Five Questions with… Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel will participate in a Tuesday, October 23 round table discussion, The Novel as a Window on Society, and a reading Saturday, October 27.

IFOA: Which one of your characters—from your short stories and all three
novels—did you have the most fun creating, and why?

Mandel: I think my favourite of all my characters is Sasha from The Lola Quartet. She’s a gambling addict who tries very hard not to gamble, and I think of her as an entirely decent and stoic person. But the character who was the most fun to create would probably be Gavin, from the same book. I liked writing about a man who thinks he was born in the wrong decade and is absolutely committed to living like a character from a Raymond Chandler story even though he lives in 21st century suburbia.

IFOA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Mandel: I’m not at all sure. But I love travel and I’ve always been interested in politics and in international affairs, so perhaps if I weren’t a writer I’d have tried to maneuver my way into a diplomatic career of some kind.

IFOA: You are often described as a “literary noir” writer. What does this
moniker mean to you?

Mandel: I’ve always set out to write literary fiction, but with the strongest possible narrative drive, and an unexpected side effect of this is that it turns out if you write very plot-driven fiction, it pushes you over to the edge of genre and people start calling you a crime writer, or a mystery writer, or similar. I like the literary noir label, though, and think that it’s probably accurate for the three novels I’ve published. I think of noir as fiction suffused with a certain style, and perhaps a certain darkness, but I believe all of my books contain hope.

IFOA: Tell us about one book you read that changed your life.

Mandel: I don’t believe my life has ever been changed by a book, but I’ve often read books that have changed the way I see the world. Adrien Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was one of those; it changed the way I looked at urban poverty.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The Internet is…

Mandel: …useful in small doses.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Mandel: Wonderful.

For more about Mandel, visit emilymandel.com or check out her IFOA listings at readings.org.

Five Questions with… Robert Rotenberg

Robert Rotenberg will read at IFOA on Tuesday, October 23.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Rotenberg: Vincent Lam.

IFOA: The city of Toronto features prominently in your novels. If you had to describe the city in three words, which words would you choose?

Rotenberg: Disturbed, confused, bewildered. This comes from a Woodrow Wilson quote: “We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraid of its own forces, in search not merely of its road but even of its direction.”

IFOA: Tell us about one book that changed your life.

Rotenberg: Old City Hall, my first novel—took twenty years to write. Or Race to the Moon—a picture book I read when I was about four…I think it was the first book I ever read.

IFOA: What’s one thing you wished you’d known 20 years ago?

Rotenberg: That it would take 20 years to get my first book published.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If someone would just…

Rotenberg: Give me a plane ticket to Fiji.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Rotenberg: True (my 21-year-old son’s favourite word for everything).

For more about Rotenberg’s appearance at IFOA, click here.

Five Questions with… Stuart Clark

Stuart Clark will read October 25 and participate in the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction Spotlight on October 26.

© Joy von Tiedermann

IFOA: In 2001, you left a position at the University of Hertfordshire to work full-time as a science journalist. What led to this decision?

Clark: I’ve always been fascinated with both astronomy and storytelling. So I followed an academic path to a PhD in research astronomy while in parallel, I pursued a writing career—I actually funded my PhD research by writing the cover copy for Star Trek videos in England!

As I experimented with my writing I discovered how powerful a strong narrative can be for delivering non-fiction. Ultimately, I decided that I could do more for astronomy by telling its stories to the general public, than by spending my career focused on researching just one tiny bit of it.

In the 17th century, German astronomer Johannes Kepler said, “The roads that lead man to knowledge are as fascinating as that knowledge itself.” As a science journalist, author and novelist I can tell both kinds of stories.

IFOA: What single achievement are you most proud of?

Clark: It has to be my Sky’s Dark Labyrinth trilogy. Having written non-fiction using literary techniques, I finally felt ready to cross the divide and approach it from the other way: fiction but closely based on fact.

Such “faction” as it has been called may have fallen from favour since its height in the ’70s but for the story I wanted to tell, I thought it was the best possible medium.

Science established itself as a cultural endeavour in the west just over 400 years ago through the work of astronomers such as Galileo and Newton. My ambition was to tell that story in the most entertaining way possible, placing the endeavour in its correct historical context.

I didn’t want to examine these great astronomers like scientific objects, nor deify them. I wanted them to live and breathe, and be the flawed humans we sometimes forget they were. So again a novel seemed like the best vehicle.

IFOA: If you could somehow transcend time and space, where and when would you go, and why?

Clark: Easy! Back to the late 17th century England, dressed in periwig and britches, and sitting in the ranks of the newly formed Royal Society listening to people like Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, Christopher Wren and, of course, Isaac Newton.

This is the setting for the second Sky’s Dark Labyrinth novel, The Sensorium of God. The more I read about the times and the characters, the more I am amazed at the progression of thought during this era. Everything was up for grabs. Nature was now conquerable using mathematical analysis, and so they measured and questioned everything.

Science was born in the West at this point and shown to be a powerful way of making sense of the world around us. Our modern world derives from those meetings.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Clark: I have just finished The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod. It’s a tightly written cross-genre novel (so ideal for me!). It is part crime, part thriller, part science fiction, rather Asimov-like in ambition but totally modern. What impresses me is MacLeod’s ability to juggle really big ideas about the nature of belief with down-at-heel detectives trying to solve crimes and drowning in paperwork.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: What surprises me the most is…

Clark: …how similar the scientific method is to storytelling. In a story, a hero is driven from his ordinary world into a special one, in which he must learn new rules in order to survive. At the end of that journey, he returns to his ordinary world with the power to solve the original problem, be it physical or emotional. Science is like this.

We transform nature into numbers through measurement and then enter the special world of mathematics. Those laws and equations transform our measurements into new knowledge that we can use to make more sense of the ordinary world around us. Mathematical analysis is like the magic forest of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Clark: Epic!

For more about Clark visit his website or readings.org.

Five Questions with… Mark Billingham

© Charlie Hopkinson

Mark Billingham, author of Rush of Blood, appears at IFOA on October 23 and 24.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with one author, dead or alive, who would it be?

Billingham: Dashiell Hammett

IFOA: You are a stand-up comedian and a crime novelist—occupations that some people might be surprised to see together. What’s one thing they have in common?

Billingham: Punchlines.

IFOA: If you could have a superpower, any superpower, what would it be?

Billingham: Invisibility.

IFOA: Rush of Blood is set at a Florida Keys resort. Where is your favourite place to go on vacation?

Billingham: Anywhere I’ve got free time and books.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If someone would just…

Billingham: … tell Elvis Costello he should let me sing backing vocals on his next album, I would be a very happy man.

IFOA: Bonus question: This year’s International Festival of Authors in one word.

Billingham: Spectacular.

For more about Billingham, click here.

Five Questions with… Jane Johnson

© The Fisher Agenc

Jane Johnson, author of The Sultan’s Wife, will participate in IFOA events on October 23 and October 27. She will also travel to Uxbridge for IFOA Ontario.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Johnson: I’m really looking forward to meeting Annabel Lyon, whose Golden Mean is one of my favourite novels of all time. I also love her continuation of the story, The Sweet Girl. I hope to get a chance to tell her how much.

IFOA: You wear two literary hats: a writer’s and an editor’s. How has been an editor improved your writing? Has it ever hindered it?

Johnson: Being an editor enables me to view writing as a flexible process, or like engineering, rather than as some mystical gift. There will always be times when it gets away from me and times when it scares and surprises me (that’s the wonder of creativity, which should always be a bit wild) but crafting the writing is how an author gets their material back under some semblance of control, and knowing it’s not all going to fall apart at the seams if you start cutting and restructuring is very reassuring.

But yes, sometimes that very knowledge can be a hindrance: it can feel infinitely mutable and if you over-edit you can edit the life out of something. And being a writer makes me a better editor, too: more empathetic with the authors I work with, more practical and constructive in my comments. It’s a two-way learning process that never ends.

IFOA: You spend part of the year working from a rural village in Morocco. How do you stay connected to the publishing world?

Johnson: Ah, the wonders of the internet. Whatever did we do before email and Skype? If you saw my village, in the foothills of the mountains just north of the Sahara, you’d be amazed we have broadband at all, but in fact we were connected in Tafraout before I was connected in my home in Cornwall! It really doesn’t matter where I am in the world, and the beauty about the flexibility of my working conditions means that (without having to constantly be stuck in meetings) I can be in much better and quicker contact with my authors than most office-bound publishers.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, alive or dead, who would you choose?

Johnson: That’s a tough question! I am lucky in being able to have lunches with the wonderful writers I work with—writers like George RR Martin, Dean Koontz, Robin Hobb, Raymond Feist—so I’d better choose a dead author. Even then all I can do is to narrow it down to three: Robert Graves, Daphne du Maurier or Mary Renault.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when…

Johnson: I am sitting on a remote bit of rock by the Cornish sea with my head full of story and no interruptions or duties for the day. Oh, how I wish that happened a lot more than it does now: that’s a real blue-moon scenario!

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Johnson: Cornucopia.

For more about Johnson’s appearance at IFOA, click here.

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