The Saskatchewan Festival of Words is one of the “summer blockbusters” of the Canadian literary scene. Its celebrations are multi-day in scope (2017’s festival ran July 13 through 16), encompassing multiple Moose Jaw venues, and offering a plethora of events and performances. If you live in the Prairies and have a literary bent, it’s an unrivalled opportunity to pick August’s beach and patio books.
I chatted with the festival’s operation coordinator, Amanda Farnel, on September 5. I felt lucky that she was so generous with her time, given that, following a break after 2017’s festival, the office reopened that very day. And, as Farnel admitted, “there’s a lot you miss in a month!”
The team isn’t just catching up on things; preliminary arrangements for 2018’s festival have already begun, reveals Farnel. But the substantial annual groundwork for the Festival of Words appears to be a labour of love for virtually everyone involved. Aside from a trio of interns each summer, and two permanent employees (including Farnel), the festival is the handiwork of a brigade of volunteers. (During the summertime high season, their numbers reach about 100.)
Canada’s literary “crème de la crème” regularly show up at the festival: the peerless Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace) was a guest in 2006. This year’s writers included Life of Pi author Yann Martel (whose The High Mountains of Portugal came out last year); he made several appearances across the 2017 festival’s multi-day run.
Since its founding in the mid-90s, the Festival of Words has learned to brilliantly balance torchbearer Can-con wordsmiths like Atwood and Martel with writers still approaching the pinnacle of their fame. Guests are frequently showcased as duos: “We pair writers based on who we think will work well together,” Farnel explains, noting this can be based on varying factors, such as authors’ relative fame or the nature of their work.
The Thursday evening “Readception” (held at the Mosaic Place Conference Center) exemplified the festival weekend’s collaborative tone. It afforded not just two, but several, writers an opportunity to share a few minutes of work. This provided “a taste of what was to come in the festival,” Farnel says, noting that “it was one of our audience’s favourite events this year.”
Given the festival’s “the more, the merrier”-esque underpinnings, it seems appropriate that the two books which Thistledown Press launched at 2017’s Festival of Words — Glass Beads (by Dawn Dumont) and the Wanderlust Anthology (by multiple authors) — were short story collections.
It also seems natural that throughout our interview Farnel emphasizes “diversity” as a festival touchstone. “We try to bring a really diverse lineup... to give our audience a taste of everything that’s out there. Canada is such a diverse place,” she explains.
Since, as Farnel says, the festival strives to include writers from all Canadian provinces, Francophone voices are obviously a focus. So too are people of colour, LGBT writers, and writers with disabilities. In 2018, says Farnel, “we’re hoping to continue to bring diversity to the festival.”
The Festival of Words’ approach to what constitutes “writing” is exceptionally open-minded. For ambitious guests, the weekend is potentially a thrilling crash course on wordsmithing’s various guises. “To be literary is not just about books,” Farnel says, specifically mentioning graphic novels, lyrics and scripts as alternate vehicles. “These are really important, interesting ways of looking at writing.”
Scanning 2017’s itinerary proves that festival programmers are truly committed to variety: the festival included a “trivia night,” a screening of 2016’s Maud Lewis biopic Maudie, a “dramatic reading” (the Saskatchewan Playwrights Centre paired with the festival on that one, Farnel says), a free French-language show by La Troupe du Jour, and a Link Union concert.
Perhaps most intriguingly, a slam poetry contest is now an annual festival attraction. “It’s always a really great event, because there’s a lot of audience participation,” says Farnel. “Members of the audience are picked as judges... it’s a really fun evening.” Winning and runner-up poets, she notes, received a (paying) opportunity to perform for festival attendees.
Until next year’s Festival of Words rolls around, festival personnel will have their noses to the grindstone with planning: not just 2018’s festival, but also off-season events, such as Performer’s Café open mic nights and Cineview film screenings. Come summer, the team will doubtless ensure that downtown Moose Jaw once again hosts a smorgasbord celebration of Canadian creativity. “The festival is for everyone,” Farnel says. “It’s got a little bit of everything. Just come and see it.”
“The festival is for everyone. It’s got a little bit of everything.” —Amanda Farnel, operations coordinator