After 40 years, the Toronto International Festival of Authors is getting a makeover with the appointment of Roland Gulliver, the third director and first non-Canadian in its storied history. Gulliver has an impressive résumé. His accolades include six years as arts manager for the British Council in Brussels, culminating in Out of Ourselves, a six-month-long multidisciplinary festival to celebrate Britain’s presidency of the European Union in 2006. Significantly, Toronto has lured Gulliver away from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where, as associate director, he had a “seismic“ effect on programming, attendance and book sales, according to his former boss, Nick Barley, director of the festival. A couple of examples: The festival’s two book shops sold more than 10,000 books in the first two days of the 2015 festival, according to The Bookseller, the bible of the British book trade, and last year the festival boasted a roster of authors from more than 60 countries.
At 43, Gulliver is engaging, with an easy laugh and a ready smile. He is not a stranger to the IFOA, as it was known back in 2009, when then-director Geoffrey Taylor invited Gulliver to program a “strand” of Scottish writers, including celebrities such as crime-fiction writer Ian Rankin and some lesser known but significant Gaelic-speaking writers, for the festival’s 30th anniversary. Gulliver had such a good time working in Canada that he’s kept a tartan bowtie that IFOA created for the celebration. He sat down on a bright, snowy day to discuss his plans for Toronto with The Globe and Mail’s Sandra Martin.
You have such an evocative name for the director of a literary festival that I’m tempted to think you conjured it up as a nom de plume. Were you teased about your name as a child?
The family myth is that my dad saw a film of Chanson de Roland and found the inspiration for my name, which he loved. I grew up in Glasgow, and I couldn’t quite pronounce my Rs properly. And there was a kids’ TV program at the time which had a character called RoLAND and a puppet called Roland Rat. So, for all these reasons, I was teased. I like my name now for its distinctiveness.
Another impertinent question: Why are you leaving Edinburgh, after more than a dozen years at its festival, and moving to Canada – other than to seek sunshine in the winter?
That is true. (Laughs.) Edinburgh is very beautiful, and the festival I work at is amazing, but Toronto is also very beautiful, and so is Canada. Toronto is big, dynamic and global. One of the things I love is the feeling that everyone is from somewhere else. There is a freedom of expression and openness, and people are engaged, and for me that makes Toronto and Canada very exciting.
After a degree in English literature at the University of Edinburgh, you began your career in Brussels, working for the British Council, mixing it up with all sorts of European cultures. But now it is the opposite in Britain, post-Brexit, and with the re-emergence of the Scottish independence movement. Does that make this a good time for Gulliver to travel to Canada?
In its best days, the British Council is an amazing organization, and we did some really brilliant and important projects. One of my very first projects was bringing together British, French and German artists, looking at disability arts and sharing European best practices. We had a day-long conference discussing different elements, and then an evening of music and performance and DJs, which brought everybody together in a celebration. Those six years gave me the bug for the live event and what you can do.
More than just listening to a poet read – and not always in translation?
That can be very beautiful, but yes.
One of my favourite projects at Edinburgh was doing a program on graphic novels and comics, and bringing it into the mainstream of the literary festival. We had people like Neil Gaiman and lots of illustrators and life drawing, which attracted a completely different demographic. Those writers and artists were saying, “We don’t normally get to be part of this. We are placed in the comics tent.” That was about showing that comics and graphic novels are valued elements of literature, and that we all consume and experience our stories in different ways, and that doesn’t mean that you have to have produced a standard book on a printed page.
Gaelic Voices was a massively important program because it brought lots of different languages and voices on stage. I also did a project last year called Scotland Goes Basque. One of the elements began with James Robertson exchanging letters with Iban Zaldua [on literature, language and political challenges and conflicts in Europe]. The letters were translated from Scots [a Germanic language] into English, then into Spanish, and finally into Basque. And then Zaldua began the process in the reverse direction. Both of them wrote about being writers and why Indigenous voices are important. The great thing for me was that 200 people came to hear them talk.
Do you mean to make the Toronto International Festival of Authors engaging and fun? Because many people don’t find it very exciting these days. Forty years ago, when Greg Gatenby was the founding director, there wasn’t anything else, but times have changed. Why, for example, would I come down to a reading at the Harbourfront Centre and buy a ticket when I can go to an event at the Toronto Reference Library at Bloor and Yonge for free? Is that an issue you think you need to solve?
Harbourfront is one of the world’s longest running book festivals. It has a prestige and a standing in the world. When I first joined Edinburgh in 2006, Toronto and Vancouver were two of the best and classiest festivals. One of the things that excites me about coming here is the challenge of running an organization that is in a very, very competitive cultural space, and working out how you can succeed and make the festival succeed. As well as bringing people down to Harbourfront, it is about the festival going out and working with the library and with different communities. Toronto is a big international city, but people have grassroots connections to different neighbourhoods. I think literary festivals thrive when they connect to the local and when they celebrate everyone’s individual stories. Festivals have to work differently now. They have to go out and be more pro-active. They are about representing publishing and culture, but they are also about going out and finding the writers or commissioning new works and challenging people about their expectations of what a literary festival is and what a literary event is.
What is your biggest idea for Toronto?
I have lots of ideas, things that I created in Edinburgh that I look forward to bringing here, but also about responding to context. There is a whole team here working on the festival, people who have a lot of experience. One of the worst questions a festival programmer can be asked is what do you do for the rest of the year? (Laughs.) To make a festival is a year-round project or longer. Festivals are starting to look at creating new works. For example, at the 2019 festival in Edinburgh we brought two Indigenous writers together, who shared texts with each other and then passed them to a musician. The writers then responded to the music and we brought all of that together – readings and imagery and music – to make a performance.
The literary event is very simple: a writer on stage sharing work with an audience who wants to hear it rather than read it. That’s a very simple and beautiful equation and one I love. And from there you build the rest of the festival, but alongside that there is performance. The kinds of performances you can make with the sophistication of digital media and technology means that you can create exciting live events which involve music, theatre or imagery, but which are still rooted in literature.
A lot of what a literary festival is about is making relationships with publishers and writers, and them trusting you so that they say, “This is where I want to have my event or my book launch.” How you program it, when you program it, who you program it with, who is chairing, how a writer’s books are being sold, the way an author is looked after, are all vitally important. One of the joys of my years in Edinburgh was working with publishers and writers and developing friendships and trust.
How will you know if and when you have succeeded?
Lots of different ways. People will be happy, people will feel inspired, people will buy books, the festival will have a recognition within Toronto, and around the world. There are very simple success measures of people coming and discovering a new writer or a new book and sharing that. We experience books in very personal ways, but we want to share those experiences. One of my proudest achievements in Edinburgh was Unbound. We developed it in response to the change in the live literature scene in Edinburgh and the U.K. There was more performance, more stand-up, more spoken word, and more attempts to create a literary festival that was fun and entertaining. Traditionally a literary event [at a festival] happens in the middle of the day with a couple of people reading from their books. That is great, but it can also be about performance and readings and music and an atmosphere that is fun and joyful, but rooted in storytelling and stories and books.
What if your programming doesn’t work?
What if it doesn’t work? Of course, it will work. There is an amazing team already here. The Harbourfront Centre is an amazing support. You need a lot of energy and enthusiasm to run a festival, but I am very excited. There are few festivals that would have tempted me, like this one.
Welcome and good luck.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.