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Whistler Writers

Write on, WhistlerA burgeoning literary community finds voice in the mountains

It’s a dark, rainy November night in Whistler, but a few brave souls have battled the weather to get to Black’s Pub. Outside it may be cold and dreary, but in the pub it is warm and cozy. The small group clusters around the fireplace, cradling their drinks and listening intently. They have gathered for an evening of readings by the Whistler Writers’ Group.

Six writers are presenting their work – they range from young, aspiring amateurs to seasoned professionals who make a good living from their writing. What they all have in common is that they make their homes in Whistler.

Writers in Whistler are somewhat invisible. They are in our midst but we don’t necessarily know who they are. Stella Harvey is hoping to change that. She would like more people to hear and read the work of local writers.

Harvey moved to Whistler last year, looking for a break from her high-pressure career as an international management consultant. Her last gig was in the heart of Rome, Italy, setting up a new branch office while managing consulting contracts. Whistler is quite a contrast.

The idea for a book had been percolating in Harvey’s brain for a couple of years and she wanted to take some time out to get it down on paper. Originally, Harvey and her husband intended to use Whistler as a base from which to choose the ideal place to live. Then they realized that they were already there – and they settled in.

Harvey quickly discovered that she craved some interaction with other writers. "For the first three or four months, it was okay," she says. "But then it got sort of lonely and I realized I was getting no feedback on my work."

Being used to getting things done, she simply placed an ad in the local papers looking for writers who were interested in forming a group.

The response was surprising. Within a very few months, there was a regular group of 8 to 10 people meeting weekly at Harvey’s house, and there are a total of 25 people on the group’s e-mail list who offer support, ideas and feedback, even if they can’t make it to the meetings.

"We’re mostly a support system and source of motivation for each other," says Harvey. "The bulk of the meeting is spent giving each other feedback."

This feedback has been invaluable for Harvey. She shared the first three chapters of her book with the group, and based on their comments, she made significant changes. After submitting those chapters to a publisher, she received a request to see the whole manuscript.

There are many different types of writers involved in the group, from people who are just starting to write, to professional screenwriters and published authors. Jennifer Cowan is a writer who has a very successful career writing for several different TV series. She was the executive story editor for CTV’s Traders , as well as for Big Sound , a comedy series about the music industry. She is currently writing for Liography , a mock biography series hosted by Leslie Neilsen; John Callahan’s Quads , a politically-incorrect animated series about the disabled; and The Zack Files , a kids’ version of The X Files for YTV.

Cowan came to Whistler from Toronto in 1999. She had planned to stay in Whistler for a five-month ski sabbatical. "I’d been out three times in early ’99, during the epic snow year, and figured I’d plant myself for a spell. Then I was offered a show in Vancouver, so I decided to hang around."

Cowan says Whistler is a good place to be a writer.

"If you’re going to be stuck at a computer all day, it’s nice to look out the window and see the mountains. And if your hours are flexible; it’s great to ski or go for a ride to clear your head before getting to work. Or to mull over ideas. My Toronto technique generally involved napping."

Cowan isn’t napping nearly as much now. Last year she got in almost 100 days on the hill.

The mountains were a big factor in Lesley Anthony’s decision to move to Whistler. And rightly so. As the former editor of Powder Magazine , Anthony is one of the best known ski writers in the world. He is not a member of the writers group, but he is definitely a Whistler writer.

Anthony moved from Toronto to Whistler two years ago. It was something that he had always wanted to do.

"It seemed that more and more stories were coming out of Whistler," says Anthony. "I was travelling out here seven or eight times a year. So I knew Whistler well and it was definitely a place I wanted to be."

One of the attractions of Whistler for Anthony was its world-class ambience. As a Torontonian, Anthony says he has a cosmopolitan appetite. A small community like Fernie or Rossland just wouldn’t cut it for him. He wanted to be near a major city and, of course, he needed to be near an international airport.

Anthony’s writing career has followed an unusual trajectory. He started out as an academic, with a PhD in herpetology (that’s snakes and reptiles for the rest of us), but he had always been very involved in outdoors activities and he had always loved to write. When the confines of academia became simply too restrictive, Anthony leaped at the offer to move to California in 1995 to take on the role of managing editor for Powder Magazine.

Since then, Anthony has written about every possible aspect of the ski world, while at the same time keeping his finger on the pulse of the scientific community. He has had his own show on the Discovery Channel, called In Theor y, an examination and explanation of some of the most important scientific theories of our day. And he has produced numerous science-based documentaries. Now he is involved in launching Canada’s newest national ski publication, Skier .

"It’s a contemporarily-designed, photo-driven, action sport magazine," enthuses Anthony. "It is aimed at filling several voids in the current coverage in Canada."

Anthony will also continue to do his television projects. In fact, Anthony says he has to take on about 30 per cent more projects just to make ends meet in Whistler.

Ah yes! The cost of living factor. That’s something that Stephen Vogler knows all about. Vogler is that unusual creature – a dyed-in-the-wool Whistler local. He moved to Whistler at the age of 12, along with his parents and two siblings. He was in the first graduating class of the old Myrtle Philip elementary school, and then bussed to Pemberton for high school. He is also a writer.

Vogler studied Music and English Lit at university, along with some Creative Writing. He started writing in a journal while travelling around in his teens. His first published work was in that somewhat unorthodox publication, The Whistler Answer. He has also written for The Georgia Straight in Vancouver, and has done commentaries for CBC Radio.

But Vogler is best known locally for his many articles in Pique Newsmagazine . For over four years, Vogler offered his somewhat quirky and occasionally controversial view of the community. Last year, Vogler created a collection of his essays in his self-published book called Whistler Features . The book is available in Whistler and Vancouver, and it is selling quite well.

"I see the book as the culmination of a certain era in my life," muses Vogler. "I’ve said what I wanted to say about Whistler, and now I am moving on."

He’s not leaving Whistler, but he is moving on to fiction. Currently he is working on short stories and he would like to get published in some recognized magazines.

Vogler is different from the other writers in that Whistler is his home. But he recognizes the qualities which make Whistler a good place for a writer.

"It’s good in that you can step out of the rat race. You can hole up in your cabin and have the time and quiet atmosphere to write."

And what about that money thing?

"Well, a partner with a good job is a real plus," admits Vogler.

Mitch Rhodes agrees.

"It helps to be married to someone with a real job."

Rhodes is the self-published author of a novel called The Worldwide Sexual Adventures of Walter Fayt . He and his wife moved here from Toronto more than three years ago for his wife’s job. The idea for his book had been rattling around in his head for a couple of years and the move to Whistler seemed like the perfect time to write it.

Rhodes says Whistler is an inspiring place to write. "I love being able to look out and see the mountains and pristine forests. I can walk right out of my house and go for a hike."

But he recognizes that he is in a privileged position. "I’m lucky – because of my background, I can afford to live here."

Before turning to writing, Rhodes was a chartered accountant in Toronto. Working in the entertainment industry, he focused on financing and strategic planning. And he put all of his financial skills to work when he started out on his writing project.

"Someone told me, for your first novel, pick the book that will be the easiest to write or the most successful. I picked the book that I thought would be most successful – because it has sex and everyone knows sex sells," laughs Rhodes.

Rhodes knew that 70 per cent of novels are purchased by women. He wanted to write a book targeted at men. He figured if the content was quite sexually graphic, it would attract male readers and keep them reading. He sums up the book’s main themes as "sex, travel and philosophy."

Usually it can take years for a book to go from concept to bookstore, but Rhodes was interested in trying something different. He feels that the book industry is antiquated and he wanted to precipitate change. He wanted to shorten the distance between the author and the consumer.

To that end, he originally thought about publishing electronically, either as an e-book or on the Internet. But finally he came up with a compromise. He worked with a small publisher out of Vancouver. They helped him with editing, but he paid for the printing and all the marketing is up to him.

"I haven’t made any money yet," chuckles Rhodes. But he has managed to get a US distributor, and you can buy your copy of Rhodes’ book on Would he do it the same way next time?

"I don’t think so," says Rhodes, "I think I will likely pursue the traditional route. I’m giving up the maverick approach for now."

But that maverick approach may be necessary, at least in some form. Being a writer in Whistler, while it can be inspiring and tranquil, can be somewhat disconnected. Lesley Anthony figures it would be difficult to be starting out as a writer in Whistler.

"It is so much easier to open up new opportunities when you’re right there – in Toronto – going to functions, parties, meeting people. More doors open for you."

Even with his extensive background, Anthony has found he has to work harder now to contact new people and generate new projects.

Vogler too has found it challenging to make the essential connections.

"Sometimes you feel like you’re in a bit of a vacuum up here." The establishment of the Writers’ Group has helped a lot. "It is the first time that I have met such a diverse group of writers," says Vogler. "It’s great to meet other people interested in writing and to be able to talk about good writing. It spurs you on."

For Stella Harvey, the group goes beyond just supporting her writing.

"When we first moved to Whistler, it was very hard to find a feeling of community. Living in Rome, even though we were in the middle of the city, everyone in the neighbourhood knew who I was. I felt quite isolated in Whistler, so I had to create my own community."

Back at Black’s Pub, the six readers, including Vogler, have finished presenting their work and they have been warmly applauded by the small but enthusiastic audience. The Writers’ Group is planning more of these events throughout the winter, and in the spring they are hoping to publish a collection of stories by some of their members.

So despite the high cost of living, the constant temptation of the outdoors, and the lack of opportunities to schmooze, it appears that Whistler can be a very healthy environment for writing. As Vogler says, "It’s hard to survive as a writer anywhere." But it if you have to struggle, it’s nice to have great scenery.

If you would like to find out more about the Whistler Writers’ Group, contact Stella Harvey at 604-932-4518, or drop by for the next evening of readings. It is taking place at Black’s Pub on Dec. 5 at 8:30 p.m.