Five Questions with Mary Jennifer Payne


Mary Jennifer Payne’s writing has been published in journals, anthologies, and magazines in Canada and abroad. She is the author of several YA graphic novels and the YA novel Since You’ve Been Gone. She teaches special education with the Toronto District School Board and lives in Toronto.

Join us as we celebrate her new work at Toronto Lit Up on December 14.

IFOA:  Finding Jade is part of the Daughters of Light fantasy series. What are some of the themes you want to explore in the trilogy?

Mary Jennifer: Some of the themes I wanted to explore in the Daughters of Light series are very much grounded in reality and in our contemporary world. Perhaps the most pressing theme concerns the ravaging of our planet and the impact of that on our daily lives and on global human rights. As the series continues, the theme of “othering”, and the corrupting nature or power become more dominant. There are many themes pertinent to teens in Finding Jade, some of these include: living with a single parent with chronic illness, bullying, and the trials and tribulations of young love. I also wanted to re-frame some of the traditional, gendered narratives about leadership and mainstream ideas about “superhero” protagonists as they are largely male-centric.

IFOA:  Finding Jade transports the reader to 2030. How have you imagined our future? Why?

Mary Jennifer: Initially, the series was set at a later date around 2050. However, it became apparent, as I went through the final revisions of Finding Jade, that climate change was rapidly intensifying, and that precipitated the need for the series to be set closer to our contemporary times. The Arab Spring uprisings were in their infancy when I began writing the series about five years ago, and, as such, the tragedy of the Syrian war and the subsequent refugee crisis were not even on the horizon. I based many of the climate change refugee issues and the description of our world in the year 2030 (which- spoiler alert– becomes more important in the series’ later books) on what was happening in Darfur, the rise of demagogue leaders, and the history of internment and/or genocide in places like Canada, Germany, Rwanda, etc. Jasmine lives in a world largely shaped by climate change. In many ways, it parallels are own: countries are closing their borders to refugees fleeing nations ravaged by drought and other environmental disasters, and much of the world is experiencing political, economic and social unrest due to this. Resources are scarce and energy is being conserved due to the warming climate- even in relatively resource-rich Toronto. I think, especially in light of the political and social transformations happening in the US this past year and the increasingly urgent scientific information emerging about the speed at which our global climate is changing, the world I imagined for 2030 appears to be less fictional than ever.

IFOA:  You have published graphic novels for young adults. Why did you use this medium to tell the story?

Mary Jennifer: I’ve published both graphic and traditional novels and novellas. The Daughters of Light series just seemed to fit the novel format, but it could definitely also translate into a graphic structure. Honestly, I’d love to see it on the big screen someday!

IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from for your work?

payne-mary-jenniferMary Jennifer: The inspiration for this series came from so many different things. Most of the time, the germ of a story comes from my students, and the Daughters of Light series is no different. However, for the trilogy, I also was inspired by a plethora of ideas: the growing threat of climate change and the dismissal of this by certain politicians and special interest groups; Santerian beliefs about twins; by Christian and Islamic texts about the end of time; the need for more female superheroes, especially diverse superheroes, and the way in which our world has historically treated refugees and the shameful practice of “othering”. As my partner can attest, my mind is rarely quiet, except maybe when I am by the ocean.

IFOA:  What are the things you consider when devising young characters?

Mary Jennifer: There’s not a lot I consciously think about when devising my young characters. They kind of just form themselves in my mind. I have the great privilege of spending most of my time with young people, and am always amazed by their intelligence, resilience and courage. The students I teach are often navigating a huge amount of intersectionality in their lives. They inspire and teach me so much, and I could never express my gratitude. I am aware, when writing, that I am a white woman who, though from working-class background, is now pretty firmly middle-class and, thus, I occupy a place of privilege that is not necessarily earned. I try to really reflect on this when developing characters. I’ve always felt that one of my favorite characters, Jermaine, from my first novel, Since You’ve Been Gone, has a further story to tell and that the narrative needs to be set during the London riots of 2011. However, I don’t feel that is my story to tell. Maybe in collaboration, and certainly not in the first-person voice I usually use with my writing. I’d love to tell his story in collaboration with someone like Malorie Blackman. She’s such a consummate YA author.




IFOA Staff’s December Reading List

The holidays are characterized by a lot of hustle and bustle–the parties, the shopping, wrapping up the end of the year. There’s also some quiet time–reflection on the year that’s passing, time with family, and planning for the new year.

For these quite moments consider picking up one of the books that our staff is reading this month! (Psst! Festival books are currently 15%-20% off at the Harbourfront Centre Shop!)


Catherine Coreno just finished Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People and started Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things. She also picked up Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey.

Rebecca Hallquist is currently reading A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem and re-reading  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, but this time in Swedish!

Dean Keranovic is planning to read Alejandro Jodorowsky’s sci-fi space opera The Metabarons.

Tina Kessler is finishing Kate Taylor’s Serial Monogamy.


Madeline McCaffrey just finished Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s Harmless Like You and is moving on to Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder.

Zviko Mhakayakora’s TBR pile consists of Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder, Nathan Hill’s The Nix and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

Eirini Moschaki is reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.

Julia Yu is excited to read Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime.

We wish you the glitz and glam of holiday parties, the excitement of gift-giving, fun with family and friends and a lot of extra time to snuggle with a new book!


Danila Botha remembers Recklessness: The Art of Writing


This past September I had the pleasure of starting my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. So far, I’ve taken an incredible poetry workshop with Dionne Brand, who’s been one of my literary heroes for years, an amazing plenary class with Michael Winter, and I’ve heard amazing guest speakers, lectures and performances.

This is also the year the program was celebrating its ten- year anniversary at IFOA, called Recklessness: the Art of Writing. Program coordinator and author Catherine Bush introduced the theme by explaining that “the energy of reckless abandonment is heedless and endlessly hopeful”.

The selection of readers, all former graduates of the program, ranged from spoken word to poetry, memoir, novels, music and plays. Each reading was unique, and intensely powerful. I was overcome by the privilege of being part of the program, and by the experience of hearing so much incredible talent on stage.


The evening began with a rousing spoken word performance by poet and novelist Andrea Thompson. Andrea was one of the pioneers of slam poetry in Canada, and her performance referenced some of our “ancestors of verse” including Lillian Allen. Her poems also addressed issues of race, and community “God they asked for strength/each other they asked for direction” with the line, “still our history will not be undone” resonating in my mind and heart for hours.

The second reader was Liz Howard, who read from her wonderful, Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. There’s really something special about hearing one of your favourite poems read out loud, hearing the emotion and cadence and rhythms as the poet intended them. Hearing Liz read from Look Book, with its precise everyday imagery juxtaposed with heartbreak was one of the most moving readings I’ve ever heard. “I go back into our clapboard/house to look at the Sears/catalogue and dream I am a girl posed into happiness… somewhere my birth father is drunk and homeless/half mad when/the cops ask him for his name/he’ll say December”

Ayelet Tsabari, author of the incredible Sami Rohr Prize winning short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, read from her forthcoming memoir. With beautiful honesty and openness, Ayelet read about her travels to India in her twenties, and the journey to giving herself permission to write. She wrote about the struggle to write in English after growing up in Israel, describing her fear that the language was like a “lost genre.” Her desire to write, “to introduce chance into my life, to coax the stories into the open” was inspiring to every writer in the room.



Mark and Marichka Marczyk met and fell in love during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in Novemeber 2013. Together they created Counting Sheep, a “guerilla folk opera” a performance that retells the Maidan revolution with spirited punk and haunting folk music, with vocals by both Mark and Marichka. Behind them were screens that projected poignant war visuals, that were made more disturbing when juxtaposed with cartoon montages, nature and children.

Multi award winning author Shani Mootoo read from her new novel in progress. It brimmed with intelligent characterization and the type of sharp humour that made her last novel, the Giller shortlisted Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab such a pleasure to read.

Poet and librettist David James Brock read from an opera designed with composer Gareth Williams as part of Breath Cycle, a concept community opera project for people with cystic fibrosis. In his sensitive and funny reading, he perfectly captured the tender and sweet experience of a teenage girl with cystic fibrosis, sneaking out to meet a boy she has a crush on.

Playwright and poet Motion performed some dynamic and compelling spoken word. Her poem, For Maya, spoke profoundly to the experience of every writer: “when Maya wrote me notes of hope/ Toni threw me rope/ and Alice covered my shoulders with a violet cloak… I found the words to bring me home… I can still write/I can still save my life”

Current MFA student and winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award Adnan Khan read a potent scene from his debut novel in progress. As in his National Magazine Award nominated essay, Our Brownness Does Not Belong Here, he addresses issues of racism with intelligence and sensitivity. His character Omar’s experiences developing feelings for a friend (whose family then treats him with mistrust and hostility) invests the audience emotionally and makes everyone want to read the rest.


Playwright Judith Thompson wholly transformed herself into an Iraqi mother, the protagonist of the third monologue in her brilliant and chilling play, Palace of the End. Set before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the audience sat transfixed, moved to tears as the character described being tortured in front of her children.

The evening ended with a wonderful reading by the amazing Zoe Whittall, whose latest novel, The Best Kind of People was recently short listed for the Giller Prize. Zoe is one of my favourite writers, and her work has inspired me tremendously. She read a scene from the point of view of Kevin, a writer who has decided to exploit the scandal that is erupting in his town. Full of brilliant social observations, and winking references to the struggles of all writers, it was the perfect ending to an incredibly inspiring and remarkable evening.

By guest blogger Danila Botha. You can follow Dinal on Twitter @DanilaBotha

Managing Darkness by Sheniz Janmohamed

“My heart is a wave, blue and breaking on the shore” -Ciaran O’Rourke

It will take more than poetry to come to terms with the many issues facing us today, but it can certainly help ” -Paul Muldoon


This year at IFOA, I had the formidable task of hosting four events and attending various panels. When I wasn’t hosting or attending events, I spent my time in the Author’s Lounge: snacking on cookies, laughing with authors and enjoying the view of planes coming in over the lake to land at Billy Bishop Airport. It was in the moments between readings, panels and discussions that I was able to make connections between what I was hearing and what I was feeling. In all the events I attended and participated in, I listened closely for links between writing and the writing process. What I uncovered were ways in which authors managed grief and darkness—from Ciaran O’Rourke claiming that poets and poetry lovers have a special relationship to misery to Paul Muldoon writing elegies as a way to come to terms with the loss of people in his life.


I had the pleasure of hosting Pushing the Boundaries, a panel discussion with authors Amy Jones, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Suzana Tratnik and Charlotte Wood, which was moderated by Susan G. Cole. The topic turned to exploring ways in which fiction writers use landscape and humour as a way to hold space for darkness. Charlotte Wood spoke to the slippage of reality as vital to her story, counterpointing darkness with humour and the beauty of landscape. Amy Jones confessed that she used humour as a coping mechanism in both writing about darkness and her own experiences of darkness, and that a sense of place rooted her writing. When she was writing Sarong Party Girls, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan reminded herself that it was important to balance darkness with humour, particularly while exploring the suppression of Singlish in Singapore. Suzana Tratnik tackled darkness head-on by creating unlikeable characters, as a nod to the fact that LGBTQ+ people are not two-dimensional.


In Stories of Redemption, another panel I was pleased to host, Darren Greer spoke to writing as redemptive, Cornelia Strube explored the ways in which children manage darkness, and Anosh Irani admitted that he had to mentally prepare himself, as a human and a writer, to write The Parcel. Irani begins his writing process by asking, “What is the wound of this character?”, and then works to expose the wound as a means to bring about healing. Maybe we need to ask ourselves what our wounds are.

It was Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth, who captured the writer’s condition best, “Is it weird that when things go wrong, I imagine writing about it?”

No, it’s not weird at all.

It’s what we do.


By guest blogger Sheniz Janmohamed. You can follow Sheniz on Twitter @ShenizJ

Adam Nayman looks back on Jay McInerney at IFOA

The opening passages of Jay McInerney’s new novel Bright, Precious Days describe a book lover’s fantasy version of New York as a “shining island of letters” – an overture to rival the love-letter opening voice-over of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. For McInerney’s narrator, the city is a maze of “haunted libraries and bookstores,” with phantoms ranging from Norman Mailer to Truman Capote, who can be counted on to materialize at the end of the bar (or else snort coke in the bathroom). The picture he paints is seductive, enthralling, and somehow familiar: scanning through the first chapter, a reader could be forgiven for thinking than a more appropriate title for the book would be Bright Lights, Big City.

Mcinerney, Jay

In town for IFOA and onstage in conversation with cultural critic Linda Barnard, McInerney –now sixty-two years old and four decades removed from the excitement and what-does-it-mean-for-American-letters topicality of his early 80s output– acknowledged the difficulties of a career cast in the shadow of an auspicious debut; if he talked a fair amount about J.D. Salinger, whose hero, Holden Caulfield, is evoked in Bright, Precious Days via a throwaway line about “the ducks in winter,” it may be because he identifies with the older author’s lopsidedly mythological reputation.

Writers and rock stars – and rock-star writers, of which McInerney was surely one circa 1984 – are often pilloried for just going out and playing the old hits, the irony being that when they present their new material, their fans often head to the concession stands. As a cool and collected veteran of a thousand reading-slash-Q-and-A events, McInerney parried questions about the impact, salutary and not, of Bright Lights, Big City on his career and its influence on the series of novels (including also Brightness Falls and The Good Life) that Bright, Precious Days concludes: a so-called “Yuppie Trilogy” (though McInerey insisted that he hates that word) following a married couple through their lives in New York, starting in the Reagan 80s and culminating in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. “It’s still tied to the dream of Bright Lights, Big City,” he said, although he added that as he’s gotten older, he’s tried to widen the scope and implications of his work to become more “inclusive.”

In Bright, Precious Days, that means generating a his-and-hers narration split between book editor Russell and ex-stockbroker Corinne, whose point of view is more fully developed than before. This question of duelling subjectivities occasioned a query from moderator Emily M. Keeler about whether or not McInerney felt as if he was being somehow presumptuous about trying to write outside his own experience, which he shrugged off quickly enough to suggest that it didn’t bother him overmuch. A more fertile line of questioning came from an audience member who wondered how he felt about having his friend and fellow former “brat packer” Bret Easton Ellis borrow certain of his characters for American Psycho and also putting McInerney in Lunar Park as a drunken, equivocating, out of control version of himself; he admitted that it was by turns alarming and flattering, and suggested that he and Ellis were still friends (and that Lunar Park was a great novel, which it is).


As usual for events like this, McInerney was asked about his process and about any tips he had for aspiring writers, which remained safely on the short side of profundity while also ultimately being fair enough: “you have to write every day, and you can’t wait for the muse to visit you.” It’s fun to note that this advice was delivered in the same pushy, second-person voice that distinguished Bright Lights, Big City and became, in a way, its enduring gimmick – a means of address that collapsed the distance not only between author and character, but also between both parties and the reader, which in turn accounts for the close, passionate hold it retains on its audience nearly thirty-five years later.


By guest blogger Adam Nayman. Follow Adam on Twitter @brofromanother

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