Category Archives: international festival of authors, toronto, 2009

Breaking Down the Wall Between Readers and Writers

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

One of the nice things about the IFOA is the amount of interaction possible between readers and writers–and writers and other writers, and publishers and writers–during the festival. In a lot of literary events there’s a very prescribed sort of interaction . . . the writer’s generally up on a podium speaking to the audience from a distance, and if there’s any interaction it occurs during the brief Q & A at the end of the event. I’m not sure this is the best way to present writers to the public.

One of the interesting things they do at the IFOA is that they tend to keep authors in town for about a week, and they’re encouraged to attend as many of the events as possible. What happens in that case is that: 1) a lot of authors and various members of the publishing industry start to get to know one another, and there’s a lot of opportunity to cross-fertilize and develop connections, and 2) to a lesser (but far from non-existent) extent audience members and casual readers are able to feel in touch with the writers themselves.

It should be fairly obvious why the first point is a good thing. As to the second point: while I do tend to be a “just the books, please” kind of reader, I can see the value for something like this in helping to build a literary culture, particularly by tearing down the distance that is often placed between authors and readers. Obviously some writers are extremely talented and dedicated individuals who deserve a kind of cultural cache, but I also think that putting readers in touch with authors as actual humans–as opposed to quasi-mythic beings who tend to stand behind podiums–is a good thing for promoting literary culture in general.

I tend to think of it as somewhat like an open studio or an art gallery with the artist in attendance. Certainly I’ve always enjoyed exchanging a few words with an artist after seeing an exhibit of her work (at least when said artist doesn’t feel the need for pretense). It doesn’t have to be the most cerebral, intense interaction possible, but if you can chat for a few minutes it does go a long way toward making you want to come back to the gallery next time, as well as keep an eye out for that artist’s work.

The Extent of Canadian Lit

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

It’s safe to say that this week I’ve learned more about Canadian literature than I have in the 52 weeks preceding this one. It’s very eye-opening to see exactly how much literature is going on here, and how little of it ever makes its way to the United States.

I’m flying today, so not a lot of time to run down some of the authors and publishers I’ve met and discovered up here, but I certainly will be writing more about this in the days and weeks to come.

For now, a couple more books by festival authors I’ll be bringing back (sadly, this is a list limited by my finances and luggage-space):

  • Galore by Michael Crummey–Crummey lives in Newfoundland, which I’ve discovered is actually a place where some of Canada’s most interesting writing is going on. This is somewhat atypical, since Newfoundland only joined Canada in the mid-20th century and long was perceived as a backwoods. There’s a group of writers there now, I’m told, doing some interesting things with Newfoundland’s place int he Canadian psyche, as well as the thick local mythology, lore, and oral tradition.
  • New Lives by Ingo Schulze–Schulze was originally from East Germany, and his work deals a lot with the relations between the east and west halves of Germany. This particular novel is set in 1990 in East Germany, and it’s a very postmodern text (footnotes galore, fractured storytelling, etc.). Plus, the Review of Contemporary Fiction gave it a great review.

Continuing the Major Book Festival Question

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

To continue the point I made in this post, one of the things that separates what’s being done at Harbourfront Centre (the organization that puts on the IFOA) from similar literary festivals in the U.S. is that their program is year-round, and it’s a fairly well-developed framework–and it’s non-profit. Yes, there is a strong culture of literary events in certain U.S. cities, but it’s generally tied to bookstores or other for-profit enterprises, and we saw what could happen wen Cody’s Books in Berkeley closed rather suddenly, leaving Berkeley without it’s primary venue for author readings and events. (Fortunately, Berkeley Arts and Letters has sprung up to take up some of that slack, but it would have been better if Cody’s had never closed down to begin with.) Also, I’ve yet to find a U.S. organization that does a year-round schedule of events with the scope and systematization of what I’m seeing here.

Of course, I could be wrong, and I’d love to hear if there is something in the U.S. that fits this description . . . but, based on what I know of the U.S. scene, I think there’s a lot to be learned from what’s happening here in Toronto.

Tash Aw: After the Epilogue: What starts when the writing is finished

(This week I'm covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is After the Epilogue: What starts when the writing is finished, with Tash Aw, Andrea De Carlo, Giles Foden and Sarah Waters.)

It was interesting to see that this panel moved fairly quickly from questions of craft (How do you know a novel is done?) to questions of sales and marketing (How do you sell your novel once you have it?). The event reached a weird sort of antithesis of itself when the authors somehow collectively reached the conclusion that that readings and public events are generally a strain in that they can't write when they're on tour, and once they finish a book they really just want to let it go. Tash Aw (author of The Harmony Silk Factory) had a nice way of expressing this: he said that once a writer is done with a novel he needs to become "emotionally detached" from it, and that often an author will be working on an entirely different book when touring for the last one, meaning that his head will be in an entirely different place. This, in Aw's opinion, can make the readings very cold, even to the point that an author grows weary of reading the book again.

It was at that moment that the host (perhaps inadvertently) cornered Giles Foden (author of The Last King of Scotland and, most recently, Turbulence) with a question of why he was at the panel, given the general agreement about said panel's conflict with an author's primary job. Foden did a nice job of backing out of it with an answer about creating a dialogue between writers and readers–sort of opening up a space to talk about literature–that, frankly, sounded authentic. Further putting a nice spin on public events, Aw stepped in to remark that seeing the readers interact with a work is gratifying and also provides a certain sense of closure for an author.

I also liked Foden's remark, earlier in the panel, that a writer is really only a writer while writing–essentially, that coming to a public event expecting to see a "writer" wasn't going to give readers the real sense of what a writer is. He concluded his remark with something I've long felt is true: essentially, if you want to know what a writer is about, don't hear him talk at an event: read the book. Although there was some consensus that public events had their good points and could promote a culture of reading, there was also consensus that people shouldn't necessarily approach them as a way of getting behind the scenes or as a replacement for reading.

Continuing the sale and marketing theme, the panel also addressed questions of there being too many books published (general agreement that there were) and whether celebrity authors and such made their task as "real writers" (Andrea De Carlo's term) more difficult. As to the latter, Sarah Waters took the tack that David Beckham paid her wages, although De Carlo was adamant in his opinion. He put forth the interesting argument that though celebrity authors do prop up many publishers, they also take up a lot of space at bookstores and make it more difficult for serious writers to get space and attention.

On Subsidizing Literature, and Whether It Works

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

One thing I’m picking up this week is that the Canadians really go out of their way to subsidize and promote national literature, to (in my opinion) a much greater extent than is done in the U.S. First and foremost, they have three tiers of public funding for authors–nationally, at the province level, and at the city level–and the money can be good enough to cobble a reasonable living from, between government money and book sales/touring.

This point was somewhat addressed at the Colm Toibin panel I was at yesterday. Talking about the effect (if any) that literature can have on the material world, Toibin voiced the opinion that in the early 20th century in Ireland there was a sizable vacuum in terms of political and national identity, and W.B. Yeats, among others, was able to take the opportunity to shape the Irish consciousness going forward. This occasioned a conversation about the large extent to which Canada encourages a national literature (through things like the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award, the subsidization of authors, and the attempt to build a strong national publishing industry) to help build a national identity.

While there seemed to be general agreement that this was something Canada does, John Bemrose (a Canadian author) argued that in the smaller towns of Canada, American culture is still able to predominate, despite the government efforts. (And, as I’ve been told multiple times, one of the reasons, among others, for this government interest in promoting national literature is the threat from the south.) Bemrose also made the interesting point that culture is a political hot potato and claimed that national politicians have to at least pay lip-service to art and culture in order to get votes from Quebec. Of course, I think that’s a remarkably fresh concept–a politician paying lip service to the arts in search of voters. I can’t imagine the last time a national politician in the U.S. felt the need to do something like that.

Nicholson Baker: On Hearing Voices and Seeing Places You’ve Never Been

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is On Hearing Voices and Seeing Places You’ve Never Been, featuring Nicholson Baker, Iain Pears, Adam Thorpe, David Wroblewski, and host Charles Foran .)

At this event, the very first thing I noted was that it was not nearly full. I’m sure in many U.S. cities it would not be hard at all to get a capacity crowd for Nicholson Baker, but not here. This was a fairly well-attended event, but certainly not what one would think of for a name like Baker. (This is part of a theme I’m noticing this week, of the odd lack of cross-fertilization between Canadian and U.S. audiences.)

The panel was all about where the stories, characters, etc. come from for writers. It started with host Charles Foran asking Baker if after finishing a novel he ever has difficulty getting rid of his characters. Unsurprisingly, Baker noted that for most of his career his protagonists have been so much like himself that this hasn’t really been an issue.

This occasioned a follow-up about The Anthologist, which Baker said was actually one of the characters most unlike himself that he has written. He said he wanted a way to put all his crank theories about poetry into a book, so he started trying to find a voice that could contain all of these ideas. Thus, Baker said, the anthologist, in his opinion, is among his most human characters since it has been one of the biggest stretches for him to write.

As to that, Baker went to some lengths. Baker claimed he wired himself up with two microphones (to be in stereo) and, for three months, wandered through his apartment explaining these theories over and over to help find the character’s voice. (He would then transcribe the recordings.) Baker then summed up with what I feel is, for him, a very characteristic statement: he said that writing was a process of “re-engaging our own excitement in the world around us by going out on a long journey” that he likened to the path of a boomerang, in that you come back to where you started, but different. I say this is characteristic of him, since this completely reminds me of the path of the narrator’s thoughts in The Mezzanine.

From here, the panel moved on to issues of how a writer’s relationship to language shapes the final form of the novel. Adam Thorpe, poet and author of historical novels (most recently Hodd), said that he defined a novel as (in part) an obsession with language. He spoke largely in terms of struggling with language, of being preoccupied by it, and noted that for one of his previous novels, which takes place in the Middle Ages, he confronted the problem of how to write it since he knew he could not write a novel in Middle English. Thorpe came up with the idea of making it a text transcribed from Latin in to contemporary English, which he said created other challenges–for instance, what a text originally in Latin would sound like–but these were more easily met than the challenge of writing in Middle English. He summed up his remarks with the statement, “once you give yourself that frame, you can dance within it.”

David Wroblewski, fairly well known in the U.S. as the author of the recent bestseller The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, picked up this theme: “To me, every problem is one of language.” He likened it to a software programmer, whom he said must search for a way of putting things in computer language so that “the statement of the solution is beautiful.” He also discussed his interest in how humans can have such close relationships with dogs, yet never have that relationship be mediated by language. He thought the relationship between dogs and humans could be as strong as it tends to be because words weren’t there to get in the way. (For those who haven’t read Edgar Sawtelle, there is an extended section told from the perspective of a dog, although not through a stream of consciousness of otherwise first-person narration.)

Novelist and art historian Iain Pears (author most recently of Stone’s Fall), contradicted Wroblewski by saying that he likes that the English language differs from a computer language in that it isn’t precise–he prefers that it makes way for unintended meanings and interpretation. He characterized his take on writing as like “leaving holes for the reader to fill in.” But then, on the subject of interpretation, he claimed that “reading a thesis on oneself is like reading your own obituary.”

A few other questions: the panelists agreed that characters tend to take a novel in directions that surprise them, as authors. There was disagreement about the first draft of a book: some liked the freedom they had when composing it (feeling the more craft-laden revisions to be cumbersome), and others found just the opposite. They were all taken with the question of how to render the non-linguistic linguistic. And Baker closed the session with a great remark on place: after realizing he couldn’t write about Berkeley, CA, since so many other writers were already doing that so well, he discovered that: “The key to being a writer is to find a place where you have the illusion that you live in a desert.”

Where’s the Major Book Festival in the United States?

(This week I’m covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

After seeing how the Harbourfront Centre and the Canadian government (and in addition, Scotland, Ireland, England, and Australia) have been working together to promote national authors and reading this week, I’ve got to wonder where our national festival is. I know we’ve got the New Yorker Festival and the LA Times Book Festival of Books, but I don’t consider those the same, since they’re being run as a for profit venture by private firms. That’s fine, but I’m thinking that a festival that had the kind of size and gravitas of the LATFoB but that was largely publicly funded and administered by a nonprofit organization would look very different.

I know the U.S. is a big country and we’ve got at least three cities that would immediately lay claim to being the only possible spot that such a festival could take place, but Canada is also a very large country and it has its share of regionalism, so I don’t think it would be unworkable. And it would be a great opportunity to seriously spotlight a lot of the small- and mid-size press authors that are often doing the most interesting work in U.S. fiction. Heck, we could even do it a little differently and make it a genuine opportunity to reach out to some international authors that are important in other places but get no traction whatsoever in the U.S. (Herta Mueller, anyone?) and address some of the cultural gap that definitely exists, Liesl Schillinger et al. aside.

. . . just adding a few hours later here. Apparently there’s a whole Canadian literary festival season here in the late summer and through the fall. From what I’m hearing, things get busy enough with festivals going on throughout the country that scheduling gets tricky for authors in multiple festivals. That would be a nice problem to have in the States.

Governor General’s Literary Award Finalists

(This week I'm covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is the Governor General's Literary Award Finalists ceremony.

The GGs, as the Governor General's Award is known round here, are really big news in Canada. This is about as big as prizes get, sort of like if you could combine the prestige of the American National Book Award and the Pulitzer. The list of winners reads pretty much like a history of Canadian literature, including Alica Munroe (3 times), Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant, and about 60 others. Interestingly (for people like me) they have a GG for translation (nominees at the bottom of this page), although no one made mention of it at this event. The GGs also make available the full list of titles submitted, which I don't believe either the NBAs or the Pulitzers do in the U.S.

This event was to have featured readings from the five finalists, but there were some technical issues that became problematic. The first reader, Annabel Lyon, who wrote the novel The Golden Mean (review here), was to appear on a big projection screen by Internet hookup and read. Well, she appeared, but the reading almost immediately grew very choppy (think of a bad Skype connection), something that was not helped by the overall squeakiness of Lyon's voice, as rendered by the Internet hookup. After a number of minutes of general patience on the part of the audience, things began to grow unruly. (Another issue: they seemed to have Lyon in a basement somewhere; it wasn't the best backdrop for a literary reading, and there was audible laughter when about 10 minutes in a man in blue overalls walked through the background.)

To author and event Master of Ceremonies Lewis DeSoto's credit, he remained unflappable throughout and quickly mollified the audience with a few well-placed remarks. Those remarks, however, did not prevent widespread groaning when it was stated that the next nominee, Michael Crummey, would also be reading by Internet hookup from his nominated novel Galore (review here). That said, Crummey's reading was for some reason much smoother, and he wisely kept it to a short excerpt to not tempt fate.

After Crummey the event went to intermission, and things calmed down from there. GG-winning poet Jacob Scheier read from his collection, More to Keep Us Warm, and from a work in progress; past winner Miriam Toews (A Complicated Kindness) read very well in lieu of Alice Munro, who was unable to attend (nominated for the seventh time for Too Much Happiness, review here); and Kate Pullinger (Mistress of Nothing (review) and Deborah Willis (Vanishing and Other Stories (review)) rounded out the nominees.

My First Purchase: King Leary by Paul Quarrington

(This week I'm covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.)

Earlier this week I blogged about how dumbfounded I was to find a massive crowd of people come out to celebrate an author I'd never heard of at all. That author was Paul Quarrington, and after browsing the numerous books of his available for sale at this year's IFOA I decided that King Leary would be my first purchase. (This purchase was motivated in large part by the fact that, apparently, Leary is not available in the States.)

Interview: Paul Theroux by Eleanor Wachtel

(This week I'm covering the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. This event is "Interview: Paul Theroux by Eleanor Wachtel.")

Paul-theroux

Paul Theroux has long been one of those authors I feel like I should get around to but never quite have: I own a couple of his better-known books and have long harbored unfulfilled intentions to read them. After this event, I think I will.

Theroux and his interviewer, Eleanor Wachtel, started off their conversation with Tthe ostensible reason Theroux was at the IFOA–the publication of his new book, A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta, although they quickly got pulled off to other topics. However, they did stay on The Dead Hand long enough to discuss Theroux's lightly metafictional use of himself as a character in the book. As Theroux explained numerous times, it's a distinctly unflattering portrait of himself, and it comes from the mind of the narrator, who meets Theroux about halfway through the book. Among other things, the narrator thinks of the fictional Theroux that he "looked older than his picture," and that he had "lost his looks, if he ever had them."

Theroux stated that he placed himself within the book in order to act as a mirror to show readers who the book's narrator/protagonist was. The scene with Theroux is the first time that readers find out the name of the narrator, and Theroux, borrowing from Stendhal, likened it to holding up a "cracked mirror" to reality.

From here the conversation was pulled into Theroux's beginnings as a writer, which he combined with his beginnings as an adult and likened to what many young adult Americans are facing now. He set out for Africa in 1963 as what he called an "angry" and "agitated" individual, "full of indignation." He had a strong feeling that the real world was somewhere other than middle class America and he "wanted to liberate" himself by being "alone and away." Theroux claimed that in many ways the '60s were a dark time for America and likened his young struggles to the anger and disaffection being felt now by young Americans.

So then what about Africa engaged him? Theroux answered that the continent had a sense of not being finished, that is was a place where mistakes could still be avoided and where someone such as himself could actually matter to society in a way he felt was impossible in a more developed part of the world. He also stated that he enjoyed the feeling of losing himself in a new language and a new culture, and that it gave him something to write about. (This last point dovetails with a bifurcation I'm noticing throughout the festival: the writers that choose to go out into the world to experience it and be inspired, and those who choose to remain within the life of their own mind and write about the world from that perspective.)

Theroux also likened his first novel, Waldo, to an act of rebellion, since he claimed that his mother hated it and that this did not bother him in the least. In fact, Theroux said he relished this feeling because it gave him license to go out and live his own life. He also contrasted this scene with that of an individual whose mother acts like his agent, in effect presiding over all of the person's writing. Theroux grew animated at this idea and stated rather categorically that this person was not a writer, that, essentially, writing and rebellion were deeply tied together.

From his first novel, Theroux moved on to discussing The Great Railway Bazaar, which was his breakout novel, and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, in which he attempted to relive earlier journeys he had undertaken as a young adult. Of the former, Theroux said that when he undertook to write it he felt like a failure as a writer, and that throughout the trip he was depressed but somehow managed to turn that into a positive energy that he could put on the page. (Generally, in Theroux's experience, depression greatly inhibits writing, although apparently not in this instance.) He also stated that his motivating idea was to write about travel in a deeply "personal" way: "above all I want to make you see." Thus Theroux showed travel as "nuisance and delay" and from a highly subjective viewpoint.

Of Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar, the book in which he retraced his youthful footsteps, Theroux was asked about his claim that it is "dangerous and irresistible to travel to an earlier part of your life." Theroux thought that the danger came from the shock of seeing the places you had once been as a much older person, and that in many cases it was unwise to undertake such a trip.

On that subject, Theroux also briefly discussed a novella of his that was recently published in The New Yorker. He said it was about a man whose life has generally been a failure, and who after losing his wife and children decides to return to the only place that really made him happy, Africa. When he gets there, though, he discovers that the place has changed to the extent that it's impossible to actually return to what he had there when he was younger. It sounded like an interesting plot, one that put me in the mind of writers of place and memory like W.G. Sebald.

Finally, the conversation looped back to Theroux's new novel, The Dead Hand, which Theroux compared to Philip Roth's most recent novel, The Humbling, because both novels come out of a "shutting of a door," the feeling of a writer who thinks he doesn't have it any more. Theroux stated that part of his inspiration in writing this novel was based in the freakishly prolific French novelist Georges Simenon, who himself once faced writers block–and predictably enough wrote a book about it, When I Was Old
. In the case of The Dead Hand, Theroux said that it is a letter from a woman in Calcutta who saves him from writer's block. The woman must help a boy who discovered a dead body in his room, thus drawing the narrator out of his doldrums, similarly, one would suppose, to the way in which Theroux was drawn into the writing life when he was pulled toward Africa.

Overall, Theroux showed himself to be an urbane, very well-spoken individual, and I thought his conversation placed him in an extremely positive light. The only part that was less than satisfying was toward the end when Theroux briefly discussed the device of using yourself as a character in your own book; he seemed to be completely unaware of the great body of literature–including, of course, many of the great novels of the late 20th century–that has already worked this device in so many ways. Nonetheless, The Dead Hand still sounded like an interesting variation on this theme.

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