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British Columbia Founder of B.C. writers festival reflects on Sunshine Coast literary event

Betty Keller, who is this year’s recipient of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Book Prize, founded B.C.’s oldest annual writers festival.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Betty Keller had not planned to move to the Sunshine Coast. After teaching high school around B.C. for years (and then becoming a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University's teacher training program), she was looking to retire to a gulf island. But a real estate agent found her a perfect lot on Sechelt Inlet, and a day on the Sunshine Coast convinced her that it was the right place for her. She moved there in 1980.

It was clearly meant to be. Three years later, she founded what is now B.C.'s oldest annual writers festival – the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts.

Ms. Keller, 84, has either written or co-written 17 books, ghost-written a dozen and edited close to 100. She recently finished another novel and has a new project on the go.

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On Saturday, she will receive the Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence at the BC Book Prizes gala in Vancouver.

She recently met with Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman in Vancouver.

Where did the idea come from for a writers' festival?

I had been teaching creative writing privately on the Sunshine Coast, and the numbers kept growing.

The Sunshine Coast is wall-to-wall writers, or would-be writers. And one day it hit me: The only writer they're ever hearing from is me. And they needed to hear [other writers]. So we called a meeting. About 40 writers, would-be writers came out for it. We made an umbrella organization which we called the Writers Forge because somebody said we're hammering out stories.

And then the big idea was how do we get writers to come and talk? And I said maybe what we need is a weekend where we invite a number of writers. But we have to pay them a fee, we have to pay their ferry fare, their gas, etc. and put them up.

We worked out the logistics of that – and 40 people inviting half a dozen writers wasn't going to work. And I said, okay then, the solution is we invite readers to come as well.

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That was in April, 1983, and we had the first festival in August of the same year.

What was that first year like?

Everything went wrong. We lost $1,300. And to a lot of [those involved], that was it. No, we're not doing that again. But there were enough of us that said, "We can do better. We'll make it work." And we did.

What went wrong that led to that financial loss?

I think the biggest thing was that we were doing it at the Arts Centre in Sechelt, and they had double-booked the Saturday night. And Jack Hodgins was going to speak that night, our big attraction for the year. We didn't find this out until mid-afternoon. So we had to go and find another hall, put up signs so everybody would move, set the starting time a little later so people could arrive there and find the new spot. [Also], we decided that it was so important to treat writers like how special they were, so I think that that's why we went in the hole the first time. And it was always touch and go. I mean, it's an arts organization, so what do you expect, really? But we were flying by the seat of our pants because the only writers' festival of any kind that we knew of was at Harbourfront in Toronto. We had decided that everyone we invited had to be a Canadian writer – [not] just B.C. writers. And because we were doing it in summer, we couldn't pick them off the promotion circuits, so we were having to pay the whole shot. But for the Sunshine Coast, the best time is August, because it's just beautiful there. So we stuck to it and it worked.

What year did things start turning around?

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Really, the turnaround probably came in about '87. And in the winter of '88, we built our own space. It's an outdoor log pavilion and seats 500 and it's beautiful. We had been putting tents up in the parking lot and the tents got bigger and bigger each year. And then you couldn't get the tents any bigger because we filled the whole parking lot.

What's so special about this festival?

It's an open-air pavilion, for one. They're all Canadian writers from right across the country. And I think it's just it's a great place to be, you know? And some of the greats of Canadian writing were willing to come. We always laughed about the time Peter Gzowski had come. He arrived and checked in and then he walked down to the beach and he met Patrick Lane on the beach. Patrick was sitting there on a log, smoking. And they knew one another from years ago. So he sat down beside him to talk and along came Jeffrey Simpson, and he joined them on the log. I think it was that feeling that the writers got out there and mingled with the readers and had a chance to mingle with one another.

This was the first annual literary festival in B.C., right? You're older than the Vancouver festival.

Interestingly enough [Vancouver Writers Fest founder] Alma Lee came up to find out how we did it. And this was about our third or fourth festival. We always laugh about it. We showed them how.

Do you have any other favourite moments from over the years?

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Oh God, yes. We always laughed about Mordecai Richler. Every year, I would send him a letter telling him how much people out here would like to hear him at the festival. And he'd write back he was too busy. And so the next year I would write him what I hoped was a more come-hither type of letter.

Each time he answered, he just put it on a postcard: "Sorry, no." And [finally his] postcard said, "All right, all right, I'll come." And he came.

The BC Book Prizes will be handed out at a gala in Vancouver on Saturday night.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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