Category Archives: Hanna Leavitt

Writers, publishers and booksellers unite for Read Local

In April, 23 publishers, 300 authors, 50 bookstores and 40 libraries will unite to celebrate the talent of British Columbia’s writers. Events for Read Local B.C. will take place throughout the province until April 22—from Victoria to Vancouver, Tofino to Fernie, Williams Lake to Haida Gwaii. It’s an initiative of the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., which works to support the long-term health and success of B.C.-owned and controlled publishers. Hannalora Leavitt spoke to the association’s executive director, Margaret Reynolds, about the province’s extraordinary depth of writing talent.

When I first looked at the press release for Read Local B.C., my first thought was wow, what a great, grass-roots approach—getting writers, booksellers and publishers out there face-to-face with readers. Can you tell me about the initiative and how it came about?

There were two influences. One was that last year we did an event at the Legislature called B.C. Book Day. We had our publishers there in the rotunda of the Legislature buildings. The MLAs and their staff were invited to come down to meet with us. We gave away books, and it was a huge success. The Lieutenant-Governor was there as well. There was real excitement and buzz in the building. But, it was a private event. Then we wondered, how can we roll this out a little more so that it engages the public as well as our representatives in Victoria?

Simultaneously the booksellers who were actually at that event came to us and shared that they’d just returned from a conference in the States. There’s quite an active, independent booksellers’ community in the States. They’ve done some very successful campaigns that focused on their importance in the community and the importance of local publishing. We had some discussions about how we might work together on a campaign that focused on the local, whether it’s the local bookseller or the local writer or the local publisher. That’s how it came together.

B.C. Book Day 2015 will take place on April 22 in Victoria. So we backed it up and we’re doing three weeks of author interviews and events in stores and libraries. We want to give it a wider attendance and awareness.

How it has been received by the publishing industry?

When you look at what the festivals are doing in this province, they are hugely successful. Last year the [Vancouver] Writers Festival completely sold out. Every year they seem to do better and better. The Sunshine Coast Festival is hugely successful. [There’s] one in Shuswap; another one in Victoria on the Island. There’s definitely a lot of interest from the public and the writers are out there.

One of the challenges in our industry is to get the word out about what we do. We don’t have a lot of media any more. We have social media which is definitely helpful but we don’t have the traditional newspaper, radio and television that we used to have to support us in getting the word out about books. Now we have to be a bit more creative about how we do that. Read Local is probably one of the ways we can get the word out but the writers festivals are another way. We really want to see those festivals continue.

There’s a confluence of effects of libraries and booksellers and publishers and writers that has helped to create an industry and to generate interest in local writers. That has been sustained, but I think it’s somewhat threatened when you don’t have a way of getting the word out about events. We do our best, but it’s definitely a challenge.

There are so many events planned throughout the province. Can you talk about the creativity that has gone into that process? Of course we expect events in major centres, but could you share some of the more remote events scheduled during Read Local B.C.?

As part of the campaign we wanted to ensure that authors throughout the province are recognized, and that both small towns and large cities can participate in the festivities. The event farthest from our headquarters is in Haida Gwaii at the Masset Maritime Museum. Our Stories Behind the Stories features local authors storytelling and readings, in partnership with Literacy Haida Gwaii. There’s a Poetry Picnic at Tofino’s Botanical Gardens or an afternoon at The Book Nook with author Bruce Burrows at Cafe Guido in Port Hardy as well.

Two Read Local B.C. events of note taking place in the Lower Mainland are North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley Public Library’s hosting of Secrets, Booze & Rebellion: Vancouver’s Unknown History, and Fishing for Tales held at the Pacific Angler, where two celebrated authors will deliver a unique perspective on the ocean, its wildlife, and the people who work on its waves. The campaign includes events in Victoria, such as On The Road and Poetry Without Borders. Both feature a range of talented and award-winning writers, and we’re very much looking forward to these flagship events in the city. Check out the events calendar.

Is there a way to measure the success of this initiative? Or, is it a matter of just doing it?

In a sense it is just give it a try because we’ve never done this before, not on this kind of scale where there are events taking place all over the province. If you’re just measuring by sales, it’s pretty much impossible to know whether it’s related to this campaign. We can certainly measure books going out. Our publishers can measure that. Gathering the information is a complex matter. We are going to try to measure orders from the booksellers over the course of the event and the subsequent months.

A terrific outcome of this campaign is if we could introduce books that half the people didn’t know about, books that have been published here by people who live down the street and the public didn’t even know. You never know who you’re touching when you do an interview or bring a person to town. But if you don’t do it, then people won’t know. I’d like to emphasize how positive a campaign this is. This is about the kind of creativity that goes on, both on the writing and on the publishing end in this province.

I’ve always understood that B.C. is the most well-read, literate region of Canada. But does that necessarily translate into a healthy industry? Today we hear so much about the demise of the print book because of digital technologies. In your role as executive director of the association, could you share what the industry looks like from your perspective?

Historically it has definitely created an environment where it is possible to publish books here. We’re far away from the centres of publishing: Toronto and New York. We have the largest English-language publishing community outside Toronto and within Canada. Library-book circulation is also one of the highest in the country. For the longest time, we had the most independent book sellers in the country, and I think we’re still pretty good. That end of things has changed, but historically that kind of symbiosis, readers who are interested in reading about where they live and where they come from, created this environment where it was possible to publish regional books or literary books about where we are. The industry really started in the early 1960s and over the years we now have magnificent children’s publishers, a scholarly press and lots of trade publishers.

Overall, I would say that the state of the industry is pretty buoyant right now in B.C. We’ve got a lot of great publishers doing really good publishing, highly professional, award-winning type publishing. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges in our industry. The retail market is complex and difficult right now.

The indie bookstores are getting, I think, more aggressive, more engaged and are rising to the occasion. They can see how important they are on the one hand and how difficult it is coping in cities like Vancouver where there are so few indie booksellers.

I can see some good things on the horizon, but it’s still a pretty challenging industry. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. However, that said, I think we have a very strong community here, a lot of it focused around our association. There is a lot of co-operation, energy and creativity within the organization, which has led to initiatives like Read Local B.C.

Hanna Leavitt is a Victoria writer. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from UVic.

Two-4-One film delivers unexpected twists

Film producer, director and media educator Maureen Bradley’s new feature film Two-4-One has its debut, hometown screening on Feb. 14 and 15 at the Victoria Film Festival, and CineCenta on March 25 and 26. This romantic comedy delivers promised laughs along with entertaining, unexpected character and plot twists. Montreal-born Bradley has directed more than 40 short films and videos, four film installations and two web art projects. Her award winning productions have screened at galleries and festivals around the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Bradley recently answered Hannalora Leavitt’s questions about her life and work.

Maureen, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and was delighted by the unexpected narrative twists and my own shuffling of gender assumptions. For instance, as a female viewer, I had to rethink the depth-charge moment when Adam (played by Gavin Crawford of This Hour Has 22 Minutes) slapped the debt collector, another male character, who is shocked when he is slapped, not punched, by another man. There’s also the scene when Adam (a transgendered character who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand) is examined at his ob-gyn’s office. The male presence in that typically feminine space is hilarious and challenging to the viewer.

Thanks for such thought provoking questions, Hanna. I’ve noticed the real comedy comes in putting people in awkward spaces—and what’s more awkward than being in the wrong place for your gender. It’s what many trans and gender non-conforming folks feel on a daily basis but without the humour. Bathrooms are really challenging spaces for trans people. By putting Adam in those uncomfortable situations, I hope all viewers think about how we are positioned every day by our gender presentation. Sometimes it’s easy, often it’s not. While rewriting the script, I tried to think of every possible human interaction Adam could have that foregrounded his gender. I’ve never punched someone and I would have no idea how to! I suspect Melanie (Adam pre-transition) was not a scrappy girl and lacked this experience as well.

As I pondered one major theme—how to become a man—I kept adding opportunities for Adam to learn the ropes of masculinity. When the film opens, he already looks like a man, walks like a man and talks like a man. He’s a stealth trans guy but there are still some experiences left to explore. The first time he hits the punching bag, he does so incorrectly. When he returns to the punching bag later in the narrative, he has actually learned how to throw a punch. I had to rely on a martial arts enthusiast on set to show me the difference since I know nothing about boxing!

The scene with Adam in the stirrups was a hoot to film. It is hilarious to female viewers in particular, but there’s also an intentionally creepy vibe to the scene. Adam leads a very medicalized existence. It’s the doctors and psychiatrists who call the shots in terms of his transition. They hold the power. The doctor really does not need to do this exam. There’s no doubt Adam’s pregnant. But he puts Adam through this humiliation. Female viewers relish seeing a pregnant man, that much I’ve learned from festival screenings so far. However, I was surprised that male viewers could relate to Adam as much as they do. I’m not sure male viewers have the same reaction to stirrups, but every woman I know cringes at the idea of an internal exam. So I threw in the prostate joke to widen the audience. Off the top of the scene the doc says, “Well, I guess I don’t have to tell you to cough.”

Can you talk about the origins of and your decision to go with a transgendered romantic lead? What, if any, barriers or surprises did you encounter in terms of your own creative practice, assumptions and expectations because of this decision?

When I first read about the famous pregnant man, Thomas Beattie, I knew it was only a matter of time before Hollywood made a film on the topic. But his story is the stuff of tabloids and reality TV. It’s not a movie. I read about a trans man accidently getting pregnant in exactly this way—sharing sex toys during a home insemination—and realized that scenario was indeed the stuff of drama. As a hero, Adam has a strong goal—to be a man. In fact, he discovers the pregnancy on his way to arrange for phalloplasty—a great dramatic reversal. So this story only makes sense for a transgender man. I’d been hearing more and more about trans male pregnancy in the last year and I wanted to create a story that was respectful and comedic before Hollywood did. The story is unique and one that I haven’t seen told in the form of a romantic comedy and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s reaching a broader audience than I expected. While it’s about an unusual path to masculinity, it’s also about learning to accept yourself. We reach the universal through the specific. Filming it in Victoria was also important for many reasons. First, the community was incredibly supportive. I wanted to create a film set in Victoria. While there so much production here, the films and TV shot here are never set here. Second, the landscape supports another theme in the film—fertility. And finally, this is a small town story. I doubt Adam would struggle so much with acceptance if the story was set in San Francisco, Seattle or Toronto.

Adam’s mother is a strong character in this story. I appreciated her eccentricities and fleshed-out character. Her home mirrored her personality. I was particularly intrigued with her home. While the film is set in Victoria, where did you find such an interesting location for the mother’s residence?

So glad you asked about this. It’s one of my favourite aspects of the film. That shack is on Gonzales Bay. It’s in my neighbourhood and I basically knocked on the door and asked if I could film there. The owners get this request frequently and they always say no, but since the film was local, they said yes. It’s mostly used for storage and no longer lived in. The shack was decorated with art almost entirely from Ladysmith artist Sally Mann, a friend of mine. I wrote the script with her artwork in mind but with a Quebecoise earth-mother eccentric character in mind. When I couldn’t find a francophone actor in the area to play Marie-France, Gabrielle Rose came on as Franny. It was her idea to take the original bits of French dialogue and turn it into her Alzheimer-defying French lessons. The shack was only about 250-square-feet in size so it feels very full—there’s a lot of art crammed in there. But that reflects Franny. She’s a Buddhist hoarder. What didn’t come from artist Sally Mann, Gary Varro, our brilliant production designer, created.

I watched the film twice but did need to ask a friend to fill me in on what took place during two “non-dialogue” scenes because of my visual impairment. For instance, the scene where the mother is looking through a box of photos of Melanie (Adam pre-transition) as a young girl and woman contains no dialogue. I realize that “film” is all about the visual. As a writer and arts consumer with a visual disability, I wonder if you, as a working film professional, are actively aware of how differently consumers, the visually impaired, for instance, experience your art. And, do you feel that directors and producers should play a role in creating a more inclusive viewing experience or does that task belong to others through closed captioning and descriptive video?

What a great question! All the screenwriting gurus insist you “show don’t tell’ and that the most compelling story device is the visual reveal. I personally like “talky” films, Woody Allen being my biggest influence. But the orthodoxy is that deft writers and directors get the job done through visuals. That directive excludes many in our potential audience.

I must say, I feel pretty ignorant about what happens when the movie is done and it goes for closed-captioning or interpretive audio. I would very much like to be involved in that process or consider it more in production. With these low budget productions, we focus so much on production, anything that comes after is left with the dregs of the budget—if anything. When I travel to Québec, I often get called on lack of French subtitles on my ultra-low budget films. I wish there was a fund for translation—both subtitles and interpretive audio. So often you have no control with these services. One director was just telling me about his French film getting mediocre English subtitles then the Mandarin version was translated from the sub-par English version! I appreciate your question. It will broaden my approach to writing and get me to consider about audience accessibility earlier on. Many years ago, I attended a screening in Vancouver and was mesmerized when I saw sign language interpretation of one of my shorts. It was illuminating.

In terms of your film career, how does Two-4-One fit in with your previous works? Is it representative of the wider social issues you would like to pursue in future projects?    

A lot of my earlier movies and docs were overtly political. I do see Two-4-One on that continuum but in a strategic manner. The content and tone make the subject matter accessible. And I’ve reached a much wider audience with this film than anything I’ve done since coming out on national TV in the CBC series Road Movies way back in 1992.

All the projects I’m currently writing have politics subverted into the narrative in a similar manner to Two-4-One. I’m working on three series concepts right now. One is a series version of Two-4-One called Who’s Your Daddy. Another is a series about a band of midwives in New Brunswick fighting for inclusion in medicare and a third, also infused with politics, is top secret.

And I’m flirting with two web series right now that meld comedy, drama and politics.

I really enjoy writing and I’d like to focus on writing TV or web series because you get to delve into character in a more sustained manner. I haven’t ruled out directing, but it’s a slog! I do hope to collaborate with Two-4-One’s brilliant cinematographer Amy Belling again.

Hearing Voices at The Belfry

By Hanna Leavitt

Earlier this fall, Belfry Theatre patrons may have wondered at the contingent of blind and visually impaired patrons and guide dogs in attendance at a particular performance of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).   Like the other blind people, I was there to experience the Belfry’s first-ever described theatre-arts event, a service provided by VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society. This Vancouver-based non-profit organization delivers live-audio description services for the blind, the first of its kind in Canada to do so.

I asked my friend Kristi to check out the show with Calvin and me. Calvin’s my guide dog. He’s pretty keen on the theatre, although sometimes he does forget it’s acting. We showed up 45 minutes before the start of the play to register with Larry, the VocalEye representative. We were each issued a single earpiece headphone along with a receiver with its own on/off and volume control. Larry escorted us to our front-row seats where we settled in for the performance.

“Turn on your receiver,” said Kristi, “Someone’s already started describing.” I flipped my receiver on and adjusted the volume. Sure enough, a clear, soft-spoken voice came through my earpiece.

“Good afternoon and welcome to VocalEye’s described performance of Goodnight Desdemona . . . by Ann-Marie MacDonald, directed by Ron Jenkins and produced by the Belfry Theatre. I’m Steph Kirkland, and I’ll be your describer for today. I’m describing from the old follow spot booth behind the balcony, left of centre.”

Kirkland, a 20-year veteran of the Vancouver theatre scene, also reads textbooks for the blind at Vancouver’s Langara College. “When I saw the call for audio theatre describers for blind people, it was a natural fit,” she says.  She has since formed a non-profit society called VocalEye that trains and promotes the services of audio describers to the theatre community. “It’s my goal that this service be sustainable,” says Kirkland. “I would love for it to be available at theatres across Canada.”

Fifteen minutes before curtain, Kirkland provided brief descriptions of the set, characters and costumes via our wireless earphones.

“There are five performers in this production, three women and two men. The main character is Constance Ledbelly, assistant professor at Queens University, played by Daniela Vlaskalic. All the other characters are played by the remaining four cast members. The central location is Constance’s office in the basement of Queens University. The back wall of her office is completely filled with nine built-in bookcases, each about 3 feet wide and 16 feet tall. The shelves are filled with leather-bound books, their spines embossed with gold and tagged with library labels. Dog-eared sheets of foolscap, a table fan, portable radio, stapler, lamp, clock, mug, and other odds and ends are also crammed in among the books.”

She continued her thorough set description, right down to the blue recycle box alongside Constance’s work space. I now had a picture in my head of the set, the same set that sighted audience members took in with a simple glance.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes when the play starts,” said the voice. The earpiece went silent.

“This should be good,” said Kristi. I agreed. I attend plays from time to time, but it’s frustrating to miss body language and other actions that aren’t always evident from the dialogue alone.

Moments later, the Belfry’s manager took the stage, welcomed everyone and invited us to enjoy the performance.

The voice was back.

“Darkness. Flash of light: Man smothers woman with pillow. Flash of light: Young woman plunges dagger into her belly. Flash of light: Constance Ledbelly in red toque slowly lowers phone receiver to desk picks up leather manuscript, drops it in recycling bin plucks white feather from her toque, drops it in.”

Okay, so I knew what the set looked like and what was happening. I wondered about the character of Constance. I didn’t wonder for long though. The voice must have read my mind.

Constance Ledbelly is in her 30’s, large boned, slim and gangly. Her square face is pale, without makeup, and flanked by two scrawny, brown pigtails. Her large, wire-frame glasses are taped in the middle. She wears a full set of blue-grey long johns under a purple, t-shirt, hand-knit sweater vest, a drab, plaid pleated skirt and knee-high, black rubber gumboots. To top it off, she wears a bright red toque with a big pom-pom on top, a white feather pen tucked in the brim. She writes with this feather pen in green ink.”

Okay, now I had it – the set and the eccentric main character.

All freeze.

“Janitor mops floor, smokes cigarette. One hand on mop. Lets go of mop the handle stays upright.”

Kristi and I laughed along with the sighted audience members, sharing a comedic moment in real time. What a treat not to have to tap a friend on the shoulder and whisper, “What just happened there? Why is everyone laughing?” I was hooked. The descriptions were concise, informative and blended effortlessly with the action. Kirkland elaborated on the process a theatre describer goes through prior to a performance.

“I typically attain a copy of the script, attend the play at least three times and take notes. Then I spend several hours working on the actual descriptions I’ll use during the play.” Preparing for the play and describing it can take as much as 20 hours per production, according to Kirkland. Her training and skill were evident as she quietly provided just enough detail to inform but not so much that it interrupted the dialogue and action.

VocalEye is committed to offering a comprehensive, theatre-going experience for blind patrons with its three-fold package. Through its Theatre Buddies service, volunteers meet blind patrons at a designated, accessible location. Buddies then guide patrons to the theatre. The audio describer takes over during the performance. But wait, there’s more. After the performance, we were invited to stay for a touch tour.

Kristi, Calvin and I ascended the stairs to the stage along with six other blind patrons. The touch tour was fabulous, adding an entirely new layer of enjoyment to the play. Belfry staff, actors and VocalEye representatives assisted us in our exploration of the set and props. We met the actors. We touched Desdemona’s gown with its elaborately beaded bodice, Romeo’s and Othello’s swords and daggers, the masks worn at the ball and some of the 1,500 hollowed-out books that lined the set’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Touching the costumes and props fleshed out the theatre experience for me, the finishing touch to an enjoyable afternoon. The Belfry contracted with VocalEye to describe one matinee performance per run this season. Will Calvin and I be back for another described show? You bet we will.

Hanna Leavitt is in the second year of her MFA in Writing.



Review of Auto Janz and Andrea June’s Latest Album

Musical collaboration provides lingering ear-worm

Auto Janz and Andrea June
13-track, album, (MP3 320/FLAC), $10
Released January 2012
Recorded in 1Ton Studios, Victoria, B.C.

Reviewed by Hanna Leavitt

Local musicians Auto Jansz and Andrea June deliver a highly entertaining collection of tribute songs about extraordinary, everyday women from Canada’s past.

The CD’s haunting title track, Red Lights, Money and Wine, is a tribute to the gritty realities of the dying days of Winnipeg’s bordellos at the turn of the century. The exquisite harmonies of the opening four songs are reminiscent of the Emmylou Harris/ Linda Ronstadt/ Dolly Parton sound of the Trio album of 1987. Ian Tyson comes to mind with the Canadiana mood evoked by I’m in Alberta. The harmonica intro of Hanna makes me think of Murray McLauchlan. And Sarah McLachlan could easily have sung Track 10, Tide.

This CD combines the singing/songwriting of Auto on the first half, Andrea June on the second. Spell-binding harmonies are showcased initially. The mood changes in the latter portion of the CD with more experimental songs such as Mary Shelley and Bon Nuit. Occasionally, rhyming schemes often feel forced and predictable, a little too easy.

I’m a writer of creative nonfiction, so I’ve got my own biases. If this album were a work of CNF, I’d commend it as an excellent first draft. Finding one’s unique voice is always the challenge, no matter what the creative endeavour. I’m anxious to hear how the pair’s musical identities develop in future efforts. And the good news is, the duo is taking the fall off to develop a new CD. Check out their new website They’ll tell you how to help them out.

In the meantime, I can’t get Track 6, Long Gone, out of my head. Now that’s a signature Jansz-June tune.


Hanna Leavitt is in the first year of her MFA in Writing