The Longest Goodbye

by Jane Davidson

Right? When is she actually going to go? The Festival Board posted the Artistic and Executive Director job opportunity in November 2021.  Here I am, on October 31, 2022, almost one year later, finally walking out the door.

This story began in July 2006.  I received a call from then-Board President Wendy Hunt asking if I would consider having a conversation about the role of Festival Producer, replacing Gail Bull who was moving on after many years of stellar service. Some context: I was, at the time, the General Manager of the Vancouver Writers Festival, a role I held since May 2001. I commuted daily from Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast to Granville Island. The alarm went off at 4:45 a.m. I left home at 5:30 a.m. to catch the 6:20 ferry. I got home at 6:45 p.m. on a good day.

Wendy and I met on the front patio of the Daily Roast in Sechelt on a sunny Sunday morning and had a great conversation about the Festival. My only hesitation was that Hal Wake had taken over from the Vancouver Writers Festival’s founder and Artistic Director, Alma Lee, about six months earlier. I felt an obligation to support Hal during his first year as AD. After my meeting with Wendy, I came home and said to my husband, Boyd, “Hal will be just fine without me.”

I was invited to an interview with Wendy and two other members of the Festival’s Board Executive Committee, Michelle Chapman and Lynn Pakulak. We met in Michelle’s living room, overlooking the Salish Sea, on a beautiful summer evening, and I was hooked by the care and passion these women had for the festival that they had fought so fiercely to protect. The Festival, approaching its 25th anniversary, had weathered some serious storms that almost took it down.

I started my new role on February 1, 2007.  About 10 weeks later, a few days after the promotional brochure had gone to print, an author withdrew from the line-up.  Months later, 48 hours before opening night in August another author cancelled and 24 hours later a third author cancelled.

I stopped breathing.

We got through it thanks to people like Jen Sookfong Lee, who replaced the first writer who withdrew in the spring, and Shaena Lambert, who replaced the writer who withdrew 48 hours before opening night.  (Side note: It was really wonderful to welcome Jen and Shaena back to the 40th Anniversary festival, my last, this past August.) There wasn’t enough time to replace the third author but Hal Wake came up with the brilliant idea of asking ten writers who were already going to be at the Festival to read for 5 minutes each at an event. I asked ten writers and ten writers said yes. And it was fantastic. My favourite moment was when acclaimed crime fiction writer Peter Robinson – and one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet –  asked if it would be okay to read his poetry.  Of course I said yes and of course it was wonderful. (Note: I typed these words about Peter on the evening of October 6, 2022 and woke up to the news of his death on October 7.]  I also recall, at that first Festival, sitting outside the Pavilion listening to Camilla Gibb speaking while watching a mother raccoon lead three kits down the huge cedar tree 10 feet away from where I was sitting. I took it as an omen, of what I’m not sure.

I’ve been looking at old Festival programs lately and reading the lists of authors who have been a part of the Festival over the last 15 years. Our world has lost Wayson Choy, Steven Heighton, Lee Maracle, Patrick Lane, Zaccheus Jackson, Jack Whyte, Blanche Howard, Paul Quarrington, Bonnie Burnard, Richard Wagamese, and Alistair McLeod. Memories, and the books they left us with, are indeed a blessing.

I have worked with some truly outstanding people. Peter Lietz, sound magician and technical director, had already been with the Festival for a couple of years before I came on board. Oh man, where do I start? Peter Lietz is the person who hangs speakers in the trees so that people can sit outside the Pavilion for sold-out events and hear the presentations. Peter Lietz is the kind of technical director who gently suggests that the next time you want to put five people on stage for a discussion you perhaps have a conversation with him first. Noted. It won’t happen again, Peter. Peter Lietz is the kind of person who navigates technical roadblocks and finds a way to make it all work. Every time. He never says “no”. He says, “I’ll see what I can figure out.” He always figures it out. He makes great pickles and he loves a good sparkling wine. Peter Lietz introduced me to Prosecco.  He’s the best friend and partner a producer can have. Thank you, Peter.

I’ve watched Pat Dalgleish manage the people traffic and lead the front of house team for … is it 13 years, Pat? Front of house management is most certainly not as easy you think it might look and if you think it looks easy that’s because someone is paying really close attention to a wide range of details. Front of house managers like Pat anticipate and plan and act super quickly on their feet. Thank you, Pat.

Michele Mocellin is our Site Manager who comes in two weeks before the Festival and deals with everything from pigeons (and thus pigeon poop) in the Pavilion to assembling the concession booths to washing 400 seats (400!) to putting up signs and banners to just about anything you throw at him that relates to the physical set-up. He is godsent. Michele succeeded Jonathan Parlee who took us through a couple of Festivals (miss you, Jonathan!) and Geoff Davis who gave us over 10 years of devoted service. Geoff has a drive like I’ve never seen before. He is capable of moving mountains and he does and he did. Thank you, Michele, Jonathan and Geoff.

Is it possible to have a Festivalof the Written Arts without Bev Shaw and Talewind Books? I think not! In addition to supporting the Festival, the Sunshine Coast Arts Council’s literary reading series, and the Eldercollege Festival Preview course, Talewind Books creates jobs and supports local fundraising initiatives and school libraries and is a community hub for readers and has the know-how to help you find that book … you know the one … it has a blue cover and it was on the Giller shortlist or was it Canada Reads and I can’t remember the author’s name but they were on The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers two years ago. Or was it The Current? They’ll find you that book. Guaranteed. Thank you, Bev. PS: Support your local independent bookseller.

Huge thanks as well to Karen Weissenborn, long-time graphic designer who manages both deadlines and my anxiety about deadlines; Anna Nobile, program/brochure bio writer and project manager extraordinaire for her attention to detail and for being unfailingly efficient and reliable; Teresa Nightingale, Attention Design, for her speedy response to just about any request relating to; and to my favourite bass-playing bookkeeper, Boyd Norman, who has taught me about the power of knowing and owning your numbers. Thank you, Sherryl Latimer, for always being the secret weapon person I could turn to for special projects. You’ve always had my back. And I have to send a special shout-out to Chris Staples who wrote the program/brochure bios and wrangled the stage management team for many years. You’re one of a kind, CVS. Thank you for everything.

To my friends at School District 46, thank you for the amazing partnership that is Celebration of Authors, Books and Community (CABC). Bringing writers into Sunshine Coast classrooms and schools, both in person and by Zoom, has been one of the highlights of my professional life. I see you and I see your dedication as educators who care deeply about students.

Thank you, John Lussier, Jean Bennett, Cathie Roy and Wendy Hunt for your leadership of the Board of Directors and to all who serve and who have served on the Board. You’ve all had trying times to navigate and your support has been unwavering. I will remember two things: laughter and camaraderie, all while doing the necessary and sometimes very hard work.

Tonight, I am saying goodbye not only to my job with the Festival of the Written Arts but to a career in arts administration. I chose this path not only for the money (insert chuckle) but because I truly felt a calling. Before I sign off (finally) I want to acknowledge the women who have had a profound effect on me and my career. In 1982, I was hired by Arts Umbrella, a Vancouver-based organization that is devoted to arts education for children and youth. The office was in a bedroom of Carol and Richard Henriquez’s home. Carol and her Arts Umbrella co-founder Gloria Schwarz were strong, dynamic, and passionate women with a clear vision and endless energy and determination. What a gift it was to be on the ground floor of this amazing organization. I remember moving into Arts Umbrella’s first space on Granville Island when it was still a construction zone. Carol and Gloria showed me what could be done with passion and conviction.

In 2001, Alma Lee, founder and Artistic Director of the Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival, as it was then known, invited me to apply for the position of General Manager. Even though I was living in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast with my husband and four kids (the youngest two – twins – were just  2 ½ years old), I applied and I got the job. Now what?! Boyd and I traded places and I started the weekdaily commute to Granville Island. It was the most exhausting and the most exciting period of my life. I learned so much from Alma and from the amazing people I worked with. It was an incredible gift in so many ways and I know I wouldn’t have had my life at the SCFWA without it.

It felt like a destiny move when I was hired by the Festival of the Written Arts in the fall of 2006. This was a Festival that had been also been founded by a group of dedicated, passionate women. Betty Keller and the founding mothers (Rosella Leslie, Maureen Foss, Gwen Southin and Eileen Williston) had a very clear vision: to celebrate and promote Canadian writers and publishers. When the Festival floundered, it was mostly women (led by Wendy Hunt with Lynn Pakulak and Maureen McBeath) who were determined to rescue it. There was also Rick Cooney, who was then the manager of the Sechelt branch of the Sunshine Coast Credit Union. He literally jumped on Board to save the Festival. Rick offered to help on one condition: that he be on the Board. That was a huge risk for Rick but he believed in the Festival and in the people who were trying to save it and he wanted to do right by the people and organizations who were owed money. He could have said, no, I can’t help you, but instead he took on fiduciary responsibilities for an organization in trouble.

I will forever be proud of and grateful for what we accomplished together: writers, readers, volunteers, sponsors, donors, community partners, and funding partners.

Ann-Marie MacDonald, from an interview with Marsha Lederman, published by The Globe and Mail on Saturday, October 22, 2022, speaks to what I hoped to shine a light on:

“She (Ann-Marie MacDonald) sees literature as a possible corrective. The power of story only increases, she says, when the world is so polarized and dealing with urgent issues such as climate change.

‘I think stories by definition and then some stories by intention illuminate our interconnectedness. That’s the only antidote. It’s not just our interconnectedness with each other, but with our planet. With our beautiful, beautiful, alive entity of which we are a part.'”

The Festival community is people who believe in the transformative power of stories and literature, who believe that stories build communities, stories inform and enlighten, stories entertain and educate, stories connect us to each other, stories make us better people and citizens of the world.

Do you remember the story about Peter Robinson at the beginning of this essay? Coincidence/synchronicity?  I will leave you with this one last tale. This is about Richard Wagamaese and two Coyotes:

March 10, 2017. I’m in the Elphinstone Secondary School library with a visiting artist, Ronnie Dean Harris. Ronnie is an incredibly engaging and powerful Stō:lo/St’át’imc/Nlaka’pamux storyteller, poet and multi-media artist. Hey, this was the last block on a sunny Friday afternoon before the first ever two-week-long March break, and these students were completely in his hands.

I thought often that afternoon about Richard Wagamese and Zaccheus Jackson. They had met four years earlier on the Sunshine Coast and performed together in this same space. They met again at the 2014 Festival. And two weeks after that, Zaccheus died. Of all the things I’ve done and might yet do, creating an opportunity for Richard Wagamese and Zaccheus Jackson to meet is surely a life’s high light. It was mutual love and respect at first sight.

Back to March 10, 2017: I crawled into bed quite late that night and flipped through Facebook. There were two private messages: one was from Ivan Coyote and the other was from Terry Aleck aka Coyote. Both shared the news that Richard Wagamese had died earlier that day. Two Coyotes bearing such sad news. I was gutted.

At some point in the days that followed, I shared with my sister Leslie how touching and bittersweet it was that the news of Richard’s passing came to me through these two Coyotes that I love so very much.

Months later, Leslie gave me a beautiful little watercolour painting, titled Coyotes Singing. The artist is Kim MacLean.

The date on the back of the painting: March 10, 2017.

True story. Life is a mystery and a miracle.

And finally …

To Marisa Alps, I wish you the very best. You are the very best. I’m grateful for your love, support and friendship. You have mine. Working with you these past three months has been a very special time and a beautiful transition that fills me with hope and confidence.

To the shishalh Nation, I thank you for your stewardship of these lands and waters, for your education and teachings, for your grace and generosity. In this we journey together.

“We change the world, one story at a time.” – Richard Wagamese