Vancouver Writers Fest artistic director Leslie Hurtig shares her life-changing books, her must-read list, and more

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      All it takes is one browse through the 2023 program guide to see that the Vancouver Writers Fest has become a preeminent event on the literary circuit.

      Naomi Klein. Lauren Groff. Colson Whitehead. Zadie Smith. Celeste Ng. Katherena Vermette. Alicia Elliott. Truly some of the biggest (and best) names in books, both from Canada and abroad, are all headed to Granville Island for the festival, which takes place in mid-October for one glorious week.

      Heading up the festival is artistic director Leslie Hurtig, who took the helm in 2017. Via phone, she shares her excitement for this year’s lineup, her life-changing books, and what’s next on her nightstand.

      What are you most excited about for this year’s festival?

      I’m just so happy to be working with [guest curator] Elamin Abdelmahmoud. He’s been a delight to work with this year. And the five events that he’s curated for us are smart and prescient.

      We tried something new last year where we asked about a dozen of our festival authors if they would present on stage, for five minutes, one song lyric from the ‘80s as though it’s serious poetry. So they could choose any song, but then they had to get up on stage and do this recital. The event was so much fun. The authors took the assignment to mean various different things: some wrote whole separate pieces about songs that affected them. This year, we’re just notching it up by a decade and doing ‘90s lyrics.

      We deal with some pretty heavy topics at the Writers Fest, and the authors that are presenting here are talking about issues that are affecting all of us. Sometimes it can start to feel heavy, so inserting some of these lighter events is important.

      How do you think the festival become so important for the literary community?

      Full credit goes to my predecessors. Alma Lee started the festival back in 1988 and had a great reputation and really good connections among the international and Canadian publishing scene. Anything that she works on is of high quality, so right from the very start, I think publishers understood that if they sent authors this way that they’d be treated well and that they’d be programmed smartly. And Alma’s successor, Hal Wake, had the very same quality of programming that he was presenting. So the festival has, for the past 36 years, had that quality to it. And I hope that I’m able to bring the same thing.

      We have a good reputation out here for running a very good, thoughtfully programmed festival, and a festival that takes place in an intimate environment. I think it goes without saying that Granville Island is quite unique. And the fact that we can bring all of our authors and our patrons down here and have them walk from venue to venue—it gives the festival the feel of, perhaps, a more European festival. 

      Are there any other standout events you cannot wait to attend yourself?

      Well, gosh, it is so very hard to pick. I have a soft spot in my heart for the Literary Cabaret, and this year we have a brand new band: Benjamin Millman and the Oxymorons. I’m really excited to see the flavor that’s going to bring, because it’s a flagship event for us.

      But I have to say, up against that one is Naomi Klein at the Chan Centre. So people are going to have a tough time deciding: are we going to go to see Naomi Klein or are we going to the Literary Cabaret? It’s going to be tough to pick. But I’m excited to say that like last year, we are going to be filming a large number of our events that we’re going to reproduce as a digital festival in December. 

      I’m so excited that Rebecca Solnit is coming; I’ve been wanting to host her for a long time now. I think she has some really important things to say about where we are in society right now and obviously about the climate catastrophe that is currently happening. She’s doing a one-on-one event for us on the Saturday morning, which will be fantastic, but she’s also appearing in our closing night event on the Sunday evening, alongside John Vaillant and Chris Turner; they’re going to be in conversation with the CBC’s Matt Galloway for an event that’s being broadcast for The Current. I think that’s going to be an outstanding conversation. And you’ll note that it is called It’s Not Too Late [How We Can Still Fight the Climate Crisis]. I think that is an important message for people to hear right now, if not an unbelievable one. I want them to convince me that it’s not too late.

      Okay, time for a few book questions. Is there a book that changed your life or changed the way you think?

      One of my favorite writers is a UK writer by the name of Deborah Levy. When I read her series of memoirs [Things I Don’t Want to Know; The Cost of Living; Real Estate], it did change the way I thought about memoir, but also how I thought about being a woman. I have to say that I have returned to them regularly to read small pieces. I find them very reassuring and also gentle reminders.

      Another book that really changed my life was Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. That was a book that changed how I feel about the country that we live in. I was born and raised in a very nationalistic household and born to believe we need to be proud of Canada—and I still am proud of aspects of this place that we live in. I know we’re really lucky, but that book changed the way that I feel about this place. 

      What’s a book that you love to give as a gift?

      There’s a book that I have given to many, many people. It’s now a very old book, called The Curve of Time, by a local writer [M. Wylie Blanchet]: a woman who raised her five children by herself on a sailboat up the coast of British Columbia. I’ve gifted that book many times because of the resilience, the feminism, the adventure, and the storytelling about this coast that we live on.

      What are some books that you’re most excited to read next?

      I am a big fan of Lauren Groff—we have her coming to the festival. I have not read her new book yet and I can’t wait to get it.

      We have some really great debut authors coming to the festival again this year, and I’ve made it through several of the books, but one that I haven’t read yet that I that is at the top of my pile and that we just received in the office is by an author named Michelle Porter, who’s written a book called A Grandmother Begins the Story. I just finished one by William Ping called Hollow Bamboo and I loved it; I thought it was amazing. I was so surprised that it wasn’t on the Giller long list, I have to say, but anyway, that’s another story.

      Vancouver Writers Fest

      When: October 16 to 22

      Where: Granville Island (various locations)

      Tickets: Available online