Interview: Author, UBC professor and chair, Alix Ohlin on the 2021 Vancouver Writers Festival

The 2021 Vancouver Writers Festival took place from October 18–24 with both in-person and virtual programming. The Ubyssey sat down with writer Alix Ohlin to ask her about the festival.

Director of the UBC Creative Writing Program, beloved professor and skilled writer Alix Ohlin (she/her) has accomplished a lot. She’s written six books, including Dual Citizens and Inside, which were finalists for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Her writing has also been featured in various well-known publications such as The New Yorker and Best American Short Stories.

The interview

Marilo: You’re going to be running an event at the Vancouver Writers Fest. Can you tell us more about what the festival is about? What we can expect to see?

Alix: So, the Vancouver Writers Festival is an incredible annual event although actually they run programming throughout the year but in October, they have an incredible amount of programming and this year it's going to be both virtual and on Granville Island. They bring in writers from all over the world, as well as local Vancouver writers, so it's really a world-class event and we are one of the sponsors and have been for a long time and we are really happy and proud to be part of the writers festival every year.

Marilo: You've been to various festivals before. I saw you were at the Toronto Writers Festival. Is there anything you would say makes the Vancouver festival unique?

Alix: The Vancouver one is unique in terms of the way that it combines writers from both the local community with a really global and progressive outlook. And they also do things that reach local school children as well as things for adults. The [Artistic Director], her name is Leslie Hurtig, [has] been in charge the past few years and she's really done a lot of work to make the festival very progressive, including bringing in a different guest curator each year to help broaden the kinds of voices that are heard at the festival, so it's really a wonderful event. This year's guest curator is Lawrence Hill. And because the in-person events are all on Granville Island, they're really concentrated in a beautiful way so you can go to Granville Island and then walk around and experience this real excitement that people have for writing and that's one of my favourite things about it. As well, in its hybrid form, the festival events can be accessible to more people than ever before, which I think is really one of the side benefits of the way that we’re living right now, is greater accessibility.

Marilo: And so, for someone who's never been to the festival before, what's one thing you would say they should check out first or what's one thing you would really encourage them to try?

Alix: I think that people should go to the website first and check out the different events. There are events to appeal to almost every taste, writers to every kind of genre and there are things that are more like panel discussions and then things that are readings, things that are more community oriented, things that involve food. There’s also a brochure that you can pick up to flip through so just really take your pick of what works well for you.

Marilo: You're teaching an advanced fiction course this semester [at UBC] so your students are getting a lot of knowledge from you, a lot they’re learning. Is there anything you would say they should check out there that they can't get anywhere else?

Alix: Well I think that the writers festival is an amazing opportunity for students to be in touch with what writers are thinking about beyond the classroom. I mean, there are just writers from all over the world, like some of the biggest names in contemporary writing are going to be present at the festival and then there are people who are less famous but are more up-and-coming, so just the opportunity to hear directly from those people is a huge opportunity for UBC students.

Marilo: Writing can often be solitary, you know, writing on your own, writing away. Have you found that the writers fest maybe helps facilitate a sense of community for writers or for yourself?

Alix: Yeah I think it absolutely does and there's also something about for a lot of us who write we aren't always in the same room as our readers and so the great thing about the writers festival is you get to see all these people who share your enthusiasm for books, and reading and writing. And there's a kind of electricity that comes from gathering people together, especially right now. I think we need it more than ever.

Marilo: What’s one of your favourite things that you've experienced there or even just preparing for it, something you are looking forward to?

Alix: Right, so we have a number of UBC faculty, students and alumni who will be participating in the festival in various capacities and then we also have our UBC Creative Writing Night Class event. We have been running this event for the past three years and it has proven to be enormously popular. It’s where UBC faculty present short craft lessons on different genres, along with student readers who demonstrate how the exercises can be done. So it's like a kind of smorgasbord sampler of different writing activities. It's an opportunity for us to share our expertise and our enthusiasm for teaching writing with a broader community. So this year we have some of our newer faculty who recently joined us [and] will be participating in the event: Billy-Ray Belcourt who teaches Indigenous writing, Lindsay Wong who teaches non-fiction and writing for young adults, Tanya Kyi who teaches writing for children and young adults and Sarah Leavitt who teaches graphic forms. So if you come to this event you'll have the opportunity to see what it's like to be part of UBC Creative Writing, to try out a very fun writing activity and to leave with a greater sense of your own creativity. It's a super fun event, it always has a wonderful atmosphere in the room that's very joyous and we really, really love doing it.

If you want to learn from experienced writers, want to get to know the local writing community or just want to have a fun time, the Vancouver Writers Festival is a great place to start. Recordings of the online events will be available until October 31.

For all festival information and event listings visit: