IFOA 2016: A Commonplace Book by Andy McGuire

What follows is a selection from the commonplace book I kept during my time at the 37th edition of the International Festival of Authors. A compilation of happenings, musings and quotations, turns of mind that attracted my attention, and things I found delightful, struck me as true, or at least pretty wise.

When you have no cash at a cash bar.

When a good book ends, I get sad because I have to say goodbye.

Heike Steinweg


We didn’t know it was the eighties at the time. Nobody told us until about 1987, and by then it was almost over.

Jay McInerney


The best advice I ever received was from my mentor and teacher, Raymond Carver. He said,You have to write every day. You can’t just wait for the muse to visit you. You have to be there at your desk, in position. It’s like learning a second language, or an instrument—you have to practice every day.

Jay McInerney



Where are we supposed to go, is something that I think is increasingly true for people. It’s not, I’ve immigrated from one place to another and have the option of going back—there is no back to go to. It can be a sad and unsettling thing, but I think it also allows you to redefine home in the way you want to. My friends make fun of me because I say, I want to go home, meaning I want to go back to the hotel room, or, actually, I want to go back to the place where I can be by myself and pull stupid faces and no one will know. That’s usually what I mean when I say home.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

When you go away from a place—and I’ve found this with London in the last six or seven years—the place changes as well. You go away, you change, you have a life somewhere else, but you go back and the place has also moved on. The place is not a fixed thing. The more time you spend away from a place, the more your relationship with it changes, and a gap does inevitably open up. Everything is sort of in motion all the time. When I go back to London now, I feel like we’ve drifted apart, and that’s quite dismaying in a way, because if you think of a place as your bedrock home, as your anchor, and then you find that you have a different relationship with it, that can be quite unsettling.

David Szalay

Through all the years we are expected not to look at one another, I looked.

Alexander Maksik


Ranting with a translator and a fellow poet about the luxurious idiocy of leaf blowers.

In 1886, the federal government took away the dower rights of women in the Northwest Territories, that is, the Western Canadian women. That was a big part of why the Famous Five—Nelly McClung, Emily Murphy, and so on—wanted so much to change the constitution. The other thing was that when the Dominion Lands Act was instituted in Western Canada in 1872, women could virtually not get free land, only men could. But in 1862, in the American West, women could get free land on the same basis as men. So if you draw that a little further on, you come to the suffragettes. In Western Canada, that’s where all the suffragettes were. They were all Western Prairie women. We were the ones who got you guys the vote, you know. Whereas in the United States the suffragettes were all on the Eastern Seaboard. There was no great suffragette movement in the western United States, and feminist historians think that it’s because Western American women could get free land.

Sharon Butala

Part of the condition of being a writer, of being an artist of any kind, is the expectation that no one wants what you’ve produced.

Alexander Maksik

The gummies at the Penguin Random House party were the freshest gummies I ever did chew.

You cannot discover Shakespeare. Shakespeare is everywhere in our society.

Marcos Giralt Torrente


Shakespeare finds you. One is confronted by his work.

My earliest experiences of books were not due to reading, but due to being read to. I remember laying my head on my uncle’s chest and feeling the reverberation of the words.

Hisham Matar

Thinking is not very useful in writing.

Something we rarely speak about when we speak about writing is silence. Language itself, prose, includes silence. A certain quality of silence. If you think back on a reading experience that was particularly powerful, in your youth perhaps, you might remember the bench you were sitting on, or the colour of the light, but you also remember the quality of the silence that the book has shaped—that quality bleeds into our lives. Literature is not language; that’s the paradox. Literature is something else, something unnamable that is outside of language, and the whole history of literature, in all of the languages, is an attempt to respond to that.

Hisham Matar

Nina Bunjevac: I would read any comics, except for those Italian editions—Zagor—which had country and western kind of themes. One of them was this superhero who lives in the woods in Canada, and has a beaver hat and a raccoon hat. Only grown-up men read those.

Seth: You get to a certain age as a man, and that’s the kind of stuff you like to read.

What draws me to any material is first and foremost language. I spent many years reading about anatomy, to the point of studying medical Latin. It’s just such a wonderful, rich, layered, historical language for a poet—it’s irresistible. And, you know, writing about blood and guts has its appeal, too.

Sylvia Legris

The Japanese language allows for an entire sentence to be created without a subject.

Takashi Hiraide

I never read a book until I was fourteen. This guy gave me a book for Christmas—I’m sure his mother got it for him to give to me—and it was called Oliver Twist. I immediately flipped through it to see if it had any pictures. It had no pictures, so I said I’m not reading this, and put it on my night stand. About four months later I was frigging around and it fell down, and I picked it up and started reading it. I read it in three days. There were two things I realized: that Charles Dickens was a great writer, and I wanted to be a writer, too.

David Adams Richards

Poetry is a slow business. One gets used to moving very gradually, if at all, through the world. The sense that nothing is going to get done is the norm for the versifier. But of course the world does move at a pace, and one would never ever be able to live at that speed directly from one’s poetry earnings. One of the things that a poet needs is a job. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a bad thing. I can’t imagine anything worse than being able to write poetry twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It would be dreadful. I mean, it would be dreadful anyway, even if one gets to do it once a week or once a month.

Paul Muldoon

When Ciaran O’Rourke said, I think if you have an interest in poetry, you have a special relationship with misery, we laughed.

Six years is a long time to continue neither living nor dying.

Sunila Galappatti

I could never settle for half a freedom.

Madeleine Thien

The dead do not always lie quietly.

Guy Gavriel Kay

I cannot imagine reading a book about my life and not wanting to change a thing. A paraphrase of a lovely thing Sunila Galappatti said. I would want to delete some years altogether. Probably spend a disproportionate number of pages focusing on my being a failed falconer.

People who use the word Luddite sound like Luddites.


By guest blogger Andy McGuire. Follow Andy on Twitter @ajdmcguire


Nancy Jo Cullen looks back on Ireland @ IFOA


My people have been in Canada since famine forced them out of Ireland in the late 1840s. When my family piled into the yellow station wagon for our summer vacation it was our habit to sing on the long road trip to our destination. One of our favourite family sing alongs was, Dublin in the Green. I have a clear memory of belting out the chorus: We’re off to Dublin in the green in the green/ with our helmets glittering in the sun/ where the bayonets flash and the rifles clash/ to the rattle of a Thompson gun.

Our dad told us the story of our Irish ancestor who was forced to flee Ireland as a rebel. And it may be that after the failed rebellion of 1848 this actually happened although I suspect it’s more likely that my ancestors were tenant farmers forced off their land by starvation or evicted by British land speculators. Nevertheless, when I was five years old I knew a good portion of the words of a rebel marching song. Whatever the facts may have been, my ancestors had been in Canada for a few generations when the violent struggle for Irish independence began and it was easy to romanticize armed struggle when one was safely planted in a new country that provided a safer and wealthier home than the one that had been left.

Catriona Crowe’s talk on Ireland’s decade of revolutionary violence from the 1913 Lockout to Independence in 1923 made short work of the romantic embellishments of my Irish Canadian origin story. As she discussed Ireland’s centenary commemorations of her country’s violent beginnings she painted a stark picture of the toll the brutal decade of insurrection and civil war took on the Irish people. There is abundant documentation and events, from books to digital archives, exhibitions, immersive theatre productions to post cards, cakes and knitted replicas of the General Post Office, and through all this Ireland has tried to memorialize its difficult beginnings in a way that honours the lives lost and allows the Irish to look frankly at their difficult beginning as a nation state. As she neared the end of her talk Catriona Crowe said, “There are things to be proud of and things to be ashamed of in our history and in that we are no different than any other country.”


Irish people paid a great cost in the years leading up to independence; part of that price was the migration of millions of Irish,including my ancestors, to the so-called New World. As Canada engages in our own peace and reconciliation process I can’t help but get stuck on the irony that my ancestors were forced by the colonial actions of a more powerful state out of their homeland, then we, in turn, benefited from a colonial system that oppressed the original peoples of North America. Perhaps as Canada moves into its bi-centenary we will have managed to produce a kind of reconciliation that allows us, like the people of Ireland, to look back frankly at our history and also to move positively into a future that embraces all people who are living in this land.


By guest blogger Nancy Jo Cullen. Follow Nancy on Twitter @nancyjocullen

Looking back at Five Artists, Five Ways with Ania Szado

Visual art and writing—when obsessions collide

By Ania Szado

Some 30-odd years ago, cartoonist Seth and I were both students at Ontario College of Art. At the time, I was familiar with him by reputation of his talent, and impressed by his dashing personal style. I was less memorable as a visual presence, as was my student art. A few years later, when I stopped painting to focus on writing, I felt I’d finally found my medium.

And yet. All these years later, I still yearn to paint. My social media feeds are proof that many of my writer friends have been feeling the same desire. We’re picking up sketchbooks, acrylics, oils. Why?

I attended IFOA’s Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel round table hoping for clues. Seth brought together Nina Bunjevac, Jon McNaught, Chris Oliveros, Michael DeForge, and Nick Drnaso. Like me, these artists had started by making visual works without text.graphicnovellists2


“Drawing an image is powerful,” noted Seth.

It is. I had a piece in a self-portrait show recently. It made my mother weep—and not in pride or joy. “This is how you see yourself? It’s so dark.” It prompted my boyfriend and the show’s curator to ponder why someone who always seems so happy would convey such a picture of despair.

I brushed it off as an issue of style, not an unveiling of the soul. Seth asked about drawing styles. He said that many comic book artists are reluctant to discuss style. But for me, style is a far more comfortable subject to address than the emotional basis of a creative work, inasmuch as style often has a functional basis and role.


One panelist said his style came from a love of linocut. Another, from a scarcity of time (“no crosshatching”). Michael DeForge’s style came out of making band gig posters, whose purpose “is not to invite people in, but to keep them out.” That struck a chord. It’s like showing artwork in public for the first time in 30 years, and choosing a piece that pushes away the gaze.


If ever I explore that dichotomy, it will be in fiction. I’m less exposed in my fiction than in my paintings. That gives me the courage to write. But for Nina Bunjevac, personal exposure drives creativity. Seth asked why she made a book about her family. “How could I not?” she replied. “Who else has a father for a terrorist?!”

Why make art of any kind? “It’s not logical to want to do it,” said Chris Oliveros. “It’s an obsession.” Jon McNaught said making art “is a way of holding onto something.”


There is an obsession to capture and create. Sometimes we start with the image and feel compelled to begin working with words. Sometimes, like many of my writer friends these days, it’s the opposite. Either way, as Seth said, “At some point, you want to tell something. Drawing an image is powerful, but there’s something about telling a story.”


Five Questions with Nathan Storring

IFOA: Why is Jane Jacobs work so important today?Storring Nathan

Nathan Storring: In a world that is increasingly urbanized, and in a time of rising inequality and environmental crisis, Jane Jacobs still has plenty to tell us. As we note in the book, her vision of the city was not only one of lively streets, but of a place where any ordinary person can make and carry out their own “vital little plans.” In the social realm, this is what keeps our cities interesting, safe, and functional. In the economic realm, this microscopic, often marginal activity is what continues to create an urban middle class, and what produces the genuinely groundbreaking innovations that upset the status quo. Without that flow of new plans by ordinary people, she argued, the rich would grow richer, the poor would grow in number, and our problems would pile up unsolved—a claim that sounds eerily familiar today.

IFOA: How can we use her ideas to make our cities better?

Nathan Storring: There are so many fresh, concrete ideas and strategies in Vital Little Plans that people could try out in their own community. Fundamentally, though, I think the most important thing Jane Jacobs has to teach us isn’t what she thought about the city, but how she thought about it. She encourages us readers to observe real places, talk to real people, and come to our own conclusions based on what we see and hear, rather than relying on conventional wisdom—including hers.

IFOA: Tell us about editing this book.

Nathan Storring: This book had steeped for several years before we really started working on it in early 2014. My first job after graduating from OCAD University in Toronto was actually working on a graphic novel compilation of short stories about Jane Jacobs with some of her colleagues. It never came to fruition, but in the process, I read all of her books and got a second education on cities from those wonderful people. It was around that time that I started noticing a few obscure articles by Jane Jacobs and tucking them away in a folder on my computer. A few years later, I met Sandy as a Masters student at Brown University, and he first raised the idea of publishing these articles as a collection, especially given her centennial this year.

The actual editing process was quite difficult. We have a massive spreadsheet of every article, speech and interview we found, and what made it into the book is less than a quarter of that spreadsheet. We narrowed it down by focusing on Jacobs’s own words, avoiding things she wrote collaboratively and including interviews only sparingly. We also narrowed the field to works that offers both fresh, new material and connections to her major books. For example, many speeches build upon her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), but address things she never talked about there, like infill construction or new kinds of zoning. And of course, we tried to avoid too much overlap between the works, since many ideas and examples recur throughout her career.

In terms of organization, we decided to present the works chronologically rather than thematically to dispel the idea that you can really understand any part of Jacobs’s thought in isolation. The city building intertwines with the economics which intertwines with the ethics. Instead, the works are divided into periods that reflect important moments in her writing career: when she moved to New York; when she began writing at Architectural Forum; when she decided to become an author rather than continue her career as a journalist, and so on. Each part adds a new layer of themes to the last, but the prior themes never disappear.

IFOA: What will this work teach the new architects, urban planners and policy makers?

Nathan Storring: People often talk about how Jane Jacobs has already been incorporated into the work of city planners and architects and urban politicians, but I hope this book will challenge urbanists to reexamine how deeply they really make use of her ideas. The physical city she described in Death and Life—dense and mixed-use with short blocks and old buildings—has become conventional wisdom. But the thinking behind those qualities is lost. We preserve plenty of old buildings, but we’re terrible at preserving the affordability of housing and workspace, which is why Jacobs advocated for saving old buildings in the first place. So hopefully this collection will help professionals think through Jacobs’s ideas about the social and economic city in greater depth, and if they disagree with her reasoning, I hope it spurs some passionate, thoughtful rebuttals.

IFOA: How would you describe Jane Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood or community?

Nathan Storring: I think I accidentally already have: a place where any ordinary person can make and carry out their own “vital little plans.” In other words, a place that is not only pleasant and lively, but a place that serves the greater potential of cities as Jacobs saw it: problem solving, prosperity, and social mobility.

Nathan Storring @ IFOA:

Robert Kanigel, Nathan Storring, and Samuel Zipp discuss Jane Jacobs’ legacy and how she changed our perception of the neighborhood and the city with David Miller on Saturday, October 29 at 12pm. For tickets click here!

Happiness Is Always Somewhere Else

Guest post by visiting Spanish author, Luisgé Martín.

The 9-11 attacks against the Twin Towers is one of those happenings that will remain in the memory of mankind even when mankind does not remember anymore its sociopolitical causes, nor is there any trace left of its aftermath. It will remain because it has, adapted to modernity, a Shakespearian-theatre art. This is because it is the perfect stage on which to represent all human passions, all tragedies, all the substance of life.

In The Same City I don’t talk about the attacks. The attacks are the set and the driving force of what happens to the main character, Brandon Moy, but they are not the core of the story. In 2004 or 2005, whilst reading some books on the 9-11 attacks, I came upon terrible stories, with an extraordinary literary symbolism. One of them—I don’t know if true or not—was about a mother and a son who died at the same time during the attacks: she in the plane and he in the tower.

There were also many stories of those who had saved their lives just by chance: the one who had lost his flight because he had woken up late, the one who had changed his flight in the last minute due to an unexpected and arbitrary work trip, the woman who had been fired from her job at the towers just the day before the attacks. All of them were lives on the wire, on the edge of the abyss. And in that storm of dreadful trifles there always was a literary feel which I liked.

That is how I came up with the story told in The Same City. Or rather, that is how I found the setting for a story that had been haunting my novelist mind: that of a man who has everything that might be needed to be happy—a wife he loves, a son, a valued job, money, freedom—and yet he isn’t happy because he yearns for the dreams he had when he was young.  

The Same City is a novel about human dissatisfaction, about that curious feel we have all had many times that it is only others who have managed to make their dreams come true. We need to be born again, we wish to start anew, but we are not able to do so because we are trapped by life. Brandon Moy, suddenly, gets that second chance: when everybody takes for granted he has been killed in the attacks, he decides to run away.

The 9-11 attacks were not the only element with an excellent narrative drive, New York also had it. New York is the city everyone wants to live in, it is the world’s capital. My character, who lives there, on the contrary, wants to leave. Many people think they could be happy in New York; he believes he can only be happy away from it.

Dissatisfaction, the urge to change, to be reborn, to live one thousand lives. That is one of the main themes of human nature, I believe, and I have talked about it in many of my books. In The Same City it becomes the core subject. When I sat down to write it, I didn’t know where Brandon Moy and I would end up. I traveled with him to Boston, to Latin America, to Spain and I searched next to him those dreams of youth that he believed he had lost and that he believed he would achieve far away from the routines of his life. Would he be able to do it? Would he really be reborn? Would he have another life better than the one he was leaving behind while New York was in flames? That is what I wanted to know, perhaps to follow his steps if his attempt was successful. And that is what I try to get the reader to do.

Luisgé Martín @ IFOA:

Darren Greer, Luisgé Martin and Nathan Whitlock reinvent the Man and propose a more fluid and ever changing identity that breaks rules and assumptions on Wednesday, October 26 at 8pm. For tickets click here!

Join international authors Luisgé Martin and Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir as they read from their latest works in Found In Translation on Thursday, October 27 at 6pm. For tickets click here!



Martin Luisge

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