June 17th, 2008
For seven summers Betty Keller has placed her own writing career on hold to mastermind one of the most successful literary gatherings in Canada, cheapest the Sechelt Festival of the Written Arts. She's done it on a shoestring budget, stubbornly overcoming a severe lack of funding, urban skepticism, smalltown politics and more than a few egocentric authors (some of whom have cavalierly expected her festival to ply them with booze or pay for air fares when they bring their spouses along). This summer, as June Callwood was speaking to 300 people and Pierre Berton was just arriving with his luggage, Keller could be found upstairs in Sechelt's Rockwood Lodge, carrying cauldron of boiling water into the bathtub to make vats of jello to serve for lunch. If you had dropped by to see Betty Keller this spring, you'd likely have found her in her pick-up truck with construction blueprints for the festival's new 4900 sq. ft. outdoor pavilion. Or she was in eleventh hour negotiations with Sechelt town council, serving as a payroll accountant, editing publicity mailings, finalizing this year's program, supervising an enlarged program of workshops, arranging for donated shipments of shake bolts or structural steel, searching for an eight foot bed required by Pierre Berton, or organizing over 100 volunteer workers. When she's not literally building the Festival of the Written Arts from the ground up, Betty Keller is working on a forthcoming book on B. C. natural history. Winner of the Canadian Biography Award in 1982 for Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson (D&M)., she also has written a biography of Ernest Thompson Seton, Black Wolf (D&M), a compendium for teaching drama, Trick Doors and Other Dramatic Sketches, and most recently a light-hearted look at the seamier side of early Vancouver, On the Shady Side (Horsdal & Schubart).
BCBW: What was it like growing up in Langley?
KELLER: Our family left Burnaby in 1939. It had been a struggle to keep all of us clothed and fed during the 1930's so the move to the country was intended as a solution to that. We had a 20-acre dairy farm with a forest. My younger sister and I built forts, swung through the trees, and played Tarzan. We were five girls so we had to learn the chores that boys would have done. The only thing we weren't allowed to do was milk cows. My mother had been a schoolteacher and she was not prepared for that. She was determined her daughters shouldn't have to milk the cows.
BCBW: Are you glad you grew up on a farm?
KELLER: Yes. Sometimes I think all kids should grow up that way. It's a smoother way to enter life and it probably prepares you for leaving it, too.
BCBW: If your mother was a teacher, is that where you got your literary influences?
KELLER: Partly. My mother was one of those people who for every occasion she had a quotation from some author. A lot of Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth. So there was some literature in the air. But no one was allowed to read a book in our house unless they had washed their hands and then showed their hands to Mother' Then you had to sit at the dining room table with your book on the table. It's a wonder it didn't put me off books entirely! In those days the old Star Weekly had a novel in each issue. Absolute trash. Garbage! Garbage! I was so hungry to read anything I'd swipe these and tuck them under my pillow.
BCBW: Did you ever read any Pauline Johnson or Ernest Thompson Seton?
KELLER: Not Seton's books. Girls didn't read that sort of thing. But all of us studied Pauline Johnson's "The Song My Paddle Sings" in school. Now I can see that some of her poetry was awful, but I dare say some of our modem poets have turned out some pretty awful stuff they'd rather not let the world know about. Pauline didn't mind, aslong as people would buy them and listen to them. She was making a living.
BCBW: So you connected with Pauline Johnson long before you ever became a writer?
KELLER: Yes. I can remember going to Stanley Parkwith my mot-her when I was a kid. Iclimbed on Pauline Johnson's memorial and I got Hell because I was playing on Pauline's grave. I always knew that Pauline's ashes were buried under there because of my mother's outrage at me, "You don't go around walking on people's graves!"
BCBW: Isn't writing a biography of someone a little like walking on someone's grave?
KELLER: I guess so. In the sense you can get too close. During the last four years of Pauline's life, when she was living in Vancouver and she was dying, she was the same age I was. She was also at the age my mother was when my mother died. I sort of associated my mother and Pauline and myself altogether. So writing those last sections of the book, while she was dying, was very, very hard. I found myself feeling like part of me was dying. I know that sounds strange but I had come to admire Pauline Johnson very muchnot everything about her by any means but admiring the gutsiness it took to travel across the country at a time when that was so difficult. And a woman doing it! She was trying to really have her cake and eat it, too. She never.managed it.
BCBW: Seton and Pauline Johnsonare both from the Victorian era. Does that era particularly appeal to you?
KELLER: Yes. I find that period from the 1860's to about the first World War the most interesting. There was such a revolution in social behaviour and values Women changed from 1860 on. You can see this growth of women coming to the forefront, pushing forward, until women started getting the vote.
BCBW: Did your publisher encourage you to write Black Wolf after the Pauline biography?
KELLER: No. One publisher had suggested the idea of Pauline to me. After I finished that, I felt I wanted to write another biography. Seton had been a friend of Pauline's and so I'd learned a bit about him. And he was another writer connected to Indians. But in either case I was more interested in their theatrical circuits than their writing.
BCBW: How did your interest in drama begin?
KELLER: My father used to play Santa Claus every year. He’d started out with a few church affairs and soon he was in demand. He'd do twelve or fourteen different affairs at Christmas time. One of us kids would always go along with hind. It might have all started from that.
BCBW: When did you realize you wanted to teach drama?
KELLER: When I realized I couldn't write and give the boys the home they needed, being a single parent. I took teacher training and taught for 12 years, starting in Nelson.
BCBW: This is after you were an asparagus farmer?
KELLER: (Laughter) Yes. That was back in 1961, in the Cold Stream Valley, when the kids were little. I keep going back to the farm!
BCBW: I understand it takes something like five years to grow asparagus.
KELLER: Five years until it is mature enough to start picking it. And it was damn hard work. You have to pick right across the field and then back down the other side. At the end of the day, when it is too dark to see, you go in and get ready for the packers, deliver it, and then you are up at four o'clock in the morning ready to start cutting again. (Laughter) And yet I hated leaving that farm. Hated it like crazy.
BCBW: Can you compare teaching drama with writing?
KELLER: In teaching drama you are looking for the moment when you see somebody growing in confidence in themselves, in belief in themselves. There are enormous rewards when you're teaching it. Whereas in writing you don't have that warmth around you, that almost.instant gratification. Writing is lonely; the other is teamwork. And they're both good.
BCBW: How did you end up in Africa?
KELLER: I always wanted to go and work in another country. In 1977 I answered an ad and away I went. I found myself in the most remote part of. Nigeria. I would never consider going back, but I have no regrets about having gone.
BCBW: What was the most valuable lesson you learned?
KELLER: I learned what it was like to be the subject of prejudices. It was mostly Moslem in that area so being a woman and being white just wasn't in. White is no longer beautiful in black countries. They put up with you because you have a skill that they need. My landlord said to me, "You think you are independent, don't you1 Well, you can't be independent here." I told him he was full of you-know-what. But he was right. For example, when I needed a driver's license a friend said, "Look, there's no point in you doing it. Give me your birth certificate and I'll get it for you." He had it back by the end of the day. It would have taken me weeks to get it. I'd have to prove first of all, as a woman, that I should have it.
BCBW: Is that why you left after a year?
KELLER: I caught every disease they had. I lost 35 pounds. (Laughs) When I got off the plane, I couldn't stand on my feet! I was so sick I left illegally. I broke my contract with the Nigerian government. I guess if I went back, they'd throw me in the pokey!
BCBW: Why did you choose Sechelt after that?
KELLER: To me, it's the most beautiful part of British Columbia. It the summertime, when the leaves are out, I can't see any other houses. I can lead a much more relaxed lifestyle here. I can' come into the village in old runners and a sweatshirt to get groceries and that: doesn't offend anyone. And I like the: isolation. I don't have to worry about: someone popping in on me when I'm writing.
BCBW: How did the Festival of the Written Arts get going?
KELLER: I had been teaching writing courses. We formed the Sechelt Writers Forge so we could ask people to come and speak. We began to think it would be neat to have a bunch of them come on one weekend. The first festival was 1983. In those early years I would send out four or five invitations to get one writer to say yes. "Where is Sechelt?"
BCBW: Now you have Pierre Berton and June Callwood and Peter Gzowski. You have writers coming from across the country.
KELLER: We're becoming a national festival. I think it is absolutely necessary that the people in the west hear the writers from right across the country. When you come down to it, it is the writers, the artists, the musicians who tie this country together. No politician does that. There is no reason for this to be one country. Geographically it should have been a whole bunch of countries. Most of it should have belonged to the United States. So it's a cultural thing that ties us together. We'd like to think the festival is a part of that. It's great to hear someone from Belgium, or France, or England, or the U.S., but that is not what we specialize in.
BCBW: Why do you think the Sechelt festival has been successful, even without much funding?
KELLER: Last year there were 102 volunteers. That says something about. the town. It's a small town but there's a lot of sophistication here. Also the festival happens in the summer. It's like the old-time chautaukuas. We have three days of solid Canadian literature, mostly outdoors, and we try to make the most important part the contact between the audiences and the writers.
BCBW: How can you continue to organize the festival while working on a part-time and volunteer basis?
KELLER: We keep hoping that this will be the year we can afford to hire a , fulltime secretary. Funding is an ongoing, horrendous problem. It took three years before we could start getting any money at all from Victoria. We began to get operating money from B.C. Cultural Services for the first time this year.
BCBW: How much?
KELLER: We got $7,500 and I was told we should count ourselves as bloody lucky.
BCBW: Yet the Vancouver Writers Festival received over $17,000 even before it started.
KELLER: We are special in our way and I guess they are special in their way. It's not something I really want to comment on.
BCBW: On a personal level, how do you cope with organizing a festival and still functioning as a writer?
KELLER: (Laughter) Not well! It's hard to keep writing when I have deadlines for the festival. Getting the new pavilion constructed, for instance, involved dealing with contractors and some eleventh hour negotiations with city hall. Inside me I know when each crisis is over, I can go back to writing. But there are times when I feel like a fraud when I think of myself as someone who is a writer. I can't write in little spurts. I have to have bundles of time.
BCBW: Sometimes it must occur to you to throw in the towel.
KELLER: Not really. If I didn't feel the festival was worthwhile, I would never have stayed on with it this long. I have never abandoned a book once I have started it. And I don't think I will abandon this.
–Interview by Emi Morita
[BCBW Autumn 1989]
Essay Date: 1989