“For a while, an elk at the Leighton Colony … was so menacing that the studios had to be closed off. One writer gratefully announced that this was the most original excuse for not writing that she’d ever been provided with-‘A crazed animal is keeping me away from my word processor!’ When the writers finally got back to their desks, several wrote elk fantasies and one critic developed an elk-inspired essay about nature versus culture.”
Robert Fulford wrote these words in a 1990 Globe and Mail essay, when he was the chair of the Maclean Hunter Arts Journalism Program. Now called the Literary Journalism program, and celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, it invites eight writers for a month-long stay at the Banff Centre each summer and provides them with a studio in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. Many of the almost 150 writers who’ve enjoyed this privilege turned out award-winning magazine articles or worked on books, concentrating on pieces of long-form journalism they deeply cared about.
Mention the Leighton Artists’ Colony to any one of the program’s fellows and you’ll likely be met with wistful sighs about the elk-inhabited mountain campus. “It was a paradise for writers,” says Marcello Di Cintio, who attended last summer. He’s not just referring to the freedom from everyday chores such as cooking meals and making beds. At Banff, he says, non-fiction writers become more than “reporters who write long pieces,” and the program lends an “artistic clout to the genre.” Marni Jackson, an alumnus from 1996 and the current chair of the program, notes the underlying philosophy is that journalism isn’t just an information-conveyance device: “If you’re a non-fiction writer, you need to work on your language, your craft, your skills, your storytelling abilities just as much as any novelist.”
While at Banff, Philip Marchand wrote a Toronto Life article (“Lea and Me”) that later earned an honourable mention in the 2002 National Magazine Awards, but also found time to work on his book, Ghost Empire: How the French Almost Conquered North America. Freedom from distractions (aside from the odd elk) was the biggest luxury for him. It’s been eight years since his residency, but the way he describes the experience, it could have been last month. “One of the biggest problems writers face is lack of time and interruptions. You have your studio and your computer and to know you have a lot of time-you can relax and go for a walk or whatever.”
Margaret Webb, who developed a chapter of her book Apples to Oysters: A Food Lover’s Tour of Canadian Farms in 2005, relished the opportunity to write something for herself rather than for a magazine editor. “I came away with a lot more confidence and excitement about what I was doing,” she says, but adds, “I also came away with sadness that there aren’t more venues to practice long-form journalism in Canada.”
Long form, in Banff terms, often means 10,000 words or more. Writers arrive with a first draft and spend the month building on it, with the help of two editors and the chair. Every week, two residents face the faculty and the other participants in roundtable sessions. Writers find the feedback invaluable.
For some, it’s the longest piece of writing they’ve done. For others, it may be a chapter in a book they’re already working on, or one they hope to write. Banff’s book legacy shows the broad range of subjects participants have tackled: from Lindalee Tracy’s Growing Up Naked: My Years in Bump-and-Grind to Andrew Westoll’s The Riverbones: Stumbling After Eden in the Jungles of Suriname and from Siobhan Roberts’sKing of Infinite Space: Donald Coxeter, the Man Who Saved Geometry to Richard Poplak’s The Sheik’s Batmobile: In Pursuit of American Pop Culturein the Muslim World.
But it’s not all work. Di Cintio says he never thought there would be so much partying. “Every couple days we’re getting together for drinks in the evening,” he says. In 2003, Taras Grescoe presented his work on the search for authentic absinthe. His piece, which later became a chapter in The Devil’s Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit, recounted how he finally found the long-demonized spirit in a valley in Switzerland, where it was being bootlegged. After everyone got together for a night of readings, he pulled out four bottles of absinthe to celebrate.
Everybody seems to relax around each other-even a possible future prime minister. Ian Pearson, who went to Banff as a writer in 1997 and who just finished an eight-year stint as an editor there, recalls an outing when Michael Ignatieff was the chair. “We were going on a hike and I had a Johnny Cash tape in my car. One of the writers turned it up and I thought, ‘Oh, God, Michael loves classical music. He’s going to hate this.’ And Michael starts singing along with Johnny Cash.”
The singing isn’t limited to day trips. Three of the eight Leighton studios have pianos and the Banff Centre is often full of opera singers, actors and other artists. “So you’re sitting there at one in the morning,” says Pearson, “and Patricia O’Callaghan is singing ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen two feet away.”
The proximity to so many different types of artists isn’t just fun; it also boosts the creative energy of the participants. As Anita Lahey, a poet and writer who attended in 2001, recalls, “You’re surrounded by other groups of people working in their own area of art and trying to push themselves to the limit too-dancers and musicians and theatre people and photographers and painters.”
This four-week all-inclusive package-though it’s more Hiking Boots than Sandals-comes without a price tag; in fact, writers receive $3,000 for the second publishing rights to their articles. Launched with a $500,000 endowment from Maclean Hunter that was doubled by the Alberta government, the program began five years after the Leighton Artists’ Colony opened. The eight secluded studios, each designed by a prominent Canadian architect, have proven to be excellent places for writers to work. And party.
Many of the pieces have been collected in four Banff Centre Press anthologies: Why Are You Telling Me This?, Taking Risks, To Arrive Where You Are and Word Carving. A fifth volume will appear later this year. Fittingly, all former writers and editors will be invited to the launch party. It likely won’t be a staid affair.
In the introduction to Taking Risks, Ignatieff evoked the essence of the Banff experience, elk and all: “Every morning you go out to a studio at the end of a wood-chip path among the pines. There are few distractions. Sometimes elks calve in the woods around you. Otherwise it is silent and cool. A storm may blow down off the mountains. There are other writers out there, and occasionally they drop by, but usually it’s just you, face to face with the screen…. You came with an idea: over four weeks, you watch it grow or vanish or turn into something entirely different…. It can feel wonderful when you get it right.”