canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Hosting at the IFOA

by Ibi Kaslik

Read TDR's Interview with Ibi

Hosting at the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) is always a gratifying and exhausting experience. But every year the reasons change. Hosting puts you in the unique position of hanging off the coat tails of famed and up-and-coming rockstars of lit. You get all the negative effects of a performance: anxiety, sweaty palms and tongue-tied moments without the benefit of selling two copies of your book afterwards. So why do it? I’ll get to that. But first, a short history of this author’s, author festival journey…

When I first started attending festivals – read: crashing the hospitality suite dubbed "hostility suite" – it was all about the party. How much free wine could be imbibed and/or stolen? How many friends could we sneak into the suite? How many packets of nuts and cheese plates could we consume? Could we convince cool, New Yorker, Tama Janowitz to play spin the bottle? As a young, starving writer, much of being part of festival life revolved around the sheer novelty of crashing your way into Canadian literati.

With a little more experience with free booze, readings, and social decorum, and, oh yeah, a book to my name, I left my Dorothy Parker ways behind – or at least relinquished them to the smoking room. These days it's all about how many diverse writers I can interact with and hear. But it’s not about schmoozing, I swear. Besides, there doesn’t exist, I don’t think, a mercenary dynamic among writers; what you get from a festival, whether you’re participating, hosting, or crashing is inspiration, a gentle reminder of the fact that we’re all in this ridiculous career choice together.

2006 was a good year for meeting peeps, for inspiration. And though it feels cheap to litanize the stars I rubbed corduroy elbows with, I am a bit el-chepo. So, let’s get to this: the unassuming Jonathan Safran Foer drew a picture (or is it a diagram?) in my copy of EII. The lovely Ami McKay and I talked about babies and writing. The intense Lewis DeSoto and I had a conversation about photography where I babbled needlessly about the power of light. Gautam Malkani has a day job (but I didn’t see him in the hostility suite). The down to earth Sarah Waters charmed audiences with her penchant for sexual innuendo. The sophisticated Caroline Adderson – whom I believed was robbed by not being short-listed for a Giller for Pleased To Meet You – wowed and confused audiences with her poetics.

But I’d be remiss not to mention the one writer, whom I was too shy to meet, but whom I had the honour of witnessing: Gay Talese. The 74-year-old career journalist, who should be credited as the grandfather of creative non-fiction, held a reading in the Premiere Dance theatre. Mr. Talese cut a dashing figure with his Dick Tracy suits, his shock of white hair and his wing-tipped shoes. As he regaled the audience with his humane ideas about writing – writing real stories about real people – I was struck by his honesty, by the wealth of experience and range we all need as writers to sustain both our lives and our imaginations.

Mr. Talese read a short excerpt from his memoir A Writing Life. It was a section about his arriving in Italy, dressed in a US military uniform, unbeknownst to his overbearing father back home in America. When he was finished, I looked around to observe the gasps of the audience members. I was gasping along with them. Why? Because Mr. Talese had achieved the kind of reaction every writer dreams of: the crowd wanted more. It is not hyperbolic to say that I, and the rest of the enormous crowd, could have listened to Mr. Talese read all afternoon. His deceptively simple prose uncovered complex truths about culture and his own life and lulled me in a way I hadn’t been lulled by words since I was a child.

Later that day, Mr. Talese arrived at the suite and politely inquired if he could finagle a drink. The organizers giggled at his old world charm, his flirtatiousness. I watched as he made his way to the bar and sidestepped a couple of science writers to mix his drink. As I watched him, I thought about how I had always believed that writing should be a mysterious process, that my own simple definition of the writing process lacked a lofty intellectual richness.

I couldn’t find it in myself to turn on the charm and approach him, to get my book signed and add his name to the list of wonderful writers and thinkers I’d encountered. Because I knew that he had already given me my story, my angle, my IFOA gift basket. He had confirmed for me the single thing I have always been too scared to articulate about writing and life: that writing is simple, it is just truth.

Ibi Kaslik is the author of the critically acclaimed novel "Skinny".







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