Suspense, drama, comedy, conflict and uncertainty — while all are key ingredients of a good book, they’re also apt descriptions of what Charlene Diehl has experienced while organizing a literary festival during a global pandemic.

Suspense, drama, comedy, conflict and uncertainty — while all are key ingredients of a good book, they’re also apt descriptions of what Charlene Diehl has experienced while organizing a literary festival during a global pandemic.

The 2021 Winnipeg International Writers Festival is once again hosting authors from across the country, most virtually, while cautiously writing a new chapter with a plot twist — a handful of in-person live/virtual hybrid events.

This year’s Thin Air festival highlights 60 authors, 16 of whom are from Manitoba, and once again features a significant number of Indigenous and French writers. Among the locals are David Bergen, who launches his new novel Out of Mind tonight in a hybrid live/virtual streaming event; Katherena Vermette, who will launch her Giller-longlisted novel The Strangers; Wab Kinew, launching his young adult novel Walking in Two Worlds; as well as George Toles, Patricia Robertson, David Elias, Joanne Epp and more.

Participating out-of-town writers include critically acclaimed former locals Miriam Toews and Casey Plett, along with Randy Boyagoda, Megan Gail Coles, Jael Richardson, Darrel J. McLeod, Wayne Johnston and many others.

Last year Diehl, who has been at the helm of the festival since 2003, and her small team team were forced to pivot to an all-virtual festival for the first time, offering a host of pre-recorded readings and talks by authors available to watch online and on demand. "I found it quite stimulating because there was a lot of problem solving," she says. "I have a lot of festivals under my belt, and so I was willing to take a few risks that a newer director probably wouldn’t take… by the end of the year I felt a great sense of accomplishment."

Festival faves

Thin Air director Charlene Diehl was asked to serve up some picks for can’t-miss authors at the 2021 Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Calling it “a bit like choosing your favourite child,” she nonetheless came up with a list of literary all stars as well as some new and emerging writers to watch from beyond Manitoba’s borders, as well as their latest releases. To watch them read from their work and to learn more, visit thinairfestival.ca.

HEAVY HITTERS

Gary BarwinNothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy (novel)

Thin Air director Charlene Diehl was asked to serve up some picks for can’t-miss authors at the 2021 Winnipeg International Writers Festival. Calling it “a bit like choosing your favourite child,” she nonetheless came up with a list of literary all stars as well as some new and emerging writers to watch from beyond Manitoba’s borders, as well as their latest releases. To watch them read from their work and to learn more, visit thinairfestival.ca.

HEAVY HITTERS

Gary Barwin — Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy (novel)

Marie-Claire BlaisSongs for Angel and Des chants pour Angel (novel, English and French)

Louise B. HalfeSky Dancer, Awâsis — kinky and disheveled and Burning in this Midnight Dream (poetry)

Darrel J. McLeodPeyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity (memoir)

Kim ThúyEm (novel, English and French)

Guy Vanderhaeghe, Autumn Into Winter (novel)

RISING STARS

Kazim AliNorthern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water (memoir)

Edem AwumeyMina in the Shadows and Mina parmi les ombres (novel, English and French)

Yolanda Bonnellbug (play)

Molly Cross-BlanchardThe Exhibitionist (poetry)

Rahela NayebzadahMonster Child (novel)

Aimee WallWe, Jane (novel)

For the most part, readers embraced last year’s pivot to a virtual festival.

"A lot of people I talked to over the past year said, ‘Thank you for doing this — I rarely go to the festival because I have mobility issues,’ or ‘I have serious mental-health issues and I can’t be in the presence of that many people,’ or ‘I have really weird work schedules and I just can’t get free,’ or ‘I put my kids to bed that time of day,’" Diehl says.

This year’s edition of Thin Air, which began Sept. 20 and runs through to Oct. 18, will again reside online at thinairfestival.ca, where book lovers can explore author pages featuring exclusive video content, or visit themed "lounges" with curated content. For Diehl, the format offers viewers a more intimate experience than the bigger live events of old.

"You get a chance to meet a writer in a way, hear them read and talk a little bit about what they do," she says. "There’s a certain kind of frankness and intimacy that happens at proximity, which I think is one of the things that the virtual space can offer that a stage space cannot. I miss the jostle and the electricity (of live events) that’s going from an artist to an audience and back. But there’s something about being, you know, three feet from someone’s face, and them speaking very, very personally."

That being said, the uncertainty of the festival’s ability to again host live events this year, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic and potential changing public health orders, proved understandably exhausting to Diehl. "I said to my board, you know, it’s not just pandemic fatigue — it’s decision fatigue. I’m so tired of making decisions when in so many ways it’s just this kind of artificial undertaking, because we don’t know what things will look like."

JESSICA LEE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg International Writers Festival director Charlene Diehl has gathered 60 authors to present their work, either virtually or live, at this year’s event.</p>

JESSICA LEE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg International Writers Festival director Charlene Diehl has gathered 60 authors to present their work, either virtually or live, at this year’s event.

Diehl is thankful that the nine in-person events at this year’s Thin Air are in large part being quarterbacked by McNally Robinson Booksellers, who are hosting the readings at their Grant Park location with reduced capacities and mandatory double-vaccination confirmation for guests.

The live events are also being streamed to McNally Robinson’s YouTube stream, and will be available to watch at thinairfestival.ca. "I really admire them and am so grateful to them," says Diehl. "They’re operating with a smaller crew, and it’s a big thing that they’re doing. It’s a big investment."

Diehl sees the live/virtual hybrid format offering the best of both worlds for readers. "I like that we are inventing these ways to have in-person gatherings that have a streaming component that people can watch live or can tune into later. It takes the some of the pressure off without losing the sparkle."

Throughout the process of organizing Thin Air 2021, Diehl has stayed in touch with directors of other literary festivals in Canada, sharing their struggles and successes while moving forward with such uncertainty.

"We’ve talked a lot over the last year-and-a-half, sharing strategies, weeping, laughing about things that don’t go well — you know, sharing little triumphs," she says.

As for the future of Thin Air, Diehl feels the virtual component could be here to stay.

"There are some kind of magical things about a virtual world that I hope we will lean into, we will explore. Because I don’t think any of us are going back — we’re not going back to where we were."

ben.sigurdson@freepress.mb.ca

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Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, drinks writer

Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.