A church whose roots reach back to the early 19th century seems a more than appropriate setting for a discussion of historical writing. It is a blessedly mild Saturday evening in April, and a large crowd is eager to hear from three of Canada’s most esteemed writers of fiction, to learn about what the concept of time has meant to their writing.
Stephen Brockwell presents us with an introduction to the historical novel, a genre that goes back to The Iliad. He wonders why we as readers are so interested with the past, musing on a few possible answers. For him, historical fiction may represent an illusion of the so-called golden age, serve as a way for us to reflect on the past, or lastly, provide a vessel for us to criticize what we have come from. The answer is likely to be a combination of all three.
Each guest is introduced briefly, a daunting task considering their combined honours. First we meet Katherine Govier, a much-lauded author and chair of the Writers’ Trust of Canada. Her latest novel, The Three Sisters Bar & Hotel takes place in early twentieth-century Banff, a setting rife with interesting characters, or as she describes it, a ‘novel begging to happen.’ Katherine is brief, explaining that she tends to frame her historical works with beginnings and endings that are grounded in the present. The excerpt she chooses to read is equal parts charming and atmospheric. She captures the voice of her main character, a poacher-turned-trail guide, with expert precision.
Next is Daniel Poliquin, a novelist, translator and recipient of the Order of Canada. His latest novel, The Angel’s Jig, tells a story set in New Brunswick in a time long after the abolishment of slavery when orphans and the elderly poor could be auctioned off into indentured servitude. He goes into greater detail regarding his process, explaining that he views his works not as histories, but as stories. He cautions that writers must be careful to avoid anachronisms in their historical writing, especially when it comes to language. Language hides ideology, he warns, citing Hollywood’s tendency to push American ideology on otherwise historical settings. His excerpt is brief and light, despite the subject matter. His main character Fidèle appears somewhat ambivalent towards his servitude, and has a wry but simple sense of humour. Fidèle’s voice, more than anything else, effectively transports the reader to an entirely foreign time and place.
Lastly, the audience is introduced to writer Alissa York, a Giller Prize nominee for her 2007 novel Effigy. She speaks the least, offering up only that her books require an exhaustive amount of research. She explains that she must be fascinated with a subject matter before deciding to write about it. Her latest novel, The Naturalist, is set in the Amazon partly because of Alissa’s deep interest in the river. What she lacks in introduction is more than made up for when Alissa reads her excerpt. It is a scene in which her characters are winding their way along the vast river to collect live specimens. Alissa creates a world that breathes and comes to life. With a narration the borders on omniscient, the specific voice of her characters is harder to pinpoint, but it isn’t necessary, the audience is spellbound regardless.
Stephen Brockwell returns to the stage to lead a round of questions, which range from each authors representation of time to each authors use of nature as a framework. He is a practiced interviewer, building upon previous queries to dig deeper and elicit a more layered response.
By the end of the night, three authors of history occupy the stage, representing a collection of stories that span centuries. Each has deftly given a voice to the past and brought to life the dead and forgotten for a new audience. T.S. Eliot wrote: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.” It isn’t hard to see our authors as commanders of all three.
The questions from the audience began with a strike to the heart: “should there be a limit to forgiveness and empathy?” Posed to three authors on the first night of the Spring 2016 Ottawa International Writers Festival, the woman’s question evoked a passionate response: “empathy is not absolution”; to seek understanding does not have to lead to forgiveness. The theme of this third event of the evening was “radical empathy”, a common thread running through the works of Sara Baume (Spill Simmer Falter Wither), Sunil Yapa (Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist), and Joan Crate (Black Apple). Baume, Yapa, and Crate’s novels and characters were vastly different, as the audience would soon realize, ranging from a lonely man and his dog in Ireland to seven perspectives of one day during the 1999 WTO Seattle protests to a Blackfoot woman who grew up in the Canadian residential school system. All, however, explored the idea of deep loneliness, empathy, and humanity deprived.
To situate the packed room at Christ Church Cathedral, each author read a short excerpt from their novels. There is something special about storytellers being the ones to breath life into their own words, and this night was no exception. In a soft Irish lilt, Baume spoke in the voice of Ray, a man in his fifties, as he talked to his sole companion: his dog. Yunil followed, and we heard the thoughts of seventeen-year-old Victor as he gets caught up in the brutality of the chaotic anti-globalisation protests. Last was Crate, who introduced us to Mother Grace, the troubled Mother Superior in charge of St Mark’s Residential School, and one of her charges, a seven-year-old Blackfoot girl re-named Rose-Marie by the system.
After the three readings, the authors joined Artistic Director Sean Wilson on stage to go deeper into the concept of radical empathy and the creation of their characters. The consequences of compassion, the fragility of the human life, and simple weariness were key topics pondered, and the authors, particularly Yunil and Crate, emphasized the importance of having no intentional villain to the process of writing empathy. To write from the perspectives of police during a violent protest and a Roman Catholic nun who was complicit in the vile residential school system was a challenge for Yunil and Crate, but they recognized the complexities of each and were determined to better understand the different perspectives.
The difference between loneliness and solitude was also considered. A young child cruelly ripped from her family, a motherless boy estranged from his father, a crippled old man and his equally crippled dog seeking refuge from damaging loneliness – and storytellers writing in solitude, not quite lonely, comforted by the characters they put on paper, and yet still alone.
In the comfortable cathedral room, the community gathered was far from lonely, a group full of different textures of people with their own silent stories. Contemplating the limits of forgiveness and the power empathy brought a sombreness to the crowd. With the smell of stale coffee lingering and the soft rustle of neighbours fidgeting, the authors assured the concerned woman that yes, there is a limit to forgiveness, and that their stories were not intending to say we ought to forgive those who inflicted grave harm upon others. But one cannot help but wonder – perhaps radical empathy means there is no limit to forgiveness.
Friday evening's celebration of short stories at Ottawa's Christ Church Cathedral brought together what host Susan Birkwood called "stories that dealt with the dual nature of human experiences: longing, and loss, but also hope and love." The Long and Short of It, as the event was aptly named, delved into the microcosm of these emotions through the individual experiences of characters from seemingly different strata of society.
The evening's first guest writer, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, set the tone for the exploration of such contradicting and powerful human emotions in her latest publication, The Stone Collection, where she explores the idea of how even the most marginalized members of our society are able to transcend the darkest of human experiences, despair and alienation, and how ultimately their survival is possible through a deep-rooted sense of heritage, community and above all, humour. As Akiwenzie-Damm explained the inspiration for her stories, the “dark, heavy, subject matter” reflects the daily lives of Indigenous communities, including the tragic realities of Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women. In the excerpt she read from Calcified Horses, a story set in Ottawa, the audience was able to obtain a glimpse into a life inspired by Minnie Sutherland, her story made powerful by Akiwenzie-Damm's juxtaposition of the character's inner strength in defiance of her perceived vulnerability.
The evening's exploration of the themes of loss and hope continued with Kris Bertin's The Eviction Process, a short story dealing with the gentrification of a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Halifax. Bertin's chosen excerpt from this story captured the forceful nature of his writing, direct and honest, very similar to the characters' will to overcome transition even if this might represent a sense of loss. For the characters, continuity and belonging are then sought through the more permanent bonds found in relationships. Chris Bertin's own interest in questions of human agency and whether we actually have any control in our lives placed his character's experiences in The Eviction Process in this greater context of the arbitrary or transitory elements often found in life.
From a neighbourhood in greater Halifax, the audience was then taken further east to Ireland, the homeland of Danielle McLaughlin and also the setting for her short story collection in Dinosaurs on Other Planets. Here we came across Kate, a middle-aged woman caught in the midst of an existential crisis where the rest of the world seems to continue to move on its axis while she is at a standstill. It is only when the possibility of the unknown could offer something greater than herself like the idea of dinosaurs on other planets, does Kate feel a sense of hope in finding her place in this world. As McLaughlin mused about this idea during the question and answer period, she wondered at the possibility of bridging the distance between our world and others. This notion of the will to find a connection with different eras and places is strongly hinted in the title story with the element of the discovery of an animal skull, taken to be the fossil of a dinosaur by Kate's grandson, the idea for which had come from McLaughlin's own experience with her son.
By the evening's end the audience had been taken on a journey from a familiar story setting to others that were more distant. Despite this, each story was able to bridge the geographical distances between the characters as a recurrent theme was found. Perhaps the human experience is to be full of contradictions, but it is the will to hope in defiance of a darker reality that makes us transcend this truth.
After a sadly unanticipated foray through Ottawa constructions detours, I was, as always, delighted to see the blue Writers Festival banner standing tall in the evening sun on Friday. Not only did the banner direct me to the correct location (which was a concern in light of my being new to the venue), but it also served as a reminder of the delightful energy and discussion of the Writers Festival events.
Friday’s event at Christ Church Cathedral was hosted by festival social media manager Nina Jane Drystek, and began with a reading by Nadia Bozak , an assistant professor of English at Carleton University. Bozak read from her upcoming publication Thirteen Shells , which is a series of short stories that can be read individually or as seen with a unifying arc throughout.
Importantly, Bozak’s reading included a brief musical interlude, wherein it became clear that parenthood can serve as an excellent comfort buffer when it comes to singing Raffi songs you’ve (perhaps regrettably) written into your short story collection. It was clear that everyone in the room knew precisely to when in history Bozak was referring in light of the songs referenced in her work. Bozak later explained that pop culture serves as an important piece of the memory landscape in her work.
Second on the docket at Friday’s event was Farzana Doctor , a part-time psychotherapist and author based out of Toronto. Doctor was reading from her recent work All Inclusive , providing selections from two different characters. Not dissimilar from Bozak’s work, Doctor also used apropos musical selections to contextualize her stories in time. Hearing Duran Duran or Katy Perry will make fairly clear to a listener what time in history the story takes place in. Despite the featuring of music, Doctor commented that she needs to be reminded that listening to music is good; she finds it helpful in marking characters in time but frequently forgets its goodness for her own real life.
Last but certainly not least in Friday’s event was Christine Dwyer Hickey , an Irish playwright gracing Ottawa with her presence by way of Culture Ireland . Dwyer Hickey was reading from The Lives of Women , a story which has similarities to Bozak’s Thirteen Shells, likely due less to happenstance and more to excellent festival scheduling. Dwyer Hickey read a selection that the audience related well to, especially her depiction of a nosy elderly neighbour lady who hardly gave the protagonist a chance to think during a phone call. Most of us, I imagine, have talked to this particular neighbour lady at least once in our lives (or perhaps this lady is our grandmother).
A great concluding question to this event’s discussion was regarding how to go about doing the work of writing. Dwyer Hickey’s advice was to “sneak it up on yourself”; more specifically, to start by writing thirty minutes per day—no more, no less. She made the important observation that, even if you aren’t physically writing, the act or process of writing still continues as you go about your day. Hopefully, other attendees of this event were as encouraged as I was—not only to write more, but also to read the work of these talented authors.
The spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival was off to an auspicious start with a standing-room only reception at Social in the Byward Market for Hugh Segal’s book launch. Segal has been a respected public figure for many decades, and left the then burning house of the Senate to become the Master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, a position he still holds.
His new book is part of a series by Dundurn Press, called Point of View, and is titled Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future .The eponymous dual liberties detailed by Segal are: the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.
In a brief but insightful conversation with Jennifer Ditchburn , the Editor-in-Chief of Policy Options/Options Politiques, Segal touched on a number of issues that believes are necessary for Canada to address if it is truly to be “back” on the world stage. All these issues hinge on the basic foundation of having material well-being and security.
There were intimations of his preference for devolution—outlined in his previous book The Right Balance —that NGOs on the ground, and Canada’s diplomatic corps in the field should be the first actors to engage. He favourably mentioned Canada’s working with an organization in Malaysia, Sisters in Islam , which seeks to balance shari’ah law with common law within a democracy. He also pointed out the benefits of organizations like the Commonwealth of Learning , housed in Burnaby, BC as an excellent tool in using technology to promote education, and how it was useful more recently in Pakistan. Not dealing with these smaller agents and channelling funds instead to state actors was derisively referred to as “Auditor Generalitis”; a risk-averse posture to simplify domestic book-keeping.
Segal also has numbers. 0.7% of foreign aid, the Pearsonian ideal, and 2% on defence. The latter includes a 100,000 regular force army, with 50,000 reservists. When Ditchburn probed as to what Canada was to do with such a force, Segal’s explanation was primarily to do with the capacity to deploy for humanitarian missions. It would have been good to have him talk more about combat roles, and if they were effective and relevant roles for Canada to play, as it did in Afghanistan. Further, his thoughts on how this could all be paid for were vague at best. It’s hard to imagine this policy, if taken, not having an significant impact on taxes , no matter how gradually it’s rolled out.
A line of questioning that could’ve been elucidated further is what appears to be his realpolitik: his freedom from fear is held in tension with the balance of power in regions. So while there are allies who fully share our values, there are others who only partially do—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, for example. It was fairly tough to accede to Segal’s calling Turkey “a loyal member of NATO,” while keeping in mind its thin-skinned leader whose tyrannical tendencies extend beyond borders , and its double-minded approach to security.
Finally, the question always remains as to how Canada can preach to the world, while there are mounting problems at home. Segal states that for all its problems, Canada still has a healthy self-criticism and an independent judiciary that, for instance, ruled in favour of Métis and non-status Indians. We can walk and chew gum at the same time; domestic responsibilities need not make us shrink from our international obligations.
Oh, in case you were wondering, like Ditchburn did at the end, Segal is in favour of the current government’s approach to reforming the Senate and hopes that they succeed. Of course, if everyone were a Hugh Segal, reform wouldn’t be needed.
Humans do not all live equal lives; history shows this and all sensible philosophers concede this truth. There are strong ones among us: smart, rich, powerful, cunning.
The rest, the strong considers weak, and it seems a given that most injustices perpetrated flow from the “strong” to those they consider “weak”: religious intolerance, tribal and ethnic violence, “casual” sexism, economic instability, Jim Crow. There is also within all humans a sense of justice, that we are all of us entitled to freedom, the realization of our true selves, and possibly, transcendence. It is in valuing these rights that the oppressed lash out at their oppressors. One of the more readily available and viable forms of righting societal wrongs is protest. From the protests of the citizens of Uruk against Gilgamesh’s despotism to the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution to the British abolition of slavery, the most important injustices have been met with the cries of the oppressed and the will to act against the powers that be.
Consider this: More than half the nations on the face of the earth were birthed out of protest movements; over eighty percent of sub-Saharan Africa was, as were the U.S. and Scotland. Slaves against masters, vassal states against suzerains, the weak wrestle against the strong and break their yokes and the strong either repress or relent. It is simply the world we live in.
Like Spartacus, the Martin Luther namesakes, the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, and the Ekitis of the old Oyo Kingdom in Western Nigeria, Micah White understands this tool and has deployed it to great effect. He is credited as a co-founder of the Occupy Wall Street movement, perhaps the most visible protest movement of the last twenty-five years, and is by extension an uncle to similar uprisings elsewhere. This he has achieved alongside Kalle Lasn, a Vancouver native, using the provocative Adbusters magazine as a launching pad. White, however, considers the Occupy movement a constructive failure, and in a talk given at the Southminster United Church, Ottawa–and further explained in his new book, The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution —he explains why he holds this opinion and the possible futures of protests in this era.
Here are a few things about Micah White. Thirty-four, he is of mixed heritage–half African-American, half Caucasian– and he speaks in a river’s rumble of a voice. He likes to keep his hair–which is more a young lion’s mane–together using a bandanna. He has been an activist since he was thirteen and in public schools, once founding an atheists’ club and eventually landing on an episode of “Politically Incorrect.” For him the visual imagery of Adbusters, combined with its rich symbolism and creativity, was what drew him to the magazine, and eventually a memo he sent out became the blueprint of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On the eventual fallout between Adbusters and the Occupy movement Micah is reticent.
In Ottawa he speaks of his work with Adbusters and the e-mail that shook the world and engendered protests in at least sixty countries, and he opines that the success of all social movements come from a combination of an established social network, a contagious mood, and creative tactics. He focuses mostly on this contagious mood and in the talk, the Q&A session and his book he is enthusiastic about the role of what he calls “spirit–the inner force that grants patience, perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity.” Like the Luther-named leaders and most of his African-American predecessors, White firmly believes that a spiritual element is key to the success of all protests, and that the very act of protesting is capable of opening doors to transcendence for its participants. The absence of this element is a major critique of his for the Black Lives Matter movement, which to him has lost its way by rejecting the deep spirituality of its predecessors.
An important part of White’s work are his Four Theories of Revolution: voluntarism, which works on the premise of human action being the only way through which lasting change can come and under which most contemporary activists work; structuralism, which teaches the insignificance of human intent on the creation of lasting change and instead credits economic and natural forces for any changes; subjectivism, which teaches that outside change comes from inward change, and; theurgism, a somewhat mystical and largely forgotten theory which credits lasting change to divine intervention. White believes that all four theories are needed for effective protest, and history mostly avers. America’s Founding Fathers, actively seeking to break out from under the British monarchy, invoked divine will, called for human action against the perceived oppressiveness of the monarchy, wrote magnificent works on the “American spirit,” and provoked a British crimping of Boston’s commerce, all of which led to the American Revolutionary War. Nearly two centuries later African-American civil rights movement fought redlining and the Jim Crow economy, borrowed liturgical language from Jewish and Christian canon to state the case for equal rights, marched in the streets, and leveraged whatever economic power they had to see that they and their descendants were guaranteed equal treatment by the US government.
White also sees the current forms of protest as largely corrupted by the media and contemporary activists who prefer online rants to actual grunt work. He derides the degradation of protest into performance art, an inevitable occurrence given the way such protests are covered by media conglomerates as expressions of mostly-youthful belligerence, often with insidious racial, religious and ideological undertones. Conversely, he criticizes online activism as a form of narcissistic justification without, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb puts it, “skin in the game.” He is right to put it that way, however unpleasant it may sound. The rise of hashtag activism and “spreading awareness” campaigns do little to confront actual, lived realities as much as comfort the keyboard warrior that one has played a part by “supporting” a cause, however far removed an individual’s immediate reality actually is from said cause. Awareness of a given injustice is a byproduct of the work done to right that injustice and should never be the goal nor a tool of any protest group, he argues.
Since he considers most of contemporary activism either too deeply rooted in certain ideologies to be pragmatic or just plain ineffectual, White looks to the rural areas, feminist activism, and protest-bots for the future of activism. These possible hotbeds have largely been overlooked, he says, and he is convinced that the perceptions of bourgeois and liberal urbanites of the rural communities as largely conservative and racist hotbeds are misguided. Rural communities are well aware the way the wind blows the world, he says, and because of the ineffectiveness of the urban, liberal-leaning left it will be they who will eventually decide how the world reacts to the winds of change. He also envisions a global female movement fighting for women’s rights the world over as a welcome future of protest, and he believes in the use of technological advances to further activist causes. However, the excessive presence of a thing inevitably signals its devaluation, and he argues that the ubiquitous nature of the Internet has served as a double-edged sword for protest movements in these times. Protest should never be easy, he says, admitting to being scared every time he has to protest.
The key to understanding Micah White and his work lies at the intersection of the mystical and the physical realities and his reasoned understanding of the machinations of our world. While his work has shown how potent human activity can be in creating global change he is keenly aware of a spiritual input to the success of his work and in no unclear terms states that all protest is fundamentally spiritual. He is loath to completely endorse one given worldview, preferring to learn as much as he can from all and adapt as needed, chameleon-like. But perhaps the deepest truth we can glean from White’s important work, no less an unhappy truth, is that protest without backing power is limited in its possibilities. An example: the global antiwar march of February 15, 2003. In an interview with Justin Campbell of the Los Angeles Review of Books, White points out the naïve assumptions made by the protesters who assumed that large numbers of protesters corresponded to increased influence over President Bush’s decisions. The age of mass marches and public protest as the ley tools for effective change is drawing to a close, he argues, citing the failures of the People’s Climate March to achieve any meaningful results concerning climate change and the more recent Black Lives Matter movement to stem the nationwide killing of young black males in the U.S., amongst others.
It is the way of the world that the strong mostly win, and that the perceived weak are entertainment for the strong. But protest against injustice all humans must, remembering it is also the way of the world that few lions can survive repeated kicks to the head from a wildebeest’s hoof.
 Mattathias Schwartz (2011, November 28) “Pre-Occupied”. The New Yorker. Retrieved March 21, 2016.
 Micah White (2016). The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.
 Justin Campbell (2015, September 17). “The Challenge of Protest in Our Time. Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved March 21, 2016
It was fitting, in a way, to gather in a church and talk about miracles—even if only the literary sort—and on Monday night, Southminster United was at capacity with nearly 600 attendees for our illustrious novelist’s appearance.
John Irving, without question one of the most influential living American fiction writers, would read from his 14th book, the freshly published Avenue of Mysteries. In conversation with CBC’s Adrian Harewood, Irving did not disappoint, with a professorial air and a measured response for each question; he addressed Ottawa with generosity and openness, inviting attendees to step into a world of his creation, to see what mysteries and miracles lay within.
And what a world it is! The depth characteristic of Irving’s work lends itself to serious discussion on such varied topics as magical realism, marginalized characters, and the line between comedy and horror. Harewood deftly steered the conversation, allowing Irving to “answer in an elliptical fashion,” as the author put it, while still directing their chat. One of the memorable moments came when Harewood attempted to segue into talking about Irving’s reputation for writing sex scenes. “I used to think I had a very vivid sexual imagination before I read you,” said Harewood, prompting delighted laughter from the audience and Irving alike.
Irving invited the audience to peer through a door when answering questions concerning his writing process, which he says he approaches from knowing the ending of the story, and working his way through to it. “I need to know what I am writing toward,” he said. But he acknowledged a long gestation for his books once he understands the story’s ending, a period in which “novels wait 5 to 8 years.” The reason for this waiting: something he is avoiding writing.
“There has to be something that has been waiting, unwritten,” he explained. He said he asked himself, “What is in the story that really turns my stomach?” Without that, he said there was no point in taking the time to write the novel, because it would not have the impact on the reader. “We are drawn to what frightens us…how perverse the process of writing fiction is, how masochistic.”
One of the most eye-opening moments of the evening’s discussion revolved around the issue of gender equality. Early in the conversation, Irving revealed that he credits his empathy and propensity for creating marginalized characters to his mother, whose feminist ideals were radical and pioneering.
Toward the end of the evening, Harewood delved specifically into Irving’s reasons for writing transgender characters such as Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp and Flor in Avenue of Mysteries. Harewood noted that Garp, published in 1978, was ahead of its time in its portrayal of a transgender character. “Thank you for noticing!” said Irving. A lively dialogue followed, during which Irving expressed his dissatisfaction with the sexual revolution: “You think things are different? I don’t think so!” he responded, in reaction to being questioned about a new miniseries production of Garp. The material is still timely, he said, because “there are dinosaurs among us” who still do not recognize the need for true gender equality. The audience erupted in supportive applause.
Whether the attendees came for the novel or the novelist, the evening was rich with metaphor and glimpses into the miraculous. Though Irving confesses that Avenue of Mysteries is a story of children at risk, he also knows that Juan Diego, the main character and one of those children, “is in it for the real thing” – the miracles. In describing how a childhood event can seem to eclipse the adult life, and how that phenomenon informs his writing, it becomes clear that Irving is casting the coming-of-age experience as a miracle, too. Through discussion of his writing process and peeks into what makes him tick, Irving was able to show us the real wonder.
“That’s what fiction writers do. We take something that’s true and we make it more true,” Irving explained.” So he does.
It was a full house at the Centretown United Church last Thursday evening, as crime fiction aficionados gathered to hear Ian Rankin discuss his new novel, Even Dogs in the Wild . The book is his twentieth (yes, you read that correctly) novel about John Rebus, an Edinburgh police detective who Rankin says jumped into his head twenty years ago as a fully-formed character complete with an ex-wife, teenage daughter and cynical world view. Over the years, both Rankin and Rebus have matured —now in his mid-sixties, Rebus has come out of retirement to solve another crime.
The evening’s discussion was hosted by Peggy Blair, a crime writer based in Ottawa, who has Rankin to thank for helping her get her start as a writer. She began by telling the story of how the pair first became acquainted; following a chance meeting in an English pub five years ago, Rankin’s generosity led to Blair being represented by Rankin’s agent which resulted in her subsequent debut on the Frankfurt Book Fair’s hot list. After learning about Blair’s start in publishing, Rankin then discussed his beginnings as an author. After graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1982, he was supposed to be working towards his PhD in Scottish Literature. He was planning to write his thesis on Muriel Spark, whose book, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie , Rankin cites as one of his favourites. However, he spent most of his time writing fiction instead. Though his very first novel never saw the light of day, his second, The Flood, was published in 1986 and was followed a year later by his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses .
Rankin never planned to write a second Rebus book – he actually intended for the character to be killed at the end of the first novel – but when sales of his other books were dwindling, his publisher encouraged him to bring the detective back. Rankin never imagined himself as a crime writer —he dreamed of penning “the great Scottish novel” and was initially even surprised to see his novels in the crime section of the bookstore. However, after receiving an invitation from the Crime Writers’ Association to join them, he couldn’t deny it any longer. Over the years he has received four Crime Writers’ Association Dagger Awards, including the prestigious Diamond Dagger. Rankin and Blair discussed the concept of crime genre fiction and how literary fiction and crime fiction do not need to be mutually exclusive. Rankin raised the point that the popular Harry Potter series features many of the same tropes as crime and mystery novels; an interesting comparison considering the fact that Harry Potter also ages along with his book series, just like John Rebus.
Rankin lamented the publishing industry of twenty years ago, before the rise of e-publishing and social media. He said that he is completely unfamiliar with the current concept of e-publishing, it is not the world he knows, and that if anyone were to ask him for advice on how to get started as an author now he wouldn’t have a clue. I found these comments particularly interesting as I completed an MA in Publishing in 2013, and a number of my classes were focused on the digital presence of the author and how the Internet has allowed writers to reach readers in increasingly new and different ways. I think it is important for newer writers to curate an online presence in order to market themselves; however, this is something Rankin need not worry about. With many years of successful novels behind him, now the strength of his name alone sells books around the world.
Monday night’s post-festival event at Southminster United Church was unsurprisingly a full house. Some attendees might argue the event’s appeal was extensive talk of sexbots (and the vast irony of such talk occurring in a church), but instead, all attention was on one of Canada’s foremost and most beloved authors, the inimitable Margaret Atwood. As host Alan Neal emoted more than once in the opening moments of the event, Monday’s event was certainly a welcome to the mind of Margaret Atwood, as sexbot-oriented as it may be.
Much of the evening’s discussion between Neal and Atwood focused on Atwood’s overall writing process, much to the delight of the budding writers in the crowd. More specifically, however, Atwood shared about the process by which her most recent publication, The Heart Goes Last, transformed from an online serial publication to a regular novel.
One of the questions Alan Neal asked during the course of the evening how Atwood went about finding or developing her characters for The Heart Goes Last. Her response? She doesn’t find characters sitting on a shelf somewhere; they grow out of the story that she tells. Despite what plenty of people may believe about the work of writers, Atwood intimated that her characters emerge during the process of creating a story; those characters don’t pre-exist. Certainly, new developments emerged for the characters of The Heart Goes Last when it transformed into a novel, but Atwood seems to imply that those character transformations were organic.
When asked about her writing process, Atwood shared that, once upon a time, she attempted to write in a calculated, formulaic way: this, Atwood said, was the Post-It note style. Specifically, Atwood shared that she tried this particular writing tactic in 1968 by using a series of filing cards and creating a formula of characters and sections. Colour coding was even involved, which sets my mildly obsessive-compulsive heart aglow, but those notes and codes certainly didn’t please Atwood.
After going through the aforementioned process, Atwood commented that she knew a lot about those characters, but absolutely nothing had happened. In the same vein, she shared advice that she gave to a friend writing a murder mystery: in the most Atwood-way possible, she suggested that this friend move the dead body closer to the front. Ultimately, Atwood shared that the writing process is akin to that of a rat searching for cheese in a maze: sometimes, you just have to throw it all out and start all over again.
One of my favourite moments of the evening (and one of a few times during which I laughed out loud) was Atwood’s recalling the helpful feature of the Microsoft Word of days gone by, wherein a small box would appear, commenting that “you seem to be trying to write a letter; would you like some help?” Atwood was, however, quick to clarify that this she was referring to a little, advice-giving box, and not the googly-eyed paperclip, the latter of which she strongly disliked. (After some quick research, I’ve discovered the aforementioned square and paperclip are more professionally referred to as office assistants. Go figure.)
One of the night’s most interesting pieces of information was that Atwood has attended ComicCon. In short, she was one of a few authors commissioned to compose an anthology in honour of Ray Bradbury. Sadly, before Atwood and her co-authors could present the publication to Bradbury at ComicCon, he passed away. (Atwood has a beautiful, long form piece about Bradbury in The Guardian for those who are interested.) Atwood and her fellow writers opted to show up in Bradbury’s honour at ComicCon anyway. Atwood shared further tales of comic-con, commented about receiving a Hobbit tote bag with which she would not part. Additionally, she shared about a connection with some Iranian filmmakers and her subsequent poster cameo in the recent cult film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
If her Twitter relationship with Rob Delaney, her political engagement or her deep love of birds weren’t already enough to convince you, I’m certain that Monday’s event will have attendees tip the scales in Atwood’s favour toward national treasure, peculiar as she may be.
Torrential rain and broken umbrellas didn't stop the excited audience from filling up the pews in the cozy and brightly lit Centretown United Church. This was an event that no one wanted to miss and it didn't disappoint.
The evening began with a goose bump-inducing reading of In Flanders Fields as read by Leonard Cohen. In the moment the recording played, every single person was connected and held captive by the powerful words, which continue to hold profound meaning for Canadians.
Lt. -Gen. Roméo Dallaire read a passage from In Flanders Fields: 100 Years: Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance (the anthology that all three speakers collaborated on) and provided the audience with the unexplored and emotional perspective of a commander who is responsible for other people's lives. He spoke about how the poem never hit home until the day he had to give orders to soldiers who ultimately died under his command. "The poem wasn't a poem anymore ... it was living ... the experience that this poem articulates is a responsibility for Captains. It's a responsibility to prepare soldiers to be effective and survive and a responsibility to carry the fact that those who don't come back are because of your orders." This poignant final sentence followed the tone set by Leonard Cohen's reading and added depth to the poem's meaning and our understanding of it.
Then Tim Cook began with a light-hearted anecdote about how In Flanders Fields was the only poem he had ever memorized but he noted although the poem always mattered to him, he had never thought about the man behind it until now. Cook humanized John McCrae. He was no longer simply the poet or the historical figure but "a leading young man in every sense." He was the healer who desperately wanted to go to war, the asthmatic who excelled in sports, and the humorous man who sang in a lunatic asylum "where the audience is not disposed to be particularly critical." However, he also carried the weight of the war with him and the "torch" of his poem resonates with grieving families who return to McCrae's words to soothe their scars and light the way forward.
Mary Janigan approached the poem in a different way—one that not many would think of. She spoke of the effect In Flanders Fields had on the 1917 election. Janigan admitted she initially, didn't see the connection until she read the last six lines of the poem. These lines were quoted to rally support for Sir Robert Borden who pushed for conscription.
However, the "poem was sent into battle and the enemy was Sir Wilfrid Laurier [who opposed conscription]." The resonance of the poem played a huge role in how the country almost broke up, illustrating how this poem can have many meanings across space and time.
The evening ended with a brief Question and Answer session where Dallaire, Cook, and Janigan spoke about the impact and meaning of World War I and why it's more memorable than World War II: "it affects every town and city in the country ... it's an Armageddon we can't get over that. It's the war that shook us. It changed us, it almost tore us apart ... it's the war we can't forget." Those final words bring us back to the chilling reading, which started the event and remind us of its call for remembrance and responsibility.
This evening, which was filled with different perspectives of a beloved poem, showed the audience that In Flanders Fields has many unexplored meanings. With every experience and every reading, new meanings may arise (I know I'll be reading it again with a new set of eyes). Ultimately, this poem will continue to resonate with us.