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 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 or check out her IFOA listings at

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

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.

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