Five Questions with… Alison Pick

Alison Pick, author of Between Gods 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 Alison on October 26! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your memoir, Between Gods.

© Emma Lee Photography

© Emma Lee Photography

Alison Pick: For some reason I find it difficult to summarize, so here’s this from the Toronto Star: “When Toronto poet and novelist Alison Pick was a teenager, she discovered that her paternal grandparents, who escaped Czechoslovakia just before the Second World War, were Jewish. In her early 30s, Pick—engaged to be married but struggling with a crippling depression—began an exploration of roots that eventually led to a decision to reclaim her identity as a Jew. Pick’s story of real life—the undeniable fates of the dead, and the hard-won hope of the living—illuminates her powerful new memoir, Between Gods.”

IFOA: Did you have any reservations about publishing personal or intimate material?

Pick: Yes. The act of writing a memoir was not as different from the act of writing a novel as I’d thought, but the audience issues that accompany each are hugely different. I’m nervous but hopeful. I’ll keep you posted!

Pick, Between GodsIFOA: Do you have a form or genre (poetry, prose, non-fiction) that you most enjoy writing?

Pick: I’m a writer who adores the act of writing (no writer’s block here, although of course I have other challenges). The genres are different, but the beginning stages of each—the generative stages—are equally satisfying.

IFOA: What was your favourite piece of writing you read in the past year?

Pick: “The Israel Taboo,” an article by Joseph Rosen that ran in The Walrus, was smart and succinct and helped me understand my own complex reaction to what has been happening in the Middle East. And in terms of a book, it would have to be Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois.

IFOA: Which author are you most excited to see at this year’s Festival?

Pick: Do I have to choose one? There are so many great writers I’m dying to see. Joseph Kertes, for example. And Shelly Oria (who I’m so excited to be presenting with). But if I REALLY have to choose just one I’d say Marilynne Robinson.

Alison Pick, an author and poet, will take part in the Koffler panel, which explores the navigation of multiple cultures and faiths. She’ll her moving and unforgettable memoir, Between Gods, which explores family secrets and the rediscovered past.

Five Questions with… Andrés Barba

Andrés Barba, author of Rain Over Madrid 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 Andrés on October 26, as well as a copy of Rain Over Madrid! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Why did you decide to structure Rain over Madrid as four novellas with different characters and settings?

Andrés Barba: They all are integrated in the bigger setting of Madrid. Actually, I don’t feel them to be that different from each other. In the beginning, my idea was to reproduce something similar to Joyce’s “Dubliners.” That is, to make a portrait of a city through the portrait of neighborhoods.Barba, Andrés

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

Barba: Not really. It was more the sum of many, the feeling that it was almost the only thing I could do with my life in order to reach some kind of happiness.

IFOA: Do you have any rituals associated with your writing?

Barba: I kill a lamb everyday, with my own hands.

IFOA: This is your first book to be translated into English. Who are some other Spanish authors you would like to see translated so that they could be read by a wider audience?

Barba: There are really a lot. It’s kind of difficult as a literary author in Spain to get published in English, and there are a lot of great authors in Spain translated into 20 languages, but barely in English. Álvaro Pombo, Rafel Chirbes, Belén Gopegui, Luis Landero, just to name only a few of them who are over 50.

Barba, Rain Over MadridIFOA: You’ve published books in a variety of genres (literary fiction, non-fiction, children’s literature). Do you prefer one over the other, and if so, why?

Barba: It depends on my particular situation. Now, for instance, I’ve just finished my first book of poems. One of the best things about literature is that you can keep exploring different territories, always be learning. The day I become a “professional” writer with a formula is the day I’ll stop writing, and start doing my real vocation: lion tamer.

 

 

 

Andrés Barba is a novelist, essayist, translator, scriptwriter and photographer. He is the author of a total of 12 books of literary fiction, non-fiction, photography, arts and children’s literature. See Andrés on October 26 as he reads with other international authors.

 

Five Questions with… Yan Li

Yan Li, author of Lily in the Snow 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 Yan on October 26, as well as a copy of Lily in the Snow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: As a bilingual writer, how do you decide which language you will initially publish a novel in?

Yan Li: I had never thought about writing a novel until I came to Canada. As the first graduate student from China ever admitted by the History Department at the University of Windsor in 1987, I received a lot of attention since many people were curious about China. A year later, I decided to write a book in English that would give a truthful reflection of life in China in the 20th century from an insider’s point of view. My first novel was an unexpected success and totally changed my life in Canada. A few years later, when I noticed increasing numbers of Chinese immigrants coming into Canada and that people back home were interested in knowing their life in a new country, I decided to write a novel in Chinese for readers in China. Married to the West Wind became my first novel written in Chinese.

© Xu Chunying

© Xu Chunying

IFOA: What are some benefits/difficulties of translating your own work?

Li: I very much enjoy the process of translating my own works from English into Chinese, or vice versa. I can see the differences in expressions and choices of words, and tailor materials accordingly, based on my understanding of both cultures, to approach readability, efficiency and aesthetic results, valued in different languages. I don’t feel it is a good idea to translate literature word for word and line for line. The best can be produced through a rewrite. However, not many people are willing to have their original work rewritten by someone else. I am lucky to have the ability to handle both languages in my creative writing. So far, I have not experienced any difficulties.

IFOA: Do you write for audiences of a certain age or culture?

Li: I never pay attention to generational gaps, since I don’t write for money but for faith. I believe that good literary works will last in history, whether they are bestsellers or not. The purpose of my writing is simple. The world around us is imperfect but our writing, ideally, may change it for the better. Human natures and values are the same, but different languages and cultures separate and isolate them. I hope I can use my pen to help erase prejudices and misunderstandings.

Li, Lily in the SnowIFOA: What role do literature, writing and journalism play in Lily in the Snow?

Li: My academic training comes from three fields: language and literature, journalism and history. I tend to mix up those influences in my creative writing. When I wrote my first English novel, Daughters of the Red Land, my style was very much limited by my training in journalism and history and it was difficult to allow my mind to flow freely outside the boundary of truth and facts, which are crucial for news writing. God knows if that actually helped the novel to be successful because it was so true to human nature and the real world. When I wrote Lily in the Snow, I had gradually become used to a more creative style since I had published some novels in Chinese by that time. Although Lily in the Snow is more fictionalized, it is a product obviously influenced by my academic training, with many stories based on truth and facts. I think I have developed a writing style, in English or Chinese, that portrays fictional characters very closely to real life. I believe it is a pity for the writer if her characters and stories sound fake and unreal.

IFOA: What have you read in the past six months that you really loved?

Li: For the past 20 years, most English novels I have read are those that have a connection to China or the Chinese. I very much enjoy reading Chinese language books reflecting life in today’s China. Some works by short story writers like Liu Qingbang and Wang Xiangfu are very well written and impressive, showing the Chinese society estranged from what I used to know.

Yan Li is the director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo and the coordinator of the Chinese language programme at Renison University College. She presents her latest novel, Lily in the Snow, which provides a unique perspective on the universal tale of intergenerational conflict, and explores the Chinese immigrant experience in Canada with humour and insight. Catch her at China@IFOA on October 26.

Five Questions with… Gary Geddes

Gary Geddes, author of What Does a House Want? 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 Gary on October 26, as well as a copy of What Does a House Want?, his latest collection of poetry! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Can you describe your poetic process for our readers?

Gary Geddes: I like Karl Shapiro’s notion that poetry is not just a way of saying things, but a way of seeing things, because it reminds me that there’s a poet in all of us, a part that looks for what is deep and essential in daily experience. I use my skill with words to connect with those who share this gift of poetic insight. I keep my antennae tuned to what is happening around me at the local, national and international level, events that touch me emotionally, morally and politically. Some of these signals refuse to go away, so I try to find a way to give them imaginative shape. That’s when the real challenge begins, the struggle to transform feelings into words, and when knowledge of craft becomes so useful. Language is a transforming medium, like passing white light through a prism; the end-product is always different from what you expect and intend.

IFOA: You’re currently on a cross-country book tour with your wife, the author Ann Eriksson. How do you influence each other as writers?

© Ann Eriksson

© Ann Eriksson

Geddes: Ann takes the writing of novels seriously, which means that we both know what it’s like to be caught up in the excitement and challenge of a new work-in-progress and how much time is required to produce something worthwhile and lasting. When you respect your partner’s commitment, the sharing of cooking, shopping, house cleaning, et cetera becomes part of the package. So, too, does providing or receiving unexpectedly a cup of tea on the writing table, delivered with a silent smile and, if you’re lucky, a kiss. Ann and I read each other’s work and hope to be able to offer constructive criticism along with moral support, given in small doses during long walks, warm-ups for tai chi in the morning or while kayaking for the mail in the afternoon. As a biologist, Ann is informed and alert to what is happening with the environment and very pro-active, two influences I welcome.

IFOA: Are there particular poets whose writing you are influenced by, or whom you see yourself writing in the same literary tradition as?

Geddes: Early in my career, I was given the opportunity to edit two major poetry anthologies for Oxford University Press. This required shifting into high gear and not only reading the entire works of about two hundred poets, but also selecting a few of their best poems and trying to articulate why they were so good. Many of my favourite poets can be found in the various editions of 20th-Century Poets and Poetics and 15 Canadian Poets.

Teaching was another plus for me as a poet because it forced me to be reading, analyzing and commenting on what I read. Of course, there were specific poets along the way whose work had a more than minor impact on me: Auden, Neruda, Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Lee Masters, Michael Ondaatje, Pat Lowther, Bronwen Wallace, to name only a few. I love the long poem and poetic narrative and find I’m drawn most often to larger canvases, book-length poems and sequences where anything can happen and where both story and song contend for my attention. I’m a sponge, soaking up as much information about craft as I can from a host of poets. And there’s always more to be learned.

Geddes, What Does a House WantIFOA: What are you working on now?

Geddes: I’m working on a non-fiction book about the links between Canada’s notorious residential schools and segregated Indian hospitals, where forced sterilizations took place, along with gratuitous drug and surgical experiments and electric shock treatment designed to destroy the short-term memory of sexual abuse. This involves reading a lot and interviewing elders across the country, who are graciously sharing their stories with me. I’m also working on a new poetry manuscript that, so far, includes a narrative-poem-in-progress and a couple of poem-sequences, one about my mother, Irene Turner, who died of cancer when she was only 35, and another called “On Being Dead in Venice,” which includes poems about Pound, Brodsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but….

Geddes: It’s hard to believe, but writers seem willing to run off at the mouth at the slightest opportunity. Poets are the worst. A cynic once observed that the rewards for poetry are so few, poets will kill for them. I have my doubts about that. They’re more likely to give you an earful, hopefully words so subtly arranged and evocative that they nest in the ear and make their way into the bone marrow. As Robert Hass reminds us, “Because rhythm has access to the unconscious, because it can hypnotize us, enter our bodies and make us move, it is a power. And power is political.”

Gary Geddes has written and edited more than 40 books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama and criticism. Geddes will read from his latest poetry collection, What Does a House Want?, a polished and cinematographic take on numerous ideas from Israeli-Palestinian violence to the reputation of Ezra Pound.

 

Five Questions with… Ann Eriksson

Ann Eriksson, author of High Clear Bell of Morning 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 Ann on October 26, as well as a copy of High Clear Bell of Morning! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your current non-literary pursuits. Your website mentions that you do ongoing work as a consulting biologist.

Ann Eriksson: I have a degree in biology from the University of Victoria and have worked as a consulting biologist since I graduated in 1994. My work, in the area of marine and forest ecology, is mostly a writing job, translating scientific information into language and graphics easily understood by the public, although I have done some nature interpretation as well, which I enjoy a lot. Since I moved to Thetis Island in 2010, I’ve been putting my energy and talents to use in the non-profit conservation world and am a director of two conservation organizations: the Cowichan Land Trust and the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy, which I founded in 2012 along with a passionate group of islanders. Our focus is conservation education and stewardship as well as protecting land for nature. We’re in the midst of raising a half million dollars to buy a piece of land for the island’s first community nature reserve. It’s a lot of work but good work, exciting and satisfying. You can read more about the project at www.thetisislandnatureconservancy.org.

© Gary Geddes

© Gary Geddes

IFOA: How does your background in biology influence your writing, and how do your literary pursuits affect your work as a biologist?

Eriksson: As the great, late ecologist Barry Commoner stated in the first of his Four Laws of Ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. My four novels all incorporate my knowledge and interest as a biologist, from Decomposing Maggie, which is infused with the natural history of the Gulf Islands, and In the Hands of Anubis, which is set in the prairie of southern Alberta, to Falling from Grace and High Clear Bell of Morning, which have scientists as protagonists and environmental issues as major themes. I’ve become braver as I mature as a writer and am more confident about tackling harder issues and bringing science more into my work. Having said that, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new novel which is not at all about science or ecological issues, although one could argue that even a book set in New York City and involving homelessness and fraud is about a different kind of urban ecology.

IFOA: Can you elaborate on the connection between environmental disturbances and mental illness in High Clear Bell of Morning?

Eriksson: When I started writing High Clear Bell of Morning, I thought I was writing two parallel heath stories: toxic pollutants in killer whales, and mental illness in humans. But as I did the research, the two came closer together until eventually, they crossed over. That moment came while reading More than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk to our Children by Dan Agin, professor of cell biology at the University of Chicago. The book includes a chapter on links between mental illness and toxic industrial chemicals, with an emphasis on schizophrenia.

Like Glen in the novel, I presented a hypothesis. Does exposure to environmental toxins increase one’s chance of having a serious mental illness like schizophrenia? It’s very difficult to do a human health study to determine this. The psychiatric community speaks about “risk factors” rather than causes, as brain diseases like schizophrenia are poorly understood although it is thought to be multi-causal with a mixture of genetic and environmental risk factors. Much of the research has focused on prenatal brain development. For example, we know some chemicals cross the placenta and cause brain damage in the foetus, take alcohol and foetal alcohol syndrome, for example. Exposure to lead during foetal brain development may double the risk of childhood or adult schizophrenia spectrum disorder, and endocrine disruptors like bisphenol-A, a chemical found in plastic water bottles and the linings of tin cans, are implicated in the development of schizophrenia later in life. There are close to 90,000 industrial chemicals used in the world, with 1000 new ones introduced every year, and unless we eat them, very few are studied for their effects on human health. Body burden, breast milk and umbilical cord studies have shown the presence of hundreds of industrial chemicals in human bodies, no matter where they live or what they eat. Many of these pollutants are known neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and immunotoxins. We’re living in a toxic soup. Does it affect our or our children’s mental health? I thought it was an important question to ask.

High_Clear_Bell-COVER.inddIFOA: You’re currently on a cross-country book tour with your husband, the poet Gary Geddes. How do you influence each other as writers?

Eriksson: Ours was a literary relationship from the start. We met at Gary’s granddaughter’s 12th birthday party a few months after my first novel, Decomposing Maggie, was published. I like to joke I got the GG for my first novel. I had just bought Gary’s floating memoir, Sailing Home, for my father, and the week after the party, on my way to Alberta to deliver it, I spent the flight reading about Gary’s deepest secrets. We married three years later.

I feel blessed to have Gary in my life both as a husband and as a literary partner. We read each other’s work, bounce ideas off one another, give feedback and support and most importantly, we both understand the nature of a writing life with its crazy time commitment and the glazed look of preoccupation. While we have separate writing spaces in our Thetis Island home, they are open to a common hallway and our doors are rarely closed (actually mine doesn’t have a door) so we often converse back and forth. How do you spell travelling, one l or two? This year is the first time we have books out at the same time and so we’ve been doing a lot of joint readings, which are great fun. Gary likes to say he tells the truth and I tell the lies.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Eriksson: I read a lot so I’m having a hard time picking a favourite. Right now I’m halfway through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which I’m enjoying enormously, but my favourite novel from the past few months was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, so haunting and beautiful. A close second is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Ann Eriksson is an author and biologist. She presents her fourth novel, High Clear Bell of Morning, about a family dealing with schizophrenia and the frustrations that come with this tragic disease. See her on October 26 as she discusses her creative process. And stay tuned to the IFOA blog to see her husband, the poet Gary Geddes, answer our Five Questions tomorrow!

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