When it comes to literary festivals, COVID-19 is the great leveller. Regardless of an event’s size and budget, organizers behind the scenes are finding themselves up against similar challenges connecting authors to readers and selling books without a physical presence.
Roland Gulliver was only weeks into his new position as director of the Toronto International Festival of Authors when borders began closing to contain the spread of the pandemic. Gulliver, formerly associate director at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, is in Scotland with his family, where he continues to steer his debut TIFA from another time zone amid uncertainty of what public-safety precautions will be in effect during the festival, scheduled for Oct. 22–Nov. 1.
“One of the things I was looking forward to when I came into the job was creating a real festival atmosphere at the Harbourfront Centre with the idea of TIFA taking over the space. That’s not going to happen,” says Gulliver. “We are still exploring ways of having some very small audiences and events. Whether we will get to do that, I don’t know, because things will change.”
Given that safety protocols vary between countries and even cities, coupled with the real threat of a second wave of the pandemic, planning a festival lineup is a moving target. Initially, Gulliver recognized that a digital-focused TIFA would mean scaling back and reducing the number of events on offer during the festival’s 10-day run, but at some point he started thinking more philosophically about its nature and purpose.
“In literature, there is a very close relationship between the author and the book and the reader, which works within these current conditions. If we take that as a beginning and build out, what collection of literary experiences can we make for authors and readers?” Gulliver says. “It’s a massive challenge, but hopefully there can be some interesting responses that will be engaging and exciting, which we wouldn’t have gotten to if we hadn’t been in this position.”
TIFA’s official programming won’t be revealed until late September, but Gulliver has already been producing and co-hosting smaller online events with a new partner, the Art Gallery of Ontario. The series has featured interviews with authors Catherine Hernandez and Ian Rankin and artist Janet Cardiff, speaking on a variety of themes such as boredom and distraction.
Vancouver Writers Fest creative director Leslie Hurtig also tested the virtual water this spring by running the last half of the festival’s reading series in conjunction with the Vancouver Public Library online.
“I’ve been pretty honest with a lot of my fellow programmers that [digital events] just don’t hold a candle to what you get when you’re in person with an audience. There’s an energy there that you simply can’t replicate online,” says Hurtig. “There are some problems, but we’re trying to overcome those and be nimble.”
Hurtig admits she isn’t a huge fan of the Zoom-style interview. Her team has been investigating other options for October’s VWF, such as podcasts, book clubs, and pre-recorded events using professional sound and lighting techs. “Will [the range of formats] make a difference to the viewers’ enjoyment of an event? I don’t know the answer,” says Hurtig. “But these are things we’re going to experiment with.”
The organizers of AfterWords, Halifax’s new literary festival*, were heading into their second year with confidence after a successful inaugural event in October 2019 and some additional government funding sources when the pandemic struck.
“Bringing readers and writers into a physical space that is intimate, so people can be up close to writers that they don’t usually get to see was one of the primary reasons we wanted to do the festival,” says Ryan Turner, co–executive director of AfterWords. When it became unlikely that any of the already booked authors would be able to travel to Halifax for this fall’s instalment, scheduled for Sept. 30–Oct. 4, the programming team started investigating a hybrid model featuring local authors in physical spaces alongside digital events. That idea was dismissed as being too complicated.
When AfterWords made the decision to go completely virtual, they sought advice from other organizers such as Jael Richardson at the Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton, Ontario, who was one of the first to make the shift completely online in early May. By all accounts, Richardson has been generous in answering questions posed by fellow festival directors, who belong to a private online forum designed to share information and ideas.
“We’re starting to tap into that resource of all the accumulated knowledge of all of those other festivals across Canada,” says Turner. “Everyone is going through this together. Even if you’ve been around for 30 years, this is not something you’ve ever had to do before.”
*Correction, Aug. 5: An earlier version of this story referred to AfterWords as a volunteer-run festival. The festival is no longer volunteer-run.