Wordfest to celebrate 25 years in online 'extravaganza'

Initially planned as a live festival over five days, Wordfest's 25th year has been re-imagined as what CEO Shelley Youngblut said will be an "extravaganza" called 25 at 25.

Going digital allowed organizers to snag 'killer' talent for anniversary, CEO Shelley Youngblut says

Will Ferguson, who won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2012 for 419, will kick off the festivities for Wordfest's 25th anniversary with his son, Genki. (Genki Alex Ferguson/Simon & Schuster Canada)

Wordfest is celebrating 25 years of bringing world-renowned authors to the Calgary this year — but because of the pandemic, it will be taking its silver anniversary online.

The festival has long dazzled avid readers by bringing literary heavyweights to the stage, such as Margaret Atwood, Desmond Cole, John Irving and the late Mordecai Richler.

Once a four-day event, it eventually grew into a year-round celebration of the literary arts that features workshops, poetry readings, panels and art installations.

But when COVID-19 threatened to interfere with all that, the creatives behind Wordfest did what they do best. 

They got creative, said Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut.

"When everything shut down in March, we thought, well, there's a really great opportunity to bring people together, and to actually learn how to go way beyond a Zoom meeting as an online experience," Youngblut told host Doug Dirks on the Wednesday edition of the Homestretch.

Anniversary event an 'extravaganza'

Initially planned as a live festival over five days, Wordfest's 25th year has been re-imagined as what CEO Shelley Youngblut said will be an "extravaganza" called 25 at 25.

The event will feature 25 emerging and veteran authors who Youngblut feels represent the "very best" in Canadian fiction.

They will present in a weekly series every Tuesday from Sept. 8 to Dec. 8.

"Seriously, it is such a killer list," Youngblut said. "We asked for everyone, and everyone is saying yes."

Pandemic helped snag talent

Part of the reason everyone can say yes is the pandemic.

With no travel plans to coordinate, and schedules a bit freer than usual, festival organizers discovered they could actually bring 25 high-profile authors together for the same event — which would have been just about impossible under normal circumstances.

"There's something unbelievable about everybody being in the same space, so we miss that," Youngblut said.

"On the other hand, we've been able to get anyone, pretty much, that we wanted from all over the world."

Acclaimed Canadian author Lawrence Hill wrote The Book of Negroes and will be presenting with Zalika Reid-Benta. (Lisa Sakulensky Photography)

Another element that has been enhanced by going online is accessibility.

Those with mobility issues, or who might not be comfortable in crowds, can enjoy the festivities wherever they are.

"The other thing that's really important to me is that, these are events that are now accessible to people who otherwise could not leave their homes," Youngblut said.

"And so, we've been able to go into their homes and into their living rooms and bring them into the family. And that's been cool, too."

'Daisy chain' to unite veteran and emerging authors

The events will be kicked off by Alberta's own Will Ferguson, who will present in what Wordfest is calling "the daisy chain."

Veteran authors have chosen emerging talent to appear with them on stage. At the end of their presentation, they will reveal the writers that will be presenting the following week — some of whom will be kept secret until they are announced.

"I'm not allowed to tell you everybody, because we're going to be giving away the secret of 16 of these authors the week of," Youngblut said.

Ferguson picked his son, Genki, whose debut novel is coming out next year.

Other writers who have been announced include Lawrence Hill, who will take the stage with Zalika Reid-Benta, and Eden Robinson, who invited Emily St. John Mandel.

The daisy chain roster also includes two artists: comic book illustrator Seth and writer-artist Leanne Shapton.

And according to Youngblut, festival-goers will be tuning in everywhere from Australia to Europe.

"We have all sorts of things that have made our events really tasty for people not just in Calgary, but everywhere," Youngblut said.

With files from The Homestretch


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