Looking Back at the BCLA Author Panel

It’s been almost two months since the BCLA RA Interest Group hosted “Writers in the Library”  at the BCLA conference; however, it’s never too late to bask in the glory of humorous author discussions! If you couldn’t make it, here is an overview.

The session featured three local writers discussing how libraries influence the written word and what they think libraries could and should be doing. The writers read library themed passages from their own work, and discussed their own personal experiences with libraries. The writers present were: Jen Sookfong Lee, author of The End of East, Shelter, and The Better Mother (a finalist for the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award), and former host of Westcoast Words on CBC Radio One. Lee read a passage from her book The Better Mother that dealt with the main character researching the burlesque clubs in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and visiting the old central branch of the VPL to watch a copy of a burlesque film they had as part of their collection.


Steven Galloway, Creative Writing professor at UBC and the author of The Cellist of Sarajevo and the upcoming The Confabulist. Galloway read a passage from The Cellist of Sarajevo that dealt with the aftermath of the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, an event which featured the tragic firebombing of the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Galloway said that it would have been impossible not to mention such an event as it was seen as a visible manifestation of the attempted destruction of a society and culture.

Billie Livingston, author of numerous short stories, poetry, and novels, including One Good Hustle, which was nominated for both the Giller Prize and the CLA’s Young Adult book of the year in 2012. Livingston read a passage from Going Down Swinging, her first novel, that dealt with “exotic” bookmobiles of the 1970s, which even “tough kids” used. The young girl from the piece was excited to go to the bookmobile and talk with the librarian who’d convinced her that she’d love James and the Giant Peach. After reading, Livingston was happy to learn that Fraser Valley still has bookmobiles today!

The writers felt that Vancouver still has many stories left to tell, and that authors have only began to scratch the surface of the types of stories that can be told about the city. They said that it’s only relatively recently that we’ve even been able to write about the city and it’s history, as writers have been trying to escape from the colonial history of the area and deal with publishers who don’t think Americans will read books set in Canada.

The writers discussed their first experiences with libraries: the distinctive smell of the stacks at UBC, how the shelves went on forever, and how, pre-internet, everything anybody could ever want to know was in there somewhere. Lee talked about how she likes to write in her local library as staying at home makes her feel “like a mole.” Lee considers the library to be the first place she goes when she wants to find something out, and for her most recent book, she used the library extensively to track the evolution of the gay community’s response to AIDS through bound copies of 1980s gay newspapers. Galloway spoke of libraries being better for writers than for “normal people.” He loves finding repositories of weird and arcane stuff while researching at libraries, and said “you can’t Google something you don’t know you want to know”. He also mentioned the section of books on the psychology of magic he discovered at one of the UBC libraries, and how he didn’t think anyone had looked at them in 35 years. Livingston said that libraries were a great resource for people doing research, especially to help find books that would otherwise be unavailable. She gave the example of her trying to track down a copy of a book about carnival strippers that cost several hundred dollars to buy. Thankfully she was able to borrow it through interlibrary loan!

After discussing what they liked about libraries, the writers went on to say what they hated! Complaints included overdue fines (with Galloway being an egregious example of patrons with lots of fines), how loud they have become, parents with unruly children, computer time limits, and bed bugs! The writers were also disappointed that Vancouver no longer had a “one book, one community” program, and said that communities in BC shouldn’t be outdone by Medicine Hat. Galloway felt that Richmond, Surrey, Burnaby, and all the other communities in the lower mainland should have their own versions of the event. The writers said that projects like that were not about the specific book (though they prefered it to have some connection to the city), but about people talking about books.

The authors said that they enjoyed the diversity in library book clubs, as opposed to those run out of people’s homes. Library book clubs led to a much wider variety of questions and thoughts, as opposed to the certain types of questions which are always asked in private ones. While the writers enjoyed the idea of doing readings in libraries, they found that they are frequently hosted in sterile, visually unappealing rooms often hidden away in the basement or back of the library, where nobody was going to find them by happenstance. They commiserated over the worst type of reading, where only one or two people show up and they just stare at you. Having nobody show up was deemed to be better because then you didn’t have to do anything! To make library readings better, the authors said that there didn’t need to be clowns or balloons, but suggested that they should feel more like an event with multiple authors, snacks, and wine (if possible). Lee also promised to come and rap at any library event that invited her. In regards to the future of libraries, the writers hoped that they won’t abandon books and the written word, saying that while it is important for libraries to offer many different services, a library and a community centre are not the same thing. Lee said that while ebooks are wonderful, there is a magic to bringing children to a library and have them be amazed at the breadth of knowledge available in physical books.

If you have a chance to welcome any one of these authors into your library, it would be well worth it!

Post written by Matthew Murray, SLAIS student, & submitted by Meghan Savage, Surrey Libraries

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