In her introduction to one of the last events on the last night of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canadian writer Charlotte Gray said she was feeling intimidated about having to conduct the interview that was about to ensue.
And, in a way, who could blame her for feeling a little self-conscious?
The person whom Gray would interview was none other than Eleanor Wachtel, one of the world’s finest interviewers. It was a rare opportunity to hear the Montreal native on the end of questions rather than delivering them, which she’s done now for more than 25 years as host of Writers & Company on CBC Radio—a new collection of interviews ( The Best of Writers & Company ) has just been published by Biblioasis.
“Put yourself in my shoes,” Gray said, before reading out the names of many celebrated authors Wachtel has interviewed as well as many of the impressive plaudits and awards she has received.
But not long after Gray’s own interview with Wachtel began, it was clear that there was really nothing for Gray to be intimidated about. Despite her very wide acclaim, Wachtel displays not even a hint of pomposity or self-importance; in person, she’s just as graceful and soft-spoken as the host that many have come to appreciate. Recounting some of the earlier years of her life in Montreal, she makes no attempt at self-aggrandizement, underlining instead the normality of her upbringing. One might have imagined a childhood filled with books, but Wachtel noted how her parents weren’t readers; books came from a local public library in the Snowden neighborhood of NDG, one which wasn’t, in her words, “very elaborate”. She said she didn’t even read all that much and of the books she did read, they were mostly chosen at random. Like many of her friends at the time, she traded comics and watched TV.
Wachtel continued in this self-effacing manner throughout the rest of the interview, which included many funny anecdotes of interviews gone wrong. She discussed her university years in the English department of Mcgill, where she admitted, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” And then there was her winding and uncertain path as a freelancer writer and freelance arts broadcaster that led her to Vancouver and finally to Toronto, where she would eventually earn her own show on CBC.
By the time the interview was over, it was apparent that what ultimately makes Wachtel’s so appealing is not even so much her superlative skills as an interviewer, the way she’s able to pick the brains of and elicit interesting responses from some of the biggest writers in the world, but her hospitable nature—her desire to make the literary world accessible to all. This is captured well in the second segment of the name that Wachtel chose for her show—the ‘& Company’. With Wachtel, no one is excluded: she never wants to make herself the center of attention and is eager to make the audience part of the company.
In a time of political carnival and polished facades, it is rare indeed to witness the honest and heartfelt musings of a public figure intent on, in his own words, baring his soul. Audiences Tuesday evening at the NAC were privy to Governor General David Johnston introducing his newly minted book, The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation. Unprecedented for a sitting Governor General (with the very notable exception of the singular John Buchan), his book is a thoughtful compilation of letters written over a lifetime that, he says, crystallize many of his views on Canada.
Throughout the evening, His Excellency spoke in a remarkably unguarded manner about education, justice, First Nations issues, national unity, and the future of the country. Deftly hosted by Mark Sutcliffe, the event drew an impressive mixture of family, onlookers, and top military brass.
While Johnston stressed how important it was for a Governor General, an apolitical role, to be neutral in questions of politics, he asserted it was also crucial to unambiguously stand up for Canadian values. He followed this statement with a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, "To thine own self be true, and... thou canst not then be false to any man." To the audience he then directed a profound question, what is the self but a set of values?
And what values does the Governor General believe are truly and distinctly Canadian? Here, Johnston joking referred to what he calls his "governor generalities." He expressed that Canadians are an honorable people of inclusion, tolerance, and peace, who use military power sparingly, and when we must we do so with full conviction. We are a nation of intelligent people who delight in self-improvement, deplore self-satisfaction, and hold an abiding concern for the common good.
The great theme of Canada, the Governor General declared, is that each of us expect our lives to become better. From the beginning we are a nation of immigrants. Thousands of years ago native people arrived on this land in search of a better life, a theme each of us share with our ancestors. The question now, His Excellency mused, is whether life will indeed continue to improve.
Johnston stated that complacency is our enemy, a real danger both to us and the United States. He continued that our two nations are the first in history to be built upon an ethical experiment. Unlike the chaotic circumstances that forged the majority of countries today, both Canada and America were deliberately founded upon certain values. In fact, Canada has been built upon a pluralism so successful that now its population often takes its responsibilities for granted - a harbinger to our potential decline. To tackle this and many other challenges of our time, Johnston pronounced that we must re-assert the values and principles that make up the moral fiber of our national identity, "I think that it begins with our children and the values we pass on... to develop our talents the best we can and to look beyond ourselves."
In reference to Canadian youth, Johnston believes the issues facing the education system are "very challenging." In a world racing forward in interconnectedness, migration, and globalization, he believes we must support the young in developing their intellectual capabilities to their utmost. To accomplish this, we must promote excellence and become "the smartest people our children expect us to be."
To impress upon us the magnitude of this generational task, the Governor General shared a favorite quote by John Buchan, "No great cause is ever lost or won, the battle must always be renewed."
Here then, resounding from the pages of David Johnston's book, is a clarion call for perennial renewal.
“Am I allowed to swear?”
While not a phrase typical to discussions regarding breast cancer, it was a question that set the tone for the honest and frank discussion that the night had in store; shared between three women who have been through the highs and the many lows of the disease, all having walked away with different lessons to share.
All My Life to Live saw author and graphic artist Teva Harrison joining Canadian punk rocker turned author Bif Naked as they discussed their work, their lives, and their experiences with breast cancer. Hosted by the spirited CBC television host Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld, who herself was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 2015, the event began with Naked presenting a slice from her book I Bificus. While the book represents the entirety of her life and the trials and hurdles of a career in musical stardom, the passage read focused on the days leading up to her diagnosis (“d-day” as some refer). The section shared the tone with Naked’s demeanour for the night: it was jovial, light hearted. Any moment where Ms. Naked’s stories ventured into darker territory were swiftly brought back up with a snappy joke or an enthusiastically sarcastic eye roll. Speaking on her time waiting for a diagnosis, and her certainty regarding her condition even before it was officially declared by doctors, Naked made herself a promise that no matter how dire the situation looked, she would never shut her mouth, and the quick witted "Bif" that she was before would hold strong throughout.
Harrison took to the stage next, projecting her artwork from her graphic memoir In Between Days on the walls behind her, while she read their accompanying essays. From discovering the real world magic found in her childhood, to her navigating the awkward waters of small talk when after she had been diagnosed, Harrison’s time on the stage was packed with an emotion that left much of the audience speechless. While Naked’s passage focused on remaining true to her off-the-wall, joke cracking self, Harrison spoke about acceptance, finding moments of calmness through her art and her husband, and re-discovering every “happy ending” that she had encountered in life.
Oldenbarneveld brought the two authors together after for a more candid discussion on their lives, their cancer, and their art. While many of the same themes of community and “taking every day as they come” held true for both women, their style and demeanour contrasted each other in a way that complimented the theme of the “highs and lows” of the cancer. A rock star for much of her life, Naked saw the disease almost as a blessing; a reason for her life to slow down, an anchor she could use to build friendships and sisterhoods around. She claimed she remained fearless throughout, and with a wedding coming within the next year, she saw no reason for starting to fear now. While still optimistic, Hairrison (who was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer) fully admits to the often times debilitating fear that she first felt after her diagnosis. Finding comfort in her hobbies, namely drawing and traveling, she encourages all who are going through similar circumstances to focus on what brings them the most joy. “There is a darkness available,” she says to a packed room “it’s easy to jump in if you allow it.”
Speaking to a full house whose audience consisted predominantly of women, some of whom were in differing stages of breast cancer treatment themselves, Bif Naked, Teva Harrison and Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld presented a bluntness that is often absent from conversation surrounding cancer. From giving advice as to how to treat and converse with those afflicted, to coming to terms with reality of your situation in your own way, the trio reflected an honest, heartwarming, and often times hilarious view on living with breast cancer; with extra emphasis on the living.
Great poets tell us much about the world in few words. A number of poets focus on a message; the rest are preoccupied with form and structure. No matter the preoccupation, all of us understand that poetry is a forced peek into the human soul, and perhaps we appreciate poems because those glimpses of our souls are rare to catch in the busyness of our daily lives. It was no surprise, then, to find the Christ Church Cathedral packed for the House of Anansi Poetry Bash.The House of Anansi boasts an impressive roster, and I have often sought comfort and laughter in its voices.
The presenting poets–Steven Heighton, Baziju, Suzanne Buffam, and Michael Crummey–are talented and their readings focused on different themes, but together their readings captured a large segment of human experience. I found Baziju’s reflections on ephemerality and the fragile essence of things well considered; Buffam’s lists of the mundane I found to be sublime and funny. Heighton, whose direct approach to acknowledging and surpassing his influences I found remarkable, delivered some well-constructed poems I found slightly underwhelming. I found the readings of the first three poets, while eloquent and imaginative and respectful of poetry’s aims and forms, unable to elicit deeper stirrings within me.
Not Michael Crummey.
Crummey, like John Berryman or Robert Frost, is a poet of the banal, and his ability to evoke is comparable to either man. More so, Crummey feels life pulsing underneath the indignities of human existence, and his most moving reading of the night, Bread, is a song to the unfathomable ways by which love enters the world. In the crowd that night there was a foreigner who spoke some English, and I saw her cry during the reading of Bread and laugh during his reading of Getting the Marriage into Bed. To connect that deeply with a person from a different place with just an adequate understanding of the English language is a thing only great poetry can do.
Sunday brought a beautifully sunny day that then transitioned into a pleasant and balmy evening; finally, summer was on its way! Everyone was in high spirits due to the lovely weather, and the Christ Church Cathedral was packed and abuzz for Sunday night’s event. Bringing together four fantastic crime fiction authors, Scene of the Crime promised “an evening of murder, mayhem and intrigue.” As a huge fan of mystery and crime fiction myself, I was avidly looking forward to the event.
The event was kicked off by host Barbara Fradkin, two-time winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel from Crime Writers of Canada. She noted that crime fiction is often regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’, when, in fact, it is one of the most popular genres of commercial fiction. She believes this is because crime fiction not only provides escapism and a sense of adventure, but it is also a social commentary on the worst, and the best, of human nature. Not only does crime fiction react to the moral and social issues of our time, it also addresses those enduring basic human responses that are as old as time —anger, greed, jealousy, and lust.
First to speak was Ottawa’s own Brenda Chapman, reading from her latest Kala Stonechild novel, Tumbled Graves . Chapman prefaced the reading with her back story and how she got into writing police procedural and mystery novels. Chapman was a senior communications advisor with the federal government for many years, often working with Aboriginal and First Nations peoples, and found this experience spurred her on to start writing about Kala Stonechild, one of the only female First Nations detective leads in a book series. She reads the first few pages of Tumbled Graves, which set a tense and foreboding opening scene and draw the audience into the mystery of the story.
Next up was John Lawton, whose newest novel, The Unfortunate Englishman , is an espionage thriller largely set in Berlin but with a distinctly English voice. Lawton himself was actually in Berlin the day the wall came down! Before diving into his reading, Lawton provided some historical context for the setting of the novel, which takes place during the Cold War. In Lawton’s excerpt we follow a British spy, newly moved to Russia, experiencing all the sights and sounds the country has to offer. I found the story reminiscent of Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond, offering a strong sense of mystery, intrigue and secrecy.
We also heard from Joy Fielding: author of an impressive twenty-six novels, including New York Times bestseller,
Someone is Watching
. Fielding read an excerpt of her newest novel, She’s Not There, which was partly inspired by the Madeleine McCann disappearance. Flicking between the past and present, the story follows a woman who is contacted by a girl claiming to be her daughter who had disappeared in Mexico 15 years earlier. Fielding says the challenge in writing this book was making the two timelines equally engaging and interesting to the reader. Fielding wouldn’t describe herself as a crime writer —she says her books are not so much whodunnits as whydunnits. She likes to write strong, believable female characters that are multilayered and complicated, which is where she feels the appeal lies in her work.
Last to read was Linwood Barclay, a journalist, humourist, and bestselling author of thirteen novels. Barclay is a natural stand-up comedian; speaking in a relaxed and jovial tone, he has the audience frequently breaking out in twitters of laughter. His new book, Far From True , is the second novel in his Promise Falls trilogy, which he wrote back to back. His initial reluctance in writing a trilogy regarded the marketing of the series. Should it be labelled as a trilogy from the start? If people know they have to commit to three novels for the full story, will they even pick up the first book? Despite this concern, Barclay says people have responded very well to the series and are looking forward to the final instalment, which will be released later this year. For his excerpt, Barclay reads just one line from the book — we have to buy it to find out the rest, he says!
A black man in Halifax in the 1950s; a red-haired, grey-eyed girl in a Caribbean family; and a Japanese Canadian during the Second World War: these three very different characters were brought together on the stage of the Ottawa International Writers Festival on April 20 as authors Pamela Mordecai, George Elliott Clarke, and Lynne Kutsukake read from and discussed their recent novels. All three of their protagonists are born into a world in which they do not have an obvious place, and their lives provoke serious, sad reflections on identity and belonging—themes that host Adrian Harewood approached with gravitas and delicacy. Nevertheless, the authors were so obviously delighted to share their characters with the audience that it quickly became a jolly event, with laughter bouncing off the beautiful skylight in Christ Church Cathedral's hall. George Elliot Clarke's toothy grin was like extra lighting.
Clarke, currently Poet Laureate of Canada, introduced the room to Carl Black, the main character of The Motorcyclist , explaining that Carl was a modelled after Clarke's bohemian manqué father. Clarke is clearly smitten with the idea of his father, burdened by his racial identity and his family, being seduced by a glamorized 1950s lifestyle – the "swashbuckling erotic masculinity" of Ian Fleming and men's magazines. His reading of a passage in which Carl has successfully engineered a threesome took on a beat poet rhythm, as he paused to gurgle and lick his lips in delight over his best lines and repeat them - "a big ass armchair, the only kind a man should have ... A BIG! ASS! ARMCHAIR!" and "six legs, and six arms, a sextet if there ever was …. A SEXTET IF THERE EVER WAS." As the scene came to a climax, Adrian Harewood began fanning himself with his program, to everyone's delight.
It seemed like just the right setting: a down-below, warmly lit pub, tucked away from the din of the upstairs patio-lined street, where poetry enthusiasts gathered around tall tables, frothy pints in hand. It was the sort of place where one might encounter characters from the lines of Alexandra Oliver and Nick Thran: ordinary people that unwittingly manifest the “unordinary.”
As the sun set outside, the light streaming through the big skylights in the Christ Church Cathedral hall turned violet and dwindled away. The intimate mood set by the fading light was perfect for the stories told by the three memoirists chosen to read at the Saturday night Ottawa Writer’s Festival event. Inside, a hundred chairs were filled with a rapt audience. The concentric circles of the labyrinth design on the floor encircled all of them - audience, readers, and volunteers – serving as a metaphor for the way great stories draw us in, and bring us closer to the heart of what it means to be human.
After introductions, Craig Davidson was first to read. His memoir, Precious Cargo , tells the story of a year spent driving a bus for children with special needs, and the lessons he learned from their strength and innocence. Davidson was nervous at first, telling the listeners that it was his first public reading from the book. However, he quickly got a rhythm and revealed rich insight and imagery in his writing. He read with emotion, introducing the characters whose stories changed his perspective.
Following him, James Bartleman read from stories spanning 70 years of his life, Seasons of Hope . Bartleman, Ontario’s first Native Lieutenant Governor, demonstrated a long memory and his capacity for empathy, whether he was talking about the death of a friend when he was 6 or the spate of suicides happening now in Attawapiskat. Bartleman seemed unaware of his age as he delved into the past, and read and spoke clearly about his work creating programs to improve the futures for Northern youths. Bartleman has traveled extensively in the North and met with Aboriginal leaders to establish summer reading camps and mental wellness programs with the aim of preventing youth suicide and depression; none of the kids who attended these camps committed suicide, according to Bartleman. He focused on hope as a tool for helping people surmount obstacles including those in his own life, “turning disadvantages into advantages and those of others".
The third reader was Carmen Aguirre, winner of the 2012 Canada Reads Prize for her memoir Something Fierce. She read an excerpt from her new book, Mexican Hooker #1 , detailing how an acting class provided the passage through the memory of traumatic childhood sexual assault and allowed her to let it go. Her reading was infused with passion as she described the different kinds of risk she had encountered and told a tale of willpower and strength in overcoming challenges.
Each of the stories was very different, but weaving them together was the force the human spirit can show while being tested. In the Q & A following the readings, each author discussed the impact on their lives of maintaining perspective and taking positive action. Optimism, courage and hope are key in these stories, and the audience was moved to laughter and compassion. The event was a testament to the power of story; hearing and experiencing the stories around them brought meaning and strength to the lives of the authors, and in sharing them with readers, the stories are sure to change lives.
John Elder Robison speaks forcefully, eloquently, and passionately about living with autism and his experience with an experimental treatment. Robison told his story and shared his understanding and observations on how society reacts to and treats people living with autism. And society isn’t doing very well in either realm.
Robison spoke of his inability, for most of his life, to read other people’s reactions and feelings. As to writing, he calls himself “a truck driver among writers” and “an autistic guy speaking out on behalf of our tribe”. Robison spoke about being teased as a child and feeling bad all his life.
Robison talked of “systemized discrimination” and the “institutionalized shame” of those living with autism. He also spoke of the extraordinary gifts and talents of people with autism. He believes there is a greater variation and range in people with autism than the general population. They have peaks that go higher and lows that go lower.
Almost 10 years ago Robison wrote Look Me in the Eye, a New York Times bestseller. It is currently number 6 on the non-fiction list. His latest book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening , tells of the offer to participate in a trial to use Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) in autism. The objective was to see if TMS would impact the ability to read others’ emotions and for Robison, he hoped TMS would make him “a little less disabled”. During his very interesting career, he spent time as a sound engineer touring with high profile musicians. He understands electromagnetic energy and decided to try TMS. He would participate in the trial. In the end, things did not turn out the way he thought they would. In some areas right after treatment TMS changed the way Robison saw the world. There were 30 experiments in all and they all elicited different responses. There were negative effects where he felt emotionally overloaded by everyday life. There were impacts in his home and work life. But the effects weren’t sustained at a high level. However it left him with an understanding and a sense that his brain built a new natural foundation.
On the matter of whether TMS is a choice for others, Robison was circumspect. It’s not clear who would benefit from TMS and what it means for people of different ages. There are benefits and there are risks to changing to one’s perception of the world after decades of living. John Elder Robison tells his story openly, honestly, with humour and at times with his self described ‘truck driver’ language. He endeared himself to the audience who could have sat and listened and asked questions much past the allotted event time.
John Elder Robison has contributed to work at the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The audience appreciated hearing how he was previously unable to work in a team of five people but with the NIH he worked with 30 people, “and they were all from government!” In working with that group he was described as a unifying voice.
There are many questions yet to be answered about the use of TMS in autism. Robison was careful to not make any blanket statements. Does someone living with autism need to be fixed? “We don’t need to be fixed, we aren’t broken”, he said.
If you weren’t at the event you missed an opportunity to hear an engaging, forthright presentation. His message is heartfelt and does a great deal to raise awareness. It wouldn’t surprise me if his new book will also make its way to the New York Times bestseller list.
Attendees at Saturday afternoon’s event Concussion and the New Science of Brain Plasticity with Clark Elliott were studious and engaged, despite the warm spring day and the sunshine streaming through the big skylights at the Christ Church Cathedral hall. It was a diverse crowd people from all walks of life, many of whom had lives affected by brain injury. Elliott’s book, a case study of his recovery from concussion using unconventional – yet scientifically supported – therapy, could pave the way for research developing treatments to improve the lives of many. According to Elliott, over 6 million Americans have lasting injury from concussions, and “it’s worse in Canada, because of hockey.”
Although Elliott is an unassuming man, his intelligence became clear very quickly while he spoke about the injury he sustained from a minor car accident, the subsequent ongoing symptoms, and his eventual recovery. A computer scientist, professor and expert in the field of Artificial Intelligence with additional degrees in music, Elliot demonstrated a scientific approach to understanding the root cause of the symptoms and the rationale for the effectiveness of the neuro-optometric rehabilitation and cognitive restructuring, which he says led to a complete reclamation of the abilities and personality he had before the accident. He presented his experience with the aid of a slide show, helping the attendees follow along with the complex ideas. His story was moving as he described the loss and recovery of his ability to be himself after injury.
This was not light material, but the audience had their attention held by the promise inherent in Elliott’s remarkable recovery. He read some of the responses to the book he has received from fellow brain injury sufferers, and it is clear that in sharing his experience he has opened a way for many back to a better quality of life. Like Elliott, many of these people have been told, “No one ever improves.” The loss of ability, frightening and painful symptoms, and incursions into daily life by the injury such as balance problems and fatigue are thought to be a life sentence.
Elliott writes to present a possible alternative. Perhaps due to his AI expertise, he was able to understand and document the input and processing errors that were happening in his brain. When, after eight years of lasting effects, he met the therapists whose work would ultimately turn his life around, he was ready. The audience reacted with amazement as Elliott explained the therapies that were used in concert to help him recover; they were little more than specialized prescription glasses and paper-and-pencil tests! However, the tests helped him carve new pathways for cognitive processing in his brain – capitalizing on the principles of neuroplasticity to change the way the brain works. Elliott described how his spacial processing was improved by adjusting for injury in the visual-spacial processing centers with corrective eyewear; this ability is required for bringing meaning to symbolic thought and sensory interpretation. In short, these simple therapies rewired his brain to get around the injury and repair his cognitive ability and processing. Throughout the talk, the audience was filled with nodding heads and a palpable sense of hope. It is clear what a difference this therapy could mean.
Elliot’s story, though, will be a beacon of hope to many suffering from brain injury. Although he was humble and quick to point out where his knowledge falls short - he provided resources, gave credit to the doctors, and let attendees know when he was theorizing and when his statements were backed up by studies, stressing the importance of further study - his case study will change lives.