Sunshine Sketches of a Little Coast

For 30 years they have held a literary festival at Sechelt. That very first year I was glad to send Jack Hodgins (from his Lantzville home on Vancouver Island, right across the Strait of Georgia from the Sunshine Coast ) as one of the five authors attending. He had a wonderful time, and reported back with great enthusiasm.

Over the years, as the little festival grew into the established “Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts,” in my role as Publisher I was pleased to send a steady stream of authors to this festival, assuring them that they would “have a great time.” They always did.

This year, in my new role of author, I got to see for myself. The hard-working Jane Davidson had secretly attended my performance at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival last October, and followed up with an invitation to attend the Sunshine Coast Festival that she runs.

So August saw Jane and me flying in to Vancouver, then dashing off to catch a seaplane that skimmed up the coast to land us at Sechelt. There we were met by Sally Quinn, a welcoming volunteer who identified herself brilliantly by displaying a copy of my book . . . always visible to an author’s eye at 100 paces. A quick tour of Sechelt took us to the Festival site, where we met Jane D. (astonishingly calm, given that over the next three days she would be receiving more than 20 performing authors from across the country, yea, even unto Michael Crummey’s Newfoundland, and Linden MacIntyre, fresh from Edinburgh). I also got to see the hall where all of the readings/performances take place. It is an all-wood open structure, the ceiling held up with tall pine poles, lending the air of a West-coast longhouse (crossed with a Cathedral, as one admirer put it). Ten seconds on the empty stage were enough to show me that this was a very special space, open yet intimate.

Since one of the strengths of this fine festival is that all events take place there, with no competing events at different venues, Jane and I were to spend many happy hours in the audience at that theatre over the weekend, enjoying the varied readings, Q and As., conversations, and performances. I’m happy to report that my own tightly scripted but apparently informal Stories About Storytellers show was reviewed by the local paper as “polished ramblings.” Aha!

Most of the time we sat with our host and hostess, the authors Sharon Brown and Andreas Schroeder, who live just outside Sechelt as “Roberts Creekers.” (Over time, we warned them, “Roberts Creakies” may apply.) We had the great good fortune to stay at the cabin down by the shore that Sharon and Andreas (whom I have published with great pleasure over the years) provide for lucky friends. And the blackberries! Words fail.

One of the high points of the festival is that at the end of each session, the great Hall is cleared, and everyone files out to drink, chat, or (usually) line up for the next session starting in 30 minutes. As a result, the placid queues along the Rhododendron-lined paths are a great place to meet old and new friends, and to chat about books and authors.

The local support for the festival is all you would hope for, and people are proud of what they have built up over the years. One retired man who sought me out to sign his copy of my book said it best. When I commented on what a great thing for the community this festival must be, he said, “This is why we moved here.”

A footnote: on Sunday Andreas took us for a quick tour of Gibsons, just to the south. For someone with my name, the place is a goldmine for delusions of grandeur. A quick tour reveals “Gibson’s Cinema,” “Gibson’s Curling Club,” “Gibson’s Swimming Pool” and so on and on. At the waterfront (near where The Beachcombers was filmed) is a statue of Captain George Gibson, who founded the town in the 1880s, rowing his produce down the coast to Vancouver. I posed proudly with my arm around his oilskin-clad shoulders, and felt right at home.

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The Pleasures and Perils of the Festival Tour: Banff

In Banff, where I taught at the Banff Publishing Workshop from 1981 to 1988, I ran into the usual elk stories. The drifting herds of elk were  a prominent part of the campus , and in rutting season (October, and thus Writers’ Festival season) there were so many problems that I remember Roddy Doyle complaining that he had experienced a lot,  touring the world to promote his books but, as he put it in his worried North Dublin accent, this was the first time he had been in danger “of being focked by an elk.”

One of the things I’ve learned about being on the writers’ festival tour is that you’re on a magic carpet, whisked by kindly drivers from the airport to your hotel, which comes complete with a hospitality suite. Even better, the suite comes complete with an interesting group of other writers, who tend to be on the same circuit. So in Banff, and then Vancouver, and so on, I found myself running into the same people, in very convivial circumstances. Sometimes they share a programme with you (in Banff, after my own event, I had fun chairing the final session, featuring the fiction quintet of  Germany’s Thomas Pletzinger, my old friend Madeleine Thien, Scotland’s Stuart McBride, Helen Humphreys, and David Bezmozgis). And sometimes they are old, close friends like Guy Vanderhaeghe, whom I’ve published right from the start, until his current fine book, A Good Man.

Guy’s  Saturday night reading was the high point at Banff, where he alluded to an elk story, without elaborating. I know the story, and can reveal it here. Some years ago (possibly even before Roddy Doyle’s complaint) Guy was staying at the Centre, in rutting season. Coming out after breakfast he noticed that the herd had drifted across to block his path up to his residence, and that the male was looking aggressive. So he prudently waited at the foot of the stairs, a barrier to the elk. A confident young woman came out from breakfast, and Guy politely suggested that it might be best to wait for ten minutes until the elk moved on. She took this suggestion badly.

“I will walk wherever I please!” she announced, and strode towards them.

The male elk had not read the proper books. In Guy’s words, “She ended up behind a tree,” yelling for help.

Guy is familiar with cattle and horses, so he tore off his jacket, waving it as he bravely approached the elk, to distract it from the trapped woman. It worked. The woman was able to escape up the hill while the elk charged Guy, who just made it to the safety of the stairs with the elk in snorting pursuit. Guy did not sprain an ankle. The elk did not stay in the area for long. And the woman did not seek Guy out to thank him.

— Douglas Gibson