Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Water & Colour: an evening with Elise Levine, Lori McNulty and Karen Connelly

“Do you think there's any truth to the idea that a writer tends to revisit the same question again and again in all their stories?” host Rhonda Douglas asked the featured authors on Monday night's fiction panel, "What You Want". It's an idea I'd heard before, and one that Lori McNulty, Elise Levine and Karen Connelly seemed largely to reject in their responses. How vaguely would one have to define a central question for that rule to hold, after all?


The thought stayed with me, though, in thinking about the three featured books: though apparently divergent in terms of subject matter and tone, there was a certain hard-to-place common ground that let them fit meaningfully alongside one another.


I was excited to hear Lori McNulty's reading. Her short stories selected for The Journey Prize Stories in recent years have been wonderful, and my hopes were high. I wasn't disappointed. McNulty's stage presence was self-effacing and warm. She opened by asking her listeners to share thoughts on places they loved to travel, before explaining that writing was, for her, the activity that came closest to the freedom of travelling.


McNulty then read an excerpt from one of the short stories in her debut collection, Life on Mars, introducing a man who, once a week, and unbeknownst to his family, dons a disguise and panhandles among the poorer downtown residents of his city. The colour of McNulty's writing, along with her compassionate, unsentimental portrayal of oddballs and outcasts, translated vividly to a live reading.


Quite a bit darker in tone was Elise Levine's reading from her most recent novel, Blue Field. The scenes she read, following two scuba divers and soon-to-be-lovers, were as dream-like as they were intense. Though it's possible it was the title's power of suggestion, I had the impression of seeing the scenes (one underwater, the next in a motel bedroom) as if through a blue-green filter – a hypnotic and oddly sinister effect.


Levine later explained that an early draft of this novel was over 600 pages long. Now, in its published form, it's quite a slender volume. Whatever distillation process she used to get to the final product, it has left her with highly concentrated, high-impact imagery demanding slow, thoughtful digestion.


The evening took another turn, tonally speaking, with Karen Connelly's reading from her new novel, The Change Room, which deals with a married woman having an affair with a female sex worker she first meets at a swimming pool. Before reading, Connelly told us there was a significant element of fantasy-fulfillment in this novel, and that the protagonist was like her in a lot of ways. I was surprised to hear her say so as readers' tendency to imagine any equivalence between author and protagonist usually seems to frustrate writers. Connelly apparently had no issue with it, in this case.


Marital infidelity aside, The Change Room is no Anna Karenina. While host Rhonda Douglas had warned the audience this was a sexy piece of writing, I didn't realize the reading would have most of the audience laughing out loud. Connelly later pitched her book as being “as consumable as a cinnamon bun,” and let us know that it was something she'd started writing mainly to make herself happy.


More than once during the discussion following the reading, the panel addressed the fact that the three featured books didn't necessarily have a lot of obvious overlap. One recurrent theme Douglas proposed was that each story dealt with moments of irrevocable character transformation – moments after which “nothing would ever be the same.” While it's undoubtedly true, it struck me that this could be said of almost all stories published, and that, for many writers and their readers, this more or less determines whether a story is worth telling. Regardless, the differences between the books weren't jarring, in my opinion – and perhaps even more could have been made of all three authors' command of evocative and poetic language, a shared feature that definitely stood out during the readings.


Perhaps the most memorable moment of the evening came when Rhonda Douglas asked the panel to share their thoughts on writing about sex. Following Connelly's enthusiastic response and Levine's thoughtful take on using sex scenes to manifest characters' deeper conflicts, Lori McNulty confessed to feeling a bit awkward talking about the subject on a live panel, and joked that she wished she'd had some wine first. Moments later, festival artistic director Sean Wilson bounded up to the stage with a glass of wine, leading her to remark, above the audience's laughter, “This is why I come to Ottawa!”