Five Questions with… Jane Johnson

© The Fisher Agenc

Jane Johnson, author of The Sultan’s Wife, will participate in IFOA events on October 23 and October 27. She will also travel to Uxbridge for IFOA Ontario.

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

Johnson: I’m really looking forward to meeting Annabel Lyon, whose Golden Mean is one of my favourite novels of all time. I also love her continuation of the story, The Sweet Girl. I hope to get a chance to tell her how much.

IFOA: You wear two literary hats: a writer’s and an editor’s. How has been an editor improved your writing? Has it ever hindered it?

Johnson: Being an editor enables me to view writing as a flexible process, or like engineering, rather than as some mystical gift. There will always be times when it gets away from me and times when it scares and surprises me (that’s the wonder of creativity, which should always be a bit wild) but crafting the writing is how an author gets their material back under some semblance of control, and knowing it’s not all going to fall apart at the seams if you start cutting and restructuring is very reassuring.

But yes, sometimes that very knowledge can be a hindrance: it can feel infinitely mutable and if you over-edit you can edit the life out of something. And being a writer makes me a better editor, too: more empathetic with the authors I work with, more practical and constructive in my comments. It’s a two-way learning process that never ends.

IFOA: You spend part of the year working from a rural village in Morocco. How do you stay connected to the publishing world?

Johnson: Ah, the wonders of the internet. Whatever did we do before email and Skype? If you saw my village, in the foothills of the mountains just north of the Sahara, you’d be amazed we have broadband at all, but in fact we were connected in Tafraout before I was connected in my home in Cornwall! It really doesn’t matter where I am in the world, and the beauty about the flexibility of my working conditions means that (without having to constantly be stuck in meetings) I can be in much better and quicker contact with my authors than most office-bound publishers.

IFOA: If you could have lunch with any author, alive or dead, who would you choose?

Johnson: That’s a tough question! I am lucky in being able to have lunches with the wonderful writers I work with—writers like George RR Martin, Dean Koontz, Robin Hobb, Raymond Feist—so I’d better choose a dead author. Even then all I can do is to narrow it down to three: Robert Graves, Daphne du Maurier or Mary Renault.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when…

Johnson: I am sitting on a remote bit of rock by the Cornish sea with my head full of story and no interruptions or duties for the day. Oh, how I wish that happened a lot more than it does now: that’s a real blue-moon scenario!

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

Johnson: Cornucopia.

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

Where I’m Writing From: real and fictional worlds

By Brianna Goldberg

When a book really means something to a reader, there’s always that sense of sadness after turning the final page. The characters and places with whom you’ve spent so many hours, all gone. And if the process of leaving a fictional world is so heart-wrenching for the reader—well, imagine being the author that created that world in the first place!

© readings.org

One of yesterday’s IFOA round table discussions, Where I’m Writing From, asked writers whose works hinge on the overwhelming real-ness of an environment to share their approaches to creation of place and setting.

The Sunday morning event was moderated by National Post style editor Nathalie Atkinson and brought together authors whose works exist in vastly diverse fictional worlds:

Joanne Harris, a UK writer known for her acclaimed novels including Five Quarters of the Orange and Chocolat—yes, the one turned into a film with Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche—spoke of the tastes and smells from the contemporary French village in her most recent work, Peaches for Monsieur le Cure; American author Amor Towles elaborated on the jazz music intricacies of 1930s New York explored in his debut novel, Rules of Civility; and Iranian author Anita Amirrezvani described her fictionalized account of a historically real 16th century Iranian court in her latest novel Equal of the Sun.

Though the specifics of each of the authors imagined worlds were so different, the round table’s lively discussion revealed that their challenges with growing fictional worlds were shared. The most pressing issue all three noted was the sticky question of authenticity versus period-specific accuracy.

Towles explained his reluctance to immerse himself into too much applied research on 1930s New York, as he was suspicious of its effect on him and the story, fearing too many references to specific cultural items would make the story seem less real. Amirrezvani agreed, noting that although she amassed an extensive bibliography for her historical novel, readers aren’t interested in her research—if they wanted facts, they would read the research themselves.

Harris, meanwhile, faced the problem of authenticity from a different side, as her novels introduce magical elements into otherwise realistic contemporary landscapes. “People are more likely to believe in magic in fiction,” she said. “But I sit in my shed and make marks on paper, and someone across the world buys chocolate because of it? That is magic.”

Find out more about Goldberg on her website, or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg. For more IFOA event listings, visit readings.org.

CBC personalities talk broadcasting and self-disclosure at IFOA

by Iain Reid

Saturday was CBC Day at IFOA. Personalities from the public broadcaster appeared throughout the morning and afternoon. I found my way to the Lakeside Terrace for the last session of the evening. The latish start (9pm) obviously didn’t dissuade the crowd. Most of the chairs were filled when I arrived. I found a single spot near the back.

© readings.org

It was the DNTO readings, hosted (appropriately) by Sook-Yin Lee. First up was Nora Young, host of Spark. Young read a fascinating section from her book, The Virtual Self. The book examines how our immersion in the digital world is altering the rest of our lives. “Seeing yourself as unexceptional can be very profound,” she said.

Young was followed by Wiretap host, Jonathan Goldstein. Goldstein, known for his dry wit and deadpan delivery, didn’t disappoint. His reading about attending the birth of his nephew had the crowd in throes.

Last to read was the host of Q, Jian Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi began with an impression of his father before reading a charming excerpt depicting his 14-year-old self trying to muster the courage to call his older crush on his family’s communal phone.

After the readings Lee sat on stage with the others. This was the first literary event I’ve attended that featured a panel of all radio hosts. There was a noticeable ease and level of comfort in their performance not always seen at readings. There was also a thread of camaraderie that ran through the event and added to the casual manner of the discussion.

The funny and interesting assembly became more group-discussion than one-on-one interviews. It varied from how much CBC censors their other work to how much each reveals about themselves to broader questions of journalism and broadcasting. Goldstein claimed, “I’m not a broadcaster.”

Young said, “I conceal just about everything. It’s not in my nature to talk about myself.”

Ghomeshi explained that, “people do this (broadcasting) different ways.” He talked about how he made it a priority to adopt a more conversational tone to his interviews. Goldstein added, “I do my best work behind people’s back…in the darkness of the studio, like mould.”

A spirited Q&A capped off the evening. By now it was 10:30 but people were still hoping to ask questions. Always a sign of a pleased and engaged audience.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Iain Reid on twitter at @reid_iain.

Five Questions with… Aga Maksimowska

Aga Maksimowska will participate in Novelists for a New Age, a round table discussion on Sunday, October 21.IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Maksimowska: Annabel Lyon’s The Sweet Girl.

IFOA: Like Gosia, your protagonist in Giant, you immigrated to Canada from Poland as a child. You’ve said that the two of you have much in common, but in what ways are you different?

Maksimowska: Gosia is much more introverted than I was when I was 11. I made friends more easily than she does, participated in school life more actively, and processed my anger more effectively (mainly in my sketchbook and on the volleyball court). The strange thing though is that Gosia is a much better public speaker than I ever was. I wish I could give a speech at a full-school assembly. Death and public speaking: two of my biggest fears. Two of the most common fears, I suppose, which makes me completely ordinary. Gosia is an extraordinary kid.

IFOA: You’ve just written, sold, edited, published and launched your first novel. What’s been the biggest surprise along the way?

Maksimowska: The support Giant received in the CBC Readers’ Choice competition blew my mind. People have been so generous and positive with their interest, their feedback and their word of mouth. Public enthusiasm for this book has completely humbled and thrilled me. Having had this sort of start, I can’t wait to do it all over again with a second book.

IFOA: What’s your idea of a perfect day?

Maksimowska: See Sandra Ridley’s post on September 20. I share her penchant for sand dunes and Beau’s beer. Otherwise, I’m far too utilitarian to seek perfection. My best days are a sum of one item from each of the following columns:

A
my husband and daughter
family
friends

B
a beach or a shoreline
a ravine or a hiking trail
a house I know

C
homemade food
crisp Ontario apples
good wine

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I can only write if…

Maksimowska: …the world is still and my brain is uncluttered. Five in the morning has provided me with inspiration and progress in the past. Once the baby quits waking up at 4-ish, I will return to my best writing time.

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

Maksimowska: Rad (I don’t usually express myself in surfer speak, but there is no more economical word to sum up my feelings about this year’s IFOA. Alice Munro + the diversity of talent, events and locations + the accessibility to students + my overwhelming giddiness for being included among all these literary giants = radical for sure).

For more about Maksimowska, visit maksimowska.com.

Five Questions with… Tanis Rideout

Above All Things author Tanis Rideout will participate in IFOA’s Novelists for a New Age round table on Sunday, October 21, and a reading Saturday, October 27.

© Nikki Mills

IFOA: What inspired you to write about George and Ruth Mallory?

Rideout: I first came across George Mallory when I worked at an outdoor equipment store in Kingston. A co-worker there brought in videos to show on the TV at the back of the store—adventure documentaries, that kind of thing. He was obsessed with all things Everest, so there were a number of docs about the mountain. I didn’t get it. I didn’t get why people would try and climb it, risk so much for it. I became obsessed by Everest first myself, reading everything I could get my hands on.

In one of those docs there were shots from the very first expeditions and the glamour of it, the romance, struck me. There were these men in their tweeds and hobnail boots—clothing we wouldn’t think was enough for February in Toronto. I started thinking and wondering about them, focusing what I was reading. Which of course led to George. He was charismatic, ridiculously good-looking, ambitious. He just swept me away.

After a while of thinking and pondering and daydreaming I found myself writing about George. And of course Ruth. I knew from the beginning Ruth had to be part of the story, that she might be my way to understand someone like George. I also thought it was incredibly important to share what her life must have been like, what kind of woman would have been capable of dealing with that kind of circumstances.

IFOA: How did you manage to fictionalize history while maintaining a sense of historical accuracy?

Rideout: I did very extensive research. Even though I knew from the very beginning I didn’t want or need to stick to the factual history of the expeditions, I did want to create a world that both my characters and my readers could fully inhabit.

At the beginning I simply read everything I could get my hands on—about Everest in general, about the early expeditions, about the search and discovery for George’s body. Eventually the opportunity to go to England came up to read and research in the very rooms that George had spent some of his time.

Being able to go to Cambridge and London and read first hand documents—George and Ruth’s letters to each other, official documentation of the expeditions, that kind of thing—enabled me to soak in the world, the time that George and Ruth live in. Those documents provided me with language and detail and colouring to create the landscape of the novel.

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

Rideout: Well, I wouldn’t say no to anywhere, really. But right now I’m reading a lot about the early Victorian era, so probably England and Europe around that time. It was an era filled with massive thinkers and creators. It was a time when so much seemed possible. They really thought they were just about to figure everything out.

IFOA: What’s your idea of a perfect day?

Rideout: I love travelling, so I think my perfect day is waking up in a strange place, with my husband—bounding out of bed (unlike at home) and setting out to explore.  Whether that’s a city with its galleries and museums or hiking trails with packs on our backs—looking at new landscapes and spaces is perhaps my favorite thing to do.

After a day of wandering and soaking it all in, we find a fantastic place to eat with a great view, some local beer or wine and an exciting menu. Then top it off with nightcaps somewhere outside watching the world wind down. Staying up too late, getting a little tipsy and then falling into bed to do it all again the next day.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I can only write if…

Rideout: I need an answer. I think that’s where I start from—from questions, from things I don’t understand. If I have the answer, I can’t write.

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

Rideout: Collegiate. In the best sense.

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

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