Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Festival and Fitness: Staying in Shape with Kingston WritersFest

 
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Kingston WritersFest runs from September 22–25. Get to know some of the authors appearing at this year's festival with Open Book's Kingston WritersFest inverview series.

By Barbara Bell

A fitness freak, I’m not. A book fanatic, yes. This fixation naturally suggests unhealthily long hours in a sedentary state. Books and physical activity seem mutually exclusive, and I’ve learned from sad experience that reading and any kind of sport — even walking — can be dangerous to your health.

I’ve discovered, however, that there is a time and place where literature and exercise go hand in hand. To my own surprise, I’ve found a satisfying way to do both at once: plan and execute a writers’ festival.

As producer for Kingston WritersFest, I oversee the physical festival — rooms, chairs, lights, sound, staging, set pieces; tickets, signs and flowers; catering for food events and the authors’ Hospitality Suite. Whatever can be hauled around, turned on or off, connected or disconnected — anything that can malfunction, fall over or be consumed — is mine to deal with. To prevent mishaps and to support the work of our volunteers, more often than not I need to be in three places at once.

There’s only one of me, though, so I have to jog, to sprint and even, at times, to run. This is my third year producing the festival, and I am preparing myself mentally, if not physically, for an endurance test. Last year, I was curious to know how far I would actually travel in the four days of the festival. Just for a lark, I bought a pedometer to monitor myself. Instead of cringing at the footsteps I was taking, I would celebrate them. Embrace them. It would be "festival as fitness program."

A quick Google search on the health benefits of walking revealed them to be manifold. Risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and bad attitude, all reduced, if not eliminated, when we put one foot in front of the other. How healthy I will be! I thought. I’ll be engaged in non-stop activity morning till night — from the moment we set up base camp to the final draggle-tailed retreat four days later; every day from the first sip of morning coffee until the last writer tiptoes off to bed. That can’t be bad, I thought, can it? But just how good was it? I would trust in my pedometer to tell me.

I’m back at it this year, and determined to track my activity again, maybe beat last year’s record. Beginning on September 21, the day before the festival begins, here’s how it will go:

Day One — pre-festival move-in day — Wednesday crack of dawn: There will likely be a brief struggle to get the pedometer to work (or is it me?), then I’ll clip it to my belt — like Samson’s hair, removed at the risk of disastrous loss of strength. The pedometer is my magic super-charger; it will give me some kind of energy mojo. At least, it worked that way last year. Move-in will be its own challenge, coping with banners, potted plants, light/sound equipment and all the attendant electrical cords and other items too numerous to mention. I’ll be everywhere at once in a full-speed repetition of up and down and back and forth, like the sequential endurance events of a triathlon.

But everything has to be ready: we’re expecting Michael Riordon, Noah Richler and Lara Bozabalian to check in Wednesday evening, to be ready for their events the next morning.

Day Two — Thursday: I will go nowhere without my pedometer or my dog-eared planner crammed with phone numbers, to-do lists, schedules and itineraries. International Marquee conversation between Coetzee and Opening Night Reception, then a respite during the event. Book signing afterward, which will mean shepherding eager Coetzee and Auster fans into some kind of orderly line-up. Clear the stage and backstage area. Lug banners and flowers and extra programs back to the Holiday Inn.

So far so good. Feet aching but still attached. By day’s end, if all goes as last year, I’ll have taken twice as many as the 5,000 steps the experts say are required for good health. And so, to bed.

Day Three — Friday: Suddenly, I’ll be wearing my belt a notch tighter. The exercise is paying off. Last year, Holiday Inn staff revealed to us a cheat — a secret staircase that (praise be!) leads from fifth floor to sixth bypassing the much-in-demand elevator and introducing to my regular work-out an aerobic stair-climbing component. A real time-saver, and great for the calf-muscles, too. Today, I’ll alternate the noisy industrial back stairs with miles of carpeted hotel corridor, going distances that will have me reaching for my stout staff, pouch of waybread and skin of water or something stronger. But I’ll be in the zone. I’ll be zipping. Zip here. Zip there. Zip — oops, I will try to not to flatten Merrily Weisbord or Laurie Lewis, both of whom are petite, coming out of an elevator.

The big task for me today will be preps for our two evening events that feature Roméo Dallaire and Antjie Krog, and later Kenneth J. Harvey, David Adams Richards, Robert J. Sawyer and Timothy Taylor. In the Hospitality Suite afterward, we’ll offer these writers a well-deserved glass of nice local wine, maybe a Chadsey’s Cairns or a Sandbanks. I may also partake.

Last year, Sandra Gulland raved about the luxurious comfort of the hotel beds. She’s right; they’re scientifically manufactured "eiderdown." I should sink into mine and drift immediately out of consciousness. In repose I’ll resemble a semi-colon, body curved defensively around my pedometer, which I won’t let out of my sight lest someone mess with it, zeroing out my hard-won stats. The numbers will have climbed well into the upper half of five digits. I will manage a semi-conscious dream-state for a few hours. Then I’ll get up and do it all again.

Day Four — Saturday: Proudly I will now show off pedometer numbers to anyone who’ll look. Suddenly, an emerging crisis — not enough chairs! Feedback on the mics! I’ll be racing to the rescue, then realize the dangers of bowling down the hall and striking an unsuspecting formation of Anita Rau Badami, Bill Richardson and their volunteer wranglers, who will be headed up to Author! Author!. Won’t be much of an event without Badami and Richardson, so I’ll throw myself into the gutter stuttering apologies and deke into the secret stairs to the upper floor. The show must go on.

Later, we’ll do a sound check for the SpeakEasy, and once the event starts, my work for the day is done. I’ll collapse and enjoy readings punctuated by improv jazz, while my pedometer sits idle. Afterwards, in the Hospitality Suite, spirits will be high. I will indulge in exercise for the brain. In a fly-on-wall moment in 2009 I sat (quietly, gratefully) on the periphery while Charlotte Gray, Daniel Poliquin, Mark Kingwell and Jane Urquhart chatted on subjects ranging from Steven Harper’s eyebrows to their enjoyment of the Fifth Town artisanal cheese on a platter in front of them. Every word brilliant and stimulating from such minds as these! With Andrew Pyper, Richard Gwyn, Vincent Lam and Ken McGoogan on hand, this night’s conversation will also sparkle.

Day Five — Sunday: Not the quiet denouement you might think it, our last day is filled with great happenings, and I’ll be going at the usual brisk pace. Ruth Ohi’s and Rob Weston’s Kids on Sunday events will be fun — there’s nothing like the piping voices of rugrats on a sunny morning to raise the spirits. My pedometer will continue to rack up the numbers as we set up our Afternoon Delight tea and usher onstage Elizabeth Hay, Cynthia Holz, Helen Humphreys and Madeleine Thien.

Soon there will be departures to see to; farewells to make, then we’ll reverse gears and return the fifth and sixth floors of the Holiday Inn to their pre-festival state. I’ll head home to collapse on my own little bed, marathon done.

At a recent planning meeting, Trish, our volunteer coordinator, mused that this year, she should get herself a pedometer. I wonder: if we all wear them, what will be the sum total of our collective footsteps? Placed end to end, where on the globe would they take us? This is the stuff of which grade school textbooks are made.

Which raises the obvious question: What’s my record? How far did I walk/run/climb last year?

An astonishing 115,000 steps or 57.5 miles. That’s more than double the standard marathon distance, in just four days. Did I wear running shoes? Well, no. Strappy heels, suede pumps, ballet flats and my trusty platform sandals. Will I go farther this year? Or faster? Possibly, if I break out the Sauconys. Ask me on September 26!


Barbara Bell is an award-winning actor, a playwright, director and producer, as well as a freelance editor. She is producer of Kingston WritersFest and is presently co-producing the short film Pretty Pieces, set to shoot in Kingston in October. Barbara has also hosted two seasons of a television book club — Page Turners — for TVCogeco in Kingston. In her spare time she likes to breathe.

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