A Bookish Saturday in Kingston

Here’s an interesting thing about being at a festival that celebrates books—there’s very little time in the day to sit down and read.

I left my garage lodging after the sun was up and bicycled along nearly empty streets back to the heart of Kingston to meet my friend Naomi for a walk along the waterfront. On the way back we stopped in the farmers’ market for a breakfast of fresh strawberries and pastries. Properly fortified I headed into the top floor of the Holiday Inn to the WritersFest.

Quebecois author  Roch Carrier

Quebecois author
Roch Carrier


“Take this book like a good whiskey,” said Roch Carrier of his new history book Montcalm and Wolfe. Read it slowly and enjoy it, he continued in his heavy accent. Carrier took eleven years to write his book about two men who are Canadian icons. He said when he was in school in Quebec he learned that their country had been stolen by the English and in writing about the two generals he found a new depth to the battle on the Plains of Abraham when the British climbed up a cliff to surprise and overwhelm the French forces. In the audience, most of us leaned forward, totally captured by the stories of this raconteur, a man with a mane of white hair and a turquoise shirt. Carrier is a novelist, well-known in French Canada and it was a treat to hear him speak.

Canadian celebrity chef Michael Smith

Canadian celebrity chef
Michael Smith

In my next event, the crowd, more female and less gray-haired than the previous group, clapped and screamed a little when the author bounded up to the stage. Michael Smith is a celebrity chef in Canada, a giant of a man who has a show on the Food Network and a restaurant on Prince Edward Island. He settled into his chair like the professional he is and told stories about cooking, his inn, his family and, over and over, that we should NEVER feed our children processed food. He’s written eight cookbooks and was promoting his newest one, Make Ahead Meals. For Smith, proper cooking and eating will solve the medical problems of the first world, especially childhood diabetes. It was difficult to disagree with his exuberant faith. He said, “it’s not what’s on the table, but who’s at the table” when someone asked him if he had a favorite meal. I thought that was an excellent answer.

I took a break to walk around outside and enjoy the day then returned to a panel called “Cross-border Reading”. This seemed the perfect one for me, the American in Canada. Bill Richardson moderated and he was a very funny man, a radio host that CBC listeners all know. Paul McLain spoke first about her novel Circling the Sun about Beryl Markham, the glamorous aviatrix from the 1930’s. McLain admitted that after the spectacular success of her first novel, The Paris Wife, it took her a couple of years to find her next subject. When her brother-in-law suggested she read Markham’s memoir, West with the Night, she was hooked. Elizabeth Hayes is a Canadian writer with roots in the USA and her new book His Whole Life is set in NYC and Quebec in 1995, the year of a Quebec referendum when Quebec could have chosen to leave Canada. Hayes said, “I wanted it to matter to the reader whether we were going to have a country the next day.” Both women read the first pages of their books and I was spellbound, particularly by the beautiful reading voice of Hayes. I had resisted buying any books at the little bookstore set up at the end of the hall, but after that reading I walked down and bought His Whole Life.

With another break between sessions I went outside and re-visited the farmers’ market to buy a few apples and a bakery up the street where all the lovely pastries practically glistened with butter. I felt like buying one of each but settled on a chocolate chip cookie from a stack just out of the oven.

An afternoon event about short fiction didn’t have as large an audience as some of the other sessions I’d been to but it should have. Three writers and a very articulate moderator talked about how they write and why the short form is so challenging. Olive Senior, who has roots in Jamaica, said she loves writing short stories as she can polish each one to be a perfect pearl. Anita Anand, of Indian descent, said she likes to give voices to those who are often voiceless. And Greg Hollingshead believes that during the course of the day there is not much truth spoken. In short fiction he can get deeper and closer to it. All three read from the collections and to me that is one of the great gifts of a writing festival, to be able to hear authors read their own work.

Dinner with the Hamilton College students at a Thai restaurant.

Dinner with the Hamilton College students at a Thai restaurant.

We took a break for dinner, reserving a long table at a Thai restaurant an easy walk from the hotel. It was great fun to discuss with the Hamilton students and their teachers all the different events we’d been to, and to hear their enthusiasm for this way of learning more about the writing world. The food was good, too—big plates of stir-fried vegetables with spicy sauces and pad thai with chicken, fried rice with shrimp.But we had two more events to get to before the evening was over.

The room was packed for “The Big Idea: Think Tank on the Environment”, a panel of experts on environmental issues. The news is discouraging, of course, especially for Canada’s polar regions, and the panelists didn’t sugarcoat that. Andrew Nikiforuk told of a heroic woman he’s written about in his new book, Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry. Edward Struzik said we have to develop policies for the new north, not the north of fifty years ago. He was passionate about what is happening—the extreme shrinking of the caribou herds and the disappearance of a Native way of life. His new book is The Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge.

And finally, we convened in the hotel ballroom for the Saturday Night SpeakEasy, a two-hour jam with a jazz trio and a big cast of authors reading their poetry and prose. Though I’d had no time to read, my mind was stuffed with words and phrases and new ways to see the written word and the world it explores.

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