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Ottawa Writers Festival: Come and hear authors discuss the cosmos, songwriting, food and mystery novels

By Alejandro Bustos on April 17, 2013

Since 1997, the Ottawa Writers Festival has been bringing the best literary talent from around the world to the nation’s capital.  The festival has been so successful, it now offers semi-annual editions – one in the spring and the other in the fall – with scattered events throughout the year.

The spring 2013 edition is set to be another fantastic gathering, with authors discussing such topics as the creation of the universe, time, global food production, songwriting, poetry and mystery novels.  One event that particularly caught my eye was the songwriter’s circle with Alan Neal, host of All in a Day on CBC Radio One.

“We look at music as a language,” says Sean Wilson, artistic director of the Writers Festival, when asked why music is being included in a literary event.

For Wilson, a writer’s festival celebrates words, and the definition of “words” should be as broad as possible.  “As the bible says, in the beginning there was the word, so we are starting from the moment of creation,” he explains with a poetic response.

While the bulk of the spring 2013 events run from April 25 to 30 (see here for the full schedule and tickets), there are some fantastic appetizers, such as the talk earlier this month by renowned mystery novelist Alexander McCall Smith, tomorrow’s event (April 18) with Giller Prize winning Canadian novelist Will Ferguson, and Saturday’s discussion (April 20) with Israeli writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret.  In preparation for the festival, Apartment613 spoke to three different participants.

Lee Smolin photo courtesy of writers festival

Photo courtesy of the writers festival

Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin is a senior faculty member and founder of the Perimeter Institute in Theoretical Physics in Waterloo.  In his recent book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe, Smolin discusses how many scientists view time as an illusion, i.e. something that is the product of physical laws that are outside of time.

But what if this view is incorrect and time is indeed real?  While the book considers the scientific implications of this question, what really sparked my imagination were Smolin’s ethical conclusions.

“What moral lessons can we draw if time really does exist?” I ask him in a phone interview.  “That the choices we make matter,” replies Smolin. “It is a rejection of a consolation and replacing it with a challenge.”

When thinking about mortality, many people console themselves by believing that time is an illusion, and that “something” – e.g. a spirit, essence, energy, memory, etc. – can be thought to exist outside of time after death.  If time is real, however, and nothing can exist outside of time, then we cannot rely on this consolation.  What we must do instead is accept the challenge that life is fleeting, and that the choices in our lives are what will define us, Smolin tells me.

Smolin’s talk is scheduled to begin at 6:30 pm on Tuesday, April 30, at Knox Presbyterian Church at 120 Lisgar Street (at Elgin).

Photo of Alan Neal courtesy of the writers festival

Photo of Alan Neal courtesy of the writers festival

Alan Neal

There are more than 13,000 songs on Alan Neal’s i-pod.  Curious about their musical origins, he put his shuffle on random and selected the first 10 tracks that came up.  The CBC radio host then proceeded to research the stories behind each of these songs.  Neal will share his findings in a songwriter’s circle with interviews, clips and videos.  He will also be joined on stage by such musicians as Jim Bryson, Jenn Grant, The Acord and Kellylee Evans.

When asked how his research was going, Neal said that he was having a lot of fun.  For instance, one interview was with a 91-year-old singer who reflected on a tune they had sung decades earlier.

“The singer told me, ‘you know that song wasn’t even a hit,’” Neal tells me, as he recounts speaking with the bemused musical nonagenarian, who wasn’t really sure why the young nice man from Ottawa was calling about such an old tune.

Then there are the secrets behind the Aquaman track, although you will have to go to his event that starts at 8:30 pm on Tuesday, April 15, at the Knox Presbyterian Church, to find out more.

Photo of Chris Impey courtesy of the writers festival

Photo of Chris Impey courtesy of the writers festival

Chris Impey

A distinguished profession of astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Chris Impey is renowned for such books as The Living Cosmos and How It Ends.  His most recent work How It Began looks at the history of the universe.  His talk in Ottawa, which is scheduled for Saturday, April 27 at Knox Presbyterian Church, will cover the themes in his books

“The main thing that I will cover is that the theory of the formation of the universe, which is 13.8 billion years old, is a mature theory of nature,” says Impey.  You may also hear him discuss the possibility of multiple universes and life on other planets.