Festival finds its footing in Kingston

Events planner Barbara Bell talks to the Journal about the evolution of the Kingston WritersFest

Queen’s student Nat Fried commits a random act of reading outside the JDUC to celebrate Kingston WritersFest.
Queen’s student Nat Fried commits a random act of reading outside the JDUC to celebrate Kingston WritersFest.

You may have heard this already, but Margaret Atwood is coming to town. Her upcoming event at Kingston’s Grand Theatre is sold out, but the story of how she got to the Kingston WritersFest is the result of the work done by a core group of dedicated and hardworking volunteers under the auspices of Kingston Frontenac Public Library and Kingston Literacy.

“There has been a Kingston Writers Fest that has been in existence for the past three years.” said Barbara Bell, the festival’s events planner. “It was run by the four founding members, who did all the work and it was held at the public library in downtown Kingston. There was no charge for the event and so they were not able to pay a fee the presenting authors.” The festival’s humble beginnings relied heavily on the participation of local authors and co-operation with the community, but the festival’s long-term goals were unclear.

“Obviously they would get local writers, but people would not want to come to see the same authors year after year so it couldn’t be as self-sustaining as you might want,” Bell said. “Merilyn Simonds, a local award-winning writer, stepped in a said ‘You know what? Why don’t we take this to the next level, let’s try to professionalize it, we’ll charge an admission price, but we’ll keep it low because we want people to come and we’ll pay our writers to come and let’s just see what happens.’

“It’s been a very comfortable transition in the sense that the original members are still a part of it.” The WritersFest has truly upped its game this year, with 25 diverse authors attending this year’s festival and a variety of events taking place.

“This is the first year in which we’ve had so much prominence and such a big structure. It’s like most literary festivals, it’s a gathering of published authors—we have forty of them coming and we’ve arranged 27 events. Some of them are masters classes where you can have really close contact with certain authors on a subject of writing itself,” Bell said.

“The other thing we offer are on-stage events, there will be anything from two to eight writers on stage and there will be a theme for each event.

“We’ve to design a program that has interest for everybody of really every age. In particular we’ve tried to focus some of our events for all the students in Kingston--Queen’s and RMC, etcetera.”

The festival is especially focused on engaging Kingston’s students.

“We’re really excited because that’s one of our stated mandates, which is to connect with the Queen’s community. We are offering free rush seats to all Queen’s students, to all of the onstage events,” Bell said. “[The promotion] was because of the sponsorship by Queen’s University itself.”

Those rush tickets will come in handy for the unprepared and underpaid Queen’s student. Most of the tickets for the events and classes have been selling out.

“We’ve been in shock in the last three weeks at the way the tickets sales have gone. In a good way. In a very good way,” Bell added. “Yes, the response has been phenomenal. Particularly our master classes for [authors] [Joseph] Boyden and [Michael] Crummey have been sold out for well over a week and Atwood, of course, is sold out completely. The buzz has been just so positive.”

Bell said the festival has grown in the past four years with the potential for further expansion in years to come. “I think literature is one of expressions of who we are as a people and we absolutely have to provide a forum not only for established writers but for emerging writers as well. We need to continue to expose readers to that rich world and that rich heritage,” she said. “We will be expanding our site and we don’t want to limit it to Canadian writers, we will absolutely welcome international writers too.”

Although this year’s festival is larger than its predecessors, its simple mandate of accessibility has remained, Bell said.

“The people of Kingston and the students at Queen’s have the ability to hear to written word spoken aloud and discussed by its creator, we can learn so much by exposure to their work. I really feel that it’s important.”

The Kingston WritersFest starts tomorrow and runs until Sept. 26. For more information visit kingstonwritersfest.ca.

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