Textcetera: Learning about literary festivals

When it comes to literary festivals, Nova Scotians are spoiled for choice! From the South Shore to Cape Breton to the Northumberland Strait, these events bring hundreds of writers and readers together each year. Below, organizers from Halifax-based AfterWords (which will run September 28 to October 3, 2021) and River John-based Read by the Sea (which ran July 2 to 9, 2021) talk about the various benefits that festivals offer to local literary communities.

Come to listen and learn

Stephanie Domet co-founded AfterWords Literary Festival with Ryan Turner in 2019. As writers themselves, the pair wanted to “create the kind of festival we very much wanted to attend.” Stephanie notes that emerging writers can get a lot out of these events as attendees. “Festivals offer an opportunity to be exposed to lots of writers you might not have heard of before, hear about their process, their struggles and triumphs, and hopefully see yourself reflected so that you can start to see your own path as a writer. Plus, the other folks in the audience will be, to some extent, your people—fellow readers and writers.”

Monica Graham and Lana MacEachern, who both serve on the organizing committee for Read by the Sea, also emphasize the learning opportunities to be found at these events. Festivals provide “a chance to meet writers in person,” Monica says, “to schmooze around in the literary scene, to find common points of interest with other book lovers and book creators, and to honour your own creative drive.” And, Lana adds, “to listen to authors read their work with all the right intonations they intended when they wrote their books—it offers tremendous insight into the literary mind.”

Come to volunteer and network

In addition to an audience, literary festivals need many volunteers to succeed. Helping out with a festival’s organization “will get you close up and personal” to the action, says Monica, and you may just put yourself on the radar of planning committees considering future festival lineups. Festivals will also often thank volunteers with free or reduced-cost access to their events.

Whether you’re an audience member or a volunteer, festivals provide an unparalleled occasion for turning the normally solitary act of writing into an encouraging networking opportunity with like-minded folks. When meeting fellow writers, Lana suggests that you “be ready with a question, an honest compliment about their work, or a comment about something in their work that resonates with you”—but also that you be respectful of everyone’s time. “If there is a great lineup waiting to have their books signed in 40 degrees of mid-July heat, don’t take up too much time” talking to the author. “Just establish yourself as interested—and interesting.”

For those nervous about putting themselves out there, Stephanie has some advice: “You don’t have to talk to everyone, and you don’t have to ‘achieve’ anything. Just be in community with other readers and writers. Bring your curiosity and your good heart.”

Come to share your own writing

If you’re lucky enough to be invited to share your own work at a literary festival, some prep time can ensure your reading or performance shines. “It is a good practice to think in advance about the kinds of questions you might encounter,” says Stephanie. “Spend some time thinking about why you write the way you do, what was driving you when you wrote what you wrote, what your own advice might be for other writers.”

For readings, Stephanie suggest that you “wear something you feel comfortable and awesome in, don’t read from notes, don’t be afraid to pause for a breath before you answer any question, and be sure to drink some water about fifteen minutes before your panel starts—it takes that amount of time for the hydration to reach your vocal folds.” Lana adds that you should keep your reading to no more than fifteen or twenty minutes and should “talk about your work between sections of your reading. This can include a little speech to set up the piece you read or a comment about how this book ties into your other books.”

If you encounter any awkward or off-topic questions from the audience, feel free to redirect the conversation. Just because your writing may delve into some personal topics doesn’t mean you have to share every detail with an audience. “It’s okay to say, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t like to discuss my family (or whatever) in public,’” Monica advises. “And if it’s just someone who won’t leave the mic and sit down, hopefully, there is a moderator who will jump up and say, ‘Next question?’”

The future of literary festivals

During the pandemic, some festivals have postponed their events while others have pivoted to online programming.

Stephanie admits it was a lot of work for AfterWords to offer virtual events. “We had to learn a whole new way to present events, figuring out technology and tickets and so on,” she says, but it also came with benefits. “Being online made our festival very accessible to audiences of all kinds right around the world. It also allowed us to invite Roxane Gay to be our headliner—we definitely would not have been able to bring her to an in-person event. And we were able to extend free tickets to lots of folks who might not otherwise have attended a literary festival.” Moving forward, Stephanie sees AfterWords continuing to offer some online events to help make the festival as broadly accessible to the public as possible.

As a festival programmer, she will also be engaging with diverse communities to ensure the festival represents the full range of writers and readers that exist. “I think programmers have a responsibility to continue to educate ourselves on how to decolonize our festivals in order to make them safe and welcoming to all kinds of folks,” she says. “Representation is great, but it’s unkind, at best, to invite folks into spaces simply in the name of diversity without doing everything we can to ensure that the space is anti-racist and truly accessible. I love the work the Festival of Literary Diversity is doing on this front.”

As Monica and Lana recount, Read by the Sea was “started in 2000 by four women who wanted to bring a few of Canada’s finest writers to a small coastal village with a largely resource-based economy and—thanks to a good library and a variety of school programs—a growing interest in literary arts.” This grassroots approach has allowed them to expand the festival in ways that appeal to their audience, with children’s programming and events that have helped with fostering a burgeoning local writing scene year-round. As all three organizers demonstrate, there’s a bright future in Nova Scotia for literary festivals that connect meaningfully with their communities.

Stay in the loop & discover new lit fests by checking out our public database of Nova Scotia Literary Festivals.

textcetera is a blog series exploring the writer’s life beyond craft. “Learning about literary festivals” was written by Keanan Byggdin.

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