This past February, TIFA welcomed its new director, Roland Gulliver, to help usher the organization into a new decade. The former Associate Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival begins his tenure with TIFA by preparing for the 41st edition of the Festival, taking place this fall. In mid-March, we checked in with Roland about his first impressions of his new city, his literary firsts, what he's reading and whether he's a re-reader. Read on, and get to know our new director.
While you're here, be sure to check out our blog post on local bookstores who are still operating via online and telephone orders during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of them have been mentioned in the interview below.
At the time of this interview, you've been in Toronto and officially the TIFA director for two and a half weeks. How are you feeling?
Good. It's been very exciting. I have been amazed by the enthusiasm, the warmth and positivity towards the Festival, and how eager and engaged everyone is in making the Festival a success.
Have you experienced Toronto as a book city yet?
I have. I have really enjoyed wandering the city on the weekends.
What do you think of it?
One of the things that people told me about coming here was the amazing libraries, the whole network of libraries. It is quite exciting particularly in times when in the UK, they're struggling to keep libraries open with the reduced hours and stock. So I was quite excited to see in the guide book a whole section on libraries. I've been up to the the Toronto Reference Library–and its great graphic novel store, Page & Panel–and I'm also discovering some of the independent bookshops. Type Books is near where I'm staying at the moment, which is a very lovely bookshop. Nearly spent...well, I spent a lot of money in there. Then last weekend, I discovered Another Story Bookshop up near High Park, which is another very lovely bookshop.
I know there are lots of other ones that I'm looking to discover. I know, historically, people have said that Toronto has a great book reputation and it's really the quality of what they stock, the range of what they stock and the character.
What are the differences and similarities that you've noticed between Edinburgh and Toronto?
They are complete opposites because Edinburgh is old and historical. It's quite small. It's the capital city. It's hilly and windy and wet. It's the dominant feature alongside of the festivals that happen in August. Coming here [Toronto], the horizon is completely different both geographically but I think also culturally. It's so broad and wide. The relationship between everyone being really tied to their own neighbourhoods but everyone is also from somewhere else which is quite refreshing. It reminds me of when I worked in Brussels. Many people have talked about how Toronto has changed. I came here in 2009 [for the 30th anniversary edition of the Toronto International Festival of Authors] and then in that 10 years, things have changed and everyone feels this kind of dynamic energy to it which I think has its positives and its negatives.
What's the first book you remember reading?
Ever reading? My head tells me The BFG by Roald Dahl but I don't know if that's true. Probably, if we dig a big further, The Adventures of King Rollo by David McKee because those were little picture books and I was thinking Rollo sounded like Roland. Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown. I loved Flat Stanley.
What was the first literary event you remember attending?
Should I confess that I probably came quite late to literary events? When I was young, my parents took me to galleries, the theatre and music events but literary events and festivals were relatively rare. I can remember things like seeing AL Kennedy and Alastair Reid at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, who are legendary Scottish writers, but I was a working man at that point.
What was the last thing you finished reading?
The last thing I finished reading was called Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley. It's for an event that I'm an interviewer for featuring Andrew Michael Hurley and Francine Toon—who wrote Pine—as part of the Aye Write festival in Glasgow. Starve Acre is almost like a modern gothic horror story set in a house in the English countryside. There are a lot of books recently that look at the dark side of that whole middle class family retreat to the countryside, that idyllic life and discovering that it's not. It's haunted. The book actually has a really, really dark ending which I didn't expect.
What's the book you're reading right now?
Next I'm onto The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney which is by English writer Okechukwu Nzelu. Interestingly, it's published by Dialogue Books who bought Ian Williams' Reproduction when their publisher came to the Toronto International Festival of Authors last year for the International Visitors (IV) programme. Amongst all the other things I'm trying to read, I got I Am Still Your Negro by Valerie Mason-John in the post which is quite good. I almost bought it at Type Books. Kapka Kassabova’s To The Lake is also for an event I'm an interviewer for, in Glasgow. It's a current theme to my reading.
What's the next book on your TBR [To Be Read] list that you're excited to get to?
I discovered, out in the beaches, a really good secondhand bookshop, Re: Reading², where I found a copy of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories selected and introduced by Jane Urquhart, for $10. I also bought the Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader by Vivian Gornick, at Type Books. I love a book about books.
Do you re-read books?
Re-reading is like the ultimate indulgence to me. I've never had time to re-read. So the fact that you get to re-read something it's like...oh my god.
Is there anything you wanted to say to our readers?
Of course, come to the Festival but also pick an event you wouldn't normally go to. Literary festivals are like going to a bookshop: picking up something by chance that you didn't realize you wanted to read.