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!

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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.

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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.

Junot Díaz & Michael Chabon bring humour and literary insight to IFOA stage

By Iain Reid

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A full 20 minutes before Junot Díaz and Michael Chabon take the stage at the Fleck Dance Theatre, a chatty crowd has formed outside. It’s a sell out.

The evening’s moderator, Siri Agrell, welcomes the audience, joking about the possibility, depending on seating arrangement, of being the insides of a “Pulitzer sandwich.”

Chabon reads first. He explains how pleased he is to be included in an event with one of his favourite writers, saying, “I thought he was awesome before you guys did.”

Díaz stands slightly to the right of the podium, shielding his eyes from the overhead lights to get a better look at the crowd. He calls reading with Chabon, “a profound honour.”

Their mutual respect and admiration seems genuine. They appear comfortable together. Along with both authors and Agrell’s inclusion of humour (handfuls of hilarious one-liners that at times border on stand-up) the discussion touches on a variety of more contemplative topics. Chabon and Díaz express their strategic concerns when starting a new work and how it’s essentially a kind of “world building” while creating the proper language.

Also discussed is the practice of writing from the perspective of a different gender or race; its challenges and its potential worth. “Artists aren’t boosters,” says Díaz.

Chabon explains how our desire for strict originality is a relatively new cultural emphasis. Both authors agree a writer is foremost a reader and that it would be impossible to write anything good without attribution. All writers have debts.

12 Junot Diaz and Michael Chabon interview IFOA (c) readings.org

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Appropriately, during the Q&A someone asks Díaz about the feeling when reading a perfectly constructed sentence. Díaz acknowledges this feeling and references The English Patient, and a single sentence that has stayed with him since his first reading of the novel. Another audience member calls out that Michael Ondaatje is in the crowd. It’s another moment of a writer expressing sincere gratitude to another. “Well, it’s an honour he’s here,” says Díaz. A fitting end to an excellent evening of readings, insights and discussion.

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

IFOA begins with Rohinton Mistry’s music

By Janet Somerville

For many years the PEN Canada Benefit has had the privilege of the opening night slot at IFOA. Its essential work defending writers, promoting literature and preserving freedom of expression makes it a natural partnership. This year the Empty Chair on every IFOA stage is filled by Eritrean journalist and playwright Dawit Isaak, imprisoned since Fall 2001.

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Thursday night’s event found a robust crowd filling the Fleck Dance Theatre eager to spend an evening in the rare company of Giller Prize-winner Rohinton Mistry, a longtime supporter of PEN Canada and its mission. Billed as an evening of words and music, I wondered if the notoriously shy Mistry would break into song, accompanying himself on a ukelele.

There were no stringed instruments on the stage, but Mistry’s warm buttery baritone filled the room as he read from a new piece grounded in his father’s gramophone records and he sang in Gene Autry’s voice “Don’t Fence Me In”—”Oh give me land, lots of land, under sunny skies above, don’t fence me in.” Utterly charming.

Musing “where did it begin for me the journey from there to here,” Mistry suggested that his “long and winding road from Bombay to Toronto” started with the shellacked discs of 45s, 78s and 33s his father spun on his gramophone—that magical machine that “shouldered the weight of his dreams.” As a boy, he pressed his cheek against the polished wood and “could imagine the music becoming a part of me.” And, it has.

If you were lucky enough to share in the joy and diversion of the songs that tripped wondrously off of Mistry’s storytelling tongue, you’ll understand why he referred to himself during his conversation with Eleanor Wachtel as “the vocal Zelig.” Next time Mistry appears on stage I hope he brings his guitar and harmonica and performs Dylan AS Dylan. That’d be really something.

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When asked what he misses from India, Mistry paused, then declared, “you can be homesick for the past. I miss the monsoon. It’s a grand spectacle. The breeze of the Arabian Sea, like silk upon the skin. Remembering brings with it a benediction. It brings understanding.” I know what he means.

Visit readings.org for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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