I’d like to introduce the first edition of my new interview segment. I’ve chosen the wonderful and talented Hal Wake, Artistic Director of the Vancouver Writers Fest as the lucky interviewee, because he’s done amazing things for the Canadian publishing industry, plus he’s alot of fun to talk to. He’s game for just about anything, and I consider myself blessed for meeting him when I did. Hopefully you enjoy his answers as much as I do!
Q-Briefly summarize your job (for my readers)
A- I, along with my extremely talented Artistic Associate, select 100 writers from around the world to attend our annual festival in October every year. We then program around 90 events (conversations, on-stage interviews, discussions, readings and performances) that are attend by more than 17,000 people. In the spring we program another 10 free events at the Vancouver Public Library.
Q-What do you think your best quality is? What do you think mine is?
A-I think we’re both pretty funny and playful, so we’re pretty easy to be around.
Q-What are you most proud of?
A-I’m proud of my honorary membership in the Writers’ Union of Canada. I’m proud to have served the literary community for many years in many different ways and I am very proud of my children who are extraordinary people.
Q-You recently announced that 2017 will be your last year with the Vancouver Writers Fest-why?
A- 2017 will be the 30th anniversary of the festival, so it seemed like a good time. I figured that if I was going to try to take on new challenges and try something different, I’d better do it when I still had the energy. So I’m not retiring, just taking a different role in connecting writers and books with readers and audiences.
Q-What’s the best part of your current job, and what’s the worst part?
A-The best part is having the opportunity to meet and become friends with writers from many different countries, to be part of thoughtful and engaging conversations, to feel that bringing the public into those conversations it can sometimes change someone’s life. The worst part is managing logistics, seemingly endless negotiations and staring at a computer screen all day.
Q-On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you miss working with me? 1 being not at all, and 10 being you miss me so much it should make me uncomfortable?
A-The answer is 10. But it’s okay, when I have wrapped up the 2017 festival I can move to Calgary and work with you again. I can’t imagine how exciting that will be for you.
Q-What’s your favourite kind of book to read?
A-I have very eclectic tastes and read a lot of different genres. But I’d guess I’d say when I just want to lose myself in a book my default is literary crime.
Q-What piece of advice can you give to aspiring writers?
A-From being around so many writers for so many years, I know how important it is for a writer to read. Read widely and think about how the writer puts the narrative together, how they use language, how subtext can be as important as the surface text. And finally, wanting to be a writer should not be the goal, wanting to write and enjoying the act of writing is the goal.
Q-Who are more annoying-poets or spoken word artists?
A-If you think I’m crazy enough to give you a straight answer to this question, well, I have no words. I will say that many spoken word artists are organisationally-challenged. And there are poets whose understanding of time (as in reading length) leaves something to be desired.
Q-How many books do you read in a year?
A-Let’s change the question to how many books I delve into over the course of the year (which is what I have to do for my job). Then the answer would be thousands.
Q-On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does it annoy you that I read so many more books a year than you do? 1 being not at all, and 10 being ‘it drives me bat shit crazy’?
A-I am so full of admiration of your ability to read widely, deeply and thoughtfully. For your continuing promotion of books and writers, Calgary, actually the entire country, owes you a debt of gratitude.
Q-Is there any writer in particular that you wish you could meet, and haven’t had the chance to yet?
A-I know there are many I have met that I would love to see again. Maybe I’ll answer this way, I have met the novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) on a number of occasions, but I would really love to have a long conversation with him. And I was so lucky to meet Margaret Laurence and spend some time with her.
Q-What is your biggest pet peeve? This doesn’t have to be related to books.
A-The older I get, the crankier I get, the more the pet peeves proliferate (alliteration). I guess right now the ignorance and incivility that has subsumed civil discourse on social media is deeply distressing to me, but that is of a higher order than a peeve. Okay, people who contact me to do something for them and then never follow up after I make an effort to help. That bugs me.
Q-What is your most embarrassing moment?
A-Tough call, there’ve been so many. How about getting my own name wrong when I was the host of the CBC Radio morning show in Vancouver? That was pretty embarrassing.
Q-Are you as sick of book prize juries not being able to stick to their allotted number of shortlisted books as I am? Seriously, just pick the number of books your supposed to, you’ll have to cut it all down to one eventually, ammiright?
A-Having served on a number of juries, most recently as chair of this year’s British Columbia’s National Prize for Canadian Non-Fiction, I can attest to how hard it is to narrow a list of some 140 books to four. Inevitably there are books you would deeply like to recognize, but in the end you have to make tough choices. I think prizes have done wonderful things in bringing many deserving writers much-needed attention. The challenge we have now is how to help readers discover great books that do not make a prize list.
Q-What’s the best interview you ever had (you as the interviewer or the interviewee)?
A-Ohhh, I’ve loved so many interviews: Tess Gallagher, Sharon Olds, Eve Joseph, Alice Munro, Howard Jacobson, Elizabeth Hay, Pico Iyer and I could go on. I am hoping to do a lot more when I have more time.
Q-You haven’t told anyone what you plan to do after VIWF. Are you secretly writing a novel?
A-Well, I just did tell people one of the things I’m planning to do, And I’m not hiding anything. I would like to stay involved with books and writers, and I’m open to any interesting offer. If it works out the interviews may become podcasts and if they do, I’ll let you know. If I could write one half decent poem or a short story I would be happy. By the way, if you are looking for really interesting, innovative, delicious fiction check on the short stories in the New Yorker these days. Writers like Lauren Groff, George Saunders, Karen Russell are really extending the form.