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Twenty years of the Whistler Writers Festival

From Stella Harvey’s living room to the Fairmont Chateau, the literary festival has maintained its intimate feel 
author Thomas king whistler writers Festival
Thomas King anchors the 20th-anniversary edition of the Whistler Writers Festival.

Twenty-some-odd people turned up to Stella Harvey’s living room for the first edition of the Whistler Writers Festival (WWF) in 2002. One of those guests made his way from Vancouver, and, without a place to stay, asked the festival founder if he could sleep in the car he had parked in her driveway. 

Of course, Harvey wasn’t having any of that. 

“I said, ‘Absolutely not; you’re going to stay in my house,’” she recalls. 

That kind of hospitality wasn’t unusual in the beginning, when visiting authors and attendees alike would crash in Harvey’s home over the course of the festival. Although it has since outgrown the confines of her living room—the festival typically draws about 1,500 attendees these days—the intimacy and approachability of those early years remains at its core. 

“What hasn’t changed is that feeling of personal connection,” says festival manager Rebecca Wood Barrett. “We have a small team but I feel like we have a touch-point with everyone who comes: the authors, the musicians, our technical team, and our guests. I hope that’s true for them, too, that they feel like they have been up close and personal and have been able to have a conversation with those authors and with our volunteers.” 

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Whistler’s premier literary event, and while its underlying philosophy hasn’t wavered, the dynamics of hosting a large-scale, multi-venue event have.

“We’ve got 13 reading events and 16 workshops, and they’re all bespoke in some way,” Wood Barrett says. “Administratively, you can’t just do the cookie-cutter and say, ‘OK, we’ll do this the same way.’ That’s where the level of complexity comes in.” 

Add in the virtual element that was first introduced in 2020 when COVID-19 pushed the entire event online (this year’s program is a hybrid, featuring both in-person and digital events), and things only become more complicated for the small-but-mighty team of organizers. 

Going virtual has come with its blessings, however, improving accessibility for a festival that has always emphasized reaching as diverse an audience as possible. 

“We talk about accessibility all the time and it’s really important to us,” Harvey says. “Last year with the virtual model and seeing people from all over the world and certainly from all over Canada as well, it made us start to think: if you really truly believe in that kind of accessibility, you need to then expand and be able to provide a hybrid model, so if people couldn’t come in for whatever reason in-person—cost, disability, etc.—they could still access this.” 

On the surface, it might seem unlikely for a town known mostly for its athletics to host such a successful literary festival, but those same people drawn to the mountains are just as likely to take a creative leap as a literal one, posits Wood Barrett. 

“I would say Whistler by its very nature—and this probably has to do with the pursuit of athletics and the mountains—it does attract a certain person who has a certain type of energy,” she says. “In a lot of ways, those are the type of people that are creative as well. There is a certain go-getterness here.” 

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Harvey has helped nurture a space where those who may have otherwise been reluctant to pursue their creative ambitions feel safe to do so. 

“I think there’s probably a writer or an artist in all of us,” she muses. “It’s interesting some of the people I’ve met over the years who were a bit shy or scared to join the group or come out to one of these things and then after a while, they find their tribe.” 

Scheduled for Oct. 14 to 17, the event is headlined this year by award-winning novelist and Order of Canada recipient Thomas King (The Back of the Turtle; The Inconvenient Indian), who will be in conversation with Anishinaabe journalist and speaker Tanya Talaga (All Our Relations: Finding The Path Forward) as part of the Saturday Night Gala, held virtually and in-person at the Fairmont at 6 p.m. on Oct. 16. 

Other program highlights include Friday’s Booklovers’ Literary Salon at 4 p.m., when Darrel McLeod will lead a conversation with Talaga at the Fairmont and online about her works that explore the troubling rise of youth suicide in Indigenous communities. Also on Friday, from 5:30 to 6:15 p.m., is the Tasting & Literary Cabaret Watch Party, also in-person and online, celebrating 20 years of the festival. Then, on Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m., is the always-popular Sunday Brunch, with moderator Alix Ohlin leading a wide-ranging talk with authors George Elliott Clarke (Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir), Omar El Akkad (What Strange Paradise), Robert Jones Jr. (The Prophets), Eden Robinson (Return of the Trickster), and M.G. Vassanji (What You Are).

For the full schedule, and to buy tickets, visit whistlerwritersfest.com