The Calgary Journal had a recent conversation with Shelley Youngblut, the general director of Wordfest, Canada’s 3rd largest literary festival on now until Oct. 16.
Q. How did Wordfest get started?
A. Wordfest was launched 21 years ago in 1996 when a group of booksellers, authors, the Calgary Public Library, the Banff Centre and Mount Royal University decided that Calgary needed an international writers festival.
We have people from Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and the United States. In the past we’ve had them from Russia and India, Japan, basically anywhere people are creating great books, we want to bring them to Calgary.
Q. How is Wordfest different from other book festivals?
A. There’s a history in Canada — all over the world — that [anyplace that] has any kind of creative life, has a literary festival. Some have small festivals, some have medium festivals. Calgary has the third largest literary festival in Canada.
Q. Why do people keep coming back for Wordfest?
A. I think it’s changed over the years. I think in the beginning the idea that you could see the world’s great writers was incredibly appealing and that’s still a big part of Wordfest, but now I think we are a celebration of ideas even more than we are a celebration of books so our expanded new mandate is to connect Calgarians with life-changing ideas.
We do it for 10 days in October every year but we also do it year-round. We bring in authors on a monthly if not weekly basis and again, these are the world’s best-selling authors. For example we’ve had Yann Martel and John Irving, we are about to have Mike Myers, the comedian who is coming at the end of October. Anyone who has written a book that we think will change someone’s life. We’re the organization that brings them to Calgary’s readers.
Q. Which author are you looking forward to seeing the most?
A. That’s an impossible question to answer because I have crushes on almost every single one of them! So the ones that I’m most intrigued by are the next generation of Margaret Atwoods and Yann Martels that are coming to this year’s festival. They are first- or second-time novelists. They have written these incredibly original, engrossing, worlds: Jay Hosking, Andrew Sullivan, Affinity Konar, Rowan Buchanan, Teva Harrison. There’s so much good new writing going on and then at the same time we’ve got one of the great mystery writers of all time, Canadian Peter Robinson, one of the great American mystery writers Michael Koryta. We’ve got incredible journalists who are doing wonderful things in terms of non-fiction and fiction. We’ve got Gail Anderson-Dargatz who was at the very first Wordfest in 1996. She’s written a new book called Spawning Ground that is spectacular.
There’s classic Wordfest and then we have other events that I would describe as “not your mother’s literary festival” event and those include “naughty-bit read-a-thon” where writers are going to read “not-safe-for-work” passages out loud in front of an audience. It’s going to be hilarious. There’s a full bar, it’s Friday night at 9:15 p.m. We’ve got an event called “literary death match”, kind of like the Hunger Games for writers where they compete against each other and are judged by writing peers. It’s at 9:15p.m. on Wednesday. And then we’ve got the “adult spelling bee” where we’ve got local Calgary celebrities who have to take off items of clothing when they misspell a word and they’re going to put on a hell of a show.
Q. Do you recall the first book that you read?
A. Oh gosh, it was probably One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish the Dr. Seuss book. I was one of those children who were reading real books. I was one of those kids who were kicked out of the library for reading too many books. To this day, I still read an enormous amount and I still love it. That doesn’t mean I don’t watch TV and I don’t go to movies and I don’t have a life. There’s something cool about being a book nerd now so embrace your book nerdiness.
Wordfest starts on Friday, October 7th and continues until October 16th.
This Q & A has been edited for length and clarity