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Vancouver Writers Fest’s Hal Wake is celebrated for his authors-first philosophy

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(Chris Cameron)

(Chris Cameron)

Hal Wake stands outside the Vancouver Writers Fest office on Granville Island, watching a parade of Canada geese saunter by the front door. As a group of tourists point their phones toward the charming scene, Wake points out two adult geese acting as babysitters, keeping the goslings in tight formation en route to the pond behind the office. After 17 years as artistic director at one of the country’s largest literary festivals, Wake – who has announced he will be stepping down from the role after this year’s event in October – knows all the workings of the island, even the social behaviour of its feathered inhabitants.

Dozens of authors are lured to Granville, with its charming multi-coloured buildings and famous farmers’ market, each year for the festival, now in its 30th iteration. It’s always an intimate affair: the 100 or so scheduled annual readings and panel discussions are held at seven venues, all within walking distance of each other. Wake loves the energy the tightknit community provides, how readers and writers crisscross on the streets on their way to various events. “It’s a gift. Some writers don’t leave the island – there’s everything here they need,” he says. But for many participants, the draw is Wake himself, who has a reputation for putting his authors’ and audiences’ needs first. It’s a model that is clearly working. Last year, Writers Fest hit an attendance record of 17,000 people, and broke the $100,000 mark on book sales alone. For Wake’s final festival, the goal is to bring in $110,000, via local retailer Kidsbooks.

Angie Abdou has participated in the festival – either as an author or moderator – every year since 2011, when she attended with her novel The Canterbury Trail. She calls Wake a superstar for his ability to be seemingly everywhere (including the hospitality lounge at 3 a.m., and back again, still fresh, early the next morning) and for his talent in consistently programming diverse, thoughtful mixes of authors and speakers. “He carefully curates each session and thinks about the kinds of energy created in crossing a certain group of books,” she says. “He selects moderators well-suited to guiding that discussion. Because he’s good at this sort of conversation management, readers can count on lively, stimulating sessions, always. His vision and quality assurance mean healthy audiences and healthy book sales – both of which please writers.”

In 2009, when author Merilyn Simonds began revamping Ontario’s Kingston Writers Fest into a more professional entity, the first person she turned to for advice was Wake, whom was always encouraging. In 2012, the two helped organize the first gathering of festival representatives from across Canada in Banff, followed by another two years later in Toronto. “The Vancouver Writers Fest was always the gold standard for me,” says Simonds, who first appeared on its stage (pre-Wake) alongside Margaret Atwood in 1996. “Hal’s philosophy was that the writer is the centre of the festival. If they’re happy, they’ll perform well onstage. If the author performs well onstage, then the audience will be happy, and the funders will be happy. It all comes down to giving a writer the best possible experience at the festival.”

As artistic director, Wake has juggled shifting audience expectations and publisher agendas, while balancing the increasing demand for cultural and regional diversity and gender parity. Each edition of the festival has its own character and feel, he explains, depending on the available talent. After meeting with publishers to go through their lists, Wake often begins to see patterns or commonalities of ideas. “You have to trust your own instincts,” he says. “You never know for sure what people are going to respond to.” This year, for example, he observed essay collections coming from the likes of Adam Gopnik, Mary Gaitskill, and Andrew O’Hagan, and realized this may be a good time to explore essays as a form.

Wake has also been praised for his consistent support of debut writers (and their publishers). The perennial challenge, however, is convincing audiences to take a chance on little-known authors, and so Wake tries to pair them with literary stars. The strategy is often successful: Wake recalls an event when B.C. poet and novelist Aislinn Hunter shared the stage with Richard Ford, and won over the assembled crowd. “You see it all the time,” Wake says. “New authors who amaze and astonish with their talents, but you need the bigger names to get people out.”

Although his successor hasn’t yet been announced (as of press time), the new artistic director will have Wake nearby to call on for advice. He isn’t going far. After years of interviewing authors on stage, he’s contemplating turning his expertise into a literary podcast, or perhaps coaching writers on how to best perform their work in front of audiences. But first, Wake says, “I think I need about a month after it’s all over to just do nothing, and breathe a little bit.”