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Interview with Gary Barwin

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picture of Gary BarwinGary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist and the author of twenty-one books of poetry, fiction and books for children. His recent books include Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award shortlisted Yiddish for Pirates and the poetry collection Moon Baboon Canoe. Barwin teaches creative writing in the Mohawk College Continuing Education program and will be the writer-in-residence at McMaster University and the Hamilton Public Library for 2017–2018. Born in Northern Ireland to South African parents of Ashkenazi descent, Barwin moved to Canada as a child. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

Barwin will be in Thunder Bay on October 30th, 2017 for the International Festival of Authors event at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery; he will be presenting his new book of poetry, No TV for Woodpeckers.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your new poetry collection, No TV for Woodpeckers?

Gary Barwin: I was hoping to be loved by everyone. And also to be carried through the streets as everyone cheers, though some also exclaim, “Mmm,” because my poems are so profound. But really, I believe that poetry is a powerful technology for exploration of both thought and feeling, of concepts and a sense of being-in-the-world. It’s a kind of tool for investigation. I was interested in considering our relationship to our environment and how we live in interconnected spaces. I have hiked in Hamilton for decades and recently began kayaking through the Cootes Paradise marsh at the end of my street. I was stunned to discover such a vast range of lifeforms there—there were some creatures that I didn’t recognize (the water vole? who knew?)—particularly in this famously post-industrial city. The second part of the book explores human experience and language more generally. These are strange times (they’re always strange times!) but I was interested in exploring the braid between language, poetry and contemporary experience—of family life, grief, media, culture, humour, wonder, confusion and consternation. You know, the usual.

Of course. No TV for Woodpeckers is split into two parts: “Needleminer” and “Marlinspike Chanty.”  What’s the significance of those titles?

Needle miners are types of moth. In larval form, they burrow into the needles of conifers. This sequence was created by burrowing into pre-existing poems, populating them with species names that can be found in Hamilton, Ontario where I live. Clearly, I’m a pest. But what’s a pest is relative. Needle miners have a rich culture of their own and are proud to be needle miners. ­­

A marlinspike is a pointy tool used by sailors for separating rope. Hopefully these poems poke into knotty things and make the reader want to sing. Or call out. Or haul on a yardarm.

Well now I can’t wait to see if anything like that happens when you’re reading here in Thunder Bay. In “Needleminer,” you reworked (or “repopulated”) pre-existing texts with various animals from the Hamilton area. How did you choose which texts to repopulate in this way?

That is a good question. I thought about using texts about Hamilton or texts that expressed a particular thematic connection to issues of ecology, place or the environment, but in the end I decided to use texts that were formally rich, that were mini-textual environments in themselves. I repopulated the texts with species names (from plant-life, insects, animals) and then in the last part, I used anatomical terms used in the identification of human parts as well as other species to explore the further interconnection between human and non-human. The result was portmanteau words (or perhaps neologisms)—a hybrid language environment, just as we live in a hybrid environment, neither human-made nor natural, but a complex interconnected situation.

The book is full of many different styles of poems. Do you have a favourite poetic form to write?

In my country, we don’t write poetic forms, poetic forms write us. But it is kinda true: I try to be open to the possibilities suggested by the merest wisps at the beginning of writing a poem. I try to be aware of where it might take me, to be open to trusting the impulse that I perceive in the writing itself rather than lumbering in like a galoot stomping all over things with his big poetic clompers and missing a range of possibilities. So I don’t know that I have a favourite style, but I have a favourite process. That feeling when a poem begins to go madly off in all directions and my job is just to try to keep up.

I think that’s one of the best feelings, whatever you’re writing. Thinking about other kinds of writing, you’re also a novelist, composer, and multimedia artist who has worked on a large range of different media (including visual poetry, children’s books, and music). What draws you to this wide range of medium?

I love to explore how the different media bounce off each other. How they are just different dimensions of the other. And for me, one thing inspires another. It’s exciting to see how the parts of a medium can create a world, a kind of energy field.

Do you have a favourite medium to work with?

Truth. It’s my favourite medium. Sorry, I lied.

What are you working on now?

I’m writing some kind of a Western, but set in Eastern Europe. Right now, a scene where my protagonist is getting a shave and a haircut when he has a revelation. He has to retrieve his testicles from a glacier where they were shot off years before. He wants to have a child and so now he needs them again.

Interesting. I wish him luck in finding them. What book or author inspired you to write?

As a small child, I remember listening to stories, but also to language itself. The sound of it. The patterns. The fact that it existed, that it was something between people and the world, that it could help you notice things, but that it was also a thing in itself. And different people used it differently. How could I not want to try it out, to explore it.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

Whatever makes their body and brain feel electric. I think it’s a good experience to, at least sometimes, read books that change how you think books work, change what you think is possible in a book and therefore in your thought and experience of the world.

And what are you currently reading?

About twenty different books at once. I just finished, Pockets, a tiny perfect novel by Stuart Ross. Strange, surprising and moving. Also, Cop House, short stories by Sam Shelstad which is just out. And Whereas by Layli Long Soldier, an Indigenous American poet is remarkable.

No TV for Woodpeckers cover

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Interview with Grace O’Connell

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picture of grace oconnellGrace O’Connell is the author of The Globe and Mail Best Book Magnified World and 2014 winner of the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Writer Award. She holds an MFA in creative writing, and her work has appeared in various publications including The Walrus, Taddle Creek, The Globe and Mail, National Post and Elle Canada. She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto and works as a freelance writer and editor.

O’Connell will be in Thunder Bay on October 30th, 2017 for the International Festival of Authors event at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery; she will be presenting Be Ready For The Lightning.

Shauna Kosoris: What can you tell me about your new novel, Be Ready for the Lightning?

Grace O’Connell: It’s the story of Veda, who ends up on a bus that is being hijacked after her issues with her brother Conrad drive her from their hometown of Vancouver. Conrad and Veda’s connection is the heart of the book: he is troubled and violent but deeply loyal to and gentle with Veda.

The book deals with how her most difficult experiences end up being key to getting her out of the hijacking, how she ended up there, and what happens afterwards. For me, it’s an exploration of violence – the obvious moments of violence and the more insidious ones too, and how they shape our lives.

Why did you decide to write about a hostage situation?

It started out as a way to deal with anxiety that I was experiencing when my niece (the first grandkid in our family) was a toddler. She was out and about in the world more and I couldn’t stop worrying. Then I’d start wondering what I would do in a situation like the one in the book… if I could protect the people I love. I thought, “I’m not brave, I’m not strong – what would happen if someone like me was in that kind of situation? What if your only weapons are words?” The hijacking was where the writing started. Veda turned up on that bus and my writing process was “Who is this woman and why is she here?” Discovering Veda was a joy.

It’s always fun when characters start to come alive while you’re writing. Along with your novels, you’ve written a lot of shorter pieces, both fiction and nonfiction. What was your first published piece?

My first published piece ever was actually a suite of poems, believe it or not. Three short, linked poems called “Forgetting Freud” appeared in a lovely literary journal called Lichen. It was Lichen’s last issue ever, and there were a lot of amazing writers in it, and I was so, so thrilled. Strangely enough, a gentleman at an event the other day brought a copy of it for me to sign. I was so impressed – it came out ten years ago!

Wow, that’s so exciting! Do you have a favourite short piece you’ve written?

I think if I had to choose, it would be “The Many Faces of Montgomery Clift.” I don’t normally write autobiographically, but there is a lot of my own life in that story, and of a dear, dear, dear friend of mine, so I feel very close to the piece, even though there’s plenty that’s strictly fictional in it too.

I had always wanted to publish in Taddle Creek too, which is where the story first appeared, so it felt like a big milestone for me. Plus I’m a title nerd and that’s one of my favourite amongst my titles. I’m a sucker for a long title.

Along with writing, you’re also an editor with Open Book; how did you get involved with them?

I’d been a fan of the site for a while, and when they were expanding and needed a (at the time) Contributing Editor, I pounced on applying. I interviewed via Skype and was so, so happy when I got the good news. I had just left my previous job with the Writers’ Trust of Canada, and I was excited to get to work with another awesome CanLit-focused non-profit. That was six years ago now, but it feels like no time at all.

You also teach creative writing at the University of Toronto. What are the most  challenging and most rewarding aspects of that job?

The most challenging aspect, hands down, is how time consuming it is, especially marking and giving feedback. When I’m marking, between Open Book and teaching and freelancing, I’m working days, evenings, and weekends. It’s overwhelming at times. It’s important to me to give the students as much feedback and editorial value as possible, but it’s definitely mentally exhausting.

The best part is when I hear from the students about their experiences in the course. I’ve had more wonderful notes from students than I can count, and I’ve definitely gotten a little weepy over some of them. Because I teach students who are early in their writing journey, it’s a really magical, vulnerable, exciting time. It’s a privilege to get to have an impact on writers at that crucial early stage.

What are you working on now?

The most honest answer right now is just day job stuff. Between Open Book and teaching and promoting Be Ready, life is lovely but very, very busy. But I do have a seed of an idea germinating in my mind, and one or two shaky little scenes written. The idea has to do with two lifelong friends caught up in an unhealthy relationship, and a crisis point in that relationship.

Good luck with everything!  Let’s finish up with a few questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

Atwood was the first adult author I ever read and her work definitely imprinted on me early. There’s a wonderful quality of clarity to her writing that I love. She has great literary devices and wordplay, but she’s never overly dense or complicated for no reason. It’s wonderfully clean prose. Clarity is a quality I really prize in fiction writing, and something I strive for. It’s often easier to write the big, convoluted, wordy paragraphs than to make a sleek, streamlined paragraph really sing. And she’s funny too – I learned from reading her work that you can write an emotionally driven novel with serious, difficult life events in it and still have a sense of humour about it. That felt real and balanced to me.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

Bronwen Wallace’s book of short stories, People You’d Trust Your Life To, is an amazing collection. It’s her only prose book (she was a fabulous poet as well) and it was published after her death from cancer. It’s Munro-esque in that it’s just jaw-droppingly well crafted realist short stories, but it’s a bit grittier. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the books she would have written if she had the time.

If I can squeeze a second one in, I would say that Jeanette Winterson is a fantastic author to read to remind us just how much can be done in fiction. She’s limitless in her creativity.

And what are you currently reading?

I’ve just started Heather O’Neill’s brilliant novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel and I picked up Barbara Gowdy’s Little Sister at the Word on the Street this weekend when I had the (amazing!) opportunity to read with her – really looking forward to that as well.

be ready for the lightning cover

Interview with Terry Fallis

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picture of Terry FallisTerry Fallis earned an engineering degree from McMaster University. Drawn to politics, he worked for cabinet ministers at Queen’s Park and Ottawa. His first novel, The Best Laid Plans, began as a podcast, then was self-published, won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, was re-published by McClelland & Stewart to great reviews, was crowned the 2011 winner of CBC’s Canada Reads as “the essential Canadian novel of the decade,” and became a CBC Television series. His next two novels, The High Road and Up and Down were finalists for the Leacock Medal, and in 2015, he won the prize a second time for his fourth book, No Relation. He lives in Toronto with his wife and two sons.

Fallis will be in Thunder Bay on October 30th, 2017 for the International Festival of Authors event at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery; he will be presenting his new novel, One Brother Shy.

Shauna Kosoris: You’ve had quite the career: you were trained as an engineer, worked as a political strategist for high profile members of the Liberal Party, and now are writing books. How did you end up here, writing books?

Terry Fallis: A love for language, books, reading, and writing eventually asserted itself. My father engendered a love and reverence for the English language when I was very young. Despite a rather circuitous route, writing a novel now feels as though it were almost inevitable. It did take me a while to get started. In fact, I didn’t write my first novel until I was 45 years old. So it’s never too late!

And now you’ve written six novels! What inspired your newest novel, One Brother Shy?

I am a member in good standing of the write what you know school of writing. There’s very little autobiography in my novels, but I do know about the issues and social dynamics at play in my novels. Writing with authority and authenticity is important, so I stick to things I know about, care about, or have experienced. At the core of this novel is the relationship between identical twin brothers. It just so happens that I am an identical twin. My twin brother Tim and I are still very close and we talk every day and see one another at least once a week, if only to play our weekly ball hockey game. We also still look very much alike and are routinely confused for one another. So it felt quite natural writing about twins even though virtually nothing about the story in the novel parallels my own life.

The main character of One Brother Shy, Alex MacAskill, often thinks one thing but says something different out loud. Where did you get the idea for this from?

I wanted the challenge of writing a narrator who is not just flawed in a human way as the narrators in my other novels are, but who is also damaged. Alex MacAskill, the narrator in One Brother Shy, suffered a very serious and very public humiliation ten years before the novel opens, and it has knocked him off his path in life. Outwardly, he is extremely shy and rarely strings more than a few words together when he can’t avoid talking to someone. But he carries on this witty, vibrant and vital dialogue in his head. I’m trying to show that beneath the extreme reticence is a thoughtful and funny person. So by showing the inner dialogue in italics and then what he actually says out loud using quotation marks, you get a much more three dimensional view of Alex.

And where did you get the idea for his boss, Genghis Khan Simone?

I think most people over the course of a career encounter at least one Simone Ashe, though perhaps not quite as extreme as I have portrayed her. I’ve been very lucky and have never had a boss like her, but I have friends who have. I like to use somewhat extreme characters to help propel the comic potential in the story. Writing Simone was lots of fun.

Oh, I bet! In your first book, The Best Laid Plans, the two main characters are really into feminist literature. Feminist literature and causes come up again in your other works (most notably Poles Apart, your story about feminist blogger Eve). Why does feminism appeal to you so much as a literary topic for your writing?

I find it much easier to write about topics that I care about. I’ve been a staunch feminist since my time in the national student movement back in the early 1980s. It’s an issue I’ve thought and read a lot about over the years and I remain quite interested in it. We certainly still have some distance to go before equality can be proclaimed. As you’ve noted, you can see my interest in gender equality lurking in the background of my novels, and it’s front and centre in Poles Apart.

I also need to ask you about your unique writing process. I read in an interview you did with Feathertale that you flip an idea around in your head, then heavily plan the book before sitting down to finally write just one draft. How did you discover this method?

I’m an engineer by academic training even though I’ve never practiced engineering in the formal sense. So I applied my engineer’s brain to the challenge of writing a novel. Bridges aren’t built without blueprints/ I don’t write novels without blueprints. So I spend several months thinking through the story and mapping it out before drafting three or four pages of bullet points for each chapter. Writing the actual manuscript is the very last step in my so-called writing process.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently hard at work on my seventh novel, tentatively entitled If at First You Succeed. I should be writing the manuscript later this fall and it should be published in the fall of 2018.

I’d like to finish up with a couple of quick questions on what you read. What book or author inspired you to write?

Robertson Davies and John Irving were both quite influential. I love their novels and return to them often.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

Well, following up on my response to the previous question, A Prayer for Owen Meany was a very important novel to me and I frequently encourage people to read it. It has everything I could ever ask for in a story.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Hotel Florida by Amanda Vaill. It’s nonfiction and traces the lives of several influential people, including Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.

One Brother Shy cover

Interview with Karen Connelly

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Author picture of Karen ConnellyKaren Connelly is the author of 10 books of bestselling non-fiction, fiction and poetry. She has won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novel, The Lizard Cage. Connelly presents her latest collection of poetry, Come Cold River, a searing portrayal of her troubled family. Refracted through different Canadian cities and foreign landscapes, the book expands into an authentic homage to those who are made invisible and silenced. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Connelly is in Thunder Bay tonight for the International Festival of Authors event at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery at 7pm.

Shauna Kosoris: You’ve lived a life full of adventure, having lived in Thailand, Spain, France, Myanmar (Burma) and Greece.  How has living in these other places impacted your writing, beyond the obvious of giving you writing material?’

Karen Connelly: Living in other places has formed me so deeply that it’s actually hard to answer that question. I was apprenticed as a writer abroad, in Thailand and Spain and France; I came of age as a writer a decade later, in Burma and Thailand again; I have spent years in between all that in Greece, which is still my second home.

When I first lived abroad in Thailand, at seventeen, the magic of learning another language fluently got me hooked. Studying independently languages in situ, in the cultures where they were spoken, became my university, my means of simultaneously grappling with the foreign in a physical way and educating myself. This has certainly been a crucial part of my development as a writer and of my experience of the foreign. It has materially influenced some of the ways in which I write, especially the rhythms and complexities (or simplicities) of my use of words. I often hear echoed in my writing lines that I have originally read in Greek or Spanish; I don’t really know how this process works, but what it tells me is that such foreign words are heavily inscribed not just in my mind but in my ear – in my musical understanding of language.

It took me a long time, when I came back to Canada, to figure out how to write “Canada” again. Come Cold River, the last book of poetry, is mostly about Canada, a kind of memoir in poetry of where I grew up in Alberta; and The Change Room is set in Toronto.

Why do you call yourself a reluctant journalist on your website?

Because I’m too much of an artist, too emotional, to be anything but a reluctant journalist. My power as a writer lies in my ability to feel, to enter and experience the world as it comes to me with a profound bias. I love to investigate facts and ideas—but I have to feel. Though I enjoy the hard work of turning ‘true stories’ into art, I lead with my heart. So perhaps I should have written “lousy journalist” instead!

Fair enough!  In another interview, you said “First I write poetry, then I write a nonfiction, then I write a novel.” Why is poetry first for you?

Partly because, as I mentioned above, I am all muscle and sponge, absorbent, lively. Poetry for me is a visceral emotional reaction to the meaningful and sometimes meaningless events of life. Poetry comes from a different area of the brain. Prose and poetry use different techniques, different voices—poetry is like a different musical instrument. When I worked on my last book Come Cold River–despite dealing with truly miserable subject matter—it was like going swimming in almost warm salt water. I floated—moved effortlessly through the language, even when the poems are hard (and, ironically, a number of the poems are about drowning!)

In prose you really have to swim. Prose narrative is all about duty, making sure the reader gets the connections, building the whole scene, the whole world. Poetry is momentary and emotional. Clearly it can and even needs to mean more than one thing. This multiplicity means it is a freer element. Even if it is narrative, as much of my poetry is, very story-ish, it is still more watery, more fluid. And let’s face it, poetry can just jazz up and crash down and stun the reader in a way that prose almost never can. The sharpness and specificity of poetry has much to do with that. While it is the freer element, it also contains, paradoxically, the possibility of driving a stake into the reader’s heart.

What’s great about poetry for me is that no one reads it. Well, maybe a few hundred people. I’ll bring a few secret copies to Thunder Bay, but I don’t have many left. Come Cold River is like a secret, the hard poems I never even wrote. Most poets complain about this but for me it’s a relief. Because of that wonderful obscurity, you can think write say express anything in a poem. There is no censorship, no niceties necessary. At least for me. I do think a lot of other poets do more censoring, more picking and choosing. Or it’s a stylistic consideration—I find there’s a lot of tightness in Canadian poetry these days, a lot of formalism that is neither natural nor emotionally engaging to me. As I get older I am more and more interested in—what? freedom? that’s not exactly it, since I have always had every kind of freedom imaginable. Something else. Not hiding. Telling the truth.

You’ve been writing for many years (your first book of poetry was published over three decades ago) but your first novel, The Lizard Cage, was published just over a decade ago.  Why did you decide to try your hand at writing a novel?

Oh, I’ve always written fiction. I started and ditched maybe half a dozen novels. I have a bunch of really fun short stories embedded in a travel book of mine, One Room in a Castle. And The Lizard Cage took me a decade to write, so really it’s 2 or 3 books.

I’m glad you found your novel even if it took a few tries!  The Lizard Cage is not the first thing you’ve written inspired by your time in Southeast Asia.  Why does this area of the world appeal to you so much?

Probably because I was so young (17) when I first went to live there. It went in—right to my bones. I am so at home in SE Asia. Buddhism has influenced my life too, because I lived in a rural Thai setting as a young person. And that was a real antidote and balm, a relief, after the Christian fundamentalism I’d been raised in.

Your long awaited second novel, The Change Room, is coming out this spring.  What inspired you to write it?

Conversations with women in book clubs, actually. So many of them liked the sexual content in Burmese Lessons—the young woman who is passionately in love with a man who is never around, because he’s an important revolutionary political figure. Burmese Lessons is about many things—the politics of Myanmar in the 1990’s, censorship, violence, the work of witnessing, activism, refugees, being a writer at the edge of war and unrest. But it’s also a book about longing, lust, and sexual fulfilment. Or lack thereof.

Another reason? (there are many!) Well, let’s face it, 50 Shades of Gray was about a sexual nitwit, a completely unsophisticated young woman, a virgin who never used the word ‘clitoris’. Hello! She was annoying! I wanted to write a smart, funny, worldly heroine who is on an intelligent and very transgressive quest for sexual joy.

The Change Room is full of realistic adult sex. It’s very democratic: EVERYONE has realistic adult sex which is sometimes fabulous, but also messy, truncated, and often unfulfilling. My main character has children, and a job, like the rest of us, so she’s having real-life sex. Yet I also wanted to explore the wondrous power and magic of sexuality. It was, needless to say, the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book!

The Change Room features a happily married woman who gets involved with another woman.  Why did you decide to write about this particular relationship?

I wanted to explore the multiplicity and elasticity of female desire. We can be freer to love than men—women often have love built into them by virtue of biology but also because of cultural expectations. We are expected to be nurturers. We take care, we bear children and traditionally have taken care of them more than men. We also take care of men a lot. We do a lot of  unpaid unacknowledged emotional labour. What would happen, I wondered, if Eliza Keenan–my busy, overworked, stressed-out married mother of two–met a lover who could take care of her? Who would be a fabulous lover but also  . . . feed her? What would that look like? Perhaps it’s just another fantasy.

Anyway, to go back to what I was saying earlier, women’s capacity to love is also erotic. I know so many women who identify as bisexual, as I do myself, though I’ve lived much of my life as a heterosexual.

I also thought that a same-sex adulterous affair might engender less anger towards the character than a typical hetero affair. I did a lot of research into adultery for this book: married women having affairs with other men are infinitely more vilified than men who have affairs. Adultery still makes people of both sexes very angry and hurt, even if they are not involved in the affair. The person in heterosexual affairs who is ‘blamed’ and hated the most is—are we really surprised?—the woman. So I was hoping to soften some of those negative emotions by making the lovers women.

With The Change Room set to be published this spring, what are you working on now?

Don’t laugh: the second book in the trilogy of The Change Room. Which a number of my friends jokingly call The Deep End. It might stick, actually. These books are very serious but they are also extremely funny, full of the humour of everyday life, of women and men talking and living and fighting and laughing together.

I also want to collect all my essays and publish them, which I think are some of my best writing.

Good luck with both of those projects. Let’s finish up with some questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

I think it has to be in the present tense. Many writers inspired me and I still need writers to inspire me now. As a teenager, Annie Dillard, the big Canadian poets of the 1970’s and 1980’s, the essays of Camus. Pablo Neruda. Walt Whitman. Lawrence Durrell. And since then, oh, so many writers. James Baldwin—huge. Robin Kelley. I read all the time. I read promiscuously, variously, without a program. Harriet Doerr. Zora Neale Hurston. Elaine Scary’s extraordinary theoretical and political writing. Audre Lorde. Adrienne Riche. Julia Kristeva. The Greek poet Yiorgos Seferis was and still is an enormously important writer for me. Sharon Olds, Stephen Dunn, Lewis Hyde, Susan Griffin. A bunch of Buddhists. And I’m a huge fan of British women novelists: Muriel Spark, Olivia Manning, Dorothy Sayers, Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Rachel Cusk. The Irish writer Edna O’Brien.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin. It’s a wonderfully readable book about history, and women, and who creates the narrative of the world as we know it. Zeldin has a great big brain but it’s not a hard book to read—just endlessly fascinating and hopeful. And we have to all of us face the music of what we’re doing to our planet.  The Global Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger makes it much easier to do that. She is a treasure, a magical ecologist.

And what are you currently reading?

Mark Winston’s Bee Time. Helen Garner’s The Spare Room (she is a graceful Australian novelist whom I’d never heard of—discovered her on the public library shelves.) Katherena Vermette’s The Break. Sun Mi Hwang’s beautiful book The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly—also a local library find. I  also just finished two of Ian McEwan’s recent novels, Sweet Tooth and The Children Act. They were wonderful—really the best novels by McEwan I’ve read in years. He is getting better and sweeter as he ages, more playful. So there is hope for me.

Come Cold River book cover

Interview with Cordelia Strube

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Author picture of Cordelia Strube taken by Mark Raynes RobertsCordelia Strube is an accomplished playwright and the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including Alex & Zee, Teaching Pigs to Sing, and Lemon. Winner of the CBC literary competition and a Toronto Arts Foundation Award, she has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, the WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A two-time finalist for ACTRA’s Nellie Award celebrating excellence in Canadian broadcasting, she is also a three-time nominee for the ReLit Award. She will present On The Shores of Darkness, There Is Light at the International Festival of Authors Lit on Tour event in Thunder Bay on November 1st.

Shauna Kosoris: You began your career as an actor.  How did you go from acting to writing?

Cordelia Strube: In theatre school I had the opportunity to act in plays by the greats.  In real life I discovered that complex roles for women were rare.  Rather than gripe about it, I decided to try and write some.

That’s so frustrating!  But good for you for actively working to change things.  You started out writing stage and radio plays, with your most recent ones having been written in 1989.  How did you move into novel writing?  

Budget cuts to radio drama meant fewer contracts, and mounting stage plays requires many players all in the game at the same time.  Novel writing requires me, alone, with a laptop.

Do you think you would ever write another play?

If all the players were in the game at the same time.  I love writing dialogue and still, when asked, doctor both stage and screen plays.

Thinking of dialogue, your characters all have very strong voices.  Where do their voices come from?

Life.  I listen, watch, watch and listen.

That’s fair.  What inspired your newest novel, On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light?

I was sitting in a Tim Horton’s, people-watching through the window, and noticed a small boy with an over-sized head. He was gripping his mother’s hand as they walked, both of them ignoring the stares of passersby.  In the mother’s expression I recognized a look all too familiar to mothers a.k.a. if you hurt my child, I will kill you.  There was a grace and nobility about these two seemingly frail people, pushing courageously through their daily grind despite disability.  Once home I googled causes for skull enlargement in children and, shazam, Irwin was born.  Then I started what if-ing, which I do constantly while writing novels.  What if the sick child has a well sibling?  What love and tenderness is left for the well sibling who will always, in the eyes of the mother devoted to the sick child, get better?  How do the well and sick children feel about one another?  I wanted to reveal this complex sibling connection from both points of view, which resulted in two protagonists in a two part novel.

How much of yourself is in your protagonist Harriet?  She struggles in regards to questions of morality and compassion; have you struggled with these same issues?

All my characters live and breath in me, so yes, I live in Harriet.  I have always been an outsider, a non-conformist, a trouble maker.  Not on purpose, I just try to do the right thing.  The hitch is, everyone’s version of the right thing is different.

That’s very true.  I heard you say in an interview that you start with the first sentences of your novels but none of the first sentences in your published novels are the original first sentences you started with.  What was your original first sentence for On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, and how did it change?

On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light is one of three of my novels whose first sentence stuck.  The first sentence in Milton’s Elements is: Milton sits in traffic picking his nose.  Alex & Zee‘s first sentence is: Zee doesn’t want to go home.  On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light begins with dialogue: “There’s a baby stuck in a car.”

Simple first sentences pull you right into the narrative.  I agree with Brecht who said “Simplicity is so very difficult”.  My goal is to establish what’s at stake for the protagonist asap.

What are you working on now?

I avoid talking about a novel in progress because I never know if it is a novel until I finish it. I can say that it takes a look at the 21st century’s seemingly unending war in the Middle East, and corporate greed. As always with my fiction, the sneaky humour evolves from a varied cast of characters in unpredictable situations. I like to think of my novels, despite their sometimes difficult subject matter, as situation comedies.

I look forward to reading it, whatever it may be in the end!  I’d like to finish off with a few questions about your reading and how it relates to your writing.  What book or author inspired you to write?

I was an avid reader long before I became a writer.  And those authors taught me how to write without me realizing it.  We learn to write by reading.  I had an extraordinary librarian in high school (the librarian in Lemon is based on her) who kept pushing a variety of authors at me, classical and contemporary.  I rarely went to class, preferred to hang out in the library reading the Georges, Austin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Richardson, Hardy, Dickens.  I was, and still am, happiest when either reading or writing a novel.  In theatre school I studied many plays, classical and contemporary, which taught me the importance of conflict in narrative, and that a line of dialogue can convey the essence of a character.  Which is why I continue to prefer dialogue to extensive expository writing.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

Reading is subjective.  Narratives mean different things to different people at different times.  Something that resonated with me years ago may not today.  Books find people.  And people find what they need in books.

And what are you currently reading?

I’ve got two on the go: Redeployment by Phil Klay, a vet of the Iraq war.  

His multi-pronged stories jab at that cooked up disaster of a war with humour

and clarity.  I’m also loving Nicholson Baker’s Substitute about his year

substitute teaching in the Maine public school system.  As with Klay,

the darkness of Nicholson’s prose is laced with sneaky humour.  

I need sly wit in what I read and write.


book cover of On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light

Interview with Andy McGuire

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mcguire-andyAndy McGuire is from Grand Bend, Ontario, and currently resides in Toronto.  He is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph.  McGuire’s poems have appeared in Riddle Fence, Hazlitt and The Walrus.  He will present Country Club at the International Festival of Authors Lit on Tour event in Thunder Bay on November 1st.

Shauna Kosoris: What first drew you to poetry?

Andy McGuire: The money and fame. Actually, I really don’t remember. Whatever it was has become historical fact. My earliest attempts at writing poems coincided with a pretty dark time in my life. The main feature of that time was a super unhealthy disassociation with the world, and myself, that apparently was amenable to a poetic impulse. Maybe that was a poetic impulse, or my poetic impulse, who knows—all I have to go on is the memory of a feeling. It was the beginning of my love of language. The engine is a love of language, poetry is whatever that engine puts in motion. All I know is that for me, that engine only became available, or possible, at my absolute lowest.

If your absolute lowest was the beginning, what is driving you now?

This is a hard question because I spend most of my time writing, and thinking about writing. I only ever step back and consider things like what is driving me now when asked in an interview. The thing that drives my work, besides the supernatural Rube Goldberg machine that pulls the mysterious stops in turn, is a love of language. There you have it, the dull moment of truth. Also, I feel crippling guilt and anxiety if I go more than a few days without writing, without making something, anything, really. Yeah, that definitely drives me also. Guilt, anxiety, and shame. The three amigos in the heart of a classic buzzkill. Inside of any maker—someone who feels an imperative to create—something is a little broken, I think, in a good way.

What is your favourite poem form to write and why?

I don’t have a favourite poetic form. On the one hand, I try not to have too much tension in the reins while writing, and yet I find great value in introducing constraints to a poem in progress. A rhyme scheme, a repeated stanzaic structure; these sorts of formal elements usually reveal themselves during the compositional process. The filmmaker Errol Morris has a theory of art: establish an arbitrary set of rules and follow them. I love that. Even though I’m not very interested in writing sonnets and sestinas (at least at the moment), the reasons why some poets are interested make perfect sense to me. It’s the freedom of a limited repertoire. It makes things sayable. The art of encumbrance often leads to otherwise unavailable aesthetic possibilities. I am sympathetic to the formalist cause, I just find that it doesn’t square well with the eternal pursuit of good times. Several of the poems in Country Club flirt with a formal grandiosity and deploy all sorts of traditional techniques in weird ways. Lately I’ve been writing poems in the form of top ten lists. I have found the form to be incredibly versatile and deeply inclusive. I labour endlessly over these lists, but it’s fun, I get away with a lot. I can say things like This life owes me a death, and Love is an unmarked van, and Maybe cashmere just wants to be left alone, all in the same breath.

What made you start writing poems in the form of top 10 lists?

It happened by accident. I was reading an article about Afghanistan, and the supernatural Rube Goldberg machine pulled some mysterious linguistic stop and suggested the title, Top Ten Stans. So I made a top ten list of preeminent Stans that included Stan Cup, Paul Stan, Stan Park and Afghanistan. It was my first taste of the linguistic slippage that characterizes the lists. I was hooked.

Do you think you’d ever be interested in writing sonnets and sestinas in the future?

Absolutely, maybe, who knows. I may wake up wrecked on a formalist shore one cold New England morning. It wasn’t in the cards of all my old futures. Still, I carry around a little emergency kit with a bag of scotch mints and a list of words like chesterfield.

Earlier you said that formalism doesn’t “square well with the eternal pursuit of good times.”  What exactly do you mean by the eternal pursuit of good times?

I mean the pursuit of pleasure, the diametric opposite of scotch mints and words like chesterfield.

Country Club  examines human passions, such as wealth, power, leisure, and desire.  Which passion did you find the most interesting to explore in poetry?

Several of the poems in Country Club are either about or set in Florida. The reason being that I wintered there one year while I was working on my manuscript. The human passions you mention are hard to parse in the Sunshine State. They kind of come as a package deal. That winter I was living in a private golf course community deep in the heart of retirement country. A few weeks ago Donald Trump held a campaign rally just down the road from where I was. That is where I spent the winter, American Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Valentine’s Day. The frozen sea within me melted. At that latitude, you would only need an axe when Florida freezes over. Anyway, the culture down there amounted to conspicuous excess, a kind of disengagement from the world. I wanted the Florida poems to reflect in some way the cultural attitudes and postures, the sheer idleness, that gave rise to their occasion. The Florida poems, in particular, were a pleasure to write.

So gluttony and sloth (in Florida)?

That’s a generous way of putting it, but yes.

You’re currently pursuing your MFA in creative writing at the University of Guelph. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned so far during your time there?

I just defended my thesis, which was a novel, this past summer. I had never attempted fiction before, and I learned that the process of novelistic composition involves way more typing than poetry. The Guelph program has a stellar faculty, and the instructors I worked with—Catherine Bush, Kevin Connolly, Dionne Brand and Michael Winter—helped me in various ways to become a better reader and editor of my own work. The Guelph program really encourages students to take risks in their writing. I bet the farm a few times. For me, that was one of the most valuable outcomes of the program: learning what kind of risks I want to take in my work, and developing my writerly instincts in that sense.

How successful were you during those times you bet the farm?

The point was to try things out, so my experimentations were successful, in that I found great value in taking risks (considered risks, of course) and simply trying out different modes of writing. Hence the novel. If we’re talking about publishing as a measure of success, well, my novel and I are on a break. I was like, It’s not me, it’s you. Sometimes you need to shelve a piece of writing to figure out what it is, what it needs to be.

Other than your MFA, what are you working on now?

I have been doubling down on my second book of poems. It’s going to be a collection of the aforementioned top ten lists. My novel is enjoying the inside of a drawer for the time being. I always have a gaggle of projects on the go—things I should wait to talk about until the second trimester.

Finally, I have a few questions about what you read.  What book, author, poem, or poet inspired you to write?

The authors that have been putting the flames in my fire lately are Adam Phillips and Sarah Manguso. Their sentences are special. Also currently in rotation: Alice Oswald’s Memorial, Emily Dickinson’s collected poems, Jenny Zhang’s Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, Arthur Waley’s translation of the Tao Tê Ching, James Tate’s Memoir of the Hawk, and the letters of Groucho Marx.

Those are all authors and poets who are currently inspiring your writing.  Did anyone or any poem first inspire you to write?  

My old friend Graeme Charles read my earliest poems. They would come back to me creased and stained, covered in slashes and burns. He was ruthless, he really cared. He’s the smartest guy I know, and I haven’t seen him in years. Graeme, if you’re reading this, give me a sign, let’s get together.

Is there a book or poem that you think everyone should read?

On the contrary, I would advocate for veering off the beaten path. Read a book written by the trainer of a famous dog. Read The Warren Report. A book about a river, or the greatest art heist in history. An autobiography of a failed lion tamer. I once heard someone say, All reading is counterproductive—a truly stupid thing to say, but an interesting provocation nonetheless. I have gotten the best returns from my most seemingly counterproductive reading. That said, maybe everyone should read Country Club.

So what was the most seemingly counterproductive thing you’ve read?

I guess what I mean is that my reading habits are largely determined by chance. Books lead to other books, and I’ve developed a fairly decent instinct with regard to literary leads. Also, bibliographies, obscure blogs and remainder tables are my best friends. I have found that the most memorable books are the ones that are like portals to weird little alcoves within the world. For example, there’s a book called Letters to Strongheart by a man named J. Allen Boone. Strongheart was the first canine movie star, like, before Rin Tin Tin. He was famous for having apparently cried once in a close-up on film. A little dog tear running down his dog cheek. Anyway, after Strongheart died this J. Allen Boone started writing letters to Strongheart. And so the book is twenty-three letters to a dead dog. The kind of book you might find on a remainder table—my kind of book. That sort of obscure stuff really fills my tank. But also, it doesn’t have to be books. When you value writing as writing, any paragraph, any sentence or line can be as good as the next. Your mom can write a line in a text that sounds like it came from a crestfallen mermaid. Reading is reading, and in the course of a day I read all sorts of things that you probably wouldn’t think contribute or are relevant to artistic work, but there’s always some processing happening on some level. Who knows how these things work. They work, is all, and they’re always working, even when they’re not. I mean, a river doesn’t flip an on switch as soon as someone looks.

Country Club book cover

Interview with Amy Jones

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Amy Jones photoAmy Jones won the 2006 CBC Literary Prize for Short Fiction and was a finalist for the 2005 Bronwen Wallace Award.  She is a graduate of the Optional Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, and her fiction has appeared in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories.  Her debut collection of stories, What Boys Like, won the 2008 Metcalf-Rooke Award and was a finalist for the 2010 ReLit Award.  Originally from Halifax, she now lives in Thunder Bay, where she is associate editor of The Walleye.  Follow her on Twitter @AmyLauraJones.

Her debut novel, We’re All In This Together, has been chosen as the Thunder Bay Public Library’s first One Book: One Community title.  Be sure to check out tbpl.ca/onebook for more information,  and for details about our upcoming events and reading challenges!  She will also be participating in the International Festival of Authors‘ Lit on Tour event in Thunder Bay November 1st.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired you to write We’re All In This Together?

Amy Jones: I always knew I wanted to write a novel set in Thunder Bay, ever since I moved here. I had been working on a few ideas, but nothing really stuck. We had visited Kakabeka Falls quite a few times, and every time I was there I would always wonder if anyone had ever gone over, either on purpose or accidentally. We would come up with scenarios, like, if you fell in here, would you be able to swim to shore? Do you think anyone could survive this? And one day it all just came together and I was like, this is it, this is what I need to write about. It just made sense, that this place that inspired me so much in life would provide me with the inspiration for my first novel.

You always knew you wanted to write a novel set in Thunder Bay – why is that?

For a couple of reasons. One, I really believe in the importance of representation, and I feel like the more books and movies and art that are set in Thunder Bay, or recreate the artist’s experience of Thunder Bay, the better understood Thunder Bay will be. It’s also important for people to see their own experience reflected back to them in art, and the number of people who have come up to me since the book has been published, so excited to read about a place they know, just proves that to me even further. Two, one of the themes I really wanted to explore in the novel is the idea of “home,” and that whole push-pull it exerts on all of us. One thing about Thunder Bay that stands out to me is how rooted people are here, how strongly they are connected to their families, and yet how many people have to leave in order to find work, or for school, or whatever. People want to go out and make their own way, but also the north always seems to draw people back. So it was the perfect place to explore those themes.

That’s very true! When reading We’re All In This Together, one of my colleagues noticed that you name some Thunder Bay restaurants (like Norma Jean’s and Nippers) but not others. Was there a reason for that?  Did you have to get permission to use the real names?

I use real names for places that don’t figure as prominently in the story, but I make up names for places that I don’t want to be beholden to reality when describing. For instance, Barkley’s is based on a specific bar but it’s not exactly that bar, and by naming it something else I can make it fictional, and therefore do what I want with it (no one can argue, for instance, about how “at the real bar, the bathrooms are on the OTHER side of the room!”)

I sure hope I didn’t have to get permission! I think my publisher would have told me.

I’m sure they would have! How many of the houses in your book are based on reality?

Most are based in some reality. I set the Parker’s house quite near my own for the same reason I made Finn and Nicki close to my age: laziness (it’s much easier to figure out years or distances that way!) But their house is not a specific house on Victor Street, it is more an amalgam of a few houses. Same with the house Katriina buys. I take elements I like from each house and put them together.

Remaining true to the way Thunder Bay people speak, your characters say things like “camp” instead of “cottage.”  Why did you decide to use this distinction, especially since your book is being read by people who may not be familiar with Thunder Bay colloquialisms?

It was really important to me to get things “right” about Thunder Bay, especially the feel of the place, the atmosphere, the certain culture. I don’t think any of the references I make are so obscure that people who are not from here wouldn’t understand what they were (or if they are, I make sure they are explained somehow). I remember during the editing process my editor asked me about a character saying that her friend moved “down south.” She thought it meant, like, Florida or the Caribbean (as I did, before I moved here!) But when I explained to her that this is how people from Thunder Bay refer to Southern Ontario, she was like, okay, it should stay.

We’re All In This Together has ten different characters who all get chapters as the narrator.  Why did you decide on so many narratives?

I didn’t really decide on it more than it just kind of happened. The novel began as two short stories, one featuring Finn and the other featuring Katriina. When I realized that there were similarities between the two, I thought, okay, this can be a longer narrative. Then as the story progressed, it became important to me for Kate to have a voice, because I didn’t want her story to be told only by others. Then London pretty much insisted on having a voice, too. After that, it became important to have the others in order to balance out the story, in order to show things from many perspectives. So much of the book is centred around perception, and how we all (especially within families) remember things differently, have different views of the same event. Having the multiple narrators allowed me to explore that further.

Did you have a particular character you identified with more than the others?

A lot of people tell me that they pictured me as Finn, maybe because she is the one who moved away from her family. And I definitely had a lot in common with London when I was younger. But if I were to pick a character I identified with the most, it would be Katriina—her constant over-thinking of things, of wanting to keep everything together for everyone. I find it hard to read over her scenes sometimes, because of that.

Okay, I have to ask – was the idea of the shark in Lake Superior based in reality at all?

Haha, no, it wasn’t! It’s just another of those things we always talked about, whether or not the possibility existed, if it had ever happened. I think I might have seen something on television about it once, probably on Shark Week. It became a joke between me and my boyfriend, because he is really afraid of sharks. And then, like everything else in my life, it just became fodder for fiction.

So what are you working on now?

A new novel! It’s in the very early stages right now, so I don’t want to jinx it, but I definitely feel like I want to keep up the momentum with the novel writing.

Good luck!  Let’s finish up with a little bit about what you read.  What book or author inspired you to write?

I don’t think it was just one… when I was a kid I loved to read, and would often invent new endings for books that I felt didn’t end the way I wanted them to (in fact, until I was an adult I always thought the blank pages at the end of books were there so you could write your own endings). When I first decided to try to write as a profession, I read a lot of contemporary Canadian and American short fiction: Lisa Moore, Barbara Gowdy, Annabel Lyon, Lee Henderson, George Saunders, Lorrie Moore, Aimee Bender, Rick Moody, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley. All of them inspired me in different ways.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I don’t think so, actually. Reading is such a personal thing, and it really breaks my heart when I try to match up someone I love with a book that I love and it doesn’t work. I don’t think there is one book out there that will speak to everyone, but as long as there is one book that speaks to you, that’s what matters.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m on a huge mystery kick, so I’ve been reading a lot of Laura Lippman, Tana French, Megan Abbott. I’ve just started the new Megan Abbott, You Will Know Me. I’m also really looking forward to the new Louise Penny at the end of the month!

We're All In This Together cover photo