Twenty years ago, Sean Wilson was a 22 year old graphic designer working in a struggling business when his father Neil proposed something strange.
“We had to do a writers festival. I thought that was the silliest thing I had ever heard. I just couldn’t imagine it. What were we going to do sit and watch people write.”
Two decades later, Sean Wilson is the artistic director of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, a major literary organization in Canada with two annual festivals — spring and fall — and dozens of smaller events, readings and book launches scattered throughout the year. Neil has a role as development director for the festival.
Turning 20 is big, Sean says.
“It’s hard to remember what it was like before. It’s one of those amazing things. From 1997 to now seems like forever and it seems like yesterday that we were figuring out what to do.
Sean’s dad is a bit of a force of nature it seems.
Neil Wilson was an arts reporter for many years. He also did some theatre work at the NAC and the GCTC. In the late ‘90s, Neil was briefly a press secretary for the federal Heritage minister and in that post was getting a sense of everything that was happening in culture in Canada.
“Basically I think Neil was looking for a way out of government and a way to be useful. And for something for us to do together. I fought hard against it. I thought it was the strangest idea.”
But Sean came around. Eventually they established an organization, made Neil’s partner, the Gatineau based clothing designer Thea Yeatman, chair of the board and started to work.
There weren’t many writers festivals then. Vancouver had started and Toronto’s Harbourfront was in full force. But the Wilsons were basically on their own in Ottawa.
“Rather than following anyone else’s model we charted our own path and what emerged was a unique festival.
For example, “we were the first to include non-fiction. Now that is standard across the country.”
That thinking extended to other things.
“I love poetry I love fiction I love non-fiction, why wouldn’t they be there. I like playwriting and film writing. We all followed our enthusiasms.”
The first festival also reflected Neil’s Irish heritage.
“We hosted 19 Irish writers. That was the largest contingent of writers from Ireland to ever leave the country together to read abroad.”
In the group was Frank McCourt, whose memoirs are global mega-sellers. His first, Angela’s Ashes, had been on the bestseller list for more than a year, Wilson recalls.
“This was the first year Chapters was in town and they were a sponsor in the beginning and I remember standing in the Rideau Street store talking with manager.
“She was asking who was coming to the festival and I said ‘We’re so excited, I can’t believe we got Frank McCourt’. And she looked at me and said: ‘Frank McCourt, I feel that I should know that name.’
“Literally directly over her should was a wall of Angela’s Ashes. That was the first clue that the big boxstores don’t quite get it the way that independent booksellers do. So I am very happy we are working with independents now.” These days the festival partners with Perfect Books.
That first festival was held in the National Arts Centre Studio and in what is now the Fourth Stage, which was a storage room at the time, from Sept. 7 to 13, 1997.
“They didn’t believe anything would work in there and we said ‘Let us try.’ We put an Irish pub in there and sold more beer in that first weekend than Le Cafe sold in the summer.”
After four years the NAC took the room back and named it the Fourth Stage. The festival moved to Library and Archives Canada on Wellington.
This fall the festival begins Oct. 19, but there are events taking place in September including book launches for Wayne Johnston’s new book First Light, Last Snow on Sept. 12 in the NAC and for Frances Itani’s new book That’s My Baby at Library and Archives on Sept. 14.
Wilson likes showcasing local writers.
“Those first two years people would say ‘You are going to run out of local talent, aren’t you?’ But what is really beautiful is the talent here has never stopped. It’s amazing.
“Ottawa is a brutal town for fundraising, but it is also a place where there is profound community. When you go to an Ottawa writers festival event, almost everyone is there because they are genuinely interested.
“It’s been amazing over 20 years to have the freedom to continue to explore the world without any kind of quotas or pressures apart from who is exciting right now.”
Wilson says one of his favourite ‘gets’ was Michael Ondaatje.
“He was the first guy who wasn’t a comic book writer that I read. The book that got me was Coming Through Slaughter. I read it in high school and thought it was amazing.
“I invited him to every festival for 10 years before he finally came in 2007. He’s been good enough to come back since every time he has a new book.”
Wilson’s early fears have long since passed.
“It’s so rewarding. I pinch myself.”
The literary world has changed enormously in the past 20 years, but Wilson believes that the one constant is: people still want books.
”Three or four years ago, the publishing world was nervous about e-books and what they would mean. But what we have seen for 20 years is that every year we sell more books. And every years more people are showing up.
“This is a technology that never crashes. You never need to update it. It’s always there for you.”
As the festival has evolved, it has adapted. The biggest change occurred in 2004 with the start of the spring festival.
“It’s all organic,” Wilson says. “In the beginning every event was six writers each reading for about 20 minutes from all different styles.
“When I think about that now I cringe because I just can’t imagine listening to two and a half hours of that. So we started to tweak it.”
In 2003, the fall festival featured 184 writers over 12 days.
“By Day 8, I was miserable. It was just too much. To me the big question is sustainable growth. We are now trying to get away from having multiple events at the same time. I just don’t like it.”
The key, he says, is “as we expand, try to make sure it’s still enjoyable. If I’m unhappy, chances are the audience is too.”
“For us now it is also about trying to stay innovative.”
An example of that will be an adjunct to the festival in November that will be focussed on children’s literature.
“The Republic of Childhood comes from having an 11 year old who loves reading.”
Another thing that has happened over these 20 years is the growth of CanLit.
“In the beginning it was how do we get everyone here can we afford it. Now there are so many great books that we can’t feature every year I end up feeling like a schmuck. But it’s a great problem to have.”
Sean Wilson’s Favourite Gets
Ursula K. Le Guin. “I couldn’t believe it when she said she would come. That took seven years to make it happen. I came up with this master plan. I would go through all of her books and I would pick out a line or two from each and ask her about them. Right before we were going to go on stage she said, ‘I hope you aren’t going to read a line from each of these books. That’s the worst kind of interview it’s really boring for me.’ And I said ‘I would never do that.’ I winged it.”
Margaret Atwood. “She’s awesome. She has an intellect that is so ferocious. That’s what you want and she’s still so playful.”
David Mitchell. “He and (Haruki) Murakami are my two favourites on the world stage. Murakami seems unlikely. But we’ll keep trying him.
Charles de Lint: “On a personal level, the first time we had Charles de Lint at the festival was big because he was the first writer I ever met as a student.”
Some others: Russell Banks, E. Annie Proulx and Anita Desai, who was in Ottawa last spring.
The most difficult festival: “It was the one that began Sept. 12, 2001. Nobody cared much about reading on that day. We did have a panel featuring Naomi Klein called History as a Weapon. That one sold out.”
The Fall Festival
Oct. 19 at Christ Church Cathedral, 414 Sparks St.
Truth and History with Chelsea Vowel, Lee Maracle and Bev Sellars at 6:30 p.m.
A Newfoundlander in Canada with Alan Doyle at 8:30 p.m.
In Search of a Better World with Payam Akhavan at 6:30 p.m.
Bywords 2017 John Newlove Poetry Award Reading and Ceremony at 8:30 p.m.
The Risks and Rewards of Self-Publishing with Mark Curfoot-Mollington and Patricia Filteau, noon.
Living in a Mindful Universe with Karen Newell and Eben Alexander MD at 2 p.m
One on One with Vikas Swarup at 2 p.m.
Past Imperfect with Frances Itani, Ed O’Laughlin and Linda Spalding at 6:30 p.m.
In This Together with Martha Baillie, Ahmad Danny Ramadan and Catherine Hernandez at 8:30 p.m.
On Sickness, Health and What it Means to be Alive with James Maskalyk at noon.
Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough with Doug Saunders at 2 p.m.
ARC Poetry Event with Joshua Whitehead, David Groulx, Shannon Webb-Campbell and Tenille K. Campbell at 8:30 p.m.
Just Between Us with Terry Fallis, Eliza Robertson and Michael Redhill at 8:30 p.m.
Oct. 24 at Christ Church Cathedral
Stolen Lives with Lorri Neilsen Glenn and Tanya Talaga at 6:30 p.m.
Reimagining Canada with John Ralston Saul 8:30 p.m.
Event: Everyday Heroes: Inspirational Stories from Men and Women in the Canadian Armed Forces with Jody Mitic, Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. Southminster United Church.