For a long time, award-winning author, filmmaker and new director of the Whistler Writing Society Rebecca Wood Barrett didn’t think too deeply about what it was that drew her to the arts.
“In some ways, I was kind of in this river, going along in the arts. It’s always been something I just did. I don’t think I examined why I did it. I just thought it was my place,” she says. “But the last two years, thinking about things like Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Truth and Reconciliation, these huge movements in our society, I realized the arts, the literary arts, reading and writing, it all contributes to those conversations and relationships that improve society.”
As it stands, Wood Barrett will have ample opportunity to drive these important conversations locally in her new role, which sees her taking over the reins of the society, along with the Whistler Writers Festival (WWF), from founder Stella Harvey, who announced her retirement earlier this month.
“After 20 some odd years, I think it’s important to have fresh ideas, fresh blood,” says Harvey. “I think we’ve always changed and adapted … and so, with the hybrid [online-in-person] model [adopted for the 2021 festival], we started to think, how else could it change? How else could it be better and improved? It’s building on that accessibility and inclusivity piece. So maybe that had something to do with it. Plus, I’m an old woman!”
It’s difficult to overstate the impact Harvey has had on the Sea to Sky’s small-but-mighty literary arts scene. Founding the society two decades ago after learning there were no writing groups in town, she was astonished when 23 people showed up for that first meeting in her living room.
“I just think the most important thing is how many people have come along for the ride. That’s what I’m proud of: to be able to have built something like this, which is very different than the community we live in, a sports community,” Harvey says. “You know, there are still people who come to the festival every year who were there in my living room from Day 1, which is unbelievable.”
Since that first fateful meeting, the writers’ festival has maintained the same intimacy over the years, even as it has grown into a marquee date on B.C.’s literary calendar—no small feat in a tourist town with a penchant for corporatizing its signature events.
“This is something that Stella has always done so well and she’s mentored me on, that it’s about that feeling you get when you come to an event, and you can be an audience member or a publicist or an author, but you feel like you have a connection to the people that are there,” Wood Barrett says.
“The authors are not just award-winning authors and the audience aren’t just ticket buyers. They’re people that we get to know. We know their first names.”
Involved in some form with the festival since its inception, Wood Barrett began doing contract marketing and administrative work for the event in 2013, before moving into a more operational role and taking over the society’s Authors in the Schools program. For the past three years, she’s been shadowing Harvey on the programming side of things.
“I gained a real understanding of every piece of the puzzle,” Wood Barrett says.
A particularly tricky puzzle for organizers to solve has been the transition to a hybrid online-in-person model, a process accelerated by the pandemic and one that convinced Wood Barrett she has what it takes to run the festival.
“Having to do the really difficult technical side gave me the confidence,” she adds. “Then I thought, I’ve been reading Canadian literature for 30 years, why wouldn’t I have some authority and knowledge about the … literature side?”
The shift to online also helped drive one of the festival’s key mantras: making it as accessible as possible.
“We’ve always tried to be inclusive and I think that has expanded in some ways with the capabilities of going online. So while we’ve always tried to include people that are in the corridor, it hasn’t always been easy,” explains Wood Barrett. “There are cultural barriers. There are affordability barriers. Even travel. And now being able to get online, we can pull those barriers down.”
The WWF has long been known for its culturally diverse lineup of writers and performers, but, unsurprising for a literary festival in a wealthy ski town, the audiences don’t always reflect that same diversity, something organizers have been striving to improve. At last year’s event, they offered free access to Indigenous attendees wanting to tune into any of the online events and workshops—but there is still work to be done on that front, says Harvey.
“Something like 19, 20 people took us up on the offer and were able to access workshops and the reading events at the festival from their home communities,” she says. “So obviously there’s a need there that we can build upon that could provide our offerings beyond Whistler, beyond our community.”
Wood Barrett even has ambitions of reaching out directly to communities across B.C. that are underserved by the arts to offer access to the festival and nurture emerging writers.
“That’s kind of a big dream and it’s something we’d like to continue to grow,” she says. “We may need to connect personally with those librarians and say, ‘Here’s an idea. What do you think? Would this serve your population? Do you have writers out there who want to figure out, ‘I have a story to tell. How do I get started?’”
Connecting with the 20- and 30-something crowd is another goal for Wood Barrett, who believes reaching the demographic is as much about framing the festival’s programming as the programming itself.
“There’s a certain group of people in Whistler that like a contest. They like the idea that anybody can enter and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be literary,” she says. “It could be about storytelling, oral storytelling. It could be a short piece, but it doesn’t have to be necessarily polished. I think the word literary sometimes is awkward. So when you say, ‘Oh well, we want all readers and writers. Do you read? Come. Do you write? Come. Do you like listening to writers? Do you like stories?’ So it might be reframing some of the events so that it feels more casual.”
An important lesson Wood Barrett has learned over the past two years is the value of imperfection, an epiphany she feels will serve her well in her new role.
“I feel like I’m going into this year with more purpose than ever and the importance of what we’re doing, even if it’s not perfect. I’ve let go of some of that fear of not being perfect. I realize I like things not being perfect,” she says. “Ultimately, I think embracing the fact that we’re trying to say something here with the festival is really important.”
As for what’s next for the inexhaustible Harvey? She will continue her work with Simon Fraser University, offering manuscript consultations, and is at work on her next untitled novel, “which is quite a dark manuscript,” she reveals. You might even find Harvey at a future festival, doing what she’s always done: generously filling in wherever needed, and doing it all with a smile on her face.
“I’ll always be a supporter, an audience member and I’ll volunteer if they need me,” she says. “I love people. Maybe I’ll be on the registration desk or something if they’ll have me. Or coat check. Hi. Welcome! I’ll be the Wal-Mart greeter, because I like that.”
The 2022 Whistler Writers Festival is scheduled for Oct. 13 to 16. Learn more at whistlerwritersfest.com.