Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Trigger Warning

Stephen Brockwell introduced the session by briefly recalling the long tradition in western culture of writing about war. There was agreement among the panelists that in more recent times, Pat Barker's powerful Regeneration trilogy (about WWI) stands out as a powerful example for many fictionalized treatments of war. Personalizing war in battle, delving into emotions, violence, hatred as an element of struggle are essential components. For Stephen, all three writers captured the personal impact of war brilliantly. Stephen, himself a highly respected poet, emphasized the exquisitely high quality of the language used in three novels, their intricate description of minute details, the visceral evocation of the physical environment.

Introducing the three authors one by one, Stephen summarized their impressive resumes to date:

Deni Ellis Béchard is a Canadian/American writer, journalist and photographer, a winner of the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Vandal Love (2007). For his new novel, Into the Sun, spending time in Kabul was essential for him to be able to write, grounding him in the reality of time and space. In fact the visualization of war has been a vital aspect for his writing. "We are conditioned by our experiences". Kabul, the place, comes to life in intricate ways.

Kevin Patterson, is a Canadian medical doctor and writer. His short story collection, Country of Cold , won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2003. In 2007 he worked for some time as a medic in Kandahar. His new novel, News from the Red Desert, takes the reader into the centre of the complexities of the Afghanistan war, beginning in 2001, when many thought the war was all but over.

Peter Behrens  is a Canadian/American novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. His debut novel, The Law of Dreams , won the 2006 Governor General's Award for English fiction. His new novel, Carry Me, takes a longer, more historical view of the impact of war on civilians. His novel is complex in structure and wide ranging in the themes it addresses. While there is a love story of sorts at the centre, the novel is much more -  a story of relationships, about grief and loss, about hanging on to dreams in the face of tragedy. The novel moves in and out of timelines, starting with World War I. and leading up to 1938. A central narrative strand is complemented by historical (mostly fictional) documents that slowly reveal the backstory to the central protagonist, a young man, growing up between the wars, without much understanding of the complex realities around him.

A very lively discussion ensued among the panelists, touching on a wide range of topics from the balance between research and writing to the importance of photographs as a means for grounding the author in the realities of the story. The three authors agreed that most research ahead of writing was essential. Each has his own approach to it, yet all agreed that authenticity is achieved when it comes from experiencing the place and the people, otherwise writing is a challenge or even impossible. Photography can help in terms of recalling mood and texture, provide details that give the reader a sense of the place.

Were there any parts that you enjoyed writing? asked Stephen. For Deni it was a difficult book to write. The theme of masculinity and male violence as a means for redemption is so false and it was important to convey the futility of violence. Writing about war and violence is very different from film, where violence is often portrayed as beautiful to watch. The reality of war is chaos. It is about malice and difficult to romanticize. For Peter the challenge was different as the events of WWI and the lead up to WII are well known. But he enjoyed writing about the (brief) period of foreboding and optimism up to 1914. Kevin wonders about how our experiences today shape our vision of war, so different from the times of Pat Barker, still considered the most powerful novels about war.