Five Questions with… Rhidian Brook

Rhidian Brook (c) Nikki Gibbs

(c) Nikki Gibbs

Rhidian Brook, author of The Aftermath, answered our five questions.

 IFOA: You’re well travelled. What’s your favourite place in the world, and why?

Rhidian Brook: It’s a toss up between the Arizona/Utah canyons, Burgundy in France and my hometown, Tenby, Wales. But then there’s Lake Tanganyika in Burundi, Noosa (Australia)—and I can’t leave out the Dalmatian islands of Croatia. This isn’t fair. Do I have to choose? Okay… The canyons. Why? Because you know when you look at them that there’s nothing like them on earth and because the time taken in sculpting them gives the ego a necessary realignment.

IFOA: Who is your perfect reader?

Brook: Me.

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

Brook: HHhH by Laurent Binet. Although Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain runs it close.

IFOA: The Aftermath is set in postwar Germany in 1946 and based on your grandfather’s experiences. What can you tell us about the research process for this book?

Brook: This deserves a longer answer, but my father and uncle were key in supplying the texture of those times; a visit to Hamburg and the house that inspired the story was vital; a key text was A Strange Enemy People by Patricia Meehan—a brilliant history of a very under-served piece of history.

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

Brook: …have walked round the block once and had a coffee.

Five Questions with… Claire Mulligan

Claire Mulligan (c) Gabriella Heald

(c) Gabriella Heald

Claire Mulligan, author of The Dark, answered our five questions.

IFOA:  How did you become interested in the Fox Sisters?

Mulligan: I came across the Fox Sisters’ story while researching a scene involving a medium for my first novel, The Reckoning of Boston Jim. I was immediately intrigued by how Maggie and Katie’s childish prank could snowball into such a massive movement, as well as by how, in an age that marginalized women, they carved out a glittering, if tragedy-laced, career and did so, ironically, by using the belief of the weak and passive female to their advantage. I was further intrigued by the mysteries at the heart of the Fox Sisters’ story: the body in the cellar, John Fox’s disappearing act and how the sisters managed to fool so many for so long. Mystery and character. Theme and irony. True but fantastic events. The perfect ingredients for an epic historical novel.

IFOA: The Reckoning of Boston Jim as well as The Dark are both set in the 19th century. What draws you to this era?

Mulligan: Historical fiction offers a banquet of creative opportunities to a writer. The words for one. I love the resonance of old words and phrases. I love polishing them off and using them in new ways. I love, too, recreating the forgotten landscapes and world views, the Victorian cult of mourning, say, or the lost life of the canals or the way the social world was once an arena where reputation and status ruled. All this offers unique conflicts and dilemmas.

Now, the 19th century is particularly intriguing because it has that sense of being nearly modern, but not quite. It was a time of rapid technological change, a time when new ideas were being tested and debated, Spiritualism among them. And, yet with its photographs and gramophones, its copious extant letters, its world still held in memory by some very few, the 19th century is a historical era that we can know and own in a way we do not with other eras, as if it is almost within tangible reach.

IFOA: When does the line between fiction and history get blurred?

Mulligan: A story like that of the Fox Sisters can be challenging, exhausting and exhilarating to write, in part because the sisters’ public lives were well documented by them and by others, giving me difficult choices in what to include of their epic lives and what to set aside. I did think it important to hew as closely as possible to historical fact when the facts were available; however, the details of how the sisters perpetuated the hoax, the truth of their relationships, their motives, thoughts and most importantly, how much they believed in ghosts themselves, have all been fictionalized to greater or lesser degree. This is what makes The Dark a work of fiction rather than, say, creative non-fiction. And there can be a blurry line between the two indeed.

I must add that as a reader, I particularly enjoy novels that leave me feeling enriched and, well, smarter, even wiser than before, and I hope to give that similar sense of enrichment to the readers of The Dark.

IFOA: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Spiritualism?

Mulligan: One of the many surprising things I learned while researching The Dark was just how powerful a movement Spiritualism was. Spiritualism had, in its heyday, millions of followers. It was taken very seriously by many (though others, granted, saw it as the entertainment of the moment.) The language used to explain Spiritualism—energy, vortexes, conduits, etc.—was adapted from scientific parlance, to give it credibility, yes, but also because people were rejecting the more dogmatic religions and trying to find a way to reconcile the advances in science and natural history with the desire for faith and meaning—a dilemma that is still with us today, as evidenced by our modern New-Age philosophy, which is, of course, the clear descendant of Spiritualism.

IFOA:  Do you believe in ghosts?

Mulligan: No. Well, yes. Maybe. I’ve never seen a ghost, nor experienced any paranormal event, though I had the usual terrifying Ouija board experience as a kid. However, I have talked to many people who have seen ghosts of some kind, and I certainly believe they saw and experienced what they did. Spirits capable of visiting from another world? Or a mind capable of creating spirits? These are, to me, equally astonishing possibilities. And, yet, I do love a ghost story, a haunted house, a place where the past seems imprinted. I suppose like many people I can keep two contradictory ideas aloft. My rational side might not believe in the supernatural, but my romantic side is all for it.

Five Questions with… Andrew Kaufman

Kaufman, Andrew (c) Lee Towndrow

(c) Lee Towndrow

Andrew Kaufman, author of Born Weird, answered our five questions.

IFOA: Superheroes and special powers are rampant in your work, why?

Kaufman: I love the power of metaphor and story. So giving everybody a special power lets me metaphorically explore personalities and the way people react to each other. This was really fun with Born Weird, since the books about how family makes you who you are.

IFOA:Where did the idea for your latest novel, Born Weird, spring from?

Kaufman: I have two kids, seven and five, the older they get, the more obvious how much both parents and family shape you. Maybe the book partly sprung from a feeling to write a future apology to my kids, a way of saying that I really did my best.

IFOA: What book from the past do you wish you had written?

Kaufman: Franny and Zooey, Cats Cradle, The Trial—pretty well all of them?

IFOA: Do you think people are born weird or is it something that is nurtured?

Kaufman: I think there are very few forces in our culture that are nurturing weirdness. I feel like we’re all encouraged to suppress our weirdness, pave over it with fashion and steady jobs. But I’m positive that we’re all born weird.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “A blessing is a curse when…”

Kaufman: …seen from the other side.

Kaufman will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 22.

Five Questions with… Benjamin Percy

Percy, Benjamin (c) Jennifer May

(c) Jennifer May

Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon, answered our five questions.

IFOA: What inspired you to write Red Moon? Where did the story begin?

Percy: My favorite horror stories — and some of the most lasting horror stories — take a knife to the nerve of the moment. Consider the way Frankenstein was born out of the Industrial Revolution or the way the Red Scare gave rise to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. When I sat down to write Red Moon, I tried to pinpoint what we fear now. Terrorism and disease, I decided. I braided the two elements together and did my best to channel cultural unease.

IFOA: Which part of the writing process is the most challenging for you, and why?

Percy: In the case of Red Moon, the research process was daunting. One of my characters is a governor — one of them a government agent — one of them a marine — one of them a medical researcher — all alien professions to me. So I had to interview people, read articles and blogs, watch documentaries, and do my best to capture the authenticating details. I spent dozens of hours with researchers at Iowa State University and the USDA labs, discussing animal-borne pathogens and vaccinations in an effort to make credible the slippery science behind the central horror of Red Moon.

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

Percy: Probably the mid to late-19th century — in the American West — where  big dreams drove everyone to chase gold and land, to drive cattle and harvest timber. I like the lawlessness and hungry speculation of that time.

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

Percy: I recently finished Alexander Hemon’s memoir, The Book of My Lives, and the last chapter (about the death of his daughter) is beautiful and brutally unsentimental and left me heart-bruised for weeks.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It doesn’t really matter if…

Percy: I run one more mile (I’m marathon-training right now and I find it so easy, after five miles, ten miles, to talk myself into a break).

Percy will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 22.

Five Questions with… Lewis DeSoto

DeSoto, LewisLewis DeSoto, longtime friend of Authors at Harbourfront Centre and author of The Restoration Artist, answered our five questions.

IFOA: The Restoration Artist is set on La Mouche, a tiny island off the coast of Normandy. How did you first encounter this place?

DeSoto: Islands are like books—they are enclosed, mysterious, alluring, and separated from the mainstream of life. As my character, Leo did, while standing on the coastline in Normandy, I saw on the horizon a smudge of land, and I immediately felt the pull, as if it was a place I already knew. Later, when I stepped ashore, I knew that I would either live on the island, or set a book there.

IFOA: Your protagonist is a young painter. Tell us about one thing painting and writing have in common.

DeSoto: The aim of all art is to create, or reveal, truth and beauty. To love the beautiful is to desire the good. Both the painter and the musician in the book struggle to believe this notion, and live by it.

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

DeSoto: Ah, so many, so many. But as one writer to another, I think I would most enjoy a lunch with Iris Murdoch. Although a single lunch might not be long enough. She is the writer whose collective works I most admire, even though there are single books by other writers that I might value higher. Her plots, her language, her insight, her humor, and her passion, continue to inspire me.

IFOA: When and where do you prefer to read?

DeSoto: A window seat on a rainy summer day in the country. Some of my sweetest childhood memories take place in that magical moody world.

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

DeSoto: …tell the truth, when I celebrate beauty, when I believe that art can make a difference in the world.

DeSoto will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 6.

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