Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

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!)  

 

To Be Or Not To Be The Change

I wonder when Gandhi purportedly said “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” if he didn’t secretly think to himself, “oh I do hope they don’t find that too clichéd.” Our modern world has a terrifyingly remarkable capacity to eschew reality according to its own taste, and to transform even prophets of peace into palatable icons for the insatiable appetite of consumerism. But this divide between reality as it is and how it appears to be both informs today’s talk, and becomes apparent as we dig deeper. How we get to that point is a scene that would remind Dorothy and Toto of being uprooted, blown away, and then brought back to earth. And the question we begin with is that even though we believe in the ecological crisis and agree that that necessitates certain shifts in our daily lives, when it comes down to it however, we falter. It is to address this gap between knowledge and action that Tim Ward and Tzeporah Berman stand on stage with (metaphorical) levers, ready to deconstruct our Kansas of convenience.

 

Metaphor and narration are elemental for Ward who reaches the issue of language - what I find to be - the heart of the subject quickly. His recent book is about what he assures to be are metaphorical Zombies on Kilimanjaro. His motive for choosing that trope was in the idea of zombieness, how someone can have their mind taken over by an idea and run by someone else. Not unlike an automaton.

 

As I reiterate his words, a classic scene from Romero’s 1978 Dawn of the Dead comes to mind, wherein a group of survivors encounter a horde of zombie shoppers in a mall- mountains beyond mountains -and the only explanation is that they have become habituated to that to the point that the idea of consumption runs them. That idea has been propagated by the language of economics and belief in exponential and infinite growth in a finite universe . “It is no accident,” says Ward, “that the ‘tar-sands’ have become the ‘oil-sands.’” It is clearly an attempt by better storytellers to tell their own version. Ward believes that the language you choose is critical because there is no shortage of counter narratives that challenge the fact that we are no longer in Kansas.

 

Tzeporah Berman, former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Climate and Energy program, begins on a similar note when she says that it is little wonder why there is a gap between awareness and action: the climate debate has long been focused on lifestyle and that framing itself is faulty. Berman says that this leads to us being guilt-ridden and overwhelmed and Ward later add that this is the case until we become paralyzed. Is it only about walking to work and switching to better light bulbs, asks Berman. And even though people are beginning to realize how the rhetoric of consumption has run humanity on a conveyor belt headed to the ‘mystic’ portal of happiness, we are still polluting more. This is because 80% of the pollution is caused by big polluters.

 

Ward wonderfully says that the greatest motivation for humanity has long been fear, but this motivation-not unlike fossil fuels-runs out and we become exhausted if there is nothing but fear. And when that happens, people just switch to a different channel and tune into a nicer story. To facilitate that switch, to turn the long mistreated environment into the Wicked Witch and to hang our hopes on the Good Witch, played by the market and the religion of economics, Berman says that the government has actively pursued a systematic elimination of knowledge. Whether it be the elimination of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, or the decision to shut down the Experimental Lake Station , or spending 80 million dollars in ads to cover the embarrassment that is the tar-sands (and the ‘tar-sands’ is what is, says Ward, and not the ‘oil-sands’ which he refuses to acknowledge).

 

Its brilliant how a few moments into the evening, the talk has turned into a conversation and both Berman and Ward are together reconstructing the Babel of truth, only this time with renewable energy and an alternative plan. They both note how the bright side of things is constituted by the fact that those alternatives now really do exist, that we really do have the capacity, in terms of both technology and investment, to revision the future. And the primary way to do this is by observing our use of language to disseminate these ideas. Berman says that part of the reason why the people have been disengaged from this conversation is because they have been approached with the language of the lobby. She says that the environmental movement is possibly the most policy-wonkish movement and there is no need to reiterate that policy talk when bringing together people.

 

And not only have we misused language on Turtle Island , but we have also long used it to label many others as the flying minions of the Wicked Witch, which allows us to see ourselves as innocent. One example of this is the emphasis on the questionable human rights of the Saudi government, which are not under contention here, but that emphasis gives the green flag to the tar-sands. And even though China has long faced a similar bumper sticker, it has seen a 700% increase in ‘green’ investment, setting up wind turbines at the rate of every hour for the last year. Ward says that it is hard for us to surrender the myth of the nice Canadian and to realize that we are now seen internationally with a different set of lenses.

 

In the end, both Berman and Ward focus on the need for a vision of what the road at the end of this play looks like. Is it a scene where we look back and tell our grandkids, who listen in utter bewilderment, how we once relied completely on fossil fuels, or do we tell them that we saw our house go up in flames but decided to wait it out until the flames reached the second floor before panicking. The change lies in that vision, but that requires a wee bit more than just closing our eyes and tapping our feet.

 

Growing up with The Jeffersons, Middle Eastern Style

“He obviously wasn’t having a good day.”

 

The host of the CBC Radio One’s wildly popular show Q, Jian Ghomeshi kept the overflowing Ottawa crowd rapt at attention with his unfailing humour and quintessential Canadian politeness, even whenasked about the bizarre interview with a belligerent Billy Bob Thornton back in 2009.

 

But Billy Bob Thornton wasn’t what the audience of young and old had come to hear about. 1982 tells the story of a transformative year in the then 14-year old Ghomeshi’s life, dealing with the grip of the old country of his family’s Iranian heritage and his awkward efforts to fit in at the all-white high schoolin Thornhill, Ontario, that he attended, all the while paying tribute to his idol David Bowie. Early in the evening, Ghomeshi endeared himself to his adoring fans, by apologizing for his fast growing facial hair (“I’m Iranian”) and recounting the story of an admirer who had mistaken him for Ian Hanomansing (“You can’t keep track of only five brown guys on television?”)

 

Those who had endeared long lineups to get into the reflective temple of the Knox Presbyterian Church were rewarded with not just one, but two lengthy excerpts from his book, which debuted at the top of the Canadian bestselling books list. Ghomeshi recalled his twin obsession with rocker David Bowie and his older love interest Wendy (“She reminded me of Bowie”), against the uneasy backdrop ofthe Iranian Revolution.

 

Local CBC celebrity Lucy van Oldenbarneveld elicited further humourous talesfrom Ghomeshi about growing up “in the Middle Eastern version of The Jeffersons,” ranging from his teenage experiment wearing purple eyeliner (“Don’t deny you’re wearing eyeliner when, in fact, you’re wearing eyeliner”), his finger wagging father (“Why aren’t you studying like your cousin to become an engineer?”), the vagaries of recording top hits on cassette decks (“There’s a whole generation of people who don’t know the words to the first ten seconds of songs”), and his humiliating struggle to sing as “Ivory” in a school production of Paul McCartney’s and Michael Jackson’s unlikely hit Ebony & Ivory.

 

But prodded on by a question from the floor, Ghomeshi paused his light manner with a moment ofsharp political commentary. Even as he praised Ben Affleck’s Argo , a fictionalized account of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Ghomeshi seemed exasperated with the lack of even a single positive portrayal of ordinary Iranians in the film, calling it “not just irresponsible, but dangerous” to loud applause, as the United States and Iran move closer and closer to conflict.


Ghomeshi also commented on his family’s struggles of being the only “ethnic” family in their Thornhill neighbourhood. With memories of the Iranian hostage crisis still fresh, a young Ghomeshi had deniedto his school aged friends his Iranian background, which he now embraces with its values of family,deference, and kindness grounded in a rich history of literature, dance, and music.


As the long line-up to the mic forced van Oldenbarneveld to extend the question-and-answer period, Ghomeshi explained that one of his main motivations for writing 1982 was to tell readers that “it’s okay to be unique and weird.” The experience of denying his ethnic background in the tense years after the Iranian Revolution had pushed him to both at once try to blend into his high school, and to explore new wave music, new hair styles, and his sexual orientation.


The prologue is that Ghomeshi, a once awkward teenager at the fringes of his 14-year old world inThornhill, is now a celebrated writer, broadcaster, and producer. Just don’t tell that to his father, who asks him, “How many books have you sold?”

 

Plan 99 Fiction at the Manx

Admittedly, I’m a fan of all the venues used for the Writers Festival, largely because they’re located in my neighbourhood . Joining Missy Marston and Pasha Malla for Plan 99 Fiction at the Manx was thus a particular delight. The Manx, a small and literally underground pub in the core of Ottawa on Elgin Street is the ideal venue for an intimate poetry or fiction reading. There is nothing like tight quarters, accommodating strangers and a warm beverage to make you feel like hearing a good story. Marston and Malla certainly delivered, and to a receptive audience that felt like family.

 

As pointed out at the start of the event by resident poet and Manx bartender David O’Meara , the Manx merits a larger font on any pages to be read due to its ambient lighting. This, and the apparent lack of seating, was my only critique of the event. O’Meara, whom I bumped into while hunting for a seat, recently became a Griffin Poetry Prize judge, so he’s certainly a qualified host for an event such as this one. He wasted no time in getting Marston into a corner cleverly disguised as a stage, and thus began our brief time with Plan 99.

 

A woman after my own heart, Ottawa native Missy Marston brought her book flagged with neon Post-Its. Clearly, I was in the right place. Her summary of her book The Love Monster went something like this: Margaret H. Atwood—the fictional proofreader, as opposed to Margaret E. Atwood , the author of The Handmaid’s Tale fame—is visited by an alien. A brief yet captivating summary if I do say so myself. Oddly enough, Marston’s reading voice reminds me of the non-fictional Atwood. When I mentioned this to Marston after the event, she happily accepted this as a compliment, and guessed that it may have something to do with her love of the real Atwood .

 

The first and most-notable excerpt read by Marston was a tale of what I will politely refer to as bathroom concerns, which is obviously a highly-relatable but rarely discussed topic. Add this to the list of reasons why the Manx feels like a family gathering, because everyone was laughing along with Marston’s unfortunate and hopefully fictional story. Latter readings shared by Marston dealt with love and loss, and thus continued the relatable theme. She certainly piqued my interest.

 

Next on the docket was Pasha Malla, a Newfoundland-born and Ontario-raised author who was reading from his first full-length work of fiction People Park . As a general rule, anyone who includes obscure rap references in his or her work is a-okay with me. Malla began his background of People Park just so, offering free drinks to anyone who could come up with the context for “all in together now.” For those too lazy to research the reference themselves, Malla was referring to the Wu Tang Clang, a fact I discerned much too late to receive anything other than personal satisfaction from.

 

Malla provided a noticeable reading contrast to Marston; though both were confident readers sharing a quasi-relatable subject, Pasha spoke at a rapid pace, and was considerably more risqué in his content. A bold move, but one that was certainly appreciated by the audience.

 

Pasha’s side comments, such as “Anyone from London, Ontario? Yes, that’s a reference,” were a welcome addition to his brief reading from People Park. He had me picturing a weird fusion of the film adaptation of Watchmen with the Rocky Horror Picture Show . And, as odd and perhaps as worrisome it may sound, I also felt as though Pasha was telling his story somewhat first hand; as if he saw a series of raucous activities on our street, yesterday. Our gracious host David O’Meara claimed he couldn’t wait for the film adaptation.

 

Guests at the Manx were appropriately enraptured by story time with Missy and Pasha, whose brief readings were vastly different but equally appealing. It is my hope that all Writers Festival events feel as comfortable as Plan 99.  

 

The Brain Wars are Personal

How often do you consider the wonder of consciousness? It is incredibly meta to try and think aboutthinking, and then think about the underlying structures that create the experience of thinking, butthis is one of the modern philosophical battlegrounds that Mario Beauregard has decided to venture into. Beauregard came to the Ottawa Writers Festival to present his new book The Brain Wars , which is a scientific examination of research he and other scientists are finding regarding the nature of consciousness.

 

I consider myself reasonably well read on the topic of “popular neuroscience,” as this has been a common book topic recently. I’ve read work by Tom Stafford and Jonah Lehrer, and many other authors of a similar style – the case study, followed by an examination of current research explaining the merits of that case, then expanding out to how this applies to everyone. From my reading I have changed my opinion on the nature of my consciousness from a religious one believing in a distinct “soul,” to one accepting that perhaps my consciousness simply was just a quirk of evolution and the way the brain makes sense of the environment around it. I felt that this was an enlightened stance because it was finally letting go of the ghost-in-the-machine—letting go of superstitions that try to explain something that was up until now unexplainable. Seeing that Beauregard was arguing back towards consciousness being something distinct outside of the brain and body fascinated me, especially knowing the quality of the research that is coming out of Montreal on the topic of neuroscience. It was clear I was not the only one interested in this topic, as Beauregard spoke to a packed house.

 

The presentation was fast-paced consisting of many seemingly unrelated ideas, much like how the mind often works. Beauregard touched on Quantum Mechanics and Materialism, the Placebo effect, Psychoneuroimmunology, Neuroplasticity, Neurofeedback, the Psi phenomenon, and near-death experiences. He tried to tie these all together as the basis for his view of consciousness. Arguments like this are like a house of cards, in that they require the listener to grasp the nuance of each idea so that atthe end of the presentation the listener will have a tower balanced in their minds showing the structure of the thesis. If they miss something, or interpret information differently than the presenter, the tower will not be able to stand. The other challenge for a presenter with a topic like this is that each personin the audience will be coming in with a different base for the author to build their argument upon, resulting from their education, background, personal philosophy, and other intangible things like their mood.

 

I think the cold rainy day primed the mood of the audience, as it quickly became clear during the question period following his presentation that many disagreed with him. Obviously I wasn’t the only person in the audience who came in with a different perspective. It seemed more like question period in the House of Commons where the “questioner” would start with a diatribe detailing why Beauregard couldn’t possibly be right, followed by a pointed question. The big difference between Knox church that afternoon and the House of Commons was the Beauregard was quite respectful towards those who disagreed with him. I thought he handled the challenges from the audience very well, and he obviouslyhas faced similar questions before.

 

After the presentation I purchased a copy of Brain Wars for myself, as this will be the only way I canfully engage with Beauregard’s argument. A twenty-minute presentation barely scratched the surface of a very complicated and nuanced idea. I approached Beauregard to ask him to sign my copy, and mentioned to him that I appreciated his presentation, but that I wasn’t sure if I agreed with him or not. He signed my book with “May this book stimulate your reflections about the nature of the human

mind.”

 

I think that is the beauty of ideas like this—you may not walk away agreeing with the presenter, but if you are open to a new perspective you will develop a stronger understanding about why you believe what you believe, and will earn a better understanding about yourself in the process. Whether his research and ideas prove to be correct in the end, if they lead us all to more reflections about thenature of the human mind, I think that’s a noble goal.

The Kind of Life It's Been for Lloyd Robertson

More than 350 people filled Knox Presbyterian Church Friday, to hear Lloyd Robertson talk about the kind of life it’s been, say festival organizers.

 

“For a slightly lapsed Presbyterian, this is an intimidating place to be,” said Robertson before diving into a discussion of his autobiography.

 

Robertson shared stories from his new book The Kind of Life It’s Been and answered questions from event host CBC radio’s Laurence Wall, for a packed Ottawa Writers Festival audience. Wall introduced Robertson as the anchor with the longest running career of any news anchor in history

 

Robertson retired his seat at CTV’s lead news desk in September 2011, after 35 years. Prior to that he spent 6 years as the anchor of The National on CBC. He now co-hosts W5, CTV’s magazine news show.

 

For 41 years Canadians turned to Robertson for coverage of important events of the day, but knew little of his journey to the anchor’s seat. In his book –titled after his signature sign-off phrase “and that’s the kind of day it’s been”– Robertson reveals the story of a boy from Stratford, Ont. with a dreary home life and a striking baritone voice, who escaped into the excitement and endless possibilities of radio.

 

Robertson gave Friday’s Writers Festival audience a privileged look at his life, sharing the lessons he learned and the barriers he over came.

 

As Robertson grew up, his father was sick with a number of stomach conditions and was frequently ill. His is mother suffered from serious mental illness and eventually underwent a lobotomy. As a child Robertson witnessed his mother’s illness and those of other patients at the hospitals where she spent much of his youth, he said.

 

“All this left me with a life long commitment to try to help in every way possible to uncover the mysteries of mental illness,” said Robertson.

 

He says his love of radio started when he heard announcers broadcasting live in the middle of a parade welcoming soldiers home from WWII.

 

“I was transformed into another world at that point… I then became a radio groupie,” said Robertson who was 12 years old at the time.

 

“Radio opened up a world of imagination for me, but it was also an escape. It was an escape from where I was,” said Robertson.

 

He described learning the voices of all the local radio hosts and hanging around their studio as often as he could, until eventually getting an on air job.

 

Robertson told Wall and the Writers Festival audience how he went from a teenager forcing his way onto local radio, to the anchor of CBC’s The National. “I think I became the kind of person I am because of my experiences at the CBC. The CBC to me was like getting a liberal arts degree,” said Robertson who graduated high school, but never attended a post secondary institution.

 

CBC –or as Robertson calls it in his book: “Mother Corp.” was where he learned how to use the new medium of television, and where he rose to be a lead anchor. But because of union rules, Robertson was not able to act as a journalist and write his own stories.

He says he moved to CTV in 1976 because they told him “come over here, you can do everything.” Robertson said he felt loyal to the public broadcaster and believed in it, but knew that he would not advance in his career if he stayed there. After six years as anchor of The National, Robertson moved to CTV where he would become the chief anchor and senior editor of CTV’s evening news.

 

Wall presented the magnitude of Robertson’s career with a list of some of the major events he covered, including the opening of Expo 67, both Quebec referendums, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, the construction and fall of the Berlin wall, and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Robertson described covering major events like these –recalling his coverage of the first moon landing– as significant to him because he was helping shape moments in history for the Canadian audience.

 

Robertson’s career was spent in news, but he revealed a chance he had at a career in politics. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in offered him a senate seat in 2003. Robertson said he was troubled by the impact a partisan position would have on his reputation as a journalist. “I ended up saying ‘no thank you’ because I really thought that after all those years and that long commitment to independence and journalism that I really couldn’t and I don’t regret that,” said Robertson.

 

Robertson held his job as anchor until he chose to retire last year at age 77. “I wanted to go out on top. My heroes were always people who left at their peak…I wanted to get out when everything was intact. The voice was still intact,” he said, adding jokingly “and the looks reasonably intact.”

 

When asked about the future of mainstream media in the face of the online world, Robertson responded “the urge to know what is really going on will always be there and that is where the mainstream news come in.”

 

After about an hour discussing the kind of life it’s been, Wall had Robertson wrap up the event by handing him a script from which he read “and that’s the kind of day it’s been. I’m Lloyd Robertson, for the Ottawa Writers Festival, goodnight.”

 

25 years in song with Lynn Miles

 

A very enthusiastic and sold out audience enjoyed an evening celebrating Ottawa’s own Lynn Miles’ 25 year career as a singer/songwriter on Friday night. Her dedicated following and very strong connections to the local arts community were evident throughout the evening.

 

Alan Neal from CBC Radio One 91.5 FM hosted the evening (his day job is host of the program All In A Day). Neal had done a great deal of background research and did a masterful job of providing the backdrop to the story of Lynn’s career. While keeping Lynn as the focal point of the evening, Neal showcased a trip down memory lane. Lynn and the audience were treated to video and audio clips of people past and present who were or are part of her career. Lynn sang several songs, old and new, all to the audience’s delight. Lynn bantered with Neal and connected with the audience from start to finish.

 

Lynn made her first recording, on videocassette in 1987. At one point it was mentioned Lynn had written over 700 songs. In one audio clip from the early 1990’s, CBC’s Peter Gzowski asked Lynn if she was shy. She said she was and it took her a year to open her eyes in front of an audience and another year not to just look at the microphone once her eyes were open. There was an audio clip tribute from Murray McLauchlin, video clips of being interviewed by Alanis Morrisette and messages from producers and collaborators throughout the years. Lynn told a story of being busted for busking with Alanis Morrisette when they were in Santa Monica many years ago.

 

Lynn has won and been nominated for a number of awards over the years, including winning a Juno in 2003 and the 2005 Canadian Folk Award. Throughout the evening we heard several songs including Surrender Dorothy, Hockey Night in Canada and The People You Love. She played every request and she showed sheer enjoyment when guest artists such as Lynne Hanson performed I’m The Moon (Lynn Miles spontaneously joined in to sing harmony) and Sarah Slean performed Black Flowers.

 

Lynn was humble, down to earth and demonstrated a great sense of humour throughout the evening. We were treated to insights about her early career and to the influential roles played by a number of people like the owners of Rasputin’s Café. It was there Lynn and other singer/songwriters would perform and hang out till the wee hours. One of the owners, Helen, provided Lynn with cash to help make her make an album in the earliest years. She thanked the owner of The Ottawa Folklore Centre for hiring her when she needed cash and she thanked many others for their support over the years. In the end, it was the audience who showed their gratitude and respect to one very gifted singer and songwriter, Lynn Miles. I’d recommend that if you aren’t familiar with her work, then it’s time to log on to iTunes or head out to shop for a CD or, as Alan Neal did, look on eBay for a copy of that very first Lynn Miles cassette.