When you reel in a Pulitzer Prize winner for your literary festival, you have to make sure he doesn’t crowd the other writers off the stage.
Richard Ford, the esteemed American novelist and short-story writer who won the Pulitzer for Independence Day, is such a big catch, the director of the 16th-annual Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival had to consider carefully whom to program alongside him on the mainstage.
Writer/editor Charlene Diehl, who is marking 10 years at the helm of the festival that opens Friday and runs to Sept. 29, decided to pair Ford with a homegrown heavyweight, Winnipeg novelist David Bergen.
"I wanted to put someone with Richard Ford who has the experience and the street cred to be a match," says Diehl, 51.
While most of the mainstage evenings at The Forks’ Shaw Performing Arts Centre are "concerts" of readings by about five authors curated around a theme, the Ford/Bergen evening on Sept. 25 will consist of readings by the two in the first half, and a two-man onstage chat with Diehl in the second.
The two authors fit well together under the theme Oh Canada, Oh Prairie because their new novels, Ford’s Canada and Bergen’s The Age of Hope, both depict small-town prairie life, several decades in the past.
Canada follows a teenage Montana boy who has to flee and live in an isolated Saskatchewan town. The Age of Hope is about an ordinary wife and mother in a Manitoba Mennonite community.
Diehl says Ford, 68, and Bergen, 55, have some other things in common.
"They are both very interested in domestic life, intimate details of family, the construction of parent/children relationships."
The evening will have a visual element with projected images from Mike Grandmaison’s Prairie and Beyond, a book of landscape photos of the prairie provinces.
"We’ll have these beautiful images as a backdrop, and we’ll have these two brilliant men talk about how they use the prairie as part of the character-building of their novels," the director says. This year’s multi-venue Thin Air celebration offers only two authors who live outside Canada, Ford and fellow American Jess Walter.
It may not be the most star-packed lineup, but the roster of about 50 writers is diverse and, as Diehl notes, includes many whose writings have a global flavour.
Malta-born, Saskatchewan-based Seán Virgo will be here with his collection Dibidalen: ten stories; Lebanese Montrealer Rawi Hage with the novel Carnival; Irish-born, Vancouver-based Anakana Schofield with Malarky, an acclaimed debut novel set in Ireland; Kashmiri-English-Canadian Pasha Malla with his first novel People Park; Egyptian-born British Columbia author Stella Leventoyannis Harvey with her debut novel Nicolai’s Daughters; and Winnipeg’s South African-born Méira Cook with The House on Sugarbush Road.
Thin Air draws a total audience of about 8,000, including children in its school program. The same amount of programming as last year has been stretched from seven days to nine, partly to "bookend" the festival with two lively weekends. The cost of a festival pass (available at 204-927-7323, McNally Robinson or www.thinairwinnipeg.ca) has increased from $35 to $40.
There are French-language events, campus readings, author visits to schools, a rural tour, a writers’ seminar on graphic novels and an outdoor reading at The Forks’ Oodena Celebration Circle.
Each autumn when the long list for the prestigious Giller Prize is announced, it usually includes some authors in the Thin Air lineup. Last year, for instance, the festival boasted four Giller nominees.
This year, pundits are saying the 12-name Giller list is a surprising one, and Thin Air came up dry. Diehl says her own version of the list would certainly include Bergen and the muchbuzzed- about Schofield.
Other Canadian notables on the Thin Air mainstage include Toronto’s Cordelia Strube, a former Governor General’s Award nominee, with her novel Milosz and Montreal’s Daniel Allen Cox, a nominee for several awards for gay-themed literature, with Basement of Wolves.
For a complete schedule, pick up a free paperback program or visit www.thinairwinnipeg.ca
Some Thin Air highlights:
Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at Le Centre culturel franco-manitobain (admission $5), four advocates each champion a Manitoba book, making a pitch for why every Manitoban should read it. The public can then vote on the CBC website, and the winning book will be announced on CBC Radio on Sunday morning, Sept. 23.
The advocates are comic Mike Green plugging Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison; Cree broadcaster/writer Rosanna Deerchild promoting Autumn, One Spring by Patti Grayson; poet/professor Jonathan Ball touting Automatic World by Struan Sinclair; and playwright/ actor Alix Sobler praising The Knife-Sharpener’s Bell by Rhea Tregebov.
A PINT OF BITTER MURDER
This year’s special gathering for mystery fans is Sept. 22 at 3 p.m. at the Park Theatre (admission $5). Bestselling suspense novelist Linwood Barclay will read from his new novel Trust Your Eyes and talk about his work onstage with festival director Charlene Diehl.
Sept. 22 at 8 p.m., Thin Air reaches out to a hip demographic with a bash that’s expected to be loud and boisterous. This event was to be held at Aqua Books, but has been relocated to the Free Press News Café.
Manitoba-born Corey Redekop will read from his gory, funny new novel Husk, told from the viewpoint of a zombie. "Philosophically it’s a very provocative book, but it’s also campy as hell," says festival director Diehl.
Winnipeg’s reigning poetry-slam champs will give also spoken-word performances. Then there’s a Haiku Death Match, in which five invited poets will deliver syllabically precise poems, to be judged by the crowd’s cheers or jeers.
The most high-profile series of the festival runs Sept. 24-28 at 8 p.m. at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre (MTYP Theatre) at The Forks. Each evening has a theme, with the final one being a Poetry Bash.
Most nights feature readings by four to six notable writers who have recently published books. There’s a cash bar and on-site book sales so you can get your copy autographed. Tickets are $12 (seniors/students $10) at the door, or visit www.thinairwinnipeg.ca for advance ticket info.
The free weekday Nooner series, Sept. 24-28 from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m., features one fiction writer or poet (except for photographer Mike Grandmaison) reading at the Millennium Library’s Carol Shields Auditorium.
You can buy books on-site. Sept. 24, the writer is Spokane, Wash.based Jess Walter, one of the biggest names at the festival with his brash and funny sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins.
AFTERNOON BOOK CHATS
This free weekday series, Sept. 24-28 from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., is held in the atrium at McNally Robinson Booksellers, set up café-style. Each session pairs two authors in an informal conversation about writing.
The atmosphere is so intimate, Diehl says, writers often disclose very personal stuff. A married couple, prominent Canadian poets Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, will make writerly confessions Sept. 28.
Another free weekday series, Sept. 24-28 from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Millennium Library’s Carol Shields Auditorium, features one author each day discussing a topic on which he or she has penned a book. Sept. 27 it’s poet Patrick Lane on how he found sobriety through his garden, as told in his memoir There Is a Season. Sept. 28, Vancouver theatre artist Carmen Aguirre, who won this year’s non-fiction Canada Reads competition with her book Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, talks about her involvement in the underground resistance to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile.
AFTER WORDS JAZZ CLUB
Release your inner beatnik at this free wrap party on Sept. 29 at 8 p.m. at Le Centre culturel franco-manitobain, where a jazz combo led by bassist Steve Kirby will improvise accompaniment for any poet brave enough to take the microphone. "Music just shows up like a waterbed — a big, fat sound cushion," says Diehl. "Your words can just float."