Monthly Archives: March 2014

Those of you who know me on a personal level know about my cynicism to most items in the realm of non-fiction and media these days. But on occasion there are non-fiction writers who still inspire me to “get back into the media game.” Candace Savage is one such writer. Her soulful and well-crafted book A Geography of Blood: Unearthing Memory from a Prairie Landscape won the 2012 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. But more importantly, her writing has told many people that the prairies are much more than a flat piece of land.

 

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1) Your website lists over 20 books that you have published. Is there a favourite that you written? How have your books been received overall?

A: Today’s favourite:  BORN TO BE A COWGIRL, a book for children.  The reception my books has received has varied from hostility to adulation. Sometimes, there’s been little or no reaction, which is worst of all.


2) “A Geography of Blood” won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Did winning the prize bring your writing any new exposure for your writing? Did you gain any new fans or new enemies by winning the prize?

A: Yes, winning a “big” prize definitely raises your profile for a while. The Weston Prize brought new opportunities and a wider readership for sure. But a book is just one side of a conversation. Some people become fans; others don’t.  “Enemy” is probably too strong a word, but you only have to look at the online reviews to know that not everyone is impressed. No surprise there: that’s what free speech is all about.


3) Are you working on anything new right now?

A: Yes, but it is still too vaporous to talk about.

4) Who are some of your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

A:  Saskatoon, SK, where I live, is rich ground for writers.  Within ten minutes of my house, there are novelists (Carpenter, Martel, Kuipers, Vanderhaeghe, Simmie), playwrights (Williams), and poets (Kerr, Philips, Rowley, Legris), just to name a few.  Two of my friends — Suzanne North and Brenda Baker — are launching new novels this month, and there’s a reading series held just around the corner from my house. It’s inspiring to sing in the same choir as all these eloquent voices.  I’ve just finished reading the last book by another great Saskatchewan writer, Trevor Herriot, a meditation called The Way is How. As part of my current research, I been studying James Pitsula’s new book on the KKK in Saskatchewan, Keeping Canada British, and Diane Payment’s The Free People, Li Gens Libres, a history of Batoche. Next on my list, re-reading Garrett Wilson’s Frontier Farewell. Seem to be keeping my reading close to home at the moment.

5) You have written some children’s books in the past. Did any of those readers grow up to become your fans as they became adults? Did your children’s books have any noticeable influences on young minds?

A: Hard to say.  I do know of one family that kept one of my books in their bathroom, for quick reads, and credited it with influencing one son to become a biologist. A young child once wrote to say that I was his second favourite writer, after Stephen King. Pretty high praise, I’d say.  Speaking for myself, I know that books I read and loved as a child had a profound influence on my life.

6) You seem to have a presence on some of the social media platforms like Facebook. Does being on those platforms help you with your writing?

A: You’re right:  I’m there.  But my presence there is haphazard. Mostly I repost brilliant or relevant items that other people have drawn my attention to. I treat Facebook as a public space for promoting information and opinions I think are important.

7) Environmentalism is an important theme for you. Is there anything else beside you do besides writing to promote that cause?

I belong to a lot of environmental organizations, including Nature Saskatchewan, the Saskatoon Nature Society, the Native Plant Society of Saskatchewan, Public Pastures Public Interest, and the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. I also support the Nature Conservancy of Canada. In addition, I volunteer as the coordinator of Wild about Saskatoon’s NatureCity Festival.

8) Do you participate in any public readings of your works? If yes, what is that experience like for you?

A: Yes, I enjoy reading my work in public.  It’s always fun to be in the company of people who love books.

9) Is there anything in particular that inspired you to start writing books?

There was no earth-shattering moment of revelation. I’ve always loved books — family legend has it that booook was my first word — and eventually figured out that I was reasonably good at writing. It all seemed to happen through some kind of natural gravitational pull.

10) Is there any advice you would give to someone who is thinking about writing their own book? Anything that you did when you started out writing that you would do differently if you could?

To write a book, you need both the Big Picture and an infinite number of tiny daubs.  First, you need some kind of structure: beginning, middle and end. Inside that framework, you build one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time. Every little detail matters. It takes a lot of sitting and a lot of love, but it can be very rewarding if you have time and patience and luck.
*****

Link to Candace Savage’s website

Link to Greystone Books page for “A Geography of Blood”

 

Coming of Age in the 1970s | Review of “Kicking the Sky” by Anthony De Sa (2013) Doubleday Canada

The complexities of a good coming-of-age novel is what makes literature so enjoyable to read. When a writer combines what their protagonist is:  feeling, seeing, hearing and trying to understand into a well-crafted collection of words, then an element of the human condition is described to the world and the world learns a bit more about itself. And that is exactly what Anthony De Sa has done in his novel Kicking the Sky.

Page 35

I walked my bike home quickly. My throat had tightened and the tightness drilled painfully right down into my chest. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. My fingers found the front door handle. Making my way down the stairs into the basement, I breathed in the familiar smell of old paper and worms. The floor was painted concrete – battleship grey – and some of the walls were covered halfway up with wood panelling. At the far end of the open space was a bathroom with a large shower, which my father used when he got home from a dirty day of digging, and where Terri and I showered after we came home from the beach and needed to rinse off the sand. It was next to the laundry area and across from the stove – every self-respecting Portuguese family had a second kitchen in the basement they used daily. The kitchen upstairs was just for show and it was rarely used. There was an old back seat of a Chevy my father had brought home one day with a console television, which stood next to the doorway to our adega, where fat-bellied oak barrels rested on large wooden blocks. An old hospital sheet, St. Michael’s Hospital branded on its side, hide the wine. I was relieved to see that everything looked the same.

De Sa has written a brilliant novel documenting growing up in Toronto in the 1970s. The story deals with 12-year-old Antonio Rebelo. While his parents work, Antonio and his best friend Manny and Ricky explore the area of laneways, garages, empty lots and rooftops that make up their section of Toronto. But their world shatters when another young boy of their neighbourhood is brutally raped and murdered. Who to trust and who not to trust comes into question.

Page 51

My mother wouldn’t let me go out with my friends. she said my friends weren’t allowed out either. I knew Ricky’s dad didn’t really have rules for him, so he didn’t count, but my mother was wrong. Manny’s parents hadn’t cranked up the rules in their house. Manny and Ricky had been hanging around without me. But I saw the worry on her face and stopped pushing. She had to go back to work, so she left long lists of chores for us to do, things to keep us at home and out of trouble – polishing the brass doorknobs, dusting the gumwood baseboards on the main floor, and vacuuming the living-room broadloom so that the stripes the vacuum cleaner left wouldn’t get messed up. I noticed that one of the jobs on my sister’s list was to take over to Senhora Gloria some mail that had been accidently delivered to our mailbox.

“I’ll drop off the letter if you Windex the windows,” I said.

“Here’s what you can do,” Terri said. “Drop off the letter and lug the hampers down to the basement.”

“What’ll you do off my list?”

“Nothing.” She looked smug, like she knew perfectly well the reason I had offered the trade.

De Sa also documents the conflicted emotions of growing up within an ethnic community while living in a urban North American society. The issues he brings up are common among many young people in our modern age.

Page 153

Sunday morning, I woke to the sound of stones being thrown at my bedroom window.

I pressed my face to the mesh screen and yelled through clenched teeth, “Are you nuts? What time is it?”

“That thing freaks me out,” Manny said, glaring at Jesus on our lawn.

My father had spruced Jesus up by applying Spackle to its chipped nose and painting its flaking face. the sacred heart, the size of an India-rubber ball, burst through Jesus’s robes, shiny from a fresh coat of glossy red nail polish. My father had also cut some Plexiglas in the outline of the tub, caulked and screwed it in place, trapping Jesus in a sweating coffin.

“Manny, it’s seven in the morning on a Sunday.”

“I like to work early,” he said. “Listen, if you don’t want to come, let me know. Believe me, I like working alone.” Before he even finished the sentence I had started to get dressed. I didn’t need him to get any louder and wake my parents. I slipped on my shoes when I got to the front gate, the followed Manny to mouth of the laneway opposite ours. This was not our territory. It was Amilcar’s. “Follow my nose. It always knows,” Manny sang in Toucan Sam’s dorky voice.

“I don’t like this.”

“Then stay home!” Manny shot back.

“I’m coming.

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa is a brilliant coming-of-age novel. Anybody who has this on their ‘to-read’ list should make a serious effort to go out and read it. It is a great piece of literature that enlightens any reader’s mind.

Link to Anthony De Sa’s website

Link to Random House of Canada’s page for “Kicking the Sky.”

 

 

 

 

The Ambiguitity when facing Historical Facts | Review of “The Ash Garden” by Dennis Bock (2001) HarperCollins Canada

Often enough we are confronted with historical facts and are asked to explain our role in them. “Where were you when . . ” or “What did your family do during . . ” is an often enough phrase during either classroom lectures or dinner parties. But the answers are not that simple for many of us. We didn’t know that action ‘x’ was going to cause ‘y’ or family member believing something way back when would be socially unacceptable for us today. That is the conflict Dennis Bock tries to show in his novel “The Ash Garden”

Page 3

One morning toward the end of the summer they burned away my face, my little brother and I were playing on the back of the river that flowed past the eastern edge of our old neighbourhood, on the grassy floodplain that had been my people’s home and misery for centuries. It was there I used to draw mud pictures on Mitsou’s back with a wide-edge cherry switch, which I hid in a nearby hickory bush when it was time to go home. I liked its shape an how it felt in my hand, like a fine pen or paintbrush. I scooped ujp mud from the bank and shaped it into pictures of all sorts: trees, fishes, animals. The day my parents were killed I’d decided to paint my grandfather’s face. I had turned six just a few weeks earlier. Mitsou, my little brother was only four years old and three months.

I love the way Bock opens this complex novel with a quote from Goethe’s Faust: What is the path? There is no path. On into the unknown. This book basically deals with three people. A scientist who ran away from Nazi Germany and worked on the “Manhattan Project” for the U.S government. A young woman who flees fascism in Austria and is facing the unknown in North America. And then there is a young Japanese girl who witnesses a solitary plane flying overhead while she is playing on a riverbank in 1945. The three come together trying to come to grips with their own version of events of World War II.

Page 57-58

After three weeks Anton went to Tokyo for a weekend to study the effects of months of relentless fire-bombing. He wanted to make a comparison. He needed to know that the bomb had put an end to a greater crime. The second morning he got himself looked at by an army doctor. For two weeks running there had been a pain behind his eyes, and he wasn’t sleeping. That, and the nightmares, he would report. He would ask for something to control the pain. As he sat, waiting for his consultation, he met one of the men who’d flown in that very plane. The man’s arms were full of souvenirs. He seemed to be on the move. These knick-knacks would mean a lot to him, he said, some years down the line. He was on his way home. just a quick checkup before going stateside.

“This is one hell of a place,” he said, the statement accompanied by a suspicious wink. One that might have been meant to indicate the ancient intricacies of Oriental prostitution, or the exquisite mystery of Japanese gardens; Anton couldn’t be sure.

The man had the drifting eye of a hungry tourist. “Jesus,” he said. “I’ll never be able to understand this whole business, though.”

This isn’t a novel for everybody. It weaves a complex story line that sometimes asks more questions in the reader’s mind than it answers. But it is good literature. A reader should consider their person histories a little closer after getting through this book and wonder what is truth and fiction in their lives today.

Page 138-139

Maybe she was dying, she thought for the first time in her life. Maybe she already was dead. The mind holding on a few moments longer, able to observe the tide lowering as life was drained from her body. Maybe this was death’s great secret, its one last offering to the passing soul.

But she knew she was not dead when the fingers began to throb again. All the blood that had been absent seemed to rush outwards on the verge of exploding, filling her fingers with pain. She lost all desire to understand the mystery of this condition, consumed as she was by the fire it had sparked. She did not want to solve the riddle. Just that it would stop. That was all she needed. That would be enough. And slowly – as though someone had been listening, waiting for this simple request. Please Make it stop – the burning sensation cooled by degrees and her hands again became hers.

While a complex book, The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock is read that causes a reader to carefully consider their histories and their lives. It is a great piece of literature.

Link to Dennis Bock’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada page for “The Ash Garden.”

 

 

On releasing her fourth novel called “Station Eleven” | Q&A with author Emily St. John Mandel

Noted author Emily St. John Mandel is about to release her fourth novel. Her previous four novels have been labeled as “novel noir” and documented a dark element of the human condition. She grew up in British Columbia but now resides in New York City.

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1) Your website says you have a new book coming out in September. Could you provide a brief description of it?

 
A: I’d be delighted. It’s my fourth novel, it’s called Station Eleven, and it’s about a traveling Shakespearean theatre company/orchestra in a post-apocalyptic North America. The story moves back and forth in time between the present day and a time in the future, twenty years after a devastating flu pandemic has wiped out most of humanity. I imagine it will inevitably be marketed as a post-apocalypse book, but it’s also about celebrity, memory, what it means to devote a life to art, our obsession with objects, friendship, love, and dinner parties.
 

 2) How do you like living in New York? Does living in that city help you with your writing?

 
A: I love living in New York City. I find it to be a beautiful and fascinating place. Whether or not living here is helpful to my writing is a complex question. New York is of course the centre of American publishing, but one of the city’s best-kept secrets is that it’s perfectly possible to live here and have very little to do with the literary scene. I see my agent and my American editor occasionally, which is nice, but I don’t go to many literary events, purely because I struggle to find the time between writing, my day job, etc., and I’m convinced that there would be no impact on my career if I moved elsewhere.
 
There’s a good argument to be made that it makes more sense for a writer to live somewhere with a lower cost of living, so that one has more time to write. On the other hand, I’ve managed to write a lot of books here, and I strongly believe that there’s more to life than writing. Living somewhere cheaper would probably be more helpful to my writing, but this is the city that I most love.
 

3) Who are some of your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

 
A: I have a lot of favourites. The list definitely includes Michael Ondaatje, J.D. Salinger, Irene Nemirovsky, Irmgard Keun, David Mitchell, and Zadie Smith. I just finished a spectacularly good novel: Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard, published by a small press in the United States. It’s absolutely gorgeous and profound and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
 
 4) How much of your writing is based on personal experience? Do you include other people’s personal stories in your novels or do you rely on your imagination to come up with some of the situations in your books?
 
A: I would never use someone else’s personal story in an overt way, and my fiction isn’t particularly autobiographical. So it’s mostly imagination, but that said, of course elements of one’s personal experience and life inevitably seep into the fiction: you experience a city in a particular way, for example, and then later you might have a fictional character who experiences it in the same way. Or you see something striking—a boy playing a trumpet on the dancefloor at System SoundBar, Toronto, circa 1999—and you add that detail to a novel.

 5) So you have done some public readings for your novels. How do you like doing those events?

 
A: I’ve met some wonderful people through the events that I’ve done, and book tours have taken me to some interesting places where I would probably never otherwise have had the opportunity to go. I love doing those events, just so long as the microphone isn’t broken and no one asks any insane questions during the Q&A. 
 

6) You seem active on the social media platforms like Facebook. Do you find such tools useful in helping with your writing?

 
A: No, quite the opposite. They’re immensely distracting. I think it’s important to differentiate, though, between “helpful to the writing” and “helpful to the career.” They’re helpful to the career, in that I’ve made a lot of good contacts through social media. I also met several of my closest friends through social media, so I’m grateful for it. But nothing about spending time on Facebook or Twitter is conducive to finishing a novel, in my experience.
 

7) There are a lot of people who seem to be writing fiction right now just for their own personal enjoyment. Do you have any advice for people who are doing that task right now?

A: It can be a very satisfying practice, whether it’s the way you make your living or purely a matter of personal enjoyment. The advice I’d give to any writer is that it’s a good idea to read a lot. 

8) Has your writing changed since your first book? If yes, in what ways?

 
A: I think my style’s changed somewhat. With my first book I think I was consciously trying to create pretty sentences, which I think is a trap that a great many debut novelists probably fall into. Things got a little ornate here and there. In subsequent books, I’ve strived for clarity and elegance. 
 

 9) Your website says you started out studying dance. Do you still practice that art? Did you imagine that writing would be an important element in your life one day?

 
A: Yes, dance was my first career. I studied ballet till I was eighteen, then switched to contemporary dance and went to The School of Toronto Dance Theatre. There was a certain point where dance began to seem like more of a burden than a joy, like something I had to do—because it was all I’d ever done—rather than something I actively loved, and this coincided with a  period in my early twenties when I started to take the writing more and more seriously. I don’t think I ever imagined that writing would be my career. 
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The Rare Joy of Positive Influences | Review of “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak (2010) Penguin Books

While there is much to demand our attention in these days of wired communications, there very little of that means that seems to warm one’s soul. Yet when it does happen, it is a well-crafted bit of verse that is brilliantly constructed and heart warming. Elif Shafak has written such a book with The Forty Rules of Love.  In that book, Shafak documents both the story of how the poet Rumi meets his mentor, the Shams of Tabriz and how the story of their encounter inspires a woman in the present day to change her life. And it should be noted that a tired Canadian book blogger (Me) owes a big thank you to a South African counterpart – Claire Day – for bring this book to my attention.

Forward Page 19-20

In 1244, Rumi met Shams – a wandering dervish with unconventional ways and heretical proclamations. Their encounter altered both their lives. At the same time, it marked the beginning of a solid, unique friendship that Sufis in the centuries to follow likened to the union of two oceans. By meeting this exceptional companion, Rumi was transformed from a mainstream cleric to a committed mystic, passionate poet, advocate of love, and originator of the ecstatic dance of the whirling dervishes, daring to break free of all conventional rules. In an age of deeply embedded bigotries and clashes, he stood for a universal spirituality, opening his doors to people of all backgrounds. Instead of an outer-oriented jihad – defined as “the war against infidels” and carried out by many in those days just in the present – Rumi stood up for an inner-orientated jihad where aim was to struggle against and ultimately prevail over one’s ego, nafs.

Not all people welcomed these ideas, however, just as not all people open their hearts to love. The powerful spiritual bond between Shams and Rumi became the target of rumor, slander and attack. They were misunderstood, envied, vilified and ultimately betrayed by those closest to them. Three years after they met, they were tragically separated.

But the story didn’t end there.

Shafak has mixed a great story with an understanding of feelings and emotions of today. Her words are a delight to read and easy to understand. This is a book that should be on everybody’s shelf and at the end of everybody’s lips.

Page 35

Brimming over with the tension that followed the argument with David and Jeannette, Ella was so drained she had to stop reading Sweet Blasphemy for a while. She felt as though the lid of a boiling cauldron had suddenly been lifted, emitting old conflicts as new resentments in the rising steam. Unfortunately, it was no one other than she who had lifted that lid. And she had done it by dialing Scott’s number and asking him not to marry her daughter.

Later in her life, she would deeply regret everything she’d uttered during this phone conversation. But on this day in May, she was so sure of herself and the ground beneath her feet that she could not for the life her fathom any dire consequences from her intrusion.

While there may be strong elements of mysticism and spirituality here, there is also the documentation of pain and angst that many people feel today. Shafak is not only a brilliant storyteller but also a philosopher in her own right. In reading this book a bit of the soul heals and the mind questions the path it has taken.

Page 38-39

The first person to misjudge my visions was my father. I must have been ten years old when I started seeing my guardian angel on a daily basis and was naïve enough to think that everyone else did as well. One day, while my father was teaching me how to build a cedar chest so that I could become a carpenter like him, I told him about my guardian angel.

“You have a wild imagination, son.” my father said dryly. “And you better keep it to yourself. We don’t want to upset the villagers again.”

A few days before, the neighbours had complained about me to my parents, accusing me of acting strange and scaring their kids

“I don’t understand your ways, my son. Why can’t you accept that you are no more remarkable than your parents?” my father asked. “Every child takes after his father and mother. So have you.”

That was when I realized that although I loved my parents and craved their love, they were strangers to me.

“Father, I am from a different egg than you other children. Think of me as a duckling raised by hens. I am not a domestic bird destined to spend his life in a chicken coop. The water that scares you rejuvenates me. For unlike you I can swim, and swim I shall. The ocean is my homeland. If you are with me, come to the ocean. If not, stop interfering with me and go back to the chicken coop.”

My father’s eyes grew large, then small and distant. ” If this is the way you talk to your father now,” he said gravely, “I wonder how you will address you enemies when you grow up.”

In a world where so much demands attention and garnishes little meaning, The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak is a book that enriches the soul. Thanks to her and to Claire Day for bringing it forward to my attention.

Link to Elif Shafak’s  English website 

Link to Penguin Canada’s page for The Forty Rules of Love

South African blogger Claire Day’s wordpress page for “The Forty Rules of Love”

 

Living in between two cultures provides substantial materials for my writing / Q&A with author Chiew-Siah Tei

If there is a perfect example of world literature it would be The Mouse Deer Kingdom. In it, author Chiew-Siah Tei enlightened me at least with a story a Chinese immigrant who fled poverty and corruption and moved to Southeast Asia in the early 20th Century. Now living in Scotland, Chiew-Siah Tei took a few moments from a busy schedule – and from the news from her homeland of Malaysia – to answer a few questions.

*****

How long have you been writing? What inspired you to start writing?

A: My interest in writing began when I was at Primary Four. My class teacher picked up my first composition and submitted it to the student column of a national newspaper. The piece, a short personal essay, was subsequently published. Continuous encouragement from the teacher had given me so much confidence and made me realize it was possible to achieve something despite coming from a disadvantage background.

However, as someone who grew up in a conventional family and society, it had never crossed my mind that I could become a writer, a profession unacceptable by our social values. After obtaining my first degree, I put writing to one aside and worked unhappily in a busy corporate environment. It took me a few years before I finally gave up everything to come to Scotland in 2002 to pursue a career in writing.

You used Goodreads to promote your book. What was that experience like for you? Did you use any other platforms to promote yourself?

A: It was the first time I tried giving copies of my book away on Goodreads. It was easier than I thought. I aimed to reach out to the reading community, making them aware of the book, and I think I achieved my purpose to certain degree though I know I haven’t done enough. I am a keen writer who is more interested in perfecting my craft. I am not awfully good at self-promotion, I must admit.

Who are some other writers that you admire? What are you currently reading right now?

A: I read very widely. Growing up in Chinese literature, I was first engrossed in poems of the Tang and Song Dynasties (among my favourites is woman poet Li Qingzhao, which I mentioned in my books) and later taken to works of Mainland and Taiwanese authors, such as Mo Yan, Su Tong, Eileen Chang and Yan Geling, to name a few.

During varsity times, Milan Kundera and Gabriel García Márquez made me realise the vast possibilities of creative writing. V.S. Naipaul’s works on the themes of immigration and displacement struck a cord in me when I came to Scotland. I also love Annie Proulx’s clean, clear prose and Anne Michaels’ poignant, lyrical renditions; and Arundathi Roy’s magnifying eye takes creating writing to a different realm. There is a long list of them if I were to continue.

Apart from fiction, I spend my time reading non-fiction of various subjects and studying practical philosophy. I am currently reading The Orange Book: A Method of Self-Realization; it’s a series of talks and answers by His Holiness Shantanand Saraswati, on the emotional realization of Unity in the midst of life.

Are you planning any new writing projects in the future?

A:  I am working on my third book which, again, is set in Malaysia. I am unable to reveal the details at this stage.

Do you (Or did you do any) public readings of The Mouse Deer Kingdom? If, yes,what was the experience like for you?

A: I have been doing public reading since even before my first book, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, was published. I regularly attend local, national and international book events at which readings are usually required. From feeling uncomfortable during my earlier experience to getting accustomed to it, I have resorted to bring my audiences closer to my characters and their worlds through readings, which I now enjoy.

You recently wrote on a blog piece: I am fortunate to have learned more than one language; as a writer, this allows a larger space for me to fully release my creative energy. Did you write your original manuscript in English? Did you have an English-speaking audience in mind when you first wrote it?

A:  All my works that are published in English are written in that language. My multi-lingual experience enriches my writing and this is an asset for a creative writer who is keen on literary experiments. My background in Chinese literature has added to the advantage. Readers who have read my books, especially Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, will find between the passages the influence of Chinese literature, in the forms of rhythmic and lyrical prose, for example, which is quite similar to those of classic Chinese verses.

Are there personal stories or family stories set in the plot of The Mouse Deer Kingdom? Or is a work of complete imagination?

A: The Mouse Deer Kingdom is a book of fiction. It doesn’t base on any story or character I personally know of. There are, however, traces of historical incidents, such as the visit of Dr Sun Yat Sen to Malacca, the uprising of the revolutionists in Yunnan in 1908, during which a shipment of firearms promised by the Japanese was sunk. Black Eagle, which I orchestrated to rob the shipment, was a prominent pirate during his time. I studied historical facts, fictionalized them and weaved them through my book.

You seem to spend a lot of time traveling – especially between Scotland and Malaysia. Does that help you with your writing at all? Is there still much of a culture shock between the two countries now or has globalization homogenized life of the two countries.

A: Living in between two cultures provides substantial materials for my writing. I am particularly interested in cultural and political issues. While my status as an alien in a foreign land allows me to dig into migration-related subject matters, the freedom I enjoy being outside my country enables me to scrutinize without fear social injustice and corrupt practices of the Malaysian government.

You have a steady presence on Twitter. Does social media help you in your writing at all?

A: Actually, I don’t spend much time on social media. I work from home and sometimes log on Twitter or Facebook to receive news updates, especially when there are crucial incidents closer to home, such as major political events in Malaysia and the recent disappearance of the Malaysian Airline MH370. I also log on Facebook to share some light-hearted moments with friends or to look at beautiful photos and video clips, to relax a little after hours of writing. That’s why I don’t usually engage in lengthy, serious discussion as I am usually stressed up after work when I logged on and would not like to strain my brains and my eyes on the small prints. It could be distracting but I have set a rule not to log on before lunch, after most parts of the work scheduled for the day are done.

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Chiew-Siah Tei’s website

Picador Books page for “The Mouse Deer Kingdom”

A great deal of my writing is rooted in personal experience | Q&A with author Terry Fallis

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Terry Fallis (TF) is well-known and well-loved Canadian author. To date, he has published three novels (The Best Laid Plans, The High Road, Up and Down) and his fourth (No Relation)  will be released to bookstores in May. The Best Laid Plans was made into a television series which aired on CBC (Link to online episodes) back in February. Fallis currently lives in Toronto
*****
1) So you have been releasing excerpts of your new novel “No Relation” in the past little while. How has it been received so far? Could you provide a brief synopsis?
TF: I’ve podcast all of my novels in their entirety, chapter-by-chapter, and made them available for free through my blog and iTunes. It was how I tried to build an audience for my first novel, The Best Laid Plans back in 2007 before it was ever published. Fortunately, McClelland & Stewart have allowed me to continued to produce and release the podcast version of my novels. I’ve just started to podcast No Relation. As of today (March 14), chapters 1, 2 and 3 have been posted. I’ll try to release one chapter each week until it’s finished. I quite enjoy podcasting my novels. They often generate interesting comments from listeners and makes for a more intimate connection with readers/listeners.
2) It has been over a month since the last episode of “The Best Laid Plans” aired. How do you feel about the whole situation of your work being made into a TV show. Would you do it again?
TF: Contrary to the experience many writers endure, I quite enjoyed the process. While the TV series is not exactly like the book, it certainly captured the themes and ideas I was trying to illuminate. I would certainly do it again. In fact, I’m now active with two different producers who are trying to bring Up and Down, and my new novel, No Relation to the screen. We’re a long way from confirming anything yet, but my fingers are crossed.
3) I read on your Facebook profile that “The Best Laid Plans” is being produced as a stage musical in Vancouver. What are your feelings towards that? Are you involved with the production of that?
TF: I’d be quite thrilled to see it brought to the stage, though it’ll take a more creative mind than mine. Vern Thiessen is the playwright working on it and he’s a superstar in the Canadian theatre firmament. I have very little involvement in it, but I’m looking forward to flying out to Vancouver sometime for the premiere.
4) Who are some of your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
TF: Here are a few of my favourite writers: Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Paul Quarrington, Donald Jack, John Irving, Stephen Fry, William Boyd, and Christopher Buckley. Right now I’m reading William Boyd’s, Restless for our book club.
5) You seem active on the social media platforms like Facebook. Do you find such tools useful in helping with your writing?
TF: I’m not certain being active in the social media space actually helps my writing, but I am convinced that it helps me forge a stronger relationship with readers, which I think is also very important. It deepens my connection with them.
6) How much of your writing is based on personal experience? Do you include other people’s personal stories in your novels or do you rely on your imagination to come up with some of the situations in your books?
TF: A great deal of my writing is rooted in personal experience (except for the S&M scenes in The Best Laid Plans). I am a member in good standing of the “write what you know” school of writing. I just find that I can write with more conviction, authenticity and authority if I’m writing about something I’ve experienced, or care about. I certainly use my imagination to extend story elements beyond my own experience, but there’s usually a foundation of personal knowledge on which I’m building (again, except for the S&M scenes in The Best Laid Plans. I just made all of that up.)
7) You have a background in Engineering. Do you still do anything in your field? (Maybe building a hovercraft in your garage or a swing to test G-forces out in the woods someplace?)
TF: While I do have a degree in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering, I’ve never practiced engineering in my career. But I still think like an engineer and did so even before I ever went off to McMaster University. A classmate and I built three full sized hang gliders and a twin-engine single-seater hovercraft, all by the age of 15. So I was probably destined to study engineering. But I don’t build very much these days other than stories.
8) So you have done some public readings for your novels. How do you like doing those events?
TF I’ve done a lot of events and still do (http://terryfallis.com/appearances). I truly believe that hitting the road and speaking/reading at book clubs, libraries, literary festivals, community organizations, and even conferences is a great way to sell books. I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ when I’m invited to speak and/or read. And I seldom want to say no. The more people you can reach, the more books you’re going  to sell, and the more likely it is a publisher will let you write another book. Plus, I actually quite enjoy it, which, I gather, is not typically the case for many novelists.
9) There are a lot of people who seem to be writing fiction right now just for their own personal enjoyment. Do you have any advice for people who are doing that task right now?
TF: I think that’s the purest form of writing. When you’re mind is focused on landing a publisher rather than honing your craft and making your manuscript as good as it can be, you can’t possibly write your best. Better to focus first on writing something you care about, and then when it’s finished, you can worry about whether it might ever be published.
10) So after the dust of “No Relation” has settled, what is next for you? Are you planning any more novels?
TF: No Relation will hit bookstores on May 20th. But, yes, I’m currently working on my fifth novel, tentatively called, Poles Apart. I hope to finished it this fall. Not sure when it will be published, but likely sometime around the Fall of 2015.

“Readers either absolutely love the book, or are completely horrified by the content and thus hate it. Either way, I’m proud my writing is having such a profound effect.” | Q&A with author J. Kent Messum

J. Kent Messum (JKM)  published his first novel “Bait” last year. (Link to my review on my old blog) He is a Toronto native and is active in the cultural life of the city on several fronts.
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1) “Bait” is your first novel. What inspired you to write it? How has “Bait” been received so far since it’s release last year?

JKM: The neighborhood I happen to live in is somewhat of a societal no-man’s land. It has more than its fair share of problems, and drug addiction is the most prominent. My time working in music and film cast a lot of light on the dark side  of those industries too, showing me the drugs and desperation involved day  to day. Over the years I’ve seen some pretty crazy shit, and I realized that addicts will do damn near anything to score their next hit. It all got me thinking, and I began to wonder what extremes an addict would go to in order feed their demons. Personally, I find the isolation and dependence of drug addiction terrifying. Equally terrifying for me is the idea of being attacked by a shark. Putting my two biggest fears together resulted in the novel BAIT.

As far as reception goes, I’ve found my novel has had a polarizing effect on the audience due to the subject matter. Readers either absolutely love the book, or are completely horrified by the content and thus hate it. Either way, I’m proud my writing is having such a profound effect.

2) Who are some other writers that you admire? What are you currently reading right now?

JKM: I’m a creature of habit, so I have a small group of writers that I’m always going back to, guys who set the bar high with lean, mean, raw writing. They include Raymond Carver, Cormac McCarthy, and Chuck Palahniuk. I’m currently reading ‘The Stars At Noon’ by Denis Johnson, and ‘The Pugilist At Rest’ by Thom Jones, another couple of authors I admire.

I generally enjoy writers for either their style or their stories, but rarely both. When I discover ones that meet both criteria I’m in absolute heaven. 

3) Have you done any public readings? If yes, what was that experience like for you?

JKM: I’ve done a few public readings and thoroughly enjoyed them. What I’m most fond of is talking to an audience, sharing stories and answering questions. I consider myself a storyteller first, and a writer second, so I welcome any opportunity to be a bard for those who want to listen. Writers get a bit of a reputation as being withdrawn and introverted, but I’m completely in my element when standing in front of a crowd and holding a microphone.

4) Like many other writers that I have followed, you have had a series of occupations and interests. Did being involved in those activities help you at all in writing “Bait?”

JKM: I’d like to think so. If variety is the spice of life, then having many different jobs and experiences gives you plenty to season your stories with. I’ve been around the block more than once, had a colorful life so far. A lot of the depravity in Bait was based on the things I witnessed in my neighborhood and what I came into contact with while on various jobs. When you’re a writer, there can be value in everything you experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

5) Are you planning any new writing projects in the future?

JKM: I’m currently at work on my second novel HUSK, a piece of speculative fiction commissioned by Penguin UK that I’m very excited about. I’ve also started the groundwork for a third novel, and I write short stories from time to time that I add to a collection, one I hope will see the light of day down the road.

6) You seem to have an active role on the social-media scene. Does it help you with keeping in touch with your fan base at all?

JKM: It certainly does, especially since my fans span quite a few different countries now. For as distracting as it might be sometimes, all of the social media outlets allow me to not only interact with my fan base, but grow a larger one. This is something I’ve found to be very important if I plan on continuing down the path of being a successful author.

7) You have an Official Book Trailer on Youtube. Was this something you produced yourself?

JKM:  It was, but I can’t take all the credit. I had the help of a few talented individuals who brought a lot to the table. In a short span of time we had the project conceptualized, shot guerrilla style, edited, and released. It wasn’t until we saw the final cut that we realized just what we’d created, and we were very proud of it. 

8) “Bait” is being published by some overseas markets. How did that come about?

JKM: I’m incredibly fortunate to have Peters, Fraser, & Dunlop as my literary agency. They are fantastic people to work with and their commitment to their writers is unparalleled. When they were shopping my manuscript around, it caught a great buzz among different publishers worldwide. In addition to the US, UK, and Canada, Bait was also picked up in Greece, Brazil, Czech Republic, and Bulgaria. I couldn’t have imagined a better debut for a first-time author.

9) You are born, raised and live in Toronto. Does living there help or hinder your writing? Are you planning to stay in Toronto? Any major travel plans?

JKM: Toronto is currently my home, but where I might end up is an open question. It is a great location in many ways, but I tend not to write about the city where I live. It’s the places that I travel to that I find most inspiring: New York, London, Paris, Rome, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, etc. As of now there are no major travel plans on the horizon, but when you’re living life as a writer sometimes you’re inspired to just pick up and go.

Link to J. Kent Messum’s website

Link to Penguin Canada page for “Bait.”

The Short Sides of Dealing with Change | Review of “Aquarium” by Mike Barnes (1999) The Porcupine’s Quill

Any sort of change in one’s life – be it controlled or thrust upon a person unexpectedly – can be difficult to deal with. But it is an important aspect of the human condition and any writer that tries to talk about it in their work is helping a reader consider the changes in their own lives. And that is what Mike Barnes has done in his collection of short stories called Aquarium.

Page 29 The Leading Edge

What the artist had  said changed things, there was no doubt about that. I had been looking at a bunch of backs and necks and haircuts, but now I had to imagine that I was about to meet some people. Movement came into the equation. It was almost a sound I could hear; like the shifting of a theatre audience in the dark, only quitter. Like the tissuey whisper of the angel wings in the Old Master room upstairs, when it was just you and the oil paintings, near closing time.

Barnes is gifted with his use of words. (Link to my review of his book of poetry “Calm Jazz Sea.) His descriptions filled the reader’s mind with images that are clear and concise. And the  settings he uses could fit into anyone’s life.

Page 94 – Sky Candy

I scan the limitless horizon. Stars glimmer in places through the cloud, like water droplets on a vast net. As long as I don’t focus on any reference point for long, I am free to jump, to fly, towards the thin crust separating earth from sky. I feel my body lightening, draining its mass from my feet upwards. And then . . .

That tug. It is always exciting.

These stories have a kind of ‘deja-vous’ to them – a familiar feeling that isn’t quite clear. They are profound, universal yet unique. And quite the pleasure to read.

Page 115  – In Florida

In the night, les woke to the sound of Nan crying. Opening his eyes he saw light leaking around the top and bottom of the bathroom door. It was where she usually went. She would be sitting on the toilet, a Kleenex held under her nose and others bunched in the hand resting, palm up, in her lap. He had only opened the door once, but the picture had branded him, its details seared across some tough hide in his consciousness.

He raised himself to a sitting position and put the pillow behind him. He switched on the bedside lamp and opened his Le Carré novel. The words swam and blurred; he was too tired to read. He stared at the lighted rectangle; when he heard the water run he narrowed his gaze. It was what she wanted from him. Not a hug, not comforting words, but the knowledge that he was similarly afflicted. That whatever was keeping her up had attacked him too. He listened. He sniffling was faint and steady.

Aquarium by Mike Barnes is a powerful collection of stories. Profound and emotional, it is a read that enlightens a dark corner of the human condition. Hopefully Barnes will continue writing in the future.

Link to The Porcupine’s Quill’s page for “Aquarium”

 

 

 

The Fine Line Between; Being Alive and Dead, Rock Star and Artist | Review of “Dead Brilliant” by Christopher Ward (2013) Durndurn Press

There are fine lines between a lot of  distinctions these days, many of which involving complex arguments in what is entertainment and what is culture.  That is one of the interesting points that seem to come up in Christopher Ward’s novel Dead Brilliant.

Page 12-13

On the screen, the members of The Cocktails, dressed as cops, were awkwardly arresting a gaggle of ten-storey-tall nymphets as the chorus of “Stop Before I Start” kicked in. Uncle looked up and appeared to be silently mouthing the words as he nodded along with the song.

“Stop before I start

Look before I leap

Listen to me

Baby can’t you see you gotta . . .”

Here Frankie held his guitar like a chainsaw and played his big lick – “wawawawa” – as the other band members froze in a tableau.

Uncle shrugged. “Catchy”

“So’s herpes,” mumbled Roc. He crossed and recrossed the room , his wiry frame practically twitching, all the while stealing glances at the television. “Uncle Strange, I’ve trusted you since the fifth grade, but right now I’m nervous.  The last two albums have tanked, the hair product deal is toast, and now those morons have a #1 record riding on my reputation. Did you remember to check with the lawyers about the rights to the name?”

Ward has written a sweet novel here. The plot deals with Roc Molotov – an aging rock star. Not only is Roc’s fame on the downslide but his band, his girlfriend and his ability to write music seem to be sliding out his grasp. So his best friend and manager Uncle Strange seems to come up with a perfect scheme to bring Roc’s popularity back. Fake his death on MTV. But there seems to be a bit of a bitter truth to this novel about the music scene. Ward – Canada’s original VJ and writer of the hit “Black Velvet” – has maybe documented a bitter truth to the popular music scene.

Page 88-89

It was around three thirty when Roc mixed down his new song on his laptop. He’d added a few touches to the basic vocal and guitar part that he’d recorded in a performance straight from the heart. A melody that lifted step by step led to an odd chord that created a perfect rub on the word “strange.” A high harmony in the chorus and little shimmering second guitar part was all it needed. When he had started writing in the afternoon, he hadn’t known where it was going. That’s how it worked with songwriting for Roc; what wasn’t at all clear beyond a tangle of emotion and some indistinct but powerful urge gave way to something coherent in committing it to paper or tape. He had been flat creatively lately, and he felt at peace as he listened to the playback of “Yours Truly.” The opening line sounded like it came from some old country song, but they didn’t have a lock on the naked emotions, did they?

“I remember everything I meant to say . . .”

And the final chorus was as straightforward as  anything he’d ever written

“Now I don’t wonder how I feel

Where we’re going or if it’s real

It’s too late to change things now

But I’m going to tell you anyhow

I was yours truly yours truly

Yours truly goodbye.”

The pause before the final “goodbye” seemed kind of melodramatic, but he decided to leave it in. In songwriting terms, it was the right choice.

Ward has written about a craft that has become crass. Celebrity has driven the music industry into a tiresome pulp where people seem more interested in making money than creating something worth listening too. But the story Ward tells isn’t all cynical.

Page 138

The same sound that she’d heard at the club rolled out of the speakers, but instead of sounding like droning and crashing, it took on a stark beauty as the music rose and fell. The lyrics were buried in the mix of guitars and drums, making it hard to tell what was being said, and the songs evoked a similar feeling as they went by; but at the end, Emma sat very still feeling massaged by the sound. She didn’t speak for a while, not wanting the spell to break. Finally, she turned the chair around and looked at Stick. “Amazing. Your music is beautiful.”

While Dead Brilliant isn’t a deep read, it is certainly an interesting one with strong kernels of truth to it. But it is a must read for all fans of music.

Link to Christopher Ward’s website

Link to Dundurn’s webpage for “Dead Brilliant”