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Interview with Duncan Weller

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Duncan Weller in his art

Duncan Weller is a writer of children’s books, adult fiction and poetry.  He is also a visual artist who shows his work regularly.  He lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario, and travels often to get ideas and images for his books.  He won two of Canada’s top awards (Governor General’s, Schwartz) for his picture book, The Boy from the Sun.  You can find him online at duncanweller.com. And check out his artwork at the Vinyl Listening Station at Waverley Library!

Shauna Kosoris: So what came first for you: art or writing?

Duncan Weller: Children are quite happy to draw until they learn to write. The interest in writing supersedes drawing because words more easily express ideas and feelings than pictures. I kept drawing as I learned to write to satisfy an itch that I can’t explain. According to my mother, my first spoken word as a one year old child occurred when looking at a sundown over the Ottawa River. I said, “Pretty,” and not another word for three months. In my twenties I thought of myself as a visual artist. I was getting paid for my art long before my writing, but today I don’t distinguish between the two as powerful twins.

In university, you were originally in Fine Arts. Why did you decide to switch to English?

I wanted to learn about the history and methods of creating children’s books and other forms of literature. And at the time the Fine Arts Departments across North America emphasized modern art, which has value for some, but wasn’t my thing. The philosophical underpinnings of modernism was too subjective for my taste and Fine Arts departments completely ignored the potential of popular culture.There’s nothing wrong with the traditional functions of art when those traditional functions are used progressively to dramatically enrich a democratic society. And humanism is at the core of English literature which applies not only to visual art, but to cultures the world over. That emphasis, of art with a mission beyond aesthetics, ideology and the self struck me as more meaningful and useful.

Do you normally write or illustrate your books first? A Starship by Duncan Weller

Stories are movies in my mind, complete with settings, plot and characters long before they are organized into a format using words and images. In order for others to enjoy my books, movies on paper, I have to make the computer keyboard come atonally alive with the laborious part of organizing words and sentences into a meaningful story enhancing and being enhanced by the illustrations. It’s a complicated balancing act, so I make notes, a good outline and/or a story board. So again, the writing and illustrations come together. Hundreds of stories were memorized by griots or bards who passed down stories orally for thousands of years. I’m not that clever, but I have entire plots and ideas for novels worked out in my head where not a sentence has been formed, not a drawing made.

What is your favourite artistic medium to work with and why?

Watercolour is amazingly versatile and perfectly suited for illustrating children’s books. With the right paper and techniques, watercolour effects can mimic the texture of skin, bark, cloth, steel, clouds, water, etc. in wonderful ways. Oils are my second favourite. A story I completed called Lara Wood, yet to be printed/published was done in oils and alkyds. I used a crackle medium to imitate tree bark. It looks awesome. Painting faces with oils is the best way to go if you want to take your time and blend skin tones nicely, along with creating setting effects, like skies and atmospheres. For the books I’ve used all sorts of different mediums and plan to use more in the future.

In your books, you’ve written both prose and poetry. Do you have a preference for one or the other?

Prose. It’s so much easier. And safer. Poetry is hard to write and dangerous. An incredible number of poets commit suicide. This is because poets often look deeply inwards, searching for bigger truths in the well, reaching beyond the rejuvenating properties of the drinking water and heading straight for the rocky bottom. Also, the subjective nature of poetry and lack of financial support makes the life of a poet pretty hard. At its best poetry can be the most perfect form of human expression so I look forward to writing poetry for future children’s books. I look deeply, but I don’t plumb the depths of my own being for the rocky bottom. I’m not all that interested in ultimate truths. I believe there is some kind of order to the universe, and I have a few ideas about how it works, but I wouldn’t dare to take myself too seriously. I leave these depths to scientists and philosophers and try to look at the outside world as an observer with a heart. And because I’m sensitive I like to keep the poetic impulses to a minimum. I’ll live longer this way.

That’s fair. I know you’ve made videos of some of your children’s books; are you still working with film at all?

Occasionally I work on painting backdrops that may one day be green screened into a short film I want to make. And I’d love to make animated shorts and short films, leading up to making a feature film one day, but films get made by teams and require lots of management and money. So I’m sure I’ll do a few more small projects, maybe one next year.

The Ugg and the DripAs both a writer and illustrator, you must get pulled in so many different directions artistically.  How do you decide on the project you will focus your attention on?

As a writer, painter, designer, publisher, promoter, and salesperson I have to balance too many jobs with paying for rent and food like anyone else. So I take on commissions occasionally to earn some quick money. My book projects are eventually more profitable, and more so if I can find an agent and a good publisher this year. It’s expensive to print a book on my own, and will put me in debt for a while, but will eventually earn me good money. Despite the complications, choosing a project or starting a new project comes from feeling inspired or just getting bored with painting in one medium. Sometimes it’s a sudden rush of emotions that are connected with a story I love that I just can’t wait to work on. It’s also about timing and situations, some just too hard to explain.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’ve got three visual art commissions that will pay the rent. In my spare time I’m working on three different novels with lots of interesting characters and situations: We Play You (for adults) is about an artist who has his work stolen by a gallery owner. He discovers that the gallery owner is connected to an investment company that steals art from artists the world over. Punch-Out and The Search for the Ugg are two middle readers for kids. The Ugg story will have over 80 small illustrations. I hope to have Tiger Dream, a new picture book, completed this year.

So what book or author inspired you to write?

As a teenager I read nearly a novel a day, everything from Farley Mowat to dozens of science fiction authors, along with all the required books in high school, enjoying the Russian authors, Shakespeare and George Orwell. In University I was a big fan of the English Romantic Poets, Roald Dahl and the political writings of many American journalists, especially Tom Wolfe who blew up the writing world decades ago with his dramatic writing style. These days I read Ian Rankin and lots of political articles. I am looking to get back into reading a greater variety of novels by joining a book group.

What books influenced your children’s books?A picture from Girl from the Moon

For children’s books I had a few favourites like Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, books featuring Mr. Ben Red Knight, Graham Oakley’s church mice, a couple books by Dr. Suess, Jack Ezra Keats (Goggles! was my favourite), and a few oddball books from Europe including the strange imagery in Eastern European books of folktales. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was my absolute favourite because the allegory applied to all sorts of strange adult behaviours. Most often I was disappointed as a child with children’s picture books. I felt the authors and illustrators had very little imagination, playing it safe, especially when compared to the amazing imagery in movies and television which also had a big influence on me. The Tom and Jane series that my mother got me as a young child made me feel ill. These books and many others were so bad I thought adults were robots who had no idea that children had feelings. I didn’t want to grow up to be an adult. For a while I thought adults were another kind of animal. At the age of nine a school librarian recommended we read the picture books with gold stickers on their covers. After I read over twenty books with gold stickers I told my classmates that books with gold stickers were the worst. It was about this time that I gave up on picture books and began reading comic books. I recall how disappointed I was when I made this as a conscious decision. At seventeen I thought I could make a ton of money writing good books for children because so many of them were terrible. In my early twenties I discovered Roald Dahl which later had a big influence.

Is there a book you think everyone should read?

For anyone interested in the visual arts I would recommend Learning to See by Alan Gowans. It’s out of print, but old copies can be ordered from Amazon and found in secondhand book shops in British Columbia. Gowans was an art historian who taught at the University of Victoria. He offered an alternate history of art that is amazingly coherent, practical and useful for artists if they ever feel confused about what art is for – about the amazing things that art can do for people.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m reading a book by Keli Goff called Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence. It’s one of many books I’m reading about race relations in order to improve the allegory for a story called Tiger Dream. I want to show children that it’s okay for us to eat, dress, talk and express ourselves differently because underneath the human dress (culture) we are all biologically the same. Our variety of cultures make the world an amazing place. I have to do a lot of reading for this story to better develop the allegory and ensure I’m representing other cultures accurately and positively. My research for Tiger Dream began with a trip to Ghana, which was made possible by a Chalmers’ Art Fellowship Award through the Ontario Arts Council.

Duncan Weller's books

Interview with Michael Christie

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Mike-ChristieMichael Christie is the author of If I Fall, If I Die, which was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, won the Northern Lit Award, and was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice. His collection of short stories, The Beggar’s Garden, was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction, and won the Vancouver Book Award. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Globe & Mail. He holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia, and prior to his MFA, he was a sponsored skateboarder and travelled throughout the world skateboarding and writing for skateboard magazines. Born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, he now lives on Galiano Island with his wife and two sons.  You can find him online at Michael Christie Dot Net.  He’ll be presenting a workshop this Saturday at Mary Black; head to nowwwriters.ca for more details!

Shauna Kosoris: If I Fall, If I Die is about the son of a woman with crippling agoraphobia who starts to venture Outside of their house.  Why did you write about this relationship, specifically from the son’s perspective?

Michael Christie: My mom suffered from agoraphobia while I was growing up. And Diane, Will’s mother in my novel, is partially based on her. I told much of Diane’s story from Will’s perspective because a child’s limited perspective of their parent’s behaviour is such a powerful and sad way for the reader to see them. I know from personal experience that any child of a mentally ill parent is very good at watching and observing, and Will is no different.

Your book is written from a third-person limited perspective.  Did you try any other points of view before settling on this one?

That’s a very good question! Point of view is something that I talk about a great deal whenever I teach creative writing. And my first book, The Beggar’s Garden, featured a good mix of first and third person, told in both present and past tense. But for this novel, it seemed like the third person limited was the best choice. Perhaps, I suspect, because the first person narration of a ten year-old boy is very difficult to pull off, and could really wear the reader down over 300 pages.

Yes, I guess it would be.  Why did you set If I Fall, If I Die in Thunder Bay, specifically in Port Arthur/County Park? Is that the area you grew up in?

Yes, you’re right, I did grow up in the Grandview area of Port Arthur, and much of the landscape of the novel is lifted from my own childhood: the culvert under the Expressway, the townhouses of County Park, Sir John A. Macdonald Public School, the grain elevators by the lake. I really wanted to capture that awe-inspiring beauty of Thunder Bay that I knew when I was growing up.

You definitely succeeded; I loved reading your elaborate descriptions of the area.  You later moved to Vancouver partly to pursue professional skateboarding. Is this why skateboarding features so prominently in your novel?

It is. Skateboarding has always been a huge part of my life. It’s truly a beautiful artform, and I really wanted to do it justice and to describe that beauty in this novel, because I felt like no one had done it successfully. It’s also a great metaphor for Will’s journey out from the safety of his home into the dangers of the world.

Thinking of dangers of the world, why did you have the ending of the novel follow Will rather than his mother, Diane?

Another great question. I did have another chapter written from Diane’s perspective in the first draft of the book, but it really lacked narrative tension, and I felt like I could say everything I needed to say about the change that Diane undergoes through Will’s voice. I wanted the reader left wondering about Diane, and wanted to avoid any kind of easy resolution to what is a terrifically difficult problem for her to overcome.

So what are you working on now?

I’m writing another novel. It’s a family saga, told over 120 years. It’s been great fun so far. But I can tell it’s going to take me years to finish. Hopefully not 120.

Hopefully not!  You write about people from many different walks of life, but seem to have a particular attraction to telling the stories of marginalized people (including the Aboriginal people in If I Fall, If I Die, and the crackheads and mental patients you write about in Beggar’s Garden). What attracts you to their stories?

I really don’t consciously set out to tell the stories of “marginal” people in my work, it’s more just that I find stories about people from all stations of society interesting. I mean, what is the purpose of literature anyway? To describe the lives of happy, healthy, well-adjusted people? Boring! But now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’ve realized that I just love to attempt to demonstrate through my writing just how similar all of our human experiences are, no matter what our socio-economic station is.

Let’s finish up with a few questions about what you like to read.  What book or author inspired you to write?

There are just so many. I was a huge reader growing up, which included Tolkien, Nancy Drew, Ray Bradbury, Beverly Cleary, Calvin & Hobbes, and a million others. But the first literary fiction that really blew me away and convinced me to give it a try was early Michael Ondaatje, books like Coming Through Slaughter and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.

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

A book that I push upon everyone is Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. It’s a slim little novella, but one that conjures so much pathos and emotion in its few pages that I still can’t believe that a human being wrote it. Denis Johnson is perhaps my favourite writer of all time.

I’ll have to check it out!  Finally, what are you currently reading?

I’m reading a book called The North Water by Ian McGuire, which is a brutally well-written novel about an ill-fated whaling voyage to the Arctic. Talk about unlikable characters! It’s a portrait of the very worst humanity has to offer. But it’s spell-binding nevertheless.

If I Fall If I Die Cover

Interview with Michael Picard

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la comedy award nomination-1Michael Picard has been entertaining audiences for over 30 years and has performed for audiences across Canada.  With shows and performances for many celebrities such as Tony Curtis, David Copperfield, Jerry Van Dyke, Jim Carey to name a few as well as opening act for Mike Mandel, Holly Woods w/ Toronto, Blue Rodeo, Joey Elias, Comedian Lang Parker, John Wing, Don McMillan and many others.  He is the first Canadian performer nominated for the LA Comedy Awards.  Michael will be performing at 2:30pm in the Waverley Resource Library’s Auditorium on March 16th, 2016.  Tickets are now available in the Waverley Children’s Department!

Shauna Kosoris: How did you get your start with magic?

Michael Picard: In the early days I always had an interest in show business.  When I was 5 I would copy jokes on TV, things like that.  Then in grade 5 I got a magic kit for Christmas and that was it.  From then on I learned more stuff.  I went door to door at 13 asking if people wanted to see me perform a magic trick.  If I’d only been selling Avon I would be rich today!  During the late 70’s and early 80’s I was a filler guest on CKCO TV in Kitchener.

Were people receptive to you showing up at their door and performing?

They were.

That’s good.  When did you start adding comedy into your act?

I always wanted to do comedy.  During comedy shows, more people leave being entertained.  In a magic show without comedy, people may walk away just being puzzled by how the tricks worked and are not necessarily entertained.  I wanted to entertain.

I see you used to perform as Twister the Clown, too.  Why did you create him?

Kell Bell the Clown in Kitchener, ON asked me to do a lot of shows filling in as a magician.  One day she told me I’d be a good clown.  So we got together and made the face.  We worked on the costume, eventually getting it into its final form.  The name came about because I was a balloon twister into animals and shapes. In 1989 I produced one of the very first videos that taught balloon twisting called balloon creations and was sold in magic shops around the world.

I had to retire him because I got a double eye infection from the make up, ending up with a detached retina.  Plus people are afraid of clowns.

But the show is still basically the same act, just without the clown.

You’ve performed for many different celebrities over the years.  Do you have any celebrity stories you’d like to share?

I’ve never met Cher so I can’t share Cher.  But you should ask Murray Langston, the Unknown Comic from the Gong Show.  He’s got Cher stories he would like to share.

Growing up I’d go to the Central Ontario Exhibition wanting to be a magician.  I thought I was much better than I was.  I never got to work as a magician but I got to work the games.  And I got to meet all the celebrities that would perform there, such as the Bellamy Bros, The Kingston Trio and many more.

One time I introduced myself to Jerry Van Dyke.  I performed some magic for him.  His agent, Stu McLellan, came in and Jerry said”show him what you showed me!”  Stu gave me his card and told me to call him when I turned 18 (but unfortunately I lost the card).  Then the great Canadian entertainer Gordie Tapp of Hee Haw came in.  They asked me to perform again for him.  Finally David Wright, the manager of the fair, came in.  Gordie told David Wright to hire me for next year.

How exciting!  Now I have to ask, what was it like meeting David Copperfield?

He’s a cool guy.  Very genuine and very sincere.  I first got to know him when I was a full time performer at Stages Night club in Kitchener.  When David came to town he always took his crew to LuLu’s roadhouse, known for the world’s longest bar.  But they closed down a week before he was coming into town.  I went to a member of the crew when they got into town and told her that Stages was the new happening place.  I told her about my act and to let me know how many people would be coming from the crew and I’d hold a table for them.

During his show, one of David’s tricks went poorly and not up to par.  He spent 45 minutes at Stages trying to figure out how it went wrong, during which no one wanted to approach him.  So only David, Kyle and myself went to Stages. He checked out the place and finally said to me “I don’t see any chicks, so let’s see some tricks.”  I performed for him and he came back to Stages every year afterwards.

One time, when I’d gotten into the character of Twister, I went down to the theater in the afternoon and told David I’ve never gotten a picture with him.  We were friends and I never asked for such things, but I wanted one to promote my new website.  He was on the phone with his girlfriend at the time, telling her he was talking to an actual clown.  He told me to come down the next night and do a show for him and then I’d get my picture.

I’m glad you got your picture with him.  So tell me, what magician inspires you the most?

This is very difficult to answer.  There isn’t just one.

Leon Mandrake (Mandrake the Magician) of course.  We’re close friends.  He’s also very genuine.  His opening act was always the history of magic up to that day.  He’d sit and have a conversation and really draw you into his world.

Personality wise, I put forth (unintentionally) a lot of Harry Anderson from Night Court in my act.

I’m sorry if this one’s also difficult, but what comedian inspires you the most?

My favourite was the late John Penette.  I liked the one liners of Mitch Headberg.  Growing up my favourite was Flip Wilson.  There are two of his jokes that I use in some of my adult shows as a tribute to him, which I make known during the show.  I’m not stealing his material.

That’s fair.  What advice do you have for anyone who wants to be a magician?

Learn the basics of magic.  There are so many kids watching and learning from “Youtube magic.”  They’re super fast, but they can only do the tricks on Youtube, not in real life.  So learn the basics first then be as creative as you want.  Go to the magic books in the 793’s.  Then you’ll be able to know how magicians are doing the modern stuff.

Oh and choose one of your parents and let them know how the tricks are done.  Then when you perform your tricks for them they’ll know if it’s honestly working.  I told my father how my tricks worked.  If he knew how and couldn’t see it, then that was the key.

Thinking of Youtube, I’ve heard that you’re developing magic trick apps.  What can you tell me about them?

I’ve got 6 different apps that help you learn magic in development.  If you’ve got them on your phone you can be a magician.  Magicians will love these apps because they get to focus on presentation, not so much form.  I’m most proud of the one where you think of a card and the app will tell you which card you’re thinking of.  It takes the human error out of the trick.  There’s no pattern to how the app works so the more you play it the more puzzling it becomes.

I’m hoping to develop apps full time.

I wish you all the best with that.  Since this is a blog about books, I’d like to finish up by asking: what’s your favourite book?

I’ve read so many.  My favourite for magic is Classic Secrets of Magic by Bruce Elliot.   I got that book the same Christmas as my first magic kit.  It was way too advanced for me.  But I kept trying to perform the tricks I lost my original copy was able to get a new one off of Amazon.

My favourite books to read are biographies of other people.  I like to see the creativity and  difficulties they went through because that’s the stuff that’s usually hidden from us.  We usually just see the success.

I liked Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up.  Steve Bluestein’s It’s So Hard to Type With a Gun in My Mouth.  You can’t read that without laughing out loud and tears in  your eyes.  Murray Langstom’s Journey Thru the Unknown.  But he didn’t use the title I suggested he use before he actually wrote his biography (Murray Langston “My Life half in the Bag).  It’s about what his journey into show business and creating “The Unknown Comic”.  Such as when he first met Bob Hope, he told Bob Hope he wanted to be an actor.  Bob Hope said no, you want to be a comedian.  “Comedians become actors.  Actors do not become comedians.” I find that very inspiring.

And lastly there is one book I want everyone to order off Amazon and it is called: Perspectives on Entertainment 2: Pursuing Our Passion by Ron Greenfield.

This book has an entire chapter about myself and the reader will also learn some insight to many others who are in pursuit of their passion in the entertainment industry.

Thank you for allowing me to share my past with you and I look forward to performing on March 16th.

 

Chaplin

Interview with Pamela Dean

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Pamela DeanPamela Dean is the author of six fantasy novels and a handful of short stories.  Firebird has reissued her Secret Country Trilogy; a reissue of The Dubious Hills is forthcoming.  She is currently working on Going North, the sequel to both.  She lives in Minneapolis with some congenial people, a lot of cats, and an overgrown garden.  You can find her online at http://pddb.demesne.com/.

Shauna Kosoris: Tam Lin is arguably your most notable novel.  What inspired you to write it?

Pamela Dean: It was less a flash of inspiration than it was a kind of creeping-upon.  In the mid-1980’s, Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold had put together a packaging company, and they wanted people to write novelizations of fairy tales, in the general manner of Robin McKinley’s Beauty, and create a Fairy Tale Line with a unified appearance and cover art by Tom Canty.  Terri invited me, among many others, to contribute to this new fairy tale line she was envisioning.  I had had a couple of books published in paperback originals, and the thought of a hardcover with a cover by Tom Canty was in itself extremely tempting.  I was also grateful to Terri for buying my first novel and editing it so that it was much better, and wanted to make her proud of me.

That said, my relationship with fairy tales is a little peculiar.  I had three books of them as a child — a selection of Grimm’s fairy tales, a selection of Hans Christian Anderson, and a thick, battered (it had belonged to my father, who read things very energetically) orange collection of Japanese fairy tales.  I read them obsessively, but many of them terrified me so much that the books had to live under the bed where the contents wouldn’t leap out and attack me.  Then from time to time I’d take one out and read it obsessively.  At some point I decided that I didn’t need to do that any more.  So my childhood experience with fairy tales was like that, and my adult experience with them is with mostly modern ones, from Robin McKinley and A. S. Byatt to, much more recently, Cat Valente.  I felt, therefore, ill-equipped to write a book-length treatment of any fairy tale.  But I was much engaged at the time with the Child ballads, so I asked Terri if I could adapt one of those instead.  When she said that I could, I went through the volumes looking for a story where a woman does something decisive.  And there was No. 37, “Tam Lin.”  I was already familiar with it from Fairport Convention’s album Liege and Lief.

Why did you set the ballad in 1970’s Minnesota?

I’d originally planned to set it in 17th-century Scotland, and did a lot of research, which was in itself fascinating; but I just couldn’t get on with it.  The characters didn’t seem to want to be there.  I was pondering the ballad one day and realized, around the verse where Janet’s maidens are playing at the ball, that the whole middle section of the ballad reminded me quite a bit of college in the 1970’s, when many of my contemporaries were discovering sex and worrying about pregnancy.  Suddenly I saw the fairy folk riding over the bridge between two dormitories on the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, from which I graduated in 1975, and it all seemed to fall into place.  My first thought about this was that I would set the story at the Carleton of the late 80’s, and I did some work finding out what it was like attending the college so long after I left it; but, again, the characters didn’t seem to want to be there.  And I had a vast array of material from my sojourn at Carleton, all my papers and class notes and syllabi, the catalogs from the years I attended, an amazing amount of what might have seemed like junk, but I knew all along that, like rope, I would want it, if I hadn’t got it.

Then it’s very good that you kept it all!  The setting of your Secret Country trilogy is also quite interesting.  Where did you get the idea for that world?

I wrote a lot of stories as a child and teenager about kids playing games.  This was before D&D or much of anything else formal, but of course children have always done role-playing games on their own.  I meant to be writing realistic stories, but fantastical elements would keep breaking in.  With this for background, I started a novel about some children whose personal game apparently became real.  It stalled out fairly quickly.   I still have a scene meant to happen near the ending, where Patrick, the skeptical character, cries out, quoting Alice, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”  I didn’t intend the game actually to be real.  That shows how much I knew.   When I was in my twenties, I realized that when I’d culled my bookshelves of books I felt I’d outgrown, I had been very much mistaken.  So I found those books again, reread the ones I hadn’t gotten rid of, and read some classic children’s literature, like the Narnia books, for the first time.  I enjoyed this excursion into the past very much, but after a while I was disappointed: the books had seemed so much more complicated and difficult and wondrous when I was younger.  They had seemed longer, too.  I started to think about writing a book that partook of everything I liked best about my old books, that would appeal to children, but would still have some mysteries in it if the same readers came back to the book when they were grown.  And I had this beginning for a book where five children (Nesbit and Lewis had a strong effect in all this) found a place where their game was real.  I abandoned the whole pack-of-cards ending and started over.  Then I just tried to work it out logically.

Were you always intending to set The Dubious Hills in that same world?

Yes, I was.  There’s a scene in The Secret Country where the wizard Fence, newly returned from a journey, explains that he could not bring any of the children presents because he had been in the Dubious Hills.  I had no more idea than that of what the Dubious Hills were, but I liked the name.  Then Martin Greenberg, the prolific anthologist, looked at the fantasy boom of the early 1980’s, and asked some of the newer writers who were with Ace/Berkley, like me, as well as some more well-known writers, to commit to writing short stories in the worlds of our novels.   I’d had the idea of a culture devised by wizards to prevent violence for quite a while, but nothing solid to apply it to.  So I put together a quick plot synopsis.  When Mr. Greenberg had enough interest from writers, he pitched the anthology to Ace, but they didn’t end up buying it.  I have a lot of trouble writing short pieces, so when I first conceived the idea of the story, I thought it would need to be a very formal, stylized fairy tale so that it wouldn’t get completely out of hand.  Once it no longer needed to be a short story, though, it expanded gleefully.

What can you tell me about Going North, your unpublished novel set in that same world?

It’s very, very long.  It has a lot of dialogue, but also waltzing, and some intrigue.  It has dead people, history, unicorns, and romance.  It has students and gardens and a water clock.  It’s a joint sequel to The Dubious Hills and The Whim of the Dragon.  In a weird way, I guess you could say it’s also a sequel to “Owlswater,” which is a novella set in the history of the Secret Country books; it was originally published in the third of the Xanadu collections, edited by Jane Yolen.   At the end of each of these stories, a young woman who has gotten herself into a troublesome situation ends up going to Heathwill Library, which is a fortified library of books about magic that has more or less inadvertently also gathered about itself a school of wizardry.  I was curious about why this place seemed the only place to send all of these characters.  Yes, I wrote the books, but that doesn’t mean I know all the answers.  And I thought it would be interesting for the two characters from the novels to meet.  Fortunately, I thought of this while I was revising Hills for publication, so I was able to figure out the timing and make it all fit in.  The two characters from the novels are contemporaries; the one from the short story is a great deal older.

I could say more, but I’m a little wary of spoiling the earlier books with too much detail.

That’s fair.  Will we be seeing it any time soon?

I certainly hope so.  My husband and I are working on self-publishing the parts of my backlist that I have the rights to, including The Dubious Hills and “Owlswater,” and I need to finish revising Going North before we publish it.  It got into repeated trouble with the publisher that bought it on spec, because it was just too long.  Then, when I cut it down, my editor rightly thought that I’d gone too far and made it difficult to comprehend.  Also, sadly, the opening, which I am much attached to, does not work for people who haven’t read the earlier books.  That’s the major issue right now; the rest is just adding back in some of the scenes that I cut.

Thinking of your backlist, are there any publishing hurdles that are unique to reissuing books?

The reissuing editor makes you write short essays to put in the back.

Well, hey, that was a hurdle for me.

Aside from that, I can think of more strictly personal hurdles — I had to reread all these books that I had written when I was, in some aspects, a completely different person, and beginning to do so was terrifying.  And there’s the issue of whether you change anything at all, and if so, how much.  I corrected some typos that I’d marked on the galleys but that did not make it into the finished book, and also a vexing place where a character who has left the area still has a stray line of dialogue.  And I put the dedication and acknowledgements into The Hidden Land — those had been left out as well when the original book was published.  But otherwise I decided to leave things alone.

It’s in some ways less harrowing than publishing a new book, because you know that people liked it before.  But maybe those are all the people who will ever like it and the reissue is doomed.

I’m sure there are a lot of marketing issues as well, but I didn’t have to deal with them.  It’s not my strong suit, marketing.

So besides reissuing your books and writing Going North, are you working on anything else right now?

Yes, three things, turn and turn about, though I have to say that none of them is being very cooperative at the moment.  It always at least briefly seems so sensible to just start another project if one’s stuck on the current project; but sooner or later, they all get stuck at once.

Anyway, when I cut Going North, I just removed a group of characters wholesale, to reduce the number of subplots and proliferating themes.  The characters had to go somewhere, though, and when I figured out where that was, two short stories sprang up and clamored to be written.  One of them is now just sulking, there’s no other word for it.  (Technically, that must mean that part of my brain is sulking, but we won’t go into that.)  The other wants to be a novel, like all my short stories, but I think I can wrench out the one storyline I want to have resolved before the novel begins, eventually.  In a sense, I’m also working on that novel, since I’m all too well aware that a lot of what I’m writing to get where I need to be is not going to stay in the short story.

The third thing I’m working on is a novel set in Liavek.  This is a shared world put together by a bunch of Minneapolis writers in the 1980’s.  There were five volumes of stories altogether.  The book I’m writing takes place after a political and religious upheaval that’s detailed in the fifth volume, though its roots are in earlier stories.  It doesn’t require knowledge of the earlier stories.  It’s mostly about the theater, and I’m having a wonderful time inventing an entire literary tradition, complete with the plots of plays and extensive sections of dialogue from them.  This is a bit time-consuming to produce, however, so I’m not sure how long the book will take to finish.

Those all sound like a lot of fun; good luck!  Finally, I have a few questions about what you like to read.  What book or author inspired you to write?

Probably primarily Little Women.  I wanted to write in an attic, with a pet rat, like Jo March.  There’s also a book called A Room Made of Windows, by  Eleanor Cameron, about an eight-year-old girl who wants to be a writer, that I read over and over.  And Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy.  Harriet keeps an extensive journal rather than writing fiction, but her basic approach and strong need to write things down impressed me deeply.

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

No, that trick never works.  That is, people are so various and books are so various that the possible interactions between them are incalculable.  No book is going to work for everyone.  That said, I feel that far more people should try the works, any of the works, really, of the late John M. Ford.  His works are varied, but even the funniest of them has a mordant streak and even the darkest has gleams of humor and kindness.  He was a poet as well as a novelist and short-story writer, and the words do pretty much exactly what he wants them to.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m just finishing up a massive rereading of Dorothy Dunnett.  She wrote two sets of fat historical novels, five contemporary suspense novels, and a gorgeous but gruelling single novel about the historical Macbeth.

I’m also reading Ellen Kushner et al.’s Tremontaine, which has been appearing one episode a week from Serial Box Publishing.  You might call it an imaginary historical, or fantasy without magic.  It’s beautifully written, full of witty dialogue, interesting food, mathematics, sword fights, love, and the economics and politics behind all these things.  I should expand the et al.: Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, and a guest appearance by Paul Witcover.  It’s a brilliant achievement.

Before that, I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword.  I had very much enjoyed Ancillary Justice, the first book in her series; the second was funnier and more intimate.   Moral complexity, space travel, and tea; what more could one ask?   I’m looking forward to the third.

Before that, I read Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia’s Shadow and the two following books, A Barricade in Hell, and Against a Brightening Sky. These are historical fantasy novels (I sense a theme here), a cross among mystery, romance, and ghost story, set In San Francisco before and during World War I.  The first one is particularly creepy, but all the books are leavened by the wit and sweetness of the romance.

Before that, and don’t worry, I’m going to stop now, I read Nnedi Okorafor’s The Book of Phoenix, which was amazing, funny and terrifying and original.

the secret country

Interview with Christopher “Merk” Merkley

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face croppedChristopher “Merk” Merkley makes stuff from nothing. Comics, paintings, photography, illustration, tshirts, multimedia, sculptures….whatever he can get his hands on. He has 2 graphic novels under his belt (another one on the way), an ongoing comic strip, a regular weekly piece for Comic Book Resources’ ‘The Line it is Drawn‘ , and fits in as much art and craziness in between those as he can. He is also one third of Zero Issues Comic Podcast with two fellow comic artists, Bry & Kyle.  You can find him online at merkasylum.ca.

Shauna Kosoris:  You did the artwork for Nowadays, a zombie comic that takes place in Northern Ontario.  How did you get involved with that, and how do you know the writer, Kurt Martell?

Merk: Kurt and I used to work together at HMV.  He was studying film at that point.  Then we disappeared and did our own things, but I kept running into him at events, usually during Halloween.  He’d have a mask on and I’d have no idea who he was until he said “Hey. Want to make a comic?”

Kurt had a love of zombie movies and wanted to make one.  Long before the current explosion of zombie stories, he wanted to reinvigorate the genre.  He ended up approaching me to make a comic instead.  From a business standpoint, I get lots of pitches of ideas, but nothing is written.  Kurt was different; he had everything written and he understood it’s a business.  “I don’t want you to work for free,” he said.  So we applied for grants and got one.  We also did fairly well with the Indiegogo campaign.  We were approached by Indiegogo to do talks about it but had to decline because of the distance.

Wow, too bad you weren’t able to go!  Going back to Nowadays, you used a lot of browns and other somber colours in the art.  Why did you choose that colour scheme?

I’m not big on bright primary colours.  And they don’t suit the tone of the book.  Each panel is made up of different photos with locations between Beardmore and Thunder Bay.  We found places on the highway that looked interesting.  The cars are from the junkyard. There were stores in Thunder Bay and Nipigon. Houses out on the highway. I had to take thousands of photos to find the ones that work.  Then I drew the people in before adding textured layers, filling in colour then tonal layers to match.

Originally we weren’t going to do the book using photos. It was just a test at something different but it looked great.  I thought it would be easier not having to do the backgrounds but it took way longer.

I wasn’t sure about asking people if we could take pictures of their businesses to use in our comic with no compensation.  But Kurt had no problem asking the first time.  After that it was a lot easier, and everyone was great about it.

You also did the art for Victor’s Legacy, which was by Andrew Sookram and Matthew Jowett.  How did you get involved with that?

They were both based out of Winnipeg.  I was living in Vancouver at the time.  I don’t know why I looked at it, but they had a Facebook group or page called Starving Writers. I’d never seen anyone looking for collaboration that way.  Usually you run into people and talk.  Those things don’t usually amount to anything.  But we clicked, and did the comic as short chapters available online, and then we eventually collected the first story arc.  We’ve discussed a second volume.

I hope you guys work on it; Victor’s Legacy was a fantastic read!  Thinking of collaborations, how did you get involved in Comic Book Resources’ ‘The Line is Drawn’?

I’d seen it online and thought it was a good idea.  I sent messages asking how to get involved and they ignored me.  Then last December they were looking to expand their pool of artists.  They had tryouts that were like how it’s done now: here’s an idea and draw it in a week.  Then again.  If you couldn’t do that, you weren’t cut out for it. I made it through.

It sounds like a lot of fun.  Who is your favourite character to draw?

I don’t know if I have a favourite character.  I get bored quickly and like to draw different things and different styles.

That’s fair.  Where did you get the idea for your comic strip, Zygote Bop?

It was part of a bigger idea I came up with years ago.  Part of it was two guys who work in a music store, like how Kurt and I worked in a music store.  The absurdity of working in retail.  But the original idea had Felix as the son of a superhero.  Carl wants to be a superhero and idolizes the dad.  It was going to be a quirky look at superheroes in retirement.  But that didn’t suit the format when it got picked up by the Walleye.

I’m going to keep on it now that it’s not in the Walleye.  But I’m really bad with deadlines.  And I’ve got the new strip, Freak Nuts, too. Both are available at Merkstrips.

Along with comics, you work with paintings, photography, illustrations, t-shirts, multimedia, sculpture, and whatever else you can get your hands on.  What’s your favourite medium to work with and why?

Comics easily.  It’s such an underrated genre and a way of expressing a story as art.  It’s coming into its own now more so.  Thirty years ago adults didn’t read them.  They got to a certain age and stopped.  That’s not the case anymore.

I look at comics as modern mythology.  We pass things on through stories, like religion.  We don’t pass things on through lists very much. It’s just a universal thing to pass along ideas, morals, lessons and information through a story.

What are you working on now?

Another book that I’ve written.  Season of the Dead Hours.  Wrote it awhile ago.  It’s going to be smaller than Nowadays.  Closer to Victors Legacy in size. 100 pages or so.  Black and White.  Dealing more with mythology, magic, etc, among other things.

Good luck with that!  Was there a particular artist who inspired you to draw?

All of them.  There’s a couple that stand out but there’s always that continuing awe of seeing both old and new.

I grew up reading comics and copied the pictures.  Then I went to Lakehead and took Fine Art there.  It opened a whole new world of fine art, the gallery experience, art history.  I did gallery art and comics fell to the side.  Then ten years ago I got back to comics.  It was like returning to what I wanted to do.  And it’s super inspiring now that Independent comics are exploding.

That’s so true.  Is there a particular comic you think everyone should read?

There’s some I would’ve said 5-10 years ago life Jeff Smith’s Bone before it got picked up by Scholastic.  The simplicity of his line.  How he’s able to capture the nuance.  Other than that there’s so many independent comics.

And what are you currently reading?

My comic list.  I’ve never had so many.  I try to weed it out for budget reasons.  But there are so many to read.  There’s a slew of Marvel stuff.  I kind of gave up on DC.  Image comics (Saga being the number one).  Black Science, Paper Girls, Fade Out, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Afterlife with Archie, We Stand On Guard, Conan the Adventurer.

And I love finding books on the history of comics, or biographies of creators. I just finished From Shadow to Light: The Life & Art of Mort Meskin by Steven Brower. I’m a comic geek. Head to toe.

Victor's Legacy cover

Interview with Alexander Kosoris

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Alexander KosorisAlexander Kosoris is a novelist and book reviewer who was born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He attended the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto between 2006 and 2010. After graduating, he moved back to Thunder Bay, where he now lives with his lovely wife – as well as the majority of his relatives – working as a pharmacist.  Lucifer is his first book.  You can find him online at kosoris.com.

Lucifer is the well-known story of an angel rebelling against God, but it is set in an office building with God as the CEO.  What inspired you to write it?

Alexander Kosoris: I honestly can’t pinpoint the exact reason. I remember Lucifer beginning around when a friend committed suicide and I really started giving my beliefs, my outlook on life, thoughtful consideration, at least more actively than up to that point. Perhaps it was therapeutic, my way of coping; I don’t know.

So why the office building?

Biblical concepts seem hard to visualize for me, so I felt it would be interesting to relate such processes to real-world parallels. I chose an office setting for a few reasons. Firstly, Heaven seems to have a clear caste system. At least from the brief glimpses we’re allowed into Heaven from Biblical stories, people and angels don’t seem to be created equal, and everyone seems to know exactly where he or she stands. Breaking such a notion down to an office-building structure encapsulates this fact very cleanly, with angels being unable to act effectively without heading to different levels and managers for approval.

Such a setting structure also relates to God’s mysterious methods. Think of stories in the Bible, such as Eve being created from Adam’s rib, when God seems to have the ability to just create a human from nothingness. Now, extrapolate this concept to the entire creation of Man, the Earth, and the entire universe, as well as the physical laws governing the universe, and God utilizing His office full of angels to make such things. Does He need to use an office of angels for this creation? No. Is it a matter of testing angels to see what they accomplish? Is there actually a point to the process, or is it merely for His amusement? Don’t expect an explicit answer; He works in mysterious ways.

That’s true, He does.  Lucifer starts out very light-hearted and then gets more serious as it goes. Was this intentional?

Very much so. I wanted to have fun with the concept, but I always had a plan to try and tackle some heavy ideas as it went on. Whether I succeeded or not, I wanted to do more than just tell a story; I wanted to make something that was meaningful to someone.

You ran an Indiegogo campaign to help Lucifer get published. What did you learn from that experience?

Perhaps, that promotion is hard? I suppose I would have learned that sooner or later, but it was good to get it out of the way before the book even came out. I also learned to pick my battles. There were a lot of decisions that went into that campaign that I disagreed with, but most of them weren’t significant, so they really weren’t worth any argument. I can be a stubborn man, however; I clung to the issues that I felt could make or break my writing career at this early stage, such as halting the campaign for months while my friend fixed the terrible original video that was made, and shall never be seen by human eyes again.

That was definitely worth it; the video that you have now is hilarious!  You did a series of Lucifer readings around Thunder Bay during the spring, including one at the Brodie Resource Library. How did they go?

They ranged from horrendous – “no one showing up” horrendous – to wonderful, where I had the privilege of participating in some engrossing discussions after-the-fact.

That’s unfortunate that no one showed up to some of them.  But I’m glad to hear that others were much better!  Along with the readings, you also conducted a writing workshop back in February at the Waverley Resource Library entitled “Writing With Evocative Prose.” Why did you choose to speak about this topic?

I was noticing trends in the writing I was reading and enjoying around that time: all the stories were able to evoke a strong, emotional response from me. Because I’m interested in writing on a very analytical level, I wanted to delve deeper and find out how these authors were so successful in doing so. Once I discovered applicable strategies for writing, it struck me as a topic that would be very useful to both writers wishing to improve their craft and readers who want to understand literature in an absorbing way.

Are you planning on doing any more readings or writing workshops in the near future?

I’ve been organizing readings whenever and basically wherever I can. (I’ll be reading next on August 17th at the Two Harbors Public Library, followed by CommuniTea and Coffee on August 22nd.) It can be hard to fit these types of events into my work schedule, but I’m lucky to be working with people who have been hugely patient and accommodating. Writing workshops are different beasts entirely; I love doing them, but they take a lot out of me. The last one took a solid month of preparation, so I’m assuming I’d only be able to commit to one a year.

Good luck!  What are you working on now?

The working title is Going Home, and it’s about a man who crash-lands his spaceship, crossing paths with a terrible monster as he makes his way home. It’s turning out to be a great deal more grotesque than Lucifer, which makes me a bit worried that people who passed on Lucifer because of the name will be horrified if they decide to give this one a chance.

I guess that will come down to marketing; hopefully Going Home’s eventual blurb will help to avoid that problem.  Let’s finish this up with a few questions about books and reading.  What book or author inspired you to write?

The biggest influence to me has been Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut; it really changed the way I looked at telling a story. I think I owe a lot to Christopher Hitchens as well; he taught me to utilize language to its fullest potential.

And what are you currently reading?

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; it’s absolutely fabulous.

Lucifer cover

Interview with Meghan O’Rourke

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meghanMeghan O’Rourke is the author of the memoir The Long Goodbye and the poetry collections Halflife and Once.  Her essays, criticism, and poems have appeared in Slate, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Redbook, Vogue, Poetry, The Kenyon Review, and Best American Poetry. She has also worked in various editorial positions at different magazines.  You can find her online at meghanorourke.net.

Shauna Kosoris: Your bio on your website says you were one of the youngest editors in the history of The New Yorker.  How did that happen?

Meghan O’Rourke: Luck! Well, a combination of really hard work, genuine obsession with literature, and being in the right place at the right time. I was a college intern at The New Yorker, and then returned after college, just when Bill Buford, then the fiction editor, needed a new assistant. Bill was a wonderful mentor and a genius editor – he taught me how to edit, gave me lots of chances, and promoted early on. I learned everything I know from him. (Of course, he is not responsible for my missteps along the way!)

Very lucky!  Since then, you have worked as a fiction editor, culture editor, poetry editor, an advisory editor, and a literary critic for various magazines.  What do you like most about being an editor?

As a poetry editor and fiction editor: being able to advocate for writers whose work seems important to me – original, deep, surprising, whatever it might be. Developing a relationship with those writers and, hopefully, becoming a trusted early reader. This is such a wonderful part of editing.

In my role as culture editor at Slate: assigning nonfiction essays, being able to shape the cultural conversation at large. It was great to think, “Such and such piece needs to be written,” and then find the person who was precisely the right critic to execute it.

And what do you dislike the most?

The pain/frustration both editor and writer feel when pieces don’t work. And the steady acceleration of the news cycle. It is making it harder and harder for online magazines to produce serious writing. Though of course there are many venues that still do. You just have click past the cat-video-bait.

Have you found any way to overcome this?

Well, I don’t work as an editor anymore, so this isn’t really an issue I deal with.

Fair enough.  Along with being an editor, you write essays, poetry, and criticisms.  What was your first published piece?

God, I don’t remember. Something in The New York Times Book Review? Then I started writing for Slate in 2001, before I moved there as an editor. That Slate piece felt like my first real piece, as it was the first that was self-generated: It was about B.R. Myers’ case against “difficult books” in The Atlantic. I like difficult books!

Why do you like them?

I think being anti-complexity is a form of anti-intellectualism; I also feel that extreme stylization in fiction is fascinating, because realism isn’t what matters most to me, but the way that a piece of art can make you feel, through its formal choices. The essay I was criticizing was kind of anti-hyper-stylization, but I love it.

Do you have a favourite?

Hmm hard to choose one. I do like Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy. Proust.

I haven’t read any Proust, but I have read some DeLillo and McCarthy.  The way they describe things reminds me of poetry.  Thinking of which, what draws you to poetry?

I love poetry for its luminosity, compression, and ability to pierce the reader almost instantly. It is unlike any other form – it relies on music to get at mysteries that can’t be summarized or put in any other way. I love it because it is a “way of happening” (Auden) something “lost in translation,”  (Merrill) “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind,” (Stevens) a thing that “must ride its own melting”  (Frost). Like Elizabeth Bishop, I love best the poems that have the qualities of mystery, spontaneity, and accuracy…. But poets like Adrienne Rich and Gwendolyn Brooks, with their powerful social visions, matter a lot to me too.

Do you have a favourite poem form to write?

I don’t have one. I like the variability! And also each poem demands its own form. That said, I think tercets (three-line stanzas) lead to a certain flexibility and spontaneity of thought, while also imparting a quality of order to that thought. I like them.

Once, your second collection of poetry, was published in 2011, just six months before your memoir, The Long Goodbye.  They both touch on similar themes (namely loss and recovery).  Was this intentional?

Yes, of course this was entirely intentional. I was exploring the loss in different genres, trying to figure out what each genre allowed me to do–what crevices I could get into.

Did you prefer one genre over the other?

No, I liked using both – one reason I like to write in multiple genres is that each genre allows you as the writer to explore emotions, ideas, arguments in different ways. Poetry for me is more atmospheric and elliptical – Wallace Stevens’ “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind.” It gets at the heart of things but in a visceral, limbic-system-thrilling way. In prose, I was able to make stubborn and opinionated arguments I wanted to make about our habit of whitewashing grief. I also thought that The Long Goodbye let me deal with grief as a kind of duration which was hard to express in a poem.

You’re currently working on a book about chronic illness.  How’s that going?

Slowly. There is a lot to learn and a lot to think about. What interests me are the stories we tell ourselves about disease, and the ways they obscure deeper realities. We believe we are in an age of science, but the strange assumptions we all make about poorly understood diseases–such as autoimmune ones, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and more–are amazing. It’s utterly fascinating, but I need to begin making some choices about how to limit it.

Good luck with that!  To finish up, I have just a few more questions about books and reading.  Did a book or author inspire you to write?

I wouldn’t be able to limit it to one – but early on, Anne Of Green Gables was a huge obsession. Later–don’t think this is too pretentious!–James Joyce. I loved the passion (and rage) in Portrait of an Artist as Young Man. Sylvia Plath. Adrienne Rich, for her political fervor.

And finally, what are you currently reading?

Just finished Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts today; currently reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s Innocence (set near Florence, Italy, where I am) and the last volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

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