Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

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!

Twisted Reality in the Roastery

Young Adult fantasy fiction tends towards the extreme – it evokes the young adult experience by creating worlds as new, vibrant and intense as the teenage inner life. Individuals with extraordinarysecrets and special identities fight against monolithic, repressive establishments and demon adults. The Hunger Games, one of the most popular young adult books in the world, features a young woman fighting against a world literally engineered to destroy her. The three authors who made up thediscussion panel at the Writers Fest event “Twisted Reality: Hiding in Plain Sight” write about teenagerswho must hide their supernatural abilities from a corrupt government, are abused and self-harming,stalked by inner demons and real adults, and are caught up in a complicated plot of identity theft.


When I walked into the Bridgehead Roastery on Saturday night, however, it was difficult to access thatsense of the world as a dangerous place. The authors sitting in front of a standing-room only audienceof 40 – 50 people just seemed really … nice. I was late, and could feel that a warm rapport had alreadydeveloped between the alert and interested panellists and the audience.


The moderator began with some questions about the degree to which the writers considered theiraudience while writing – did new technology or decrease in attention spans impact the authors? GaryBlackwood, who writes historical fiction such as “Stealing Shakespeare,” argued that teens need linearstories. Charles de Lint, whose newest series “The Wildlings” is about teens developing supernatural powers, pointed out that he thought that young adult fiction was gaining in popularity because of the enduring appeal of great stories “with action and resolution.” All the writers agreed that they did notwrite with their audience or its particular technological proficiencies in mind, but explored ideas and emotions they are passionate about and felt are authentic. Cheryl Rainfield noted that she feels veryvulnerable when she thinks about how much of herself is in her tales of troubled childhoods and abuse.


The moderator tried a different tack to expose the ever-mysterious creative process, by asking if writingwas directed toward some kind of pre-planned goal. The authors engaged deeply with the question:“I really feel I am trying to make a difference through my books… I am trying to increase compassion,”said Rainfield. She revealed later that she feels that writing about abuse saved her life. De Lint noddedenthusiastically. “I write about outsiders a lot – I’m trying to get people to see inside.” He laughed,“Sometimes I feel as if I’m beating people over the head with my themes.” Blackwood shifted in his chair, uncomfortable with the idea of “message”… “Well, I certainly don’t begin with a message,” hesaid, “But of course, I end up writing about what is really important.”


The discussion turned from the authors’ work to their writing processes. The audience began to askmore questions during this portion, asking for help with their writing or with teaching their studentsto write. “How do you corral your ideas?” asked one woman, “I just have so many!” de Lint answeredwith three words he said no one would want to hear: “Just. Keep. Writing.” He said he frequentlyhits a point in every book where “I just want to write: ‘And everyone died. The End.”” Like an athlete, however, you have to push through: “Practice your finish muscle.” de Lint answered many of the questions about writing practice with snappy bon mots such as “Writing is like reading a book really slowly” - clearly all fired up for his workshop the next day. After some discussion of their various writing habits (every morning, everywhere, binge-writing and recovery periods), I reflected on how much dedication, work and discipline writing for a living involves. It is not, as I believe I pictured when I was a young adult, hanging around in an artistic and emotional ferment for the majority of the time.


When I read young adult books, I sink gratefully into the familiar trope of besieged specialness. Halfway through the evening, I caught myself thinking about how the best of the genre accesses that particularly teenage feeling but also widens the perspective to allow for insights into the universality of the human experience – caring for others as well as protecting yourself. Charles de Lint, Cheryl Rainfield, and Gary Blackwood were open, friendly and supremely ready to chat about their craft and body of work.They seemed to genuinely care not only about the impact of their work but also about whether or not everyone at Bridgehead got what they wanted out of the evening. I reflected that teenagers with these three leading them through their different worlds had very solid guides.

Cosmo Lava Bridge

I took my seat for Cosmo Lava Bridge—the second-to-last event of this autumn’s Writers Festival—and was treated to a bizarre and diverse bit of fiction. From Spencer Gordon’s glimpse into Leonard Cohen’s emails about sandwiches, to Anton Piatigorsky’s imagined lives of teenage dictators, to Barry Webster’s honey-sweating pubescent narrator, this was a night to remember.


Spencer Gordon opened the evening with selected readings from Cosmo , each of which was in the form of an email. The stories Gordon shared with tonight’s audience were written by Canada’s ever-beloved Leonard Cohen about Subway, consumerism, and facing one’s mortality. As strange as these subjects were, I found myself wishing that someone would send me similar emails; messages filled with passionate details of sandwiches, or public transportation. The world needs a greater appreciation of life’s minutia.


As it turns out, sandwiches now feel a lot holier to me, and are fully fit for the halls of Knox Presbyterian.


Anton Piatigorsky, whose work The Iron Bridge brings us alongside six historical dictators in their teenage years, shared a brief glimpse into the life of Rafael Trujillo from the Dominican Republic. As made clear in his reading, Piatigorsky does an excellent job of making some of the world’s worst into highly believable human beings. Trujillo, for example, is obsessive-compulsive, and sees his brother’s desecration of orderly bottle caps as a bad omen. Piatigorsky, unlike Gordon, obviously read from historical fiction: this was conveyed even within the calm, methodical tone of his spoken voice.


Both Gordon and Piatigorsky’s stories—though unique—were what I would consider reasonable, contemporary fiction. Barry Webster, however, does not write reasonable fiction. Webster’s readings from The Lava in My Bones were—to say the very least—fascinating, but likely largely inaccessible to a wider audience. That being said, Webster wrote and read with great effectiveness: it is quite possible that, as a result of Webster’s narrators, I will have nightmares about sweating honey, or about being followed around by a set of eyes.


In short, I’m glad my puberty experience did not involve bees.


During the Q&A portion of Cosmo Lava Bridge, it became apparent that one of these authors was not like the other. To be clear: Gordon, Piatigorsky and Webster are all excellent Canadian authors who most certainly deserve our patronage. Piatigorsky, however, approached his particular selection of reading (and thus his writing process) in much different manner than the other two. This is reasonable, considering the subject matter, and provided an interesting contrast to the sometimes-extreme surrealism of Gordon and Webster.


Webster received a question regarding the somewhat obvious influence of fairy tale on his work, and reminded the audience that writing through a non-realistic medium can make not oft’ discussed obsessions or subconscious ideas more real than so-called “realism” would. Later, Gordon sarcastically referred to realism as “that crusty horrible word,” a statement revelatory of his writing inclinations. All told, the Q&A portion of the evening served as a vibrant if somewhat predictable discussion of the details of the writing process.


It is events such as Cosmo Lava Bridge that make me wish the Ottawa Writers Festival could be a monthly occurrence.

The Unfinished Revolution: The Global Fight for Women’s Rights

It’s a time of change in the world, with dictators toppling and new opportunities rising, but any revolution that doesn’t create equality for women will be incomplete. The time has come to realize the full potential of half the world’s population.

— Christiane Amanpour, from the foreword to The Unfinished Revolution


This quote rang true throughout Minky Worden’s discussion on the global fight for women and girl’s rights. She opened by reading an excerpt she had writtten to introduce the book. The first sentence was hopeful as it summarized the gains of the women’s rights movement, such as recognizing the value of women’s work. However, what followed depicted a different story.  She spoke of how much we still need to overcome, as girls are still being married at very young ages, trafficked into forced labour and sold as sex slaves.


There was talk about how women are at the front of the revolution, speaking out for their rights while living in areas where such behaviour could find you imprisoned, tortured, or killed. How one young girl took a stand against a rights violation, only to meet with a short surge of support, then to taper off and nearly be forgotten in the media. While listening to Minky passionately talk about these violations and how women across the world are taking a stand for their rights, it made me feel proud of being a woman and encouraged me to do take on a similar fight in Canada.


After a brief discussion of the book, one audience member asked whether the access to technology has been helping the movement. The answer was a little bitter-sweet. The short answer is, yes, it has been very helpful because people are able to send messages so quickly and affordably in order to inform the world about the current situations and violations that are ongoing. Support can be raised, people can organized, and in the minute updates can be given. But there is another side that not many think about. Minky gave the example of China and how the government can use technology to become like a ‘Big Brother’ by monitoring their citizens in order to squash any possibility of an uprising.  


As I looked around the room, I couldn’t help but notice how many women were present, giving me a strong sense of being in solidarity while fighting for woman’s rights. However, I had wished that there were more men in attendance as this important message needs to be heard by them if sustainable change is to occur.


After listening to this discussion I brought back with me two key points, the fight for women’s rights is still raging, and making myself aware of the violations against women is the the start of joining the fight for global women’s rights.

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid of Sufficient Conclusions

Two authors, one clad in red boots, the other in a red sweater, lit up the stage with their rich tales of fiction, engaging the audience, and bringing us who escaped the strong winds and swirling leaves outdoors, into their worlds. The weather, no doubt the reverberations of the super-storm Sandy, also kept the third author Ayad Akhtar along with the earlier slotted Rabbi Harold Kushner.


The evening began with a reading by Shani  Boianjiu ,  a young Israeli-author, new to the scene of professional art literature. Her novel titled  The People of Forever Are Not Afraid depicts the stories of three young Israeli women and their experiences while fulfilling the mandatory two-year national army service required of all Israelis. The reading focused upon Avishag, a sarcastic, defiant, yet insecure character.  Boianjiu  wowed the audience with the manner in which she brought Avishag to life.


Following Boianjiu’s reading, author Sarah Dearing took the podium, and read excerpts from her novel,  The Art of Sufficient Conclusions . Beginning with a dramatic scene, Dearing took the audience into the life of her protagonist, Abigail, sharing with us her quirky obsessions as well as her wit, fears and insecurities. Dearing embraced the audience with her reading, demonstrating her storytelling capacity.


Following the readings, event host Sandra Abma of the CBC, began a discussion with  Boianjiu  and  Dearing,  delving into the meaning of identity and the role it maintains in their novels.


To begin, Abma asked the authors, what they were trying to accomplish in the writing of their respective novels.


In response,  Boianjiu  expressed her desire to paint a picture of life as an 18-year-old female. She stated that her goal was not to write about the army itself; rather, she sought to bring meaning and art to the army experience. To do this gives a voice to people who often do not get one - including border guards, and Sudanese refugees. Importantly,  Boianjiu  also speaks of her intention to bring to life the difficulties of balancing female teenage life with the responsibilities of being a soldier.


Dearing suggested that her novel began as a journey about discovery. Discovery of truth- about her father and his origins, and manner in which she could decrypt the story she discovered in a meaningful way. Dearing also spoke to her desire to highlight the important role a father maintains in his children’s lives - even in death.


Writing fiction from fact, is common to both  Boianjiu  and  Dearing’s  novels .  When asked about the process of creating fiction from fact, both authors admitted that they struggled.  Boianjiu  and Dearing expressed that they had struggled to work through what they wanted to include from real life, what they wanted to embellish, and what they wanted to leave out in favour of a tale born from their imagination. Dearing suggested that fictionalizing herself was challenging (her protagonist is loosely based off of her journey to understand her father’s past), and  Boianjiu  commented that it was difficult to determine which of her personal stories best suited the personalities she established for her characters.


As the evening came to an end, Abma asked the two authors about the role of humour in their novels. In response, both agreed that humour was an important element of their works. “After all”, she said, she had to make her character “more [screwed] up than she herself.”


Boianjiu’s novel is currently being translated from English to her mother tongue, Hebrew. She anticipates the reaction of Israeli readers. Boainjiu's decision to write in English was more a pragmatic decision than a calculated one; she took creative writing classes while at Harvard, and thus had to write in English. Writing in a second language compelled her to be more thoughtful with her words, and Boianjiu felt that it also resulted in unique style and voice.


The discussion concluded with thoughtful questions, and a hearty applause from the audience - expressing their thanks for an entertaining evening, and respect for these two dynamic authors.

Long story short - and good

Creative writing can be deeply enjoyable and satisfying…when it works.  When it doesn’t, it can lead to hair loss and hard liquor.  As my own attempts at writing short stories typically fall into the latter category, an event like ‘Long Story Short’ that brings together three accomplished writers of short fiction to share and discuss their work both soothes my scalp and makes me excited about what I might learn.


The evening unfolded in two parts.  First, each author in turn read a selection from one of their short stories.  Miranda Hill shared part of an allegorical tale about a baby girl acknowledged by everyone as perfect, quite unlike her older brother.  Nadine McInnis recounted a budding relationship between a volunteer and a patient in a hospice for the dying.  Steven Heighton painted a relationship at a crossroads subjected to the stress of armed robbery.  Each read very well, pacing and pausing in such a way that the listener was quickly drawn into three interesting tales that were by turns mysterious, threatening, funny, and mildly bizarre.


The second part of the evening saw the authors take the stage together to respond to a range of questions from both the event’s host and the audience concerning the literary form of the short story, its relationship to the Canadian context, and the creative process.  One question of particular interest was what limitations, if any, might exist on taking on voices of the other (i.e., those who differ from the author in terms of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.) and whether authors shied away from taking on certain voices out of fear of criticism.  Steven Heighton responded that the key issue was whether or not the author could do it well, and that to attempt to take on alternative perspectives was key to further developing as a writer.  Miranda Hill agreed, adding that authors might not take certain voices for many reasons, including that they simply do not feel drawn to it.  Nadine McInnis offered that there were no hard and fast rules, but that thorough research and dramatically entering into the other voice was needed for it to work. 


The authors’ discussion of the creative process was also fascinating and very enjoyable.  They shared thoughts on their approach to writing, incorporating autobiographical elements, the pleasures and challenges of the short story form, and how they addressed such things as pacing, rhythm, and editing.


All of their particular responses and reflections were interesting in themselves, but much of my considerable enjoyment of this event was on a different level.  It was simply a pleasure to watch all three artists engaging one another, their host, and the audience in a free-flowing, articulate, thoughtful, and mutually-respectful discourse on their craft.  They responded frankly and directly to good questions, and were even willing in small ways to be publically vulnerable.  A gift from them to us, and a welcome one at that.


Crime Night at the Festival

On Sunday, in the run-up to Halloween a large crowd filled the main sanctuary of Knox Presbyterian Church, a gloomy (weather-wise) evening that fit the theme: Crime Night. Indeed, the event’s host, CBC’s Sandra Abma, made reference to the impending “Frankenstorm” that is scheduled to batter the region, making for evenings well suited for curling up with a spine-tingling mystery. Three internationally renowned authors shared the stage and spoke to a rapt audience: Mark Billingham, Maureen Jennings and Peter Robinson.


Billingham, best known for his Detective Inspector Tom Thorne books, jokingly explained that he felt it necessary to tap into cultural zeitgeists and give the world “more of it” before energetically launching into a reading of his “latest” Thorne novel, 50 Shades of Thorne. Donning a yellow carnival mask, he read from this spoof, naturally filled with “chiseled jaws,” “cold grey eyes,” and a submissive protagonist who found that “her blood was on fire as were her lady bits.” The whole bit was met with great laughs from the audience and the laughs continued as he then discussed how according to a UK woman’s magazine survey “reading crime fiction is better than sex,” a finding that he questioned before promising that his novels would, in the very least, definitely last longer. He also shared amusing anecdotes about receiving feedback from readers.


Rather than read from his real latest Thorne novel, The Demands , Billingham chose to share an excerpt from a standalone thriller Rush of Blood , the premise of which centres on a vacation that sours. The chilling selection focused on the inner ruminations of an abductor who muses on the idea of “triggers,” something oft debated by psychologists trying to piece together motivation for a crime, in this case something as benign as a smile, “wet-lipped, wide, and a little crooked.”


The next author, Jennings, was slightly more staid in her delivery, though drily referred back to the idea of “triggers,” commenting that someone knocking at her hotel door at 3:45 AM that morning could have been a justifiable trigger for “total homicide.” Jennings is well known for her Detective Murdoch books, which have inspired the television series Murdoch Mysteries , as well as the Christine Morris series. Her new novel, however, Beware This Boy , centres on saboteurs in a munitions factory in Birmingham, England, during the Second World War. Before sharing a selection from her new work, she first gave insight into the novel’s title, sharing with the audience a quote from A Christmas Carol, in which the “boy” in question represents ignorance.


She noted that “one of the delights of crime fiction – any fiction – is that it lets you slip in your issues,” in this instance allowing her to wrestle with the idea of closed-mindedness.  The selection that she chose to read focused on female munitions workers being delayed by an uncharacteristically locked change room, and in the dialogue Jennings was able to distinguish with her tone the different characters, giving the audience insight into these women’s personalities and a feel for the easy banter among the workers, before ending with a cliff hanger.


The last author to read was Robinson, whose new bestseller Watching the Dark continues his well-received Inspector Banks series. In this latest installment Banks finds himself working with Inspector Joanna Passero from Professional Standards. Robinson noted that the introduction of this new character gave him insight into aspects of Banks’ character that he hadn’t known before, like an inclination for practical jokes. Indeed, the selection that Robinson read, most of which takes place in a mortuary in the basement of a Victorian infirmary, has the classic give-and-take of a veteran running a newbie through their paces. In this case, though, Joanna, a cool Nordic blonde that “Albert Hitchcock would’ve loved,” doesn’t quail from anything Banks throws at her, later revealing that while it may have been her first post-mortem, she grew up watching her mother perform open-heart surgery. The scene was peppered with subtle humour and Robinson was able to amplify this in his delivery, especially when revealing the cause of death “barring any strange reports from toxicology, he died of a crossbow to the heart.”


During the Q&A session, the authors chatted with each other while also answering questions from Abma and the audience, ranging from the role of research, writing for recurring versus original characters, and the writing process itself. Robinson admitted that while he tries to keep distance some of the research he conducts can cause some sleepless nights, notably when he once was reading nurses’ journals from the Second World War. Jennings similarly noted that it is hard not to be affected by the research, an aspect of writing she does enjoy, but suggested that writing in and of itself is “a great way to get revenge” and help purge one of the emotions that can bubble up during the research process. Billingham commented that since he wanted to avoid complaints from readers (such as those that he shared with the audience earlier in the evening), he conducts quite a bit of research but commented that there’s “a difference between truth and fact,” a remark that resonated with Jennings. While Billingham and Robinson both discussed the usefulness of the internet, with the latter admitting the downside of it being a complete time suck, Jennings revealed that she still conducts much of her research using books – books that seem to “copulate in the night” and take over her office.


As all three authors have written series following a recurring character, they fielded questions about the difference about writing for an established character compared to that of writing for new characters in standalone novels. Robinson, whose character Banks is also aging throughout the series, commented to laughs that as a writer he can change the rate of aging, so that when Banks hits 59, if the inspector still has a case a month, he will be able to get 12 more novels out of the character before thoughts of retirement. Generally though he tries to ensure that Banks follows a sort of natural progression, and as the character ages, Robinson noted that the “closer I get to death, the more I think about it, the more Banks thinks about it,” and quipping that “now he’s becoming like one of these Swedish detectives.”


Billingham noted that there are two approaches a writer can take; one can either start out with a large dossier of character traits or grow along with them, as he is more inclined to do (and which, he admitted, can occasionally get one into trouble in terms of trying to remember things, like “how old is he again?”). When writing standalone texts, he said that while it is “scary” he thought it necessary, sharing that writers he admire also try new things and that there is a general fear of growing stale.


Jennings discussed the interesting perspective of having developed characters in novel form and seeing television “writers and actors claim ownership” over the same characters. She explained that while a strange feeling, it’s a largely positive position to be in, sharing how she felt creatively inspired by the performance of the actors on Murdoch Mysteries.


As many such events are filled with would-be authors, there were questions about each writer’s creative process. Each turned out to be quite different than the other, with Billingham commenting that while he goes in knowing the opening and the end, he “generally has no idea what happens in the middle.” He quashed the airy idea of one’s character “taking over” the writing, exclaiming “who was doing the typing?”


Similarly Jennings admitted the middle is a “marsh land,” but indicated that she makes use of outlining to save time. Robinson dubbed himself “probably even less of an outliner than either Mark or Maureen,” saying that what he really needs is an opening scene, without which he gets stuck. That being said, regardless of outlines or not, all discussed the reality of the writing life, with Billingham commenting that “it’s a great job but it is a job.” Indeed, he noted that the “book is being written in your head all the time,” while Robinson glibly remarked that “even when I’m lying in bed at night I’m working.”

Why don't I just seize the day tomorrow?

Reading excerpts from his latest book, Jonathan Goldstein had the crowd roaring with laughter as he described the excitement at the birth of his nephew paired with projected animations of the tale.


His mother, having had her children when she was quite young had been “waiting to be a grandmother since her 20’s.” Going on to describe his anxiety about his nephew’s bris (Jewish circumcision rite performed on the 8th day of a male infant's life), and how arriving at the synagogue early he wondered why the mohel got into his profession. Disclosing to the audience that his motivation was simply so he could ask if “it was for the tips.” By this point in his story, Goldstein has the crowd roaring with laughter, continuing on about how on his nephews first Mother’s Day the family gathered and in turn competed to describe who loved the child the most. Goldstein’s father says that he loves the little boy so much it hurts, it feels like a stabbing pain. But no one can top Goldstein’s sister, the baby’s mother, when she describes her love for the child like drowning and “accompanies this statement with choking and gasping noises.”


Goldstein went on to tell a story about taking his father out for his birthday: “any time he gets away from my mother is like nursing him back to health.” He says his father points to everything he sees excitedly “like a kid in a Menudo video going to the mall for the first time.” His father find the little details of their afternoon together thrilling such as drinking coke out of the can “like street hustlers” and eating white rice. When Goldstein’s mother finds out that her husband had a little too much fun she becomes suspicious and accusing of Goldstein, as though he were showing his father what the world without his wife would be like.


His sentiments toward  his mother include a little bit of fear and a great deal of embarrassment mixed with love. She enjoys the challenge of returning items she no longer wants. Goldstein quips that she once tried to return tahini to a nearby grocery store because the seal didn’t pop as satisfactorily as it should. She chose this store not because it was where the tahini was purchased, but because of it’s proximity to their home. The store in fact, didn’t even sell tahini, or really know what tahini was.


As a younger person, Goldstein was extremely embarrassed by the actions of his family but he says that the moment he knew he was an adult was when he realized that the world saw his family differently than he did. Paraphrasing David Sedaris “if I had known what an enterprise my family would have become, I would only have wished they were more insane.”


During the Q&A portion, the subject of his radio show is heavily discussed and he comes to the conclusion that radio and his family are intrinsically linked: his first ever radio show was his parents listening to their extensive record collection and commenting on it. When he brought this piece into his boss and she remarked at how hilarious his parents were was the moment he realized that other people saw his family as funny, rather than just his parents being the ordinary and embarrassing people that he thought they were. These days his family’s stories and discussions appear frequently on his CBC Radio program: Wiretap . Surprisingly enough, he’s never been approached to make an audiobook of one of his books, but says he’d be interested in doing an audiobook version of 50 Shades of Grey.


Goldstein ended the discussion by talking about his anxiety over saving jokes, he’s deeply concerned that on his deathbed he will be too weak to come up with anything good so he often tries to save his jokes for that moment. In a roar of applause and laughter Goldstein exited the stage to sign copies of his book, I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow , for his ardent fans. You can find his equally hilarious Twitter posts here.

Terror and Hope

Rainy weekend afternoons on Elgin St. aren’t known for their political tenor and intensity, but that’s just what we got with Chris Alexander, Robert Fowler and Michael Petrou going head-to-head in a panel discussion titled “Terror and Hope” – hosted by the “incomparable” Adrian Harewood of CBC Ottawa.


Robert Fowler, Canada’s longest serving Ambassador to the UN – the pinnacle in an incredible career in our foreign and public service – recently published A Season in Hell: My 30 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda . In December 2008, Fowler was kidnapped by Al Qaeda operatives while acting as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Niger. The book is a fascinating psychological analysis of his captors. Indeed, Fowler’s experience getting to know his captors – their values, lifestyle, sense of time (or lack thereof), and their singular focus on entering Islamic paradise – now has a powerful influence on his perspectives regarding the War on Terror and the possibilities for progress in Afghanistan. As you may well imagine, Fowler is about as jaded as can be.


Fowler explained that while he fully supports efforts to, as he put it, “whack Al Qaeda,” the US-led post-9/11 intervention veered seriously off track. Specifically, he dismisses the attempts to “nation-build” and impose Western values on the Afghans, many of whom view North America as “Sodom and Gomorrah.” Over the past several months, Fowler has been alerting Canadians to Al Qaeda’s hold of the upper two thirds of Mali, which has already led to the displacement of more than double the number of Syrians who have become refugees in light of its civil war. Fowler noted that the UN, the EU and other actors are exploring the viability of a peacekeeping force. He not only supports such a mission, but also wants Canada to play a constructive role. After all, Canada has already invested billions in Mali and this investment must be urgently defended.


After serving as Canada’s Ambassador to Afghanistan followed by a term as the UN deputy special representative in Afghanistan, Chris Alexander can now be found in the House of Commons as one of Stephen Harper’s more eloquent Parliamentary Secretaries. He keeps himself quite busy cleaning up after the exploits of the Honourable Peter McKay, Minister of National Defense. Here, however, Alexander expounded upon his book, The Long Way Back: Afghanistan's Quest for Peace.

Alexander was indignant (and repetitive): the major issue facing everything the West has stood for in Afganistan is not within that country’s borders, but rather in neighbouring Pakistan.


Alexander was correct to point out that for too long, the West overlooked the cross-border nature of the situation in Afghanistan. As Pakistan’s involvement in sheltering Osama Bin Laden in Islamabad becomes clearer, our entire conception of the War on Terror is shifting. While 2014 remains the expected pullout date, Alexander and others are wondering what will happen after the troops have returned home. He cautioned that a Pakistan-supported radical movement could easily overtake North American-trained forces loyal to President Hamid Karzai. Alexander explained that his book is in part a call to action for a coalition of states to condemn Pakistan for hosting the Taliban and, in doing so, violating numerous UN Security Council resolutions. Invoking the fear associated with the Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War, Alexander affirmed the world’s responsibility to seek a regional peace.


Michael Petrou, the acclaimed Maclean’s journalist, was by far the least verbose of the panelists. Petrou recently wrote Is This Your First War?: Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World, chronicling his wild ride as an correspondent for the Ottawa Citizen in Afghanistan just weeks about the 9/11 attacks. Petrou introduced the audience to some inspirational people he met during that tense time, including a poet who gives him “hope for Afghanistan’s future.”


When the three gentlemen sat down for a discussion, sparks began to fly in all sorts of directions. When asked about the War on Terror, Fowler alleged that in the aftermath of 9/11 the West threw core tenets of our civilization out the window, from habeas corpus to failing to condemn and stop torture behind the scenes. He stated ominously: “the War on Terror has created damage to our civil society that will not soon be repaired.” Chris Alexander, meanwhile, seemed unwilling to move beyond his focus on Pakistan. He offered a call to action straight from the JFK Cold War playbook: “we” must ensure a candidate sympathetic to the Taliban does not win the upcoming Pakistani election. Fowler shot back: “who’s we?” “We have nothing to do with the Pakistani election.” This exchange took place a few minutes after Alexander accused Fowler of “romanticizing Al Qaeda” for pointing out the Taliban’s disinterest in timelines in light of their absolute certainty that they – and Allah – will triumph in the end.


It was Petrou who brought a measure of calm to the conversation, putting the focus on human security and urging decision makers to consider the impacts of aggressive tactics (think drones) on the local population’s feelings toward the West. In addition, he was astute in pointing out that we cannot be true liberal internationalists if we advocate for a strategy of abandoning the Afghan people after all they have suffered “for the freedoms we take for granted.”


On a more forward-thinking note, Fowler – who is convinced that the men of Afghanistan are unlikely to change their belligerent ways – pointed to the importance of empowering women in Afghanistan to assume greater roles in the government.


The discussion concluded with all panelists agreeing that the greatest threat to Western security is a Pakistan-based Al Qaeda affiliate getting its hands on nuclear weapons. Overall, this was a fascinating discussion, one that could have gone for an additional hour. (Indeed, there was no time for even a single question from the audience!)