Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Truth of Narrative and Relationship: Michael Winter and Joseph Boyden

I believe there would have been a time—now far in the distant past—when arriving twenty minutes in advance of a Writers Fest event would have left me ample time to secure a good seat. Not so for “To Thine Own Self Be True” with Michael Winter and Joseph Boyden; alack and alas, I am resigned to witnessing the grandeur of Canadian literature at somewhat of a distance.


I admit that, as per usual, I arrived to review at Writers Fest with relatively little knowledge of the featured authors. To confess: I spend most of my reading hours deep in spiritual memoirs or young adult fiction. Surprisingly, Boyden mentioned that one of his upcoming projects is a young adult novel, so perhaps I am not as unschooled as I originally believed.


Also akin to my prior festival experiences, I count myself as extremely fortunate to have attended an event such as this one. As host Mark Medley, Books Editor for The National Post, pointed out, Winter and Boyden—whom he describes as two of Canada’s foremost storytellers—are “repeat offenders” at the festival. I can certainly see why.


Winter and Boyden have been speaking at various festivals across Canada for the past few months, and tonight’s event at Knox Presbyterian was apparently close to the most people Boyden and Winter have read to. At one point during the event, Boyden manifests some plastic flowers—likely on loan from a church display—to give to Michael as they near the end of their tour together. These two authors have known each other since 2001, a relationship that had early days marked by running with the bulls in Madrid.


Joseph Boyden, who spent a decade of his young life as an altar boy, crossed himself to open the evening, though by no means does he require forgiveness for his works. The same is true of Michael Winter, who deserves similar accolades for his contribution to Canada’s canon.


After both Winter and Boyden had read short selections from their most recent works, host Mark Medley began his interview of the authors. To direct the event back towards its intended theme, Medley began by asking whether there is a difference between being true to oneself as an author versus being true to oneself as a human being. Boyden testified that it is possible to remain true to both history and narrative. It all reminds me of a once upon a time theme of my English department: that the universe is made of stories, not atoms.


I felt a bit like I was eavesdropping on a regular conversation between these two; like I sat at just the right seat in a noisy pub and—by accident—heard bits of conversation. For example, Winter concludes that it is best to just be oneself, writer or otherwise: trying to be Cormac McCarthy results in being laughed at by one’s girlfriend.


Boyden is a firm believer that just because something is true, doesn’t mean it is interesting, but the truth of his relationship with Winter is indeed interesting. Winter and Boyden are an excellent match for speaking together. I lament for those who were not able to attend this event, as it was an excellent glimpse into both the journey of two excellent authors, but also into their long-time friendship.