Five Questions with… Benjamin Wood

Benjamin Wood, author of The Bellwether Revivals, appears at IFOA on Saturday, October 27. He will also travel to Orillia with IFOA Ontario.

© Mark Pringle

IFOA: What was your favourite book as a child?

Wood: As a very young child it was a tie between Dirty Beasts by Roald Dahl and Stanley Bagshaw and the Short-sighted Football Trainer by Bob Wilson. As an early teenager: The Thief of Always by Clive Barker.

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

Wood: I’m going to say Paul Auster, because reading his novel City of Glass made me want to be a fiction writer, and I’d just like to thank him for that. Plus, I don’t think I could keep up with the drinking pace of Richard Yates or John Cheever. And I’d be much too in awe of Shirley Jackson or Carson McCullers to chew my food properly.

IFOA:You have a musical background, and music plays a prominent role in The Bellwether Revivals. What is your favourite instrument, and why?

Wood: The guitar is the only instrument I truly understand, so I’ll choose that. If I’m allowed to be picky, though, it would be an acoustic guitar in a DADF#AD tuning. Then I’d feel completely at home.

IFOA:You teach creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London. What’s one thing your students have taught you lately?

Wood: In today’s Intro to Fiction class we were discussing scene building in relation to ZZ Packer’s short story “The Ant of the Self.” It’s an exercise in scrutinising exactly what is on the page, line by line, seeing how Packer shapes and layers each scene through a confluence of differing techniques. We dismantle the first two pages quite forensically in order to understand how the author has assembled them. Then we sit back and marvel at the rest of the story’s magic.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when…

Wood:  I have a whole scene to tinker with from the day before. (The best part of writing, in my experience, is not the furious application of new words to the page, but the daily refining of ideas already committed.)

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

Wood: Essential.

For more about Wood, click here.

Five Questions with… Susan Swan

© Joy von Tiedermann

Susan Swan will participate in an IFOA round table discussion entitled Reading Like a Writer on October 28. She will also travel to Midland and Parry Sound with IFOA Ontario.

IFOA: You brought Mary “Mouse” Bradford from The Wives of Bath back in your latest novel, The Western Light. When you finished writing The Wives of Bath, did you know there was more to her story you wanted to tell?

Swan: The editor Gordon Lish once told me I hadn’t finished with my father after he read The Wives of Bath. And he was right. I wanted to write a story about the mystery of goodness. Are you good if you give your life to the community and ignore your family? What is a hero anyway? My father was a hero in the small town where I grew up. Next to the minister, he was the town’s most important citizen. He was also one of the most compassionate men I’ve ever met and yet I can’t remember having a real one to one conversation with him, or knowing where to place my need for him when other people’s needs of him were often a matter of life or death.

So that led me back to Mouse, my favourite alter ego. She’s wise and she’s vulnerable and she finds a dubious father substitute when her own father is too busy to pay attention to her. By the way, you don’t need to have read The Wives of Bath to understand The Western Light.

IFOA: You’re participating in a round table discussion about reading. As a writer, how do you choose which books to read?

Swan: I follow my nose. My interest in a non-fiction subject like women writing about their fathers has directed me to memoirs like Swing Low by Miriam Toews and The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon and I also read as much of the current literary fiction that I can get my hands on. I just finished The Purchase by Linda Spalding, a masterfully told tale about slavery, and yes, goodness. What is it? And can good people do terrible things? The answer seems to be yes.

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

Swan: There isn’t enough room here for the answer to that one. But early fiction by writers like Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Marian Engel and Timothy Findley was a revelation when I was young because these wonderful books said my own experience and landscape were suitable subjects for literature. And yes, they were permission giving too since I wanted to be a writer.

IFOA: What’s your idea of a perfect day?

Swan: A morning of writing, cross country skiing in the afternoon and a glass of excellent Pinot Noir by the fire with my loved ones.

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

Swan: …is the recent and extensive research by the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. It has changed the way I think of literary life in our country. Women writers get only about a third of the reviews in most of our major magazines and newspapers books. Imagine. In the literary land that produced Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Alice Munro. I was inspired by CWILA to do some research of my own and found that only a third of our literary prizes go to women writers. Only 34 per cent of the winners for both the Giller and the English speaking Governor General’s Award for fiction have been women.

In some awards, the percentage figure for awards going to women writers is as low as eight or 20 per cent. For instance, in the case of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, only five women out of 66 have won that prize. Only three women out of 15 people have won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The critical neglect of women’s writing affects not only women’s careers but their livelihood as writers.

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

Swan: A bonanza.

For more about Swan’s appearance at IFOA, visit readings.org and litontour.com.

Five Questions with… Larissa Andrusyshyn

Larissa Andrusyshyn will read from Mammoth at IFOA on October 23 and 25.

© James Di Donato

IFOA: What inspired the very memorable title of your poetry collection?

Andrusyshyn: I wrote the manuscript under the working title “Extinctions” but the book was more about life and living things and I didn’t want it to turn into an elegy. My brilliant editor Jason Camlot with DC Books suggested the title. When I began to write the character of the mammoth I felt the tone of the book had changed and I was energized by it.

IFOA: What do you hope to achieve in combining poetry with science?

Andrusyshyn: The project began as a kind of excavation to unpack my father’s death but I wanted to avoid sentimentality. I saw myself writing from the point of view of a researcher and I was heavily influenced by the documentarian tone of Werner Herzog. Sometimes, it’s his voice I hear in my head while I read over my work.

Curiosity is what drives both scientific exploration and poetry. I write about the things I’m fascinated with and the things I struggle to understand; everything from death to particle physics might be subject for me. I want to write poems no one has written before, like all writers do. We are all trying to figure life out, I just happen to write poetry.

IFOA: Who were your favourite writers as a child?

Andrusyshyn: I remember having significant love for Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak when I was very young. I was pretty nerdy so I read a lot of anthropology books, I was marked by the biography of “Lucy” by Donald Johanson, she was the 3.5 million year old Australopithecus found in Ethiopia. I was also really into lyrics and music so I would cite Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan as favorites too.

IFOA: If you could time travel, where and when would you go, and why?

Andrusyshyn: Well, my head says go back to the Pleistocene era, I’ve always wanted to meet a mammoth or write the next great ice age novel. But I would go back to my childhood and hang out with my family. It would be amazing to have a talk with my dad as an adult, the last time I saw him I was 11 years old. There are so many stories I’m sure I missed.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I wish I could…

Andrusyshyn: Earn a living as a writer? Save the whales? Talk to boys?

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

Andrusyshyn: Humbling.

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

Five Questions with… Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Vaye Waktins appears at IFOA on October 23 and 24.

© Lily Glass

IFOA: Where and when do you prefer to read?

Watkins: I do a great deal of reading in the bathtub, especially in winter. I am a desert rat living in the frozen northeast and there are many winter days when the cold settles into my bones and it seems I simply cannot get warm until I submerge myself in very hot water with a very good book.

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

Watkins: Easy: teleportation.

IFOA: Battleborn is a collection of short stories. What is it about the short story (rather than the novel) that appeals to you as a writer?

Watkins:I admire the precision of a story. The form is often likened to walking a tightrope—saying as much with as few words as possible. John Cheever famously wrote a novel version of his perfect story “The Swimmer,” but it withered next to the grace of the story. Many of my favorite novels come close to the graceful precision of a story—Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Christine Schutt’s Florida, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace—but stories are still the best highwire act in town.

IFOA: You’re a creative writing professor at Bucknell University . What’s one thing your students have taught you lately?

Watkins: My students often remind me of our capacity to surprise ourselves. One of the best things about my job is I never read the same student story twice. Their imaginations are acrobatic and robust and, when they let allow it, they almost always surprise themselves. They remind me that writing should be fun.

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

Watkins: …am brave.

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

Watkins: Indispensable.

For more on Watkins, visit clairevayewatkins.com. For IFOA event info, click here.

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.

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