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STARFest lines up the stars one after the other

The St. Albert Readers Festival is in full ready mode with two solid weeks of author visits geared up to go.

The St. Albert Readers Festival is in full ready mode with two solid weeks of author visits geared up to go starting with Joy Fielding’s visit on Tuesday, Oct. 15. The festival actually kicked off with a near soldout crowd for Katherena Vermette a week ago.

There are still more than a dozen writers set to make their own appearances with special events hosted by other local authors and others. This is the second of three features previewing these upcoming events. The third and final feature will arrive in the Saturday, Oct. 19 edition of the Gazette, along with a preview article focusing on the Oct. 23 special event planned with host Diana Davidson and literary guests Wendy McGrath, Lauren Carter, Randy Nikkel Schroeder and Michelle Kaeser. Together, they will have a panel discussion on the Book Publishers Association of Alberta’s Read Alberta eBooks project.

Most events will take place in Forsyth Hall at the St. Albert Public Library, with a select few set to grace the Arden Theatre stage. Tickets for all ($7 for Forsyth Hall, $15 for Arden Theatre) can be purchased in advance through or at the customer service desk at the library. Call 780-459-1530 for more information.

Please note that the previously scheduled event with author David Bezmozgis set for Oct. 16 had to be canceled. It was announced on Sept. 30 that his book Immigrant City has been shortlisted for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, requiring him to participate in the Giller’s “Between the Pages” tour at the same time. Tickets are being refunded.

Brian Francis – Sunday, Oct. 20, at Forsyth Hall, hosted by Mia and Terry Soetaert

Break in Case of Emergency is a determined change of course from Fruit, the Canada Reads finalist for which author Brian Francis is probably best known. Even though both books feature teenaged main characters, Break, he explained, is aimed firmly at the Young Adult, or YA genre. Just don’t tell his publisher that he still wants older adults to really enjoy it too.

“I'm somebody who tries to keep my reading habits as open as possible, so I also read YA books,” he began. “I think it's trying to find the fine balance, I think, between having a meaningful read for a young adult reader, but also having a meaningful read for an older adult. That was my biggest challenge in writing the book as well.”

The story follows 15-year-old Toby, who lives on a farm with her grandparents. The teen’s mom died by suicide when she was 10 and her father was gone long before that. He comes back into her life, which is just revelation. The fact that he’s gay and a world-famous female impersonator is really just icing on the cake of the girl’s dreary existence.

The somewhat comical setup still offers a serious examination of Toby’s personal psychology and quirky family dynamics. Offering literary fiction with a metaphorical spoonful of sugar is something that’s important to Francis and he worked hard to make sure it came across the right way.

He confessed to being a little nervous with this, his first foray into YA. “I haven't been a teenager for many years, as you can probably tell from looking at me,” he joked.

“When I set out to write the new book, I was more aware of who the readership was. I think that helps in a lot of ways to guide some of the messaging around the book, but I didn't want to be too parental with this book either. I wanted to write a story that was honest and authentic, but didn't feel like I was talking down to YA readers or putting on a YA hat and trying to ... write some sort of moralistic tale that I'm sure they would sniff out a million miles away anyway.”

Anne Bokma – Monday, Oct. 21, at Forsyth Hall, hosted by Laurel Vespi

This author is an award-winning journalist who has worked at newspapers and magazines alike and even started the six-minute memoir. It was when she was a freelance writer for the United Church Observer that she started a project that would lead to her new book, the wonderfully titled My Year of Living Spiritually: From Woo-Woo to Wonderful, One Woman’s Secular Quest for a More Soulful Life, which is set for paperback release just days after her appearance.

“I did a lot of writing for them on spiritual topics, and for four years, I wrote a monthly column called Spiritual But Secular, in which I examined the habits of the demographic known as ‘spiritual but not religious.’ I reported on some of the practices, everything from pilgrimage to Reiki to drumming to secular churches, all kinds of stuff. I did 50 columns,” she began. “In 2017, I wrote a blog. I decided I wanted to actually engage in some of these practices myself on a first person basis.”

That blog was compiled into this astounding and astonishingly comprehensive catalogue of her first-person spiritual experiences. Many of them are wonderful – she raves about taking a dip in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, for instance – to the more decidedly ‘woo-woo’.

“Some spiritual practices are pretty out there,” she noted.

Ask her yourself about those, some of which involve avoiding intoxicants while others go headfirst into intoxicants that she had never experienced previously. Check out the spiritual menu on her website at for a full listing.

The year of spiritual adventure led her to better understand the power of belief.

“Belief is very powerful. People will believe in all kinds of things and sometimes damaging ideas. I was brought up in a Fundamentalist Dutch Reform home. When I left the church at 20, I was basically told I was going to Hell. I lost relationships with my family because I didn't believe the way I was trained to believe. It became very destructive. I think any belief system that requires a dogmatic adherence is dangerous but anything that you enter into willingly, and that has some positive benefit and doesn't hurt anyone ... I'm all for trying that out.”

Fran Kimmel – Tuesday, Oct. 22, at Forsyth Hall, hosted by Leslie Greentree

Having a wonderful and divergent career path has proven to be prosperous for Lacombe-based author Fran Kimmel.

“I think that through the various jobs I've had and the various interests that I've had – I’ve done an awful lot of volunteer work in my life and I've met so many different people – that is tremendous fodder for fiction. I've just learned a lot of life stories. I’m quite dazzled by people and what they're able to do, and some of the tragedies and disasters they overcome and can lead really good, full and productive lives. I've met a lot of those people and so I'm quite interested in their stories,” she said.

“I'm really interested in underdog stories, where the little guy rises up in triumph. I like that kind of story. I like reading those kinds of books. I like those kinds of characters. I'm in awe of them and I find it a privilege to write about their lives.”

Book lovers will immediately remember her debut novel, The Shore Girl, which won the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award and was selected as a Canada Reads Top 40 book. Her follow-up, No Good Asking, is about a family in distress in one of those backroads homes that you can only get to if you’re lost on a dirt road that’s way off the beaten path.

“Setting is really important to the book. It all has revolved around a lot of the trips that I've taken on backroads in Alberta. I wanted to know, I wanted to write about a family that lives on one of these lonely roads and what their lives are like.”

The author endeavours to make not only her settings feel as authentic as possible but also to make her characters as rich and as real as she can. When asked if she sometimes feels like a biographer for fictional people, she hesitates for only a second.

“I haven't actually thought of it that way, but that is an interesting way to look at it. Yes, indeed, I think that when I write fiction, I try to make characters as real as possible. They become like real people to me. There are bits and pieces of people that I've met that end up in my stories as my characters.”

“There are certainly bad things happening in No Good Asking, but it really is a story of hope. It's a story of hope and goodness, as well. A lot of readers have said things like ‘this describes the Alberta that I know really well.’ It's about a little girl who turns a family's world upside down over the course of a week at Christmas, but she turns it upside down in a really good way.”

Shandi Mitchell – Thursday, Oct. 24, at Forsyth Hall, hosted by Jacqueline Baker

The first responder experience is an excellent story generator idea. The Waiting Hours author Shandi Mitchell one-upped that by making her novel about three first responders, and then amplified it even further by setting them in a city experiencing a heat wave just as a hurricane hits landfall.

The Alberta-raised “military kid” now lives in Nova Scotia where the sky is still big but definitely saltier. People there are also definitely more aware of how that air can swirl and blow in ways that can cause a lot of damage.

Getting into the heads of police officers, trauma nurses, search and rescue team members, and even 911 phone dispatchers required a lot of research.

“I tried to write to allow readers to step alongside the lives and walk them,” she explained. “It’s not my world.”

She spent a year reading many first person accounts before she was able to convince communities to let her through the next level by sitting in on police ridealongs, being in the same room as those 911 dispatchers, and even observing the fast-paced medical responses in emergency rooms.

“They allowed me to watch and listen.

"I approached it that I know nothing and anything could happen and I just tried to stay open. I didn't have a keen understanding of what it would be like day-to-day to be under this kind of exposure. I didn't expect the incredible humour. I didn't expect the great pride and service to communities. I was looking for the costs that might also be involved with these vocations,” she continued.

Those costs, she said, weren’t meant to just be felt by the characters of the first responders themselves, but for the people around them as well, “the courage of the everyday,” she puts it.

“We are also facing life’s storms in whatever way that may manifest and how we keep getting up. Even when we fall, we try to keep getting up.”

“I was feeling in the world that is ratcheting anxiety ... and it's real. We're constantly inundated with so much that we sometimes feel hopeless and yet we also have life right in front of us that we have to act or we wait, and waiting is also an action. What happens when there's that outside completely out of our control is also when the real ecology of this world that we are so insignificant once it unleashes?”

Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Scott Hayes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Ecology and Environment Reporter at the Fitzhugh Newspaper since July 2022 under Local Journalism Initiative funding provided by News Media Canada.
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