#62 Betty Keller
January 21st, 2016
LOCATION: Festival of the Written Arts, 5509 Shorncliffe Avenue, Sechelt. Directions: A half-hour from Gibsons, via Sunshine Coast Highway, turn right onto Shorncliffe in Sechelt.
Betty Carol Keller--author, playwright, historian and editor–did most of the heavy lifting to create the first annual literary festival in B.C., the ongoing Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt. In 1985 she was the recipient of the Gillian Lowndes Memorial Award for contributions to the cultural life of the Sunshine Coast. She was also honoured with the Talewind Books Award in 1996 and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002. In 2015 she was chosen to receive the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence.
Born in Vancouver on November 4, 1930, Betty Keller has lived in the Fraser Valley, the Okanagan and the Kootenays, as well as Nigeria, where she taught in the Numan Women’s Teacher’s College for one year. Her parents were Anne Devine and Harry B. Devine. She grew up in Langley. “I am proud to be a third-generation BC person,” she says, “as my great grandfather and grandfather arrived in Vancouver in the spring of 1886, a month before Vancouver was incorporated as a city.”
“Our family left Burnaby in 1939,” Keller once told B.C. BookWorld. “It had been a struggle to keep all of us clothed and fed during the 1930s 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.”
Keller received her teaching certificate in 1963. A former high school drama and English teacher from 1963 to 1974, she became a faculty associate in Simon Fraser University’s Education Dept (1975-1976, 1978-1979) and taught creative writing at UBC as a sessional lecturer (1981, 1982, 1985). She retired to the Sechelt area in 1980. In addition to guiding the Festival of the Written Arts as its producer from 1983 to 1994, she co-founded the SunCoast Writers Forge and the Sunshine Coast Writers-in-Residence Program. Betty Keller’s mentoring of other writers has continued to be extensive and influential for decades. “Although she does much of this mentoring and promotion for no financial reward and, once again, at the expense of her personal writing, she rejoices over each author’s success as if it were her own,” writes Rosella M. Leslie, one of the beneficiaries of Keller’s encouragement and guidance.
Some of the many other authors Keller has directly helped include Maureen Foss, (The Cadillac Kind, Polestar 1996 and The Rattrap Murders, Nightwood, 2000), Gwendolyn Southin, (Death in A Family Way, 2000, In the Shadow of Death, 2003, Death on a Short Leash, 2008), Anthea Penne (Old Stones (Touchwood 2002), Jo Hammond (Home Before Dark, Orca 2005), Janet Miller (Cross My Heart, Hodgepog, 2002), Anne Edwards (Seeking Balance: BC Women in Politics, Caitlin 2008), Ben Dlin (Country Doctor, Caitlin, 2001) and Lamar Muse (Southwest Passage: The Inside Story of Southwest Airlines’ Formative Years Eakin Press, 2003).
“I’m not sure what the ‘C’ stands for in Betty C. Keller,” writes Jan DeGrass, “but I think it must be Constancy. No editor, teacher or mentor is as constant in her monitoring of the many writers whose lives and careers she has touched.”
In addition to serving as the uncredited editor for more than 20 titles from and about B.C., Keller has co-authored a history of the Sunshine Coast and collaborated on many books, credited and otherwise, such as Eileen Williston’s biography of her husband and Social Credit cabinet minister Ray Williston, Forest, Power, and Policy (1997). In 2001, Caitlin Press published her novel Better the Devil You Know, and she has released a humourous take on th early history of Vancouver, On the Shady Side.
Keller is better known for her biographies of Pauline Johnson, Ernest Thompson Seton and Bertrand Sinclair. Her Pauline Johnson biography won the Canadian Biography Medal for 1982 and was a Book of the Month Club selection for April 1983. It was optioned for film by Dreamreel Limited in June 1998. Her collection of plays, Trick Doors, was used as a course book for Grades 11 & 12 Acting in B.C. schools from 1975 to 1984. Her handbook for secondary school teachers of creative drama, Taking Off, was used as a course book for Grade 8 creative drama in B.C. schools from 1975 to 1983, accompanied by a guide for teachers and directors, Opening Trick Doors. She has ‘ghosted’ numerous works and was a co-author for Skookum Tugs, winner of the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award for 2003.
Keller is also one of the co-authors of A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming, a critique of fish farming practices that received the 2005 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize.
In recognition of her outstanding contributions to regional cultural activities, Betty Keller also received the 1991 Lescarbot Award. For her “significant contribution to compatriots, community and to Canada” she was awarded a 1992 Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada.
Keller was selected to receive her Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence by a B.C. Book Prize committee consisting of Kit Pearson (author), Michael Kluckner (author and artist) and Sandra Singh, Chief Librarian, Vancouver Public Library.
“It’s so great to see Betty recognized with a major award,” says the province’s leading book publisher, Howard White. “She is one of those rare writers who has put more effort into enabling and promoting other writers than into her own cause. Her contribution to letters in BC has been huge, and until now, mostly unsung.”
The jury statement commended her contributions to B.C. as a writer, editor, teacher, mentor, arts activist and organizer. “Hundreds of writers have been nourished and encouraged by her dedicated teaching and mentoring. Her greatest legacy is as the indefatigable founder and innovative producer of the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, one of the great literary gatherings in Canada. Betty Keller is a long-respected matriarch of the literary arts in this province.”
BC’s Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Judith Guichon, presented the award at the Lieutenant Governor’s BC Book Prizes Gala held at the Pinnacle Vancouver Harbourfront Hotel in Vancouver on Saturday, April 25, 2015.
An interview with Betty Keller appeared in B.C. BookWorld, Autumn, 1989.
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
A Stain upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming
Pauline: A Biography of Pauline Johnson
Pender Harbour Cowboy: The Many Lives of Bertrand Sinclair
A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury & Trial by Newspaper
TRICK DOORS AND OTHER DRAMATIC SKETCHES
(November House, 1974). Fourteen short plays.
(November House, 1975).
OPENING TRICK DOORS
(November House, 1975).
LEGENDS OF THE RIVER PEOPLE (with Norman Lerman
(November House, 1976)
IMPROVISATIONS IN CREATIVE DRAMA
(Merriwether Publishing and Contemporary Drama Service, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1988)
PAULINE: A BIOGRAPHY OF PAULINE JOHNSON
(Douglas & McIntyre, 1982)
BLACK WOLF: THE LIFE OF ERNEST THOMPSON SETON
ON THE SHADY SIDE: VANCOUVER 1886-1914
(Horsdal & Schubart), 1986).
BRIGHT SEAS AND PIONEER SPIRITS: THE SUNSHINE COAST
(Horsdal & Schubart, 1996; revised and updated, 2009) With co-author Rosella M. Leslie.
SEA SILVER: INSIDE BRITISH COLUMBIA’S SALMON FARMING INDUSTRY
(Horsdal & Schubart, 1996) with co-author Rosella M. Leslie.
FORESTS, POWER AND POLICY: THE LEGACY OF RAY WILLISTON
(The Caitlin Press, 1997) with the late Eileen Williston.
PAULINE JOHNSON: THE FIRST ABORIGINAL VOICE
(XYZ Publishing, 1999). For young adults.
PENDER HARBOUR COWBOY: The Many Lives of Bertrand Sinclair
(Touchwood Editions, a new Heritage/Horsdal & Schubart imprint, 2000)
BETTER THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
(The Caitlin Press, 2001). Fiction
SKOOKUM TUGS: BRITISH COLUMBIA’S WORKING TUGBOATS
(Harbour Publishing, 2002) with Robb Douglas and Peter Robson
A Stain Upon The Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour, 2004). Co-author.
A THOROUGHLY WICKED WOMAN: Murder, Perjury and Trial by Newspaper. (Caitlin Press, 2010). 978-1-894759-48-9 : $19.95.
Better the Devil You Know (Caitlin $18.95)
A larcenous lingerie salesman, a pugilistic lady barkeep, a scrawny hooker, a five-year-old hellion, corrupt cops and two doctors in search of a cadaver. Betty Keller throws ‘em all in the path of a con-man-cum-evangelical preacher who’s the central character in her picaresque novel, Better the Devil You Know (Caitlin $18.95), set in Vancouver in 1907. As well, she has published a light-hearted look ‘at the seamier side of early Vancouver’ called On the Shady Side. “I find that period from the 1860s to about the First World War the most interesting,” she has said. “There was such a revolution in social behaviour and values. Women changed from 1860 on. You can see the growth of women coming to the forefront, pushing forward, until women started getting the vote.” 0-920576-88-5
[BCBW WINTER 2001]
Pender Harbour Cowboy: The Many Lives of Bertrand Sinclair (Touchwood $18.95)
Of the great B.C. writers you’ve never heard of—D.M. Fraser, Hubert Evans, A.M. Stephen, Frederick Niven and Bertrand Sinclair—the most successful was Sinclair.
Bertrand “Bill” Sinclair was a logger, fisherman, social activist, broadcaster and unionist poet. He changed from being a patriot to a pacifist, then back to a patriot; along the way two of Sinclair’s 15 novels were made into silent movies, North of ‘53 (1914) and Big Timber (1916). He moored his beloved 37-foot troller Hoo Hoo at Pender Harbour, the community with which he was associated for 60 years, before his famous boat was burned for an episode of The Beachcombers in 1985.
After more than 15 years of on-again, off-again research, biographer and historian Betty Keller of Sechelt has prepared Pender Harbour Cowboy: The Many Lives of Bertrand Sinclair (Touchwood $18.95).
Bertrand Sinclair was born as William Brown Sinclair in Edinburgh, Scotland on January 9, 1881. After immigrating to Regina with his mother in 1889, he lived in Alberta’s Peace River country and Saskatchewan’s Qu’Appelle Valley during his early teenage years. He ran away from home to become a cowboy in Montana at age 15.
In 1905, he married novelist Bertha M. (Muzzy) Bower, who wrote more than 60 Westerns under her first husband’s surname, Bower. The protagonist of her best-known work, Chip of the Flying U, was based on Sinclair.
Dismayed by the phoney depictions of cowboys he found in romance novels, Sinclair turned his hand to fiction after he moved to San Francisco. His early, Jack London-influenced Westerns included Raw Gold (1908) andThe Land of the Frozen Suns (1909). From 1907 to 1911 Sinclair and his wife lived mostly in California, raising one daughter. Contrary to some reports, he was not a cousin of one of America’s most progressive and successful authors, Upton Sinclair, but Bertrand Sinclair did admire Upton Sinclair’s work.
Divorcing his first wife, Sinclair married her cousin Ruth and returned to Canada. By early 1912 he had settled in an apartment in Vancouver, first at the Englesea then later at the Sylvia Court, and bought property at Pender Harbour in 1923. They had one daughter. In British Columbia he began to adapt his melodramatic, heroic stories to depict the lives of loggers, fishermen and ranchers.
After publishing North of ‘53, Sinclair—like Martin Allerdale Grainger before him, and like Roderick Haig-Brown and Peter Trower after him—became interested in writing about logging. He observed logging operations for three years at Harrison Lake before writing Big Timber: A Story of the Northwest (1916). Increasingly popular, Sinclair had four editions of his next novel, Burned Bridges (1919), published in as many months.
Bertrand Sinclair’s most famous novel, Poor Man’s Rock (1920), was written after Sinclair did some research as a commercial fisherman. A Hardy-esque romance about family pride and corporate exploitation in the fishing industry, it reputedly sold 80,000 copies.
The story concerns a recently-returned World One vet, Jack MacRae, who returns to the West Coast. Before his father dies, he learns that his father had eloped with his sweetheart, Bessie, only to be overtaken at sea by her father, her grandfather and a monied suitor named Horace Gower.
Sworn to pacifism by his beloved, MacRae Sr. had been knocked unconscious by Gower’s attack with a pike pole. He drifted and was shipwrecked on Squitty Island (Lasqueti Island). Gower married Bessie and for the next 30 years his wealthy clan waged a silent, economic war on the unlucky MacRae Sr., slowly divesting him of his property due to the Gowers’ clout in the Packers Association.
MacRae Jr. vows to appease his disinheritance, repurchase family property and “take a fall out of Horace Gower that would jar the bones of his ancestors.”
Jack, the hero, realizes how the Packers Association discourages competition by monopolizing cannery sites and licences. He concludes “the wholesaler stood like a wall between the fishermen and those who ate fish.”
By offering fair prices to independent fishermen, MacRae scuttles Gower’s control and ultimately marries Gower’s daughter, Betty, with the blessings of her father. The capitalist father-in-law confesses to MacRae Jr. that wealth never made him a happy man.
The title Poor Man’s Rock is drawn from a real place, a rock off Lasqueti Island. Dense kelp and swirling currents around its base prevented large, motorized fishing boats from approaching, restricting fishing there to hand trollers.
“Only a poor man trolled in a rowboat,” Sinclair wrote, “…Poor Man’s Rock had given many a man a chance.”
Striving for increased social relevance, Sinclair examined the aftermath of World War I with Hidden Places (1922), a poignant romance about a facially-mutilated and emotionally shattered veteran and a blind woman named Doris Cleveland who establish a home up Toba Inlet.
Even more political, The Inverted Pyramid (1924) was inspired by the failure of the Dominion Trust Company. It was followed by Wild West (1926), Pirates of the Plains (1928) and Gunpowder Lightning (1930). In Down the Dark Alley (1936) he described rumrunning during Prohibition.
Throughout most of his later work, according to critic and friend Lester Peterson, Sinclair showed a “general disgust for the mere entrepreneur, the man who manipulates but does not actually produce goods or services…
“Monetary gain must not, in the Sinclair philosophy, be derived by means which destroy beauty or create waste—a creed which led Sinclair to oppose what he recognized, earlier than most, was senseless despoliation of natural resources.”
From 1932 onwards, Sinclair chiefly depended on commercial fishing. He wrote short stories and novelettes during the winters until 1940. Although he produced 15 novels, as well as dozens of novelettes and short stories in magazines such as Popular Magazine, Adventure and Short Stories, after 1940 he mostly contributed poems to the Fisherman newspaper and made popular VHF broadcasts to other fishermen on a program called The Sinclair Hour.
In the 1950s he began writing again, publishing westerns called Both Sides of the Law (1951), Room for the Rolling M (1954) and The Man Who Rode By Himself (1958). He didn’t retire from fishing until age 83; he died at age 91 in 1972 in Pender Harbour. His ashes were scattered over Poor Man’s Rock off Lasqueti Island, the setting for his most important novel. Bertrand Sinclair is most often remembered today for providing the lyrics for a ballad, “Banks Trollers”, the unofficial anthem of West Coast commercial fishermen. 0-920663-72-9
[BCBW WINTER 2000]
Forests, Power and Policy: The Legacy of Ray Williston (Caitlin $34.95)
Determined to pull rural B.C. into the modern era, Socred Minister of Lands and Forests Ray Williston oversaw the building of the Bennett Dam on the Peace River and the flooding of the valley behind it, now called Williston Lake. Controversial and influential, Williston’s life is profiled by his wife Eileen Williston and Sunshine Coast writer Betty Keller in Forests, Power and Policy: The Legacy of Ray Williston (Caitlin $34.95)] 0-920576-68-0
Interview by Emi Morita:
For seven summers Betty Keller has placed her own writing career on hold to mastermind one of the most successful literary gatherings in Canada, 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?” they’d say.
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.
[BCBW Autumn 1989]