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.

Five Questions with… Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, author of All My Puny Sorrows and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions.

Share this article via Facebook or Twitter for your chance to win two tickets to see Miriam on April 30! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA. Good luck!

Miriam Toews

© Carol Loewen

IFOA: Tell us a bit about the inspiration for your new novel, All My Puny Sorrows.

Miriam Toews: Just my life, the way it’s been, what I’ve experienced.

IFOA: This is is your seventh published book. In what way do you think your writing has changed most since the publication of your first, Summer of My Amazing Luck?

Toews, All My Puny SorrowsToews: I think I’m saying more with fewer words.

IFOA: Elf or Yoli: which character did you find more challenging to write? Why?

Toews: Elf, because she’s much smarter than I am.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read in the past six months?

Toews: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with one author, alive or dead, which author would it be?

Toews: Mary Wollstonecraft.

Miriam Toews is the author of five previous novels and one work of non-fiction. She presents All My Puny Sorrows, the riveting story of two sisters, alongside authors Ondjaki and Evie Wyld on April 30.

A Tribute to Alice Munro

By Janet Somerville

The Fleck Dance Theatre was packed to the gills on Saturday, November 2, and the evening’s warm-hearted playfulness was established with IFOA Director Geoffrey Taylor quipping, “through the magic of prerecorded voiceover, I just got to introduce myself.” He celebrated Alice Munro as this year’s Harbourfront Festival Prize recipient, “who has made a substantial contribution to Canadian letters,” noting how delighted he was “that the Nobel Foundation agreed with us about a month after our announcement.” Avie Bennett, former Chair of IFOA and President of McClelland & Stewart, accepted the prize on Munro’s behalf and said, “Please settle for my assurances that I’ll convey both the cheque and your good wishes to Alice.”

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime editor, who made her feel “that short stories were worthy fiction” decades ago, hosted the evening. About the Nobel nod this year, Gibson recounted how he sat by the phone for the past five years, awaiting THE call in the wee hours of the morning. This year, as soon as the news spread, he was invited to do several “interviews of exaltation” that went like this: “How great is it?” “It’s really, really, really great!” Well, it IS. Since a video of the evening was being sent to Alice, Gibson encouraged the audience to show its appreciation for her work, and we roared to our feet, cheering and clapping, absolutely chuffed for her.

Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart

The first to pay tribute was Alice’s longtime friend Jane Urquhart, who claimed Alice’s stories, grounded as they are in small town life, “gave me permission to play with the notion of writing myself.” She unfurled the tale of their first meeting in 1987, when Urquhart retrieved Munro from the bus depot in New Hamburg, “practically incoherent with excitement.” In her diary at the time, Urquhart mused about the number of exclamation marks: “Yesterday I spent the day with Alice Munro!!!! She sat in precisely the right chair at the kitchen table!!!!! She told me about her father’s book and she cried.” Urquhart then read an excerpt from Robert Laidlaw’s book and from Alice’s story “Working for a Living,” collected in The View From Castle Rock. She concluded with another piece from her own diary, where she recorded, “Alice told me that the Clinton librarian had been captured by Albanian bandits. She wondered if she could write a story about it. I hope she does!!!!!!!”

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, who Gibson noted, “grew up in the shadow of Alice and found the shade not depressing, but inspiring,” spoke next. Toews remembered that when she was twelve, her sister went away to university and told her to “stay out of my room,” a plea she ignored and therein found a copy of Lives of Girls and Women on the bookshelf, its cover image “like looking out my window.” Between its pages she began her “own course of study on life with Del Jordan. Serious. Badass. Hardcore adult literature.” And, after reading an excerpt from that coming-of-age collection, she noted, “Alice Munro initiated me into the world of literature and I am grateful for her exquisite company.”

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Novelist Colum McCann took the stage after Toews, noting “literature is an intimate form of admiration. The short story is an imploding universe, a white star with hot language and beautifully defined singularities. I see Alice Munro as the absolute antidote to despair.” And, then he read a heartbreaking, exquisite excerpt from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the piece that Sarah Polley adapted into her Oscar-nominated screenplay Away from Her.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod

Celebrated short story writer and fellow IMPAC winner Alistair MacLeod waxed on about how “Alice notices everything and that is one of her great strengths.” Consider the details of the washing on the line, the Rhode Island red hens, the velvet paintings of Niagara Falls in the kitchen and other bits of what might be observed in Jubilee: “deep caves paved with linoleum.” With his rumbling East Coast cadence, MacLeod read from “Passion,” one of the stories in Runaway.

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble

As Gibson introduced the final speaker, Margaret Drabble, he noted she had “a grandparent called Bloor and loves to return to Toronto where there is a subway line named after her family.” Who knew? Drabble began by delighting in carrying Munro’s complete work on her Kindle and her thrill in re-reading Alice, which is equally rewarding to discovering her for the first time. “She is a virtuoso, but with none of the self-conscious showmanship. She writes with insight, sympathy and great wit. Her stories turn ‘round on themselves, and come back to where they began. When I think of her work, I think of landscape and long journeys. Settings are described with poetic precision. Alice has such a powerful sense of the way landscape shapes our lives.”

Alice Munro’s stories reflect the narratives in our own lives. What, in fiction, is more powerful than that?

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

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