I’ve been to Writers festivals; writers conventions, writers conferences, writers workshops and they’re all different. I cannot say I’ve always enjoyed them. However, having just got back from the Ottawa Writers Festival, I must say, this was a particularly good one. I was flown in, picked up at the airport, put up at a hotel and paid an honorarium. Wow. Pampering indeed. My husband, Iden Ford, accompanied me which was great. The hotel was a touch Spartan, ultra modern in style, with a small room and a wall to wall king sized bed. However, we did get two chocolates and an apple at bed time. The maid had also turned on the radio when we returned for the night, which I assume was to give off an atmosphere of welcome. My initial response was, ‘who’s been in here?’
I wasn’t due to do an event until the next day, so lounged around on Saturday and reconnected with Ottawa which is one of my favourite cities. As an attendee, I received a ‘loot’ bag. Sort of like a saddle bag in design that made me think of camels but inside, a very nice notebook for my important thoughts, a pen and a poster. The theme of the festival was ‘Open your mind’ which I liked a lot. My latest book is called, Beware This Boy, and it’s about ignorance. The title is a quote from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in which the ghost of Christmas present shows Scrooge two children who are clinging to his robe. He says, ‘this boy is ignorance, this girl is want. Beware of them both… but most of all beware this boy for on his brow I see that written which is Doom unless the writing be erased.’
I read this as a child and it burned into my brain. I have to admit, ignorance of the closed- minded sort frightens me. I like to get into issues in my books, hitching them onto the vehicle of crime fiction in what I hope is a subtle but persuasive way.
I have planned to go to some of the sessions on Sunday. I notice that fellow writers don’t usually go to other people’s events which I think is a pity. Before the business of writing ate up my time, I loved listening to other writers and reading their books. Unfortunately, on Saturday night, we are awakened at four in the morning by an insistent rapping on the door. Yikes big adrenaline rush. Somebody knocking hard on the door of your hotel in the middle of the night will reveal what is uppermost in your priorities. I immediately thought somebody had come to tell us of a disaster at home. My husband is of a sunnier disposition and woke up wondering why the maid was coming to clean so early. You can see why I’m the one who writes crime fiction. We discovered the next day that the visitor was a reveller from a wedding who had lost her room key and went to the wrong door. I said to the clerk at the desk, “I hope it wasn’t her own wedding,” but he didn’t seem to see the joke. Anyway that adrenaline rush of fear is like a drink of very strong coffee and I couldn’t sleep for ages afterward. I wanted to get revenge the next morning by waking up what would surely have been a hung over woman but I didn’t.
What this meant was that I wasn’t up to taking in lots of events at the festival as I had intended. I did go to a poetry reading. Although I can’t say I really related to the poetry, the venue was jammed with respectful listeners, mostly young by the look of it. I was glad to see that poetry is alive and well. Later, I attended a hilarious reading by Jonathan Goldstein from his book, I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow. That made me think I wanted to give up crime fiction and write only comedy. After that, a short break until my own event which was with Peter Robinson and Mark Billingham, both crime writers. It was to take place in the Knox Presbyterian church. I was a little taken aback to find we were to read, not in the basement, which is relatively secular, but the actual church with pulpit, pews and altar. This is the second time I’ve done an event in a church which have to get what income they can these days, but I’m still uneasy about reading extracts from a crime novel in a sanctified place. Not only that we have to deliver from the pulpit, definitely an odd experience. Mark has also been a stand up comedian and he has all the comfort and wit that you might expect. I think again I should be writing comedy. I like to make people laugh. When I do my piece, the audience doesn’t laugh that much. I suppose the story of an explosion in a munitions factory isn’t really hilarious. However, the three of us do generate some laughs thanks to Mark and the evening seems a success. When did writers become entertainers? I can’t imagine T.S. Eliot feeling compelled to have his audience rolling in the aisles. Jane Austen didn’t do tours.
There’s quite a tradition among writers of convening in the bar but I don’t go. I don’t drink and hate staying up late. There’s always the temptation to go against my own proclivities just to fit in but I resist. We return to the hotel, more chocolates and another apple. The news is filled with the anxiety drenched commentaries about the Frankenstorm that will potentially wipe out Toronto and environs. Even Calgary and Vancouver maybe. Fortunately, tonight, no drunken revellers disturb our sleep. Next morning, I attend another event. Minky Worden has edited a collection of essays called, The Unfinished Revolution: The Global Fight for Women’s Rights. She reads extracts which are riveting. Makes me feel superficial for writing crime fiction.
Then we are all invited to a tea at the US embassy. The ambassador’s wife, Julie Jacobson, is a great supporter of the festival and the arts. The house is beautiful, gracious and homey at the same time. Tea is American style, cookies and tea or coffee. Where are the cucumber sandwiches? Never mind, it’s a lovely afternoon. I’m wrapped around with the soft cocoon of people who love books and believe in the power potential of the written word. I read the quote from Dickens and even choke up a little at the resonance of those words. “Beware this boy…his name is ignorance.”
Open your mind indeed.