Archives for category: Host / Interviewer

It’s IFOA! (that’s the International Festival of Authors, for the uninitiated), and squillions of authors are in town to talk about their books. On Sunday afternoon, I had the great good fortune to sit up on stage and chat to four of them:

  • Samuel Archibald, whose story collection Arvida was recently shortlisted for the Giller Prize
  • Nick Cutter, whose latest novel is The Deep
  • Benjamin Percy, whose latest novel is The Dead Lands
  • Andrew Pyper, whose latest novel is The Damned

We talked about putting the things that scare you into words and story (hint: all four authors have young children), whether it’s scarier to spell it out or to keep it vague, and whether genre is dead, among other things.

Oh, and Stephen King came up quite a bit.

They were all thoroughly excellent chaps who have written thoroughly excellent books. All in all, a thoroughly excellent way to spend a late-October afternoon.


*Photo (l to r) Samuel Archibald, Nick Cutter, Becky Toyne, Andrew Pyper, Benjamin Percy
Pphotographer credit: / Tom Bilenkey


(l to r) Andrew Pyper, Joseph Boyden, Becky Toyne

Listen to a short clip of this on-stage conversation >> audio

On Tuesday night, at a fundraiser in support of PEN Canada, I moderated a conversation with Joseph Boyden and Andrew Pyper about how writers deal with a violent world and hateful subjects, writerly ethics when dealing with taboo subjects, and the unique power of words to offend.

Must violence serve the story?

Must authors defend their work if it offends others?

Does familiarity breed indifference when it comes to interpreting the violence scenes we read?

Does a public declaration of taking offence shut down a conversation or enrich it?

Can we envision a future in which publishers require authors to write “B scenes” for readers who don’t want to read (or teach) scenes with violence?

The event, which was held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, is part of PEN Canada‘s Ideas in Dialogue series, a twice-yearly event to raise awareness of and funds for the organization’s work to defend free expression.

The evening also included the awarding of the PEN Canada/Ken Filkow Prize to Franke James.

Alessandra Naccarato, winner of the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. Photo credit Katrina Afonso.


On a hot and humid May evening in Toronto, the Writers’ Trust of Canada handed out its “thing in the spring,” the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. The winner was  Alessandra Naccarato for her poetry collection “Re-Origin of Species.”

The Bronwen Wallace Award recognizes emerging writers under 35 who have yet to publish in book form. Past winners include many then-unknown but now-familiar names, such as Michael Crummey, Alissa York, Alison Pick and Jeramy Dodds.

Host Tanis Rideout (another past winner) set the perfect tone: fun, celebratory, reverential. The crowd schmoozed to classical renditions of Top 40 songs (we were in the Royal Conservatory of Music, after all) in a stunning all-glass room with views of Philosopher’s Walk and the Royal Ontario Museum. The atmosphere was fun, lively, and distinctly emerge-from-hibernationy. This was, said Tanis “our thing in the spring.”

Alessandra Naccarato won $5,000. Her fellow nominees each won $1,000. They were: Irfan Ali for “Who I Think About When I Think About You,” and Chuqiao Yang for “Roads Home.”

Find out more about the prize and this year’s nominees here.

Read stories from CBC Books, the Toronto Star and Quill and Quire here, here and here.

And check out a Facebook photo gallery from the event courtesy of the Writers’ Trust here.

Here are the three nominees chatting with me and (via the magic of Periscope) the world on the pre-ceremony “red-carpet.”

Chatting to award finalists Irfan Ali, Alessandro Naccarato and Chuqiao Yang before the ceremony. Photo credit Katrina Afonso.




Interviewing Lynn Thomson at WOTS 2014. Photo credit: Kent Robinson

This column originally appeared on Open Book: Toronto on Sept, 26, 2014

On the morning of the 25th annual Word on the Street festival (WOTS) in Toronto, I awoke at 7am to the dispiriting sound of torrential rain. I snuggled under the covers with the Sunday paper and guiltily wished I hadn’t made a commitment to go and stand in a tent for most of the day. I wished the rain would stop. I wished I owned a pair of wellies.

At 8am, the rain was still hammering down. At 9am, thunder had joined the rain. By 9:30am I’d realized it was also humid. My hair had tipped me off: it was large.

I began my now annual ritual of figuring out what to wear to a) be presentable in front on an audience, while b) standing exposed to the elements for four hours. I have learned that for Word on the Street, sartorial options are key. I left the house in T-shirt and jean-jacket, toting a scarf, a light sweater, a waterproof jacket, and an umbrella in a bag — just in case. But by the time I’d even made it as far as the front porch, the sun had struggled out from behind the clouds. And out it stayed for the rest of the day. The weather gods had smiled kindly on WOTS 2014.

From late morning until mid-afternoon I hosted the Vibrant Voices of Ontario Stage, hearing readings from, and engaging in some lovely onstage chit-chat with, seven writers in four hours. In case you missed it, here are the Coles notes:

  • Krista Foss read from her debut novel, Smoke River. We talked about learning conversational Mohawk and rebutted the notion that one “graduates” from short stories to the novel.
  • Lynn Thomson read from her debut memoir, Birding with Yeats. I asked her about birding (of course) versus her day job of bookselling, and about her groovily named writing club, The Moving Pen.
  • Russian native Vladimir Azarov read from Sochi Delirium and I asked him why moving to Canada (not Paris, not Prague – Canada!) had inspired him to write poetry.
  • Adrienne Weiss read from There Are No Solid Gold Dancers Anymore. We talked about a psychic on Queen Street and the way actors may become unable to leave behind their defining roles.
  • Recent Quill & Quire cover girl Carrie Snyder read from Girl Runner and answered questions about running, tough career choices, and choosing a 104-year-old Aggie Smart as a protagonist.
  • Gordon Henderson, author of Man in the Shadows, talked about making the transition from journalism to fiction, and why Canadian history is a lot more fun than you think.
  • Claire Cameron read from The Bear, and then talked about the pros and cons of placing your narrative in the hands of a 5-year-old narrator, and the comfort (or terror) of story to make sense of tragedy.

When my stint on stage was over, I took a stroll around Queen’s Park in the now-scorching sun to see what was what (or should that be “what was WOTS”?). I peeped into some tents to check out the programming (including sign language on stage at the Bestsellers Stage), and said Hi to many friends manning magazine booths, who still had wet feet from setting up shop in the early-morning monsoon.

Like the Coach House Wayzgoose (which I wrote about earlier in the month) WOTS is a massive end-of-summer coming together of the publishing crowd, but unlike almost anything else, it’s also a huge community event: fun, family friendly and free to attend. I met one of my best friends at my first WOTS, many chapters ago, and have had memorable conversations with both book-trade friends and book-reading strangers alike at every festival since. WOTS attracted a crowd of more than 200,000 this year. And when you consider than 5,000 sales can a Canadian bestseller make, those 200,000 represent a pretty significant voting block for the future of our business.

Despite the eventual benevolence of the weather gods, one small cloud remained on the periphery of this 25th anniversary WOTS. This year marked the last that the festival would be held at Queen’s Park. Next year it relocates to Harbourfront Centre, and one can’t help but feel though it gains a new home it may lose a little something in the move. More than 200,000 people ambling around our city’s waterfront is already a weekend-ly occurrence throughout the summer, but 200,000+ book lovers taking over a giant, easily stumbled-upon section of downtown to spend a day – rain or shine – soaking up literary experiences has no equivalent.

But that big change is a year away. With the Eden Mills Festival in Guelph and WOTS chapters across the country already having taken place, the 2014 fall festival season is officially underway. As I write, the Kingston WriterFest is in progress (in Kingston, obviously), and Toronto’s International Festival of Authors is a mere month away. Writers: it’s time to meet your readers. There are hundreds of thousands of them. I saw them with my own eyes last weekend. See you at the festivals, rain or shine.






The clouds gathered, but so did the crowds at this year’s Word on the Street festival in Toronto on September 22.

I was talking to writers on stage at the Vibrant Voices of Ontario stage all morning, and thankfully the rain kept away.

This year’s Vibrant Voices were:

  • David Macfarlane, presenting The Figures of Beauty
  • Adam Dickinson and Gillian Savigny, discussing science in poetry
  • Don Gillmor, presenting Mount Pleasant
  • Catherine Bush, presenting Accusation
  • Kenneth Bonert, presenting The Lion Seeker


On Sept. 18, it was an honour to be asked to host the first event of the 40th season of readings at Harourfront Centre. Rebranded (I dig it) as IFOA Weekly, the event took place in front of a full-to-bursting house in the Brigantine Room. Why such a crowd? For Matt Galloway interviewing Joseph Boyden, that’s why.  Props to the Boyden fans who waited in line for 2 hours to get their books signed after the event.

The Book and Periodical Council and Raconteurs Present: Censored – Bruce Walsh from NOW Magazine on Vimeo.

On Feb. 28 a massive crowd gathered at The Garrison in Toronto for The Book and Periodical Council and Raconteurs Present: CENSORED, an evening of storytelling and performance around issues of censorship and free expression, part of Freedom to Read Week. Six storytellers shared their very different personal experiences. There were many laughs, but all underscoring a very serious message.

Above, Bruce Walsh tells “How I Got Here,” an adapted version of his TED Talk, “How the Holocaust Saved My Life.”

Below, Ken Setterington torpedoes any notion you might have of stuffy librarians with his story, “Yes, I Am a Librarian.”

Thanks to NOW Tube for posting all six stories in their entirety, here.

The Book and Periodical Council and Raconteurs Present: Censored – Ken Setterington from NOW Magazine on Vimeo.

Becky Toyne, Roddy Doyle, Two Pints (untouched)


Roddy: “About a year and a half ago I opened a Facebook account.”

Audience: *laughs*

And so begins my congenial and chortle-filled interview with Roddy Doyle, the Booker Prize-winning author of books for readers of all ages (my 9-year-old niece is a fan), and (let’s not forget) 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize judge.

On the pub as the perfect setting for two blokes talking about the tabloids: “The realm of conversation is what makes the pub unique. The alcohol, it helps, but it’s more the conversation.”

This conversation was filmed at the Kobo offices in Toronto as part of the Kobo in Conversation series.

Check out the video on Kobo’s YouTube page, here.


From Oct. 18 to 28, it’s IFOA time (eye-eff-oh-eh!), or the 33rd annual International Festival of Authors if you want to be all verbose about it. The largest literary festival of its kind in North America, IFOA is like the TIFF of the book world, with A-list authors instead of A-list movie stars. Will power-couple hybrid names Spaldaatje or Raweleine catch on? Probably not, no. Besides, one of the greatest things about being a world famous author (I’m guessing) is that you are recognized for your words and not your wardrobe.

I’m a bit of an IFOA addict and will be there every day. I’m also tickled pink (hot pink…?) to be hosting six events at this year’s festival. They are:

I’ll also be on publicist duty for two great events featuring 2012 Writers’ Trust award nominees:

I’ll be doing a preview of what’s new and noteworthy about this year’s IFOA in my next Open Book: Toronto column.

Till then, check out the IFOA website for a full schedule of events and tickets.

Hope to see you there.

On Tuesday, September 25, Zadie Smith takes part in an onstage interview with Eleanor Wachtel at Harbourfront Centre.

The event is sold out, but if you’re lucky enough to have a ticket I’ll see you there (or not, because the lights pointing at the stage are actually very bright…) when I get up to do the “hello and welcome” part.