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Dear Toronto Readers: Hit the Road

Book Madam, Julie Wilson, hits the rural roads to visit regional literary festivals.

Ontario road trip.

If you're a reader, to live in Toronto is an embarrassment of riches. We have access not only to year-round literary events, many of which are free, but to many authors themselves. Publishers, as well. Enough so that it becomes easy to forget just how much there is to see and do. It's not to say that we don't revel in our fandom; but, how we invest in our community is, perhaps, a little strategic. Who. When. Why. How. I'd wager to suggest that we're not as open to surprises as we are to supporting our own. Which is to say that to thrive in the trenches of the Toronto lit scene is to limit your view of the larger battlefield. (I think it's safe to say we're at war with ourselves, yes?)

At some point, I started to pay closer attention to attendees. While many were fans of one author or another, it seemed just as many were using events as an audition in order to determine whether or not to invest in the purchase of an author's book, or which book should there be a variety of authors on display. We've become too familiar with our community, perhaps in the same way a Los Angeles native thinks nothing of standing in the line at Anthropologie behind an actor at The Grove. True, writers are just people. But, actually, no, they're not. They're rock stars. They move and inspire us with their words, ethic and ability to withstand heaping amounts of rejection in order to get back to the page long after most of us would have hanged our sneakers and called it a day. So, too, are our readers rock stars, alongside booksellers and book buyers who invest in writers and publishers over the course one book or an entire career.

So, it should come as no surprise that I've expanded my professional publishing fandom to include road trips out of the city, grabbing rides with authors and publicists to bookstore events and regional festivals, The Madam in her truest form as escort on two and three hour jaunts that often include detours, rush hour traffic and lots of small talk. One of my favourite journeys was with a sales rep. We attempted to summarize everything in blurbs. "This coffee is enthralling!" "From beginning to end, this air freshener is understated brilliance." "With hope, grace and redemption, I really need to pee!" (And upon returning, I was heard to yell, "Brava!")

At this summer's final Scream in High Park—which stands out as an in-city event with an out-of-this-world vibe—Shawn Micallef sounded out a list of ways to survive in The Ford Nation, one of which is to get drunk in neighbourhoods other than your own, in part because you'll meet new people, and, well, you'll leave with your reputation more or less intact because who was that masked man? I was reminded of this as I stood in an all-black ensemble that included yoga jeans and a scarf worn indoors, awaiting my Crazy Bread in a Huntsville Little Caesars while a bottle of scotch did the same for me back in a room at The Deerhurst Resort. And, listen, I really felt like a hipster. Because it's only when we step outside our comfort zones that we meet ourselves face-to-face.

So to riff off Shawn's list, fellow Torontonians, I have to say, if you get the chance, hitch a ride—be the ride—to an event or festival outside our great city.

Julie's Reasons to Get Your Arse Out of Toronto

  1. The real reader: This is not to say that Torontonians are not real readers. There have been times, however, when I've scanned the room to see that the purchase of a book has been circumvented by the need to buy another beer. This exists in stark contrast to the high school student in Collingwood who upon having just purchased a book by a favoured author recognized said author as she headed into the loo. Encouraged by her mother to go in after her, I assured the young woman that there was no secret escape hatch for visiting authors and I was confident she'd get both an introduction and an autograph, after which smiles joined hands across the nation. Seriously, it was adorable. (Source: Wordstock, Collingwood)
  2. Soup: When was the last time you ate soup at a sit-down literary event with a sandwich and your choice of tea, coffee or hot cider? Such was the case at a luncheon that included a bevy of babes, to borrow a term from one of the readers, Claudia Dey, that also included Tish Cohen, Gillian Deacon and Cathy Buchanan. (I think it was the famed Curried Pumpkin and Sweet Potato Soup from 3 Guys and a Stove.) Not to be outdone, how about some pho? Attendees of Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Book Club event lined up two rows deep for a taste of noodle soup. Quaint touches, but who doesn't love a warmed belly? As the lids were removed near the end of Gibb's event she quoted directly from her book as her protagonist Hung: "You can tell a good broth by its aroma, the way it begs the body through the nose.” Only in intimate venues could a contemplative afterthought ripple through a crowd with such affect, as much a nod to our hosts as the text itself. Everything at a regional event, from soup to cider to the very chairs you sit in is an advertisement for local businesses. (Source: North Words Muskoka Literary Festival)
  3. A church is just a venue: Personally, I can't seem to focus during readings held in a church. However, get me out of Toronto and I recognize them as the perfect venues. Great acoustics. Pleasant lighting. Raised stage. Scoochy seating. (As in: "Can you scooch over so I can get a better view?") And, yes, there's something quite lovely about having a story read to you from a pulpit, especially if your religion is Reader. (Source: Wordstock, Collingwood)
  4. Meet writers in their natural habitats: On the drive into Collingwood, we took a left at Stayner. "Stayner," I said. "Why does that sound familiar?" It hit me. Tony Burgess lives in Stayner. I attempted to describe Tony to the driver, running through a list of his books, referencing the interview I conducted with him not that long ago, all the while thinking to myself it would be so much easier if I could just point to Tony Burgess. I mean, how do you describe Tony Burgess? Sure enough, as we rolled through the main strip, Tony Burgess stepped onto the road with his son. "There," I gestured. "Tony Burgess."

    Here, in Toronto, we tend to think that, as in New York, if we stand on a street corner, eventually anyone we've ever known (could ever know) will pass us by. We're particularly bad for this when it comes to writers. Every writer will come through Toronto sooner or later, right? And if we don't get them this book, we'll get them the next. Get them the next book? Are we listening to ourselves? Don't wait for these lives to pass you by, dear reader. Go to them. See a writer in his or her natural habitat. (Source: Wordstock, Collingwood)

  5. Readers as experts: Regional festivals show as much hospitality toward their readers as the visiting authors, and in some situations make room for them as experts. Case in point, the previously mentioned Camilla Gibb book club event at North Words in Muskoka. Ahead of time, readers were invited to submit themselves for an on stage chat about The Beauty of Humanity Movement with Gibb in attendance. Six readers were chosen to take mainstage alongside the author, the traditional question and answer period directly incorporated into the presentation. Not only did it break down the barrier between reader and writer, it effectively rebuilt the reading experience as a tandem exercise between the two worlds. (Source: North Words Muskoka Literary Festival)
  6. Books both sold and read: A biggie. Authors who attend events held by Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge have noted how engaged the audiences are, and larger than most. The secret? Most of Blue Heron's events include the book in the ticket price, which means that book clubs—of which there are a gazillion in Uxbridge—have often read and discussed a title by the time its author comes to town. The bookseller goes into each event with the confidence that books have already been sold and read, which makes for happy authors and publishers who want to repeat on the experience. (Source: Blue Heron Books, Uxbridge)
  7. The drive: Plain and simple, road trips are fun. It's remarkable how quickly we can talk ourselves out of going to an evening event in Toronto if there's more than a sixty minute gap between the end of work and doors open. But there's something about the anticipation of going on a rural road trip, accompanied by rock ballads or the quiet crawl of a slow-moving lane, that reminds us that to get out of Dodge with stories as the final destination is a literary adventure in itself. Pick the right time of year and you'll also be treated to glorious colours, indigo-blue skies and an open window on an early autumn day. Or, my personal favourite, a cautious slog through snow to arrive fireside glass of wine. (Source: North Words Muskoka Literary Festival and Blue Heron Books, Uxbridge)


Julie Wilson has been inviting herself along for the ride since she was five years old. Her interests include I Spy, 20 Questions and Punch Buggy (No Punch Backs.)

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