Zsuzsi Dishes: The Writers Adventure Camp
Award-winning author Zsuzsi Gartner is a good friend and fantastic writer. She patiently ushered me through the creation of my first collection of short fiction, Beautiful Birds Are Flying All Around You, while I was an MFA student at UBC.
When I heard that Zsuzsi and some of her friends had launched a spectacular sounding writers adventure camp in beautiful Whistler, I wanted to get the lowdown. I tracked Zsuzsi down and she generously agreed to answer a few questions.
Zsuzsi is the author of the short fiction collections Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and All the Anxious Girls on Earth and the editor of Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. Her stories have been widely anthologized, and broadcast on CBC and NPR’s Selected Shorts. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize.
Zsuzsi, in addition to being an award-winning writer yourself, you’re also a highly respected teacher and mentor to many writers across Canada. What made you want to launch the Writers Adventure Camp? Can you tell me a bit about the camp and what makes it unique?
About three years ago when I was up at the Whistler Writers Festival I reconnected with an old friend, Stephen Vogler, who’s artistic director of The Point Artist-Run Centre on Alta Lake up there. The centre is housed in the last remaining 1950’s fishing lodge in the area — it’s a fabulous building, very rustic and welcoming, with an interesting history, and a phenomenal setting. The lake is literally on its back doorstep. Stephen invited me to do a reading/performance there that summer and I kept thinking, “Wow, this place NEEDS to be a writing retreat of some kind!” So that was the seed.
Then came the Adventure Camp notion, which has two prongs. One is literal outdoor adventures: biking, hiking, canoeing etc. The other, more significantly, is creative adventure. What distinguishes Writers Adventure Camp from other retreats and week-long workshops, such as the ones at the Banff Centre, where I’ve been on faculty, and Sage Hill in Saskatchewan, is the cross-fertilization aspect. Participants spend the mornings in their chosen genre workshops (either Fiction, Non-fiction or Screenwriting) and each afternoon there are a variety of other one-off workshops to take part in, all very hands on: songwriting, poetry, video-game writing, humour writing, and artisanal self-publishing. Next year I want to include a movement aspect: dance for writers or swordplay for writers, or improv for writers, and perhaps a visual arts aspect.
And, rather than an evening of straightforward readings, we have a Dinner-Cabaret night where anyone attending a workshop can read or perform a five-minute set, book-ended by our musical and humour guest faculty headliners.
I like to describe it as writers boot camp meets West Coast arts festival.
This is the camp’s second year. What were some of the highlights for you from last year?
The Cabaret was fabulous! It’s open to the public, so participants got a “real” audience. One woman in her late-sixties who was taking Charlotte Gill‘s memoir workshop read in public for the first time ever. A very brave thing to do and she charmed everyone and got cheers as well as big applause. Another participant did a stand-up routine that just killed. And so many people had musical talent. It was a magical evening.
The food was amazing all weekend. And just listening to the buzz of all those people who didn’t know each other a few hours earlier connecting and bonding in such a short time very satisfying. An after-the-fact highlight was learning about the successes of some of the participants from my fiction-writing workshop: for example, one writer won a prize in a national contest; another placed a short story we worked on together with The Walrus, her first published story!
What’s new this year and what can writers expect from the 2016 edition?
Last year we only ran for a weekend (Sat & Sun); this year we kick off with an opening night BBQ on the Wednesday and hit the ground running the next morning. The screenwriting workshop is new this year as a “main genre” and the poetry, video-game writing, and artisanal self-publishing afternoon workshops are all new as well. We’re also going to arrange some off-site activities this year — a dinner in town, group hike, and our Fiction faculty author, Heather O’Neill, will be doing a public reading and Q&A at the Whistler Public Library.
And, a very exciting new element is our national Get To The Point! fiction-writing contest we’ve partnered with The Walrus magazine on. The winner receives full tuition to the camp, resort accommodation, and publication by The Walrus. It’s a huge prize and I’m looking forward to seeing the entries. The deadline is April 11 and the final judge is Heather O’Neill.
Whistler is a gorgeous location for a retreat. Besides the chance to hone and workshop their writing, what else can participants expect from their Writers’ Camp experience?
Our partner hotel, Legends Creekside, is a half-hour walk or 12-minute bike rides along the lake-side trail from The Point — a great way to start the day. The hiking and biking trails in the area, as well as the mountain biking, are world-renowned. We have a canoe and life jackets at our dock. Swimming (if the weather is as cooperative as it was last year).
Cultural adventures include the Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre in Whistler and the brand new Audain Art Museum, which I’m excited to see for the first time. And for those who’ve never been up to Whistler, the scenic drive from Vancouver to Whistler is one of the most breathtaking in North America.
Who should consider applying? And how should writers get in touch if they’re interested to learn more?
We’re gearing the camp towards emerging writers. So, who would be considered an “emerging writer”? Last year we had people who were voracious readers and closet scribblers who wanted to get to the next level, learn some solid craft techniques, get a critical response to their work, find out how to expand their ideas, and how to get their work out into the world; people who’d completed stories, articles and essays and needed an extra push and some inspiration and wanted to meet other writers; and people who were proficient in one genre and wanted to try something completely new to them.
One woman in my fiction workshop was an award-winning magazine writer and editor but wanted to try fiction out for the first time. I suspect the screenwriting workshop will draw writers who have possibly already published fiction and non-fiction and would like to learn a new way of getting their stories into the world, or finding out how to adapt their own work to screen. We have a number of people returning to camp from last year so we must’ve done something right!