Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Before the Truth with Joan Thomas, Elizabeth Renzetti, and Eliza Robertson

The title for this event, 'Before the Truth', was very well chosen. As was the Churchill quote that seemed  like an epigraph to the three readings: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on."  The program introduction gave us an idea where the conversation with the authors might be headed: "…the lies we tell ourselves and others: Lies of omission and convenience, of deception and self-preservation, and the lies required to tell the truth in fiction."


Host Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, the always delightful and engaging CBC Ottawa TV host, opened the discussion by thanking the Writers festival for holding the fall session as planned despite the dramatic events of the week. She thanked Artistic Director Sean Wilson, for his  statement on CBC Radio earlier in the week where he expressed his belief that in a week like this it is especially important for our community to come together and jointly move forward with positive energy and thinking. The audience in the packed hall at Knox Church reacted with heartfelt applause.  Lucy then addressed all three authors by asking them to briefly reflect on their personal reactions to the week's events. They each expressed that the days of the attacks had not only shocked, they also had demonstrated the very best of Canada. As more details of the events were becoming clearer, there was some concern of a possible overreaction by  in the aftermath.  


The evening opened with Sean Wilson's brief introduction to each writer: Eliza Robertson read from her short story collection Wallflowers, Joan Thomas from her Governor General's Award nominated novel The Opening Sky, and Elizabeth Renzetti from Based On A True Story.   Each of the authors, after first setting the stage, provided us with a good first impression into their stories. Their lively reading style added much to the enjoyment of those listening.  Despite the very different topics and genres of the three books the common theme as outlined above led to an interesting discussion. 


Lucy asked each of the three authors to share with us how they saw themselves in their books. How close does the story reflect "truth," and, echoing Pilate, what is truth? What is the most authentic part? Joan disclosed that, in contrast to her previous, historical novel, Curiosity, for the new novel she has drawn on her own life. The Opening Sky is a story of a couple and their daughter. But, of course, the portrait is nothing like her family. It is more like taking bits of their and other people's lives and experiences and creating a separate reality. She did switch some character traits from her female to the male protagonist and vice versa so that she could explore such traits in a new way. The writing has taken her more than four years.


Eliza, the youngest of the three authors, won the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She is studying in England, working on her Ph.D. in Creative Writing. Her take on the truth/authenticity question was based on her personal experience in a way, but she also felt the fictional reality is stitched together from bit of real life. She learned in her course that at least one character in a story needs to be misbehaving. "Some things are too scary to write about them." In a way it is more a question of "augmenting truth" to get to the truth.

Elizabeth Renzetti's novel, Based On A True Story, is full of fun and irony as she explores the lives of two women journalists and their environments. Elizabeth, a well known journalist herself, currently with The Globe and Mail, is of course very familiar with the media business. Elizabeth's two central characters are in some ways failures. She likes to explore how they cope with that and how to get on with their lives. Also while in her professional life she hears and knows things she cannot share or say. She enjoyed to do so in the form of a comic novel.  Moving the story to the UK may suggest some distance but doesn't take away from the fun.


The audience raised a range of questions. Among them was the always interesting one:  How do you know when to end your writing, editing your work?  Joan felt that she gets to a point at which she has a sense of completion. Elizabeth added that you have to walk away at some point not to get crazy. You can lose control if writing the novel goes on too long.  How important is 'genre', chick lit? Elizabeth showed the pink cover of her new books. Does it mean it is chicklit? Of course not. It is a comedy written by an woman. The consensus was that it not very important to categorize fiction in this way. After all, it is well known that, whatever the genre, seventy percent of fiction readers are women.