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.

Artist Talk: Jami Attenberg

By Janet Somerville

jami attenbergBrooklyn-based novelist Jami Attenberg captivated the Pub Hub audience with her frank and funny demeanor, breezily responding to Sue Carter’s prompts about her most recent novel, Saint Mazie. And, that’s no small feat, considering she’s been on book tour for weeks, shuttling from venue to venue, country to country, crossing time zones: the north of England one day, Mexico City the next and now Toronto.

Attenberg became entranced by Mazie Phillips after reading Joseph Mitchell’s essay about her in Up in the Old Hotel. Phillips worked the ticket cage at the Venice movie theatre in The Bowery from 9am to 11pm and then wandered the streets after, ministering to the legions of homeless (mostly men) to whom she gave little bars of hotel soap and money for booze. For two decades. And, she called more ambulances than anyone in NYC to send many of these souls to hospital where they’d receive essential care. She was an incredibly modern woman and fearlessly went places where women weren’t allowed. Attenberg’s friend opened a Brooklyn bar he called Saint Mazie because she was “the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever heard of.” When the two of them would “get together to bitch about our work, Mazie gave us perspective.”

Attenberg found Phillips’ obit plus the Mitchell essay, but that was about it in terms of source material. As Stewart O’Nan (who wrote West of Sunset, a novel about Scott Fitzgerald’s final years as a script doctor in Hollywood) said to her on one recent panel, “you’re lucky to have nothing.” Having only the seeds of Mazie’s life allowed Attenberg to richly imagine it in her novel. She fleshed out details of the time by visiting NYC’s Tenement Museum, watching a 1950s documentary on The Bowery, thumbing through the Princeton University audio recordings from the era and reading a summary of the 1920s published in the 1930s, in which she discovered a Wall Street bombing, an event that Mazie would have experienced. Attenberg was able to filter her own emotions about 9/11 through that recreated moment. Attenberg, Saint Mazie

An imperative for Attenberg in writing Mazie’s story was to “know more about people who are good.” She “can’t take on a book without being able to express compassion; there’s no better reason to write.” Attenberg insists that she’s “trying to learn how to be a better person through my work.” As she was working on Saint Mazie, her editor discovered an 80 year-old man also looking for information about Phillips. He ran a flower shop on the Lower East Side and she used to “shoot the breeze” with him. He said, “she had a heart as big as herself.” The big question for Attenberg was why did Mazie help those men? The florist said, “she was really good.” In writing the novel Attenberg accepted that she would never really know. What she did know, however, was that Mazie would be a character she could spend time with and also could be viewed through a feminist lens since she had been so strong and progressive.

Before closing the conversation, Attenberg read from a new short story, “Chloe,” noting that with short fiction “every line has to land” and warning “It’s really dirty. If it will offend you, just leave.” The excerpt was funny, wry, satiric. Full of life. Like Attenberg herself. In her own way Jamie Attenberg is as generous a spirit as Mazie Phillips had been all of those years ago in The Bowery.


Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Humber School for Writers presents: How We Write

By Janet Somerville

Workshop leaders Kevin Barry, Wayson Choy, Karen Connelly, Valerie Martin and Nino Ricci appeared in conversation on Wednesday with Antanas Sileika, novelist and Director of the Humber School for Writers, and their discussion opened with their responses to this question: What should a beginning writer know?

Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry and Karen Connelly

Dublin IMPAC-winning novelist Kevin Barry began by suggesting that “books and stories come out of our fear and anxiety, out of our dark places” and that it was essential to “finish everything. You must finish the bad stories so you know what the good ones are when they come.” His other advice: “Develop in yourself a sense of patience. There’s always a glow when something is finished, and that’s when you should put it in a drawer.” Finally, he referenced Annie Dillard’s wisdom to “keep your overhead low.”

Contrarian Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, claimed, “I encourage you all to be atypical. Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t start publishing until she was 62. You have to have the courage to take your life and return it to the world. Be daring.” Veteran American novelist and Orange Prize winner Valerie Martin, whose most recent book is The Ghost of Mary Celeste, insisted she has lived and written by the motto that “art saves your life and art ruins your life.” Her sensible advice: “Be patient. Be dogged. Don’t be afraid.”

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Trillium Book Award winner Wayson Choy, whose The Jade Peony is now in its 30th printing, said, “Learn about craft. Figure out, for example, how James Joyce wrote such a memorable ending to ‘The Dead.’” Nino Ricci, whose first novel, Lives of the Saints, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, claimed his delusion he had as a young writer kept him going: “You want to keep a writer writing, by not telling them the truth.” Ricci suggested also to ignore the tolling laments of “Nobody’s reading anymore” and “The novel is dead,” because “the joy of the first book that you write is a gift you will never have again. Just write. Do as much as possible. Every day.”

Responding to Sileika’s prompt, “What do you mean about writing about life in the world,” Connelly said, “I lived in Thailand and I wanted to keep moving. I wanted to live in other cultures and discover what it meant to be human in different places. It’s such a powerful and transformative experience. Where your body is is what you’re going to write about. It’s good to feel born in the wrong place, because it makes you curious and seeking.”

For Choy, “Chinatown was a place I wanted to forget about. It was a ghetto. People only spoke with each other. But, Chinatown travelled with me. Carol Shields suggested in a creative writing class that I write about it. It turns out that who you are and where you come from may be the source of your greatest material.”

About his bold use of language in City of Bohane, Sileika asked Barry, “How do you make language fresh?” His answer: “I grew up in Limerick and Cork in working class communities. Language is used and abused there. I wanted to free myself from having to hove to the actual. It’s kind of a retro future in 2053, but I wanted to give the sense that it could be 1853 or 1953, that is, another world.”

Wondering how Nino Ricci dared to go into the territory he did in Testament, Ricci said, “People don’t really care that much about Christianity anymore. As a child, I always believed that Jesus was Italian. In my novel he’s the son of a Roman soldier. And, it seemed to me that we were living such unexamined lives about religion.”

Wayson Choy

Wayson Choy

Each writer described their process. Barry said he tries “to be still half asleep when I write. You’re closest to the murky place then. DeLillo says, ‘write when you are puddled in dream melt.’ And, places where you embarrass yourself and recoil in horror, those are the good bits.” Connelly insisted that for her, “procrastination is an important part of the process. I read. I do administrative work, and then I write in the afternoon, often standing up, for two to three hours each day.” Like Kevin Barry, Valerie Martin admitted to writing best “when I’m fresh from the dream. Often I’ll start about the dream. I write longhand on loose leaf paper.” Choy claimed he begins with a ritual: “I take out all of my fountain pens and arrange them. It’s sort of zen. Now I write in transit. When I can. When I will.” Ricci lamented making the mistake “of switching from handwriting to computer” and pledged that he’d change his ways.

Develop patience. Learn craft. Don’t be afraid. Have the courage to take your life and return it to the world.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

The Back Story: where does writing begin?

By Janet Somerville

Yesterday The Walrus‘s Rachel Giese ably prompted The Back Story round table discussion that included Liza Klaussmann (Tigers in Red Weather), Donna Morrissey (The Deception of Livvy Higgs), Robin Sloan (Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore) and Russell Wangersky (Whirl Away).

The conversation began with each considering how place/home shapes their work. Referring specifically to Newfoundland, Wangersky said, “Everything seems large and it bleeds into all you do.” Morrissey suggested, “When I work, I write from a psychological perspective first. But, the geography shapes everything, including dialect.”

Wangersky, Klaussmann, Morrissey, Sloan and Giese at IFOA 2012 ©

Klaussmann seemed a Hemingway disciple when she noted, “Being away from places that I write about helps me imagine the place more deeply. Sloan remarked on the intentional book blurb that insists “he spends his time between San Francisco and the Internet. The Internet is a great city and I’m interested in how to dramatize that.”

Although P.D. James claims the first place she has to come to is setting, Wangersky insisted that for him a character’s voice is his beginning: “I hear something that makes me think and then build frames around it.” Klaussmann said “place acts on your characters,” and Morrissey wondered “if I’d chosen a different setting would the character’s struggle work out in a different way.” Sloan fixed his mind on the Internet, claiming “it has fraught pros and cons as any village graveyard.”

Giese asked if each had always been involved in artistic pursuits, plumbing early experiences and their childhoods. With scientist parents and engineer siblings, Wangersky the reader/dreamer was constantly the butt-end of family jokes. He recalled being a teenager and declaring “Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell and Margaret Atwood are old. When they die, I can take their place.”

Both Robin Sloan and Donna Morrissey recalled the world-building impulse of childhood. Sloan “drew maps of fancy kingdoms—folders full—with little stories inscribed along the edges,” while Morrissey used the natural world for creative inspiration: “I was always alone up in the woods. I’d create little towns running down the brook.” Klaussmann admitted, “My first book was a rip off of The Secret Garden.”

Referring to Henry James’s claim that “a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost,” Wangersky chimed in, “I collect a lot of starting points.” Morrissey noted, “my challenge is writing features, so I’m always looking at faces, noticing a crooked tooth, or the way your eyebrows furrow.” Klaussmann said, “I don’t take notes. I trust in the subconscious, the way it churns raw material into something new, but true.” Sloan quipped, “It’s as if I’m listening to three other pole vaulters say ‘I don’t use the pole.'”

Giese closed the conversation with the provocative question, does art trump family? Klaussmann offered, “It’s a selfish profession. All writers are narcissistic.” Wangersky admitted, “I steal time from everyone, even sleep.”

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.

The Novel as a Window on Society: from nuns to pythons and beyond

By Janet Somerville

Tuesday night four fabulous women novelists appeared in a round table conversation in the Brigantine Room to discuss the Novel as Window on Society as it related to their most recent books. Simonetta Agnello Hornby, Emily St. John Mandel, Emily Schultz and Linda Spalding revealed their singular intelligence and commitment to their craft throughout the discussion moderated by David Layton.

Hornby, whose most recent novel is The Nun, began with the caveat “I have no faith, so it was difficult for me to become a nun.” In terms of offering her readers a way of engaging with her protagonist she suggested that “change could happen within yourself from reading. There’s the power of literature. And, change came for this 19th century nun through the books she is gifted from an admirer.”

Mandel’s noir, The Lola Quartet,  grounded in the recent financial collapse, is “about a disgraced journalist who flames out spectacularly in New York City and ends up selling foreclosed real estate in Florida for his sister.” Commenting on the menacing burmese pythons that slither through the Florida wetlands in her narrative, Mandel said she realized they served as a metaphor for “creeping civilization and the idea of borders: the way the world should be versus the way it is.”

Schultz’s dystopian satire, The Blondes, found its genesis in a Gucci ad in Vanity Fair in which four blonde women in safari wear, their eyes heavily lined, “looked like vampires that were going to ravage you and not in a good way.” And, although there is plenty of gore, it is a socially conscious novel, informed by the paranoia and panic created in the days, weeks and months surrounding the SARS and avian flu epidemics.

Spalding’s historical fiction, The Purchase—shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize—is the most personal of the four, inspired as it is by a relative who was a Quaker who happened to be a slaveowner, a shocking revelation about which she became obsessed since “the Quakers were the great abolitionists of the 18th century.” What could possibly have made that great great grandfather abandon society and “regressively become something almost feral?”

About getting to the chair and writing each offered the following advice: Hornby insisted, “You must want to do it. Respect for the reader has got to be fundamental.” Mandel said, “Do the work. Put the hours in.” Schultz suggested that each subsequent manuscript she hoped “was like a lover, each new one better than the last.” Spalding concluded, “If you keep challenging yourself, it shouldn’t get easier.”

Wise words, indeed.

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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