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Passing the torch: Festival of the Written Arts celebrates its 40th year with new leadership

Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts outgoing artistic and executive director Jane Davidson and her successor Marisa Alps talk legacy and future of the longest-running literary festival that features only Canadian authors.
Festival of the written arts
Marisa Alps (left) and Jane Davidson in the gardens of the Rockwood Centre, home of the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts.

In front of a glorious magnolia tree bursting with blooms, Jane Davidson and Marisa Alps banter and laugh amidst the gardens of Sechelt’s Rockwood Centre. Around them, a spray of fallen white petals almost seems like some Hollywood set decorator’s added touch. Yet, the natural beauty of this cherished setting, home to the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts (SCFWA), needs no embellishment.

Neither do these two warm-hearted promoters of authors. Their much-loved festival — the longest-running one that features only Canadian authors — celebrates 40 years this summer. You know that this popular literary event has been, and will be, in humbly great hands when both Jane, outgoing artistic and executive director, and her successor Marisa, want the focus of this article to be on the other person. For both women, this community-building festival has been a long-standing passion. Marisa has attended since the 1990s, calling herself “a very devoted fan.” The mother of three has served on the board and as a member of the festival’s fund development committee, which has worked hard to boost endowment funds, which now stand at $1 million.

“The festival means a lot to me,” says the Halfmoon Bay resident. “I felt called to do this.” Marisa brings28 years of marketing experience at Harbour Publishing (including with Douglas & McIntyre since 2013), plus four years at Nightwood Editions as director and project editor.

Jane says she is “beyond delighted” that Marisa will officially take her place, starting Nov. 1. For the preceding three months, both women will work side-by-side, which means that authors, audiences, stakeholders, donors, and volunteers will get a chance to meet Marisa at this year’s festival, held Aug. 11-14.

“I want to reassure people that I really value this opportunity,” Marisa says. “I’m not taking it for granted. I plan to be a good caretaker. I’m really excited to get to know a lot of the volunteers on a deeper level and to learn from the community.”

Jane came on board in 2007, after six years as general manager of the Vancouver Writers Fest. “This is really personal work to me,” she says. “It’s not just a job.” Asif for emphasis, the Roberts Creek resident adds: “I believe in the power of story.”

Above her desk at Rockwood, Jane has taped the phrase, “We change the world one story at a time.” She credits the late Ojibwe author Richard Wagamese, acclaimed author of Indian Horse, for this inspired sentence, which is tattooed on her right inner arm (she rolls up her sleeve to show me). The mother of four recalls how his evocative drumming and calling the ancestors at the 2009 festival deeply moved her.

When asked about other memorable moments during her festival years, Jane confides: “I’m going to tear up.” She describes the spoken-word session that closed the 2014 event, which featured Brendan McLeod, Jillian Christmas and Zaccheus Jackson. Their presentation prompted “amazing singing” with the audience in a spontaneous rendition of McLeod’s song All This Trouble in the World, she says. “I’ll never forget that. I thought it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.” Two weeks later, Zaccheus was killed by a train while walking on railroad tracks in Toronto.

Jane says she’s most proud of the festival’s expanded initiative of diversity, equity, and inclusion and its schools program, whereby authors share their stories with students. Nłe?kepmx, Syilx and Métis author Nicola Campbell spoke in 2010 of residential school experiences. In Jane’s words: “Voices from the margins are no longer on the margins.”

This year’s event features writers like Joshua Whitehead, Ivan Coyote, Vancouver’s Betsy Warland, Jen Sookfong Lee, and Kamal Al-Solaylee, who grew up gay in the Middle East.

In a three-year plan, Marisa says she hopes to focus on festival stability in year one, explore audience growth in her second, including collaborations with other Coast organizations and more workshops on the writing craft, and in year three, inspire new creative ways to connect readers with writers. Her goal for what she calls “the jewel of literary festivals”? “Stay healthy, relevant and vibrant for decades to come.”

Many presenting authors have called this festival their favourite. Jane says: “People love the adventure of getting on a ferry or floatplane to get here. A lot of it has to do with the setting and volunteers and the audience. They’ve been faithful for so long. I love watching a writer from Toronto see a packed,400-seat theatre. They [other festivals] don’t have that.”

Jane adds: “It [this position] is such a privilege. I’m so lucky to have done this within this community for 15 years.”

Founded in 1983 by Betty Keller and members of the SunCoast Writers Forge, the SCFWA has highlighted four decades’ worth of talented new voices and many iconic Canadian writers like Mordecai Richler, June Callwood, Peter Gzowski and W.O. Mitchell