“Some people say, ‘I just sit down and write.’ But if you don’t know whether you’re building a birdhouse or a deck—just driving nails into boards—I don’t think it’s going to be very good, whatever it is.”
In this week’s column, I interviewed IMPAC award winner Alistair MacLeod, who’s in town for an event this evening.
DISCLAIMER: 75% of this interview is me asking him about a horse-drawn milk wagon he drove in Edmonton in the 1950s. I have no regrets.May 24, 2013
In addition to the banners, Stocks’s win was celebrated at Eston’s one K-to-12 school, where the news was broadcast over the school’s P.A. system. “Apparently the Grade 2 class gave me a standing ovation,” she says with a laugh. “Isn’t that great?”
This week’s column might be my favourite yet. A woman from a town of 1,000 people takes home Canada’s national humour award. Home-made banners are involved.May 3, 2013
“I know several people with hyphenated identities — and I hate to call it that, but for lack of a better term — who see themselves as very Canadian, but then they step out into the world, and this isn’t how others choose to view them,” Edugyan says. “That’s very interesting to me. That gulf that can sometimes arise out of your sense of identity and what others would impose on you.”
This week’s column is an interview with Giller Prize-winner Esi Edugyan, who’s coming to Edmonton next week for a free lecture about home, identity, and the most Canadian question of all: What does it mean to be Canadian?Apr 12, 2013
Too often we associate this kind of flexibility with weakness, or selling out (whatever that means); when talking about indigenous groups, we also tend to rely on colonial language and imagery. Those issues are still far from settled, as Martin is quick to point out. But Stories in a New Skin re-casts this malleability in a refreshingly positive light, framing it instead as a measure of intelligence and cleverness.
The more I learn about indigenous literature and language, the more fascinated I become. In this week’s column, a local university professor takes us way north, to a remote Inuit hamlet on Baffin Island.Apr 5, 2013
“I was led to the table I was allotted to for my meals, and sitting there were these people who were not my characters. I thought, ‘Oh Jesus, who the hell are these guys?’
“So I walked away, and ate in the cafeteria for the whole journey. I didn’t want to be with those people. I wanted to be with my people. The fiction of the ship had replaced the reality of it.”
In advance of next week’s on-stage interview with Ondaatje (click here for tickets), we also chatted on the phone last weekend for my Journal column.
Turns out he’s a warm, pleasant guy to talk with, and The Cat’s Table is a really fun novel. Now I’m only 40% sure I’ll embarrass myself on stage.Mar 15, 2013
That confessional mode is certainly the route Prins himself has taken over the years. The first few he made were about his former life in New York. Since then, Instant Books have become a way for him to basically write his autobiography, one tiny, illustrated, eight-page instalment at a time.
In this week’s Journal column, I sat down with Matt Prins, a guy who’s written or curated more than 300 Instant Books since 2008. They’re great little objects—they even helped him find a girlfriend. But then he kept writing Instant Books about their relationship, and she left. It’s a cautionary tale.Feb 8, 2013
“I always think of the little booklets they used to sell in bookstores, of how to talk to your gardener or your maid,” Silver says. “Little phrases that tell them how to do the job.” In that context, translating literary fiction from Spanish to English became almost an act of subversion. “It’s saying, ‘This is a language that has beautiful art in it — it’s not just telling your gardener to pull the weeds.’”
This week’s column has been months in the making, and I’m so glad it finally came together. Katherine Silver is one of my favourite translators, and she’s also on staff at the Banff Centre, which is how I was able to sneak a story about César Aira and modernist Peruvian poetry into the newspaper.Feb 1, 2013
“Anyway,” he adds, taking a breath, “that was a long way of saying ‘no comment.’”
My interview with the fascinating but elusive C.P. Boyko, author of the top-notch collection Psychology and Other Stories, is in this week’s Georgia Straight.Jan 23, 2013
It’s unavoidable. Take part in any conversation about winters in this city, and it won’t be long before you hear that famous temperature invoked: –40° C.
Jason Lee Norman has noticed this phenomenon, too. But for the local author, it’s less an actual weather forecast than a kind of symbol that binds Edmontonians together.
“It’s that state of mind, that extreme,” Norman says. “It never really gets to 40 below, but people say it a lot. ‘These boots are good to 40 below.’ You have to add the wind chill, with the other thing. It sounds like it makes sense. We all use it.”
He continues: “What happens when it hits 40 below? Like flying over the equator, you think something weird is going to happen. Do the lights go on and off? The Northern Lights—is there a fourth colour that nobody ever sees?”
That mysterious, unifying temperature is also the impetus behind Norman’s latest project: an anthology of writing all about winter in Edmonton.
Combining short fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry, The 40 Below Project is Norman’s attempt to create a panoramic, multi-faceted tribute to the season that, in many ways, defines our everyday lives. (“You feel the way everything slows down,” he says of the annual October–April deep freeze. “And that’s probably because it is: your metabolism slows down. It’s night longer. But it’s a nice feeling.”) Norman will act as editor of the anthology, which is set to be published under his own Wufniks Press imprint in November 2013.
Of course, some of our obsession with winter does come from a less happy place. Too often we seem to be united through our complaints about road conditions, or wind chill. But we also persevere. We shovel. We put on layers. We get on with our lives. Like city council’s recently adopted winter strategy, Norman says The 40 Below Project will also serve to combat some of our frostier stereotypes.
“I think it’ll give a new dimension to the whole season,” he says. “The fact that people aren’t hibernating. It gets cold, but people don’t become cold. From that idea—this bleak situation—life comes out of it. Story comes out of it.”
And since diversity is the anthology’s raison d’etre, Norman, who’s also a co-founder of the reading series Words with Friends, is actively looking for writing from all corners of the city and Edmontonians of every stripe. That means old and young, pros and amateurs, optimists and pessimists, and everyone in between.
Submissions are open now, and Norman is already receiving at least one piece every day. So far poetry is dominating the field, but he’s hopeful the end product will be evenly balanced between all three categories.
“The best thing I’ve read so far is about the day Kennedy was shot,” he says. “It was in November—and our Novembers look very different. Simple, right? We were having a shitty November day, and feeling sorry for ourselves about it, and this news filters out. That [writer], I’m sure, is in his 60s right now.
“If it’s a good story, it doesn’t matter who wrote it. They’re going to like stuff written by an 18-year-old, and an 18-year-old is going to like stuff written by a 60-year-old.”
Norman is an accomplished fiction writer himself—his story collection Americas was featured in these pages back in September. Looking around the city these days, he says he sees literary potential at every turn. “The sound that your feet make in the snow. The way things seem muted. When you start the car at six in the morning, for some reason. It’s a different kind of quiet. It seems like a blank page—like it’s waiting for stories to be written on it.”
The deadline to submit to the 40 Below Project is December 31. Contributors will receive an honorarium, as well as copies of the finished product.
For more information, visit 40belowproject.ca.
(profile originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, November 30, 2012)Nov 30, 2012
On Wednesday, Tamas Dobozy took home the $25,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, one of Canada’s most lucrative literary awards, for his story collection Siege 13.
From here on out, that’s the only detail of the process that will linger in the reading public’s memory. But it’s important to remember that prizes aren’t handed out by objective, excellence-seeking algorithms. No, they’re handed out by juries: groups of red-blooded literary folk who are given the semi-anonymous-yet-Herculean task of having to read more than a hundred books in a few short months, then come together to settle on a shortlist and, finally, a winner.
This year’s Writers’ Trust jury was made up of three literati who are also authors themselves: Victoria’s Esi Edugyan, Ontario resident Drew Hayden Taylor, and Edmonton’s own Lynn Coady.
I recently sat down with Coady and asked her to take me through this mysterious process.
Coady is no stranger to both sides of literary awards, as a juror (she previously judged the Writers’ Trust prize in 1999, as well as the Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction in 2003) and as a nominee (her own novels have been shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize).
The first thing to know about literary jury duty, she said, is that while it may technically only be a part-time job, it sure doesn’t feel that way.
“It felt like hell,” she says, laughing. “It kind of ruined my summer. I mean, I feel great about doing the jury, and supporting Canadian literature, and all that. But it just makes you not like books anymore. You see a book, and you hate it—either because you know you have to read it, or it’s a book you want to read, but you know you can’t.
“If you’re reading,” she adds, “you have to be reading for the jury. There’s no leisure involved anymore. And for me, that’s hell. Reading is my ultimate leisure. I just didn’t have access to it.”
The nominated books started arriving at Coady’s house in April first in a trickle, and then in a flood. Over the next four months she read a staggering 116 titles from 45 different publishers—almost literally a book per day. Coady admits she sometimes struggled to keep apace, but past experience as a juror gave her a few advantages when it came to time management.
“When you’re in the early stages, you feel like the fair thing to do is to read the book beginning to end,” she says, “because what happens if, at the end, there’s this incredible flourish that ties it all together?
“But then, after you read sixty fucking books in a row, you realize that never happens, actually. So you start to get a really finely tuned sense of what book is going to pull itself off, and what isn’t.” If it’s the latter, you have to ditch it and move on.
For their discussions, Coady, Edugyan, and Taylor mostly spoke on the phone, at first talking generally about what stood out amidst the avalanche of material. Eventually they each brought forward a list of 20 contenders, which were slowly whittled down to their five-book shortlist: Siege 13, as well as Tim Bowling’s The Tinsmith (another Edmonton local), Rawi Hage’s Carnival, Alix Ohlin’s Inside, and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase.
Every jury is different, of course, and the biggest distinguishing factor is taste. Edugyan, Coady says, was on the lookout for craft, and beautiful sentences. Taylor just wanted something that told a good story.
As for Coady, “I felt humour was important. I always feel like if a book is totally humourless, it fails in some respect—because life isn’t totally humourless.”
I ask if she was able to draw any larger conclusions from the job. After all, CanLit has more than its fair share of stereotypes, and a prize jury reads pretty much the entirety of what’s been published over the past year. Who better to sum up the actual state of Canadian literature in 2012?
“I don’t mean this in a disparaging way,” Coady says, “but Canadians write a lot of fiction set in the fairly distant past. There’s a lot of World War I and II stuff. I think what’s underneath it is this Canadian inferiority complex, where we feel like contemporary Canada is not a topic worthy of literature.”
I take this last sentence as a call to arms. If you’ve got an idea for a novel set in present-day Edmonton, start putting pen to paper—2013 could be your year.
(profile originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal, November 9, 2012)Nov 9, 2012