What do authors Craig Davidson, Eden Robinson, Cherie Dimaline and Waubgeshig Rice have in common? As returning Delegate Kevin Hardcastle sees it, not only were they participants at #FestofAuthors18—their approach to storytelling and the subsequent trajectory of their careers all demonstrate the shifting preferences and expectations of Canadian readers.
By Kevin Hardcastle
As proven by some of the most exciting writers featured at this year’s edition of the Toronto International Festival of Authors (and those who have appeared in annual prize-lists and national literary coverage), all of the old rules need no longer apply. Factors that soured publishers on certain books or seemed unsalable to readers are being more readily accepted as innovation, and as part of our literature and its necessary evolution. As an entry point to this, perhaps we might look at the thriving career of Festival invitee Craig Davidson, who has been celebrated for both his hard-edged, carefully-crafted, unsentimental literary fiction and his wildly popular and genre-renewing horror fiction (under the sort-of-pseudonym Nick Cutter).
Davidson’s Rust and Bone was one of the few early examples I read of a writer who, while different in many ways, walked some the same stylistic and narrative paths that I wanted to in my work. He wrote about people in the underclass, rural folks, violent lives, and he did so in a way that wasn’t sentimental or simply for effect—this at a time when most all of the best examples of this kind of writing (with a North American setting) were being published in the US, in the work of writers like Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, or Daniel Woodrell. When I saw the uncompromising nature of Davidson’s first collection, and saw that he’d been published by Penguin with a novel to follow, I thought that was proof alone that he’d done it. There was perhaps now a path you could take as a Canadian writer if that was the kind of writing that spoke to you.
As Davidson explained in his recent book of non-fiction (the Canada Reads contender, Precious Cargo), his novel didn’t sell and he thought that his career was over, that he’d never get another book contract again. Davidson ended up in Alberta, spending his time as a bus driver trying to pay the bills before eventually getting back to writing and publishing two literary works: the intertwined stories of Sarah Court, where he melded elements of horror and suspense intently into his stories; and later, the Giller Prize-nominated Cataract City, a novel that goes back to similar territory as his earlier work, expertly weaving elements of crime, noir and literary writing in a way that might have alienated critics and readers again, but, this time around, won Davidson great acclaim. Davidson ate a great deal of crap to get back to that point, but what he didn’t do was backpedal and package his work neatly so that it was more likely accepted. He honed his skills and doubled down, and hasn’t looked back since.
At TIFA 2018, a decade after the perceived “failure” of his first novel, The Fighter, Davidson shared the stage at an event with Lauren B. Davis and Timothy Taylor to talk about their dark, genre-bending literary novels. This was after the release of Davidson’s latest novel, The Saturday Night Ghost Club, another book that didn’t fit neatly into the traditional genre classification or category. As someone who read his work early and saw his path as a viable route for writers with shared sensibilities, I believe that Davidson’s commitment to expanding and developing the form and style that drives him to write, whatever the expectation of traditional publishing, should inspire others who perhaps saw this path as only being viable outside of Canada as I did.
The very next night, lucky audience members were able to see Eden Robinson and Cherie Dimaline sharing the TIFA stage. In that event, Dimaline interviewed Robinson on stage about her latest novel Trickster Drift, the second instalment in the Trickster trilogy. Those books, beginning with Giller finalist and mega-acclaimed bestseller, Son of a Trickster, are also masterful examples of an author melding genres, storytelling styles, literary conventions and line-by-line craft to serve the powerful story at the heart. The narrative is based on the ongoing saga of Jared, an Indigenous teen living hard and trying to get by, with his frightening, complicated mother, and a community around him full of wonder and danger. Robinson melds magical realism, the realist-of-realism (in that her characterisations are so far from sentimental or abject that every aspiring writer should take note), gothic writing, Indigenous storytelling and local knowledge, and a writing voice that is precise and honed so fine by craft that it is hard to truly gauge.
After so many years of work by Robinson, this all seems so natural and effortless that the reader feels it in their bones. But Robinson sweat blood to get to this point, especially given how her work might have sounded to publishers or reviewers or festival directors some years back. Robinson has made no concessions in her work, has let the story lead and has become one of the finest writers working as a result.
It follows perfectly then that her interviewer was Cherie Dimaline, an author from the Georgian Bay Métis community, who has written novels and short stories that were acclaimed and respected, though perhaps not likely to ever be picked up or lent resources by a major Canadian publisher. Dimaline kept on writing without compromise, however, and without any design on commercial success. In September 2017, her young-adult novel, The Marrow Thieves, was published by Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant. It is a post-apocalyptic novel in which the civilized world has crumbled and, as time has passed in this new reality, people have lost their ability to dream—all but the surviving Indigenous people, who are now hunted for their bone marrow to restore this power of dreaming to the new authorities trying to assert their control on what remains of the world.
The Marrow Thieves became one of the greatest success stories in Canadian independent publishing history and has gone on to win more awards that can fit on the cover, including the Governor General’s Award, and, most impressively, the US-based Kirkus Prize. That this book— about the obliteration of life and family and home, of language, of history, filled with Indigenous youths and elders on the run from those hunting them for their marrow, their dreams and souls—could be accepted by so many readers in Canada (it has been atop or near the top of the bestsellers list since it was published), shows a tectonic shift in what Canadian writers should expect of their reading public.
Luckily, at least for hungry readers and emerging writers in Canada, many authors are still creating these works and refusing to let market concerns dictate what they should write. The last book I’ll mention is from an event that I was honoured to be part of: the Festival’s only Facebook Live event where I interviewed author Waubgeshig Rice about his new novel Moon of the Crusted Snow, released this past fall by ECW Press. Rice is an Anishinaabe writer, also originally from a community n Georgian Bay, the Wasauksing First Nation. I came across his work a few years ago and was grateful to read his new novel in advance earlier this year.
Moon of the Crusted Snow is also a story set in a world after cataclysm, but it is set in the earlier days of the event, when the lights have just gone out. The protagonist, Evan Whitesky, lives on a northern reserve with his young family, and we follow him from the time of the outage, walking with him through the dwindling of supplies, the deepening of winter and the eventual migration of strangers to his remote community with all the dangers they bring. It is another work that takes elements from different genres without following any conventions strictly, focusing on character and humanizing people who are trying to cope with the potential collapse of their way of life. And, importantly, it is one of those rare books set specifically in a rural setting that uses the place and the people as a significant, active element in the story and not simply as a throwaway backdrop (as they are so often misused).
When you infuse some unique rural and Indigenous perspectives into the story, and carefully weave in chosen elements of horror and regional mythology, what you end up with is another novel that defies convention but is all the more successful for it. Here is another new work that is already being accepted and explored by a new generation of readers.
I know that is a lot to take in, but given some of the contentious discussions of late about the direction of Canadian literature, it seems important to show that there are paths for writers like these who perhaps haven’t seen their own stories represented yet. All of these TIFA authors have shown a willingness to experiment with story, style and voice, and shape these elements to serve the story. They have refused to accept limitations of form, genre or neat classification for publishers or critics. And, ultimately, the success of these authors has proven that there are new pathways available for good writers who haven’t felt encouraged to write their stories before.
In the years to come, expect further generations to keep expanding the territory of this country’s literature, and for more of these boundaries to be broken—on and off the page. Expect more of these books to fill your shelves, and more of these new, boundary-breaking writers to blow your minds at TIFA and beyond