Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Plan 99 Fiction Cabaret at The Manx

The Manx Pub is a venue perhaps most charitably described as “cozy;” someone less charitable (or not as enchanted by its warm earth tones, wooden support pillars and intimate nooks and crannies) would call it “cramped.” I have come to this event blind, trusting that I'll quickly learn all I need to know about the presenters.


First up is Claire Tacon, reading excerpts from her debut novel,  In The Field . She describes it as a “you can't come home again” novel, outlining briefly its premise: a former academic woman returns to her small-town childhood home in Nova Scotia to take care of an aging mother. My initial reaction is admitted pleasure at the novel's East Coast connection (us Maritimers living in exile are sentimental folk, after all); however, I soon gain an additional appreciation for the novel's tone. Piecing it together from vignettes, Claire Tacon has constructed the chronotope of rural Atlantic Canada (both now, and as it was in 1970) with loving detail. I listen quietly with a smirk as she narrates a character's almost superstitious fear of Nova Scotia highways – a regional phobia that most long-time inhabitants have yet to conquer.


Her excerpts read, Claire surrenders the microphone to Heather Jessup, reading from her novel The Lightning Field .  Having given us a snippet of the novel's subject matter (the events surrounding the unveiling of the Avro Arrow, the Western world's reaction to launching of Sputnik, and an unfortunate lightning strike) the reading immediately takes on a tonal shift. Where Claire is intimate and confessional, Heather is analytical and encyclopaedic. Her prose has a matter-of fact, almost archival quality. Every so often, Heather will inject some character dialogue, rife with 1950s colloquialisms, and the effect is palpable, jabbing through the clinical narration like an icepick of anecdote, opening up the possibility of so much more than bald-faced historiography.


The readings end, and there is applause all around. As soon as I get the opportunity, I break through the little crowd that has accreted around Claire and Heather as they sign fresh new copies of their books, and ask for brief interviews. I get my first interview opportunity with Claire:


“I guess writing is something I've always been interested in from quite a young age.” Claire talks about her brother, a talented visual artist, and her respect for all kinds of artistic endeavours, though she admits her own lack of talent for visual or musical arts. Her father encouraged her early creative endeavours: “I started dictating poetry to my Dad, who was very kind enough to write it down on, like, cocktail napkins when we were out to eat together.” The particular germ for the novel was a free-writing exercise from her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC:

“I started writing about this woman who was driving down a road with the windshield wipers... not quite working... and for whatever reason, that scene really intrigued me, and I felt like, 'I know that road; it's the road right out of Acadia.' It just spiralled from there... the story just spun out from that one image.”


Heather (who, in addition to signing the novel, stamps each one with two ingenius stamps: one taken from the old Avro Arrow project's letterhead, the other from an advertistment in the newspaper the day the project was canceled), tells me that “writing chooses you; on some level I feel like you... don't have a choice. If you're going to write a book, you have to just want it.” As it turns out, her interest in the Avro Arrow comes from a conversation with her grandfather, who was a technician working on the landing gear of the original, “but I thought that wings were somehow more beautiful to write about; less grounded, and more flight-oriented.”


The Manx clears out as festival-goers move on to new events. For my part, I have two new books I need to go home to enjoy.