Five Questions with… Larissa Andrusyshyn

Larissa Andrusyshyn will read from Mammoth at IFOA on October 23 and 25.

© James Di Donato

IFOA: What inspired the very memorable title of your poetry collection?

Andrusyshyn: I wrote the manuscript under the working title “Extinctions” but the book was more about life and living things and I didn’t want it to turn into an elegy. My brilliant editor Jason Camlot with DC Books suggested the title. When I began to write the character of the mammoth I felt the tone of the book had changed and I was energized by it.

IFOA: What do you hope to achieve in combining poetry with science?

Andrusyshyn: The project began as a kind of excavation to unpack my father’s death but I wanted to avoid sentimentality. I saw myself writing from the point of view of a researcher and I was heavily influenced by the documentarian tone of Werner Herzog. Sometimes, it’s his voice I hear in my head while I read over my work.

Curiosity is what drives both scientific exploration and poetry. I write about the things I’m fascinated with and the things I struggle to understand; everything from death to particle physics might be subject for me. I want to write poems no one has written before, like all writers do. We are all trying to figure life out, I just happen to write poetry.

IFOA: Who were your favourite writers as a child?

Andrusyshyn: I remember having significant love for Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak when I was very young. I was pretty nerdy so I read a lot of anthropology books, I was marked by the biography of “Lucy” by Donald Johanson, she was the 3.5 million year old Australopithecus found in Ethiopia. I was also really into lyrics and music so I would cite Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan as favorites too.

IFOA: If you could time travel, where and when would you go, and why?

Andrusyshyn: Well, my head says go back to the Pleistocene era, I’ve always wanted to meet a mammoth or write the next great ice age novel. But I would go back to my childhood and hang out with my family. It would be amazing to have a talk with my dad as an adult, the last time I saw him I was 11 years old. There are so many stories I’m sure I missed.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I wish I could…

Andrusyshyn: Earn a living as a writer? Save the whales? Talk to boys?

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Andrusyshyn: Humbling.

For more about Andrusyshyn’s appearance at IFOA, click here.

Five Questions with… Claire Vaye Watkins

Claire Vaye Waktins appears at IFOA on October 23 and 24.

© Lily Glass

IFOA: Where and when do you prefer to read?

Watkins: I do a great deal of reading in the bathtub, especially in winter. I am a desert rat living in the frozen northeast and there are many winter days when the cold settles into my bones and it seems I simply cannot get warm until I submerge myself in very hot water with a very good book.

IFOA: If you could have a superpower, any superpower, what would it be?

Watkins: Easy: teleportation.

IFOA: Battleborn is a collection of short stories. What is it about the short story (rather than the novel) that appeals to you as a writer?

Watkins:I admire the precision of a story. The form is often likened to walking a tightrope—saying as much with as few words as possible. John Cheever famously wrote a novel version of his perfect story “The Swimmer,” but it withered next to the grace of the story. Many of my favorite novels come close to the graceful precision of a story—Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Christine Schutt’s Florida, J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace—but stories are still the best highwire act in town.

IFOA: You’re a creative writing professor at Bucknell University . What’s one thing your students have taught you lately?

Watkins: My students often remind me of our capacity to surprise ourselves. One of the best things about my job is I never read the same student story twice. Their imaginations are acrobatic and robust and, when they let allow it, they almost always surprise themselves. They remind me that writing should be fun.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…

Watkins: …am brave.

IFOA: Bonus question: This year’s International Festival of Authors in one word:

Watkins: Indispensable.

For more on Watkins, visit For IFOA event info, click here.


By Kristel Thornell

© Joi Ong

In the first Clarice Beckett landscape I saw, two trams were passing one another in a milky, bluish haze. The simple scene was somehow recognizably of the early twentieth century, and yet timeless. I had never heard of this Australian, who lived from 1887 to 1935, working for most of the interwar years with breathtaking stamina—despite much criticism for not conforming to the artistic fashions of the day—before she was largely forgotten for decades. Beckett’s paintings are often resolutely spare. They show straightforward stretches of city and suburban road, seaside views, country fields. What is involving and even transcendent about them? Her wondrous restraint and instinct for the moody merging of tones generate atmospheres that are resonant without being quite fathomable. A haunting airiness. The viewer’s imagination is teased beyond those crepuscular streets, or those plain telegraph poles against a rainy sky and sea, the landscapes seeming to only barely belong to the physical world.

Beckett’s quietly heady paintings strike me as images of reverie, exalted introspection, contained yearning. I fancied they also represented the shoreline mingling history and fantasy where the writing of Night Street occurred. I knew I couldn’t have written a novel that kept strict faith with biographical fact. It felt necessary to try to hold the stark facts of her life in a gaze as soft-focused as the one that produced some of the most dreamlike, open-ended meditations on landscape in Australian art.

For more about Thornell and her appearance at IFOA, click here.

Five Questions with… Ayesha Chatterjee

Poet Ayesha Chatterjee will appear at IFOA on Sunday, October 28. You can also catch her at IFOA Markham on October 23.

© Maayan Ziv

IFOA: You were born in India and have lived in Germany, the USA and now Canada. How does place function in your poetry?

Chatterjee: My poetry tends to be visual, so I use place as a prop a lot. The colours and fabric tend to vary, depending on where the poem is set. I’m also a different person in different countries and I think that comes through in my poetry as well.

IFOA: Did you write as a child, and if so what did you write?

Chatterjee: I’ve been “writing” since I was about 6 years old. I’d dictate to my mother; silly little stories about Bobby the Battery and my little kitten and things like that. I started writing poetry when I was about nine. I found poetry easier than prose, it came to me more naturally (which is why I always wanted to be a novelist). I was very shy about having other people read my poems, though. My parents would ask me to show my latest “work” to their friends and I’d leave the room while they were reading it, because I couldn’t bear to hear them talking about it.

IFOA: Tell us about one poet whose work has influenced your own.

Chatterjee: Emily Dickinson. Which is odd, because I had never even heard of her until I was at university in America. There isn’t a single extraneous word in Dickinson’s poetry. It’s like haiku. She can write a universe in a sentence.

IFOA: What are your favourite and least favourite words – today, at least?

Chatterjee: Obfuscate and viral in that order.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If I had only known that…

Chatterjee: I’d have a ginger cat who was a thief, perhaps I wouldn’t have named him MaCavity. Would that have changed him?

IFOA: Bonus question: International Festival of Authors in one word:

Chatterjee: Cornucopia.

For more about Chatterjee, visit or readings. org.

Jess Walter on #BeautifulRuins and how writing is like building snowmans

The incredible Jess Walter took some time to chat with us before hopping on a plane and flying to Toronto for IFOA. If you missed it, here’s our recap via Storify.

All books are lovely failures.

Walter will appear in two fantastic IFOA events this weekend: a reading/interview on Saturday, October 27, and a reading Sunday, October 28.

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