Category Archives: #canlit

When That One Person Appears to Fail Us | Review of “The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall (2016) House of Anansi

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We all rely on that one person. Be it a family member or a trained professional or even a politician. We need them to be strong people who support and care for us. Yet when that one person even gives the appearance of faltering or failing us, our whole world falls apart and we are sometimes too stunned to move. That element of the human condition is what Zoe Whittall brilliantly documents in her novel The Best Kind of People.

Page 20-21

Sadie felt a brief moment of birthday excitement, and then the house seemed to shake with a pounding on the front door, followed by an insistent baritone call: “We’re looking for George Alistair Woodbury!”

“What’s going on?” Sadie said, peering through the kitchen entrance and down the hall to the foyer. Red and blue flashed through the open windows, a light show for the symphony of cicadas. She approached the door tentatively. George sat back down at the table, staring into his glass of wine.

“Sadie, don’t. I’ll get it,” Joan said as she approached the door, peering through the peephole cautiously. She opened it slowly to find two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers.

“Hello, ma’am, is your husband home?”

They made it only a few feet down the front hall before spotting him through the living room, still at the kitchen table. He stood, knocking over his glass. It pooled, then slowly dripped onto the kitchen floor.

For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol.

The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.

The brilliance of this novel is that the main character is rarely allowed to make an appearance or speak. We have George Woodbury – teacher, husband and father – whisked away and arrested for sexual impropriety at the local school. Each member of his family must endure the community’s scorn while dealing with their own questions of his guilt or innocence. A whole wash of thoughts and emotions are dealt with as we read through the book.

Page 202-203

The next afternoon, she drove thirty-six miles to the Woodbridge health clinic that hosted the support group for women with partners in prison. She arrived half an hour early, sat in the car, and watched women park their cars and go in through the side door. It was windy, and she put her hat in the glove compartment lest it blow away but then didn’t get out of the car. More women arrived, some in minivans, others in compact cars; a few walked from the busy stop. She felt the same way she had felt when she was young and travelled to different countries: surprised that the world still looked familiar. The parks in Sweden and Morocco looked like regular parks she’d seen at home. The women who parked their cars and walked into the centre looked like anyone. It’s not as though she expected them to be wearing neon signs that said Married to a Pervert, but she had expected to see something that would give away their status, an indication however subtle, some sort of obvious physical sign of weakness. She looked at her phone, turned it to silent, and applied some Carmex to her lips. They were dry and flaking, no matter how much water she drank. The stress showed on her face. Every step felt heavy as she made her way inside.

Joan lingered outside in the basement hallway in front of a display of health pamphlets. She pretended to be interested in the details of diabetes treatment, as though she couldn’t have written the entire pamphlet herself from memory. She waited so long to actually enter that she was a few minutes late, and walked in while a woman was speaking.

“The way I see it, he’s sick. It’s a sickness. You can’t control what you’re born with, right? My one kid’s got the Down’s syndrome. He can’t help that neither. Now he’s been found out and he can get help and he wants to get help. Who am I to leave now? I believe in second chances.”

The woman who was talking resembled a pug dog; she had one of those smooshed-up faces. Joan took one of the two empty seats around the circle and couldn’t stop herself from thinking that if the woman didn’t hang on to this guy, she’d probably have a hard time finding some other man to replace him. then she felt awful for thinking that.

Whittall does an excellent job of going through the thoughts of a wide-range characters and describing their range of emotions. The prose she uses in a everyday kind of language, making the book easy to understand. But make no mistake, this isn’t a type of book that should be rushed through either. There is well-crafted detail and thought put in here and any reader should ponder the well-chosen words carefully.

Page 146

“Thanks,” Andrew said, watching Stuart take another paranoid scan. “I’m sorry for snapping. It’s happened really quickly and I’ve been buried in legal documents and I don’t really have perspective, you. My dad and I, we were starting to get close again. It’s so fuckin’ weird.

“Yeah . . .”

Andrew started back towards the door. Stuart called after him.

“I just wanted you to know that you really were my true love . . . ”

Andrew turned. Stuart was standing close to him now. He could smell hours of beer on his breath and was slightly revolted, yet at the same time he felt a familiar wave of nostalgic attraction. Stuart leaned in to kiss Andrew, holding his hands at the waist like they were kids at a school dance. The kiss was gentle, and Andrew pulled back before it got sloppy, or before he tried to draw him into a hug. the smell of Stuart’s cologne and cigarettes was enough to make Andrew feel as though he could fall over from the associated emotions.

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall is a brilliant, modern novel dealing with important elements of the human condition. It is well-thought out and well written. In short a great read to ponder over.

*****

Link to Zoe Whittall’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s website for The Best Kind of People

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On the Path to a New Awareness | Review of “Secret Path” by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire (2016) Simon & Schuster

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Cover of Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire. Image linked from the Secret Path website

The beauty of a well-crafted book is in the detail that goes into the enlightenment that a reader receives into an element about the human condition. The right combination of words plus the perfect shades of light and dark colours of an illustration can bring light an injustice that occurred in the world. Readers can ponder carefully over those details of that book and slowly become aware of the injustice and  – in turn –  start dialogs with other individuals about that sad element. And that complex process is what Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire have done with their graphic novel Secret Path.

The Stranger (Excerpt)

I am the Stranger

You can’t see me

I am the Stranger

Do you know what I mean?

I navigate the mud

I walk above the path

Jumping to the right

And I jump to the left

On the Secret Path

The one that nobody knows

And I’m moving fast

On the path that nobody knows

And what I’m feeling

Is anyone’s guess

What is in my head

And what’s in my chest

I’m not gonna stop

I’m just catching my breath

They’re not gonna stop

Please, just let me catch my breath

I am the Stranger

You can’t see me

I am the Stranger

Do you know what I mean?

 Downie and Lemire have done something brilliant here by bringing the story of Chanie Wenjack and the residential school system to light for the reading public. Wenjack died a young man trying to get back to his First-Nations community after experiencing brutal institutional care at a residential school. He attempted a 400-mile trek along a railway line to get home, yet the journey proved to be too much for him.

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Illustration from Secret Path by Jeff Lemire. Image linked from the Secret Path website

Lemire has described Wenjack’s story with his illustrations in a bold fashion. The frames that show Wenjack’s memories of his home have a warm rose feeling to them while the cells that show his experiences at the residential school and on his attempted journey home at cold, dark with a tinge of blue. A reader clearly senses the range of emotions that Wenjack felt as they follow the story of his trek home.

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Scanned image from Secret Path. Illustration by Jeff Lemire

Gord Downie has not only proven himself here as a classic wordsmith but also a great storyteller. While many of his fans know him as the front man for the musical group The Tragically Hip, it is bringing this story of Wenjack to life for us readers that shows his consciousness and the depth of his soul. He has carefully crafted a few brilliant phrases into our memories about Wenjack, breeding empathy in our minds for the tragic wanderer and causing us to discuss him to our peers and our leaders.

 

 

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Scanned image of “Son” by Gord Downie. From Secret Path (2016) Simon & Shuster

This book does exactly what great literature does. It brings to light an important element of the human condition that may of been overlooked through other means and creates thought, discussion and discourse among readers. It is a brilliant book and one that should be pondered over.

Quote from the back cover of Secret Path:

Chanie Wenjack haunts us. His story is Canada’s story. We are not the country we think we are. History will be re-written. All of the Residential Schools will be pulled apart and studied. The next hundred years are going to be painful and unsettling as we meet Chanie Wenjack and thousands like him – as we find out about ourselves, about all of us – and when we do, we can truly call ourselves “Canada.”

Secret Path by Gord Downie and Jeff Lemire is a brilliant book which should be held in prominence on any bookshelf. It breeds empathy and creates thought and discuss which, no doubt, will lead to action on improving an injustice to the human condition.

*****

Link to the Secret Path website

Link to Gord Downie’s website

Link to Jeff Lemire’s blog

Defining the Desperation of Violence | Review of “Waste” by Andrew F. Sullivan (2016) Dzanic Books

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We tend to look at violence as a simple act. But we never really look at the complex roots of what causes people to turn violent. What makes one person act out with anger and malice?  What is the result of violence after the act? Those and a myriad of other issues surrounding violence are the thoughts that one ponders after reading Andrew F. Sullivan’s complex novel Waste.

Page 11-12

Connor Condon always hated his name. He hated the concussive force of those two C’s crashing out of his mother’s mouth every time she was pissed, back when they’d lived in his grandmother’s apartment. The sound chased him from room to room, rattling the dusty shelves and weaving its way through porcelain bears to find him hiding under the pullout couch he shard with his mother.

“We need you to wake up, and don’t you dare puke again.”

It wasn’t until sixth grade that Connor’s name truly became a curse in the outside world. The new bus driver, Marlene, believed she had to take attendance. Her tongue seemed far too big for her mouth when she drawled out his name through pierced lips.

“Tommy, just slap his face to wake him up. One good slap.”

All Connor heard were titters of laughter from the backseats. The bus driver’s massive tongue had mangled his name somehow. Kids stopped sitting beside him. Connor Condom. The name followed him for years, hunted him down hallways and trapped him in bathroom stalls, kids breathing down his neck, asking if his father was a Durex or a Trojan.

“Probably would have been easier if he was wearing clothes.”

A Thursday. It was a Thursday in tenth grade when they pulled the plastic bag over his head on the bus. The driver was too busy navigating a left-hand turn to see Connor’s face slowly turning purple as the bag pulled tighter and tighter. Connor remembered now that there was a green Chevy stalled in the turning lane. Before he passed out and smashed his face against the window, he noticed there was a receipt for Kmart in the bottom of the bag.

“Did you bring extra batteries, Al?”

For the next week, they had Connor in the hospital, measuring his breathing and brain activity every hour. They drained fluid from his brain on the second night. Connor did not remember that week. Two weeks later, he emerged with a new learning disability, a severe lack of hand-eye coordination, and a constant migraine. He walked home from the hospital.

Sullivan has done a brilliant job in taking a look at a ‘macro-sociological’ issue and brought it down to a level that many of us can relate to. Set in the city of Larkhill in 1989, we follow a group of the town’s citizens attempt to survive an economic downturn. Yet as one act of violence  – a car accident involving a pet lion, a murdered individual found in the woods months after his demise – seems to bring on a call for revenge or fear by a one or two people of the town. And the ‘infection’ of violence seems to grow.

Page 33-34

Everyone called the rambling motel Da Nasty. It leered out over the other smaller buildings on the block, five stories of clapboard and stucco. Moses had moved Elvira from motel to motel over the first few years of their exile, dodging the police and Children’s Aid while riding his bicycle to school. Elvira started collecting her bowling balls again, taking them into the shower with her. There were always complaints from housekeeping staff and neighbors concerning missing missing credit cards and stolen purses. Aliases like Allison Cooper, Joanna Page, Paula McCartney, and Gina Simmons littered the guest books of the tired, neon-coated hovels along the wide strip of the utility road.

Moses hated elevators. The spaces were too small, the walls always mirrored. Reflection after reflection of his pimply skull refracted to infinity till each pore glared at him. He always took the stairs up to the second floor and walked along the thick orange carpeting running his hands along the wall, looking for an open door, a wallet sitting on a dresser, a purse left in the bathroom. Occasionally he walked in on couples locked in complex positions he’d  only seen in the pay-per-view movies. He would only order those after his mother passed out in the other double bed, moaning about her poor doggies and the betrayal of Big Tina.

“Mom, you around? I didn’t end up bringing back any food yet?”

The room still smelled liked moth balls and Pepto Bismol. The dark purple carpet was covered in cigarette burns. The blinds to the balcony were closed. Most of the balconies in Da Nasty were locked. There were too many lonely men romancing the concrete five stories down. Pigeons and a lone red-tailed howk now ruled the balconies, slowly coating the rails in white each summer, only to have it washed away by the rain and snow every winter.

“Hey, Mom, you here?”

Sullivan weaves a great mise-en-scene with this book by going from descriptions to thoughts/conversations of one of the characters. In taking one’s time in reading the book, we get a feel of a general situation and understand why the characters are pushed into doing what they do. We are forced to ponder each situation and reflect on it later on. The language is simple and frank at times but that adds to the colourful story.

Page 107

B. Rex had a new tattoo emblazoned on his neck. It was dripping

“You didn’t do that one yourself, did you B?” Moses said.

The car bounced over the potholes on the utility road. The neon lights of the highway strip faded behind them as the Buick nursed its way through the slush. No one came down here.

“Yeah. This morning. Had the money, finally, not like it was a big job, but I’ve been getting stiffed by the folks lately. Think they’re still mad about me trimming the hair.”

B. Rex had the worst ingrown hairs of the three, mainly due to his refusal of the disposable razor at Logan’s house a few months earlier. He brought his grandfather’s straight razor from World War II instead, a family heirloom his grandfather kept in the study with his tax receipts and old Playboy magazines. B. Rex cut himself eight times before finally accepting the shaving cream and disposable Bick. He wore a hat for a while afterward until the scabs fell off.

“They still won’t let you work, huh?” Moses said.

“Nope. Mom says as soon as I start earning my own money, that’s the last they’ll see of me, and I mean, they’re right,” B. Rex said. “Oppressive as shit. I can’t even take like a shit without my dad asking about the size and color.

Andrew F. Sullivan has created a great book about people dealing with desperation and violence in Waste. It is a read that should be carefully read and consider but definitely one that has all the markings of the start of some great thoughts and discussions.

*****

Link to Andrew F. Sullivan’s website

Link to Dzanc Books website for Waste

Link to my Q&A with Andrew F. Sullivan -“I wanted to write a Canadian book that dealt with violence, small scale, but very real violence we often ignore or don’t read about. It’s a currency we trade with each other.”

 

“It took me one year to complete Skunk On A String . . .But it took me nearly a decade to figure out how to get the skunk down from the balloon.”| Q&A with Illustrator Thao Lam

For many of us, (And especially for those of us who must engage the world in a digital manner) illustrations are something we glance over and pass by. But in many cases, illustrators are people whose skill and craft adds a complex dimension to a book for readers to enjoy. Thao Lam is a illustrator whose ideas come through in careful planning and detail. She recently answered a few questions for me about her work.

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1) How long did it take you to create “Skunk On A String?” Was there anything specific that inspired you to create the book?

It took me one year to complete Skunk On A String. This includes storyboarding and illustration. But it took me nearly a decade to figure out how to get the skunk down from the balloon. Many years ago while I was in the shower, an image of a skunk tied to a balloon popped in my head. I never proceeded with the story because I couldn’t figure out how to get the skunk down from the balloon. Over the years I thought of many scenarios, like having the skunk rescued by an astronaut because he made it to the moon via balloon, but all those scenarios were too far fetch.

2) Where did you find your materials to create ‘Skunk On A String?’ Any idea on how many pieces of paper it took to create the complete book?

I lost track of how many pieces of paper were used in the making of Skunk On A String – too many to count! The assortments of paper came from papers I collected over the years; The Paper Place in Toronto; art stores around the city, and I order a lot of stuff from www.scrapbook.com

3) How has been the reaction to ‘Skunk On A String?’ Has there been any memorable experiences you care to share because of the book?

So far the reaction to the book has been really positive. The trailer for book has hit an all time high for Owlkids Books https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S781wbPaQ_k. It’s received great reviews and even a star from Kirkus. Since Skunk On A String is my first book, every moment has been memorable. I think my favorite moment was spotting copies of Skunk On A String at my favorite children’s book store, Mabel’s Fables. I have been going to this book store for years and would spend hours at the store browsing for inspiration and discovering amazing books, authors, and illustrators. It blew my mind to see my book in print along with those I admire.

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Image from “Skunk On A String” by Thao Lam. Image linked from the Owlkids website

4) What inspired you to go into illustration? Who are some of your fellow illustrators that you admire?

As a kid I would spend hours in the children’s section of the library pouring over books — something I still do as an adult. The idea that you get to spend your day drawing and being creative was mind blowing so there was never any doubt in what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Illustrators I admire: Jon Klassen, David Wiesner, and Isabelle Arsenault are my top picks if I were to get stranded on a desert island.

5)  Do you do many public events in relation to your work? If yes, is that something you enjoy doing?

I totally enjoy doing public events (though I still get stage fright each time). Skunk On A String has opened many opportunities and has introduced me to many folks in the industry as well as book fans. For example I got the opportunity to talk to some librarians and teachers at the Ontario Library Association Super Conference (OLA), which was great because I learned a lot about reading a wordless picture book to an audience. I am a big wordless picture book fan and have quite a collection of them but I have never shared one with an audience before so the advice I got from the OLA came in handy when I did my first reading. I especially like doing school visits, seeing kids get excited over books makes me smile!

6) You seem to be active on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? How do you like using those apps. in relation to your work?

I am not really good at posting and tweeting, I have to keep reminding myself to be social. I find it especially hard to do while I am working but I guess posting and tweeting is working, just the marketing side of work (I prefer the creative side of work).

 7) You talk on your website about your love of children’s books. What are some of your favourite books?

Oh, that would be a long list! Currently “Dear Mr. Blueberry” written and illustrated by Simon James, the “Gerald and Piggie” series written and illustrated by Mo Willems, “The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend”  written and illustrated by Dan Santat, and “The Day the Crayons Quit” written by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Oliver Jeffers are read on a continues loop in our household.

8) Have you given any thought into creating another book? If yes, are there details you care to share about it?

I am working on a second book with Owlkids Books. It is about making friends something I had a really hard time doing when I was a kid because I was shy and didn’t have confidence. The launch date is set for Spring 2018.

9) Your biographies list you as living in Toronto? How do you like living there? Are there items in Toronto that inspire you as an illustrator?

Toronto is so vibrant! There is so much diversity, culture, arts that something is always happening all year long. It is hard not to be inspired when there is so much going on. For inspiration I usually head to my favorite bookstores like Mabel’s Fables, Little Island Comics, or I just visit my local library. There are also great book festivals throughout the year, my favorite is the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. The organizers do an amazing job every year, it just gets bigger and bigger and the list of featured guests is stellar, so much inspiration under one roof and it is free to attend.

*****

Link to Thao Lam’s website

Link to Owlkids website for “Skunk On A String”

Link to my review of “Skunk On A String”

 

“I grew up in an old church and the windows in my room were green bubble glass. The light would change so dramatically throughout the day. I loved that. I guess that is why I work with light.” | Q&A with Illustrator Elly MacKay

I purchased a copy of Maya at the 2016 Toronto Word on the Street festival

maya

We tend to think of illustration as something involving lines drawn on a piece of paper. But in the case of Elly MacKay’s work, there is something a lot more. She works with light, paper and photography, which creates images that draws anyone in. MacKay recently illustrated the book Maya (which just has become one of a favourite item of people who visit my library) and answered a few questions for me – ‘illustrating’ how she creates her works.

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1) How long did it to create the images in “Maya?” How did you get involved with the book?

 

This book took a little longer than usual. I give myself 4 months for each book I work on. This one was a new way of working. I had to consider how to show 3 different worlds. There is the real world (rooftop with Mama), the story world (stories Mama tells), and the dream world where the two come together. Within the dream world, there are many animals… tigers, elephants, peacocks and monkeys. This was the trickiest of the worlds to create. It starts out scary but through reframing her thoughts, the world becomes peaceful and playful.
I met Karen Boserma at the American Library Association. Along with publishing books for kids, Owlkids publishes Chirp, Chickadee and Owl magazine. I was telling her that my brother was on the cover of Owl back in the 80s. We had a nice chat and when a book came up that needed shadows, Karen and her team thought of my work.

2) How did you get started in illustration?

I took a couple of illustration classes in university. My professor would sometimes give me his overflow work. It was great experience. I did some logo work, editorial illustrations and made an activity book for Nova Scotian kids. I also had a neat job going through the Nova Scotia Archives, picking old lithos that would become covers for historical romance novels.
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Sample page from Maya

3) Are there any illustrators that you admire? If yes, who are they and why do you admire them?

One of my favourites is Stéphane Jorisch . His use of line is so beautiful. Eunsil Chun is another favourite. Her work is at once delicate but also strong.  Her use of
negative space is really what I love, along with her characters. (Link to her website) Julie Morestad for her whimsy and wistfulness. (Link) Isabelle Arsenault for her unique compositions and I’m just in awe of the range she has. (Link) Jon Klassen for his subtle sense of humour and gorgeous, sparse landscapes. (Link) Sydney Smith for his loose linework and muted colours. (Link) Qin Leng for the complexity of her images. Also for her joyfulness. (Link)
Gosh, I could just go on and one with 20 or more names but since I have pretty much named all Canadians here with the exception of Ensil Chun, I’ll leave it.

4) You seem to have a complex technique to the creation of your images – starting with the use of paper to the lighting right up to the photography of the whole illustration. Did it take you long to learn all those skills and bring them all together? Do you have an all-time favourite illustration that you created?

I grew up in an old church and the windows in my room were green bubble glass. The light
would change so dramatically throughout the day. I loved that. I guess that is why I work with light. I’ve always been fascinated with how light changes atmosphere. I guess we are products of our environment… I came to work with paper because my Mom, Joan Irvine wrote books on how to make pop-ups. I was always working away with paper with her or making sculptures in the basement with my potter Dad, Steve Irvine. He is also a photographer. It seems like a strange job I guess, making little things out of light, paper and photographing them but it is just the result of growing up in that home I think. I’ve been making things this way since I was 14 or so.
A favourite one? I suppose From Shore to Shore. You know those places that exist in your dreams that you return to again and again. This, and Between Tides were both created based on a dreamscape of sorts.
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From shore to shore by Elly MacKay. Illustration is a diptych (Two images that work side by side.) Images are linked from Etsy.com

5) How does the public react to your illustrations? Is there any memorable reaction to something you have created you care to share?

I always love showing the process I use to children. We make a little world together and turn out the lights. When I light the theatre, they all get so excited. I love that.

6) Do you get a chance to travel and speak about your work? If yes, is it something you enjoy doing?

Yes, I really love doing school visits and writers festivals. I have a bachelor of education that I don’t get to use, so getting a chance to work with kids is always something I really enjoy.

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The Builders by Elly MacKay. Image linked from her website

7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

I am working on a book called Waltz of the Snowflakes for Running Press right now. It is a wordless picture book that celebrates the colour and life that music and dance can bring to a dreary day. It will be out in Fall 2017. (Link to Running Press’ webpage for Waltz of the Snowflakes) I am also working on one for Tundra that is built from old weather sayings. It is called Red Sky at Night.

8) You seem to have an avid presence on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like being on those platforms in relation to you work?

I like seeing what others are working on through Twitter and Facebook. Facebook has been great for sharing and getting some feedback too.

9) Your online biography has you listed as living in Owen Sound, Ontario. How do you like living there? Are there any aspects to the Owen Sound region that particularly inspire you in your work?

It is a great place to live. We have rocky beaches, sandy beaches, hiking trails/ski trails, and waterfalls all nearby and a great community of like-minded people here. It has a concert hall that brings in bands, an art gallery, wonderful library, artist co-op and a forest school that just opened. It is also affordable to buy a home here. I feel like the spokesperson for this town… But I really do love it. And yes… This place, especially the land half an hour north of Owen Sound, where I grew up is my constant source of inspiration.

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Leaves Leave by Elly MacKay. Image linked from her website

*****

Link to Elly MacKay’s WordPress blog

Link to Elly MacKay’s website

Link to OwlKids’ webpage for “Maya”

Link to my Q&A with Maya’s author Mahak Jain -“I wanted to write about a world where animals as different as the peacock, monkey, elephant, tiger, and snake would find themselves gathered around a banyan tree. Maya’s story emerged from that dream.”

“The readers who have contacted me love Harriet almost possessively, and take a few days to forgive me for what I put her through.” | Q&A with writer Cordelia Strube

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Culture is suppose to deal with the ‘human condition’ – to take note of an element in our society and bring it forth for us to consider and discuss. But that rarely seems to happen anymore. We are bombarded with more and more items that seem to be ‘marketed’ to us and our pocket books. So when we come across an item where a person carefully crafts an item to show something about the ‘human condition’ many of us still do take time to ponder that item. And we try to share our thoughts about that item with others.

Cordelia Strube states she is a private person. In being that private person she quietly observes the world around her and then crafts her observations into works for us to consider. Her novel “On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light” certainly became a topic of conversation for my many circles these past few months.  So it not only a thrill but a bit of chance to gain some enlightenment when Strube agreed to answer a few select questions for me.

*****

1) You seem to have put quite a bit of thought into “On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light”. Was there anything specific that inspired you to write it? How long did it take to write?

I was sitting in a Tim Horton’s, people-watching through the window, and noticed a small boy with an over-sized head. He was gripping his mother’s hand as they walked, both of them ignoring the stares of passersby.  In the mother’s expression I recognized a look all too familiar to mothers a.k.a. if you hurt my child, I will kill you.  There was a grace and nobility about these two seemingly frail people, pushing courageously through their daily grind despite disability.  Once home I googled causes for skull enlargement in children and, shazam, Irwin was born.  Then I started what if-ing, which I do constantly while writing novels.  What if the sick child has a well sibling?  What love and tenderness is left for the well sibling who will always, in the eyes of the mother devoted to the sick child, get better?  How do the well and sick children feel about one another?  I wanted to reveal this complex sibling connection from both points of view, which resulted in two protagonists in a two part novel.

2) A lot of fellow readers in my circle seem to feel a certain empathy for the protagonist, Harriet, or they are very confused by her. How have you found readers’ reaction to her and her family? Are there any reactions to the book that you care to share?

The readers who have contacted me love Harriet almost possessively, and take a few days to forgive me for what I put her through.  I did not set out to write a lovable 11 year-old.  She is prickly, fierce, stubborn, determined and, in her own estimation, unlovable. This devotion from readers surprises and cheers me.  Maybe it’s because Harriet is a rebel and there’s a bit of rebel in us all.

3) Your website lists both books you have written and stage/radio plays you have produced. How do you contrast the two forms of writing (if at all). Is there one form you prefer over the other?

I love all narrative forms.  Radio plays are the toughest because you reveal everything through sound effects and dialogue.  I avoid the the voice-over device to reveal exposition, and never plug dialogue with expository writing, preferring sparse speech.  I put each line through a sieve repeatedly.  Few people talk in huge chunks, and if they do, they’re usually boring.  So it’s just me, the actors and the sound effects crew building worlds and people in listeners’ minds.
Stage plays have actors, sets, lighting and sound effects.  Many choices that are limited only by budgets.   Often the most intriguing stage plays make much from very little.
With film, a primarily visual medium, you have the added bonus of close-ups to reveal subtext.  My screenplays have considerably fewer spoken words than my radio or stage plays.
Novels know no limits.  You can build worlds, civilizations, multiple galaxies.  You can jump in and out of thoughts, introduce characters in one scene then ditch them in the next, straddle continents and time zones in a sentence. Novel writing means absolute artistic freedom.  And you have the added bonus of the reader’s unbridled imagination.  They will envision and feel things you didn’t know you were writing.  Many times readers have mentioned elements in my novels I didn’t realize were there.  Readers come to the narrative with their own histories which add colour and dimension.

4) You have a complex list of literary events in which you are partaking over the next few months. Many writers that I talk to seem to have a level of fatigue that comes over them when they do public events. Are public readings and discussions of your work something you enjoy doing? 

It depends on the crowd.  If they get it, I’m buzzed.  If they don’t, I feel crummy and regret showing up.  With On The Shores Of Darkness, There Is Light, my 10th novel, I decided to only do events that pay some form of honorarium.  I’ve never understood why authors are expected to offer their time and services for free.  This request narrows invites down and slows the pace.  Q and A is more interesting for me than readings because I get to ask questions of readers.  I never stop learning from them.  But yes, you need stamina, both mental and physical, when you’re promoting a book.  Everybody’s a critic and you better be able to suck it up.

5) This is a question I am really eager to ask you. Many writers I talk to about their presence on the internet seem to make a comment about it being something they ‘need’ to do. The only presence I can tell you have as a writer is through your website. (And your comment on your siteIn a world overrun by technology and advertising designed to make us hunger for material gain, the value of human connections cannot be measured” is very reflective of many people’s thoughts around me.) What are your thoughts in relation to the use of the internet with regard to promoting your writing? Do you get many people commenting about your books through your website? Are you avoiding social-media platforms (like Facebook and Twitter) on purpose?

 
I’m a private person.  I don’t like having my picture taken.  It takes me a long time to compose a sentence.  I don’t enjoy staring into screens of any size; don’t have a cell or a TV.  These are not social media-friendly qualities.  I have two laptops, one connected to the internet, the other remains a disconnected island for my fiction.  Briefly, when traveling, I tried a tablet and found myself checking my email accounts frequently because it was so easy.  The checking became compulsive and interfered with my thoughts, and fiction–for me–is all about allowing thoughts to wander.  
 
I’m more comfortable socializing one on one in real life, in real time, with all kinds of people in all kinds of real circumstances.  But even the word real has become unreal, hasn’t it?  Which is why I called the reality show about people who think they’re on reality shows in my novel Milosz “Reality Check”. 
 
 I want people vulnerable around me, not playing a shiny, scratch-proof role they’ve devised for themselves online. Twitter etc works wonderfully for writers who think it’s wonderful.  I’m available to readers via my website and when they take the time to contact me, I always respond, have even made real friends that way.
*****

“What made me a poet? Curiosity. The thrill of adventure, of new worlds.” | Q&A with poet Penn Kemp

penn-kemp
Image of Penn Kemp linked from her WordPress site. Photo by Dennis Siren

Penn Kemp has been not only been a poet but a cultural icon around my home town of London, Ontario, Canada. Yes, her written words have inspired but her actions in a complex number of fronts have also been a source of enlightenment and engagement for numerous people. It was an honour a few weeks ago when she sent me an advance copy of her new work Barbaric Cultural Practice  (Link to my review) but discussing it only seem to capture a bit of this thought-provoking individual. She agreed to answer a few questions for me here, adding a bit more insight into her and her work.

*****

1) What inspired you to first write poetry? You have been involved in other forms of writing (including play writing). Does poetry hold any special traits for you that other writings don’t have?

My grandmothers were grand sources of inspiration. My Strathroy grandmother knew many poems by heart (that delicious phrase!) which she would recite to me in a kind of incantatory lilt.  The sound transported me. My little Irish grandmother told me wild tales of legends that sparked my imagination into new realms of possibility, realms beyond my house and yard.

When my brother was born, my mother no longer had all the time in the world to read to me. So I memorized the nursery rhymes I loved. But that wasn’t enough; I wanted more. I tried to make sense of the black squiggles on the page until they slowly, finally, swam into meaning. What a discovery! It was pure magic to go from reading other people’s poems and stories to writing them myself. I would set up my dolls in a line on the couch and perform to this unfailingly attentive audience. Power to the reader! Power to the writer!”

What made me a poet? Curiosity. The thrill of adventure, of new worlds. I began piecing out the words to myself. I remember the thrill of pure magic when a word would leap into focus, into meaning. The black letters would assume a third dimension; they would dance. I could almost hear them speak to me directly. I was hooked. I wrote my first poem when I was six, excited and amazed at having created through apparent magic something out of nothing with marks on a page. I glimpsed a world in which words had a life of their own, just as toys did. I knew that if I could wake at the right time at night I would catch my toys at play. So too, I felt words could be surprised and fixed onto the page. If I listened closely enough, words would well up in my head and emerge as a poem.

Writing that first poem was the first time that I recall consciously feeling that I was doing an adult thing— creating something entirely on my own, assuming independence— growing up! I felt like the Little Red Hen in the nursery story: “‘I can do it myself,’ said The Little Red Hen, and she did.”

2) You recently sent me an advance copy of “Barbaric Cultural Practice.” (Thank you!) How long did it take you to write it? Is there any special hopes you have for the book?

Many of the poems in Barbaric Cultural Practice have been culled from performance pieces that have been honed over many years and produced on CD/DVD, but not in book form till now. I’m grateful for family and friends’ encouragement en route and ongoing during the evolution of these poems. The list is long and extends back decades.

Poetry needs to be heard as well as read, so I have concentrated in recent years on audio renditions and videopoems in collaboration with Bill Gilliam, John Magyar, Dennis Siren and (always!) Gavin Stairs. How exciting to be able to offer links to video and audio performances of some of these poems through QR codes!

Several of the poems in Barbaric Cultural Practice were provoked into being by political events; hence, the title. As an aging activist, I confront by words such issues as climate change and overwhelmingly new technologies. The poems juxtapose the stress of urban life as compared to nature’s round. The poems deal, for example, with the effect of computers on our psyche and with the imprint of electronic media upon perception, consciousness and dream life. Barbaric Cultural Practice pays tribute to our dear Mother World’s enchantments as well as her upheavals. Poetry is my response to the unprecedented complexities of our time.

3) (These next questions is one I know draws fear from other writers when I ask it here but I know some of my followers are eager to know an answer from you.) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?

I read Canadian poetry and fiction, especially that which our library stocks. Daily, I scan “New Items” from London Library’s website! (Link to that page) Am reading a new edition of Mavis Gallant’s  A fairly good time: with green water, green sky as well as Ann Carson’s Red Doc>. Then on to Margaret Christakos’s Her Paraphernalias: on Motherlines, Sex/Blood/Loss & Selfies.

4) I know you have a reading event planned at Oxford Books on Oct. 11 but do you have any other reading events planned? Are public readings something you enjoy?

I do enjoy public readings. It’s a privilege to share the innermost source of poetry when performing. And I love to hear poets read their work: the timbre of voice precisely matches their written word. Once I’ve heard a poet read, that voice echoes in my mind when I next read the work.

Here are some upcoming events where I’ll be reading:

September 3, 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. With musician Bill Gilliam @ 2pm. Vino Rosso Bar & Restaurant. 995 Bay St., Toronto ON  M5S 3C4, 416 926-1800.

September 27, 8 pm. The Root Cellar, 623 Dundas St. E., London. Launch, Another London, Harmonia Press, harmoniapress@hotmail.com.

October 5, 7:30 p.m. Quattro Book Launch, Toronto, Supermarket Restaurant, 268 Augusta Ave. Free. Contact: info@quattrobooks.ca. Launch of Barbaric Cultural Practice.

October 7, 2016; Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)  features Paul Dutton and Penn, sound poets. The topic is streaming influences from the ’70’s. Host: Lillian Allen.

October 11, 7 pm. London launch of Barbaric Cultural Practice (Quattro Books). Oxford Book Shop, 262 Piccadilly Street, London N6A 1S4. Contact: Hilary bookorderprocessing@oxfordbookshop.com. Tel: 519-438-8336.

Saturday, October 15, 2016, 2 pm. Reading with Daniel Kolos, Antony Christie. The Garafraxa Café, 131 Garafraxa Street S, (Highway 6), Durham ON. Contact: danielkolos123@gmail.com (Link to The Garafraxa Café’s Facebook page)

5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

My forthcoming play, The Triumph of Teresa Harris, originated in a short piece for London’s PlayWrights Cabaret at McManus Theatre in 2013. Then it was produced as an hour-long processional play at Eldon House Museum, with one actor and two musicians (co-artistic directors of Light of East Ensemble). More information about the original production, The Dream Life of Teresa Harris is up on https://teresaharrisdreamlife.wordpress.com/. There too are some reviews from the show. I am developing the play into a full length piece with ten or more characters for production at London’s Palace Theatre in March, 2017. The original musicians are participating in the play again.

Teresa Harris was born in 1839 at Eldon House and died in 1928 in England. She tells her amazing life story from her home here.  Born the youngest of a prosperous pioneer family intent on bettering itself, Teresa married a Scottish military man who promised to carry her off to foreign parts she had dreamed of all her life, sickly though she had always been.  Teresa’s story emerges through her own voice and that of her protective mother and her two husbands.  Research reveals that Teresa and her second husband St. George Littledale were the greatest English explorers of their period, travelling further into Asia than any Westerner had.

Hers is an historical life as mediated through my imagination. My visits to beautiful Eldon House brought the era alive.  It was easy to write from Teresa’s perspective since I identified with her and admired her adventurous spirit.  It was fun to imagine her desire to escape the strictures of family convention for more exotic locales. Having been raised in London in the Fifties, I felt the town hadn’t changed all that much from the colonial outpost it had been in Victorian times. It was still very Anglo and class-conscious, patterned upon London, England like a pale shadow of the Mother Country. At twenty-one, I too couldn’t wait to escape, to travel the world!  And I did. I was also happy to return to settle comfortably back in the house I grew up in after forty years away from London.

6) You seem to be active on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those platforms in relation to your writing? Does your WordPress blog site also work well for your writing?

The platforms are a necessity for a working writer to spread the word… and sometimes they are an escape from writing: fun, as well! The virtual communities are engaging: who could have imagined being able to keep in touch with so many people at once. And folks can promote various causes on my (Facebook) group, Support and Promote Canadian Arts and Cultures.

7) You have travelled around the world and still call the London, Ontario, Canada area your home. How do you like living here?

See #5. Yes, London is home. I was born in Strathroy and raised in London. I belong here.

Are there cultural institutions here that you consider unique that inspire your writing? If yes, what are they?

As the City of London’s first Poet Laureate and as writer-in-residence for Creative Aging London, I was very involved in different aspects of the community. Several occasions prompted poems. Other poems were commissioned by groups such as ReForest London.

Western U. gave me a great grounding in literature as a student there. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed teaching classes in Continuing Ed., and as Writer-in-Residence, and hosting a radio show, Gathering Voices, at CHRW. (Link to CHRW’s webpage for “Gathering Voices”)

This fall, I will be working on aspects of the play, including publicity and marketing, with students from Western in the course, Canadian Literature, Creativity, and the Local, with a Community Engaged Learning component. Working with me in this applied learning opportunity, the students will cultivate links with Eldon House and The Palace as part of the project. (Link to the course outline from Western University’s online calendar)

A grant from the London Arts Council allows me to complete the writing of the play this Fall.

It’s been a joy to see several of my Sound Operas mounted at the grand Aeolian Hall and several short plays at the McManus Theatre.

I first became involved in publishing when a local publishing house, Applegarth Follies, asked me to be their poetry editor in 1977. (Josiah Applegarth was London’s first settler). While I edited Twelfth Key, the famous Brick Magazine was published alongside. Another offshoot of Applegarth was Brick Books, still publishing glorious poetry nation-wide some forty years later and still based in London!

*****

Link to Penn Kemp’s WordPress site

Link to Quattro Books website

The Emotions of the Past | Review of “The Fishers of Paradise” by Rachael Preston (2016) James Street North Books – Wolsak & Wynn

Fishers

It is very easy these days to drive over a bridge, walk along a sidewalk or even relax in a park and not realize that there were once people who once lived in that spot. These people  once toiled, anguished and lived their lives in that very area we rush over and barely consider.  But Rachael Preston has given us a narrative to consider about one such area in her novel The Fishers of Paradise.

Page 1-2

The sledgehammers fall silent and the house shifts forward with a wooden groan. Like an aged swimmer anticipating the starter’s pistol, it wavers a moment in the wind, knees creaking with the newly uneven weight, and then, in a slow choreography, the stilts fold under themselves and the house slides into the marsh. Water and birds explode into flight, squirrels leap from bare trees. The sound, magnified by the geography of this enclave of lake and forest, by the stillness of the grey morning preceding it, ricochets a warning. The surface churns, and muskrats and beaver dive to the muddy bottom where carp and pike and bass huddle in the reeds. Water rushes over the porch of the two-storey home, washing against the door and window as the house lurches drunkenly in it own wake.

No sooner has the lake settled than the thrum of an engine, expensive, throaty, cuts through the silence that has claimed the small crowd gathered on their docks and porches to say goodbye. A gleaming mahogany powerboat noses out from between a set of weathered boathouse stilts like some exotic, temperamental animal and guns into the marsh, leaving behind the heady scent of gasoline. The boat alone, a Grew recently confiscated from bootleggers who ran contraband liquor across Lake Ontario, is worth standing outside in the November cold to see. Its current owner claims he can still smell the cordite along the three grooves carved portside by glancing bullets.

The driver circles the floating house, making it bob again, then eases back on the throttle and slows to an idle. His passenger turns in his seat to face the front door.

Everyone watches and waits.

Five minutes pass. Six.

Egypt Fisher stands at the shoreline, thinking her eyes might dry out from the wind if the door doesn’t open soon.

I always get grumped at if I don’t post a review for a while which usually means that I am savouring a book. And this book is worth savouring. Preston has truly crafted an engrossing story around a section of Hamilton, Canada that most people may not be aware that existed. Set in the hardships that occurred in the 1930s, teenage Egypt Fisher must deal with the gentrification plans that the city has planned for her boathouse community along the Dundas Marsh. And while that is going on, she starts out being thrilled that her estranged father has returned to the family fold, but it is soon apparent that events will soon rip her life completely apart.

Page 84-85

Egypt sits with her knees hugged to her chest, shins pressed against the table edge, and watches her mother from behind the veil of her hair. Blurred. Slamming cupboard doors, banging pots and dishes. Laura marches back to the wash basin and repeats her earlier scrabble through the mess of Russian dolls, lipstick tubes, envelopes, hair clips and pencils that sits on the odds-and-ends shelf below the mirror. Aidan watches Egypt pushing the cooling lumps of porridge around her bowl. She throws him a warning glance and then gathers a spoonful and dangles it beneath the table. George pads over to investigate, sniffs and flops down again by her feet. When Aidan giggles, she glares at him. Then at her mother’s back.

“So did you kick him out or did he leave again?” Her words part the air and free-fall slowly, landing with such a force that she stares at the kitchen floor, expecting to see a small crater. Her mother leans across the table and pulls Egypt’s hair back from her face.

“Your father has always marched to his own drummer.” Egypt recoils from her sour breath, her ragged, chewed-on lips. “And if you believe anything I have ever done or said has any influence on whether he comes or goes, then you haven’t been paying proper attention.”

“I heard everything you said last night.”

“No, you just think you heard everything. Aidan, go back upstairs while I talk to your sister.”

“But -”

“But nothing. Go.”

“But I can hear everything you’re saying from upstairs anyway,” he mumbles, dragging his feet towards the stairs.

“Now both my children talk back to me,” she says when Aidan has finished thudding up the stairs. “I suppose I have you to thank for that?” She’s back to searching drawers, inside the tea caddy, the pockets of jackets hanging by the door.

“And who do we thank for our absent father?”

Preston has mixed the right combination of historical and coming-of-age novel together here. Her words are vivid – not only in describing scenes but also in expressing emotions of her characters. There is at times a clear feeling between what a character is feeling and the reader experiencing it themselves. This is a book that should be read at leisure – not to be raced through- in order to appreciate the carefully chosen words and phrases that Preston has used.

Page 128-129

As far as home goes, she doesn’t trust herself not to snap around Laura. She even mention your grandparents? Not a word. Quite the feat when you think about it, keeping your parents from your daughter, your daughter from her grandparents. A virtuoso performance. Bravo, Mother. Egypt swallows a needle or rage. Ray presents another set of problems: years of pining over her father’s absence, of remembering and reconstructing her childhood in obsessive detail, and now that he’s here, in the flesh, Egypt finds herself chafing at the invasion of her home. He swings between a tetchy abrasiveness and protracted bouts of grim silence. Impossible to ignore, his moods, like tainted water, affect everyone who comes into contact with him, bar the bleary-eyed and leering friends he collects like stray dogs, and whom Egypt often finds (or hears) snoring on their couch in the morning. He can dismantle a room  – and its occupants – just by standing in the doorway. A blue pall of cigarette smoke hangs in the air even when he isn’t around. It’s as if half a dozen people have moved in with them. And he’s beginning to scare her. Having woken at the crack of dawn yesterday, she was first downstairs. Ray was sitting at the kitchen table, red-eyed and muttering to himself. His cot hadn’t been slept in. He looked hunted, cadaverous. The flesh had shrunk from his face in the night.

And yet, like the pricking wax and wane of nausea, Egypt senses the devastation she would feel if he left again. Ray Fisher is her dad, her family and though he wielded the news as a weapon – to hurt her or to make her stay and listen, she can’t decide which –  he has brought more family in his wake. A month ago, Egypt’s family numbered three. Now it stands at six.

The Fishers of Paradise by Rachael Preston is a read worthy to savour. It is vividly description and emotional and in a subtle way enlightening. In short, a pleasure to read.

*****

“I would say having lived in a lot of places affects what I write about, and the kinds of stories I’m drawn to: displaced people, the marginalized, those who don’t quite fit it” | Q&A with author Rachael Preston

Link to Rachael Preston’s website

Link to Wolsak & Wynn’s website for The Fishers of Paradise

 

 

 

“Writing is so completely isolating and lonely that I need to be able to step into a crowded street when I step away from my computer.” | Q&A with writer Robert Hough

Morgandiego

The beauty of doing this blog is that it helps me keep track of writers I enjoy. And there are a lot of them whom I have enjoyed reading but whose recent works I haven’t been aware of. (And I will spare you all the lament of me being trapped in suburbia or news about books not being accessible as they once were. ) When I saw that Robert Hough was doing a series of discussion on his book, The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, I thought “Great, he has a new work out.” Hough promptly corrected my error and informed me about a few other developments in his life as you can read in the following Q&A.

*****

1) First off, can you give an outline of The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan?

 A two-bit, low-life, illiterate board game hustler forms an unlikely friendship with a marauding sea captain. Fireworks ensue.

2) Could you also give an outline of Diego’s Crossing? Was writing a novel for young adults different than novels for adults? What inspired your to write Diego’s Crossing?

A seventeen-year-old living in Northern Mexico is forced to smuggle drugs into the United States when his gangster brother is injured in an automobile crash. As for the inspiration, I was approached by a guy named Rick Wilks, who runs a YA press called Annick Press. He’d read my fourth novel, a Mexican tale called Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, and told me that he’d always wanted to do a YA novel that took place amongst the drug wars of Northern Mexico. Up for anything, I agreed, and found it pretty much like writing a novel for adults, albeit with less swearing. That being said, I was surprised what Annick let me get away with: Diego’s Crossing is scary as shit!

3) Your website states this is your fifth novel (including one novel for young adults) Has your writing changed much since you were first published? If yes, how so?

Actually, Henry Morgan is my fifth novel excluding my YA book. (Ie I’ve done six in total). I wouldn’t say my writing has changed that much. Right out of the gate, with The Final Confession of Mabel Stark, I started writing bawdy, picaresque, funny novels that are full of outlandish characters and absurd settings, but that slowly reveal a more sober reality as the novel progresses.  (My second novel, The Stowaway, and Diego’s Crossing have been exceptions to the rule.)  Which is not to say I found my voice right off the bat: the world doesn’t know about my fiction that was appropriately rejected before Random House took on Mabel Stark. Very few people get their first novels published, and I think it’s rarely helpful if they do.

4) Who are you favourites writers at the moment? What are you reading right now?

I’m often asked that, and usually I freeze up, so  I finally made a list of my five favourite novels. In no particular order, they are: The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer, Memoir from Ant-Proof Case by Mark Helprin, Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan, A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz and The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureshi. I just finished reading The Book of Dave by Will Self, which I loved. Recently, I discovered that Irvine Welsh had written a sequel to Trainspotting called Porno, which I’m now just getting into: I’ll read anything with the characters Rent, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie!

5) Do you have much of a book tour planned for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan? If yes, are there dates/events that you are excited to be partaking in? Are public readings something that you enjoy doing?

Henry Morgan actually came out a year ago, so a lot of the publicity was done then.  That being said, I have a gig in Ottawa on the 13th and one in Toronto on the 17th. (Link for the Toronto gig here)  I hardly ever, ever read from my work, as I find literary readings dull. Instead, I usually talk about something, which people seem to prefer. A lot of the event organizers have come to the same conclusion, by the way: these days you’re often told that you’re not allowed to read

Hough2
Flyer for Robert Hough’s discussion on his book The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan occurring in Ottawa this Friday

6) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?

 There are three questions that authors hate to answer: “Do you make a living?”, “Where do you get your ideas?” and “Are you working on anything?” You see, when you write a novel, for 90 percent of the process it’s not working. It’s only at the very end, when you get a magical synthesis of plot, character, tone and theme that it begins to sound like a real novel. So when you ask a writer what he’s working on, he or she immediately translates the question into, “hey, let’s talk about that huge thing you’re failing at, okay?”

7) You seem to have a bit of presence on both Facebook and Twitter. How do you like using those platforms? Does being on social-media sites like those help or hinder or writing at all?

 Ha! A ‘bit’ being the operative word!  I know of writers who spend all day on Facebook and Twitter; I’ve made, like, three tweets all year. I honestly don’t think social media helps that much. Yet I do think it’ll hurt you if you DON’T do it, if that makes any sense.

-7a) You have on your profile pictures what appears to be Igor from the television show
Hilarious House of Frankenstein. For many of us that was a iconic show from our childhoods. Was that for you too?

I always put up dummy avatars as well as phony information: for example, I didn’t attend the University of Ouagadougou, as my FB profile states. It’s my own little rebellion against the narcissism fostered by social media.

8) Your biographies have you listed as living in Toronto right now. How do you like living there? Does it’s cultural scene inspire you with your writing at all?

 I’m a life-long Torontonian, more or less (I spent some time in the suburbs when I was young). It’s not so much Toronto I like, but I do need a big city. Writing is so completely isolating and lonely that I need to be able to step into a crowded street when I step away from my computer. I really don’t understand writers who need a quiet farmhouse or forest cabin to work in: I’d get so absorbed in my work it would drive me out of my mind.

*****

Link to Robert Hough’s website

Link to House of Anansi’s webpage for The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan

Link to Annick Press’ website for Diego’s Crossing

Enlightenment on the Simple Yellow Bus | Review of “Precious Cargo: My Year of Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077” (2016) Knopf Canada

Cargo

True readers of books – people who take the time to sit in a quiet corner and ponder a writer’s carefully crafted words – appreciate a unique perspective on the human condition. They like a writer’s observations on how other humans interact, even if the situation seems mundane or desperate. Craig Davidson may have been in need of funds when he took the job as school-bus driver but that year he drove that bus gave him a ton of observations and insights. And he crafted that ton into his memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077.

Page 1-2

I trudged across a field against a late-September wind that flattened my jacket against my chest. The moon was still visible in the early morning sky. The odd vehicle wended down the road bordering the field, pickups mostly. The western foothills rode the earth’s curve like the backs of breaching whales. Weak ripples of sunlight washed over the hills touch blades of wet grass, and in that instant I felt as if I was walking through a field lit up in flame.

The wind died down by the time I reached my bus. My key slid crisply into the lock. I grabbed the Maglite from the cup holder and popped the hood release. Outside, I swept the flashlight beam through the engine compartment. Everything looked tickety-boo.

I shut the hood and stepped inside the bus. The motion-sensor alarm sounded, a staccato beep-beep-beep. I keyed the ignition and waited  for the glow plugs to warm. The engine fired, coughed, coughed, then caught.

I silenced alarm. Flicked on the CB radio. Checked my gauges. Got the heaters pumping even though the engine was stone cold. Those small tasks accomplished. I walked between the bench seats with my head tucked so it didn’t hit the roof – I’d made the mistake of walking upright my first week on the job, only to have a loose rivet on the roof tear a nifty little groove in my scalp. I pulled the security pin from the rear emergency door and moved back up the aisle, slapping the seatbacks to make sure they were secure. My fingertips brushed against a hardened wad of Windex-coloured  gum – the stuff Oliver had been chewing yesterday. We’d be having a little heart-to-heart about gum on the bus, young Master Oliver and I.

Davidson quickly realized the important responsibility he had in dealing with his passengers. Not only was he assigned the task of ferrying the kids from home to school and back again each day but he realized there was an emotional need that his passengers seemed to crave from him. He was more than a driver. He was a friend, a mentor, a defender, a comedian and a philosopher. In short of anything, he was a familiar face to those kids at the start and end of their days as they made through another long school year.

Page 126-127

Some drivers ran their buses the way feudal lords ruled their fiefdoms, with an iron fist. Nothing made them happier than to glance at the riot mirror and see row upon row of tight-lipped students with their hands folded neatly in their laps. They relished tomb-like silence, as if they were delivering mannequins to a department store. I substituted on a few routes like that. It was eerie, that quiet. And the kids were ridiculously happy to get the slightest leeway.

“Wait,” one kid said, “You mean I can drink my juice box on the bus?”

“Sure, go ahead. Just throw it out when you’re done.”

The kid beamed. “You are so cool!”

You’re darn right I’m cool, kid! Drink that juice box, and hey – if you’re feeling peckish, eat a granola bar too!

The rules on my own bus were more lax. If Oliver were to let a curse word slip every so often? Eh. The odd gum wrapper not thrown into the trash box at the back of the bus? Let it slide. But I made it known I was granting privileges, not according rights. In my previous roles as camp counsellor, classroom aide, librarian – I’d worked with kids a lot over the years –  my objective had always been to treat those under my wing with respect; I’d allow minor infractions, hoping my charges would self-correct with gentle encouragement. Sometimes this backfired, but it was the method that worked best for me. Of course, it also reflected my distaste for being in charge.  I didn’t want to be the wet blanket. The scold. Better to be the laconic, laid-back, chill dude. Do what the rhythms of of the earth and sea tell you to do, dudes and dudettes. Consult the I Ching. Gather the karmic threads of the universe and don’t let me harsh mellow. All of this to say that I was a terrible boss – or the best boss in the whole world, depending on your outlook.

I also didn’t want to be driving a mausoleum; I wanted the kids to feel free to engage with each other and with me. And as they got used to me over time, those kids really did talk. About movies and sports and television and friendship and love and families and a million other topics. Mainly, though, the kids told stories. Their imaginations were astonishingly unbridled. And their stories were instructive – a window into their worlds and dreams. Every so often they broke my heart.

Davidson has done something here that is important in a good piece of literature but hard to do in our modern, technological, fast-paced world – to realize that we are all interdependent on each other and that our needs can only be filled from other human beings. He put heart into driving that bus every day and the stories that came out of that bus are endearing and enlightening not only for readers but for him as well. And that lesson he learned he has well-crafted into this book.

Page 270-271

It was a great year. String together fifteen or twenty years like that and you could call it a pretty terrific life. At some point, driving you went from being a job to a joy. I would have done it for free. You became a needful constant in my life. If I was broken, the the bus fixed me. You guys fixed me. Deep inside I know that’s not fair – it’s a hell of a lot ask that anyone redeem you  – and yet I feel it no less keenly. The physical truth is that I drove you. The deeper truth is that you drove me. Drove me to step out of my own sickened skin, to stop feeling sorry for myself and to see the world for its beauties more than its agonies. Ultimately you drove me back to my computer with a renewed sense of purpose. For most of that year I didn’t write a thing. I wasn’t creatively blocked – I simply didn’t think that I was any good. I could write things down, but why bother? Then, somewhere along the line, I began to feel better about myself. I was convinced I could write some of those ideas down and they wouldn’t be terrible. I gained confidence; but even then I could have stumbled – I was like a day-old foal trying to stand for the first time. I thought about the stories you told on the bus, each of you spinning your own tale. So I sat down and spun my own. I wrotea book about  . . . well, us.

Craig Davidson’s memoir Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077 is a great piece of literature. It reminds us about the importance of the human interdependence in even the smallest and mundane situations. A great read and an endearing read. 

*****

Link to Craig Davidson’s website

Link to Penguin Random House Canada’s website for Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077

Link to my Q&A with Craig Davidson “(I)t was just a matter of that year feeling very profound to me—so much so that I was moved to write about it”