Since its inception in 2009, the Kingston WritersFest (Sept. 26–30) has attracted heavy-hitting international and Canadian talent, who travel to the small Ontario city to participate in a weekend of readings, panel discussions, and workshops.
Quillblog spoke to WritersFest’s artistic director Merilyn Simonds about the festival – which includes appearances by Naomi Wolf, Michael Ondaatje, and Teju Cole – and why she considers Kingston to be one of Canada’s most literary cities.
What is your approach to programming?
I have experience as a guest at a lot of festivals so I knew right away what I wanted the tone to be. The Vancouver International Writers Festival is certainly one of our models.
My particular interest is in collaborations with different media and the kind of energy that is produced there. I’m always looking for combinations that are surprising and provocative. As a writer I know what it’s like to be up on stage. If it’s interesting for the writer, what happens on stage will be really interesting for the audience.
How do you match collaborators?
Last year when I was thinking of bringing J.M. Coetzee, I thought we needed someone really gregarious but sympathetic with his writing style. I thought Paul Auster would be good – I didn’t even realize they were collaborating on a book.
When I started thinking about Michael Ondaatje for this year, I wondered whom he would really like to talk to, and Teju Cole came to mind. At the time, a year and a half ago, Teju’s book, Open City, was starting to get nominated for prizes. Teju is also a street photographer – he’s really interested in the visual arts in the same way Michael is with filmmaking and editing. As it turned out, they had met at a couple of festivals, and Teju considers Michael to be a major influence.
I didn’t want to have them on stage alone, so we needed someone to guide the conversation. I wanted it to be a woman as broad in her artistic interests as these two. Then I happened to see Dionne Brand at a Writers’ Union Event. I knew it would be a good combination.
How do you define success?
I want the house full not so our pocketbook is full; I want it full so it’s energizing for the writer. When ticket sales are good, that means there will be a lot of people going out into the world and reading all the works by those authors, and to me that’s a success, raising the literary conversation in Canada.
Do you get a lot of people coming to the festival from outside the city?
The first year was 10 per cent; the second year was 18. Last year was 28 per cent and this year’s number is higher.
What are some of the programming challenges you face?
Transportation is a little more complicated for us than other festivals, which have an international airport nearby. Many people have to come in by train. We fly our American writers to Syracuse and then have a car pick them up, and that works out pretty well. Other than that, I have found that writers are interested in coming here. They’ve heard of it, I think, because of Queen’s University and the Royal Military College of Canada. Kingston has a reputation almost disproportionate to its size.
Because we’re a volunteer organization we can only do the festival for about four days. We did expand our list the second year to 49 events and it almost killed us, so we pulled back to 43. This year we’re at 45, but a couple of those are book launches, which aren’t as much work. I don’t think we can grow in size, so we have to keep the quality really high.