Coming Home to IFOA

By Sheniz Janmohamed

When I was a kid, I used to visit my local library almost every week. I filled my book bag to the brim and looked forward to reading new stories every night. Although I’m much older and more jaded now, there is still a sense of wonder and joy that takes over me when I walk into a library.

Owen Sheers reading at IFOA Markham ©

Owen Sheers reading at IFOA Markham ©

Stepping into a library knowing that you’re going to listen to authors read from books contained in that very library—well, there’s nothing more ‘meta’ than that. After years of organizing IFOA Markham, this was the first year I listened, observed and participated as an audience member. This was the first time it was held in the presence of thousands of books. It felt right. The library was transformed—a place that I would never dare eat in (for fear of ruining a book) was lined with long tables stacked with food—from samosas to falafel to gelato. Anyone knows that the way to a writer’s heart is good food (or is that just the way to my heart?). Authors Giles Blunt, Owen Sheers and Nino Ricci circulated in the crowd of readers, chatting with young writers, librarians and community members. In fact, they were so engrossed in getting to know the Markham community that one of the event organizers had to come back a few times to escort them backstage—proof that they felt at home in our hometown.

The evening began with a ceremony acknowledging the achievements of young writers in Markham. The mayor of Markham, Frank Scarpitti, presented awards to up-and-coming teen writers who participated in the Markham Teen Arts Council’s “Word Up!” Contest. I found this to be an apt beginning for a Lit On Tour event, as it reminded us of the talent we have within our own community, and it gave young writers something tangible to aspire to.

Giles Blunt was first to read—donning the voice of an old monk, he transported us to the monastery where his latest novel, The Hesitation Cut, is located. A line that stayed with me included this one: “his robe flapping around him like a personal storm.”

Owen Sheers illuminated his reading with insights into the process of writing the book, including this gem: “When does a confession become a selfish, not an altruistic act?”

Nino Ricci closed the night with haunting passages from Sleep, describing autumn in all its glory, “…the trees flame up like an apocalypse in their autumn colours.”

After their readings, the authors were gracious enough to take questions from audience members. A young writer asked for advice on becoming a better writer. Owen Sheers had three words for her, “read, read, read”. He also pointed out that he began his writing career by entering literary competitions. Another question arose about the development of book titles and how they were chosen. Nino Ricci wanted to change his original title, but his publisher opted to keep it, whereas Owen Sheers was told to change his title but fought to keep it. They all spoke about tricking themselves into writing, or as Sheers put it, “writing from the corner of my eye.” The authors spoke about the challenge of getting stuck halfway through a novel, and how they push through the writing process. Giles Blunt confessed that after writing 100 pages of The Hesitation Cut, he couldn’t write anymore. He decided to write it longhand, as it allowed him to focus on writing first and editing later. Ricci echoed this sentiment, “Writing longhand allows for editing after not during the writing process. It allows one to release the editorial impulse.”

The conversation was lively, and the authors were genuinely surprised when the Markham Arts Council handed them gifts at the end of the night (another way to a writer’s heart: free gifts). It was an inspiring, heartwarming celebration of writing and reading and a full circle for me—the little girl who loved visiting her hometown library is still alive and well.

Sheniz Janmohamed is an author, artist educator and spoken word artist. She has performed nationally and internationally for over 10 years and has been featured at various venues, including the Jaipur Literature Festival, TedxYouth@Toronto and the Aga Khan Museum. She is also the author of two collections of poetry: Bleeding Light and Firesmoke. Sheniz facilitates creative writing workshops for writers of all ages and has recently completed her Arts Education certification at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto.

Writers’ Writers

By Janet Somerville

writers' writersCanadian novelist Catherine Bush moderated this engaging panel featuring Marina Endicott, Anne Enright and Patrick Gale and began the conversation by asking, “How did you come to shape your novel?” Endicott “wanted to compress time and look at things closely and squeezed the narrative into one week” in Close to Hugh. Confessing to her modernist impulse to put things side by side, Enright said, “I spent a year improvising and working on characters. I want each to have the book, so it’s like four little novels in the first half” of The Green Road. And, Gale admitted that for A Place Called Winter, “I feel no one character can know everything. I wanted to be self-consciously Edwardian by channeling E.M. Forster. And, also like Elena Ferrante, who said, I publish to be read, so I make the pages as dense as possible, but easy to turn.”

Bush wondered if any of them were aware of their reader as they write. For Enright, “there’s no excuse for a dull page. I don’t indulge anne enrightthe reader at all, but I hope I pleasure them in the sentences. Each paragraph has to end someplace unexpected.” Endicott added, “I want the reader to know my characters and to enjoy being with them even if it’s painful.” Gale insisted he wanted readers “to forget they are reading.” As for writers, they read in an envious or passionate way, Gale was quick to note “Anne Tyler and Colm Toibin write books I wish I’d written and Middlemarch was the first time I read a novel that was a world.” Enright praised Edward St. Aubyn and Marilynne Robinson and Henry James and slagged Joyce’s Dubliners because when she was Young. It “felt like I was reading about my relatives and how boring they were,” though she later grew to admire the beauty of the prose. Endicott re-reads Penelope Fitzgerald because “her novels are so perfect, especially The Blue Flower.”

All three were ebullient about the editing process, Enright noting she had a copy editor who “rinses out the commas and semi-colons. It’s like sending your punctuation to a spa,” and also insisted that, “you want an editor to serve the book on its own terms. Their notes should be obvious.” Gale confessed he had “a secret editor that my main editor doesn’t know about.” And, Endicott admitted she loved, loved, loved editing because “the first draft is so difficult for me.” The audience full of readers nodded in understanding when Enright closed by saying, “When I was young, my interior life was all I had.” And, that Canadians were “lucky to have Alice Munro and Alistair Macleod in letters and in life.” We are. We are, indeed.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Reportage: Norway

By Janet Somerville

asneWar correspondent Åsne Seierstad, who has covered atrocities in Baghdad and Chechnya, turns her unflinching, candid eye to the July 2011 targeted killing of 69 Norwegian youth in her book One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. She appeared in conversation with Susan G. Cole at the Lakeside Terrace on Wednesday evening and spoke to a full house.

Cole set up the evening by suggesting that Seierstad tries “to get to the heart and soul and mind of the killer, while honouring the victims” and wondered why she chose to name him, when, as Canadians, we go out of our way to name the victims and deprive the killer of any infamy as in the case of the murder of the 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in December 1989. Seierstad said, “We can’t put things under the carpet. Wherever there is darkness or a lack of knowledge there will be a conspiracy theory. Breivik was a political terrorist. His victims [adolescents at Labour Party Youth summer camp] were killed for what they believed in.”

There are three victims on whom Seierstad focused, “to get readers to know some of them deeply.” Like the two Iraq-born sisters, who received asylum in Oslo with their family and hoped for a better life, free from persecution: “one of them worked all summer to buy a Norwegian national costume to wear on May 17th and said to her sister, ‘whoever has a daughter first will inherit this dress.’” Another one, Simon, was killed as he tried to save others who had been shot. On the anniversary of his death, his parents took flowers to lay in the place he was executed.asne2

Cole asked where Seierstad began her research. She “got accredited for the trial for Newsweek and was knocked sideways by being there. The courtroom was so small. One row of journalists, one row of Labour Party Youth, one row of parents.” Seierstad stayed for 10 weeks of the trial, witnessing 100 victims “speaking about what happened on the island for the first time. They hadn’t spoken to each other because they’d been so traumatized.”

At first she didn’t think she’d write much about Breivik, but it became clear to her that she could write about him using neutral language. She read childhood reports of his “bad start that was not bad enough, even though social workers were brought in because his mother was a borderline personality who would tell her son, ‘I hate you. I wish I had aborted you.’” Psychiatric assessments noted no eye contact, no smiling and he could never make a human, empathic connection. The only diagnosis he received was narcissism. Seierstad suggested Breivik “turned, when he went to his room for 5 years to play World of Warcraft for 16 hours each day. He started making connections online and sent letters to leaders of fascist extremes. He received letters of rejection in January 2010, started buying weapons, bullets, uniforms the next month, and in late 2010, learned how to build bombs.” He wrote a 1500 page manifesto, one-third of it his own thinking, and later said in court that “the massacre on the island was his book launch and the trial was his stage.” If those details are not horrifying enough, there is also the “police odyssey of incompetence,” which Seierstad attributed to the failure in police culture to listen or communicate. It is so painful to learn of those failures that could have prevented more than fifty deaths of teenagers that July day in 2011.

Cole wondered how Norway has changed. Seierstad’s response: “Not much. A solid society is not changed by one terrorist act. Our response is more love, more community. If one man can show so much hatred, think of all the love we can show together.” In the end what stays with her is the knowledge that “the parents and siblings of the victims are able to continue living. It is a chapter I can never close about losing a child.” Powerful. And, enormously sad.

 Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.



International Crime Watch

By Janet Somerville

hk_0wRlDAoHjedfE-hBHp2y0i8a1LKip6xiSGr_kK68,-FqLgSqWkCkUSkMgAA1Z51yL_gR4g20pkCrmjBg_NQU,KYIILb2emKSbCmWtmdTWHcmeNPPSScPi3qaqGSWnYDg,bR2OJJvOll74AAcB2Ak5_XqQ3BUW0A522YWGyeBFLX0,Qt5t8oc3if4gC1gx1a8UHMB_gxalOGyUGO5HkcS-IjIModerated by Ben McNally and billed as a murder of writers discussing international mayhem, this crime fiction panel was marked by intelligence and wit as Sara Blaedel (Denmark), Paul Cleave (New Zealand), Denise Mina (Scotland) and Marc Pastor (Spain) talked about their most recent novels.

In The Forgotten Girls, Blaedel’s Detective Louise Rick is on her way to a new Special Search Unit looking for missing people in a small town about an hour outside of Copenhagen, the town where Blaedel was raised. She notes that she felt it “took courage to return and use my own background in the story.” Cleave’s Jerry Grey is a crime novelist diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, whose reality conflates with his plots in Trust No One. He believes that “if he proves he’s a killer, the universe will forgive him.” Mina’s DI Alex Morrow in Blood Salt Water “says things you shouldn’t really say.” That is, Morrow speaks the truth, however painful it may be, not only to others, but to herself as well. Mina “became beguiled by the fact that she was a cheeky bitch.” This novel is “a holistic look at a crime with four stories that interweave.” Because Pastor is a forensic cop in Barcelona, he didn’t want his detective in Barcelona Shadows to be like him. He wanted him “to be an antihero and sarcastic. I wanted him to be angry with everyone, but to have a moral code.”

On writing, Mina suggests that “writing a crime fiction book a year is good. Writing fast makes it relevant—a snapshot of the time. You put in background noise, but it’s politics with a small p.” Blaedel admits, “I’m writing to entertain people. It was not my plan to be a crime writer, but Louise arrived and I knew she was working in Copenhagen in Homicide.” For Cleave, “sometimes you want the heartbreaking ending. Have them get away in a way that really hurts and bring the reader back to your next book.” Pastor notes, “It’s so zen: I write violence and I arrest murderers.” He confesses, “I don’t do drafts. I have a skeleton of structure. I’m a slow writer. I go picture by picture.” All agree with Mina that “in crime fiction there’s an explosive inciting incident and the rest is shrapnel.”

If you’re a fan of savvy crime fiction that verges on noir, be sure to pick up a title by Sara Blaedel, Paul Cleave, Denise Mina or Marc Pastor.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville

Artist Talk: Jami Attenberg

By Janet Somerville

jami attenbergBrooklyn-based novelist Jami Attenberg captivated the Pub Hub audience with her frank and funny demeanor, breezily responding to Sue Carter’s prompts about her most recent novel, Saint Mazie. And, that’s no small feat, considering she’s been on book tour for weeks, shuttling from venue to venue, country to country, crossing time zones: the north of England one day, Mexico City the next and now Toronto.

Attenberg became entranced by Mazie Phillips after reading Joseph Mitchell’s essay about her in Up in the Old Hotel. Phillips worked the ticket cage at the Venice movie theatre in The Bowery from 9am to 11pm and then wandered the streets after, ministering to the legions of homeless (mostly men) to whom she gave little bars of hotel soap and money for booze. For two decades. And, she called more ambulances than anyone in NYC to send many of these souls to hospital where they’d receive essential care. She was an incredibly modern woman and fearlessly went places where women weren’t allowed. Attenberg’s friend opened a Brooklyn bar he called Saint Mazie because she was “the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever heard of.” When the two of them would “get together to bitch about our work, Mazie gave us perspective.”

Attenberg found Phillips’ obit plus the Mitchell essay, but that was about it in terms of source material. As Stewart O’Nan (who wrote West of Sunset, a novel about Scott Fitzgerald’s final years as a script doctor in Hollywood) said to her on one recent panel, “you’re lucky to have nothing.” Having only the seeds of Mazie’s life allowed Attenberg to richly imagine it in her novel. She fleshed out details of the time by visiting NYC’s Tenement Museum, watching a 1950s documentary on The Bowery, thumbing through the Princeton University audio recordings from the era and reading a summary of the 1920s published in the 1930s, in which she discovered a Wall Street bombing, an event that Mazie would have experienced. Attenberg was able to filter her own emotions about 9/11 through that recreated moment. Attenberg, Saint Mazie

An imperative for Attenberg in writing Mazie’s story was to “know more about people who are good.” She “can’t take on a book without being able to express compassion; there’s no better reason to write.” Attenberg insists that she’s “trying to learn how to be a better person through my work.” As she was working on Saint Mazie, her editor discovered an 80 year-old man also looking for information about Phillips. He ran a flower shop on the Lower East Side and she used to “shoot the breeze” with him. He said, “she had a heart as big as herself.” The big question for Attenberg was why did Mazie help those men? The florist said, “she was really good.” In writing the novel Attenberg accepted that she would never really know. What she did know, however, was that Mazie would be a character she could spend time with and also could be viewed through a feminist lens since she had been so strong and progressive.

Before closing the conversation, Attenberg read from a new short story, “Chloe,” noting that with short fiction “every line has to land” and warning “It’s really dirty. If it will offend you, just leave.” The excerpt was funny, wry, satiric. Full of life. Like Attenberg herself. In her own way Jamie Attenberg is as generous a spirit as Mazie Phillips had been all of those years ago in The Bowery.


Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

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