Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Where You Stumble

I entered Knox Presbyterian Church in more of a rush than I would have hoped, thanks to the perpetual lateness of buses, and was greeted by the buzz of a room filled with literature enthusiasts excited about the evening ahead. This, in turn, made me even more enthusiastic about the event. Where You Stumble brought together three fantastic Canadian authors - Miriam Toews, Jonathan Bennett and Arjun Basu - to discuss their latest novels and their work in general. I have to admit, as a badly-informed Brit, I was only familiar with Miriam Toews before deciding to attend this event but I quickly caught myself up on Bennett and Basu to fully understand how interesting the discussion would be.


The evening was hosted by Sandra Abma, who asked all the right questions at all the right times and often seem in awe of her interviewees, as we all would have been in her place. We were first treated to readings by the authors from their most recent works, starting with Arjun Basu whose novel Waiting for the Man is about a man who starts listening to a voice in his head (“the man”) who ends up taking him on a journey, both physically and metaphorically - as is the case with all the best literature. Next up was Jonathan Bennett who thoroughly surprised me by being Australian. Once I’d got over his accent, I was interested to learn that his latest novel – The Colonial Hotel, a loose retelling of the story of Helen of Troy, moving the tale to an unspecified developing country where Paris is a doctor for an NGO and Helen is a nurse – started life as an eighty page poem. From the excerpt he shared with us, I think poetry’s loss is definitely the novel’s gain. Finally we heard from Miriam Toews whose novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is about sisterhood, love and loss. She read from the second chapter of the book and left it on such a cliff-hanger that I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy to find out what happens next.


All three novels take their protagonists on journeys, and this was the focus of the discussion which followed the readings. It was interesting to hear how the novels had come into being, from idea to page, and that the story can go to places even the author wasn’t expecting. I particularly enjoyed Bennett’s comment that he sometimes learns about his own books through his readers’ personal insight something which, as a former literature student, I think gives an extra level to all those essays that are written about authors’ hidden meanings and secret agendas.


The discussion also explored the personal element of novel writing, especially that of Toews’ whose work has been influenced by her own family tragedies, which she spoke about in an elegant and beautiful way, unsurprisingly given the beauty and elegance of her writing. I was also tickled to hear Baru’s secret to writing: he challenges himself by writing “Twisters”; Twitter stories of exactly 140 characters. Since this isn’t something I feel I could do, I was happy to learn that there was no consensus to The Trick Of Writing A Brilliant Novel except that there really is no trick: Toews’ draws from personal experience, Bennett’s imagination is endless and Baru is indeed the king of Twitter.


Way back at the beginning of the evening, Miriam Toews’ reading touched on how to leave your audience feeling “happy and content” rather than “wild and restless” and I think it’s safe to say all three authors were already in on that secret.