In Conversation with Jane Urquhart

By Janet Somerville

Lawrence Hill, the most gracious man in Canadian letters, sat down with Jane Urquhart to talk about her latest novel, The Night Stages. Among her inspiration for the narrative: the Air Transport Auxiliary in WWII of many women who flew wounded planes to be repaired in Britain, and Kenneth Lochhead’s mural at Gander airport, “Flight and Its Allegories.” urquhart 2

After Urquhart read a short excerpt that ended with the line, “there are thousands and thousands of miles inside him,” Hill opened their conversation by thanking her “for writing such a gorgeous novel. I ate up every page of it.” She began by talking about her relative Violet Milstead Warren, who was Canada’s first female bush pilot and by 25 had flown 45 different planes. On one mission during WWII, she was instructed to “hide a dozen Spitfires in an orchard.” She was of the air. Her story becomes part of Tam’s narrative “after Tam had given up flying and is earth-bound in Co. Kerry, Ireland, where Irish is spoken even now.” Hill noted, that, “As the story begins, Tam’s life is descending. The novel is partially about how love can be ravaging.” Urquhart added, “Tam’s lover, Niall, is a climatologist who brings her down to earth. I’m interested in the argument between earth and air.”

About a supporting character, Hill wondered, “How did Kieran grow in you?” Urquhart responded, “IntoUrquhart 3 every book I’ve written, there’s been a young man who has walked into the novel and taken over. Kieran came sailing into this novel and he’s the character we most want to empathize with. He’s a bright absentee, as Emily Dickinson may have said. By bright, I mean shining.” Hill added, “A lot of characters carry real loss. Tell us about Kieran’s coping strategy. He has rages that take over his body like a seizure.” Urquhart said, “He finds domestic chores calming. He becomes enamoured by a bicycle by a wall. It’s called the purple hornet. He transcends his pain by becoming a cyclist.” She added, “Growing up, my cousins called me athletically disinclined, so it was fantastic to inhabit the mind of a character who was achieving what he was achieving. I put off writing the race until the end, but it was thrilling to write. I loved every second of it.”

Of Kieran’s training, Hill remarked, that, “he met Irish poet Michael Kirby, who becomes his coach.” Urquhart admitted that she’d “met Michael Kirby in the ‘90s. He had been a fisherman, but was working on a book of poems about the life of the sea. As an artist he never lost his hold on the earth. As he was dying he wrote poems of farewell to his boat, to his kitchen chair. By including him and Kenneth Lochhead, I was trying to celebrate them and to try to understand how creativity moved through them. When I sent a copy to Kirby’s daughter, featuring him as a cycling coach, her father dead a decade, she said, ‘My dad has been 10 years on his holidays and he’s surprising us yet.’” Both Lawrence Hill and Jane Urquhart are doing just that. May they long continue to enrich readers’ lives with the craft and compassion of their stories.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Reading for a Poet

By Ania Szado

There’s a good crowd gathering in the Brigantine Room as the event’s featured writers and I convene in the green room. I’m here to host, with an added twist: I’ve been asked to read an English translation on behalf of one of the featured writers.

I agreed enthusiastically. I love doing readings. But now, receiving my instructions backstage, I hear, “He’ll read the first poem in his own language…” and two things hit me: reality, and nerves.

I’m a novelist, not a poet. It’s been years since I’ve written poetry, never mind read it to a discerning audience. And who could be more discerning than the poems’ creator? The last time I read an internationally renowned poet’s work to a packed house while he stood beside me listening was…

I can’t do this.

The poet comes into the green room. The book he holds is layered with numbered sticky tags. He has a friendly face and handshake. He walks me through the order of the poems he has chosen. His English is heavily accented, but excellent—he’ll definitely know if I mess up. Six poems. He’ll read the first one, then I’ll read them all. Maybe he’ll take the mic back at the end for a few lines. He looks concerned. I am concerned.

“It will be fine,” I say. He hands me his book.

When his turn comes, I introduce him, and step aside while he reads. Standing two feet from the spotlight, I’m far enough from the poet to be audience, yet close enough to feel the gathering power of the aura that seems to coalesce around him as he introduces his collection. I feel the energy that connects him to the listeners below us. I share their sense of anticipation, their focus, as the poet begins reading. I don’t understand his words, but I understand his commitment to them. A lump starts to form in my throat.

By the time he finishes that first poem, I don’t feel nervous; I feel privileged to help him present his work here.

I step into the light. I sense rather than see him beside me. I want him not to worry. This is his first English translation. I want to not disappoint him. I do my best. I take my time with the words, and they take me through. My best is not perfect, but it’s fine; I can feel it. The poet’s words and presence have made me a better reader.

When I finish, he extends his hand, but I gesture toward the podium, asking if he will read a few more lines in his language. He does so, adds a warm tribute to his translator, and exits the stage.

When the final author has read and the event is over, I approach the poet. I say, “I’m sorry—I didn’t take your hand.” He looks perplexed. I explain, “Onstage, after your reading. You offered your hand, and I didn’t take it.” It has been gnawing at me, this disrespectful thing.

But he says, “You didn’t? I don’t remember.”

I’m relieved. More than this, I realize that we were in all of this together—the pull of the written words, the audience’s attention, the slight logistical confusion.

He thanks me for my contribution, and I tell him it was an honour. I put my hand on my heart. It truly felt like an honour.

He tells me that he likes when his poems are read in a straightforward way. I suffer one last pang of anxiety. Had I been I too dramatic, swept up as I had been in the emotion of connection? He smiles. “So I appreciate how you read them.”

In 2014, CBC called Ania Szado one of “Ten Canadian Women You Need to Read.” Her short fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize and National Magazine Awards, and her bestselling novel Studio Saint-Ex has received international acclaim. Szado’s debut novel, Beginning of Was, was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

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.

The Public Author

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

I’ve given numerous author talks, participated in dozens of panels and joined several hundred book clubs, either in person or via Skype. Much as expected, there are questions about inspiration, character and plot, and a great deal of curiosity about how I write a book: Do you write longhand? Every day? When you began, did you know how the story would end? What’s been a surprise are the questions about me: Do you have sisters? What’s your experience with suicide? Alcoholism? Do you believe in God? I answer honestly and haven’t minded (except perhaps once, when a reader, asking why I chose to pollute my novel The Painted Girls with so much vulgarity, preceded the question with a lecture worthy of an evangelist). I sometimes wonder, though, if there is anything to the argument that books ought to stand on their own merit, that authors ought not to exist beyond the printed page.It would be a notion I pondered as I lapped up the International Festival of Authors this year.

The reclusive author—one who would almost certainly decline an invitation to the IFOA—is nothing new. In the case of American poet Emily Dickinson, it was likely some form of agoraphobia, rather than a decision not to meet her reading public, that kept her housebound for 20 years. For J.D. Salinger, it was an intense desire for privacy that drove him to request his photo be removed from the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye soon after publication, and then two years later, to move from midtown Manhattan to rural New Hampshire to take up the life of a recluse in earnest. For Cormac McCarthy, his near absence from public life seems to be linked to a dislike for the literary world. In the only interview he would grant in 15 years, he explained to Oprah his preference for the company of scientists over writers.

Italian writer Elena Ferrante famously keeps her identity private and does not tour to promote her books. The decision appears not to have arisen so much from the practical considerations of Salinger and McCarthy as from the idea that to know an author as a living, breathing entity dilutes the experience of reading her work. She told Vanity Fair “For those who love literature, the books are enough” and further explained herself in The Paris Review: “If the author doesn’t exist outside the text, inside the text she offers herself, consciously adds herself to the story, exerting herself to be truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement, at a book launch, at a literary festival, in some television broadcast, receiving a literary prize.”

Hmm. Has my extensive public blathering about, say, the profound love I have for my three sisters, despite some pretty alarming teenage rows, negatively impacted the experience of readingThe Painted Girls?

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

At this year’s Festival I listened with rapt attention as Miriam Toews mentioned tracing a thought she didn’t want to lose into the dusty surface of her car at a stoplight and as Anne Michaels described how indispensable self-doubt is to writing, how she always feels she is striving, and was moved by the absolute care and persistenceof such seasoned, accomplished writers in creating their art. Guy Vanderhaeghe spoke (comfortingly for me and, I expect, any writer) about knowing the imperfections, the places where he failed to do what he set out to do in Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, a book that had just won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Meg Wolitzer said every novel that works has an imperative, a reason to be, and I found myself contemplating that imperative for my novel in progress and know I will go on to consider it for the books I read. While this is only a smattering of all I’ve gleaned at this year’s Festival, I can’t quite imagine how any of it can lessen the experience of reading the contributing writer’s work. In fact, how could it be anything but enriching to me as both a reader and a writer?

On Wednesday night, I attended the 25th anniversary of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company at the Festival, and as though on cue, Zadie Smith settled any lingering doubt. She told the audience how she loved meeting writers through reading their work, how she felt she was experiencing their way of being in the world. Then she went on to describe how, when she was on tour with White Teeth, she made a point of seeking out a writer in each place she visited. In Chicago that writer was Aleksandar Hemon, who was also part of the evening’s anniversary panel. She turned to him and described how his knee bounced up and down as he spoke at their initial meeting, how very struck she was by his kinetic energy. “It brought so much to reading your work,” she said.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls is a #1 National Bestseller in Canada, a New York Times bestseller and has garnered rave reviews and been showered with special attention. Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection. Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, she now resides in Toronto.

Connect with Buchanan on Facebook or Twitter.

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

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