Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

IFOA Hamilton: Festival-goer on tour

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By Becky Toyne

Back in 2007, the International Festival of Authors (IFOA), no longer content with the confines of its 10-acre Harbourfront Centre home, grew restless. And so, without too much fanfare, two events were added outside Toronto: one each in Hamilton and Burlington. In 2008, IFOA grew a little bold, adding Parry Sound to the schedule. In 2009 it grew bolder still, touring 29 authors in seven locations. Then, in 2010, it grew legs.

In January of this year, IFOA announced a $200,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to develop its provincial expansion. To be awarded over a period of three years, the money guaranteed the continued existence of the programme now known as IFOA Ontario.

Fast-forward to October 2010 and a festival junkie (that?s me) is working on her IFOA plan of attack. Being a downtown city girl (and a foreigner), I?m unfamiliar with some of the locales on IFOA Ontario?s itinerary, but I?m pretty sure they?re north of Bloor and west of High Park. Waaay north and west. In the spirit of Canadian adventure (and, I?ll admit, greed, because the lineup for this particular event really was pretty impressive), I ask festival organizers if I can tag along to Hamilton — the scene of the earliest IFOA Ontario incarnation — and see what goes down ?on the road.? With Eleanor Catton, Adam Gopnik, Robert McCrum and David Rakoff on the bill, that the readings will be good is assured. But what I?m not so sure about is this: When you shave off just a sliver of the IFOA action and look at it from a remove of a hundred kilometres or so, how will it feel? Will it be slick? Will it have pizzazz? In short, will is it still ooze ?festival??

The adventure begins on a Tuesday afternoon when I climb into a minivan with my companions for the evening. They are: Eleanor Catton, the 25-year-old author of The Rehearsal, a Betty Trask Award-winning novel published in countries around the world. Robert McCrum, former editor in chief of Faber & Faber, past literary editor of the UK Observer, current Associate Editor of the same newspaper, linguistic historian, scholar. Adam Gopnik, essayist, memoirist, fiction writer and staff writer since 1986 for a little magazine called the New Yorker. The fourth author on the bill, David Rakoff, is no less impressive or intimidating on paper, but he is driving up with his publisher and will be meeting us there.

?There? is Gallery on the Bay in Hamilton, which, when we arrive 15 minutes before the event start time, has a wonderful shabby-chic version of the IFOA stage set up at the front, complete with PEN Empty Chair, IFOA poster and old-school-desk-style podium. IFOA?s Erin Warner — who joined the festival team two years ago as an intern and is now, at just 24, the calm and professional face of IFOA Ontario, coordinating everything from author itineraries to postering — walks in with some kind of magic instant festival kit under her arm and conjures up 7' high IFOA signage, a potted orchid, a PEN petition, host speech, running order and a voiceover recording.

Around 60 people are in the room — a terrific turnout, especially considering it?s pouring with rain — sipping wine and browsing (and buying) the four authors? front- and backlist titles. Festival programmes are on the tables, and there is swag, too — October issues of IFOA sponsor The Walrus are free to anyone who wants one. As the assembled bibliophiles settle in their seats, the disembodied voices of John van Driel and Ian Rankin welcome them to IFOA, and the event is officially underway. So far, so festival.

You can?t magic a festival out of thin air of course, and that?s why the partnerships seem key to the success of this programme. Literacy on Tour — the name of the group of booksellers, schools and libraries enlisted as IFOA Ontario partners — makes use of existing customer bases in each provincial location to mobilize an audience. The larger IFOA machine is also at work back in Hogtown, and staff at this particular event estimate that about 20 per cent of the audience are new faces to them. Gentle interrogation of the crowd unearths residents of Oakville and Saint Catharines in their midst. Does tonight?s audience know it?s attending a major international literary festival? ?Oh yes,? says one keen book-clubber, ?we know all about the Toronto festival. We listen to the CBC.?

With so many new partners on board and so many IFOA authors hitting the road, what does this mean for the original IFOA? Business as usual, of course. Speaking on an industry panel at IFOA on Monday, festival Director Geoffrey Taylor talked about the Toronto portion of the festival (which has grown from six days to 11, and from 18 authors to 160 over its 31 years) as being pretty much ?tapped out? in terms of growth. You can only cater to the population available. But for the rest of the province? Well, that?s a different matter entirely, and there are lots of avenues to be explored.

Marrying the might of the festival with the grassroots passion of local book people is bringing something to the table for all concerned. The outlying locations get to host authors they?d be unlikely to lure on their own, and gain access to a giant national publicity and marketing machine and international brand. The festival gets to have its fingers in a lot more pies (not that I?m calling you a pie, Hamilton, but you know what I mean), knowing that by partnering with people such as Bryan Prince and his eponymous Hamilton store, it will be sending its travelling authors into a full house and a welcoming crowd.

Before introducing the first reader, IFOA Hamilton host Bryan Prince draws our attention to a floor-to-ceiling bookcase behind the podium. It contains, he says, a single copy of every book that has been presented by its author in this room. And as I listen to the night?s first reader speak from the IFOA-on-tour podium, I wonder how the number of writers and countries represented in that bookcase will evolve over time. When Erin and her portable festival kit ready the stage for IFOA Hamiltons yet to come, will the newer spines on that bookcase feel special, knowing they were the product of a province-wide literary party? The event isn?t quite oozing festival just yet, but it?s humming quietly with it for sure, so I?ll be watching with interest to see where the next few years take it — north of Bloor, west of High Park, or wherever.


The 2010 IFOA Ontario program runs until November 5 and checks in at Barrie, Burlington, Hamilton, London, Midland, Milton, Orillia, Owen Sound, Parry Sound, Picton, Port Hope, Sudbury, Uxbridge and Windsor.

Bryan Prince, Bookseller and A Different Drummer Books are the presenting partners of IFOA Hamilton.

Becky Toyne is a freelance editor and publicist based in Toronto. Since embarking on a career in publishing in 2002, she has worked as an editor at Random House UK and Random House of Canada; as a bookseller, event planner and publicist for Toronto?s Type Books; and as Communications Coordinator for the International Festival of Authors and Authors at Harbourfront Centre. She is a member of the communications committee for the Writers? Trust of Canada, and the publicist for the 2010 Writers' Trust Awards. She tweets about life in book land as @MsRebeccs.

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