25th Trillium Award

Without Readers, Would We Write?

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The Kingston WritersFest Celebrates Five Years of Writing and Reading

Tickets for Kingston WritersFest are now on sale. Kingston WritersFest runs from September 25 to 29, 2013.

By Claire Grady-Smith

When I graduated from art school, I thought I'd become a full-time writer and artist almost immediately after moving to Toronto. I rented an affordable room in which I made small paintings and compulsively checked the horizon for upcoming literary awards and competitions. I imagined it would take a month or so, six weeks tops, to receive notice that a short story or essay had been accepted into some anthology or other.

Four weeks after moving, I found myself in a high-rise office building, working for a non-profit as an administrative assistant. I processed expense forms, answered phones, printed out monthly payroll sheets, and filed things. On my lunch hour, I would descend the elevator from the eighteenth floor, eschewing the air conditioning to sit on a bench in a nearby park, reading in the sun no matter how hot it was. It was an escape, but it was also a public escape. The best lunch hour I had was when an accountant from the next building over stopped to ask me if the book I was reading — The Electrical Field by Kerri Sakamoto — was any good. (It was.) 

"As much as we are trying to create an opportunity for writers to meet readers and vice versa," says Merilyn Simonds, Artistic Director of Kingston WritersFest, "we are trying to nurture conversations about books, writing and reading. As a writer, if I couldn't meet readers, I simply wouldn't write."

Kingston WritersFest is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. At the close of year four, as Simonds was announcing that the festival was wrapping up and she hoped everyone had enjoyed their five days of events and workshops, she was astonished when the audience of several hundred stood up and gave the festival a standing ovation.

"I knew that some in our audience had come from Vermont, Vancouver, and even as far away as the UK, and I knew that what we were doing was important enough that many people book their holidays around our festival dates, but in that instant, I knew that we had done something incredible. We had built a community."

To encourage the development of this community, the staff and board of WritersFest came up with a unique idea to establish year-round monthly events that are part book club and part reading series. In a nod to the Kingston region's immense literary talent, Devour: the 100-mile Literary Diet Book Club invites the public to vote on their favourite book of a different local author each month, then join the author for a reading and discussion in a local restaurant, espousing both the culinary and literary 100-mile diet. For those who can?t join in person, Devour events are live broadcast on Ustream, where digital attendees can participate in real time through the WritersFest chat line.

Simonds hopes some of this digital technology will come into play at the festival itself, which runs from September 25 to the 29, 2013, at the Holiday Inn Kingston Waterfront, with a pre-Fest event on September 21 featuring Jeannette Walls, author of the international mega bestseller The Glass Castle, on September 21st at Queen's University Grant Hall. Among a long list of impressive national and international writers, Margaret Atwood will be returning to discuss her new book MaddAddam. Another festival headliner is Alberto Manguel, who fell in love with literature as a teenager in Argentina, when he worked as a reader for the near-blind Jorge Luis Borges. Manguel is author of dozens of books, including A Reader on Reading (2010), The Library at Night (2006) and the novel All Men Are Liars (2010). Manguel will be closing the festival on Sunday with the inaugural Robertson Davies Lecture, created in honour of WritersFest?s 5th birthday and the centenary of Davies, who spent his youth in Kingston and first published there. Events at the festival include Writers Studio master classes, panel discussions, one-on-one conversations and a suite of events for "Kids on Sunday".  Tickets are already on sale, so if you are thinking of attending one of the 52 events in late September, visit the Kingston WritersFest website as soon as you can. They tend to sell out quickly.

I often think back to my months of working in an environment that was empty of fellow readers, and I try to imagine how many people are operating in just such a void. Books add a depth and importance to who we are and what we've accomplished. In the words of Manguel, they "give up secrets" and "open whole universes." Reading can illuminate the beauty of difference, the dynamics of power and the triumph of love — especially when shared with other readers. 

Claire Grady-Smith graduated from Queen's Cultural Studies masters program in January, 2012, and lives in Kingston, Ontario. She is currently a freelance writer, artist and marketing consultant for Wintergreen Studios Press, among other clients.

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