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Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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A Spill or Two Keeps Your Glass Half Full

There's got to be some irony to the fact that on one of the sunniest Saturdays we've had here in Ottawa in a while, I was sitting in a dark, air conditioned theatre listening to three authors talk about optimism.


Joel Yanofsky, Shari Graydon and Neil Pasricha were joined together in positivity to share their pearls of wisdom, and, let's be serious, promote their books. Over the course of a couple of hours, each author spoke about a range of things that inspired their books and their outlooks on life. Topics discussed were: parenting, marriage, aging, autism, divorce, and even suicide. Not exactly sunshine and lollipops, I know. However, when speaking about the themes of their books, each author reminded me that wrinkles, tantrums and lost loves were indeed the very things that helped polish up their shiny attitudes.


For Shari Graydon, author of the book, I Feel Great About My Hands, her glass half-full is described as a “face half-wrinkled approach” to life. A collection of 50 contributions from women from across Canada, Shari's book is about “women reflecting on the benefits of maturity.” With essays from the likes of Elizabeth May and Mary Walsh to compositions from women across all walks of life in our country, the book celebrates aging, wrinkled hands and all. Graydon humbly spoke about taking full credit for the book; instead she extended the praise to all of the other contributors. She didn't stop there, as she explained that all of the proceeds from I Feel Great About My Hands will go to a non-profit organization called Media Action, specifically to a project called "Informed Opinions" that works towards a fairer, more balanced representation of womens' voices in the media. 

While half-jokingly sharing the unofficial rules for writing a book, Joel Yanofsky explained, "...rules for writing a book: 1. Have something bad happen to you. 2. Be prepared to be brutally honest." Sitting there hearing these words, I noticed that all three of these glass half-full writers met this criteria. With a dry, self-depricating sense of humour, Joel spoke about his book, Bad Animals, where he writes about his and his wife's journey raising their autistic son. Joel said: “it was my attempt to make myself a better person, even if I didn’t want to be.” The book is also about acceptance: “much like my son, I had to learn everything the hard way.” With a transparency about him, still sprinkled with a little self pity, Yanofsky said, “I realized I had to become a better person, just so I could be a better character in the book.”


A self-described "lucky" guy, Neil Pasricha also spoke about the fact that personal tragedy helped him realign his outlook. In the span of a year, his marriage ended and he lost a close friend to suicide. Instead of succumbing to the downward spiral one might expect in such hard times, Pasricha started his blog,, and his two books followed, the most recent being The Book of (Even More) Awesome. Neil's blog wasn’t a cure-all though, as he explained that the process of keeping your glass half-full restarts each day:  “we get to choose our attitude every morning when we get out of bed,” he said. Although he took some hits in his 20s, prior to that Neil had a very positive upbringing, in large part due to his curious, immigrant parents. “I grew up with a sense of wonder”. In the end, his advice for a glass half-full approach is simply to consciously notice the many things around us that bring happiness, as they truly are everywhere. "The act of focusing on [the awesome things] helps us find them," he explained. And yes, in case you were wondering, I got an aisle seat (awesome)!

Even More Awesome!

I woke up this morning to a good hair day, caught the bus just as I was reaching the stop, and grabbed the first cup of coffee from a freshly brewed pot in the staff room at work. AWESOME! It's the little things that make our lives great, and Neil Pasricha is here to remind us of that fact.


On the heels of the success of his blog, and his first book, The Book of Awesome, Neil has just released a second book: The Book of (Even More) Awesome! Talk about awesome -- this self described "regular guy" has found a way into our collective consciousness by reminding us of the thousands of awesome things we experience every day.


Pasricha's positive message is so strong that it even reached the folks at TED, where he gave an inspiring speech on the 3 A's of Awesome.




To hear more from Neil and pick up a copy of his newest book, head over to the Mayfair Theatre on Saturday at 2:00 pm. Part of a panel of authors spreading positivity, Neil will join Joel Yanofsky and Shari Graydon for "A Glass Half Full".


I look forward to sharing my thoughts after the event, and maybe I'll even get an aisle seat at the theatre. Ahh, the simple pleasures. AWESOME!

The finish line with Douglas and Richard

The lamentable decline in a sense of history has been cried shrilly in many countries, with Canada being no exception. For a nation admitting more newcomers per year than any other, the question of passing on the narrative of a very improbable nation is no easy task. History isn’t a science. Like a careful reading of scripture or an enduring work of literature, mining it seems to array us with a variety of new perspectives, repeatedly. More than perspective even; history (or the knowledge of it) allows us to be a part of a story that began before us – one that we hope to continue. While there is no shortage of those who enter Canada unscrupulously or for its perceived largesse, I firmly believe that most newcomers want to be part of Canada’s story.


Last Wednesday, Vincent Lam and Charles Foran sat down to discuss the lives of Maurice Richard and Tommy Douglas. The life of a Prairie preacher and a Québecois hockey player could not seem more different (and indeed it was) but the discussion demonstrated how sometimes the mythmaking, nationalistic and borderline-jingoistic history (which the Québec sovereignty movement has appropriated) needs exactly the antidote of the nuance a broader historical perspective delivers. It is commonplace in Québec patriotic circles to imagine as if everything originated in its pristine form within its borders (as indeed Daniel Poliquin pointed out).  But it was Douglas’s idea of a universal health care system in Saskatchewan which found its way into the rest of Canada – Québec inclus.


Heroes, especially athletes, are often victims of being frozen in the memories of their fans. We often forget that the “morning after” can be a very disorienting time when the crowds now have others to cheer after their retirement. While Richard’s suspension in 1955, sparking the moments may have well been the watershed moment in the La Révolution Tranquille, he was largely relegated as a man who belonged to the old order of Quebeckers who were religious and subservient – thus deserving of contempt. It was also later in his life that Richard travelled Anglo-Canada outside of Canada to discover that he was a hero to British Columbians as much as Easterners. As Foran noted, Richard allowed his game on the ice to do the talking while being notoriously reticent. Perhaps athletes shouldn’t and needn’t give interviews at all.


Vincent Lam’s insights as a physician, delivered in his gentle manner, shed light into Douglas’s life and achievement. As a socialist Douglas was apparently very much to the right of the NDP spectrum at the time. Witness the 17 consecutive balanced budgets he delivered as premier. As with athletes, sometimes politicians are remembered (or punished) in their earlier incarnations. Douglas’s small stature belied his tenacious, witty quips and his boxing career: where he won consecutive Lightweight Champion of Manitoba in 1922 and 1923. Douglas was a rare politician who followed wherever his integrity seemed to lead – his most pointed vindication perhaps his labelling of Trudeau’s invoking of the War Measures Act of 1970 as excessive.


The end of the Extraordinary Canadians Series (yes I do hold hope for some encore entries) spelt a personal feeling of warm nostalgia and cold quicksand. It was exactly at its launch over two years ago that I underwent a transmogrification; as the last phases of figuring out and assimilating into this vast land ended and a veritable Canadian anew, was. I’m not one who has a penchant for definite moments denoting personal change (preferring instead the unremitting flares which form and unform our character) but if I had to pick any to clearly point out and say “I belong to Canada and she belongs to me!” this was it. Sitting in the solemn pews of St. Brigid’s listening to Adrienne Clarkson, John Ralston Saul and Margaret MacMillan was the moulting of immigrant to citizen. This is by far my favourite series the Writer’s Fest has put up. I hope this series finds a long shelf life in many homes and libraries. Now if only they’d convince Lawrence Hill to do the biography of Oscar Peterson...

Skipping the "debate" for a real conversation on Canada

Thank god for the Extraordinary Canadians - it's nice to be reminded what makes us great and what it means to be a Canadian. Last night's Extraordinary Canadians event, marking the series' conclusion (at least for now) was a welcome counterpoint to the debate many of us endured on Tuesday night. 


Such a treat to see so many people come out for a real conversation about Canada. (And to think - the Last time I met Vincent Lam, he was busking in the Market, playing beautiful music in a tux and raising cash for medical school. Pretty cool.)


I was happy to see so many notables with election related duties take the time to come to congratulate John Ralston Saul and Penguin Canada for completing one of this country's most important and most ambitious publishing ventures - a series that saw eighteen of the country's finest authors focus on twenty of history's most fascinating characters.  


I was especially surprised to see Paul Dewar, who somehow managed to join us in the audience for much of the conversation, arriving just as Vincent Lam was discussing Tommy Douglas and his opposition to the War Measures Act and having to race off reluctantly just before Andrew Cohen was invited to join the conversation with a look at the amazing productivity of Lester Pearson's Minority government. 


Saul - who had travelled many long hours to make it to Ottawa from the UK in time for the event - kept the conversation flowing. Vincent Lam was eloquent on Tommy Douglas and the kind of leadership he embodied. Charlie Foran's take on Rocket Richard touched on hockey's special place in our National imagination and how only Les Canadiens could bring all of Montreal together in celebration - rich, poor, English or French and how that adoration expanded to include the whole country (except, maybe, a few in Toronto). 


Add a few words on Renee Levesque and his relationship with Douglas and Richard from the brilliant Daniel Poliquin and some great audience questions and you've got the recipe for a REAL debate on what it means to be Canadian, what our country is really about, and what our history can tell us about the future.


 And to think - had we not been at the Festival, we'd have had to make do with the french leaders' debate! 


Here's a nice shot by Jowan Gauthier taken just after the book signing:



Jellyfish Underneath

It was fitting that the prologue to the prodigious Etgar Keret’s discussion on his life and literature began with the screening of his 2007 film Jellyfish (Meduzot as transliterated in Hebrew). Fitting because it softened you to listen to the man who had a hand in making a wondrous pastiche of very intimate and beguiling scenes, and even more so because a pang of envy can’t help sticking out of your throat when finally confronted with a self-deprecating (humble, even)yet versatile artist at the top of his craft.


Jellyfish was a film in danger of not being made. With the screenplay written by Keret’s wife, Shira Geffen, it wandered from director to director in Israel - not unlike the characters in the film - before boomeranging back to the couple who decided that they were the ones they’d been searching for. The way Keret tells it, it is almost as if he reluctantly decided to co-direct it. The rumples of less than strong acting are ironed out by a masterful camera work which breathes in an air of heightened meaning in banality. After watching it, you get a sense of gratitude that Keret and Geffen took matters into their own hands. Wonder as well in realising that it was their inaugural effort.


Keret began by reading both his first and last short stories. Much of the strength of his reputation lies in his being the Alice Munro of Israel. Easygoing Hebrew slang is exchanged in his prose and his characters are often very ordinary. Keret stated that he doesn’t assume that he is smarter than his reader, so he leaves the exhortations out of his fiction. “Fiction is a realm of ambiguity. I’m politically active and I can go to a demonstration and write a petition or even an essay. But when it comes to writing fiction and it has a bottom line, I write the bottom line – I don’t need fiction for it.”


The interview really benefitted from the preparation of host Adrian Harewood (in my opinion, his best interview yet) who delved into the family background of Keret. As a questioner from the audience would later probe, Keret’s characters in both his film and books exude friction in their personal relationships. Friction implies contact. Close contact. Where do the people who populate his art originate? Having an anarchist older brother who was convicted of paganism to an ultraorthodox sister who has not and cannot read his writings heightens one’s curiosity as to what their Seders might look like. This ability to “make something out of something” viz. using day to day experiences as fodder made me want to be a lot more observant of my own quotidian life to see the fecund confusion lurking underneath the sense of order and civilization.


For a writer and filmmaker seemingly taciturn about infusing purport into his oeuvre, he does so anyway. And seemingly effortlessly too.

Etgar Keret and what fiction can do

The best thing about our pre-festival events, at least for me, is that there's more time to get to know the visiting authors. Often during the Festival there's just too much going on to spend much quality time with the Writers. So it was really wonderful having Etgar Keret here yesterday and having a chance to spend time with him throughout the day. We've been trying to get Etgar to Ottawa for at least two years now, and the timing finally worked out. (Huge thanks to the Embassy of Israel for getting him here!)


All I can say is: it was worth the wait. 


The event itself was wonderful. Adrian Harewood brought his A game to the on-stage conversation, moving effortlessly between the personal and the political and Etgar was generous and open in his answers. His reading, like his writing, was unforgettable. It was the kind of night that reminds me why we do this. 


I was struck especially with what he had to say about the dangers of writing with an agenda. Of writing to achieve something tangible, some political or social change or to convince people of some cause or truth. Over on rob mclennan's blog, where he participated in rob's wonderful 12 or 20 Questions series, he wrote:  "When you write you celebrate your individuality . Every person writes from a different place and for a different purpose. So it is strange for me to speak about some rigid writer's "role". If anything, a writer's role is to share a part of his mind and soul with the reader, and minds and souls come in all different shapes and colors."


And that came through vividly during his event and during our conversations earlier in the day. By writing from such a personal and honest place, he has shared more with us about the politics and the larger culture of Israel than he could have by setting out with that goal in mind. The personal is the only place we can find the universal. 


Interestingly that same theme was echoed by Mike Carey in his 12 or 20 questions interview. It would be hard to find two more different writers than Etgar and Mike. But even so, there are some fundamental correlations between their approaches to writing. Both (and this is especially evident in Mike's current creator-owned series The Unwritten ) are drawn to the fundamental nature of stories as living things. Stories as living worlds where readers are connected to one another through time and space via the author's imagination.


Mike says: "I think stories tell us what we are, both as individuals and as a culture. We use stories as buoys marking little bits of reality or little bits of ourselves. We use them to orient ourselves.... Whatever’s in people’s minds, whatever’s being seen or talked about, all the acknowledged and unacknowledged obsessions of the moment, will make it into fictions and surface there in different forms. Fiction is a talking cure. It’s where we lay all our sick shit out on the table."


From comic books, to fantasy, from historical epics to surreal microfiction - whatever the genre or subject or theme - there's no better way to explore the world than through the singular imagination of a gifted author. I'm hugely grateful to Etgar Keret for showing us, once again, how important and electrifying great writing can be.


Plus - Etgar, whose son is also five, introduced Aidan to the Inspector Gadget iPhone game. And anyone who brings that much joy is welcome back to the Festival anytime. 

Bernard Schlink: Erin's favourite author

I woke up this morning thinking about my friend Erin Johansen. She's been gone for years now, and I never know when her absence will strike.


Today, maybe it's because I caught myself listening to the same song over and over again (Caught on Video by the Hilotrons) the way she did.


Maybe because its the kind of clean winter day where I wouldn't have minded walking to the store for her. Or maybe because we are finally hosting her favourite writer, Bernard Schlink. We shared a lot of vices, me and Erin. Reading was one of them. I think she'd have enjoyed this year's Spring Edition, I really do.


I've just finished the rough draft of the text for our Spring Festival, so it's all swirling around in there. All the great fiction, the Big Ideas, the poetry and music and the science. I can't believe how lucky we are, yet again, to be hosting so many brilliant imaginations. There are so many fascinating people coming, so much talent and insight and possibility.


I have to admit - this is one of my favourite times of year: just over a month to go. Last year's financials are off to the auditor, the OAC grant is ready to go, all but one of our authors are confirmed and the text just needs another run through before we are good to launch this new website.


And at least right now, at least this morning, the line-up looks pretty darn good. It feels right somehow.


But missing Erin makes it bitter-sweet.


And yeah, Erin, Bernard Schlink is finally coming. I wish you were here to share it with.



Welcome to our new website

Welcome to the Writers Festival's new website!


We're thrilled with the amazing work  Brian Pirie of Sensinct has done to update our online presence.


You'll notice right away that we've made big changes to our online ticketing that should speed things along at our events: no more waiting in line to claim pre-purchased tickets, just head right in.


Do let us know what you think of the new site as we want to keep improving things.


If you want to stay connected to the Festival, drop me a line to join the email list. We've also got an active Facebook community, Twitter feed and a YouTube channel so there are lots of ways to keep in touch.


We'll be playing around with the Blog here as well, so stay tuned!


All the best,