Post by David Sachs
Writing is a solitary art, they all say, and for once they’re right. Writer’s (of books) have no teammates and no audience, none that they see anyway. In a city like Ottawa, it’s more of a dark art: neighbourhoods of talented political staff, civil servants and reporters, writing magnum opuses after hours, in the dark, like a fetish.
Ottawa is full of secret literary soloists, however, with many fantasizing about the big stage — while others could never bear it. Everyone wants to watch, though. So, bringing writers into direct contact with each other and audiences has become a local thing, mainly catalyzed by the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
The Writers Festival has grown in all aspects by balancing commercial names, artistic choices and locals. It’s a formula that is spreading, with a local festival now dedicated to poetry and, more recently, one in Wakefield.
The main gala of the 2nd annual Wakefield-La Pêche Writers Festival this past Saturday used a traditional format, in which CBC Ottawa radio host Alan Neal interviewed local author Charlotte Gray, Ottawa’s pre-eminent historic storyteller, and Sean Michaels, whose novel Us Conductors, won last year’s Giller Prize. A jazz quartet played as the audience filled the cafe, and a heavy fog rolled through the green hills visible through the massive front windows.
With the Ottawa Writers Festival growing into year-round programming, literary events — particularly artist-audience interactions — have become part of the foundation of our region’s cultural landscape.
Wakefield, in the Gatineau Hills 20 minutes north of Ottawa, has been an artist’s community for decades, with a seemingly never-ending appetite for old and new cultural events, projects and festivals. The sold-out crowd of 150 on Saturday was a mix of Ottawans driving out for the event (and the authors on display), and Wakefielders and other locals from the neighbouring villages – Chelsea, Low, Masham, etc.
After first speeches and poetry, moderator Alan Neal picked up on story points from Michaels’ novel and Gray’s newest book, The Massey Murder, to get the writers talking in general terms about storytelling and writing. They two authors discussed what they think about when trying to evoke sensory experiences; when to to include “throw-away” (non-plot-critical) scenes and tangents; fact-checking; and balancing historically accurate phrasing with modern meaning and emotional impact.
Neal also read from scavenged 20- and 30-year-old excerpts of the writers, which they can’t have been too happy to hear, but the crowd enjoyed.
Gray spoke of the choices made in writing non-fictional narratives. “The more history I write,” she said, “the more malleable I realize it is. I wish there were many more people writing the same histories.” Which she explained further, could offer multiple perspectives on the same event, and capture much more of the depth and truth of it.
The books table, run by Jim Sherman of Elgin Street’s Perfect Books, was a well-visited side-focus of the evening, featuring the works of Gray and Michaels, as well as other Festival-featured authors such as sci-fi star Charles de Lint. But the Festival also went to great lengths to promote the wide range of literary work from the Gatineau Hills, and to further its mission to bring French and English artists together. In addition to my own work (I’m a Chelseaite), there were books from Brian Doyle, Gaye and Ed Chicoine, Ray Verdon, Colin Rousseaux and others.
Wakefield is an artist’s town. With the growth of writer-events in Ottawa, this kind of cross-pollination was inevitable. The Ottawa Writers Festival has served as mentors and sponsors for Wakefield’s event, which has effectively come out of the gates as a success, and continues to grow the momentum for both love and production of literature in the region.
The Ottawa Writers Festival is 18 years old, and you can’t say Ottawa has become a launching pad for literary stars. But there’s something there. It’s spreading.