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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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Writing Your Life: Amber Dawn, Iain Reid and Miriam Katin

Entering the side entrance of the Knox Presbyterian church I see what looks like over 100 people seated in perfect rows facing a large stage.  The stage has four empty red chairs facing outwards, a large blue screen in the background and a pale wood podium on the right, where a woman with a long shock of red hair reads her work, “I learned that I’ll get my head stuck under the steering wheel for a blow job.” And then I quietly find an empty seat in the audience while everyone is still being transported by the reader and I hear her again, “No kissing, no real names, no playing house. I hold my breath and stare at the wall until he’s finished.” And it’s all too clear what she’s describing. 


Amber Dawn is reading from her gritty and powerful memoir, How Poetry Saved My Life .  It’s a frank, painful and sometimes funny account of a woman’s life as a hustler on the streets of Vancouver: what it did to her and how she was saved by poetry. After her compelling read, Ms. Dawn is followed by Miriam Katin, the author of a debut graphic novel called, We Are On Our Own , who reveals herself as a short woman with salt and pepper hair pulled neatly into a bun in the back of her head.  She’s wearing a plain black jacket and large round eye glasses.  While standing at the podium, the screen beside her projects an image of a two or three-year-old girl who is standing next to a home with a short iron railing in front of her while Ms. Katin tells us about her life with a strong Hungarian accent, “The shadow of that iron railing cast a shadow on my body and I always thought of it as an omen of things to come.”  She laments over the hardships during the Second World War and the passing of time, while stunning drawings of this woman in front of us are depicted with many different prompts and people in movement, torment and toil on the screen beside her.  Then she calls out in exasperation, “I thought it was over and then my son announced that he wanted to live in Germany.” But, she admitts, there was one consolation, “Dry martinis were my nice personal savior,” and the audience bellows out loud as she ends her reading and sits down.  


In stark contrast to Ms. Katin’s stature, she is replaced at the podium by the much taller, Iain Reid, writer of the The Truth About Luck , a memoir on a birthday gift-road trip to Kingston, Ontario with his 92 year-old grandmother. Dressed in a brown sweater and a blue shirt and tie, the stoic balding figure with glasses begins to read a comical and touching tale about how his brother Jimmy and he, sat in the Manx Pub in Ottawa, Ontario, and through a process of elimination, conspired to take his grandmother to Kingston for her birthday and have her pay for it.  The audience exploded with laughter at the hilarious banter of these dueling brothers.  The evening ended with the host and three writers sitting in the red chairs and responding to audience questions where even deeper truths were revealed about things like their first writing experiences, how they wrote about real people in their lives and what it takes to write about their own lives, “It is an act of bravery” called out Amber Dawn.  “We just hope that people appreciate it.  I get thanks all of the time and it gives me courage.”


Essentials Of The Short Story: A conversation on craft with Nancy Jo Cullen and Tamas Dobozy

I slipped into my seat just as John Metcalf was being introduced as the host for the noon hour discussion.   I missed a minute or two of the introduction but heard Mr. Metcalfe described as accomplished, witty and irascible.  As the session unfolded, it was apparent that what I did hear summed it up very nicely. Metcalfe is well known in Canadian literature as an educator, editor and writer   He told the audience, tongue in cheek, the short story has been described as “admirable and virtuous but not quite grown up -  like the NDP.”   Malcolm Bradbury, English author and academic, defined the short story as a major form of literary expression.  Metcalf took charge of the conversation and treated those gathered to a conversation delving into the thought process of two accomplished short story authors.


Nancy Jo Cullen, author of Canary  and Tamas Dobozy  author of Siege 13  were asked about landscapes they chose for their short stories.  Cullen writes from an urban landscape.  She said she is “interested in bad decisions” that people make and she likes “the problems of recovery.”  Dobozy said he uses “the intellectual to sequence the plot” and he tries to base the story in emotion.


The authors were asked to describe where their stories come from and how they go about beginning their stories.  The first paragraph is the essential part of the story according to Cullen.  There is a dominant emotion she tries to capture from the onset.  For Dobozy the title or first sentence form the basis from which the rest of the story grows.  He said there is something simultaneous that happens in reading a short story; it happens all at once in a readers mind.


The authors discussed the challenges of writing a short story.  Metcalfe believes endings are the most difficult.  Cullen looks for a “shift at the end” where she wants the characters to live on in the readers mind.  Dobozy has thrown out stories as he couldn’t end them.  He has also ended stories and only then does he realize what the story is about.


As the conversation progressed Metcalf observed how easily all three of them had been referencing others.  He believes all successful short story writers have a personal library in their heads, of other authors, stories and excerpts they draw upon as they go about their craft.


The authors were asked how they know, at the onset, that something will be a short story and not a novella or a novel.  Cullen responded this was not an issue as she constrains herself to the length of a short story.  Dobozy voiced a similar response as he said there is a conscience intention when you sit down.


Each of the authors read an excerpt from their latest book.  Cullen read from the story Valerie’s Bush and Dobozy read from The Atlas of B. Görbe. 


It’s a rare treat and a privilege to hear three accomplished authors speak openly about their thought processes, the inspiration for their stories and the discipline they employ as they go about their craft. During the discussion Dobozy made reference to a saying that in writing beginnings are easy, middles are challenging and endings are impossible.  The noon hour conversation was insightful and interesting at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.


My lyric or yours? A Review of “Random Play” Hosted by Alan Neal

Every day, as I settle into my car, put on my seat belt, adjust the mirrors my hand naturally finds its way to the radio dial where the soothing voices of the CBC await.


All in a Day is my “relax after class” show. On air from 3-6 every week day, the host Alan Neal has a way about his voice, that draws the listener in turning any topic into one of interest. The moment I saw Neal’s name on the Writer’s Fest Spring line up, I knew I had to attend.


The Knox Presbyterian Church was brimming with people and chatter as I took my seat, pen and notebook in hand. As Neal took the stage, he introduced the topic of the evening -“Random Play.” Prior to the event, Neal played his iPod on “random” and proceeded to select the first 10 songs played. Neal then attempted to find out every last detail about each of these songs- from who composed them, to what inspired them, to the meaning of the lyrics that define them. These 10 songs came from an array of artists, both local and international, from the modern day to eras past, allowing for an eclectic mix of musical tastes, themes and contexts. Neal used his creative insights to explain each song, going so far as to reach out to the widows of the composers, thus imbuing each song with meaning beyond its basic value. Following his description and individual interpretation and research conducted for each song, the song would then be performed by either the artists themselves or the by a local artist on behalf of an artist passed or too distant to join us for the evening.


Proceeding in “coffee house style,” artists took the stage to perform the songs previously described by Neal. The local artists were quite impressive, interacting with the audience and playing along with Neal’s casual approach to the evening. From Halifax’s Jenn Grant, to Ottawa based Kelly Lee Evans – the music was beautiful and intriguing. For example, for one of Jenn Grant’s songs about “being born in a lion’s mouth,” Neal sought the advice of professors of mythology, which of course added humour and insight to the lyrics themselves. While each songs’ description maintained its own quirks, and garnered its own “ah-ha” moments and giggles from the audience, there is one interpretation presented by Neal that I would like to focus on.


Like many of the previous songs of the evening, the fifth song was one that I had never heard before. Titled “Captain Finch,” it was written by Ottawa singer-song writer Jim Bryson in 2003. In and amongst the witty and often times funny explanations of the 10 songs selected and their meanings, it was Neal’s description of his journey to find meaning in the song that was most powerful.


After being unsuccessful in his attempt at finding a Captain Finch in the Canadian Armed Forces, Neal moved his search south to our US neighbor, where he discovered a “real, live” Captain Finch with whom he shared Bryson’s song.


As a Navy Chaplain for the United States Army, Captain Finch approached the song from a different angle than Jim Bryson could ever have fathomed.


On 9/11 Captain Finch had been called to Manhattan to provide people with comfort on that tragic and traumatic day. When listening to lyrics of Bryson’s song, which read “Captain Finch, would find a friend?,” the real Captain Finch was reminded of that very day. In his recorded interview with Neal, Captain Finch recalled that on 9/11, in the midst of the horror, he was “simply there to be a friend,” to those whose friends and family were never found.


Bryson was astounded to hear Captain Finch’s interpretation of his words, and was moved. Bryson explained to the audience that he wrote the lyrics when his friend were going away to school – a completely different concept from the one that Captain Finch had interpreted. This difference in the interpretation of the song provided by Neal through his research and the “expert advice” he garnered, and that of the song’s original composer is embodied by the story of Captain Finch. This discrepancy between interpretations, as they are influenced by life experience was, to my mind, the most fascinating component of the evening. How a song can take on a different meaning than what was intended by the composer, is just one of the many magical components of music.


As a fellow graduate student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs (NPSIA), I would be remiss to mention the performance by Andy Conte and Ethan Kraus, fellow NPSIANs who took one line from each of the 10 songs selected and created a comprehensive song. As the winners of the song competition, they were granted the opportunity to perform live. Their song was fun, and had the audience clapping! While it was a tad bit lengthy, overall Neal’s interpretation of song and accompanying case of performers, made for a light, fun and enjoyable evening.


Think Beyond Your Own Fork: Food and Community with Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis



Photo credit: Christie Esau


Give me anything relating to community, grassroots movements, or social justice, and I’m all in. And, judging by the attendance at this afternoon’s talk with Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis, it seems like plenty of other attendees were with me too.


The recent book collaboration by Saul and Curtis—the subtitle of which I will skip repeating, considering the authors did the same—chronicles the story of, in short, moving from transactions to transformation. The Stop , a small food bank that Nick Saul began working at in 1998 on Davenport Road in Toronto, has now blossomed into a well-staffed organization with a $4.5 million dollar annual budget. As host Joanne Chianello of the Ottawa Citizen pointed out, the accomplishments of The Stop are far too numerous to list.


The Stop is now a community food centre rather than a food bank. Saul and Curtis describe The Stop's model as one which embraces dignity, hope and humanity. They also jokingly refer to it as a family business, an accurate statement based on their partnership, and Curtis’ early (and volunteer) communications work for the organization.


One of the resounding themes of Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis’ talk today—and, of course, in the work they do on the ground—is that it is essential to remove the ever-common ‘us versus them’ divide. As Saul and Curtis can attest from their early days involved with The Stop, a food bank is just a band-aid; a transaction in which one person gives and another receives. They believe that people are more than just consumers of food.


There are three million people in Canada who are food insecure, which is the equivalent of Saskatchewan’s population three times over. For the number buffs out there, that’s almost nine percent of our entire population as a country. That is, clearly, far too many people without adequate and appropriate food.


I admit that I just picked up my copy of Saul and Curtis’ book, but I can predict that it will be a delightful read. Today’s talk emphasized the importance and power of storytelling, and—especially from Curtis’ point of view—reclaiming social history. Thus, Saul and Curtis’ book not only tells rarely heard stories, but moreover empowers the story tellers. As Nick Saul pointed out, stories are not easily dismissed, whereas ideas often are.


From days of the early 1980s at St. Stephen-of-the-Fields, to the mid-1990s at the Davenport location, to the current national expansion work via Community Food Centres Canada, The Stop has made a lot of progress over the years. One highlight Saul and Curtis discussed is The Stop’s somewhat recent project The Green Barn. Located in an old TTC maintenance barn, The Green Barn provides educational centres, sheltered gardens, greenhouses and kitchens. Saul and Curtis remarked that this particular project is a great avenue to bridge gaps; because relationships built at The Green Barn—which is located in a more middle class and thus economically stable area than the Davenport location—can lead to creative solutions to hunger.


As Saul reminded, you have to create spaces for the future you want to see. Clearly, Nick Saul and Andrea Curtis are working tirelessly for the future they want; one centered around maintaining dignity for all people while ensuring they have access to good healthy food and a safe community. 


Raising Cubby: Life with Asperger's

John Elder Robison has Asperger’s. So does his son, Cubby.  Robison – who has authored two books on how he turned his “disorder” (read: difference) into a pillar of strength – was determined that his own son would grow up with a positive self-concept and that he never would be forced to forfeit his special traits and curiosities. Robison’s new book, Raising Cubby: A Father and Son's Adventures with Asperger's, Trains, Tractors, and High Explosives, is not just another guidebook for parents of children with special needs. There’s a whole lot of father-son mischief too. And at Saturday’s Writersfest event, there was also a little reminiscing about Robison’s days on the road with KISS and other legendary bands. 


Robison’s talk focused mostly on the mischief. Stories about Cubby finding his way into nuclear plants and naval ship control rooms had the audience in stitches – “My son Cubby is a shareholder. He would like a tour, please and thanks.” The story about fixing and flaunting Chairman Mao’s last Mercedes limo was also priceless.


There were discussions aplenty about what must be done to improve life and career outcomes for those on the autism spectrum. There were many parents of autistic children in the audience, and several rose during the question period to thank Robison for giving them hope.


Robison’s main point: like most young people, those ‘on the spectrum’ are seeking a solid education, a rewarding career with the possibility for advancement, and fulfilling relationships. For Robison, this last one – “I went and got me a wife” – is the most important. His tone is characteristic of many people with Asperger’s I have encountered – straightforward without a hint of sarcasm: “getting a girlfriend is more important than getting a job.” The theory is quite simple: become “choose-able” to potential romantic partners. Parents and peers can provide kids like Cubby a great deal of useful practical advice for becoming “choose-able” [and certainly one does not need to be on the spectrum to benefit from social skills coaching!]. Instead of saying, “you’re autistic so it’s expected that you’ll have no friends,” we can say, “try doing X instead of Y, and folks on the playground won’t make fun of you.” It’s about trial and error, and a healthy dose of patience and creativity.


But before all that can happen, society must recognize the value and worth of autistic individuals’ skills and talents. It is interesting to note that parents in the audience asked questions about how to make their kid “choose-able” for [read: successful at conforming to] the job market. Yet, Robison placed primary emphasis on interpersonal relationships and dating. This reminded me of a recent class with Dr. Peggy Kleinplatz at the University of Ottawa, wherein we discussed how too often clinicians fail to consider how one’s condition/difference/delays/disability will impact relationships and sexuality. 


More than once did Robison declare, “Being autistic saved me.” How so? At one level, being autistic “protected” him from being affected by abuse and trauma – obliviousness as a coping mechanism. But more importantly, his autism leads him to think differently than others, to solve problems with cognitive patterns unique to him – and all of this boded well for his career as an electronics and music wiz, author, and father. As he put it, “each of us must find what is special about us.” And parents, teachers, youth workers and the like can help in this process by giving autistic kids a range of experiences so they can assess their strengths and interests. This means we need a shift from obsessive pathologizing to a focus on exposing autistic youth to the possibilities that await them.


Whereas today’s youth are ascribed a psychopathological label early on, Robison was diagnosed at age 40. We don’t yet know the effects of living with such a label throughout one’s formative years, but we’re about to find out. As a generation of autistic youth enter early adulthood and seek their first jobs and serious relationships, now is the time for the sort of productive, mature, communal, yet amicable discussion proposed in Raising Cubby. Robison’s talk laid the groundwork for significant progress, and it’s no surprise he has been advising top research institutions and government agencies on better conceptualizing and serving those on the spectrum. I feel privileged to benefit from his lucid recommendations and contagious optimism, as well. 


Time Traveling with Chris Impey; back to the origins of the Universe

Unsurprisingly, many aspiring time travellers arrived in time to listen to Chris Impey speak on Saturday.  Impey was presenting material from his recent book on cosmology,  How it Began: A Time Traveler’s Guide to the Universe .  I was impressed at the diversity of the audience, all interested in learning more about the origins and nature of the universe.  Impey’s presentation was essentially Cosmology 101, informing us of the current scientific understanding of the universe.


Impey divided his presentation into three major sections: the history of cosmology, the Big Bang, and current research and theories on ideas as diverse as String Theory, the Multiverse, and Brane Theory (M-Theory).  The presentation was well polished, and the visuals were excellent.  Many of his slides used vintage comics to illustrate his talking points, images were shown of the farthest reaches of visible space, and several videos added to his message. 


In his presentation on the History of Cosmology, he explained the evolution of humanity’s attempt to answer the two questions on the nature of the universe: does the universe have a physical boundary, and does it have a temporal beginning and ending


He shared the impact of Isaac Newton, William Herschel, Edwin Hubble, and Albert Einstein on our attempts to answer those two questions.  One of his main points shared was that by looking farther out into the universe, we also have the advantage of actually looking back in time.  Light that has travelled farther is much older, so if we look at light from a star that’s one million light years away, we’re looking at the universe as it was one million years ago.  The most advanced telescopes we have right now are able to look out over 13 billion light-years, so we are able to observe closer and closer to the origins of the universe which is understood to be 13.8 Billion years old.  We’re getting closer and closer to actually observing conditions at the beginning of the universe, as much as visible light will ever be able to show anyway.


Impey’s next topic was the Big Bang.  It was at this point I started to get lost in the presentation.  I understood the surface points he was making--such that the name, “Big Bang” implies an explosion, which is incorrect as there was never an “explosion”.  Impey did expand that this theory is scientifically the best understanding we have of the origins of the universe and it has been proven through multiple sources of experimentation. 


But, as Impey began to explain how cosmic microwave radiation was evidence of the Big Bang, I started to struggle.  By the time Impey was discussing String Theory and the Multiverse, I was completely lost.  Perhaps if I had read How it Began before the talk, I would have been able to follow, but it was clear my Engineering education and my love of Star Trek didn’t help me comprehend the remainder of the presentation.  This isn’t to say the talk was bad – quite the contrary, Impey is a very talented communicator, there was just too much information being communicated in a short time.  Much of the information took me a while to understand, so while I was chewing on one idea, he moved on and left me behind.  I felt like I was back in an undergraduate class frantically taking down notes in the hope they would make sense later when I read the textbook. 


Those that had read Impey’s work clearly got more out of this presentation than others, as I wasn’t the only one who felt intimidated.  I overheard one conversation afterwards, where the person said that they “wished they were smarter so they could have understood.”  


Despite my struggle to follow, I really enjoyed the presentation.  Impey at one point shared that it is the job of science to explore the border between what we know and what we do not understand.  I felt that this talk was a great presentation of that boundary with regards to the nature of the universe.  I think it will be really enjoyable to read Impey’s books, How it Began and How it Ends .  Impey concluded his presentation with the point that despite all the unknowns that remain, despite the puzzle pieces that have yet to be placed in our understanding, cosmology is keeping both the small (quarks) and the large (the cosmos) elements in view.  This is a difficult balancing act to achieve, but it is critical if we are to progress further in our understanding of our universe.



Every Happy Family

The “Every Happy Family” was a full house of those eager to hear Cathy Marie Buchanan, Saleema Nawaz, and Shyam Selvadurai talks about their latest novels: The Painted Girls , Bone and Bread , and The Hungry Ghosts respectively. The night began with host Mark Medley of The National Post introducing each author, and who then read an excerpt from their respective stories. Buchanan detailed how she came to be interested in the story of Marie van Goethem. She was watching a documentary on Edgar Degas’ sculpture “Little Dancer,” and as a dancer herself Buchanan became extremely interested in the sculpture and the story of the girl who posed for it.


Buchanan’s Marie is a young ballet dancer who enters the Paris Opera Ballet who must sort out issues of family, sisterhood, male suitors, and the difficulties of growing up in the underclass of 1880s Paris. The sculpture was exhibited next to a sketch of two young criminals who Buchanan then imagined to be acquaintances of Marie’s and thus the intricate and complex relationships of the story were born. At the time of the exhibit there was much speculation about the criminal physiognomy of both Marie’s sculpture and the sketch of the young men and Buchanan points out that many scholars think Degas was in fact implying that people like Marie and the young criminals were innately criminal and depraved.


Saleema Nawaz was next to take the stage - a native of Ottawa and graduate of Carleton University - her book centers on two sisters growing up in Montreal. The sisters are faced with the death of their mother and each deal with this loss in different ways, the excerpts give the audience a sense that Nawaz’s novel is a sad coming of age story punctuated by sharp wit and humour.


Shyam then introduced his own story as a novel of memory taking place over the course of one night. The main character is a gay man in his 30’s living in Toronto but he and his mother are journeying to bring his grandmother from Sri Lanka to Toronto so that she can spend her last days there with them. He spends the trip recalling his life in Sri Lanka and in particular his difficult relationship with his grandmother.


After each author had read their excerpts and given the audience some background to their stories, they all gathered as a panel to discuss the themes of their stories with Mark. Cathy gave the audience a detailed background to the origins of her novel, and Mark asked the other authors what inspired their stories of family and coming of age.

Saleema discussed how Bone and Bread began as a short story and was inspired by the very first sentence of the novel. She was struck by the idea of two sisters losing their periods at the same time, one from becoming pregnant and one from developing an eating disorder.


Shyam said that his story was inspired by the idea of the grandmother character polishing silver as she does in one of the excerpts the audience was read. He said once he started writing her character she just would not shut up. He found an instinctive voice in her but then began to panic because it was not the story he set out to write. Cathy then agreed that as she did with Marie’s older sister, Antoinette, you sometimes simply have to give the characters the voice they demand and go with them.


Mark pointed out that each story was a kind of coming of age story that all dealt with unhappy families, and the authors discussed how families are a kind of juicy subject to talk about because they are a kind of unknowable and readers are always able to relate to the kinds of struggles and relationships families have. Mark moved on to talk about how he felt that one phrase in Saleema’s novel was extremely poignant and could be applied to all three novels, one of her characters says “too much closeness keeps people apart.” Saleema said this was true of the sisters in her novel because they always lived in such close quarters and cared for one another it became a kind of marriage they did not sign up for. Cathy said the problem with the van Goethem sisters was that they simply cared too much for each other which created problems between them. Shyam said that in his novel, the grandmother loves her grandson too much and has too many expectations for him which drives them apart.


Every story dealt with coming of age and family relations and each author was able to relate to one another’s stories. It was an interesting night that truly inspired reflection on the different definitions of family and the desire to write and read about something that is both knowable and unknowable.    


Suddenly, A Knock on the Door: with Etgar Keret at the NAC

I must confess to committing the minor literary sin of omission right here at the start of my review: I have not read any of Etgar Keret’s short stories. As a matter of fact the only thing I knew about the Israeli novelist before seeing him read from his latest book   Suddenly, A Knock on the door  was his co-director’s credit (his collaborator on the project being his wife Shira Geffen) for the critically acclaimed 2007 Israeli independent film Jellyfish.

Truthfully, I was far more interested in seeing Wiretap radio host, novelist, comedian, and Canadian answer to Woody Allen, Jonathan Goldstein. I’ve been religiously downloading the show for many years and I am a massive fan of the eccentric Montreal based cast of characters, some of whom remind me vaguely of certain people I was surrounded with growing up in that crazy city myself. I have also enjoyed the humour of Goldstein’s literary debut; a satirical take on the good book called Ladies and Gentleman: the Bible.

After spending an evening with Goldstein and Keret, however, at last night event at the National Art Centre, I must admit that I came away from the experience with the exact opposite feeling from the one that I had going in. That is to say, I marvelled at the wit, wisdom, intelligence and brilliant sense of humour of Keret, and hardly even noticed Goldstein’s presence at all!


A sample of some of the former’s more side-splitting quotes below.


On using sacred language of scriptures, Hebrew, as language for modern life: “It’s inappropriate to ask about the restroom.”


On writing non-fiction: “It’s for pussies!”


On bigotry: “Right wingers take it out on Arabs. Racists take it out on blacks. I am on the liberal left. I don’t have anyone to take it out on!”


On the question he wishes someone in his audience would ask, but never does: "For someone so good looking, how come you're a writer and not a model?"


Keret opened with a reading from his latest collection of short stories entitled The bus driver who thought he was God.  Like so much of the writer’s work this story was born when he witnessed an incident on the streets of his hometown of Tel Aviv involving an old lady laden with groceries, chasing after a bus. This is a theme that he would return to repeatedly in the course of his one and half hour interview. It seems that many of his best ideas for stories come from his own everyday life experiences living in Israel.  He claims that his writing style is unpretentious, not because he sets out to write in plain language and make his work more accessible, but because he lacks the craft and technical gifts to write like “real writers” do.


Goldstein put several good questions to the author, though often it was Keret who was the lively chatterbox, with firecracker wit to boot. He was content to natter on charmingly on everything from his marriage to his bowel movements. He was amazingly open about his personal life, the creative process and his insights into the way of the world today and the authors place in it. By the end of the evening, he had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. And we who had been treated to joke after joke - each one funnier than the last - could not help but nod our heads in agreement with Goldstein when he said that it was really fun asking Keret questions. With an author as gregarious and endearing as Keret, the host and crowd don’t need to do much work at all.  Just settle into your chair and brace yourself for the laughs.    


419: One on one with Will Ferguson

Photo Credit: Christie Esau


Settling into my seat at Southminster United Church felt vaguely reminiscent of being on an airplane, which is oddly appropriate, given our guest of honour’s history of travel writing. After a brief introduction by Alan Neal, host of CBC’s All in a Day, we welcomed author Will Ferguson, three-time winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour and the 2012 recipient of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. We were certainly in for a treat.


As a preamble: Ferguson had spoken with Neal in studio at his CBC Radio One show All In A Day; an interview worth your listen.


I admit that, prior to my attendance at this event, my knowledge of Will Ferguson was limited to knowing that he is a Canadian travel and humour writer, and that he had attended the same high school as my husband. Clearly, I had much to learn. 419 , Ferguson’s most recent publication and the focus of tonight’s event, has been alleged by some to be a departure from his previous works. As anyone who has read Ferguson’s other works will surely attest, 419 is not really a departure. Rather, 419 takes readers to a place where pain exists, and—unlike a favourite story of Ferguson’s son—there are no more friendly ducks of childhood visiting to cheer us up.


Ferguson opened the evening by reading from both Canadian Pie and 419. The selection from Canadian Pie, a non-fiction anthology of Ferguson’s writing, reminds us that the Hardy Boys are a very different entity for a ten-year-old than they are for an adult. It only took a few short minutes for Ferguson to get hearty and frequent laughs out of everyone present, which proves even more so that he is greatly talented in crafting—sometimes humourous—stories from the everyday stuff of life.


One of the things I enjoyed most about this event was the depth with which Alan Neal delved into Ferguson’s writing process. Once upon a time, I was a student of literature, and all these questions of process are encouraging for the rest of us. Ferguson tells that his first idea for 419 was a “what if?” about Internet scams; namely, what if somebody tried to get their money back? I find it absolutely marvelous that a seemingly simple question can take us through stories and places as vast and complex as those of 419.


The biggest question asked by Ferguson through 419 is, however, would you kill for your child? This is the thread that draws Ferguson’s non-fiction humour pieces into 419; the love and struggles of parenting and relationships.


Near the end of the evening, Ferguson spoke of a conversation he had with a Nigerian man after 419 was published. Apparently, the man was surprised by how accurately Ferguson portrayed family in his book, to which Ferguson replied, “family is the same.” Ferguson is an expert at converting simple, common elements of story into dark and wonderful fiction.


I must admit, I made the distinct error of showing up at tonight’s event having not read Ferguson’s most recent title. Now, as I wade through the mires of near-overdue library books, I am certainly adding 419 to the top of my ‘to read’ pile. The last time Ferguson was in Ottawa for the Writers Festival was for its fifth anniversary on September 12th, 2001. Here’s hoping that his next appearance at the Festival is in much less than a dozen years!


Wit and Wisdom from Alexander McCall Smith

It was a packed house on April 10th to see acclaimed author Alexander McCall Smith. While people shuffled through the pews of the Southminster United Church to find seats, I couldn't help but hear a number of excited fans talking about his books (and the words "charming" and "delightful" popped up quite a bit!) Listening to how warmly these audience members were talking about his work, it was no wonder that the event was sold out.


Actually, within ten seconds of hearing our kilt-clad Guest of Honour speak, it was also no wonder that his fans had chosen such affectionate words to describe McCall Smith and his work. He had everyone in stitches in no time, making the words "charming" and "delightful" pop up in my own mind, too. Clearly used to doing speaking engagements, McCall Smith opened with some jokes and a quick discussion about the importance of a novel's first line. His personal favourites include the first lines of Out of Africa (Isak Dinesen) and The Towers of Trebizond (Rose Macaulay). In particular, McCall Smith elicited giggles from the audience by emphasizing the intrigue that Rose Macaulay sets up with her first line ("'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass"), noting that "there aren't enough camels in contemporary fiction."


As he took his seat opposite the evening's host, Inger Ash Wolfe aka Michael Redhill, McCall Smith asked which glass of water was his, joking: "When you're talking to a writer of mysteries, you have to be careful with the switching could be part of the plot."


McCall Smith's quick wit was evident in all facets of their conversation, and he struck me as a brilliant man who is genuinely interested in people and what makes them tick. He clearly was not shy about discussing any topic (ranging from Freud's interpretation of the subconscious to Canadian ice fishing), and his good-natured curiosity about life likely feeds into the pleasure that he gets from writing—which is a good thing because he certainly writes a lot!


McCall Smith noted that he writes while he travels, and he's currently working to finish a novel in the 44 Scotland Street series. As the novels are first published in serial form in The Scotsman (the daily newspaper in Edinburgh), he must submit a chapter each day to the editor of the paper. "In nine years of doing it, we've never missed a deadline," he said, even though it came close once when he was travelling and lost his internet connection. In addition to his serial novel, McCall Smith is also working to finish another book by the end of June (this year), and yet another book by the end of July (also this year!). This discussion led the host to ask the question that was on everyone's mind: "How do you write so much?"


McCall Smith's answer made a lot of jaws drop: "I'm quite fortunate in that I usually write about 1000 words an hour...which will obviously add up." He also noted the importance of having a regime (he gets up early each morning to write for a few hours, sometimes starting at 4am), but the words "1000 words an hour" were the ones that rang the loudest in my ears. (I was a bit slow in picking my own jaw off the floor.) He joked about how it was really the fact that he had a word processor that made it so easy to write quickly, pointing out that authors such as Sir Walter Scott had to write everything out by hand (and imagine how many more books—or how much longer his existing books would have been—if Scott had been able to type them). Jumping to one of the tangents that I ended up quoting the next day (out of context, for my own amusement), McCall Smith explained that Sir Walter Scott had gallstones while he was writing, so he must have been in exceptional discomfort. "If an author had gallstones while writing," he said with a chuckle. "Then book clubs should really be more charitable. You should ask yourselves ahead of time, 'Is this a gallstone novel?'"


I must admit that I have a special soft spot for authors who love their characters, and McCall Smith truly seems to love his—especially Bertie from the 44 Scotland Street series. "He came to me out of nowhere," he said. "I'm so fond of that little boy." He is so fond of him, in fact, that he giggled as he regaled the audience with stories about what six-year-old Bertie has encountered and endured in Edinburgh...which, naturally, set the audience into more fits of laughter, too.


As the conversation turned to his strong female characters and Africa, McCall Smith countered the criticism that he sometimes receives about sugar-coating life in his novels by stressing that he wants people to know that there are a lot of good news stories happening in Africa, too—that people are "leading constructive lives in the face of very different circumstances. That [positive] reality is part of the picture, as well," he said. "People have the strange idea that fiction must focus on the dysfunction of life, that you're not being realistic unless you focus on the dysfunction."  Being realistic, however, also means understanding that "lots of people in Scotland [for example] are living very straight-forward lives. Very few of them actually go around stabbing each other—except on weekends." (More laughter. I'm surprised that I could take so many notes, given how many times he got everyone laughing. My handwriting did get shaky at times as I tried to write something down in the midst of a cackle, though.) In terms of his strong female characters, McCall Smith noted that what interests him most is women who have to be good at dealing with negative situations (including historical patriarchy) when—or even because—the odds are stacked against them. "Their wit [is] their weapon against the condescension of men." 


It is safe to say that Alexander McCall Smith has sky-rocketed to the top of my list of authors with whom I would like to go out for coffee/tea/beer/scotch. I could have listened to him for another hour (at least), but the event came to an end so that he could sign books for his very satisfied fans. If he comes back for a future edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival , I will definitely be buying my ticket well in advance - and I highly recommend that you do the same!