Wordfest Ringleader Shelley Youngblut finds it’s hard to say no to astonishing authors

Wordfest CEO and Creative Ringleader Shelley Youngblut has a problem: she finds it hard to say no. Maybe that’s bad news for the hardworking Wordfest staff, but it’s great for Calgarians and for book lovers around the globe — especially the ones who will savour the upcoming sets of events over the course of September, October and November.

“I think as usual we’re doing way more than we probably should, but there are so many amazing books and so many astonishing authors that it’s really hard to say no,” Youngblut says in a phone conversation.

And while this year’s series remains online like last year’s, Youngblut is holding out hope that by the end of November, there will be a few live shows on offer. In the meantime, the team has done everything in their power to create a rich feast of choices. Starting with 26@26, a continuation of the 25@25 theme that was so successful for 2020’s 25th anniversary celebration. 

The 13 Tuesday sessions commenced today — each one offering an author being interviewed by a different person. The kickoff featured Miriam Toews being interviewed by her long-time friend, author Claire Cameron.

If it sounds like a tough act to follow, well, it’s followed in style during the next 12 sessions, including Calgary author Marcello Di Cintio interviewing Palestinian-American writer Hala Alyan the following week regarding her second book, The Arsonists’ City.

Another series is ImagineonAir, kicked off by Youngblut interviewing Canadian author, playwright and director Jordan Tannahill regarding his thriller, The Listeners. Tannahill was a hit at Wordfest in 2018 with his debut novel, Liminal. Korean-American author Michelle Zauner, founder of the band Japanese Breakfast, whose debut, her memoir Crying in H Mart, was published this year, will be interviewed by Lainey Lui of CTV’s talk show, The Social, Sept. 16. And Newfoundland favourite Wayne Johnston is featured in a Sept. 23 session, spotlighting his layered book unearthing intercontinental and intergenerational trauma.

One must-see session features Youngblut in conversation with defence attorney Marie Henein, who represented Jian Ghomeshi and other people whom were tried and hung in the public mind before a single court date was set. “She’s such a lightning rod. I want to hear what she has to say and I’m going to do the interview.

“She grew up in Egypt, she moved as a kid to Ontario. Everybody called her Paki. She had an uncle that she was really close to who was dying of AIDS. This is a woman who has made it in a really aggressive male profession. I want to hear what she has to say.”

The Wordfest Series is taking place until the end of November online. For more information, go to

Here’s the full line-up: 

Sept. 7: Miriam Toews with Claire Cameron

Sept. 14: Hala Alyan & Marcello Di Cintio

Sept. 21: Omar El Akkad & Ian Williams 

Sept. 28: Ruth Ozeki with Genki Ferguson

Oct. 5: Jael Richardson & Katherena Vermette

Oct. 12: Daniel Heath Justice with Shelagh Rogers

Oct. 19: Zoe Whittall with a partner to be announced

Oct. 26: Torrey Peters & Casey Plett

Nov. 2: Amitava Kumar & Jenny Offill

Nov. 9: Hiromi Goto & Kyo Maclear

Nov. 16: Drew Hayden Taylor & Jesse Wente

Nov. 23: Terry Fallis & Linden MacIntyre

Nov. 30: Dorie Greenspan & Louise Penny

(Photo credit: Heather Saitz.)