When tickets for the 30th annual Festival of the Written Arts (FOWA) in Sechelt go on sale May 30, hundreds of fans of the literary production will rush to buy.
It wasn’t always so.
A few stalwart volunteers began the first festival as a more modest event nearly 30 years ago, and they will be on stage Friday, Aug. 17, during this year’s festival to tell the audience how it all began.
The founding mothers, as they are now being called, are: Betty Keller, Gwendolyn Southin, Rosella Leslie and Maureen Foss. All four have published numerous books themselves, and they still meet as a writing group called the Quintessentials.
It all started in the early 1980s when creative writing and drama teacher Betty Keller offered classes for would-be writers through Continuing Education. There she met a Coast newcomer, Gwen Southin, who was trying her hand at writing in her retirement years. Keller wanted the students to meet other established writers and learn from them, so she called a networking meeting in April of 1983 at the Arts Centre that involved a new writing group, the Suncoast Writers’ Forge.
Well known authors such as poet Dorothy Livesay and writer Jack Hodgins were invited to visit Sechelt over one weekend in August to share their expertise with writers and readers. The first festival took place at the Arts Centre, but because of a last minute double booking, Hodgins’ presentation had to be moved to Greencourt where it remained for the next few years — in a tent and a hall.
That first festival went in the hole by $1,300 and organizers were forced to hold a giant garage sale. But it brought out willing volunteers who were ready to scrub floors, cook food, design puzzle contests and drive authors to the ferry.
When they moved the venue to Rockwood Centre, a heritage building, the battle of the blackberries began. A diminutive, elegant lady turned up, secateurs in hand, to join with others in cutting back the overgrown garden. The late Eileen Williston became the fifth Quintessential writer and a festival director for many years. Others who contributed have since passed away: Ruth Forrester, Jean Sheridan and Pixie Daly. The late Bruce Woodsworth came up with the name Festival of the Written Arts.
Leslie attended that first festival and overheard Keller and another organizer, Marion St. Denis, talking during the event.
“I’d like to help,” she offered.
They agreed gleefully. Leslie took on writing the program notes and promoting the festival even though she was living far up the inlet. Keller became producer and took charge of many jobs. Southin quickly took up a role in the kitchen.
“I had only cooked for my family before,” she recalls, “and I literally became chief cook and bottle washer once we established the Writers in Residence program.”
These writing workshops were a valuable adjunct to the festival and Foss showed up for the first of them in 1986 with her short stories in hand. She soon became a festival volunteer. The writing program’s first venue was an abandoned forestry station in Madeira Park (later to become the School of Music). Again the blackberries had to be demolished and Southin’s husband Vic was put to work scrubbing the floor.
“My poor husband said to me, ‘Aren’t we supposed to be retired?’” Southin said, laughing. Keller recalls that after Peter Gzowski was a featured speaker at the third festival, the organization had more clout on the literary scene. It was open to all styles of writing including cookbook authors, poets and songwriters, but they always kept it Canadian, as it is to this day.
Each founder has her own memory of a special visitor.
Keller remembers Gzowski fondly, while Leslie recalls that June Callwood had the audience in tears with her sincerity. Foss remembers that W.O. Mitchell arrived with a bandage on his neck. He had been delayed at Vancouver Emergency because a spider bit him. He told Keller that he didn’t think he was up to a long presentation.
“Just talk as long as you’re able,” she replied.
Nearly two hours later the audience was still hanging on his every word.
As the festival grew in size and prestige, the founding directors continued their tasks, which meant that often they were too busy to attend the presentations.
“It was a working board,” said Foss, who has memories of cleaning and arranging flowers.
Nonetheless they all worked together well, and many of their finest ideas were generated with a mop and bucket in hand.
“Our styles of writing were different,” Leslie said, “but we understood each other and respected each other.”
“We cared,” she said.
The group will be describing many more anecdotes during their presentation: trying to lure Mordecai Richler to attend; the author’s husband who spent his festival time luxuriating in the bathtub; preparing meals for a prima donna cookbook author.
“Most people thought the cookbook authors made their own food,” said Southin. “Actually, it was us!”
More about this year’s festival can be found at www.writersfestival.ca.