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Look Who’s 30

The ever-evolving IFOA
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By Nathan Whitlock

There’s been a lot of bad news in the book world as of late, but this fall offers the opportunity to pay tribute to at least one Canadian literary entity that has not only survived, but seems to grow and get more ambitious every year. In October, the International Festival of Authors celebrates its thirtieth anniversary with a special edition of the fest entitled "IFOA XXX."

Since its inception in 1979, the IFOA has grown to become Canada’s biggest authors' festival, as well as one of the premiere cultural events in Toronto.

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Recalling the earlier years of the festival, novelist and Humber School for Writers artistic director Antanas Sileika says that the IFOA “was the most glamorous game in town for people who loved literature. We were seeing writers who seemed as remote as mythical beings.” These days, Sileika says, the festival “is a part of the cultural landscape ... and beloved in that way. It has evolved to become an integral part of the fall cultural season.” Marc Côté, publisher of Cormorant Books, says that “the IFOA is to readers what Vegas is to gamblers or the Louvre is to art lovers – it's a feast.” Its importance is not simply a matter of scale, Côté says: “Bringing together authors from across Canada and authors from around the world helps to cross-pollinate our literature, and it certainly helps to let the rest of the world know about it.... [T]he festival helped to create a hunger for great writing, and it has helped to both whet that appetite and sate it for thirty years.”

Nancy Sutherland, who has been volunteering with the festival for over ten years, recalls liking “the idea that I lived in a city that was sophisticated enough to have events where people read from books – sometimes in languages other than English! – to other people.” Author Colm Toibin, who guest-curated a spotlight on Irish writing at last year’s festival, says the IFOA has long been “well known as the best literary festival in North America, not only for the audiences and the sense of seriousness about books and reading, but also for the way it treated authors who visited. At IFOA there is an agreement that the word is dominant, and this is exciting.” Toibin, who says he was an unknown when first invited to read at the festival, also notes the IFOA’s practice of matching big-name authors with up-and-comers. (Or even complete nobodies.) Toibin offers a simple explanation for the festival’s significance: “It brings writers to readers at the beginning of a long winter. What is more important?”

Kiran Desai, 2006/magazine/fall_2009/articles/02_Kiran_Desai_2006.jpg"/>
Given its history and the kind of admiration it inspires, it would be natural to assume the IFOA has started acting its age – settling into routine, avoiding risk, resting on its laurels. But as Geoffrey Taylor, who became the festival’s director six years ago, makes clear, the IFOA is not ready for the pasture just yet. He cites as proof the many recent additions to the festival – children’s programming, onstage panel discussions, first-time authors, non-fiction authors, visual arts components, a travelling program that sees events happening in smaller towns around Ontario and more. Last year’s festival included a focus on Irish writing that was guest-curated by Colm Toibin. This year, the IFOA is partnering with the Edinburgh International Book Festival, as well as expanding its out-of-town events. “There’s a lot more we want to do, and each year we try and build on it,” Taylor says.

At the same time, Taylor admits, the nature of this year’s festival has provided some opportunity for stock-taking. “The idea of an anniversary certainly makes you look at it in a slightly different way,” Taylor says. “It is a time [when] you look and say, ‘It’s not just another festival.’ And you look at the sort of things you can do about where you are now and where you’ve been. There was certainly thought given to trying to include people from past festivals.”

Margaret Atwood & Ian Rankin/magazine/fall_2009/articles/02_Rankin_and_Atwood.jpg"/>
This year’s lineup includes appearances by authors and notables such as Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Orhan Pamuk, Nicholson Baker, Garrison Keillor, Eoin Colfer, A.L. Kennedy, Charlotte Gray, David Byrne, Ian Rankin, John Irving, Michael Ignatieff, Audrey Niffenegger, Anne Murray, Paul Quarrington and Seth, alongside rising stars such as Tessa McWatt, Mark Sinnett, Lisa Foad, Jacob McArthur Mooney, Annabel Lyon and Meaghan Strimas. The children’s component, known as Young IFOA, will feature readings and presentations by, among others, For Better or Worse creator Lynn Johnston, Jacob Two-Two on the High Seas author Cary Fagan and, for the first time, all of the authors nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award. The travelling part of the festival has been expanded to include seven Ontario towns: Barrie, Burlington, Don Mills, Midland, Orillia, Parry Sound and Uxbridge.

The balance of new and old is one the festival’s organizers are always working to maintain, says Taylor. “We are, at our core, still a literary festival,” he says. “There are lots of add-ons and more populist things that we’re adding, providing more opportunities for people to find ways into the festival. But we’re still keeping to our roots.”

On the other hand, when asked if he foresees a time when the festival will be done growing and experimenting with new formats and ideas, Taylor is blunt: “Not while I’m in the captain’s chair. I want it to change all the time. If we ever get to the place where we are complacent and we are coasting, that’s not good.”

Jen Tindall, who has been with the festival for seven years, and currently serves as an artistic associate, concurs with this idea of perpetual change. “The great thing about the IFOA is that every year it's a different animal,” she says. “Sometimes the author[s] are younger; sometimes older. Some are more Irish; others, like this year, are more Scottish.... The only constant is that the authors and the audiences will change, which is the best part.”

IFOA Memories

Throw together hundreds of authors, interviewers, hosts and moderators, dozens of staff and volunteers, throw in a lot of booze and books, and memories are going to be thick on the ground. Here are some favourite IFOA moments from festivals past:

Andrew Pyper, author: There are, for me, two great things about the IFOA: meeting fellow writers, and drinking with fellow writers. Sometimes, if your humours mesh, you can start out making friends at a respectable, watch-your-manners reception early in the evening and then, much later, and without knowing how you got there, find yourself in a considerably stranger context.

Michael Crummy/magazine/fall_2009/articles/02_Michael_Crummy.jpg"/>
Last year, for instance, if you had been hanging around the McDonald's at Bathurst and Dundas at 4 a.m., you could have witnessed me and Nam Le, the celebrated author of The Boat, pounding on the locked doors. We instead used the drive-thru services, ordering Filet-o-Fishes and McNuggets and other foul treats. The funny thing is that we were on foot. Standing in the cold, inching our way along the queue, discussing the challenges of writing short stories vs. novels while swallowing our car exhaust appetizers. The cold forced us to eat our meals in the Tim Horton's across the street, buying crullers as rent for our table. I told Nam that this - the spongy donuts, the intellectual discussion by the walk-thru window, the cold - were all uniquely Canadian. Though meant as a joke I suppose it was also true.

Colm Tóibín, author: Some of [my most vivid memories] I can't tell you. But the bar was open in the hotel hospitality room until 2, and one year me and my friend Patrick McGrath were the last to leave every night. I can tell you what we talked about - matters of very high culture, if I remember, and the scansion of certain Latin poems on which we often disagreed.

Marc Côté, publisher: In 1990, a French-speaking Belgian read a graphic story about a rape to an audience that was waiting for Edmund White and Nicole Brossard. There was considerable outrage at the break. Michael Ondaatje and Louise Dennys were particularly upset. I got them to laugh, however, when I said that the story sounded like Heart of Darkness written by Mickey Spillane. Later that same evening, talking with Edmund White, a great writer and gentleman.

Lee Henderson, author: I remember being so stoked, swinging a bottle of Jameson's around in the penthouse hospitality suite at the hotel and singing happy birthday to Joseph Boyden and trying to hear what Rawi "Roachclip" Hage was whispering in my ear... and then just me and Maddie Thien and Jessie Johnson and director Mike Schultz and Jared Bland and Lia Grainger from The Walrus closing the place down at 3 a.m. or something, sitting on the carpet and spilling out our guts about life and work and how sad we were that we never got to see each other, but, I remember saying that it was really remarkable that we were all here in the hospitality suite of IFOA, how bittersweet, and how drunk we were.

Antanas Sileika, author, and the artistic director of the Humber School for Writers: Some of the best fun happened in the hospitality suite. I can recall endless choruses of “Sh-boom,” sung with Ellen Seligman and Guy Vanderhaeghe.

Michael Ondaatje, 2007/magazine/fall_2009/articles/02_Michael_Ondaatje_2007.jpg"/>
Another time, over cocktails, I spoke intensely to a smart, beautiful young writer and then said to Michael Winter if I were a younger, single man, I would never leave without her phone number. Winter sauntered over, struck up a conversation, and they've been together ever since.

George Fetherling, author: I've always had a wonderful time on the few occasions I've been kindly invited to read there. My favourite moment was the year the World Poetry Festival was held within the IFOA and I got to share the stage with W.S. Merwin – we were a duo! –and got to meet and spend time with the late Peter Levi, who had been elected (for it is an elective post) Professor of Poetry at Oxford.

And I have a great many memories of the scores of authors I've interviewed there for my book column. Random recollections: I talked to Michael Holroyd and Margaret Drabble so often that they joked that they might have to adopt me legally. Fay Weldon and I were in mid-interview once when the restaurant rudely burst into flames. Don DeLillo (whose wife, a Citibank executive, served in the Canadian branch for a few years) astonished me by revealing the address in Toronto where he had lived and worked, because it turned out that he'd been the next-door neighbour of Dennis Lee. Unbeknownst to both of them, of course – they would have had absolutely nothing in common. And I have a vivid but tender mental image of the wonderful Angela Carter sitting all alone in front of a window, lost in thought. No one ever doubted her fiercely fine brain or good heart, but I was surprised – delighted – to see that she had enormous feet, like some Australian Olympic swimmer. And so on and so on.

Photos courtesy of readings.org

Photos top to bottom: Alice Munro, 2005; Kiran Desai, 2006; Ian Rankin and Margaret Atwood at 2007 PEN Canada Benefit; Michael Crummy, 2005; Michael Ondaatje, 2007.

Nathan Whitlock/magazine/fall_2009/articles/02_nathan_whitlock.jpg"/>

Nathan Whitlock is the author of A Week of This: A Novel in Seven Days (ECW Press). His writing and reviews have appeared in The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Report on Business, Maclean's, Maisonneuve and elsewhere. He is the Books for Young People editor for Quill & Quire magazine and the fiction editor for Driven magazine. He has read at the IFOA as well as served as a host for a number of IFOA readings, and will be doing so again this year. He lives in Toronto.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

1 comment

A big problem with the internet and books is the power publishers have over how they choose to sell their authors' books. If the publisher decides to sell only from its own website in an entire country -- for example, Canada, not very many Canadians who might want to buy books by this author can do so. Suppose someone wants to buy a good book called "Adam and Eve and Punch Me". That person is internet incompetent or just likes shopping in a bookstore. The bookstore doesn't carry the book. No bookstores carry the book. Every bookstore says the book is not available. So the buyer gives up. This is because the publisher has opened an online store of its own and doesn't want to give up the sales to any other bookstore in Canada. But who can remember who published "Adam and Eve and Punch Me"? And in this case it's the person who prefers bookstores who wants the book anyway. So there goes the author's sales, the demand for the author, the idea that there ever was an author of that book, and all demand for it, or the author's other books, in Canada.

My advice is very important: All Canadian authors should check various important bookstores across Canada (and not just the ones online) to see if their books are available. If no one carries them but their own publisher, the authors should confront their publishers, and try to make a deal for better distribution; or they should take their next books to some other publisher more willing to see wider distribution of books in the author's own home country, at least. Of course, we who want books like "Adam and Eve and Punch Me" in every store in Canada understand that such books are good enough that they would be purchased from the publisher for sale, if only the publisher allowed it, and so we would negotiate a clause in the contract for full disclosure of all letters to and from bookstores in Canada in response to the publisher's sales catalog and (less and less) human distribution. The most important years are the first couple. Get your books out there while they are still young, well reviewed and highly awarded, create a continuing demand, and see what your publisher does then. It's fascinating to me how good books, for instance, are still in every online catalog in Canada and the USA, 25 years after some of them came out, even if the online store says those books are "not available".

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