Choose Your Poison

By Michael Robotham

© Stefan Erhard – Literaturtest

To paraphrase a famous man from Alabama, writers’ festivals are a lot like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. This is true for audiences as well as writers. I’ve seen fist-fights, feuds, flirtations and assignations, but we writers have a code: what happens at the festival, stays at the festival.

In Australia there seems to be a new festival every weekend. There have always been the big ones like Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, but now there are new ones in Mudgee, Noosa, Bellingen, Albury and beyond. The same is happening in the UK, which has over 300 writers’ and readers’ festivals.

In the past whenever a village wanted to attract tourists it would set up a railway museum (even if the railway had never run within twenty-miles of the village). Nowadays, they organize a music or arts festival. I’m reminded of an episode of The Vicar of Dibley (BBC) where Dibley decides to hold a music festival and invites Reg Dwight, thinking they’re going to get Elton John, but instead get a guy called Reg Dwight.

The weirdest festival I’ve ever attended was Semana Negra in Gijon, Spain — an event that began almost 25 years ago as a crime-writing festival and has since grown into one of the largest cultural events in northern Spain. More than a million people attend over the 10-day festival of music, theatre, dance, funfair rides, rock concerts and the occasional literary talk thrown in. Most of the writers’ sessions don’t begin until 9 p.m. and run until after midnight, when everyone has dinner and crawls back to the hotel at about 3 a.m. I remember waking up at midday thinking I’d missed breakfast and having to wait two hours before anyone else surfaced.

The foreign language sessions are translated using interpreters and headphones. The set-up looked like something from the Nuremburg trials and attempts at humour were difficult because the punch-lines took an age to be relayed and didn’t arrive with the same panache. Norman Mailer had attended the festival several years earlier and was introduced and interviewed by two fanatical fans and students of his work. According to the story, they spoke for 45 minutes in introduction, trying to show the audience the breadth of their knowledge and appreciation of the great man’s work.

My experience was a little better. My Spanish translator introduced me and spoke for 25 minutes, giving away the complete plots of my first two crime novels.

“And then this happens…and then this…and you wouldn’t believe what happens next…”

Come question time, a member of audience demanded to know why I didn’t write about the plight of Australian aborigines. I pointed out that I wrote psychological thrillers set in the UK, but this answer didn’t satisfy her. She harangued me for so long that the rest of the audience began booing and hissing (her, not me).

I’m not expecting any similar problems in Toronto. The IFOA has proved itself to be one of the finest festivals in the world and I jumped at the chance at the chance to return. I’m already marking the schedule, working out what authors I want to see and hear. Now if I can just get out of doing my readings, I’ll have even more time for the others.


Robotham’s latest book, Say You’re Sorry, was published by Little, Brown UK, on October 2, 2012. Come see him at IFOA on October 20 and 23. For more about Robotham, visit his website

Five Questions with… Joey Slinger

Joey Slinger, former Toronto Star humour columnist and author of Nina, the Bandit Queen, will participate in an October 24 round table discussion and a reading October 28.

© Toshiko Adilman

IFOA: You spent nearly 30 years as a Toronto Star columnist. Do you ever miss those newspaper deadlines?

Slinger: No. But I say that without a whole lot of thought. After giving it a huge amount of consideration, I would put it this way: Are you out of your freaking mind?

IFOA: Your protagonist in Nina, the Bandit Queen, wants to rob a bank to raise money for the local pool. Have you ever stolen anything?

Slinger: It depends on whether you count every single one of my ideas. Apart from that, if it actually was me who stole the brass plaque from the front door of Sir. John A. Macdonald’s house in Kingston, you’d think I’d remember, wouldn’t you? So what is it doing in my office?

IFOA: In your mind, who is the king—or queen—of humour writing?

Slinger: Short answer: Mark Twain, Alan Coren, Nora Ephron, Charles Dickens, James Thurber, J. M. Barrie, Joseph Heller, Barbara Ehrenreich (I’m not kidding), The Blessed Leacock, the Pythons, P. G. Wodehouse, Terry Southern, Lewis Carroll, and Donald E. Westlake.

Long answer: Let’s go somewhere and have a couple of drinks and discuss it.

IFOA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Slinger: I’d be the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who is dying in your arms at the roulette table in Monte Carlo.

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

Slinger: That we sent soldiers to fight in Afghanistan. It’s not like everything in history didn’t tell us it was a sensationally bad idea.

What surprises me the least? That we still have soldiers in Afghanistan. Being there in the first place, though, is what surprises me the most. That and people buying tickets to watch the Maple Leafs.

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

Slinger: Celery.

For more about Slinger and his appearance at IFOA, click here.

“It’s nerve-wracking and exciting and extremely flattering.”

By Tanis Rideout

© Nikki Mills

I’ve attended readings at IFOA for years and been obsessed with it for even longer. Back when I lived in Kingston, I would enviously scan the names of authors and speakers, wishing I could be there in the audience.

When I moved to Toronto, I went to the festival as often as I could and listened rapt to my literary heroes, and I have to admit I may have even daydreamed that one day I’d be up there reading. I imagined my introduction and practiced my flattered but humble smile – like an Oscar-nominated actor who knows the camera’s on them as their category is announced. I interviewed myself in the shower, like Jimmy Rabbit in The Commitments, and tried to be witty and charming and not too clever.

Last year I was invited to attend a few festival parties – I was introduced around and felt like a debutante. And like any debutante, mostly I hoped I wouldn’t trip over the hem of my dress and land on my face, or say anything stupid I couldn’t take back. I met authors and editors and publishers and agents and an army of organizers and publicists. All of them were witty and charming and perfectly clever. And many of them assured me I’d be onstage next year. I smiled that flattered, demure smile I’d been practising.

It’s now a year later: my first novel, Above All Things, has been out for a few months, and in just a couple of weeks I will be on one of those stages at IFOA – first, as part of a panel with a slew of my friends and peers who all put out novels this year, and then I’ll be reading alongside Rawi Hage, Kyo Maclear, and Bill Gaston. It’s nerve-wracking and exciting and extremely flattering. After years of attending and hoping, that’ll be me up there.

But I’ll also be in the audience. Because that’s a pretty damn good place to be too.

For more about Rideout and her IFOA events, click here.

Five Questions with… Marjorie Celona

© Sherri Barber

Marjorie Celona will read from her debut novel, Y, and participate in an IFOA round table discussion called Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content.

IFOA: What was your favourite book as a child?

Celona: The Ant and Bee books by Angela Banner, particularly the ones featuring ‘Kind Dog.’

IFOA: You grew up in Victoria, where Y is set, but you wrote the book while living in upstate New York. Does putting distance between you and the place you’re writing about make things easier, or more difficult?

Celona: People sometimes ask whether I write at home, or in a coffee shop, or at the beach. And whether my surroundings matter—and whether I need to be in a beautiful space. I have to say that none of these things matter when I write. There was a certain similarity to the landscape, believe it or not, in the woods of central New York State and Vancouver Island, and this was at times helpful, but, really, I’d be lying if I said that where I am has any kind of bearing on what I write.  

IFOA: What time of day do you usually write, and why?

Celona: For the most part, it doesn’t matter—if I’m working on something, I can work on it any time. When I wrote Y, I wrote every other day, sometimes all day.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Celona: Alice Munro.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If I could change one thing…

Celona: . . . about what? If it were up to me, I’d change something about everything.

For more about Celona and her appearance at IFOA, visit

Five Questions with… Kristel Thornell

Kristel Thornell will share her debut novel, Night Street, in a reading October 23 and a round table discussion October 27.

© Joi Ong

IFOA: You used to live in Canada. What’s your favourite Canadian pastime?

Thornell: I lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in an apartment overlooking the St. John River. Back then it was watching the river from my windows and long walks, especially in the fall. These days I most often visit Toronto and Montreal, where I love to wander aimlessly and to eat my way through the tantalizing mix of cultures.

IFOA: Night Street is about an Australian landscape painter, Clarice Beckett. What do painters and writers have in common?

Thornell: A lot, I think. In my experience, they seem to share a compulsion to observe, to catch resonant impressions and preserve, shape, communicate and revere them. Perhaps, too, an attraction to intense, transporting experiences.

IFOA: Writers of historical fiction take fact and render it fictional. How do you fictionalize history while maintaining a sense of historical accuracy?

Thornell: It’s tricky. I try to develop a guiding sense of a period, any and every way I can – through fiction and non-fiction, archival material, art, music, food, clothing, and my own experiments with making a voice that seems to belong to it. I aim to see and feel that time as fully as possible, as a vivid three-dimensional space, and then to let my characters move freely there.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?

Thornell: Virginia Woolf. I’m a fan. And I imagine it would have been interesting – entertaining or unsettling or both – to be in the company of a mind so sharp and curious.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: One day I will…

Thornell: Write a novel (some sort of mystery involving a translator?) set on a Scottish island. This will require a lengthy stay on such an island, a lot of walking, fireside reading, pots of tea and oatcakes. For research.

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

Thornell: Alluring.

For more about Kristel Thornell and her appearance at IFOA, click here.

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