A Festival of Authors isn’t exactly the place you’d expect to see live music.
But Victoria’s second annual celebration of the written word, happening at various venues Wednesday (Sept. 27) through Sunday, has grown since its inaugural year and engaging with writers means engaging with ideas.
The idea to stage a musical response to the work of some of Canada’s best-known writers was something Jan Stirling and Barbara Black were immediately interested in. The pair has been writing and performing music together in Victoria for close to a decade, mainly jazz but occasionally branching off into unique projects like this one.
“The fact that we both write means we appreciate other authors and really understand the creative process that goes into writing a large body of work,” Black says.
While Stirling composes the music on piano, Black is the lyricist and vocalist.
“We’re quite excited,” Stirling says. “We read all four books, three novels and a memoir. They were all so different, but Barbara was particularly interested Barbara Gowdy.”
And so the thunderstorms that break in the pages of Little Sister, Gowdy’s latest novel, served as the inspiration for what Stirling came to compose. She says she wanted to portray the eerie kind of sound that storms can embody.
“You want your listeners to respond to the emotional journey of the characters,” Black says, even if they’re not presented in a typical human form.
When the Toronto-based Gowdy sat down to breathe life into Little Sister, she had been indulging in old issues of National Geographic, reading about neuroscience. As a writer who tends to journey through her character’s brains, she says it interests her to explore why people do and feel the things they do.
“I’m aware that some of my writing is out there,” Gowdy says, and while the new book “doesn’t take on anything shocking, it’s just unusual.”
In the novel, it’s a band of storms that shifts the main character from one consciousness to another, something Gowdy thinks science is on the precipice of achieving. She believes it could provoke the kind of compassion and empathy humans need more of.
“I think a lot of bad behaviour is a lack of empathy, and a lack of empathy is a lack of imagination,” she says.
One of numerous events on the festival schedule, Voices Lifted sees each author read from their work and then listen to, along with the audience for the first time, the responses evoked from Stirling and Black. Hosted by Joanne Roberts, the evening gets underway at 7:30 p.m. at the Metro Theatre.
“What’s interesting about this festival, is that they’re merging writing with other art forms,” Black says. “It livens things a bit and shows you that the arts intersect.”
The Victoria Festival of Authors runs Sept. 27 to Oct. 1.