Saul: Novels have the best form out there

By Iain Reid

The first question Mark Kingwell asked John Ralston Saul at the Fleck Dance Theatre on Sunday afternoon was: “Why fiction now?”

John Ralston Saul with Mark Kingwell at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

The two writers, familiar to one another and seemingly at ease, were alone on stage. Saul, who has returned to fiction with his novel, Dark Diversions, replied he’s always considered himself a novelist first and an essayist second. He believes fact-based work typically doesn’t last the way fiction or poetry does. Ideas for him are like characters. “Novels have the best form out there,” he said.

The crowd learned this book was 20 years in the making. Saul shared stories of his early days of writing. It was in France where he wrote his first novel at 29. The novel was attacked by certain papers. He was troubled at first but began to find this extreme reaction fun and necessary. “Part of being a writer is being under attack,” he said.

For this book Saul used a first-person narrator, a form, he told Kingwell, he typically avoids. He explained he usually finds first person narration to be a thin veil for the actual writer. “This narrator doesn’t want to be the subject. The subject is what he’s stumbling upon.”

Their discussion touched on the style of the book, the twists and misunderstandings throughout. Kingwell added, “I think there’s also a lot about agency.”

Saul reiterated this was an interview and not a reading but did spontaneously read a few lines from the book. He picked a section to highlight its humour. It seemed his only concern for the event was that it might be too serious. After all, “the book is a dark comedy,” he said.

“It’s a very funny book,” replied Kingwell.

As it had in previous events, the topic of originality and how each writer is influenced by earlier works and authors came up. “There are all these tentacles attached to you as a writer,” he said.

As Kingwell wrapped up the session he made a reference to Gogol and his relevance to Saul’s own work. Saul looked at him for a moment across the coffee table between them. “You’re good,” he said.

John Ralston Saul will appear in a reading and discussion at IFOA Windsor on October 26.

Five Questions with… Emily St. John Mandel

Emily St. John Mandel will participate in a Tuesday, October 23 round table discussion, The Novel as a Window on Society, and a reading Saturday, October 27.

IFOA: Which one of your characters—from your short stories and all three
novels—did you have the most fun creating, and why?

Mandel: I think my favourite of all my characters is Sasha from The Lola Quartet. She’s a gambling addict who tries very hard not to gamble, and I think of her as an entirely decent and stoic person. But the character who was the most fun to create would probably be Gavin, from the same book. I liked writing about a man who thinks he was born in the wrong decade and is absolutely committed to living like a character from a Raymond Chandler story even though he lives in 21st century suburbia.

IFOA: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

Mandel: I’m not at all sure. But I love travel and I’ve always been interested in politics and in international affairs, so perhaps if I weren’t a writer I’d have tried to maneuver my way into a diplomatic career of some kind.

IFOA: You are often described as a “literary noir” writer. What does this
moniker mean to you?

Mandel: I’ve always set out to write literary fiction, but with the strongest possible narrative drive, and an unexpected side effect of this is that it turns out if you write very plot-driven fiction, it pushes you over to the edge of genre and people start calling you a crime writer, or a mystery writer, or similar. I like the literary noir label, though, and think that it’s probably accurate for the three novels I’ve published. I think of noir as fiction suffused with a certain style, and perhaps a certain darkness, but I believe all of my books contain hope.

IFOA: Tell us about one book you read that changed your life.

Mandel: I don’t believe my life has ever been changed by a book, but I’ve often read books that have changed the way I see the world. Adrien Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family was one of those; it changed the way I looked at urban poverty.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The Internet is…

Mandel: …useful in small doses.

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

Mandel: Wonderful.

For more about Mandel, visit emilymandel.com or check out her IFOA listings at readings.org.

Five Questions with… Robert Rotenberg

Robert Rotenberg will read at IFOA on Tuesday, October 23.

IFOA: Who are you most excited to see at the Festival?

Rotenberg: Vincent Lam.

IFOA: The city of Toronto features prominently in your novels. If you had to describe the city in three words, which words would you choose?

Rotenberg: Disturbed, confused, bewildered. This comes from a Woodrow Wilson quote: “We live in an age disturbed, confused, bewildered, afraid of its own forces, in search not merely of its road but even of its direction.”

IFOA: Tell us about one book that changed your life.

Rotenberg: Old City Hall, my first novel—took twenty years to write. Or Race to the Moon—a picture book I read when I was about four…I think it was the first book I ever read.

IFOA: What’s one thing you wished you’d known 20 years ago?

Rotenberg: That it would take 20 years to get my first book published.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: If someone would just…

Rotenberg: Give me a plane ticket to Fiji.

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

Rotenberg: True (my 21-year-old son’s favourite word for everything).

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

Five Questions with… Stuart Clark

Stuart Clark will read October 25 and participate in the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction Spotlight on October 26.

© Joy von Tiedermann

IFOA: In 2001, you left a position at the University of Hertfordshire to work full-time as a science journalist. What led to this decision?

Clark: I’ve always been fascinated with both astronomy and storytelling. So I followed an academic path to a PhD in research astronomy while in parallel, I pursued a writing career—I actually funded my PhD research by writing the cover copy for Star Trek videos in England!

As I experimented with my writing I discovered how powerful a strong narrative can be for delivering non-fiction. Ultimately, I decided that I could do more for astronomy by telling its stories to the general public, than by spending my career focused on researching just one tiny bit of it.

In the 17th century, German astronomer Johannes Kepler said, “The roads that lead man to knowledge are as fascinating as that knowledge itself.” As a science journalist, author and novelist I can tell both kinds of stories.

IFOA: What single achievement are you most proud of?

Clark: It has to be my Sky’s Dark Labyrinth trilogy. Having written non-fiction using literary techniques, I finally felt ready to cross the divide and approach it from the other way: fiction but closely based on fact.

Such “faction” as it has been called may have fallen from favour since its height in the ’70s but for the story I wanted to tell, I thought it was the best possible medium.

Science established itself as a cultural endeavour in the west just over 400 years ago through the work of astronomers such as Galileo and Newton. My ambition was to tell that story in the most entertaining way possible, placing the endeavour in its correct historical context.

I didn’t want to examine these great astronomers like scientific objects, nor deify them. I wanted them to live and breathe, and be the flawed humans we sometimes forget they were. So again a novel seemed like the best vehicle.

IFOA: If you could somehow transcend time and space, where and when would you go, and why?

Clark: Easy! Back to the late 17th century England, dressed in periwig and britches, and sitting in the ranks of the newly formed Royal Society listening to people like Robert Hooke, Edmond Halley, Christopher Wren and, of course, Isaac Newton.

This is the setting for the second Sky’s Dark Labyrinth novel, The Sensorium of God. The more I read about the times and the characters, the more I am amazed at the progression of thought during this era. Everything was up for grabs. Nature was now conquerable using mathematical analysis, and so they measured and questioned everything.

Science was born in the West at this point and shown to be a powerful way of making sense of the world around us. Our modern world derives from those meetings.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Clark: I have just finished The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod. It’s a tightly written cross-genre novel (so ideal for me!). It is part crime, part thriller, part science fiction, rather Asimov-like in ambition but totally modern. What impresses me is MacLeod’s ability to juggle really big ideas about the nature of belief with down-at-heel detectives trying to solve crimes and drowning in paperwork.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: What surprises me the most is…

Clark: …how similar the scientific method is to storytelling. In a story, a hero is driven from his ordinary world into a special one, in which he must learn new rules in order to survive. At the end of that journey, he returns to his ordinary world with the power to solve the original problem, be it physical or emotional. Science is like this.

We transform nature into numbers through measurement and then enter the special world of mathematics. Those laws and equations transform our measurements into new knowledge that we can use to make more sense of the ordinary world around us. Mathematical analysis is like the magic forest of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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

Clark: Epic!

For more about Clark visit his website or readings.org.

The best of non-fiction at IFOA

By Janet Somerville

What an erudite, diverse and articulate group it was: Kamal Al-Solaylee, Modris Eksteins, Taras Grescoe, JJ Lee, and Candace Savage. The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction Finalists appeared in conversation with host Rachel Giese on Sunday afternoon, framing their discussion around the idea of research and revelation.

[slideshow]

Each described their book in shorthand. Al-Solaylee said his memoir “came out of anger, frustration, and fear” and he exists in Intolerable in relation to his family and the politics of the Middle East during the past 30-40 years. Eksteins charmed the crowd, claiming, “I feel like the ancient mariner in this regatta of youth that surrounds me,” and noted that Solar Dance is grounded in the enigma of Van Gogh—”a miserable failure in the 19th Century who became one of the greatest successes in the 20th Century.” For him, “history is an explanation with a question mark at the end.”

Grescoe suggested Straphanger emerged from the trauma he suffered when his parents moved him from Jane Jacobs’ ideally walkable Toronto neighbourhoods to the suburbs where life depended on an automobile.

Lee entranced with an anecdote about his violent alcoholic father whose suit he inherited, which he used “as a playground, as an autopsy, as a shadow of my father” in The Measure of a Man.

Savage wondered if “maybe big sky and big silence promote deep thoughts” and that the difficulties she experienced in her beloved prairie landscape were “not an inconvenience, but an intervention” that inspired her to write A Geography of Blood.

Research took Eksteins to an archive that turned up “a chameleon fraud artist—a dancer-turned-art dealer who sold fake Van Goghs in the 1920s.” He mused that by imposing some “truth” about history that he is a sort of trickster himself, something that he has “struggled with all along.”

Two images that thread together Lee’s narrative are the suit and the knot. Noting that even on Bay Street men have “all of the buttons on their suit jackets closed when the bottom one ought to be left open,” Lee explained that in sartorial history that open button implied a certain way of living. Those men rode horses and, ergo, were wealthy. About the knot in his tie, Lee noted he was a half-Windsor man—that “intertwined discourse between father and son showed me what it took to be a man.”  What I found curious was that he appeared on stage in a bowtie, the half-Windsor a shadow memory, a subconscious way of distancing himself from his father’s influence, perhaps.

Throughout the hour the writers exchanged smart, snappy, thought-provoking commentary that made me feel that I’d spent an afternoon in the company of the brightest and best. As Eksteins reminded us, “Great literature stirs the imagination and feeds the soul.” The winner of the 60K prize will be announced on Monday November 12th and I honestly cannot predict who that will be, such a strong list it is.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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