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Word on the Lake’s 20th Anniversary

February 10th, 2023

At a one-day, writer’s workshop in Sorrento, BC in 2002, the late author, Jack Whyte dared to imagine something bigger. Why not expand the format? Whyte, who was rumoured to have sold more than a million books of his historical fiction series Dream of Eagles, offered to invite some of his favourite authors for the following year to make something resembling a proper writers’ festival.

Boom! The Shuswap International Writers’ Festival was born. Held a year later in the larger city of Salmon Arm, the event will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year and is now called Word on the Lake.

Right from year one, the festival attracted successful writers like Gail Anderson-Dargatz, bill bissett and Ann Walsh. And of course, Jack Whyte.

Kay McCracken

But that first year wasn’t without its glitches despite the enormous amount of work done by early organizers Kay McCracken and Fran Bach. On day one of the festival, McCracken was up at 4 am. While registering participants and volunteers, a call came in from one of the festival’s guests, a literary agent, reporting that she had landed at the wrong airport – Kamloops instead of Kelowna. McCracken placed a call to poet Garry Gottfriedson who operated a ranch near Kamloops and was slated to be one of the workshop presenters. Although Gottfriedson was still haying that morning, he agreed to pick up the stranded literary agent. She would have to wait at his homestead until he finished haying, but “they arrived in plenty of time for the gala,” says McCracken.

Word on the Lake is held annually at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort in Salmon Arm. Author Deanna Kawatski, who is also a founding member of Word on the Lake, served as the main consultant for the festival in its early years. She recalls that first year too: “The air in the Prestige Inn buzzed with excitement as I wove through the chattering crowd of authors, agents and publishers. When I checked in, I learned that my room was on the fourth floor and that the elevator was broken. Broken! Luckily my partner, Eric, helped me pack my heavy bags; one containing material for the three workshops (on three different subjects) that I had agreed to give, up the steep stairs. At the top a chambermaid told me the elevator would be fixed in a week.”

Deanna Kawatski

Kawatski, who had spent much of the previous year as writer-in-residence at the Ryga Centre in Penticton, says she was inspired to help bring more literary life to the Shuswap. “It was the first writers’ festival to be held in Interior BC,” Kawatski says, “and presenters were brought in from as far afield as Toronto, Seattle and even Minneapolis.”

Kawatski is quick to acknowledge Fran Bach and Kay McCracken for getting the festival off the ground. “Together they built the ‘flying machine’ but they’d be the first to agree that without the enthusiastic team of volunteers it never would have gotten off the ground.”

Deanna Kawatski will be at this year’s Word on the Lake. Other presenters include the Giller-nominated Brian Isaac Thomas, playwright Caitlin Hicks, author Theresa Kishkan, and publisher and author Howard White.


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