Five Questions with… Claire Holden Rothman

Claire Holden Rothman, an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions! She is the author of My October, which was recently announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction.

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Claire on November 1, as well as a copy of My October! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: My October deals with Quebec history, referencing in its title the October Crisis and the FLQ. How do your characters confront history in My October?

Claire Holden Rothman: I believe the pastor more particularly, our stories about ithas enormous influence over our present-day lives, though we’re mostly unaware of it. The process holds true on the personal level as well as on the broader social or political one. In Quebec, we’ve created a variety of stories about events in our history. The October Crisis of 1970 stands out. It’s one of the few instances in which discourse was discarded in favour of physical violence. In My October, Luc Lévesque wants to avoid confronting darker aspects of the past. His wife Hannah feels such guilt about events that occurred decades and even generations ago that her vision of her own culture and language is skewed. Fourteen-year-old Hugo, meanwhile, struggles to get past the constricting stories by which his parents live and to create a new narrative grounded in the here-and-now.

© Arthur Holden

© Arthur Holden

IFOA: Was it difficult to write in three unique voices?

Rothman: For me, voices are what fiction is all about. I am obviously not a 14-year-old boy or a French-speaking male Québécois writer. I have met such people. I have watched them and tried to imagine what it must be like to live in their skins. One of the great pleasures of writing fiction is imagining other people as fully as I can. A while ago there was this great debate in Canadian literary circles about appropriation of voice. Does a white male writer have the right to write from the perspective of a Native American woman? This sort of thing. I never understood the controversy. The whole point of fiction is trying to imagine what others are seeing, hearing and thinking. It’s not appropriation of voice; it’s empathy.

IFOA: What are the roles of writing and translating in your novel?

Rothman: One of the central ideas in this novel is story-telling, so it’s fitting, I think, that Luc Lévesque is a professional writer of stories. His wife Hannah is his English translator. She has won prizes for her work just like Luc has for his novels, but this does not alter the fact that in some real way, she is effaced. The words she transmits to the world are not her own. Translation may be an art (as anyone who has experienced the joy of reading good literary translation can attest), but it’s a derivative one.

IFOA: You work as a translator, like your character Hannah Lévesque. Do you have anything else in common with Hannah or the other characters in this novel?

Rothman, My OctoberRothman: It is true that like Hannah I work as a translator. I’m also married to a highly verbal, gifted half-French writer (of plays). I’ve lived all my life in Montreal, where issues of language, history and identity are constantly being analyzed and talked about. And here’s a confession. I’ve carried a painful, lifelong sense of personal responsibility, as Hannah does in the novel, for cultural wounds inflicted generations ago in a Quebec that no longer exists.

I am also a novelist like Luc Lévesque. I am not famous, but, like him, I spend hours at my desk, digging for nuggets of human truth. I’m also a bit of a Luddite. I wear fingerless red gloves, as Luc does, to keep my hands from chafing while I type.

IFOA: You translated the first Canadian novel, L’influence d’un livre. What was that experience like?

Rothman: Fascinating and daunting. The novel was published in 1837, during the Patriotes’ rebellion. The French in which it’s written is a bit archaic. I had to experiment to make my English sound old, but not so dusty that it alienated contemporary readers. L’influence is a weird little book. It’s a first (and only) novel by a spirited young manhe once planted a stink bomb in the legislative assembly in Quebec City during an altercation with a politician from Yamaskawhose tastes ran to the macabre and the supernatural. The novel is full of stories: real-life newspaper reports of murder and betrayal in what was then Lower Canada, as well as tall tales and local folklore. I loved all of these stories, although I sometimes questioned Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé’s ability to fit them into a coherent whole. The book feels post-modern in its fragmentation.

Claire Holden Rothman is the author of two story collections and the bestselling novel The Heart Specialist, longlisted for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. She will discuss, along with other Canadian writers, the October Crisis and the effects of the FLQ on November 1.

Five Questions with… Hugh Brewster

Hugh Brewster, author of From Vimy to Victory: Canada’s Fight to Finish in World War I and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to receive two tickets to see Hugh on November 1, as well as a copy of From Vimy to Victory! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Did you always know you wanted to be a historical writer, or were you interested in other genres?

Brewster, HughHugh Brewster: Historical fiction was my favorite reading as a child and I’ve always had a passion for the past. Before becoming a full-time writer I had a long career as an editor and book producer, but even then the titles I worked on mostly had historical themes. It wasn’t until I began writing full time about a decade ago that I realized writing about history was what I’d always wanted to do.

IFOA: How do you tailor historical writing to different reading levels?

Brewster: “Finding the story in history” is one of my mottoes. I think if you can create a narrative arc with engaging characters, you can convey a lot of historical information to even quite young children. I’ve had seven year olds tell me about the dimensions of the Titanic and correctly pronounce the long names of their favourite dinosaurs.

IFOA: Explain the inspiration for your historical concert performance, Canada, Fall In!

Brewster, From Vimy to VictoryBrewster: In 2007, I adapted my book Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose as a play with some charming Victorian songs. It occurred to me that this could make a good concert performance, and I pitched the idea over dinner one night to choral conductor Noel Edison. Noel is the artistic director of the Elora Festival, and in July 2010, we did a performance of Carnation, Lily there with a screen show, some Shaw Festival actors and the Elora Festival Singers. It worked very well and Noel immediately said, “What can you do for us next year?” I’ve done a different concert performance each summer since. For 2014, a show commemorating the centennial of World War I seemed an obvious choice. I began researching Canadian music of the period and was surprised by how much there was. The jaunty recruiting song “Canada, Fall In” provided the title. The show had a very powerful impact on Elora Festival audiences, and I trust will do so again on November 1 at IFOA.

IFOA: What do you enjoy most about reading to a live audience?

Brewster: How much you learn. Young audiences, in particular, let you know immediately when you’ve lost them. So I refine my presentations constantly. And I do the same for adults—you soon learn what works ––even though they may not fidget quite so quickly.

IFOA: Are you working on any new projects?

Brewster: I have two plays in need of revising, a museum show I’m guest curating for 2016 and a number of book ideas on the simmer.

Hugh Brewster is an acclaimed war historian and the author of several award-winning works of fiction and non-fiction for younger readers. On November 1, catch his unforgettable concert performance that tells the story of Canadians in WWI through their own letters and diaries.

Five Questions with… Martha Baillie

Martha Baillie, author of The Search for Heinrich Schlögel and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Martha on November 1, as well as a copy of The Search for Heinrich Schlögel! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: The Schlögel Archive is an extremely ambitious and expansive project that sprang from your new book, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. Can you tell our readers a little bit about it?

Martha Baillie: The Schlögel Archive started as an impulsive gesture. I’d arrived at a point in the novel where I couldn’t see how to proceed. Rather than tear at the prose, searching for answers, I decided to send the text away from me. By inscribing the novel on the back of picture postcards, I could briefly escape from words into pictures.

Because Inuit myths figure in the novelmyths in which souls migrate from human to raven to sealthe act of scattering Heinrich made sense to me. I felt a longing to send Heinrich, handwritten, on a journey through “real” time from author to reader.

I asked people to record themselves reading each card they received. A supremely generous friend, Gregory Sharp, started scanning the cards before they were sent and created the digital archive.

© Marina Black

© Marina Black

IFOA: You mention that you created the Schlögel Archive after writing multiple drafts of your novel and realizing that “an element was still missing.” Do you feel that it has complemented the novel in a productive way for you?

Baillie: Yes. Willing readers of random passages, who did not require that I offer solutions not yet available, sustained the evolving novel. My manuscript, quite literally, was having life breathed into it. I’d cycle around the city, making recording “house calls” with my laptop, while more tech-confident postcard-receivers read into their iPhones and sent me their files. Sometimes the passage being read by an expressive voice was one I’d deleted from the novel. I’d listen carefully, wondering if I ought to reinstate the words. Passages of the novel now belonged, in my mind, to certain readers.

IFOA: How do you find intertextual elements in the Schlögel Archive (sound, image, text) to be important to The Search for Heinrich Schlögel?

Baillie: Central to the novel is the question of how storytelling of many sorts contributes to the formation of identity. The postcards that I’ve used were donated by friends or bought by me (recently or decades ago) or created for my project from photos I found on the Internet: historic images from a national archive and holiday snapshots posted by tourists. The postcards have allowed me to draw upon an already existing collective visual narrative that hovers in our psyches, a narrative sold at tourist sites and in the gift shops of art galleries and museums, one sent across oceans and stored in closets. The picture on the front of each card adds a layer of meaning to the words inscribed on the back.

The recorded voices of so many different readers make audio-palpable, to my ear, how differently a text or story inhabits each reader.

I couldn’t imagine writing a novel set in the Canadian north without exploring by as many means as possible who is doing the telling and why.

240 pg spine.inddIFOA: The book is a narrative about piecing together identity through archival fragments, and the Schlögel Archive further divides the coherence of the novelistic form. Can you speak to the novel’s discussion of fragmentation?

Baillie: Fragmentation is not overtly discussed in the novel, I don’t think. But it is inherent to the work. The first part of the novel takes place in Germany and is quite fragmented, though set in a manicured, highly organized landscape. The fragmentation possibly corresponds to Heinrich’s unformed sense of self, or derives from the archivist’s incomplete knowledge of her subject. Possibly, as elsewhere in the novel, it offers a commentary upon the nature of time. It’s up to the reader to decide.

On Baffin Island, the story unfolds in a very unstable landscape of shifting rock and sand, of torrents fed by melting glaciers, of moraines mortared together by concealed ice. In this setting, Heinrich’s experience is further fragmented by inexplicable visions.

The duty of the storyteller is to lure unsettled experience into a polished form, then hold the pieces steady until they break free once more. The bound book, and the shifting archivebetween these two locations Heinrich travels back and forth.

IFOA: How did your physical research (hiking into Auyuittuq park, spending time in Pangnirtung, crossing the Arctic circle on foot) contribute to your writing?

Baillie: The long hike that I took in Auyuittuq park and the time I spent in Pangnirtung allowed me to write the novel. That physical research changed everything, as I’d hoped it would.

Martha Baillie is the author of four novels, including her latest, The Search for Heinrich Schlögel. On November 1, she participates in a round table discussing life, death and the human struggle, and the challenges of capturing these accurately and compassionately in fiction.

Five Questions with… Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven, author of Heat and Light and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Ellen on October 31, as well as a copy of Heat and Light! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Where did the idea for Heat and Light come from?

Ellen van Neerven: Heat and Light began forming when I explored my family history. The character of Amy Kresigner, a young woman trying to find her place in her family at the wake of the revelation of a family secret, is at least semi-autobiographical. I started writing in the month of August, the time of the year we get unsettling wind, so you’ll see the wind plays a big part in Heat and Light. I was growing up quite rapidly while writing this (I was 20 when I started, I’m 24 now, and I’ve discovered these are big years of your life) so there are different tones in the book: young women navigating first love, sexual experiences and complex identities; and then more outward visions of fractured towns and terrain of marginal Australia.van Neerven, Ellen

IFOA: Why did you decide to divide your novel into three sections? What do these divisions accomplish?

Van Neerven: Dividing Heat and Light up into three sections was a decision we’d come to during the editing process. What I had ended up with was a story cycle told by different family members about a generational secret, a deconstructed family tree (Heat), a futuristic speculative novella about mysterious plant human creatures (Water) and an ensemble of 10 stories about family dynamics and youth (Light). I was unconvinced Heat and Light could provide a fictional experience that felt like a complete whole—until I met with my editor.  We created a structure to reflect the hybrid nature of the work.

IFOA: You currently work as an editor for the black&write! project at the State Library of Queensland, which supports and promotes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers. Are Indigenous themes important in your own fiction?

Van Neerven: My father is from a small town in The Netherlands and my mother is Yugambeh from South-East Queensland. I am influenced by who I am and have the desire to write about Indigenous experience and include our culture and language. When I was growing up, there was a lack of texts from Indigenous perspectives. When I graduated university and became aware of the Aboriginal poetry movement, late greats Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Lisa Bellear, and visionaries Uncle Lionel Fogarty and Samuel Wagan Watson, I felt I’d found my place. Working with other Indigenous writers through black&write! inspired me to be brave about my own writing, feeling like there was space for me to tell my stories.

VanNeerven, Heat and LightIFOA: Describe the Indigenous writing community in Brisbane .

Van Neerven: black&write!’s space at the State Library of Queensland at Kurilpa (meaning place of the water rat) is a national hub for Indigenous writing. We run competitions and workshops and host reading events in cafes and bookshops. I’m seeing a lot of performance poets (such as the wonderfully funny Steven Oliver), young writers working in other genres like science fiction, fantasy and horror (Tristan Savage) and lyrical writing floating between prose and poetry (Yasmin Smith). Brisbane writer Melissa Lucashenko has recently won a stack of awards for her ground-breaking novel Mullumbimby.  It feels like we’re witnessing an explosion of new work that challenges expectations.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Van Neerven: I’ve just finished a brilliant debut by Omar Musa called Here Comes the Dogs about three young men on the fringes of Australian society looking for a way in through hip-hop, graffiti and basketball. As a treat, I am also reading Simon Armitage’s “Best of” collection Paper Aeroplane—a few poems before bed each night.

Ellen van Neerven is a writer and editor for the black&write! project. On October 31, she joins other Aboriginal writers to discuss Indigenous writing traditions and contemporary Indigenous literature.


Five Questions with… Julie Angus

Julie Angus, author of Olive Odyssey: Searching for the Secrets of the Fruit That Seduced the World and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Julie on October 30, as well as a copy of Olive Odyssey! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Olive Odyssey (like many of your journeys) represents a tremendous undertaking. What kind of preparation did your expedition take?

Julie Angus: We spent four years preparing for this journey. Much of that was researching the olive tree, the regions we would be visiting and the people we wanted to connect with. Because we were travelling by sailboat for much of the journey, I also had to familiarize myself with sailing and navigating Mediterranean waters. I studied nautical texts and trained in a sailboat lent to us by a friend in the Gulf Islands, but it was still a steep learning curve when we reached the Mediterranean. The waters are more crowded, the berthing protocol is different, the winds volatile and it was challenging sailing with an infant.Angus, Julie

IFOA: What research did you do on the olive prior to your journey?

Angus: I was curious about all aspects of the olive tree: historical, culinary, artistic, cultural and health. It’s played such a pivotal role throughout history, from being one of the earliest cultivated trees to influencing ancient civilizations, such as the Romans and Greeks. All major monotheistic religions liberally incorporate the olive in their writings as metaphors, and it was used as anointing elixirs, healing agents and more. And today, olive oil is one of the healthiest foods we can eat, assisting in preventing diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and a host of other serious diseases. Yet it’s a food industry that is plagued with fraud, with as much as 60% of the extra virgin olive oil on supermarket shelves miscategorized. By speaking with experts, reading books and studying scientific publications, I gained a broad knowledge about the olive tree that was invaluable throughout our journey, helping me ask the right questions and explore appropriate areas.

IFOA: When reaching sites after retracing the trading routes of early seafaring merchants, what archaeological and scientific work did you conduct?

Angus: By travelling along Phoenician and ancient Greek trading routes and visiting the colonies they founded, we were able to search out olive trees and artifacts they left behind.  Our theory was that these early merchants helped spread the domesticated olive tree from the Middle East, where it originated, to the rest of the Mediterranean. To test that theory we documented and sampled ancient olive trees, which can grow for thousands of years. Then, in collaboration with an Italian University, we analyzed the DNA of these trees to search for evidence to support our theory.

Angus, Olive OdysseyIFOA: You mention on your blog that this journey was inspired by your family’s own olive farm. Was your familial connection to the olive what made the olive an object of such rich study for you, or was it something else?

Angus: In 2008, my husband and I travelled 7,000 km by rowboat and bicycle from Scotland to Syria, completing the journey at my family’s olive farm in Syria. This was where the idea for Olive Odyssey germinated. I was struck by the remarkable taste of freshly pressed olive oil and the intriguing history of the olive that was first domesticated in what is now Syria and adjacent area.  It was apparent how important the olive tree is, not only as a source of food and financial security, but as a symbol of peace and longevity.

IFOA: In addition to authoring multiple books, you are also a recipient of the National Geographic Adventurer of the Year award and were the first woman to row across the Atlantic from mainland to mainland. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Angus: Being a mom. I am very fortunate to have two beautiful boys. Leif, who is almost four years old and came with us on our Olive Odyssey adventure as an infant, and Oliver, who was just born this summer.

Julie Angus is a molecular biologist, adventurer, writer and photographer. She reads from and discusses her book Olive Odyssey on October 30.

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