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Words on the Water looks to freshen things up

New MC, new writers and a new vibe for Campbell River's annual literary festival

Words on the Water, Campbell River’s longstanding literary festival, is looking to freshen things up a bit.

John Elson, “our MC and really the face of the group for the last 15 years,” according to event co-founder Ruth McMonagle, “has decided that 15 years of his life was a good contribution, and we completely agree,” she adds with a laugh.

So the organization needed a new face. More than that, they needed the right face, McMonagle says. And they think they’ve found that person in Grant Lawrence.

“John is just an awesome, debonair, attractive, charismatic, quiet but very intelligent man he just has a lovely personality so when replacing him, the committee wanted to look for someone with the same intellectual slight-of-hand, and, thankfully, they found that in Grant.”

Lawrence attended Words on the Water last year as a presenter, and McMonagle says he was a crowd favourite who was “very well prepared and very witty.”

Aside from the new face leading the literary charge there’s also a newfound push the past few years to broaden interest in the event.

And it’s been working, McMonagle says.

“Our audience is changing. Even though they’ve tended to be older, the younger spoken-word artists and the rap people and so on, have seen a huge success in cultivating a following of a different demographic of people,” she says, and she thinks this year’s lineup will do even more to get a broader range of people interested.

Wayne Johnston, for example, is a well-established fiction writer whose novels have won some of the most prestigious literary awards in Canada.

Briony Penn is a naturalist, writer, educator and broadcaster with a passion for protecting endangered species.

Daniel Justice is the current Canada Research Chair in Indiginous Literature and Expressive Culture and is one of the foremost authorities in the country on Aboriginal literary studies.

And then there’s Yasuko Nguyen Thanh, a Vancouver Island-based short story writer and novelist with a past. After dropping out of school at 15 she lived on the streets for a while, making her way through life as a busker, opium dealer, cleaner of goat pens, bed & breakfast operator and panhandler here in Canada, down in Mexico, and in both Germany and Honduras. Now she writes award-winning short stories, has been named one of CBC Books’ “Writers to Watch” and has a master’s degree in Fine Arts. She also happens to scream in a punk band.

Organizer Paul Murphy says while he is also excited for this year’s lineup, he’s been most impressed by the local business community coming together to make it happen sometimes with very little notice.

“We had an unforeseen reduction in our budget this year when a major sponsorship dropped out kind of late in the planning,” Murphy says, “but thankfully, there were companies like Grieg Seafood who just hopped on board on pretty short notice. Funding for the arts is getting more and more difficult it’s tragically always the first thing on the chopping block but I basically made one call and they stepped up in a pretty big way.”

Sponsorships like Grieg’s last-minute contribution, Murphy says, “make it so that we don’t have to raise our ticket prices so it’s not affordable for people. We want it to be accessible for as many people as possible, because it’s such a great event that everyone should be able to enjoy.”

He’s also excited to once again be partnering with the school district and be bringing Charlie Demers in to put on workshops with the local high school students.

“That’s something we make a real effort to make happen,” Murphy says. “One of the most important pieces for us is to get the kids involved however we can in literature.”

This year’s event runs March 10 and 11 at the Maritime Heritage Centre. Tickets can be purchased in advance at Coho Books, the Campbell River Art Gallery, or online at wordsonthewater.ca