Pushing the Boundaries

Amy Jones, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Suzana Tratnik and Charlotte Wood talks about female character portrayals in literature and the consequences of women pushing social boundaries with NOW Magazine’s Susan G. Cole.  

Ann-Marie Macdonald on Adult Onset

On October 31, beloved Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald took our stage to discuss her long-awaited new novel, Adult Onset, with NOW Magazine’s Susan G. Cole. If you missed their conversation, listen to it in its entirety below.  

Trusting the Muse

By Janet Somerville

Each of the panelists, Cynthia FloodHelen Humphreys and Meg Wolitzer, began with a short reading from their recent books. Wolitzer read from an 1981 section of The Interestings, when New York City “looked like an episode of Kojak.” Flood read from “To Be Queen,” one of her stories in Red Girl Rat Boy, in which the 40-year-old narrator looks back to his childhood. Humphreys read from the beginning of Nocturne, a memoir in the form of a letter to her pianist brother, Martin, who died of pancreatic cancer, noting that “stopping a life is harder than it seems” and “we are lucky if what we devote ourselves to can give us some comfort in the end.”SONY DSC

Host and moderator Susan G. Cole opened up the conversation by asking what drew each to their form. Humphreys explained, “I actually was writing a letter to my brother after he died. I was being driven by grief. There was no room for the writer mind to take over. The only change I made to the manuscript was to structure it in 45 segments, one for every year Martin was alive.”

Flood, whose book is short fiction, noted, “I like being in a space that has a margin to it. My ideal process is to write two or three stories at a time.” And, Wolitzer admitted, “I love the fact that novels let you know what happens to characters. I’m affected by the sweep of time as in Michael Apted’s compelling Up Series of docs.”

Wolitzer continued that she likes to write from an idea. In the case of The Interestings, what happens to talent over time? Do people’s lives become diminished? “If I’m just writing about character, it feels small to me.”  On writing so convincingly about adolescence, she said, “When you come of age, you remember everything. It’s a time of firsts that remains vivid.”

Humphreys, a veteran novelist and dedicated researcher, could not read or write fiction for a year after her brother died. She began writing her way through her grief because “if writing can’t speak to the hardest things, then what’s it for?”

Considering the role of envy in her novel, Wolitzer said, “There’s this other kind of envy you feel for people you love. The ego is a moose head that juts out into the room. [My character] Jules, for example, can’t let go of her need to feel special and negotiate her place in the world.” Flood noted, “I like the process of embedding information, but it may not be unpacked the first time around.”

All three offered advice on the craft. Humphreys writes the entire first draft as quickly as she can; Flood writes as continually as possible; Wolitzer warns against self-censorship in early drafting and suggests, “Write the first 80 pages, even though they will be very different from the fantasy of what you intend.”

Do, as Freud said, “listen with evenly hovering attention” and, as Updike insisted, “submit to the spell of the story.” Sage, practiced advice from writers dedicated to entrancing their readers.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Style vs. Content: an energetic debate

By Corina Milic

Four authors sat down for a round table discussion on Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content, Wednesday night as part of the Toronto edition of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference.

The event may have been tamer than its 1962 counterpart (authors almost came to fisticuffs during that controversial meeting), but there was heated debate, intelligent questions and even a few audience F-bombs.


Susan G. Cole, books editor at NOW Magazine, hosted the chat with Marjorie Celona, Rebecca Lee, Anakana Schofield and Leanne Shapton.

The conversation meandered through each author’s writing process, the concept of style vs. content, style as content (reminding this audience member of fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan) and whether to use first person or third person narration.

Rebecca Lee uses first person throughout Bobcat and Other Stories, her debut short story collection. Lee said each character had a bit of her in them. “It’s like turning up the volume on yourself and that becomes your character.”

Marjorie Celona chose a double narrative for her debut novel Y, which is about a girl abandoned at birth. One storyline is told in first person, the other in third. “At one point the I key on my keyboard stopped working. First person can be limiting.”

But the real disagreements didn’t begin until Cole asked,

“Can style ever get in the way?”

Celona argued overly stylized writing can block a story’s emotion. She said she doesn’t want “the writer to be louder than the story.”

Anakana Schofield, the panel’s Irish-accented firecracker, was “horrified” at the argument, saying, “I find story is a dead end. I’m interested in language.”

Cole suggested in Schofield’s novel, Malarky, the style is the content. It was 10 years in the making and is about a grief-stricken rural Irish woman. Schofield said she specifically used stylized, fragmented language to “represent the discombobulation of grief.”

The debate evolved into the importance of story vs. language, which Leanne Shapton likened to the difference between illustration and art.

Shapton came to the round table from a unique perspective: she is an artist and an author. Her memoir, Swimming Studies, is about her experiences training for the Olympics and includes whole chapters told with photos and illustrations.

An energetic audience weighed in. Is there something gendered about the way authors use style and content? What is content? To which Lee answered with the best quote of the night: “What can writing do that other forms can’t? It can collapse experience into meaning.” Anyone can tell a story! And, doesn’t style, not narrative, define great literature?

“Shouldn’t we have both?” argued Celona.

Celona’s novel is about a girl who finds out she was abandoned at the YMCA as a baby and is looking for her birth mother. “It sounds like a bad made-for-TV movie,” she laughed. “Style is what elevates it above that.”

Learn more about Milic’s attempts to read every book in her home on her blog. Visit readings.org for more IFOA events.