Five Questions with… Farzana Doctor

Farzana Doctor, author of All Inclusive and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event October 31. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Why did you choose to make the setting of your new novel an all-inclusive resort in Mexico?Doctor, Farzana (c) Vivek Shraya

Farzana Doctor: I have a love-hate relationship with all-inclusive resorts. As a child, they were cherished family vacations where I had my (usually very busy) parents’ full attention. As I grew older, I began to notice the problematic aspects of this sort of tourism—the racism, economic inequality, water and food waste and land appropriation, to name a few.

I went to an all-inclusive in Huatulco six years ago and couldn’t ignore my contradictory feelings. It dawned on me that a walled-in amusement park would make a great setting for my protagonist, Ameera, a woman who is trying to escape her Canadian life and find deeper meaning.

 IFOA: Where did the idea for All Inclusive come from?

Doctor: While I was at that Huatulco resort, I found myself curiously observing one of the foreign tour reps. I don’t know why, but I wanted to ask her dozens of questions about her life in Mexico. In the end I was too shy. She became the inspiration for Ameera. My beach reading was Opening Up by Tristan Taormino, which is where I first learned about swinger life. Maybe it was sunstroke, but the two ideas collided. Azeez and his story arrived more mysteriously (see Question 3).

 IFOA: How did the overall writing process for All Inclusive differ from your last novel, Six Metres of Pavement?

Doctor, All InclusiveDoctor: Stealing Nasreen and Six Metres of Pavement seemed to “write themselves”; their scenes came organically and in linear order. I edited ferociously, but revised little. All Inclusive was different. I wrote episodically, got lost and had my finger on the delete key much of the time. I buried myself in “Third Novel Angst.” I forgot to listen to the inner voice that had helped me in the past.

Then one day, when I was ready to give up on All Inclusive, I heard a male voice telling me that he was my missing character. He shared his story and I cried because I didn’t want to write him. But eventually I gave in, deleted two other characters and their plot lines, and Azeez seamlessly inserted himself into the empty spaces.

What I’ve learned from this process is that it’s better for me to wait for a story to appear, rather than attempting to push it out.

IFOA: What time of day do you find best for writing?

Doctor: I like to edit the previous day’s work over my first cup of coffee, then do new writing for about an hour. I take my patient dog to High Park around 10:30am, and if I’m lucky, new ideas will arrive while she swims in the creek. When we return home, I might write again for an hour, depending on what other work I have to do that day (my day job is a part-time psychotherapy practice).

IFOA: What are you reading now?

Doctor: I’m reading Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, a tale about an Arab slave who is forced to be part of a Spanish conquistador expedition to North America. It’s a compassionate and compelling account of a history rarely told.

Farzana Doctor is the author of Stealing Nasreen and Six Metres of Pavement, which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award. She has been listed as one of CBC Books’ Ten Canadian Women Writers You Need to Read Now and is the recipient of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Grant. She co-curates the Brockton Writers Series. Doctor presents All Inclusive, a story about a Mexican resort, the ghost of an unknown father and the tragedies we can’t forget.

On Reading “Paul” on the Island and Everything That Came After

By Jess Taylor

In the summer of 2013, I had no real publications to my name. I was running a reading series, The Emerging Writers Reading Series (EW), and while I had just finished The University of Toronto’s Creative Writing program, I was known more as a curator than a writer and had a manuscript that turned out to be a total disaster. I felt a remarkable sense of failure even though I knew I was young, knew that I shouldn’t have expected so much for myself so soon. At least I was writing: I was writing every day and when I was writing stories, I was really having fun. The other thing I was doing regularly was performing at reading series. Since I ran EW, people seemed to think I enjoyed being on stage, and I’d often be invited to perform a story or a set of poetry. That summer, I was invited by Chris Graham to read on Toronto Island as part of the series Amazing New Stuff.Taylor, Jess (c) AngelaLewis

Since we were reading outside, Chris requested that the readers read family-friendly pieces that could appeal to all ages. I didn’t have a lot of work that fit that category, but I did have one short story that I’d been writing to blow off steam. It was called “Paul” and featured three Pauls in the same town, loosely based on the landscape of Caledon, where I grew up. The story had a cat based on my beloved childhood cat, Cally, and I thought kids might enjoy the playful nature of the story, even if they didn’t understand its subtleties.

Ward’s Island was the perfect place to read a story with so much imagery of trees and clearings, forests and fields. Everything was green and I could see the lake from where we were reading. The crowd was surprisingly large even though it was the only reading series that required its audience to take a ferry. They were mostly people who were there to support Stephen Thomas, the other reader, who was originally from Toronto and only in town briefly. Two of the people there were Emily M. Keeler and Charles Yao, who were the publishers of Little Brother.

Readings are terrifying. I guess people have different levels of fear when it comes to getting up on stage. Some are able to divorce themselves from that fear and become someone else while performing. I’ve never seemed to manage thiswhether I’m hosting, reading or even teaching in front of a class, I’m terrified. But people learn to manage the stress or find techniques to conquer the fear. For me, preparing extensively helps tackle my stage fright, and even though I was scared, my reading on Ward’s went as smoothly as it could.Taylor, Pauls

I often think about how one thing could have been different that day. I could have read a different story. Emily and Charles could have not come. I could have botched the reading. I could have not even read at that show. But having everything happen the way it did set off a wonderful and unexpected chain of events for me. Emily and Charles really liked the story and requested it for Little Brother. The publication looked great and I was so proud. At this point, Little Brother didn’t yet pay contributors (they do now), and I still hadn’t ever had a paid publication. Emily nominated the story for a National Magazine Award and it was selected as a finalist. Then, on the awards’ night, it was named the Gold Winner, and “Paul” became my first paid publication. This led to my book of short stories, Pauls, being picked up by BookThug, which has directly led me to reading at the IFOA this year.

I wonder if my 2013 self who was so poor she could barely afford to eat, who was sad often and wondering about her purpose, who felt that sense of failure, who was scared but did it all anyway, I wonder if she knew that exposing herself to that fear meant exposing herself to that one opportunity that could change everything. I’m certainly never going to stop being afraid, and I’m never going to stop putting myself out there anyway.

Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto. She is the host and founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines and newspapers, including Little Fiction, Little Brother, Joyland, This Magazine, National Post, Emerge Literary Journal, Great Lakes Review, Zouch Magazine and offSIDE Zine. She received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.”

Hear Jess read from Pauls, her new collection of lively short fiction, at the BookThug celebration happening at #IFOA36 on October 27.

Five Questions with… Sophia Nikolaidou

Sophia Nikolaidou, author of The Scapegoat and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event on October 31. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: The Scapegoat is based on the real-life murder of famed CBS reporter George Polk. What about this story interested you?

Sophia Nikolaidou: The Polk case—which many people regard as the start of the Cold War in Europe—has everything: innocent blood, aNikolaidou, Sophia set-up trial, interference of foreign powers, history, politics, love.The idea of writing a pure historical novel and bringing a whole age to life has never intrigued me. Different historic periods reflect each other in my novels. This is my way of perceiving history.To make a long story short, I was really interested in putting together two different ages: A.1948–49 (Greek civil war, Polk’s murder) and B. 2010–11 (Greek crisis). I wanted to capture the historical adventure of my country. Some things change just because the circumstances around us have changed. Other things stay hidden and unpunished—they poison everything. Some of them are inherited from one generation to another. We think that we have left our past behind. Alas, we always find it ahead. The American title of my novel (The Scapegoat) underlines the connection between the two ages (a now 2010–11 and a then 1948–49). The parallels between the Polk case and the current situation in my country are simple: both then and today basic political decisions are taken somewhere else. It’s like a game of chess or Monopoly. Some are playing the game miles away and their moves determine everything in the country. Thus, are money and influence—that is, everything—at stake? That’s the question.

IFOA: Beginning, middle or end—which do you find the most challenging to write?

Nikolaidou, The ScapegoatNikolaidou: I love the beginning; it’s a fresh start. I have an immense passion (other people call it obsession) for the subject and the characters, but no idea of how I will be able to domesticate the raw material of my novel. Every time I start from scratch. I enjoy the middle. That’s real life and real writing. All problems arise together. It’s hard and deeply satisfying at the same time. Just like real life. You fly in the sky, you are in pain, you play games, you know what to do, you don’t know what to do. You dig into life, you dig into yourself. The end is bitter and sweet. I love the pure satisfaction of giving a plot life and the sweet bitterness of the last period. Writing is memory then. The story is not mine anymore.

IFOA: How would you describe the literary scene in Greece?

Nikolaidou: Fresh, pluralistic, waiting to be discovered. Greek literature isn’t known abroad. We don’t have a regional literature brand name (Skandinavian and Ibero Spanish authors have, for example). My country has generated a great interest in the international press in recent years. Maybe this is a big chance for Greek literature. The Crisis is a subject that Greek writers can talk about and people will listen. The timing is good. Now we can talk and exchange ideas about this small spot on the world’s map called Greece. We can investigate its recent history, finger the historical and social trauma. The novel seems to be the ideal cognitive tool for that. It is our empirical way to perceive real life and comment on it. As I grow older, I’m more convinced that writing (and reading) a novel is the most efficient way we human beings have to build a world like the one we’re living in and to understand what’s happening around us—but maybe I’m saying so because I’m an obsessed novelist.

IFOA: Name one book that has made a lasting impression on you.

Nikolaidou: Homer’s Odyssey. I read it again and again. An everlasting text. I’ve learned so many things from it about life, human nature, writing. Every time I read it I discover diamonds. It’s the archetype of classical, deeply human literature.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “The best part is…”

Nikolaidou: In literature I prefer fullstops, but in real life I choose ellipsis. That’s why I won’t finish this sentence. I prefer things to remain open.

Sophia Nikolaidou was born in Thessaloniki, Greece. She teaches literature and creative writing and writes criticism for various newspapers, including Ta Nea. She has published four novels and two collections of short stories, several of which have been translated into eight languages. Her previous novel, Tonight We Have No Friends, won the 2010 Athens Prize for Literature. She presents The Scapegoat, a sweeping saga that brings together the turbulent Greece of the postwar period with the struggles it faces today.

Five Questions with… Stevie Howell

Stevie Howell, author of ^^^^^^ [Sharps] and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see her on October 30 at #IFOA36. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Please tell us a bit about your debut book of poetry, ^^^^^^[Sharps].

© Neil Harrison

© Neil Harrison

Stevie Howell: Sharps is my first book of poetry and emerged indirectly out of working in a hospital and beginning to study psychology. Those experiences gave me the tools to look at my life and issues around gender, class, trauma, faith and death.

I think of the book as grounded in the living city, but influenced by myth. It draws some inspiration from The Last Unicorn, in which the unicorn protagonist had to hide in female form to get her work done. It also draws inspiration from ancient Egyptian mythology of the afterlifefor example, the concept of ma’at, in which, when you die, your heart is weighed against a feather. A heavy heart, it was said, would be fed to a lion-hippo-crocodile hybrid. I write to try and prevent that!

 IFOA: You said in an interview with The Toronto Quarterly that you don’t write often. Does your poetry come from random bursts of creativity? Do you always have a pen and paper on hand?

Howell: I tend not to write often but I do edit lines in my head, so that might have a similar effect in the end. I’m in the camp that tends to think that whatever lasts without form might be worth eventual shaping, and that, in the meantime, if it gets lost it wasn’t worth keeping. I find that if I write things down too soon or incompletely they have no energy. They’re like weak tea.

IFOA: You listed Morrissey of The Smiths as an influence for your poetry and said that he broadened your knowledge of literary references and awareness of poets. Is there a particular Smiths song you identify with most?

Howell: I wish I hadn’t said that! Because I was talking about when I was 12 years old in suburbia and totally bullied, and I’m not nostalgic about those times or what got me through them. If pressed I’d say the song “Stretch Out and Wait,” which is their least Smiths-like song, probably.Howell, ^^^^^^

A more enduring influence would be something like The World According to Garp, which I found at the library around the same age. I was so drawn to the protagonist’s name. The librarian had a fake pearl bead safety chain on her glasses and looked down at me and said, “Don’t you think this is a little too MATURE for you?” And I started sweating because I was really invested in getting it. So I said quickly, “It’s for my Mom.”

I hope I’ll never forget how rapt I was by that book. It wasn’t about someone else who was equally miserable somewhere else (i.e., The Smiths). It was imaginative and full of compassion, sincere and absurdeverything I felt life was and hoped writing could be. I’d say that book is still a favourite song.

IFOA: You also study psychology. Is there a link between psychology and poetry?

Howell: There’s probably a link between everything, but for me, out of professional necessity, I have to keep these two worlds pretty discrete. I tend to turn to psychology to understand others, and turn to poetry to understand me.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Howell: Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, Oliver Sacks’ On the Move, Phil Hall’s The Small Nouns Crying Faith, Liz Howard’s Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent and Nick Flynn’s My Feelings (I am writing my answers from Provincetown, MA, where I am taking a class with him).

Stevie Howell’s poetry and criticism have appeared in publications such as The Walrus, Maisonneuve, The Globe and Mail and National Post. Her poems have been finalists for the 2013 Montreal International Poetry Prize and the 2012 Walrus Poetry Prize. She is from Scarborough and studies psychology. Howell presents ^^^^^^ [Sharps]¸ which was published to critical acclaim in 2014 and shortlisted for the 2015 Gerald Lampert Award. Emergencies, faith, truancy and poverty intersect in this wry debut.

Five Questions with… Assaf Gavron

Assaf Gavron, author of The Hilltop and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to his event on October 25. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about The Hilltop.

Assaf Gavron: The Hilltop is my fifth novel and seventh book (there is a short story collection and a falafel review collection too). I consider it my best and most ambitious work, it is a “big” novel in many aspectssize, depth, subject matter, plot and more. I spent five years working on it, during which I traveled extensively across the West Bank (normally a foreign territory for me, as a left-wing Tel-Avivi) trying to get the right “feel” of the place and the settlers who occupy it. I hope I managed to capture and convey something of that feel, in all its complex madness of violence, passion and absurdities. It is nice to see it received so warmly and intelligently around the world, despite its explosive subject matter. Gavron, Assaf (c) Fana Feng

IFOA: How closely does the novel reflect your own upbringing in a small village near Jerusalem?

Gavron: Not much, actually. The village I grew up in is on the other side of Jerusalem, to its west, which is very different to the settlements of the West Bank to its East, North and South. My upbringing was very far from the religious and political zeal of the settlements. Having said that, the landscape is not unfamiliar, and the small village mentality is not too far removed. However, the kibbutz section of the novel is more closely based on my personal experiences as a teenager who visited a kibbutz in Galilee frequently.

IFOA: Was there a book that made you want to be a writer? Gavron, The Hilltop

Gavron: My favourite book growing up was Huckleberry Finn, but I am not sure I was thinking much about writing when I read it. It was probably more in my early 20s, when I read contemporary novels like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, that I thought about having a go at it myself.

IFOA: What are you reading right now that you can recommend to our readers?

Gavron: I am currently two-thirds into The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I find totally compelling. Before that I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, which I thought was brilliant.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “When I’m not writing, you can find me…”

Gavron: Tinkering with my English Fantasy Soccer team, which I play in a league with a few other writers, when I should be really taking care of my two daughters screaming at each other behind my back.

Assaf Gavron is the author of seven books, and his fiction has been translated into 10 languages. He has won the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, the Buch für die Stadt in Germany and the Prix Courrier International in France. The son of English immigrants, he grew up in a small village near Jerusalem and currently lives in Tel Aviv. Gavron presents his Bernstein Prizewinning novel, The Hilltop, which grapples with one of the most charged geo-political issues of our time and skewers the complex, often absurd reality of life in Israel.


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