Five Questions with…David Vann

David Vann, author of Aquarium and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

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IFOA: Your debut collection Legend of a Suicide was somewhat based on true events in your own life. How much does your real life inspire or find it’s way into your fictional work?David Vann

DAVID VANN: My first four books of fiction (Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Dirt, and Goat Mountain) have true family events in the background. What happens in the stories is made up but references and tries to transform the history. To give an example from Legend, my father asked me to come live with him for a year in Alaska. I said no, and soon after he killed himself. So my account in the book of a boy and his father homesteading in Alaska is fictional but also a second chance to say yes and an imagination of what that year with him would have been like. Writing is largely subconscious for me, since I have no outline or plan or any idea what the book will be about when I begin, but there’s a surprising amount of pattern and structure that happens in the subconscious, and also a drive, I think, to be made whole.

IFOA: Where did the idea for Aquarium come from?

VANN: Aquarium will be my first novel published that does not draw from my family history or have any clear parallels in my own life. It’s also the first one not to be a tragedy. I could first see scenes from Aquarium as I was finishing another novel about the Greek heroine Medea. I’ve always loved tropical fish, and I had eight fish tanks scattered throughout the house when I was 12 years old, Caitlin’s age. So I was drawn to the idea of describing fish, and Seattle as if it was underwater, and I love the public aquarium in Seattle. I went there long ago, in the early nineties, and thought their descriptions of fish at each tank were a kind of poetry indicating human behavior. I should also say that I’ve always loved female coming-of-age stories for some reason, especially Ellen Foster, Bastard Out of Carolina, and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Vann, AquariumIFOA: Have you ever written from the perspective of a child before and how is it different from writing from an adult perspective?

VANN: My most recent novel, Goat Mountain, is from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy, but I use a retrospective narrator, which means the story is told from when the boy is much older, looking back at his life. This frees me to be able to say anything, not limited to the vocabulary or perceptions of an 11-year-old, and allows reflection, the making of meaning about the shape of a life. This is what I also do in Aquarium. The story is told from twenty years later, when Caitlin is 32. All of the scenes bring to life her experience at 12, but she’s also able to understand those experiences now and use adultlanguage. I do love Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster, in which she stays closer to the child’s perspective and language, but I prefer the freedom of style and thought that an adult perspective allows.

IFOA: Do you have any plans to do readings of Aquarium in a real aquarium? (haha!)

VANN: I’d love to! We’ve asked the Seattle Aquarium whether they’d be interested.

IFOA: What have you read in the last six months that you have really enjoyed?

VANN: Many books, including Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing, and George Saunders’ Tenth of December. And I spend a lot of time on classics, currently translating Beowulf from Old English and Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin (struggling on that one!).

David Vann is a former Guggenheim fellow and author. He will be at IFOA Weekly alongside _____. Deborah Dundas, Books Editor at the Toronto Star, will host and moderate the discussion.


Five Questions with… George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke, contributor to The Great Black North and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win a copy of The Great Black North! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What are some of your responsibilities as Poet Laureate?

George Elliott ClarkeGeorge Elliott Clarke: Annual address to city council; establishing a Poets’ Corner at City Hall, striking a medal and printing business cards, establishing an e-mail account; trying to work with other City Departments (success with Toronto libraries, no-can-do from Toronto Police and the TTC); establishing contacts with other arts organizations (success with the AGO and IFOA, nil from TIFF); trying to widen venues for poetry (Remembrance Day ceremony, Toronto International Book Fair, etc.); commemorating poets (plaque erected for Ray Souster, new plaque for Gwen MacEwen and Milton Acorn in progress); and speaking to organizations and penning poems for civic occasions, upon request. Also, I’ve launched the East End Poetry Festival, running annually in September.

IFOA: How did you select which poem of yours would be included in The Great Black North?

Clarke: My poem is from my epic-in-progress, “The Canticles.” It’s taken from Part 2, which rewrites Judeo-Christian scripture from “a Black perspective.”Mason John, The Great Black North

IFOA: Having written in a number of formspoetry, prose, playsdo you have a preference for one kind of writing?

Clarke: Poetry.

IFOA: You’ve enjoyed great success throughout your writing career. Is there one aspect you’re particularly proud of?

Clarke: That I’ve inspired others to take up poetry.

IFOA: What’s the best thing you’ve read in the past six months?

Clarke: HARD question. Setting aside classroom texts such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the most resonant work has been Thomas Hardy’s 800-page epic poem, The Dynasts, dealing with the Napoleonic wars.

George Elliott Clarke is Poet Laureate of Toronto and one of Canada’s most beloved poets. Join him and fellow contributors on February 8 for the launch of the anthology of contemporary African Canadian poetry The Great Black North.

Five Questions with…Valerie Mason-John

Valerie Mason-John, co-editor of The Great Black North and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

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IFOA: As an editor of The Great Black North, can you tell us a bit about how and why the anthology came together?

Valerie Mason JohnValerie Mason-John: As a new African Canadian, I was curious about the history and culture of black people in Canada. I was unaware of the long history, and that my ancestral lineage of slave stock from Sierra Leone was connected to the Nova Scotian Experience. That freed black loyalists were the founding fathers of Freetown, where many freed slaves were settled after 1792. My ancestors would have been some of those people who were settled back at some point after this date. I went in search of an anthology by Black Canadians and could not find a national one. I was delighted to find Harold Head’s anthology Canada In Us Now, which documented Black voices mainly  from the province of Ontario. I was fortunate to meet Kevan Cameron at an event where we were both performing. Inspired by his work with Black poets in Vancouver, it seemed obvious that I should ask him to co-edit with me. There is another anthology to come, perhaps in 50 years, and hopefully those co-editors will have every province and territory represented and published in English and French.

IFOA: Your anthology is divided into two sections: “page” and “stage”. What is the importance of performance/oral poetry for you?

Mason-John: Black people come from an oral tradition. It is the way we have expressed ourselves for centuries. Unfortunately the establishment has often called us Protest Poets, and not given us the credit we deserve. Ironically one of the world’s best poets ever is Sappho. She was a performance poet: her work was written to be performed with music. The stage for many of us has become the page, because few publishing houses will take the risk to  publish the black aesthetic. The assumption is that there is not enough interest in our work. Black Canadians are part of the African Diaspora, and part of the history of slavery, and this needs to be remembered.  Performance poetry, the oral tradition, is an important part of our culture. Something that will continue long after the age of the book, or the ebook or the cyberworld. We have been smart not to compromise this part of our rich culture, despite the fact that our work is often not given the recognition it deserves.
Mason John, The Great Black North
IFOA:. Why did you decide to bring performance-based pieces to print, and what difficulties did you face in doing so?

Mason-John: Sadly, we have only had recognition in the poetry world by mainly page poets. Dionne Brande, George Elliott Clarke and Wayde Compton are some of the few who have helped to put our words on the page. However, there are many performance poets who have contributed to the Black Canadian Aesthetic and not shared the same recognition. It would be criminal to edit an anthology of Black poetry and not include performance; but yes, there were issues. The spoken word does not always translate well on the page. Similarly, the written word doesn’t always translate well on the stage. They become different poems. While working with performance poets, we had to suggest edits and creative ways to make it work on the page. This was exciting. I had to rediscover my page poem on the stage, when I came to perform it. Just like the performance poet has to rediscover their poem on the page.

IFOA: Why is biography important to your writing?

Mason-John: Who is writing biography? We as Black people have to write the biographies of our people. If we don’t we will be missing from the history books or only a one-sided story told.

IFOA: What’s the best compliment a reader or fan can give you?

Mason-John: Thank you for your work. What more can an author expect? Anything else is icing on the cake.

Valerie Mason-John is a co-editor of The Great Black North, alongside Kevan Anthony Cameron. Join her and fellow contributors on February 8 for the launch of the anthology of contemporary African Canadian poetry, The Great Black North.

Five Questions with… Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

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IFOA: The Best Place on Earth is a collection of stories set in Israel. Did you always want to write from the Israeli perspective, and do you feel the Israeli perspective needs more of a voice in literature?

Tsabari, Ayelet (c) Elsin Davidi

Ayelet Tsabari © Elsin Davidi

Ayelet Tsabari: I started out NOT wanting to write about Israel at all! Israel is such a contentious place and it felt too risky, too volatile, too controversial. I didn’t want anything to do with it. My first stories in English took place elsewhere, and my characters were often from other countries, or, if they were Israelis, their nationality was incidental to the plot. But these stories felt untrue and as time passed I felt a growing urge to write about my homeland, to evoke the smells and sights and sounds of it. Israel inspires me like no other place. It’s the setting of my childhood, where my family lives, and I still think of it as home. So at the end I gave in, stopped worrying about potentially pissing people off, and my writing began to flow.

I definitely think we need a more diverse perspective on Israel in English literature. Most books about Israel tell stories by and about Ashkenazi (European) Jews. My family immigrated to Israel from Yemen so I chose to write about Mizrahi characters whose stories are rarely told in literature: Jews who descended from the Middle East and North Africa, Jews who spoke Arabic and not Yiddish, ate pita and not gefilte fish. It was also a chance to rectify my childhood experience of not finding my family or myself in the books that I read.

IFOA: You’ve served in the Israeli army, and your story “Casualties” deals with a female solider. How much of The Best Place on Earth is informed by your own life?

The Best Place on Earth stories by Ayelet Tsabari

Tsabari: A lot of the book is informed by my experiences, yet it isn’t autobiographical. I write about Mizrahi Jews, mostly of Yemeni descent, because this is my background. I write about the army, because serving in the IDF shaped me as a young woman, and I am fascinated by how Israeli society is influenced by the mandatory service. I write stories set against the backdrop of war and conflict because that was how I grew up, and I am interested in how entwined the political and the personal are in Israel. There are also details and anecdotes from my own life woven in. The themes of displacement, identity and belonging abound in my life, as they do in the book.

IFOA: You’ve written a lot of short stories and essays. Have you ever given thought to taking on a longer piece of fictional work, such as a novel?

Tsabari: Currently, I am finishing a memoir in essays. I also started working on a novel that takes place in the Yemeni community in Israel’s early days. I’ve done a fair amount of research over the last few years, and I recently received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship to travel to Israel for further research. I will be looking into the oral traditions, folklore and rituals of Jewish Yemeni women.

IFOA: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Tsabari: I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember. I used to draw comic strips before I knew the alphabet. By grade one I was writing stories and poems, and moved on to novels the size of school notebooks by grade three. At some point in elementary school I created a library from all my books. I drew covers for them and glued a pocket for a library card and convinced the neighbourhood kids and my million cousins to come borrow books during my mother’s afternoon naps.

IFOA: What are some of your favourite books from the last six months that you can recommend to our readers?

Tsabari: In the beginning of 2014, I made a public pledge on my blog to read only writers of colour for a year. Some of the books I enjoyed these past six months are The Outer Harbour by Wayde Compton, which is an inventive and original book of linked short stories, Where the Air is Sweet by Tasneem Jamal, a family saga that takes place in the Ismaili community in Uganda, and Ru by Kim Thuy. I also devoured The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King.

Ayelet Tsabari is the author of The Best Place on Earth. Join her on February 3 at Ben McNally Books, where she will read from and discuss her collection. This is a FREE event.

Five Questions with… Joseph Kertes

Joseph Kertes, author of The Afterlife of Stars 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 Joseph on November 2, as well as a copy of The Afterlife of Stars! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What kind of research did you undertake to write about the Hungarian revolution?

Joseph Kertes: Certainly I did quite a bit of reading about the period and what led up to the period, but The Afterlife of Stars was inspired by personal experience. My family did flee the Russians in the fall of 1956, when I was just four, so I have a few vivid memories of that time. One was that my grandmother came to get me out of playschool, though we had just started our day. We made our way to a central square in Budapest, where I looked up to see a Hungarian soldier hanging from each of the lampposts. I remember being horrified and fascinated by the sight of these men, especially the one nearest us who looked down at me but with eyes that were no longer taking in what they saw.

I remember, too, that we fled on foot by night across the border into Austria and bombs kept going off. My older brother Bela would stop to look up to see who was dropping the bombs and anxiously asking, but it was not until we got to the other side that our grandmother told us that we’d been running (along with hundreds of other Hungarians) across a minefield.

Joseph Kertes

© Horst Herget

IFOA: You mention that you narrate the story from a relatively innocent point of view, though you occasionally temper it with adult reflections. Does this retrospective inclusion speak to your own creative process writing the novel, and how we may approach and understand significant events belatedly (even if we lived through them)? You yourself were very young when your family fled Hungary.

Kertes: I was not yet five when we fled Hungary, but I wanted to tell the story from an older boy’s perspective (just under 10) and yet “cheat” by throwing in mature observations about the world. Certainly, the conceit of most novels written in the past tense is that we are beyond the time of the novel, so we are looking back with the added wisdom of hindsight. What I love about the boy’s perspective is that it combines horror with wonder, innocence with the surprise and shock of experience. My character uses a tongue-in-cheek method by looking out at the reader occasionally and saying, “the baby psychologist already growing inside of me could tell that this was not going to turn out well.” The comic technique allows me to tell the story from the boy’s perspective but with the adult’s ability to reflect added in.

IFOA: What compels you to write historical fiction?

Kertes: I love the thought of gazing back over a period that is already locked away in time simply to ask what it all meant. The reason I write at all is to slow down experience or relive memory or to see experience from another person’s vantage point altogether. It deepens and enriches my understanding of the present.

IFOA: How do you manage between administrative duties as the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts and your own creative writing?

Kertes, The Afterlife of StarsKertes: Being an administrator full time is the best thing for a writer to do because the writing becomes a place to flee the bureaucratic and mundane activities of my life—not that they all are. I got to create the creative writing and comedy programmes at Humber, so I can be creative at work too. But having a novel going becomes an oasis to travel to in the wee hours. It is a kind of wonderful refuge, actually, one that I know is always waiting.

IFOA: Was there a book or author that made you want to be a writer?

Kertes: I’ll cheat and say that the two books that showed me what literature was capable of were Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 20th century’s answer to that same book: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Mark Twain said he did not write Huck Finn until it was ready to write itself. I didn’t know what he meant until now—until I wrote The Afterlife of Stars, which wrote itself too. What an experience!

Joseph Kertes founded Humber College’s distinguished creative writing and comedy programmes, and is currently the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts. See Joseph on November 2 as he discusses, with other authors ,the ways in we’re shaped not only by our contemporary lives, but by the past of our country.

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