Ann Patchett in Conversation with Emma Donoghue

By Janet Somerville

On her only Canadian stop on the book tour for her new collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, bestselling, award-winning novelist and Nashville indie bookstore owner Ann Patchett sat down with the equally fabulous Emma Donoghue to chat about the writing life. Peering out at the candlelit café tables in the Brigantine Room, Patchett said, “I have the desire to sing the entire soundtrack to Cabaret. This is so romantic. But, I’m an incredible fan of Emma’s work and I want to talk to her.” Before settling in for that very chat, Patchett read a short excerpt from the essay, “My Life in Sales,” because “I am on book tour and I am feeling sorry for myself.” _TB13060

Donoghue said, “Well, luckily I loved the book, which is not always the case of someone you’re interviewing, and I’m excited to be sharing a rug with you. You talk such sense about the writing life and you care about the way a book is made the way you’d care about an ailing dog.” Of the luck in her life, Patchett noted that “at Sarah Lawrence, I had a year with Grace Paley and it was like spending a year with God.” She also had Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks as a writing instructors there, though was quick to note that when she attended the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she “got dealt a really bad poker hand. I was in class with Angus Wilson in the last 15 minutes of his life and he only taught in French. And, I don’t speak French.” She was also fortunate to sell her first book, The Patron Saint of Liars, right away, launching a career as a novelist in 1992.

When Donoghue probed about hardships or miseries, Patchett responded, “I hated my first husband. Basically I married, at 24, the first guy who asked me out to dinner. And I was divorced by 25. I didn’t get married again until I was 41.” Her partner at that time had a medical emergency: “And I was thinking, I’m going to have to unplug the ventilator and I can’t do that as your girlfriend, so let’s get married.” They did. And he got well. As Donoghue observed, “There’s this ruthless streak of pragmatism in this collection that saves it from sentimentality.” Patchett added, “It’s a book about all of the things in my life that I feel I’m married to.”

About Patchett’s commitment to the dogs she’s shared her life with, Donoghue suggested, “Maybe it’s great, as a writer, to have a relationship that is not about words.” Patchett talked about “how the plane just crashed when Rose [her dog] died, and that shocked me and I wanted another 16 years. She was a fabulous person, but a lousy dog. She bit children. Now I have Sparky, a rescue, who is a better Buddhist than I am. Every day Sparky asks what he can do for his country.” Because Sparky is listed whimsically as Sparkman VanDeverden (Patchett’s married name) on the Parnassus Books website as a co-owner, he receives several credit card offers each month—yet, his canine mug stares boldly out there alongside the ones of his human companions.

Donoghue said, “I love when you are so honest about the horrors of dementia in “Love Sustained,” which is a hymn to love but also acknowledges how painful it is to watch people get older.” Patchett responded, “The ability to love in a woman does not always fall under the umbrella of being maternal.” Donoghue nodded, “You go inch by inch into intimacy because they need it.” Patchett added, “any moment of spiritual development for me has been taking another human being to the bathroom.” Donoghue noted, “That’s a beautiful thing to know.”_TB13073

On the myth of writer’s block, Donoghue and Patchett agreed: there’s no such thing. Donoghue said, “Writing is like going to work in a mine. You have to hoist your pick.” And, Patchett said, “some things are difficult to figure out, but you keep working at the puzzle.” On her enthusiasm for magazine writing, Patchett explained, “It was so easy for me because I’m not a procrastinator, and writing fiction is really hard. There’s a culture of looking down on women’s work and I wanted to stand up for it. It shaped me as a non-fiction writer.”

Of bookstore life, Donoghue said, “The books are in relationship with each other. People love the discovery of interaction.” Patchett admitted, “I shove books on people, but I will also take them away. You may not start with Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned.” The trick to an indie’s success is to have famous writers come to the store. In the past 10 days, Parnassus Books hosted Donna Tartt, Garrison Keillor, Pat Conroy and Wally Lamb. And, if you happened to be in Nashville on November 14th, you could have had wine with Russell Banks.

Fans of Bel Canto were pleased to learn that Renée Fleming will produce a stage version at Chicago Lyric Opera in Fall 2015. And, although Patchett continues to cash cheques from time to time for the film adaptation that’s in development, she “can’t talk to the producers anymore. They wanted to talk about faces and cup sizes. Can’t do it. Just don’t care.”

About the writing process, Patchett admitted, “I get better and better at staying still and in the chair. But, when I’m in a book, I want to get out.” Donoghue agreed, “I’m always flirting with or eyeing up the next book.”

If you missed this evening of terrific craic, as the Irish say, between two fabulously talented and engaging contemporary writers, you’ll know to be sure to make an extra effort to hear either one of them the next time. May there be plenty of opportunities to do just that.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Finding Your Place

By Janet Somerville

Three smart and articulate writers joined moderator Steven W. Beattie at the Fleck Dance Theatre on the final afternoon of the Festival to talk about the influence of geography on their work.Robinson, Children of the Revolution

While working on a PhD on the sense of place in British poetry, Peter Robinson began writing crime novels at night. He was homesick for Yorkshire and found that he “could spent imaginative time there.” Plus, he loved the tradition of British crime novels. Though Newfoundland born, Wayne Johnston finds that “it’s a lot safer to write about Newfoundland while living in Toronto.” He feels “much less inhibited,” and he’s never found another place that he “could invest in emotionally.” Michael Crummey admitted that even though he lived away for a long time, “Newfoundland is the place that made me who I am. You don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to see that living there has altered my sense of place.”

Both Crummey and Johnston remembered how the people shaped the place. For Crummey, his novel Galore was influenced daily by the people, including a “wart charmer” who managed to cure a friend’s younger sister. She woke up one morning, “all of the warts loose in her bed linens, enough to fill a quart jar.” And Johnston said, “For years my mother decided antibiotics were useless and it was better to get the seventh son of a seventh son to say a prayer.”Johnston, The Son Of A Certain Woman

When asked by Beattie if they thought they mythologize place, Crummey noted that in outport Newfoundland, there are two worlds: a physical one that’s “stark, difficult, capricious, unrelenting” and a netherworld, “populated with folklore and ghost stories that gave an illusion of some control.” Johnston added, “I mythologize overtly in the new book [A Son of a Certain Woman]. I imagine better worlds than the one I lived in when I was growing up.” As for Robinson, “inventing a place is a very useful thing to do because you don’t want to be a slave to geography.” A student of poetry, Robinson quoted lines from Charles Tomlinson’s “A Meditation on the Art of John Constable,” wherein “the artist lies for the improvement of truth.”

Considering ghettoization of writers, Crummey noted, “Antecedents for today’s Newfoundland writers are completely different, yet the common ground is Newfoundland at the centre. Consider the work of Joan Clark, Jessica Grant, Lisa Moore and Michael Winter.” Johnston added, “Every writer wants to be self-creating, sui generis. I’m fiercely individualistic. I’ve objected to being ghettoized as a Newfoundland writer.” And, Robinson said, “usually it’s just the crime writers that are segregated. A lot of the best writing has got story and suspense. Something other than a fine metaphor has you turning the page.”Crummey, Under the Keel

Interestingly, all three writers began as poets, and, Crummey noted that his “is almost exclusively about my life, which is not at all true of my fiction. Writing poetry is meditative and feeds me while writing fiction feels like digging a ditch.” Johnston remembered that, “the first thing I got published was a poem. I needed $250 for rent and I got $300 for the poem. And in grad school I started bringing the novel I was writing to class in poem shape.” Robinson said, “I started out as a poet and noticed the poems were narrative and then I started reading Raymond Chandler.”

On the influence of landscape on character, all agreed that place shapes character completely. Robinson noted, “You can write yourself into some pretty dark places. I’m interested in characters and relationships. The dark places that I go in my novels are places that I have to go to anyway. People of the place and a lot of what they are is determined by how they interact with the place.” Johnston added, “I don’t think of place as just geography. Austere beauty or stark horror. If you can write about a place in a way that is convincing, then you should.” And, for Crummey, “time and time again it looks like it’s over and there is an unlikely resurrection and you carry on.”

They carry on. As Joan Didion noted, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Leading Men

By Janet Somerville

International Dublin IMPAC award winner Colum McCann, bestselling crime writer George Pelecanos and this year’s American novelist darling, Philip Meyer, joined Globe and Mail books editor Jared Bland to discuss compelling characters—and anything else they damned well pleased relating to the writing life—on Sunday, November 3._TB12996

For Meyer, a good character “appears to support ideas of a book in an organic way. Their thoughts and speech rhythms have to work with themes. And, you’re learning the voice and physicality of each as you write.” In his two most recent books, Pelecanos said that, “writing a younger character like Spero Lucas has allowed me to get energy to write about sex. And, I prepared by reading Roth.” But, his favourite character is Derek Strange, the one most unlike him. For McCann, “the way a character comes along and knocks you sideways and holds contradictory things” is endlessly fascinating. He insisted that, “you have to pretend it’s easy when it’s difficult, when underneath you’ve got torn ligaments.”

In creating the indelible, complicated frontiersman in The Son, Eli McCullough, Meyer noted that it “was a happy moment in some ways because I’d found the key to the book. He seems the most compelling because he’s in an extreme situation, having been kidnapped.” About Derek Strange, Pelecanos said the character is “like guys I looked up to in D.C. He keeps an office on the street so kids can watch him turn the key and see what a man does. And, he screws up with women a lot, which is true for any man. Once you figure out who the characters are, they write the story.” McCann observed that you need “to catch the moment in flight. To abandon yourself to whoever the character is. Sometimes the characters lead me in the most unusual way. It’s interesting that we have as much responsibility to fictional characters as to real characters in the world like Frederick Douglass in Transatlantic.”  His best advice: “You should write towards what you want to know.”

Meyer begins a new piece without researching, “by writing to the limit of my knowledge.” Though, he said, he read approximately 250 books about Texas as he was writing The Son, “because I don’t have the confidence to put words down. The first time I saw the galley of my book, I thought, this is all I’ve got to show for five years?” Pelecanos interrupted, graciously insisting, “If you haven’t read The Son, it’s the best book of the year. Discovering that Meyer was a Michener Fellow, he added, “you know these little arts grants make these kinds of books possible. It’s the price of a tank that’s never going to be used.”

About his own process Pelecanos said, “I get letters from guys in prison. I do reading programmes there. And, I think, what can I learn today that I can use in a book. I’m proud that I’m at the top of the bestseller lists in prisons.” Because The Son is rife with sensory detail, Meyer explained that “I know what a deer smells like and I can tell if it’s a buck or a doe.” He learned how to quarter a buffalo “because the animal was such a central force for the people I was writing about.” He went so far as to “drink a cup of blood from one of them, which was obviously disgusting.”  McCann tells his students at Hunter College, “I can’t teach you a damned thing. Process is about stamina. You have to force yourself to sit there. If you can foster stamina, desire and perseverance, you can make it as a writer.” Meyer added, “it comes from a place inside you and you trust instinct and feeling more and more. You want to move the reader through with rhythm and pacing. Storytelling is like a symphony,”

In Transatlantic, McCann admitted, “I wanted to braid these things together: those who made history and those who suffered history—and they’re as important to the political and social process. We all know that history is agreed upon lies, so let’s make it more democratic.” About editing himself, he remarked, “I try to look forward 20 years from now and ask, will I be embarrassed by any of this then?” Meyer added, “I try to shut out every other voice but my own. A character doesn’t have to be sympathetic, as long as they’re fascinating.” Pelecanos observed that his protagonist in The Double, Spero Lucas, is “the only guy who is a killer. True Grit is my favourite novel. Maddy Ross is not very likable, but the voice is enduring.” On writing for The Wire, he added, “We were just trying to depict people as they are in the city. Omar is the moral center. He never swore. He observed Sunday truce.” Before that collaborative writing experience, Pelecanos had never been in a room “where other writers were critiquing what I was doing. I was told often, it’s too on point. As a result, in my novels I’ve gone to my strength, which is dialogue. Writing how people talk.”

About endings, McCann said, “An ending can only go one particular place. I will write in a fever of 16 to 18 hours a day.” For Meyer, “it’s a feel that it’s done. You don’t go back and tinker with it.” And, Pelecanos added, “I rewrite at night what I’ve written earlier that morning. The end just comes. It should end when it feels right.”

Final words from each of them about their chosen craft: McCann: “You can’t believe only the good stuff. You must also believe the bad stuff. It’s the natural corollary;” Pelecanos: “You have to go to work every day. I treat it like a job. I get dressed. Remember, John Cheever used to put on a suit to go to his desk;” Meyer: “You need to be doing this because it is in you to do it.” Story is a river running through all three of them. And, we readers are all the more fortunate for such flow.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

A Tribute to Alice Munro

By Janet Somerville

The Fleck Dance Theatre was packed to the gills on Saturday, November 2, and the evening’s warm-hearted playfulness was established with IFOA Director Geoffrey Taylor quipping, “through the magic of prerecorded voiceover, I just got to introduce myself.” He celebrated Alice Munro as this year’s Harbourfront Festival Prize recipient, “who has made a substantial contribution to Canadian letters,” noting how delighted he was “that the Nobel Foundation agreed with us about a month after our announcement.” Avie Bennett, former Chair of IFOA and President of McClelland & Stewart, accepted the prize on Munro’s behalf and said, “Please settle for my assurances that I’ll convey both the cheque and your good wishes to Alice.”

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime editor, who made her feel “that short stories were worthy fiction” decades ago, hosted the evening. About the Nobel nod this year, Gibson recounted how he sat by the phone for the past five years, awaiting THE call in the wee hours of the morning. This year, as soon as the news spread, he was invited to do several “interviews of exaltation” that went like this: “How great is it?” “It’s really, really, really great!” Well, it IS. Since a video of the evening was being sent to Alice, Gibson encouraged the audience to show its appreciation for her work, and we roared to our feet, cheering and clapping, absolutely chuffed for her.

Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart

The first to pay tribute was Alice’s longtime friend Jane Urquhart, who claimed Alice’s stories, grounded as they are in small town life, “gave me permission to play with the notion of writing myself.” She unfurled the tale of their first meeting in 1987, when Urquhart retrieved Munro from the bus depot in New Hamburg, “practically incoherent with excitement.” In her diary at the time, Urquhart mused about the number of exclamation marks: “Yesterday I spent the day with Alice Munro!!!! She sat in precisely the right chair at the kitchen table!!!!! She told me about her father’s book and she cried.” Urquhart then read an excerpt from Robert Laidlaw’s book and from Alice’s story “Working for a Living,” collected in The View From Castle Rock. She concluded with another piece from her own diary, where she recorded, “Alice told me that the Clinton librarian had been captured by Albanian bandits. She wondered if she could write a story about it. I hope she does!!!!!!!”

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, who Gibson noted, “grew up in the shadow of Alice and found the shade not depressing, but inspiring,” spoke next. Toews remembered that when she was twelve, her sister went away to university and told her to “stay out of my room,” a plea she ignored and therein found a copy of Lives of Girls and Women on the bookshelf, its cover image “like looking out my window.” Between its pages she began her “own course of study on life with Del Jordan. Serious. Badass. Hardcore adult literature.” And, after reading an excerpt from that coming-of-age collection, she noted, “Alice Munro initiated me into the world of literature and I am grateful for her exquisite company.”

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Novelist Colum McCann took the stage after Toews, noting “literature is an intimate form of admiration. The short story is an imploding universe, a white star with hot language and beautifully defined singularities. I see Alice Munro as the absolute antidote to despair.” And, then he read a heartbreaking, exquisite excerpt from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the piece that Sarah Polley adapted into her Oscar-nominated screenplay Away from Her.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod

Celebrated short story writer and fellow IMPAC winner Alistair MacLeod waxed on about how “Alice notices everything and that is one of her great strengths.” Consider the details of the washing on the line, the Rhode Island red hens, the velvet paintings of Niagara Falls in the kitchen and other bits of what might be observed in Jubilee: “deep caves paved with linoleum.” With his rumbling East Coast cadence, MacLeod read from “Passion,” one of the stories in Runaway.

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble

As Gibson introduced the final speaker, Margaret Drabble, he noted she had “a grandparent called Bloor and loves to return to Toronto where there is a subway line named after her family.” Who knew? Drabble began by delighting in carrying Munro’s complete work on her Kindle and her thrill in re-reading Alice, which is equally rewarding to discovering her for the first time. “She is a virtuoso, but with none of the self-conscious showmanship. She writes with insight, sympathy and great wit. Her stories turn ‘round on themselves, and come back to where they began. When I think of her work, I think of landscape and long journeys. Settings are described with poetic precision. Alice has such a powerful sense of the way landscape shapes our lives.”

Alice Munro’s stories reflect the narratives in our own lives. What, in fiction, is more powerful than that?

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

A Life in Crime

By Janet Somerville

Bestselling novelists Linwood Barclay and George Pelecanos settled in for an engaging and open-hearted conversation with Globe and Mail Books Editor Jared Bland on Saturday afternoon in the Brigantine Room.Barclay, A Tap on the Window

Pelecanos set the tone by admitting, “I don’t outline. It takes me awhile to get to the part of the book that lifts off. I’m proudly a crime novelist. Don’t mistake me for a literary guy.” Since Barclay cut his teeth working in newspapers, he insists on the necessity of writing every day and working to deadline. Even though he’s on a book/year contract, he tends to deliver ahead of schedule, leaving room for “something that breaks at the last minute.” He disciplines himself to produce 2000 words each day. Pelecanos aims for five pages each day and works 7 days per week, 2 shifts per day, and says, “You have to gut it out. If the work isn’t any good, I just keep writing. Once I find the characters, the book begins to write itself.”Pelecanos, The Double

When Pelecanos was 31, he quit his job to become a writer, but found himself two months later taking a job in a bar. He was “a fly on the wall, listening to cops and prosecutors.” And, if you’ve read him, you’ll know that one of his strengths is dialogue. His characters speak real words in authentic rhythms. He admits he got lucky when he sent that first book to NYC and somebody bought it. Since then, like Barclay, he’s produced a book each year, noting, “When I smoked weed, I dreamed of being a writer; when I stopped smoking weed, I became one.”

Barclay observed that his “thrillers are about ordinary families in extraordinary situations.” About his process, he said, “When I have a book, I have to know what happened behind the scenes up to a point. Then I start writing. Once I see characters work together, I think, I can do this. I can do that. I come back to the center point that takes me to the end.”

In terms of early influences, both cited the work of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, particularly The Long Goodbye and Dalton Case. For Barclay, the appeal of a crime novel is that it “not only works, but makes sense. The crime is a key that turns the lock into the narrative. But, a death has to mean something in terms of character or plot: you have to have real reasons to kill them off.” Pelecanos added, “I can’t read a book that doesn’t have an arc.”

Working in the writer’s room for The Wire has helped Pelecanos stylistically. He was “in there with guys like Richard Price and Dennis Lehane. And, in Season 1, I’d written the penultimate episode when the kids kill their friend Wallace, and even though you’re supposed to stick to the beat sheet, scene by scene, Price would elevate it with his writing.”

Clearly familiar with Pelecanos’ work, Barclay said, “I get the sense that Spero is a character who will stay with you, because he’s already there in The Cut and The Double. I also want to explore the notion of the impact of history on a character years later.” He’s working on a sequel to No Time For Goodbye, called The Safe House. And, for those interested in page to screen adaptation, Trust Your Eyes is in development at Warner Brothers and Never Look Away is being considered by NBC for a series.

For Pelecanos, one of his “biggest thrills was to meet Elmore Leonard. He was one of my heroes. He was always nice and generous. A gentleman. I want to be 87 and still writing novels. Good ones.” Barclay was “lucky enough to know Ross Macdonald,” who inscribed a copy to him with: “For Linwood, who will, I hope, someday outwrite me.”

Both Barclay and Pelecanos value their readership. Barclay said, “I want to write what people enjoy. With each book, you hope you get a little better.” Pelecanos added that he listened “to what people say. I take it to heart. I’m not just doing it for me. I’m doing it to be read. Missteps can be transcended. I push myself to be morally complex. I want to be a better writer.” He is. They are.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

 

Page 30 of 44« First...1020...2829303132...40...Last »