Finding Your Place

By Janet Somerville

Three smart and articulate writers joined moderator Steven W. Beattie at the Fleck Dance Theatre on the final afternoon of the Festival to talk about the influence of geography on their work.Robinson, Children of the Revolution

While working on a PhD on the sense of place in British poetry, Peter Robinson began writing crime novels at night. He was homesick for Yorkshire and found that he “could spent imaginative time there.” Plus, he loved the tradition of British crime novels. Though Newfoundland born, Wayne Johnston finds that “it’s a lot safer to write about Newfoundland while living in Toronto.” He feels “much less inhibited,” and he’s never found another place that he “could invest in emotionally.” Michael Crummey admitted that even though he lived away for a long time, “Newfoundland is the place that made me who I am. You don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to see that living there has altered my sense of place.”

Both Crummey and Johnston remembered how the people shaped the place. For Crummey, his novel Galore was influenced daily by the people, including a “wart charmer” who managed to cure a friend’s younger sister. She woke up one morning, “all of the warts loose in her bed linens, enough to fill a quart jar.” And Johnston said, “For years my mother decided antibiotics were useless and it was better to get the seventh son of a seventh son to say a prayer.”Johnston, The Son Of A Certain Woman

When asked by Beattie if they thought they mythologize place, Crummey noted that in outport Newfoundland, there are two worlds: a physical one that’s “stark, difficult, capricious, unrelenting” and a netherworld, “populated with folklore and ghost stories that gave an illusion of some control.” Johnston added, “I mythologize overtly in the new book [A Son of a Certain Woman]. I imagine better worlds than the one I lived in when I was growing up.” As for Robinson, “inventing a place is a very useful thing to do because you don’t want to be a slave to geography.” A student of poetry, Robinson quoted lines from Charles Tomlinson’s “A Meditation on the Art of John Constable,” wherein “the artist lies for the improvement of truth.”

Considering ghettoization of writers, Crummey noted, “Antecedents for today’s Newfoundland writers are completely different, yet the common ground is Newfoundland at the centre. Consider the work of Joan Clark, Jessica Grant, Lisa Moore and Michael Winter.” Johnston added, “Every writer wants to be self-creating, sui generis. I’m fiercely individualistic. I’ve objected to being ghettoized as a Newfoundland writer.” And, Robinson said, “usually it’s just the crime writers that are segregated. A lot of the best writing has got story and suspense. Something other than a fine metaphor has you turning the page.”Crummey, Under the Keel

Interestingly, all three writers began as poets, and, Crummey noted that his “is almost exclusively about my life, which is not at all true of my fiction. Writing poetry is meditative and feeds me while writing fiction feels like digging a ditch.” Johnston remembered that, “the first thing I got published was a poem. I needed $250 for rent and I got $300 for the poem. And in grad school I started bringing the novel I was writing to class in poem shape.” Robinson said, “I started out as a poet and noticed the poems were narrative and then I started reading Raymond Chandler.”

On the influence of landscape on character, all agreed that place shapes character completely. Robinson noted, “You can write yourself into some pretty dark places. I’m interested in characters and relationships. The dark places that I go in my novels are places that I have to go to anyway. People of the place and a lot of what they are is determined by how they interact with the place.” Johnston added, “I don’t think of place as just geography. Austere beauty or stark horror. If you can write about a place in a way that is convincing, then you should.” And, for Crummey, “time and time again it looks like it’s over and there is an unlikely resurrection and you carry on.”

They carry on. As Joan Didion noted, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Leading Men

By Janet Somerville

International Dublin IMPAC award winner Colum McCann, bestselling crime writer George Pelecanos and this year’s American novelist darling, Philip Meyer, joined Globe and Mail books editor Jared Bland to discuss compelling characters—and anything else they damned well pleased relating to the writing life—on Sunday, November 3._TB12996

For Meyer, a good character “appears to support ideas of a book in an organic way. Their thoughts and speech rhythms have to work with themes. And, you’re learning the voice and physicality of each as you write.” In his two most recent books, Pelecanos said that, “writing a younger character like Spero Lucas has allowed me to get energy to write about sex. And, I prepared by reading Roth.” But, his favourite character is Derek Strange, the one most unlike him. For McCann, “the way a character comes along and knocks you sideways and holds contradictory things” is endlessly fascinating. He insisted that, “you have to pretend it’s easy when it’s difficult, when underneath you’ve got torn ligaments.”

In creating the indelible, complicated frontiersman in The Son, Eli McCullough, Meyer noted that it “was a happy moment in some ways because I’d found the key to the book. He seems the most compelling because he’s in an extreme situation, having been kidnapped.” About Derek Strange, Pelecanos said the character is “like guys I looked up to in D.C. He keeps an office on the street so kids can watch him turn the key and see what a man does. And, he screws up with women a lot, which is true for any man. Once you figure out who the characters are, they write the story.” McCann observed that you need “to catch the moment in flight. To abandon yourself to whoever the character is. Sometimes the characters lead me in the most unusual way. It’s interesting that we have as much responsibility to fictional characters as to real characters in the world like Frederick Douglass in Transatlantic.”  His best advice: “You should write towards what you want to know.”

Meyer begins a new piece without researching, “by writing to the limit of my knowledge.” Though, he said, he read approximately 250 books about Texas as he was writing The Son, “because I don’t have the confidence to put words down. The first time I saw the galley of my book, I thought, this is all I’ve got to show for five years?” Pelecanos interrupted, graciously insisting, “If you haven’t read The Son, it’s the best book of the year. Discovering that Meyer was a Michener Fellow, he added, “you know these little arts grants make these kinds of books possible. It’s the price of a tank that’s never going to be used.”

About his own process Pelecanos said, “I get letters from guys in prison. I do reading programmes there. And, I think, what can I learn today that I can use in a book. I’m proud that I’m at the top of the bestseller lists in prisons.” Because The Son is rife with sensory detail, Meyer explained that “I know what a deer smells like and I can tell if it’s a buck or a doe.” He learned how to quarter a buffalo “because the animal was such a central force for the people I was writing about.” He went so far as to “drink a cup of blood from one of them, which was obviously disgusting.”  McCann tells his students at Hunter College, “I can’t teach you a damned thing. Process is about stamina. You have to force yourself to sit there. If you can foster stamina, desire and perseverance, you can make it as a writer.” Meyer added, “it comes from a place inside you and you trust instinct and feeling more and more. You want to move the reader through with rhythm and pacing. Storytelling is like a symphony,”

In Transatlantic, McCann admitted, “I wanted to braid these things together: those who made history and those who suffered history—and they’re as important to the political and social process. We all know that history is agreed upon lies, so let’s make it more democratic.” About editing himself, he remarked, “I try to look forward 20 years from now and ask, will I be embarrassed by any of this then?” Meyer added, “I try to shut out every other voice but my own. A character doesn’t have to be sympathetic, as long as they’re fascinating.” Pelecanos observed that his protagonist in The Double, Spero Lucas, is “the only guy who is a killer. True Grit is my favourite novel. Maddy Ross is not very likable, but the voice is enduring.” On writing for The Wire, he added, “We were just trying to depict people as they are in the city. Omar is the moral center. He never swore. He observed Sunday truce.” Before that collaborative writing experience, Pelecanos had never been in a room “where other writers were critiquing what I was doing. I was told often, it’s too on point. As a result, in my novels I’ve gone to my strength, which is dialogue. Writing how people talk.”

About endings, McCann said, “An ending can only go one particular place. I will write in a fever of 16 to 18 hours a day.” For Meyer, “it’s a feel that it’s done. You don’t go back and tinker with it.” And, Pelecanos added, “I rewrite at night what I’ve written earlier that morning. The end just comes. It should end when it feels right.”

Final words from each of them about their chosen craft: McCann: “You can’t believe only the good stuff. You must also believe the bad stuff. It’s the natural corollary;” Pelecanos: “You have to go to work every day. I treat it like a job. I get dressed. Remember, John Cheever used to put on a suit to go to his desk;” Meyer: “You need to be doing this because it is in you to do it.” Story is a river running through all three of them. And, we readers are all the more fortunate for such flow.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

The Journey Prize: Celebrating 25 Years of Canada’s New Writers, with Yann Martel

By Grace O’Connell

If short fiction ever feels comparatively overlooked beside its novel brethren, I can only hope it was in attendance last night at the Journey Prize 25th anniversary celebration, because the event was a fabulous short fiction love-in.

Eight writers who got an early leg-up from appearing in The Journey Prize Stories (including several prize winners) spoke on the theme of “beginnings.” The event itself began with a video created by McClelland & Stewart Senior Editor Anita Chong, followed by an introduction from M&S SVP and Fiction Publisher Ellen Seligman. Thanks were offered to prize patron James Michener and erstwhile M&S president Avi Bennett (who was in attendance), who partnered with Michener to found the prize a quarter century ago.Martel

Booker Prize winner Yann Martel served as host and one of the participating authors, and opened the evening by speaking about his experience winning the prize for his third published story, “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios” (which originally appeared in BC’s The Malahat Review and was submitted to the prize by none other than the late Constance Rooke).

Speaking to this year’s jacket image of a lit match, Martel said of emerging writers, “Your flame can easily be blown out—you need people who will blow on it very gently and make it burn brighter.” And the evening’s writers are now burning very brightly indeed, with the Journey Prize as an early and important bellows.

After Martel’s intro, Miranda Hill spoke on beginnings, hers and otherwise (memorable quote: “Genesis is basically one long press release”). She then read a story called “The Idea of Kentucky” which garnered enthusiastic applause.

Steven Galloway took the stage next, and started by wryly warning the packed house, “It’s Halloween and as we speak, your houses are being egged by unhappy children.” He related a story about how his widely acclaimed novel The Cellist of Sarajevo began with a photo he saw in a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room, capturing that magical moment of an idea’s first spark.

Pasha Malla kept his opening topical, asking the audience to shout out any updates on the Rob Ford scandal, saying “Everyone wants to know” (no news broke during the event, sadly). For his take on “beginnings,” Malla projected an image of his first “published” story—a piece called “The Magic Mittens,” which his third grade teacher typeset for him due to his woeful handwriting. He spoke of looking at past writing as a way of knowing himself: “I’m writing stories partly to leave a kind of breadcrumb trail for my future self.”

The final speaker before the intermission was Elizabeth Hay, who spoke of where her stories and books begin. “Personal stories rooted in the past, set in places that shape character,” she said, speaking to what attracts her. Sharing a story of a cross-country bus trip, she commented on the transformational process of writing and reading. “You’re taken both into and out of yourself.”

After the audience gulped down some wine, they were treated to the final four speakers, starting with the venerable Alistair MacLeod, who served as a judge for the very first Journey Prize. He pointed out that his son, Alexander MacLeod, has also appeared in the collection, as have several of the younger MacLeod’s writing students. “Which makes me something of a grandfather of the Journey Prize,” said MacLeod. After a short speech that got ton of laughs, MacLeod finished with the sentiment of the evening: “We should be grateful for the Journey prize… long may it thrive and make a contribution to Canadian literature and beyond.”

Lisa Moore kept the laughs going, telling a story of the hectic time during which her first book was written, when a false fire call resulted in a fire chief telling her that her house had apparently been ransacked. It turned out that this was just the state of the house Moore shared with her husband, sister-in-law and their combined three children, where writing was prioritized over mundane domesticity. “I think it was a pretty good way to start,” said Moore, whose multiple Giller Prize nominations likely agree.

Alissa York told a different sort of “beginning” story, relating a funny and tender tale of meeting her husband, who gave her this great early writing advice when she first thought she might have a story to tell, late one night. “Then you better get up and write it,” he said. “It might not be there tomorrow. You’ve got to get up and write it.”

Martel returned to close the evening. He spoke of his own literary beginnings, how he first became fascinated by language itself. He admitted to an early attempt at playwriting: “It was a play about a young man in love with a door. It was supposed to be a tragedy.” Even though the play was less than perfect, there was a joy in the writing. “I slowly got better,” he said. “I just kept at it.”

After comparing writing to Crossfit (it was worth attending just to find out that Yann Martel does Crossfit), Martel got serious and closed with the following thought: “Corporations and governments and time—these things don’t care about you. A God though cares about you—and it’s the same thing with art. Because without you it cannot be. A book needs a reader… art is the last bastion of the individual.”

It was an evening full of such wisdom and enthusiasm. The Journey Prize’s fine pedigree was celebrated, but moreover the atmosphere was full of the genuine love the guest authors still hold for the prize. Alyssa York summed up the support and confidence the prize has provided, saying “It felt like I had opened a giant fortune cookie and the fortune inside read: You are a writer.”

Grace O’Connell holds an MFA in creative writing. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Walrus, Taddle Creek, Quill & Quire and EYE Weekly. She has taught creative writing at George Brown College and now works as a freelance writer and editor in Toronto. She is the author of the national bestseller Magnified World.

Five Questions with… Amanda Leduc

Amanda Leduc, author of The Miracles of Ordinary Men and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Amanda on November 3! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: What was the inspiration for your debut novel, The Miracles of Ordinary Men?Amanda Leduc

Amanda Leduc: Miracles came about as a result of two short stories—one that I’d written at 16 and subsequently workshopped, a few years later, during my undergraduate years at the University of Victoria, and another one that I wrote during my time at the University of St. Andrews, when I was doing postgraduate work in creative writing.

The first story concerned a man who was visited by an angel—a thin, bald angel who seemed just as unsure of its place in the world as my main character. I was fascinated by the idea that perhaps even angels don’t always know what’s in store for them, and the story that I wrote in Scotland continued to explore this theme. I switched perspectives around and started to write about a man who transformed into that thin, strange, entirely un-angelic figure. And then Lilah and Timothy popped up as significant characters in the storyline, and things just grew from there. By the time I was halfway through my Masters degree, I was pretty sure I had a novel on my hands. It just took a few more years to get it down.

IFOA: Author Angie Abdou called Miracles “a brave book.” Sex and faith can be intimidating subjects to tackle—especially for a first-time novelist. Did you ever feel like you’d bitten off more than you could chew?

Leduc: All of the time! There were so many moments during the writing of Miracles when I was convinced that I was far too small for the book—not smart enough, not worldly enough and so on. Sometimes I still feel that way. I think the only way that I managed to finish the novel at all was by reminding myself that these things—God, sex and death—are so huge that all you can do is shape an attempt at understanding them. You’re never going to get all of the answers, and at some point you just have to make peace with that.

Likewise, there came a time in the writing of the book when I realized that asking the questions about these big things was what interested me most about the whole process. That’s when things became a little easier—once I realized that the questions I was posing were more important to me than finding all the answers.

IFOA: Do you have any rituals associated with your writing?

Leduc: Tea! Tea is a big ritual. I always have a cup (or an entire teapot) close by when I sit down to my computer. And I generally start my mornings by writing by hand, then move to the computer after half an hour or so of pen-and-paper time.

I like to write in the mornings, usually starting around nine o’clock and working through until one in the afternoon or so. I try to save my afternoons for emails/blogging/other computer business—key word being try!

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Leduc: I’m about a quarter of the way through Night Film by Marisha Pessl, and really enjoying it. And next up on my TBR pile is Pilgrimage, the debut novel by Edmonton-based author Diana Davidson.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but…

Leduc: …I actually have a book out in the world with my name on it! My five-year-old self (who wrote, “I want to be an AUTHOR”, in her school notebook) would be very pleased.

Amanda Leduc has had her short stories, essays and articles published in Canada, the USA and the UK. She is one of the co-creators of Bare It For Books, a calendar that features nearly-nude Canadian authors and is being sold to benefit PEN Canada. She will discuss tackling faith and religion in her fiction alongside authors Hari Kunzru and Mary Swan on November 3.

Five Questions with… Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston, author of The Son of a Certain Woman and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Wayne at either of his two events on November 3! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA or use #IFOA2013. Good luck!

IFOA: Some of what’s explored in The Son of a Certain Woman is quite risqué—especially Percy’s attraction to his mother. What prompted you to write about this?Wayne Johnston

Wayne Johnston: As with all my books, I started this one with the question: what if…? In this case, what if a sex- and love-craving adolescent finds himself in circumstances that leave him with no one to “turn to” but his mother? This gradually grew into a larger question: what if all the characters in the book have no one to “turn to” but Percy Joyce’s mother? The circumstances of their lives are largely dictated by the intolerant, dogmatic, totalitarian Church, so it seemed to me that I’d have an explosive combination if all the main characters wanted things considered taboo or anathema by the Church. Also, The Son of A Certain Woman uses Joyce’s Ulysses much as Joyce used Homer’s Odyssey—as a kind of structural template, a mythical framework. So, in the same way that Stephen searches throughout Ulysses for his spiritual father, Leopold Bloom, Percy Joyce, in a reversal of genders, “searches for” his mother, Penelope, whose name happens to be the same as that of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey.

IFOA: What do you love most about Canada’s East Coast, the setting for much of your fiction?

Johnston: It never leaves me no matter how long I leave it for. I don’t mind the hold it has on me. I use it. For me, “Newfoundland” is a fictional place, wholly my own, distinct from the real Newfoundland. I live far enough away from it that it excites my imagination without overwhelming it. Islands serve as ideal microcosms of the planet, which is, after all, just a speck of an island in a vast universe of stars and other planets.

IFOA: How has your writing changed over time?

Johnston: That’s a tough one, as I’m so close to each of my books it’s hard to think of them collectively. I think the scope of my fiction has grown with each book, regardless of the setting of the book. I’m better now at finding the balance between comedy and pathos than I was starting out. I make greater, and better, use of history, and the history of ideas, than I used to.

IFOA: Your novel The Divine Ryans was adapted for film in 1999, and you wrote the screenplay. What was that process like?

Johnston: I wrote the screenplay for The Divine Ryans because I thought I knew the book better than anyone else. It was difficult at first—I had to cut and reshape an enormous amount of “stuff” that I had come to think of as being set in stone. I had to be a ruthless editor of my own book, a lot of which was left on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, writing the screenplay and being on the set when the movie was filmed gave me a rare chance to create collaboratively and burst the bubble of “novelist” in which I spend so much of my time. I just finished writing the screenplay for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, a massive task that will soon pay off. Shooting of the film begins not long from now.

IFOA: If you could swap lives with any author, past or present, whose life would you choose?

Johnston: I’ve never been much of  life swapper. Authors’ lives are dwarfed by those of their characters. I wouldn’t mind being a character in a novel. It might be fun to be Huck Finn or Jane Austen’s Emma for a while. But I’d reserve the right to come back to “life.”

Wayne Johnston is the author of five Canadian bestsellers, including The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. He will be reading from his most recent work on November 3 alongside authors Lauren B. Davis, Anthony De Sa and Don Gillmor, and participating in a round table later that day with writers Michael Crummey and Peter Robinson.

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