15 Years of Thin Air
Fifteen years ago, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival was created by three individuals from the Manitoba Writers’ Guild. Their goal was to create a week of literary events that featured some of the best writers around.
Robyn Maharaj is a writer, poet and former arts administrator. She currently works as a freelance grant and feature writer. She volunteers her services to a family medical foundation based in Southern Florida raising funds for adult stem cell research. Maharaj’s essay on the Canadian novelist Patricia Blondal (also the subject of her poetry manuscript) was published in The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century in 2006. Several of her poems have been published in Canadian literary journals and feature articles have appeared in national newspapers and magazines. Maharaj is currently completing a personal and professional memoir.
Mark Morton is the author of four books, none of which would have come to be if he hadn’t moved to Winnipeg in 1992. He is a past president of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, and co-founder of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival. He now lives in Kitchener, and works at the University of Waterloo. His hobbies include stepping on pieces of his children’s Lego, and thinking about exercising more.
Andris Taskans is a founding member of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and the founding president of the Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival. He helped start Prairie Fire in 1978 and has been its editor ever since.
Their memories from the first festival:
Robyn Maharaj remembers…
“My memories of the start of what would become THIN AIR: the Winnipeg International Writers Festival is of a lot of meetings. Meetings with potential community partners, non-committing funders and somewhat skeptical eastern-based publishers that took place in various locals around the city and in short order, the country as we attempted to strengthen ties and connections with as many people as we could in an effort to get a festival off the ground. We flew as many of the go-to people in the Canadian literary festival world to Winnipeg as we could, and they were patient as we pummeled them with questions, draft budgets and first drafts of what we hoped were sincere and earnest sounding invitation letters to our ever-growing list of writers who made the various short-lists.
Having been mostly hands-off for the last several years yet able to observe the Festival – its accomplishments and successes – from here and afar, it must be said that the people involved from taking it (still a fledgling) from the core of founders and volunteers to those who work steadily each year to make it happen are why it is a thriving, going concern. Looking back, I have to say that the time, energy, wrist-wringing (at the size of some of our early audiences in the vast cave of the West End Cultural Centre) and yes even the meetings were worth it to see this organization that now brings many thousands of readers and writers together in a magical, profound way grow into a world-class adventure for the mind and soul in the form of THE annual literary Festiv al in Manitoba. Here’s to THIN AIR!”
Andris Taskans remembers…
“The Winnipeg Writers Festival was supported in its early years by both the Manitoba Writers Guild and Prairie Fire Press. To get things off to a proper start, we incorporated the festival with the three of us [Maharaj, Morton and Taskans] as officers. I believe I got to be president. Somehow we found money to hire Paula Kelly as our sole (and indispensable) employee. A wild roller coaster ride ensued.
With little money and no time to read new books, I had to choose potential guests by relying on people’s reputations, my colleagues’ advice, and even publicists’ bumf. Although a few of the line-ups were a bit shaky, most worked well and were reasonably attended, despite our puny publicity budget. Our mainstage venue was the old West End Cultural Centre. The two most memorable evenings for me were the poetry bash and an onstage interview with Pierre Berton conducted, I believe, by Ron Robinson.
The poetry bash was headlined by Al Purdy; warm-up readers included George Amabile and Anne Szumigalski. Purdy was a wonderful reader and was buoyed by a turnout of around 200.
The Berton conversation was billed as the main feature following some readings. Mr. Berton was in ill health and couldn’t stay up late. Just as the intermission was announced, the WECC’s sound system blew out with a loud pop. Paula and I fretted as staff worked frantically to restore sound. We knew that if there was a delay, Berton’s handler had threatened to take him back to the hotel. The intermission ended all too soon. When Ron Robinson spoke into the mic and we knew it was working again, Paula and I were so relieved we hugged each other.”
Mark Morton remembers…
“My recollection of how the Winnipeg International Writers Festival began is a bit fuzzy, because (like many things that take root and flourish) it was an organic process, one that grew out a prior literary event that the Manitoba Writers’ Guild had coordinated, and one that evolved incrementally from a notion to a plan to a reality.
I do remember an initial meeting in the offices of Prairie Fire with Robyn Maharaj and Andris Taskans, mostly because it began with Andris asking us if we would like a “refreshing beverage” (of tea or diet-Coke). That offer of a “refreshing beverage” was reiterated at the beginning of dozens of subsequent meetings, and Andris always uttered it in a tone that hovered between whimsy and solemnity. It became, I think, our unofficial “call to order,” a small tradition that helped buoy us through the flux and quandaries that emerged as we tried to figure out how to invent and launch a literary festival.
I also recall that the three of us – Andris, Robyn, and myself – worked well as a team. I think that Andris saw the forest, Robyn saw the trees, and I raked up the leaves. I’m not exactly sure what the metaphor means, but somehow it captures the essence of how the festival came to be.”.