Vancouver writer and radio broadcaster Grant Lawrence likens a great writers’ festival to a giant book club. And if that’s the case, the Words on the Water Writers’ Festival in Campbell River would be one giant coastal book club.
Lawrence is one of eight Canadian authors featured at this year’s festival, which will take place March 11 and 12 at the Maritime Heritage Centre.
This year’s 14th annual Words on the Water festival will feature Lawrence, John Vaillant, Wayne Grady (who is also this year’s Haig-Brown Writer in Residence), Eve Joseph, Lorimer Shenher, Lucia Misch, Timothy Taylor and Tracey Lindberg.
Although Lawrence has been to Campbell River before and says he loves this part of the province, it will be his first time at this festival.
“It’s a real honour,” he said of being asked to participate in festivals like this. “I think what has sustained a lot of these invitations to festivals like this is I wrote a book that at the time I was told no one would be interested in; I was told it would be too localized. I persevered against what a lot of publishers and agents in Toronto said, and I published Adventures in Solitude in 2010. It really changed my life. There’s been a very strong resonance with the coast, specifically the Inside Passage of the Georgia Strait. It’s really sustained me on the coast. At these events, I talk about my newer books too, but on the coast, I always get asked about Adventures in Solitude and if I am going to write a second book to follow it. It’s been a really, really rewarding experience for me, and I’m really honoured to be able to attend these festivals.”
Lawrence hopes to inspire other people with his story by sharing his experiences and offering a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a Canadian writer.
Lawrence thinks there are a few different reasons why writers’ festivals like Words on the Water are important, and while they promote the written word and that’s a huge deal, that isn’t the only reason.
“I also think writers’ festivals are important for communities,” he said. “It brings about an intellectual conversation but in a fun, festive and social atmosphere. When a writers’ festival really clicks, it’s like a giant book club; it’s when people are getting together and sharing their passion for books. At a lot of these festivals, book clubs show up. I’m often at the Whistler Writers Festival, and I meet book clubs from all over the place. It’s kind of a summit of writers and readers and literature lovers.”
Vancouver writer John Vaillant is coming back for his second Words on the Water festival this year. He first came here in 2007, after publishing his first book, The Golden Spruce, A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed, in 2005. Vaillant says he had a great time and has been invited back several times since, but the dates never worked because the festival fell in the middle of his kids’ spring break. The timing finally works, and he appreciates the organizers’ persistence.
Vaillant enjoys writers’ festivals for the opportunity to get together with other writers and readers.
“Writers, we’re a hermetic bunch, so to get a chance to be with them in an atmosphere that is, in a sense, dedicated to them and to readers, that’s really what it’s all about,” he said, adding that he is grateful to the Canada Council for the Arts and the local people who make it possible for writers like him to participate in festivals like this. “These are labours of love, and as writers visiting them, we really feel that. It’s a kind of sunshine to bask in.”
Vaillant feels writers’ festivals have an atmosphere like a campfire, where people come together and tell stories out loud.
“The printed word has made the experience of reading very private and these types of events bring it back to what it originally was – real storytelling,” he said. “It’s really like coming back to the roots. For someone like me, who really cares about the sounds of words and not just the content – here’s a chance to really hear it aloud. Poets hear it, but long-form writers, there’s music there too and they’re tuned to that frequency.”
Trevor McMonagle and his wife Ruth were two of the founding members of Words on the Water. McMonagle remembers being inspired by the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt. He and Ruth decided Campbell River could host something similar after visiting the festival one summer in the late 1990s.
“We talked to some people whom we knew were book-minded and readers and pitched this vision,” he said. “We decided we should focus more on coastal writers. Jim O’Rourke on Quadra came up with the title Words on the Water.”
The first Words on the Water festival was held in 2002.
“I would say that right from the start, the community – the book-reading community here in Campbell River – believed in the idea and supported it and promoted it,” said McMonagle.
Paul Murphy, president of the Words on the Water organizing committee, wants to emphasize to people who are thinking of coming to the festival that it is not geared to only writers or aspiring writers.
“It’s the Words on the Water Writers’ Festival, but the subtitle is ‘writers for readers,’” he said. “It’s about people who are passionate readers, for them to come and engage with authors. It’s a writing and reading festival in that way.”
Murphy says many volunteers are involved in making the festival such a success, and he is grateful for all the people who support the festival.
“It’s a big team effort,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who work really hard to make this festival happen.”
For more information about the festival or tickets, visit www.wordsonthewater.ca. Tickets are also available at the Campbell River Art Gallery, which is selling books by the participating authors. Laughing Oyster Bookshop in Courtenay is the official bookseller of the festival this year and will have copies of all the authors’ books available as well.
Vancouver writer John Vaillant published his first novel last year.