a lot on early reads, early research, reviews and informed guesses.

The full lineup of events will be announced on August 22. Can you give us any clues or sneak peeks before that?

Our Guest Curator, Tanya Talaga, has programmed some truly beautiful events around the theme of belonging. Her life’s work is evident in her curation for both youth and adults. Watch for an event that focuses on Indigenous voices in literature and the role that they play in facilitating justice and resurgence, hosted by the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers. As it turns out, Tanya is also quite a Stephen King fan, so watch for something fun to emerge from this appreciation. This year, we’ll also have some fun with lit-based improv comedy and, after 30 plus years of soulful sounds, we will celebrate the final year with Sal Ferreras and his extraordinary band, Poetic License.


Lauren Dembicky