Arts·Point of View

Do the write thing: A code of conduct for attending literary festivals

Some expert advice from the likes of Lawrence Hill and Zoe Whittall compiled by a newbie to the circuit herself: emerging writer Catherine Hernandez.

Some expert advice from the likes of Lawrence Hill and Zoe Whittall

The scene at the 2017 Festival of Literary Diversity. (Herman Custodio)

Being an artist means scaring yourself into doing new things every day, so I scared myself into writing full-length fiction for the first time after years of writing theatre. And now that the book has been shortlisted for the City of Toronto Book Awards it means I have to do the next scary deed: attend several literary festivals without making an ass of myself. The problem is, I have only attended three festivals in my life — one of which where I shyly traversed around the perimeter of the publishers' booths, too scared to introduce myself to anyone. I ate a lot of French fries and shook very few hands.

I decided to ask these industry heavy hitters for advice on doing the festival circuit:

Lawrence Hill — that's right, I turned to "Mr. My Novel The Illegal Won Canada Reads 2016 and My Awards List is Longer than the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms" for guidance.

Zoe Whittall — the powerhouse novelist behind the Giller-Shortlisted book The Best Kind of People whose unstoppable career inspires me every day.

Jael Richardson — the artistic director of the FOLD (Festival of Literary Diversity), which celebrates diversity in literature by promoting diverse authors and stories.

Christine Saratsiotis — the deputy director of IFOA (International Festival of Authors), which offers writers around the world an internationally recognised forum in which to present their work.

And Denise Bukowski — the founder of the Bukowski Agency, which represents approximately 70 literary clients.

Here's what they had to say:

Lawrence Hill. (Lisa Sakulensky)

Have fun, damn it!

Lawrence Hill: "Festivals can be a lot of fun. The most enjoyable part is meeting authors you don't know. If you're grasping to get ahead, people can sense that. But if you truly want to learn about the world of writing, people can feel genuine interest and you can make honest connections...If you are in a panel or reading, find out who else is participating. Read their bios, know their books and show graciousness...If an author is curmudgeonly, they won't hang out in the green room. But if they are at an open space, social function, then it's fair game. Festivals are opportunities for us to meet and speak."

Zoe Whittall: "For my first few festivals, I forced myself out of my hotel room. When you write a book in a room for so long, there's another set of muscles that you have to develop to promote it...For my second novel, I took my girlfriend at that time on tour and she was outside of the art world but great at parties. I remember her just walking up to Douglas Coupland and saying, 'Hey, what's up?' That was handy because I would often hang back. With my latest book tour, I got to know everyone else who was also promoting a book that season. By the time the end of the festival season approached, I had made new friends and peers."

Zoe Whittall (Vivek Shraya)

But, damn it, remember this is work!

Denise Bukowski: "Festivals will be a lot of fun but you must also consider it work. It's a place where you should network like crazy. You've got to come out of your garret, and if you don't have a community of fellow authors you should start creating one at festivals. It's really important for writers to realize that they can't just produce a book and expect everyone else to do the work to make it successful."

All writers, no matter what stage of the game, remember what it's like to want to be a writer...We are all artists and struggling in certain ways.- Zoe Whittall

Attend workshops and learn  

Jael Richardson: "I remember when Fartumo Kusow came to the first FOLD two years ago. She drove four hours from Windsor, went to every workshop session and had questions after every event. There was one session on publishing. She stood up and said, 'Someone said because I am Muslim, wear a head scarf and because I am black that no one will publish me. Is that true?' And everyone was like, 'No, that's not true!" She went on to talk to Second Story Press at the event and a few months later received a firm contract from them for a book she had already given to them months before. Now her book [A Tale of a Boon's Wife] is coming out this fall."

Jael Richardson is the director of the Festival of Literary Diversity. (Arden Wray)

Don't bogart the mic

Lawrence Hill: "If you are reading onstage with other people, don't eat up other people's time. Time yourself and prepare your presentation. Most writers give poor performances onstage. Practice reading aloud so that your eyes aren't glued to the page and read it many times until you've almost memorized it."

Most writers give poor performances onstage. Practice reading aloud so that your eyes aren't glued to the page and read it many times until you've almost memorized it.- Lawrence Hill

Big dream, small wallet? FUGGEDABOUTIT!

Christine Saratsiotis: "For newer authors who want to attend IFOA, there are options. Our signings are public so you can meet with authors to talk to them...If you are a student, you can ask for free tickets by showing valid ID. If you are considered 'industry' and have membership to the Playwrights Guild of Canada or Writers Guild of Canada, you can ask for discounted tickets."

Jael Richardson: "We have a volunteer who works our festival every year and attends all of our events for free. Volunteering is a great option for more emerging writers who may not be able to attend due to lack of funds."

Christine Saratsiotis. (Brian Medina)

You are not selling a car

Christine Saratsiotis: "If you are invited to something, go to it. There is a 'behind the scenes' side of any festival such as dinners and luncheons. Sit casually and don't pitch — instead, be yourself and be proud of what you've done."

Denise Bukowski: "Networking happens naturally while authors are taken to dinner together or you're backstage. That is not the time to ask someone to refer you to an agent or read your manuscript or connect you with a publisher. Don't put people in an awkward position."

Denise Bukowski. (Bukowski Agency)

Now that I am armed with the know-how of these seasoned experts, I feel more ready than ever. Newly printed business cards? Check. Choice readings rehearsed and timed? Check. Sincere desire to make connections in an industry I am loving? Check. Now I just need some perspective.

"Remember that everyone was once an emerging writer," says Zoe. "All writers, no matter what stage of the game, remember what it's like to want to be a writer. In my experience, most folks are not as pretentious as you think they could be, even people who have won a ton of awards...Everyone's careers have highs and lows. We are all artists and struggling in certain ways."

For a list of upcoming Canadian literary festivals, click here.


Catherine Hernandez is the author of Scarborough and Crosshairs, the screenwriter of Scarborough the film and the creator of Audible's sketch comedy show Imminent Disaster.


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