Five Questions with… Ovidia Yu

Ovidia Yu, author of Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event October 24. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Who was the inspiration for Aunty Lee?

Ovidia Yu: The “originals” of Aunty Lee are an aunt and a good friend of my mother’s, and I’ll explain in a moment why I won’t say more. They’re both lovely, lively, large ladies who are great cooks and love feeding people with food and advice. They’re also among the many who have told me they Know who I based Aunty Lee on (and it wasn’t themselves!) but that her recipes aren’t as good as their own… a total Aunty Lee trait! Yu, Ovidia

IFOA: Do you have a favourite mystery writer?

Yu: One of my all time most favourite writers on the page and in person is Louise Penny, and her being Canadian and writing about Three Pines is one of the reasons I’m so excited about the IFOA and visiting Canada.

IFOA: What time of day do you get the most writing done?

Yu: I generally start in the morning (alarm goes off at 7am) and write in 25-minute pomodoros (interspersed with dog walks, meals and laundry) and go on until I’ve done 8 pomos/reached 1500 words/it’s 5pm. Then again, I find it’s when I’m lying in bed about to drift off to sleep with the dogs finally settled in to their satisfaction that I suddenly see how I can tie up things I’ve been struggling with. So the note pad by the bed may be where the “real” writing knots get unraveled.

IFOA: Why do you think readers are so fascinated with sleuths and their unraveling of mysteries?

Yu: I think it’s because it gives us a chance to see what we would do in extreme circumstances. And the mystery story structure often presents us with someone trying to make sense of a mass of confusing and conflicting circumstanceswhich we’ve all encountered at a more mundane level in our lives—and we enjoy the challenge of working things through and the thrill of (safely) experiencing threat and danger and the happy dopamine release of a good ending.

IFOA: What is next for Aunty Lee?

Yu: I’m afraid poor Aunty Lee may find herself in hospital for a while. My father is in hospital at the moment so I’m learning more than I’ve ever needed to know about hospital food and I suspect Aunty Lee will have her own views on the subject!

Ovidia Yu is the author of the Singapore Mystery novels, an award-winning short-story writer and a playwright with over 30 plays performed. She is the recipient of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Singapore Foundation Culture Award, the National Arts Council Young Artist Award and the Singapore Youth Award. She presents the second book in her Singapore Mystery series, Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials, in which her feisty titular character returns to solve another delectable mystery involving scandal and murder among the city’s elite.

Five Questions with… Veronica Gaylie

Veronica Gaylie, author of Sword Dance: A Woman’s Story – A Celtic Poem and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event October 24. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What was the inspiration for Sword Dance: A Woman’s Story – A Celtic Poem?Gaylie, Veronia

Veronica Gaylie: The inspiration was the stories I grew up with in my ears. Glaswegian people tell storiesthey’ve a story for every possible life situation. My mother, grandfather and uncle told these stories, over and over. It occurred to me that other Canadian children did not grow up hearing stories about headless ghosts in graveyards, or doomed pig-raising schemes, so I thought it might be fun for people to read. From there, the poems sort of spilled out my fingers.

IFOA: These poems are written in working-class vernacular. Why was it important that your story be told this way?

Gaylie: I would not really call it “working-class vernacular”I think that’s more like a label to help identify the work for potential readers. It’s written in Glaswegian dialect, which originates in people who moved to Glasgow for work, from places they might not have wanted to leave (i.e. Ireland or the Scottish highlands). So, people naturally developed their own way of speaking, which was not the Queen’s English. Two hundred years ago, Robbie Burns was the first poet to write in Scots dialect, and he was pressured to change it. Thank goodness he didn’t or the world would not have known about that “wee mousie” turned up by a plough in the field.  For me, it’s just important to tell the stories and honour them as I heard them.

IFOA: Your other work includes The Poet’s Companion to Climate Change. Tell us a little bit about that project.

Gaylie: This is a project for environmental learning and climate change education, which I’ve been very involved in for the past 10 years. I’ve been the poet at the side of the riverbed with the scientists. To me, science is poetic. I think we encounter nature through the heart. So, I’ve made these little materials called The Poet’s Companion to Climate Change to help people to connect with the natural environment. I teach workshops for school children, community and action groups, in gardens, forests and beaches. I led some groups into Pacific Spirit Park with The Poet’s Companion this past summer. More at

IFOA: Is there an author you are currently reading who you could recommend to our readers?

Gaylie: Yes, poetry in Canada is alive and well! I am now reading Philip Kevin Paul, Taking Names Down From the Hill; Pierre Nepveu, Mirabel, and Marco Melfi, In Between Trains. These are all from great independent bookstores in Canada. I am also reading The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save us by Diana Beresford Kroeger.  You can dip into it, like poetry or prayer, and come away feeling better. You will learn the most mind-blowing things from this book, for example: oak trees have their own sunscreen.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Gaylie: Poetry, children’s stories, Words Aloud in Durham, teaching/learning organic agriculture in Kenya and whatever else is good for the soul!

Veronica Gaylie is a poet, writer, teacher and environmentalist. Her work has been published in literary journals around the globe, including Poetry Review (UK), Crannog (Ireland) and the Canadian journals ELQ/Exile Quarterly, Geist, Grain, Geez, Lake, Ditch, Room, Carte Blanche and Filling Station. S​he is the author of The Poet’s Companion to Climate Change. She has read her essays for CBC Radio Sunday Edition. Gaylie’s heart belongs to Glasgow, though her soul wanders on Canadian mountains and Irish peninsulas. She presents  her first poetry collection, Sword Dance, a memoir-style poem that profoundly embodies the classic Canadian immigrant tale.

Five Questions with… Mark Raynes Roberts

Crystal artist, designer and photographer Mark Raynes Roberts answered our five questions! His author portraits will be projected at Harbourfront Centre during the International Festival of Authors this fall (October 22 to November 1, 2015). Be sure to check them out, along with his engraved crystal sculptures exhibit, which is on at the Gardiner Museum October 26 through November 11!

IFOA: What first attracted you to glass engraving?

Mark Raynes RobertsMark Raynes Robert: I grew up in England, always wanting to be an artist, and so, for practical reasons, I initially trained as a goldsmith at the prestigious Birmingham School of Jewellery & Silversmithing. It was during this time that I was taught engraving by Ronald Pennell, who is considered one of the world’s top glass engravers, and so my love affair with the medium of crystal began. It’s an art and skill that requires many years of training. I was enraptured from the very beginning by the way the images I created could reflect, reveal or distort depending on the angle you viewed the crystal from. Unlike painting or bronze sculpture, working with prismatic optical crystal creates a fifth dimension that no other medium does. The two ancient engraving techniques I employ (intaglio and stippling) create the potential for both a carved three-dimensional impression, as well as a delicate stippled “mezzotint” effect upon the surface. The narrative messages of all my engraved art combine and reflect the dark and light, which is why black-and-white photography has also played an important role in my creative art.

IFOA: How has your style and technique changed over the years?

Raynes Roberts: I had a traditional training in England in which drawing was an integral part of learning to design, and I know this helped me in building a strong foundation for my craft. Over the past 33 years, I have experimented with various styles in my work and feel this has been an important evolution as an artist. In my view, it has only been in the last few years that I feel I have truly found my own voice as an artist, which is very exciting, as I still have a lot of passion for my work. I think this has come from my willingness to experiment, which in turn has built confidence when working with material that’s very expensive.

IFOA: On your website, you describe the refractive qualities of crystal as “dreamscapes of our collective conscience.” Can you elaborate on this?

Raynes Roberts: Not many people are aware, but it is crystal, a man-made material (invented in 1675) that continues to change our technological world through the use of prismatic light and fibre optics. So, in many ways, it is the perfect canvas for me to interpret the human condition through my narrative engravings. As I alluded to earlier, the refractive properties of the material provide a unique way to convey an alchemy that no other material can. With my ILLUMINATION project, there is also an obvious connection to early photography where photographic slides were made of glass. The ILLUMINATION crystal art sculptures reverse this process by visually presenting an interpretation of the authors’ words of beauty written about light and illumination.

IFOA: What inspired the ILLUMINATION: Portraits of Canadian Literature + Authors? Can we expect to see another artist series (musicians, dancers) in the future?

Raynes Roberts: In the fall of 2013, my wife Sarah Hampson and I traveled to London, England, as I had been invited to exhibit my crystal art in a gallery in Mayfair. During our stay, I was asked by The Globe and Mail if I would like to photograph the British authors, to accompany Sarah’s interview columns. This enjoyable experience of photographing each author in their home environments appealed to me, and so I began to think about photographing Canadian authors when I returned home. I had no idea how long the ILLUMINATION project would take, or how many authors I would end up photographing. But the basis of the idea was to celebrate the literary treasury and to be as “inclusive” as possible of both emerging and established writers. I would like to thank the Writers Trust of Canada, and the many publishers, agents and publicists who helped me reach out to the literary community. Charles Foran, who had won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction, which I create, was the first author I photographed for ILLUMINATION, and Michael Ondaatje was the last author. The project has been a “labour of love” and in a way is my gift to Canada, which will turn 150 in 2017. I greatly appreciate all of the warm support I have received from the participating authors and hope the exhibition resonates with Canadians across the country, because we do have an amazing wealth of writers who I felt needed to be illuminated. Somehow, I managed to travel over 20,000 kilometres and take over 22,500 photographs in the process, and as you can probably imagine, I have no plans for a similar project in the near future.

IFOA: When you are not working on your art, how do you like to spend your time?

Raynes Roberts: Together with my wife as we search for beauty in some form or another.

Mark Raynes Roberts is a multimedia artist who celebrates the literary treasury of Canada through glass engraving and the photographic lens. You can view Mark’s work at both Harbourfront Centre and the Gardiner Museum this October.

Five Questions with… Connie Gault

Connie Gault, author of A Beauty and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

IFOA: Along with your novels, you have also published short stories and stage dramas. Does your creative process change between mediums?

Connie Gault: I’ve found that my creative process remains almost the samethe story, novel or play begins with characters in a particular setting, a girl standing under an old metal arch, for example, or a couple sitting on an unmoving train, or in the case of A Beauty, a young woman stepping out of a car onto the dusty verge of a gravel road, and then expands outwards as the characters’ worlds come alivebut the different genres require different approaches, almost different mental muscles. In switching from one to another, I’ve had to learn their techniques all over again. I believe, though, that the effort enriches the results.

IFOA: A Beauty is set in Depression-era Saskatchewan. What about this particular time appealed to you?

Gault: The Depression is iconic Saskatchewan. Drought, dust, failing crops and vanishing towns are part of our inheritance. I grew up hearing about those years; they affected my grandparents, parents, me and my children. Two factors made the era perfect for this novel: I wanted to explore ways in which the past haunts people, and my central character is a young woman who incites a yearning for romance in those she meets. There is probably no time in our history when people had a greater need for a little excitement and glamour in their lives.

IFOA: Can you tell us where the title of your novel, A Beauty, came from?

Gault, A BeautyGault: The title refers to Elena Huhtala, the enigmatic central character of the novel, whose beauty is examined and remarked upon by almost everyone she meets. I like the old-fashioned sound of it; we don’t often call a woman a beauty anymore, and for good reasons. Maybe we are beginning (just barely beginning?) to see how labelling women this way objectifies and diminishes them. But there is also a great, sad beauty in the landscape of the prairies at this time in their history, and in the striving of the people to endure.

IFOA: What has the experience of promoting your new book around Canada been like?

Gault: I’ve enjoyed promoting A Beauty, especially the two fantastic launches of the novel, in Toronto and in Saskatoon, the latter with a Madison flashdance (the last third of the novel is set in the 60s). The best reward is hearing from readers across the country that they have appreciated the book.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Gault: I’m working on a new novel and finishing a collection of short stories.

Connie Gault is the author of two collections of short stories, several plays for stage and radio and the novel Euphoria, winner of the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction and shortlisted for the High Plains Fiction Award and the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book of Canada and the Caribbean. She will present A Beauty on June 24 at IFOA Weekly’s Where the Heart Is alongside Sabrina Ramnanan. This event is FREE.



Five Questions with… Madhur Anand

Madhur Anand, author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.

Anand, Madhur (c) Karen Whylie, Coyote Photos

Madhur Anand: The title refers to critical transitions from complex systems theory. These occur when a small perturbation causes a big change and leads a system to a different place, a surprising place or a catastrophe. They are also known as tipping points.

Scientists are developing indices to predict when a system is about to undergo such a transition. Some are concerned that critical transitions are difficult to adapt to. But in many systems with nonlinear feedbacks, these kinds of transitions are inevitable. My book examines transitions in human-environment systems at many levels (e.g. individuals, families, societies). These may be represented by surprising changes in, for example, identity, displacement or relationships.

Recent research suggests that a “critical slowing down” in dynamics can be an early warning for such transitions.The system takes longer and longer to recover from small perturbations. This critical slowing down, these expanding moments, weeks, months or years, might be an opportunity for closer and closer observation of a recovery process and for learning. Poetry can emerge from this.

This is just one way to read my debut book of poems. Other descriptions are on the back cover. And that’s Doryanthes excelsa (‘exceptional spear-like flower’) on the front cover.

Anand, A New Index for Predicting CatastrophesIFOA: You hold a PhD in theoretical ecology and currently work at the University of Guelph as a Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences. How does your poetry tear down the dichotomy between science and art?

Anand: That there is science in art and art in science we’ve known for a long time. The fact that my title refers to a scientific phenomenon is one way to combine art and science, but that’s just the beginning. To “tear down” (or as I would put it more subtly, dissolve) the dichotomy, science and art must be shown to have a dual nature, to be bistable (to borrow again from complex systems science terminology).

Here is one example of how I think science and art co-exist in my book. Thirteen poems are composed from the text of 13 of my scientific articles. These poems take on new lifebecome seemingly independent entities (though they are not)and a surprising thing happens. I am an environmental scientist but not always an environmentalist; an ecologist but not an eco-warrior. Yet the process of extracting poems from my science (ranging from evolutionary biology, to theoretical ecology, to biodiversity and conservation) led in every instance to sociopolitical poems I did not realize were in me.

I invite the reader to think about other ways in which art and science co-exist in my book and in general. Please let me know what you think.

When did you first start writing poetry and why?

The Key to the Fields

Figure 1: “The Key to the Fields” by René Magritte

Anand: I wrote my first poem during the last year of my PhD work some time in 1996. I was immersed in equations and complexity theory and computer simulations of old-field succession. I spent entire days, sometimes weeks, alone in a lab. One summer day I walked over to the window and stared at the framed horse-chestnut tree surrounded by lawn. When I returned to my computer, I wrote my first poem. You’ll find seven of those (unpublishable) poems actually appearing as the preface to seven chapters of bound thesis. My supervisor encouraged me to put them there when I told him what was happening.

At the time, and still today, poetry is a way in which I am able to inject a perfectly perpendicular mode of being and thinking into my life’s dominant (scientific), and sometimes predictable, course. Maybe poems are my little critical transitions (see Figure 1). Maybe I do it to practice dealing with catastrophes, maybe to avoid burnout. But then I think poetry is more than just therapy. Maybe it’s simply to perceive the world in other dimensions, to experience the full richness of human experience.

IFOA: What inspires your writing?

Anand: Great writing. The right mentor. A phrase, memory or idea that doesn’t go away. Human-environment systems. Children. Plants. Travel. Beauty. Games. Heritage. Discovery. Loss. Symmetry. Asymmetry. Congruence. Incongruence. Freedom. Constraint.

IFOA: What are you reading right now that you can recommend to our readers?

Anand: Your readers should probably read poetry. Right now I am reading prose: The Book of Nature by Ruskin Bond (Penguin Books India). I’ve been wanting to read more work by Indian writers lately. He writes fiction and non-fiction (memoir) based on the small town (now the big city) of Dehra Dun, where my mother lived from adolescence to marriage. Here are some lines from his introductory remarks: “Nature doesn’t promise you anythingan after life, rewards for good behaviour, protection from enemies, wealth, happiness, progeny, all the things that humans desire and pray for. No, nature does not promise these things. Nature is a reward in itself.”

Madhur Anand’s poetry has appeared in literary magazines across North America and in the anthology The Shape of Content: Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science. She completed her PhD in theoretical ecology at Western University and is currently a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. Anand presents a reading from her debut collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.

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