So, it’s day four of the festival and I’m still not sure what to expect. Each venue has proven to be both great and yet different from the one before. It’s the first night of the Mainstage series so I know it will be strong. The theme is "Life Lessons" and although I don’t recognize all the writers, I trust that the evening will deliver.
I arrive at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre early and find a seat close to the front. The organizers have done an exceptional job of creating the perfect balance of cozy and sophisticated. The chic EQ3 furniture that decorates the stage is framed by a bookstore table on the left and wine and cheese bar on the right. As I watch little micro communities form around the room, I curse myself for forgetting my camera, again.
It’s a handsome crowd. Maybe it’s the energy that makes them this way. There is definitely a feeling of community in the air.
“Hey, how are you?”—“I haven’t seen you for ages.”—“This is so and so.”—“Come. Sit with us.”
You get the picture.
So often when you think about writers, the image is narrowed to the lone author in front of her computer, cold coffee and cat beside her. It’s easy to forget that there is a whole community, and communities within the community, that are the lifeblood of the writing world.
As Charlene Diehl gets ready to take the stage, conversations are wrapped up, wine is replenished, and seats are taken. Charlene welcomes everyone and thanks the sponsors, then draws attention to the empty chair that occupies the front right corner of the stage. The chair is for PEN Canada, a reminder to advocate for the rights of silenced writers.
“It takes courage to tell people’s difficult stories”, she tells the crowd.
The first to take the stage is Richard Van Camp, an author I have not yet read. He reads from his new book Godless but Loyal to Heaven. The beauty of this reading is that it feels quite like a dream. When Van Camp finishes I awake to the applause of the audience. It irritates me that I have never read him before. There are writers and there are storytellers. I feel he is storyteller and that writing is just a convenient tool that he uses for those who don’t have the privilege of hearing him speak.
Next up is Stella Leventoyannis Harvey. She reads from her book Nicolai’s Daughters. The story takes place in both Canada and Greece and deals with family relationships from the perspective of Nicolai and his daughter Alexia. Even though I’m not Greek, the passages that Harvey reads are relatable on multiple levels. The themes are both universal and yet very Canadian at the same time. Family secrets, multigenerational conflict, and the struggle to understand a culture you’ve never had the opportunity to be part of, make this book a must read for so many people.
Carrie Snyder is the final author in the first half of the evening. The Juliet Stories takes place in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Snyder’s reading makes me think that there is an emergence of a new kind of historical fiction happening. For many of us, the 80s isn’t that long ago. However it seems as though there are more books coming out that are set during this era. Snyder’s book, from the perspective of 10 year old Juliet, comes across as heartfelt and convincing. As she reads about Juliet and her mother, I can feel the sticky heat of Nicaragua. Snyder successfully gives her reader the world through Juliet, a definite warm-me-up book to read during the cold winter months.
During the intermission, I grab a refill on water and sit down to reflect on the readings. Those who aren’t grabbing refills at the bar are swarmed around the bookstore table. The authors are frantically signing books whilst simultaneously engaged in conversation with eager readers. Richard Van Camp grabs a seat in front of me before the second half and I must say I’m a little star-struck.
The second half begins.
Meira Cook takes the stage. I’ve heard Cook read before, and admit she was one of the reasons I was drawn to Monday night’s venue. I was first introduced to her poetry last year and was immediately hooked. She reads from her new novel The House on Sugarbush Road. The passage is about love story between two of the characters and the ways in which the words are weaved reflect her strengths as a poet. The story, which takes place in Johannesburg in the 90s, is enticing enough, but it's Cook's skill at placing just the right sounds together that make each sentence seem in harmony with the last. Even though The House on Sugarbush Road is a novel, it feels as though it should be read aloud.
Following Cook is Cordelia Strube, another name that drew me in. She immediately changes the tone in the room from serious to humorous; first by admitting she’s been hiding backstage, then by chastising Charlene for making her communicate a “life lesson” in 12 minutes. Strube introduces us to seven of the ten central characters of her new novel Milosz. She delivers her story with bang-on accents and treats us to a performance akin to a well done one woman play. Her playwriting experience shines through in her writing. The dialogue is sharp and funny and pulls the audience into the room with her characters. In a span of 12 minutes, I know the people she is writing about, I can see them, I can feel their history. Her reading is outstanding.
Last up for the evening is Jess Walter. I believe he was supposed to be reading from Beautiful Ruins. However, Walter has a different agenda, which includes a tutorial on how to learn an Irish accent off YouTube, a recount of a book signing at Costco where he cut up his novel and handed out sample sentences, and a poem about mom’s underwear.—My kids will never be allowed to help with laundry again.—When he finally decides to talk about his book he refers to a Harper’s review that called it “his most romantic book yet,” to which he responds is “the equivalent of McDonald’s most gourmet meal yet.” In the end he reads a sentence from the book and despite not really hearing anything about Beautiful Ruins, Walter’s humor has hooked my curiosity.
All in all, it was another fantastic event at Thin Air. I know this post was long, but I feel as though each writer deserves to be highlighted because the talent that is showcased at this festival is exceptional. If you didn’t make it out on Monday, there are still plenty of events to attend. Thin Air is for writers and readers and lovers of words and I can’t wait to fill you in on the week ahead.