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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Interview with Natalie Morrill

Natalie Morrill holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Canadian journals and included in The Journey Prize anthology. She lives in Ottawa, Canada. Her first novel, The Ghost Keeper, launched this year with HarperCollins. It’s a story about the terrible choices we make to survive and the powerful connections to communities and friends that define us. This sweeping novel set in Vienna during the 1930s and ’40s centres on a poignant love story and a friendship that ends in betrayal. Natalie will be joining the festival this year to talk about The Ghost Keeper and historical fiction with novelists Alix Hawley and Wayne Grady.


Congratulations on The Ghost Keeper’s two awards so far – the HarperCollinsPublishers/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Fiction. What was the writing and revision process like for this book?


It was long and fairly intensive. I started it as my thesis for my MFA program, and then I was lucky enough to have an editor at HarperCollins look at it about a year after. In the meantime I had finished another draft. They looked at it and they were interested but it still needed some key changes before they would feel good about accepting it. That was awesome because to hear from an editor that she couldn’t accept it unless I was working on certain things was a wake-up call that I needed. So I worked on it again for another six to eight months and then I got my agent and my editor.


The revision process at HarperCollins was also fairly intensive, which was amazing. It's sort of terrifying and intense in some ways, and it's a very emotional roller coaster. I felt like the book was very protected in that they weren't going to let it out until it was the way it was supposed to be. It was emotional when I thought it was done and then an editor would come back and say, oh but couldn't we make this even better. They pushed back the publication date a couple times, but ultimately I'm so pleased, I feel so fortunate that they were willing to do that. It was a really lovely experience.



You lived in Vienna, where most of The Ghost Keeper is set, when you were young. What about Vienna led you to choose it as a setting?


It was really specifically the Währing Cemetery, the cemetery that's very prominent in the book. It was very near to our house when I was growing up. It is as described, even in the opening scenes of the book. There's a brick wall around it with barbed wire and glass on top. The only times I ever saw inside it as a kid were when one of my parents would hold me up to see over the wall, and all the headstones were knocked over and overgrown with ivy and things. My parents also worked hard to explain why there was this very neglected Jewish cemetery in our neighborhood, and nobody to look after it, and it was locked up and there's graffiti all over it. It was around the same time that I was first starting to understand what the Holocaust was so I think I got them conflated in my head: like dead people buried in there, and the genocide that happened. Which is not accurate, it's a nineteenth century cemetery and there's not a direct literal connection in that way, but as I grew up I realized there's certainly a connection in the sense that it is neglected because the community isn't there anymore and the reason it looks like a prison with the barbed wire and stuff is because people do break in and do antisemitic graffiti and things. So there was something resonant there for me in terms of the image of it reflecting that history indirectly. And then out of that, I began thinking about the kind of characters who might be connected to that situation. Most of the story arose out of that.



This book follows the life of the main character, a Jewish man named Josef, before, during, and after the Holocaust. Recording and records of different kinds are a recurring motif throughout his life. Why is the process of recording so important in this story?


I guess like the reason Josef is telling the story is to get it out of himself and let it exist apart from himself in a written record. As he says, it’s to be able to “set it down” almost like to set down like a burden. So I was thinking about what it would mean to be able to put this down in writing as opposed to just carrying it as a memory, and how that might be connected to his sense of what grave markers stand for, and all kinds of written testimonies like that. Partly because of what he would be trying to commemorate, with people for whom there wasn't really any kind of material record of their passing.


I worked for a while as a writer-in-residence for an organization in Sudbury called the Northern Initiative for Social Action. It's based around peer support for members who have lived experience of mental illness. I was working on the book before that, but it definitely deepened my thinking about what it means to be able to record something that was difficult and traumatic, as opposed to just carrying it in yourself.


Josef is definitely a very spiritual character and I think that the act of turning the memory into written testimony is connected with his faith, connected with his understanding of how faith is passed on, and what it would mean to testify or to study written accounts of faith. I think it has a spiritual element for him in terms of processing the significance of various moments, as well as being able to allow himself to be seen, because he's kind of a character who naturally would prefer to disappear in some ways. So the act of setting it down and making everything very plain is like an act of like self-offering.



The Ghost Keeper is your debut book. Has publishing a book changed your writing process?


Oh my goodness, it might be too early days to know. I think having finished the revision process has probably refined my writing process in the sense that as I'm starting another book now I see problems arising ahead of time. Like, maybe I should do some more planning with this or that because those are the questions that are going to come up later, or I ask myself in the first draft the questions that I was asking in third or fourth drafts.


I try not to think too much about what my editor or my agent are expecting for the next book. I don't want to go off the rails, but as much as I need to be in love with the book and put myself into it for that many years, I am not just writing for myself but for other readers. So I do want it to be something that my editor and my agent are excited about. But I have to trust myself at this point that if I'm excited about the project then probably there's something in it.



You’ve written poetry as well as fiction, and the language in The Ghost Keeper is beautiful and sometimes very poetic. Do you think your poetry and prose writing influence each other?


In poetry, the opportunity to pay such careful attention to what language is doing and how each word is impacting the poem, I think it encourages a habit of mind, or of thoughtfulness, perhaps, that maybe prose writing doesn't always encourage in the same way.


The writers that I admire most do have that thoughtfulness about language, whether they're writing poetry or prose, and they're thinking about how language works and how the punctuation and grammar and diction influence the way the text works and the meaning of it. So if I'm allowed to think about those things and play with them, then of course why wouldn't I? It's super interesting and lovely and enriching. I think that's a characteristic of my interest in literature so it's probably always going to be there. It was wonderful to have a story where the voice gave me the opportunity to bring that out a bit more.



You have a background in biology as well as literature. Do you think your biology background has affected your approach to research?


It gave me a lot of my experience doing research. I think it was very helpful in terms of realizing how resourceful one could be in terms of making use of libraries and getting good at Google and things. You learn how to make as much as possible of the resources you have access to, whether that's in an academic setting, or that's in a public library, or contacting local experts. There are certain skills in terms of research, like getting the research and compiling it and checking facts and things. And then just understanding the way that sources quote each other is definitely helpful.



You’re taking part in Living History, a panel of historical fiction writers at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Do you have any advice for people interested in writing historical fiction?


One piece of advice would be just to go for it, because I was really intimidated by it when I first started. I felt like I wasn't qualified somehow because I didn’t have a history degree or something, but I think if you're passionate about the project then you'll be willing to do the work that it takes to do justice to the project.


Something that I was told early on was that it's very easy to get caught up in the research so much that you don't really write. And it is possible to just go down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and just keep finding out about what kind of cloth people used for clothes at different points. It's not that that stuff isn't wonderful for the text, but it's definitely possible just to never get any writing done. The story is probably what the reader is there for, more than those historical details which they could probably get from a textbook. The research can come into it at different drafts.


At a fairly late draft, I realized that particular historical details would have been impossible. In the moment that I recognized that, it was terrifying. But very quickly it became a creativity prompt, like it was a little puzzle. As in, if I want to be faithful to this truth there has to be another way for me to work out this plot point. Then I ended up being a bit more creative about how that could work, which ends up making the book a bit better.


Knowledgeable and honest readers are such a gift if you can get them. Whether it's historians, whether it's people who have experience of a particular context or moment, that's completely invaluable. I wouldn't have written this book if I didn't have somebody who had edited a lot of Holocaust memoirs and could tell me along the way if she thought that I was doing it justice.



Don’t miss Natalie Morrill at our 2018 Fall Festival on October 28th with novelists Alix Hawley and Wayne Grady.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview with Jordan Tannahill

Jordan Tannahill is an award-winning playwright, director, and author. In 2016 he was described by the Toronto Star as being “widely celebrated as one of Canada’s most accomplished young playwrights, filmmakers, and all-round multidisciplinary artists.” His plays have been translated into multiple languages and honoured with prizes including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama and several Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Jordan’s films and multimedia performances have been presented at festivals and galleries such around the world and from 2012 to 2016, Jordan and William Ellis ran the influential underground art space Videofag out of their home in Toronto’s Kensington Market. While he established his writing and performance career in Toronto, Jordan is originally from Ottawa and this month he will be retuning to his hometown to talk about his novel Liminal alongside Dionne Brand on October 26


You've received great acclaim for your work as a playwright, but Liminal is your first novel. Why did you decide to pursue this form?
The basic premise of Liminal is: a young man, standing in the doorway of his mother's bedroom, experiences a cascading revelation about corporeality and consciousness within the single instant he sees his mother's body lying in bed. In that instant he cannot tell whether she is alive or dead. The idea of containing an entire narrative universe within that split second of ontological confusion struck me as an inherently literary proposal rather than a theatrical one. It felt profoundly interior. Rather than working with bodies in space, in real time, I wanted to use philosophy, language, and style to probe my protagonist's psyche. I am borrowing inspiration here from the late, modernist Brazilian author Clarice Lispector whose novel The Passion According to G.H. takes place almost entirely within the instant the protagonist closes a door on a cockroach and watches as the bug slowly succumbs to death. It is an extraordinary, ecstatic text and all the more so for its extreme temporal constraints. I was also heavily inspired by other literature I was reading at the time -- the work of autofiction writers like Sheila Heti, Chris Kraus, and Emmanuel Carrere, who craft books that hover somewhere undefinably between novels, essays, and memoirs.  
On your website you call it a piece of autofiction. What does that mean?
Simply put: a work of fiction that draws heavily on the author's life. A synthesis of memoir and novel. 
What was the biggest difference between writing a novel and a play?
The act of writing a novel feels profoundly hermetic. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, it feels like a daily battle with the self. And while I also write my plays in isolation, they are reborn in the rehearsal hall, where the text comes to life in the mouths and movements of others. Playmaking is an inherently social and collaborative venture, full of long conversations about human nature, politics, aesthetics, etc. When writing a novel, most of those conversations happen inside of you.
How (if at all) has Ottawa shaped your writing? 
Oh it's shaped it immensely! Much of Liminal is set in Ottawa, and a great deal of my work is set in suburban landscapes inspired by my east end childhood and adolescence.
Who or what has been your biggest influence as a writer?
The Internet. 
You've worked in theatre, dance, multidisciplinary arts, fiction, theory, virtual reality, film. You ran a performance space out of your apartment in Toronto. What has been your favourite creative pursuit to date and why?
I think my favourite creative pursuits have been the ones where the divisions between my life and art fall away. I would say this was certainly true of Videofag (the performance space) and Liminal
If you could pick anyone in space or time to collaborate with on a project, who would you pick and what project would you collaborate on?
I would collaborate with Adam and Eve on a biodegradable, plant-based lingerie line. 
When have you been the most turned on while writing?
Haha I love that you're asking me this! This was the question I posed to another writer for CBC Book's Magic 8 Q & A. Well... I was just writing a scene last night for my new play The Listeners in which an English teacher describes the ways a former student of hers turns her on... and I have to say I really got into it. 
What has been your sexiest on-stage moment? What has been your least sexiest?
Sexiest: when, despite the burning pyres, Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci make love in Botticelli in the Fire
Least sexy: a real frat boy (not an actor) barfing all over the stage 
If Liminal had a soundtrack, what would it be?
Fun question. I suppose the music referenced in the book itself! Which includes Steve Reich, Frank Ocean, and Christeene.  
What's the riskiest thing a writer can do?
Not writing! You risk becoming something other than a writer. 
Don't miss Jordan Tannahill at our 2018 Fall Festival on October 26th with poet Dionne Brand.

Fall 2017: Ottawa Media Hosts

We are lucky to have fostered strong relationships with some of Ottawa's best journalists, past and present. They love to read, ask questions that get to the heart of the matter and inspire the conversation. Here's a look who is hosting this fall.

Adrian Harewood

Host of CBC News at 6 here in Ottawa, Adrian Harewood has a keen sense for politics, from the local level to international relations, and this fall he is hosting three writers whose books take on the big questions: Canadian immigration policy, the role of journalists abroad and our complicated history with Indigenous peoples.

October 22: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough with Doug Saunders

Get tickets.

October 22: A Reporter's Journey Into the Lives of Others with Carol Off

Get tickets.

October 24: Reimagining Canada with John Ralston Saul

Get tickets.

Alan Neal

Anyone who listens to  CBC All in a Day  will know that Alan Neal is a music and book lover, which is why we are thrilled he is hosting two Canadian musicians with new memoirs.

October 6: Measha Brueggergosman

Get tickets.

October 19: Alan Doyle

Get tickets.

Peter Robb

Peter Robb has been a friend and supporter of our festival since our earliest days. Previously an editor at The Ottawa Citizen, Peter recently helped co-found Artsfile - an online news source covering the arts in Ottawa. He's been writing book reviews about our festival authors for years and we look forward to having him host a panel of award winning writers.

Past Imperfect with Frances Itani, Ed O'Loughlin and Linda Spalding

Get tickets.

Canadian Politics: Moving into the Next 150

Human Rights from the Front Lines


Indigenous Stories: Looking Back, Moving Forward

5 Festival Pairings for Date Night

No matter who you are taking out – a friend, family member, partner or someone new – date night calls for tasty food, a good drink, and conversation that brings you together. With delicious dinners served up by Mike Beck of Dash Mobile Cookery , local beers from Bicycle Brewery, delicious wines, Bridgehead snacks, and more, our festival is the perfect place for your next evening out. Want to treat yourself? Forget about taking a book with you – you are sure to make a new friend in our Festival Café. Here are five festival pairings to help you plan your next date night out in Ottawa.

4. Spice Up Your Monday with the Art of Seduction

Does your date consider tantric sex research? Are you exploring polyamory for the first time? Bisexuality? Curious? Let award winning novelist Karen Connelly seduce you with The Changeroom and the personal and sexual exploration that went on behind writing this titillating new novel. Too hot under the collar? Don’t worry – Elise Levine’s watery caves and Lori McNulty’s keen eye for human interaction will balance the evening and add a few laughs. If you are planning on joining us for dinner, well then we have to recommend the grilled vegetable pasta salad with artichoke dressing, and a bottle of Steam Whistle or a glass of our light white wine so that you and your date (or just yourself) are ready to go home and unwind.

5. Tuesday Night Politics Punch Close to Home

Does your date follow Question Period daily? Are they consumed by the NDP and Conservative leadership races? Can’t get them to stop talking about Macron and Le Pen? We take a look at the rise of the radical right in Canada with Conservative Party insider, and former Mulroney Cabinet Minister, Tom McMillan with the aim of answering the question: Can it happen here? It will take more than a spoonful of sugar to wash down these truths that hit a bit too close to home, so we recommend our favourite local brew, Bicycle Brewery’s Velocipede IPA, and a mouthful of Dash Mobile’s signature Walnut Flax Burger. To take the edge-off escape with some fiction as Steven Heighton , Andrew Westoll and Susan Perly take us around the world through the beautiful and the absurd.

So grab a different date for every night of our festival, or bring yourself and come meet someone new. Treat yourself with some good food and a new book at the our festival from April 27 - May 2. Our Festival Café is open at 5PM every day and our events are always serving up something new.

Past Date Ideas

1. Thursday Night: Smash the Patriarchy with White Wine and a Rueben

Your date was part of the Women’s March earlier this year, attended The Ghomeshi Effect in January, or keeps talking about feminism. If this sounds like the one you want to take out on Thursday night then you have two fierce memoirs to choose from. At 6:30PM we host Canada’s first female infantry officer Sandra Perron whose stark and honest memoir details her experiences and the reality of many women in the military. From verbal abuse, to physical harassment and sexual assault, Perron exposes the threads of one of our most patriarchal systems. During the break grab a hearty veggie Reuben sandwich with sauerkraut, swiss and special sauce, then order a glass of Angel’s Gate Riesling and get ready to smash the patriarchy with Scaachi Koul. With wit, sarcasm and irony, Koul’s essays cut close the bone as she discusses everything from family to friendship, racism to feminism, Indian weddings to Twitter trolls, because one day we’ll all be dead and none of this will matter – but these issues matter to us all today.

2. A Saturday Swim through Science and Conciousness

Do discussions about the universe, conciousness and our existence fill your time together? Come with open hearts, minds and bellies on Saturday night as science and philosophy collide when we sit down with theoretical physicist Sean Carroll to talk about the origins and meaning of the universe and life itself(!). An event that is sure to leave you craving sustenance, grab a Chickpea and rice burrito with curry crema and coleslaw, and a glass of our Malivoire before the event or chow down in the cafe once it'd over.

3. Sunday: Snack on Some Food for Thought

For those who prefer a mid-afternoon date and are eternally curious, Sunday is for you. Canadian science writer and Discovery Channel host Jay Ingram is back in Ottawa exploring The Science of Why. This event is for people of all ages who want to learn more about the natural – from cats to campfire smoke – and unnatural worlds – including subliminal messaging and bigfoot. Grab a coffee and some fresh tasty treats from Bridgehead or samosas from Rinag, and stick around for a conversation about theatre from the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas with Stephen Orlov and Samah Sabawi.

Check out our full festival schedule for more great date ideas.

Great Canadian Fiction

For the second half of our festival we are showcasing some our country's best writer and bringing them together for conversations about the power of fiction to change the way we see the world and how we relate to those around us.

April 30 • 8:30PM: The Illegal with Lawrence Hill
Winner of the Governor General's Award for History and 2016 Canada Reads Champion Lawrence Hill is coming to our festival to discuss his most recent novel: The Illegal. Here Hill is at his best writing a depiction of life on the borderlands of society that urges us to consider the plight of the unseen and the forgotten who live among us. Hosted by CBC Ottawa's Joanne Chianello. Learn more and get tickets.

May 1 • 8:30PM: What You Want with Karen Connelly, Lori McNulty & Karen Connelly
Governor General Award winning author Karen Connelly returns with a seductive new novel that questions the lives and sexual identities we have built. Acclaimed short story writer Elise Levine takes readers underwater in her debut novel. Lori McNulty's debut collection of short stories Life on Mars examines our humanity here on planet Earth. With local writer Rhonda Douglas as our host, these great Canadian authors will get us to take a closer look at the lives we live. Learn more and get tickets.

May 2• 8:30PM: The Only Journey with Steven Heighton, Susan Perly & Andrew Westoll
The Amazon, an abandoned Cyprus holiday resort, the front lines in Afghanistan, we will travel around the world and through time with three new novels that question our reality and fantasy, our perceptions of the world and those who are in control. With host Peter Schneider of the Canada Council, Steven Heighton, Susan Perly and Andrew Westoll will take us around the world and to the furthest reaches of our imagination. Learn more and get tickets.

You might also like:
150 Years of Great Canadian Storytelles with Douglas Gibson
At Home in the World with Heather O'Neill & Mary Walsh 
The Bond Between Us with Barbara Gowdy and Claire Cameron  

Coming in June 2017: Louise Penny, Ivan Coyote 

Stories of the Diaspora

This spring writers from Ottawa, across Canada and around the world will be at our festival to talk about our personal and cultural identities, and how storytelling can foster inclusion on a local and international scale.

April 30 • 2PM: Bridging the Disapora: Jewish and Palestinian Plays with Samah Sabawi 
Writing and performance can be some of the best ways to break down the barriers between culture. In their new collection of plays by Israeli and Palestinian writers from around the world,  Stephen Orlov  and  Samah Sabawi  capture a range of perspectives about what it means to be Jewish, Israeli, Palestinian, and Muslim. Thye will talk with GCTC's Arthur Milner about this groundbreaking new anthology Learn more and get tickets.

April 30 • 4PM: Book Launch: the Muslimah Who Fell to Earth personal essays by Canadian Muslim Women  
In the  Muslimah Who Fell to Earth  editor  Saima S. Hussain  gathers twenty-one personal stories told by women, all challenging conventions and stereotypes, and united by two ideas—Islam (or the Quran) and nationality (Canadian). Join us for the launch of this important collection featuring contributors and writers from Ottawa Learn more and get tickets.

May 1 • 6:30PM: One on One with Anita Desai  
Born in India before partition to a German mother and Bengali father, Anita Desai grew up in a household always on the edge of difference and change. In school she would learn English, which she would go on to write in for the rest of her life. The author of 17 novels, novellas and children's books, she has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize three times: in 1980 for  Clear Light of Day , in 1984 for  In Custody  and in 1999 for  Fasting, Feasting . Learn more and get tickets.

April 27 • 6:30PM: Monia Mazigh Confrton Revolution in Hope Has Two Daughters
Having missed the riots of the Arab Spring in her home country of Tunisia,  Monia Mazigh  turned to writing as a way to reconnect with her homeland. Drawing on her own experiences from the Tunisian Bread Riots, Mazigh's novel explores the relationships of mothers and daughters, and the forces that push us both to speak up as activists and to keep our heads down.  Mazigh will be part of opening night with  Raiyah Patel  and  Sandra Perron . Learn more and get tickets.

You might also like:
One Day this Will Matter with Scaachi Koul
Children's Literature from Ireland

Women Making Waves

This spring we are dedicating opening night to outspoken women who know what it is like to live and work in the changing landscape of our country, and celebrating Canadian women novelists on night two. The personal has never been more political, and the women writers coming to our festival from April 27 - May 2 know this to be true.

April 27 6:30PM: A Woman's Work: Advocate, Soldier, Revolutionary
The evening will bridge the age gap as student activist Raiyah Patel, speaking as part of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, joins Sandra Perron, one of Canada’s first infantry soldiers, and Ottawa author Monia Mazigh to talk about the important role women play in advocating for change and human rights.

April 27 • 8:30PM: One Day this Will Matter with Scaachi Koul
BuzzFeed writer and cultural critic Scaachi Koul  will be talk about her witty and moving book of personal essays that covers everything from social anxiety to family squabbles, body shaming to racism. Her book made us laugh, cry and scream in frustration, and we can't wait for Koul to talk with CBC Ottawa's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld.

April 28 • 6:30PM: The Bond Between Us
Barbara Gowdy and Claire Cameron return to Ottawa each with new novels that explore our complex relationships with family, history and the ones we love. Get tickets and read more about Gowdy's Little Sister and Cameron's The Last Neanderthal here.

April 28 8:30PM: At Home in the World
In one of our best pairings yet, we’ll get a taste of humour and talent from Montreal’s  Heather O’Neill and debut novelist (but experienced comedian) Mary Walsh. O'Neill's new novel blurs the lines of childhood and adulthood, fantasy and reality, in one of her best stories yet, while Walsh takes us into the intimate lives of residents in 1960s Newfoundland. Get tickets and read more here.

You might also like:
Bridging the Disapora: Jewish and Palestinian Plays with Samah Sabawi
Book Launch: the Muslimah Who Fell to Earth personal essays by Canadian Muslim Women
One on One with Anita Desai