Five Questions with… Lauren B. Davis

Lauren B. Davis, author of The Empty Room and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

IFOA: You’ve been sober for 18 years. Why write a book about alcoholism now?

Lauren B. Davis

(c) Helen Tansey

Lauren B. Davis: It just felt like the right time. These things pop up, I believe, as they’re meant to. My life is so different now, so much more wonderful than I thought it would be when I was drinking. I can look back with a certain amount of objectivity, which I didn’t have in early sobriety. It’s taken a long time to feel I had anything to say on the subject that hadn’t already been said and that might be useful to others.

IFOA: Colleen, the protagonist of The Empty Room, is a lonely, recently unemployed, 50-year-old alcoholic. Is she how you imagine you might have ended up had you not stopped drinking?

Davis: She is how I feared I might have ended up. But in truth, had I kept drinking I don’t think I would have lived that long, or if I did, I would have been far sicker, physically, than Colleen. But, yes, one of my worst fears when I was an active alcoholic was ending up a disgusting, unloved, poverty-stricken, lonely old lady. So I drank some more to quell the fear. You can see the insanity of that.

IFOA: You’re a creative writing teacher. What do you enjoy most about that job?Davis, The Empty Room

Davis: That moment when an emerging writer shares a piece of writing they’ve struggled with, and persevered with, and crafted with blood and tears and laughter, and it’s good, it’s TERRIFIC, and you know it and they know it and all the work has been worth it.  What a great—and healthily addictive—moment that is.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Davis: Just finished The Professor of Truth by James Robertson and The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, and just started The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: Addiction is…

Davis: …a hell I’m incredibly grateful to have survived.

Lauren B. Davis is a critically acclaimed novelist, essayist and teacher whose bestselling books include The Stubborn Season, The Radiant City and Our Daily Bread, which was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and named best book of the year by both The Globe and Mail and The Boston Globe.


Five Questions with… Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson, author of Children of the Revolution and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Peter on November 3! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: Children of the Revolution is the 21st book in your wildly successful Inspector Banks series. When the first book was published in 1987, what plans did you have for the series? Have those plans changed?Peter Robinson

Peter Robinson: I had no real plans. I did, however, have a second book finished and was working on the third, so I knew there would be a series, I just didn’t know how many. After the first four, I went on to write a standalone called Caedmon’s Song. I didn’t know whether I would carry on with series after that, but as it turns out, I did. I had no idea it would last this long.

IFOA: With so many DCI Banks books, how do you keep all of the details about events and characters straight?

Robinson: I wish I were more organized about that. At one point, I did keep a sort of log book of birthdays, physical descriptions, ages, etc., but I forgot to keep it up to date, and fictional time didn’t quite match real time. If I want to know something I have written about a character in a previous book, I simply flip through the pages of that book. It’s time-consuming, and I’m sure a database of some kind would be more efficient, but it’s also like visiting a real bookshop as opposed to shopping online—you often find things you don’t expect and come out with something you had no plans to buy when you went in.

IFOA: Is there an end in sight for the series? Do you already know what the ending will look like?

Robinson: There’s no end in sight, though I do realize it will have to come at some point. I do want to write non-series books, and that will begin to happen, but whether I’ll intersperse them with more Banks, and how many, I have no idea. When he does go, I don’t think I’ll kill him off. There are far more original and interesting ways of getting rid of a series character. I hear that some writers have already written their character’s end and put the MS in a drawer to be published posthumously. I wish I had time.

IFOA: Name one book you’ve read that made a lasting impression on you.

Robinson: Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…

Robinson: …can get a few weeks, or even days, without interruption to build up some momentum.

Peter Robinson is the author of the hugely successful DCI Banks series, two short story collections and three standalone novels. He will be discussing the importance of setting and the incorporation of real and imagined locations into his fiction with authors Michael Crummey and Wayne Johnston on November 3.

Five Questions with… Chris Eaton

Chris Eaton, author of Chris Eaton, a Biography: A Novel and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Chris on November 3! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: What prompted you to write Chris Eaton, a Biography?

Chris Eaton

(c) Dylan Welsh

Chris Eaton: After the publication of my first novel in 2003, I was being confused by Amazon for another Chris Eaton who wrote books on how to do short-term missionary work. In researching everything I could find on him, I was drawn into the world of every Chris Eaton on the Internet. The coincidences between them were uncanny, and I began to piece their stories together like I was crafting a conspiracy theory, that somehow they were all the same person and it was my job to get the truth out.

IFOA: You’ve attempted to connect to other Chris Eatons via Facebook and Twitter. What has been their response to your novel?

Eaton: In the beginning, I was actually pretty averse to this. The last thing I wanted was to know one of them better and ruin the illusion my mind was pulling on me. Only after I had finished did I start to follow some of them on Twitter (which thankfully didn’t exist when I started this project, or else the research level might have been insurmountable). I also attempted to invite every Chris Eaton to be my friend on Facebook, but my account got shut down for approaching people I didn’t know personally.

The only one I know who has read the book isn’t on social media, and interestingly, he came upon the novel because one of his friends is also releasing a book with my publisher next year. Despite the fact that his “contributions” don’t portray him in the best light, he really loved the book, felt that it was accurate to who he was at that time, and we’ve become friends. We even recently interviewed each other for The Believer.

IFOA: Do you think that the internet encourages or hinders creativity?

Eaton: Clearly in the case of this novel it encouraged it. But even without this book’s conceit, I don’t think I could write the books I write without it. I probably spend two or three hours a day (depending on how much I’m up at night with my newborn) doing research. And I think it also helps me make sense of the way my mind works, which seems unable to go in a straight line.

Social media is another story, of course. I established Facebook and Twitter accounts originally to promote the music I was making with Rock Plaza Central, and resisted using it for my own life for at least a year or so. Now I’m drawn to it out of habit, like a smoker to a cigarette, and as cliché as that simile was, I find the whole thing a drag on creativity (though my friends will mock me for the fact that I often use them, through Facebook, as one of my primary research tools).

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read in the past few months?

Eaton: I quite loved Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. The New York Review of Books has been re-releasing a lot of books that have gone out of print and never really got the recognition they deserved at the time. Two other recent re-issues that are absolute masterpieces are Stoner by John Williams (not the one who did the music for Star Wars) and John Carpenter’s (not the space scientist) Hard Rain Falling. Both of them are perfect in every way.

IFOA: If you were to choose a pseudonym for yourself, what would it be?

Eaton: When I was 15 and only had aspirations to write fantasy novels, I recall landing on the name A.J. Robertson, which I thought was a clever play on my mother’s initials, my father’s first name and me being their son. Then, while completing my MA in the 90s, I was fascinated with a group of Canadian artists who met under the name The John Dowd Fanny Club, and because I’m fairly certain, despite being listed in the meeting minutes, that there was no real John Dowd, I began to imagine a son for him (named Ian Dowd because I can’t resist a good pun), and that I would create some projects under that name. Instead, Ian Dowd has appeared in all my books to some degree, and I can only assume will become the main character some day.

Chris Eaton is a songwriter, musician and the author of the novels the inactivist and The Grammar Architect, along with a book of short fiction, Letters to Thomas Pynchon. He will be reading from his most recent novel alongside authors Krista Bridge, Mathew Henderson and Chad Pelley on November 3, as part of our Brave New Word programming.

Five Questions with… Janie Chang

Janie Chang, author of Three Souls and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Janie on November 3! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: Three Souls is your first novel. Which part of the writing process proved most challenging for you?Janie Chang

Janie Chang: Sustaining interest. I worried about pacing and story arc and how to keep the story interesting. When you’re working on a book-length narrative, you need to sustain interest, especially when you get to the middle. I had nightmares about a meandering, pointless story arc.

When I discussed this concern with my mentor, Shaena Lambert, she pointed out that I had already set up the story in three parts and suggested thinking in terms of a story arc for each of the three parts instead of hanging everything on one, big arc. This must be so obvious to experienced novelists, but I felt as though a hundred light bulbs had switched on over my head!

Dividing up the story arc actually made handling pace somewhat easier, but keeping things dynamic—what an exercise in vigilance. I scrutinized every chapter, every day, to see whether the story was flowing or had run aground. And thanked the writing class where I learned how scene, narrative and exposition control pace.
Inspiration and a good plot get you pretty far, but without applying craft and structure, you won’t express it well or in a way that enhances the story.

IFOA: The novel is based on your grandmother’s life. How does your family feel about the way you’ve told her story?

Chang: You know how at readings you start off with a little intro speech? For some reason I always feel obliged to explain that although the novel is inspired by my grandmother, in real life she did not have a steaming hot affair with a Communist poet. So I guess for the sake of her posthumous reputation, I’m the family member who feels a bit apologetic for that bit of fiction.

As for the rest of the family, since my paternal grandmother died from tuberculosis when she was only 42, none of us from this generation ever knew her. And everyone understands it’s just fiction. It helps that I’ve already written down all the family stories my father told me, so the family knows that whatever is in Three Souls, there is documentation that helps draw the the line between fact and fiction. I think they’re more interested in how I’ve portrayed life in our ancestral town during the years of the Chinese civil war.

At the same time, I”ll admit I’m not brave enough to write a novel based on living members of my family. I’ve seen friends wrestle with memoir, and it can get quite fraught, sometimes even confrontational. When does documenting the truth cross over into betrayal?

IFOA: Tell us a bit about the research you did for this book.

Chang: Historical events were easy to look up: dates of conflicts and incidents. What was more difficult was learning about relationships from that era—family, servants, business, romance. The most useful resources were memoirs by Chinese women that covered that time. I also read Chinese novels (translated) written during those years. The decades before the Second World War were times of transition, both social and political.

I knew what relationships had been like in my own family, but what if we had been an anomaly? You want your characters’ options and behaviours to be consistent with their environment—or in this case, to rebel plausibly against their environment.

But truth is stranger than fiction. A friend of the family, who is Chinese and who majored in Chinese literature, read the manuscript and pointed out a few places where she felt characters behaved implausibly—in particular the meeting where the fathers arranged their children’s marriage. But that incident was absolutely based on a real event! And because it was so unusual, it made its way into family legend.

IFOA: Which author are you most excited to see at this year’s Festival?

Chang: You want me to come up with just one? I’ll need a pack mule to carry around all the books I want autographed. Fortunately for the pack mule, I’ll have met some of those authors already at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival the week before. I love SF/Fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay.

IFOA: What are you working on now?

Chang: Novel #2 is at the research and synopsis stage.

Janie Chang has a degree in computer science from Simon Fraser University and recently attended SFU’s Writer’s Studio. Three Souls is her first novel. She will be discussing how she makes the past relevant in contemporary fiction with authors Dennis Bock, Paul Harding and Jim Lynch on November 3.

Five Questions with… Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska, author of Drunk Mom and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Jowita on November 3! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: Drunk Mom has proven to be controversial. Were you prepared for some of the backlash that followed its publication? What have you learned from being under such intense media—and moral—scrutiny?

Jowita Bydlowska

(c) Laura Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska: I was mostly prepared for the backlash. My agent (Chris Bucci) asked me a number of times if I knew what I was potentially getting myself into with this book and the publisher (Doubleday) was very sensitive around this issue as well.  I believe in this book. The media and moral scrutiny was sometimes hard to deal with, but if I learned one thing—or rather, if one belief has been strengthened—it is that  there are as many supporters as there are critics and, ultimately, this is what makes this business (of being an artist and exposing your art to the world) so interesting.

IFOA: The book was written in apology to your son. How do you feel about him reading your memoir in the future?

Bydlowski: I hope he has a lot of questions and I hope I’ll be able to answer them.

IFOA: Your book feels very rooted in Toronto—both in its streets and its social landscape. Is this city important to your writing?

Bydlowska: I came here in August, 10 years ago, to go to school. In September, I volunteered for IFOA (I was a caterer) and I remember being at the top of Westin Harbour Toronto where the author schmoozing thing was held, and looking at the city all spread out in front of me, and thinking how much I loved being here already and how I would like to live here for good. And write here. The city is important to my writing in that way, in that I know this is home.

IFOA: What do you read for pleasure?

Bydlowska: Literary fiction, thrillers and, occasionally, non-fiction (my Doubleday editor, Tim Rostron, recommends many fantastic works to me). I tend to read all the works of authors that I feel most drawn to (recently, I went through all the Elena Ferrante works). I also read a lot of children’s books.

IFOA: If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be?

Bydlowska: Stanislaw Ignacy Witkewicz (“Witkacy”) who is dead and who I think would be a riot (alive; not as a corpse).

Jowita Bydlowska’s writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salon and The Huffington Post. She will discuss writing about addiction with author Ann Dowsett Johnston on November 3.

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