I admire writers who can appeal to different audiences. JonArno Lawson is one such writer. He has written for both adults and children with a zeal that is infectious that anybody would want to continue to read more of his work. Lawson recently answered a few questions for me.
1) It has been a while since “Enjoy It While It Hurts” has been released. How was it received by the reading public? Any memorable events you care to share?
I’ve read from “Enjoy it while it hurts” 5 or 6 times now – the launch was a lot of fun, the audience was very nice. Same thing when I read from it in Hamilton a few months later, and in Picton last year too – a very nice audience. I just read from the book last week, a few times, when I was in Nova Scotia – a poem called “My bum”, which was taken from a comment made by my youngest son (he told me he published his bum a few years ago, after I told him I’d published a book) nearly always gets a laugh. Sometimes the aphorisms go flat, but most of the time people seem to like them, or at least some of them. It’s a varied group of poems in that book, more like a bunch of different books mixed together – so I have to see what the audience is like (who’s there, and what the mood is), and then try to choose accordingly. You never know till you’re there! And even then. . .
2) You have written for both adults and children. Is there a preferred audience you enjoy writing for? If yes, why?
I try to write things that both adults and children can understand at first reading (or hearing). I like that kids have fewer filters, and they really don’t care about your reputation (it doesn’t mean anything to them, whether you have one or not, or if you do have one, what it is). In that sense, it’s fun to write for kids because you’re usually getting a more direct response – direct to the work. On the other hand, adults sometimes have more subtle and complicated associations and interpretations, so I like that too.
3) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
I have so many favourite writers! But I’ll take up the challenge and make a list. In no particular order (and I know I’m probably forgetting some essentials here) – I like Michael Joseph, bpNichol, Idries Shah, Thomas King, Tahir Shah, Isabelle Knockwood, Amina Shah, Robert Ornstein, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Charles Fernyhough, Saira Shah, Chris Stringer, Safia Shah, Sue Goyette, Arthur Deikman, David Pendlebury, Erin Moure, Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, Robert Twigger, Robert Graves, Laura Riding, Mina Loy, Adrienne Rich, Saki, Thomas McGrath, Zbigniew Herbert, Miroslav Holub, Vasko Popa, Yehuda Amichai, Mourid Barghouti, Jaan Kross, Sergei Dovlatov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Timothy Findley, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Neal Ascherson, Kristin Cashore, Lenore Look, Jack Gantos, Edward T. Hall, Helen Waddell, Claudio Magris, Gertrude Stein, Avi, Kevin Henkes, William Carlos Williams, Ogden Nash, Christine Baldacchino, William Steig, Jeanne Steig, Carol Ann Duffy, Roberto Bolano, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Primo Levi, Fazil Iskander, Jim Copp and Ed Brown, Jackie Kay, Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Sondheim, Jacob Burckhardt, Yip Harburg, Italo Calvino, Mario Rigoni Stern, Muriel Rukeyser, X.J. Kennedy, Theodore Roethke, Stefan Andres, Tarjei Vesaas, Sebastian Haffner, David Jones, Rudyard Kipling, Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Heyman, Hakim Sanai, Pu Songling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Marilyn Singer, Marilyn Nelson, Kenneth Grahame, Shota Rustaveli, Bidpai, Ramsay Wood, Goethe, Mary Ann Hoberman, Imre Kertesz, Stendhal, Dennis Lee, Joseph T. Thomas, Jr., Philip de Vos, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Andrei Bitov, Jack London, Sebastian Hope, Tarquin Hall, X.J. Kennedy, Jason Webster, Lissa Paul, Dr. Seuss, Jason Elliott, Robert Frost, Jeff Smith, Dav Pilkey, Mo Willems, J.K. Rowling, Ingmar Bergman, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Audre Lorde, Marguerite Duras, Christabel Bielenberg, Emannuel Ringelblum, Hermann Langbein, Mervyn Wall, Xenophon, Fulke Greville, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Henri Bortoft, Jacqueline Woodson, Philip Nel, George Mackay Brown, James Aldridge, Plato, Henry Green, Denise Nessel, Maurice Sendak, Beatrix Potter, Tomi Ungerer, Ursula Nordstrum, Andrei Platonov. . .I feel badly, because I know I’m forgetting a lot. . .but these are all authors whose books I’ve returned to over and over again.
Right now I’m reading “The Secret Garden” by Mahmud Shabistari. Last week I was reading “Song of Rita Joe: autobiography of a Mi’kmaq poet”.
4) I have seen that you have participated in several public readings of your work. How did you enjoy those experiences? Have any of your works been the subject of any book clubs or reading circles? If yes, did you participate with those groups?
I’m not much of a public reader – I’d like to be better at it. I heard some great podcasts that Atul Gawande made recently – now there’s some great public reading! The experiences I’ve had haven’t been bad – I’ve only faced kind audiences so far, but I’m happier to stay home. As far as I know, my books haven’t been used in book clubs or reading circles, but some have been studied by primary school and university classes. Just last week I spoke to a class at Acadia (in Wolfville) that had studied some of my books, and it was a very nice experience. I also spoke to a primary school group that had read one of my books (near Wolfville) and they kept me busy with questions for over an hour.
5) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, can you share details? Could you also give a bit of a description of “Sidewalk Flowers?”
I’m working on another wordless book, which I’ll be collaborating on with Sydney Smith again. I’m not exactly sure of the scenario yet, so I can’t tell you too much (I can picture a lot of it, but don’t have a firm sequence at this point). I’m hoping it will take place next to the sea, but we’ll see. . .Sidewalk Flowers is about a walk I took with my daughter through Toronto, seven years ago, as we headed home to my wife and two little sons. It’s about how she found flowers, and then gave them away very unselfconsciously.
6) You seem to have a bit of a presence on Facebook and a site on Blogger. How do you like using those platforms as writer? Is it a good means of keeping in touch with your fans?
I joined Facebook this fall, after steering clear for years. I had to join because it’s how my son’s grade one teacher communicates about what his class is doing. I actually really like now how it allows me organize reviews, and it’s put me back in touch with relatives who live far away, and old friends (and some new friends!) – I like that. My daughter helped set up a webpage for me, and she also set up a twitter account for me this week. I guess as long as I keep it to five or ten minutes a day (but do I have the discipline?) it’s a good thing. It’s an easy way of staying in touch (and getting in touch) with people, which seems all to the good.
7) Many of your online bios talk about a connection with novelist Timothy Findley. Did you have a special bond with him in getting you started in writing?
He was very good to me. I sent him a chapbook of my work almost twenty years ago, and he really liked it. He connected me to a publisher right away, and offered a blurb for the back of any future book I might publish, and included a poem from that chapbook as an epigraph to his novel Pilgrim. One of the nicest things he did was take my wife and I out for a celebratory lunch at the Four Seasons! Months before I’d even published anything – he just wanted to celebrate the poems. Bill Whitehead, his partner, was very kind too. That was a very happy way to start out as a writer. . .I loved his novels, so it meant a lot.
8) How do you like living in Toronto? Does the city offer you enough inspiration for your writing?
I’ve gotten used to Toronto. It’s home now. I’m from Dundas, Ontario, originally. It took me a while to find my way here – the pace and size were a bit beyond me for the first decade. . but now I wouldn’t want to live, permanently, anywhere else. I’m easily seduced by other cities, though. I love Montreal, and Miami, and I was just in Halifax – such a pretty city, it had a great feel. So does the town of Wolfville, where Acadia is. In some ways, the great thing about Toronto is that it isn’t seductive. As a writer, maybe it’s better to live in a place that isn’t constantly drawing you outside to look at it. We’re lucky to be able to see great sunsets and sunrises from our house – that makes me happy. But taken as a whole, architecturally, Toronto is a phenomenally ugly city. On the other hand, it’s filled with amazing people from every corner of the world, and more and more are arriving all the time. To me, that’s the greatest thing about it.
9) Do you have any advice for any want-to-be writers?
Write write write! Or think think think, and then write write write. Or – stop all that thinking and just write, because you may not know what you’re thinking until you write it. Be hard on your work, not yourself – there’s a difference – but don’t be too hard on your work- write first, and then edit. Don’t edit what you might write out of existence by not writing it – and go out and submit things, anywhere and everywhere – I avoided submitting for ages out of fear and over-sensitivity. Don’t worry about being criticized – it’s all useful, whether you agree with it or not. Never assume what you’re doing is useless or stupid – that’s a common trap. Stay optimistic! Read books about how to stay optimistic. Keep going!