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Vancouver libraries aim to connect authors and aspirants

Author Sam Wiebe is pictured in the Vancouver Public Library in downtown Vancouver in December.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Sam Wiebe, the author of two acclaimed crime novels set in Vancouver, spent many months of 2016 in what was called the "fishbowl," a glassed-in office in the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library.

People would knock on the door of his fifth-floor space and ask for "weird things," he says. "It's odd. They would ask for paper. They ask you to help fix the copy machines."

"You're basically on display for everyone," Mr. Wiebe said of his office space. "At the beginning, I was really disconcerted. I would actually come into the office everyday just to do something in there to get more used to it. It got better."

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But that was for the best. It made it easy for patrons to find the latest writer-in-residence for the library system in British Columbia's most populous city – a scribe recruited to mentor other writers, hold programs in branches across the system and work on their own prose as part of an effort to connect with the public.

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Now that it's over, Mr. Wiebe is saddened at the end of the responsibilities that came with the office. "I loved it except for the last couple of weeks because I was morose that it was going to come to an end," said Mr. Wiebe, 34.

For four months of 2016, Mr. Wiebe was helping writers as the latest occupant of a program created in 2005. By the end of his term this month, Mr. Wiebe hosted 47 programs, including author readings, workshops, panel discussions and an event at the Vancouver Police Museum, reaching about 380 people.

He also had meetings with 29 aspiring writers. "They all were really animated with passion for what they were doing and that sort of does rub off on me too. It makes me better at what I am doing."

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Indeed, Mr. Wiebe was working on a new novel during the posting. He was encouraged to do so by the library. He did research for a mystery set around the realm of women's mixed martial arts and boxing. He would have done that work regardless of this posting, but says the residency helped him more effectively connect with people. "It was the contacts and meeting people and drawing people in." People at public events, aware of his project, would offer advice.

Mr. Wiebe is the first writer in crime fiction to hold the Vancouver post, which pays $4,250 per month. His first published novel, Last of the Independents, won an Arthur Ellis Award from the Crime Writers of Canada – honours for notable fiction and non-fiction focused on crime. His latest novel, Invisible Dead, was released in June and features the character Dave Wakeland, a 29-year-old former Vancouver police officer turned private investigator.

Various B.C. libraries have tried such programs, including Richmond and Surrey where Renee Saklikar has been poet laureate for the city in a joint municipal-library program. The Greater Victoria Public Library has no writer-in-residence now, but had one in 2008/09. New Westminster is intrigued. "We do not have a writer-in-residence program although it's seriously on our radar," Faith Jones, public services manager for the New Westminster Public Library, said in an e-mail.

According to the Canada Council for the Arts, which provides funding for such programs, B.C. institutions received $39,069 in funding in 2016 – almost 19 per cent of the national total. A total of six B.C. organizations received a literary residency grant, according to a statement on the issue from the council.

Anne O'Shea, manager of programming and learning for the Vancouver Public Library, described Mr. Wiebe as a "super-talented writer" of fast-paced novels with a good sense of Vancouver.

But she noted he was also an innovative programmer committed to connecting with the public. In particular, she referenced a downloadable walking tour, available through the library website, that walks you through Vancouver with audio passages of his books in the locations in which they are set. "It's kind of cool."

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Next year, she said the Vancouver library system will be looking for a romance writer – a new genre for the program. "It's a program we're committed to continuing."

Previous Vancouver writers in residence have included Maggie de Vries, whose book Missing Sarah was nominated for the 2003 Governor-General's Award for Non-Fiction, as well as Ivan E. Coyote, Wayde Compton and Spider Robinson, acclaimed for his science-fiction novels and short stories. Mr. Wiebe's immediate predecessor, in 2015, was Ashley Little.

Mr. Wiebe, a teacher of college-level English, was looking for a new opportunity when a friend in publishing sent him the application for the writing post in the Vancouver library system. He was confident his wide-ranging knowledge of Vancouver would help him come up with innovative programming.

Mr. Wiebe has since left his teaching job and isn't sure about his future plans, though his residency experience has him intrigued about one possibility. He might return to the classroom, focusing on creative-writing teaching. "One of the things I learned doing the residency is I really like creative-writing teaching."

Editor's note: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated that the novel Last of the Independents featured the character Dave Wakeland. This is the corrected version.

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