Secrets of the Hospitality Suite

by Antanas Sileika


Aspiring writers dream not only of publication, but of standing on the stage at Harbourfront Centre, and then, maybe best of all, sharing drinks with other authors in the Hospitality Suite.

That was part of the dream I wrote about in my memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller.

When I returned to Toronto from Paris, where we’d run a literary journal called Paris Voices out of the bookstore (Shakespeare and Company), the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) down at Harbourfront Centre was like a literary Manhattan compared to the grubby literary digs at S.&Co.

High profile writers came through there, the likes of Tobias Wolff and Guy Vanderhaeghe. Anybody could go down to listen to them at the Festival, but every aspiring writer wants to do more than sit in the audience. In my overheated literary imagination, I envisioned a hospitality suite that included a Canadian version of the Algonquin Round Table. Who would be our Dorothy Parker? Can a Canuck even be Dorothy Parker?

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Humber School for Writers presents: How We Write

By Janet Somerville

Workshop leaders Kevin Barry, Wayson Choy, Karen Connelly, Valerie Martin and Nino Ricci appeared in conversation on Wednesday with Antanas Sileika, novelist and Director of the Humber School for Writers, and their discussion opened with their responses to this question: What should a beginning writer know?

Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry and Karen Connelly

Dublin IMPAC-winning novelist Kevin Barry began by suggesting that “books and stories come out of our fear and anxiety, out of our dark places” and that it was essential to “finish everything. You must finish the bad stories so you know what the good ones are when they come.” His other advice: “Develop in yourself a sense of patience. There’s always a glow when something is finished, and that’s when you should put it in a drawer.” Finally, he referenced Annie Dillard’s wisdom to “keep your overhead low.”

Contrarian Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, claimed, “I encourage you all to be atypical. Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t start publishing until she was 62. You have to have the courage to take your life and return it to the world. Be daring.” Veteran American novelist and Orange Prize winner Valerie Martin, whose most recent book is The Ghost of Mary Celeste, insisted she has lived and written by the motto that “art saves your life and art ruins your life.” Her sensible advice: “Be patient. Be dogged. Don’t be afraid.”

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Trillium Book Award winner Wayson Choy, whose The Jade Peony is now in its 30th printing, said, “Learn about craft. Figure out, for example, how James Joyce wrote such a memorable ending to ‘The Dead.’” Nino Ricci, whose first novel, Lives of the Saints, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, claimed his delusion he had as a young writer kept him going: “You want to keep a writer writing, by not telling them the truth.” Ricci suggested also to ignore the tolling laments of “Nobody’s reading anymore” and “The novel is dead,” because “the joy of the first book that you write is a gift you will never have again. Just write. Do as much as possible. Every day.”

Responding to Sileika’s prompt, “What do you mean about writing about life in the world,” Connelly said, “I lived in Thailand and I wanted to keep moving. I wanted to live in other cultures and discover what it meant to be human in different places. It’s such a powerful and transformative experience. Where your body is is what you’re going to write about. It’s good to feel born in the wrong place, because it makes you curious and seeking.”

For Choy, “Chinatown was a place I wanted to forget about. It was a ghetto. People only spoke with each other. But, Chinatown travelled with me. Carol Shields suggested in a creative writing class that I write about it. It turns out that who you are and where you come from may be the source of your greatest material.”

About his bold use of language in City of Bohane, Sileika asked Barry, “How do you make language fresh?” His answer: “I grew up in Limerick and Cork in working class communities. Language is used and abused there. I wanted to free myself from having to hove to the actual. It’s kind of a retro future in 2053, but I wanted to give the sense that it could be 1853 or 1953, that is, another world.”

Wondering how Nino Ricci dared to go into the territory he did in Testament, Ricci said, “People don’t really care that much about Christianity anymore. As a child, I always believed that Jesus was Italian. In my novel he’s the son of a Roman soldier. And, it seemed to me that we were living such unexamined lives about religion.”

Wayson Choy

Wayson Choy

Each writer described their process. Barry said he tries “to be still half asleep when I write. You’re closest to the murky place then. DeLillo says, ‘write when you are puddled in dream melt.’ And, places where you embarrass yourself and recoil in horror, those are the good bits.” Connelly insisted that for her, “procrastination is an important part of the process. I read. I do administrative work, and then I write in the afternoon, often standing up, for two to three hours each day.” Like Kevin Barry, Valerie Martin admitted to writing best “when I’m fresh from the dream. Often I’ll start about the dream. I write longhand on loose leaf paper.” Choy claimed he begins with a ritual: “I take out all of my fountain pens and arrange them. It’s sort of zen. Now I write in transit. When I can. When I will.” Ricci lamented making the mistake “of switching from handwriting to computer” and pledged that he’d change his ways.

Develop patience. Learn craft. Don’t be afraid. Have the courage to take your life and return it to the world.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Reading Like a Writer: authors and their beloved books

By Brianna Goldberg

Well, I’m pretty sure that was a first: a poem composed especially for an IFOA discussion. “On my tombstone you can write ‘Susan Swan the writer may be dead, but Susan Swan the reader read and read and read’” was presented at Sunday afternoon’s roundtable, Reading Like a Writer, where Canadian novelist Susan Swan (the writer and reader, both very much alive) noted in verse so many of the literary influences who have shaped her writing career.

From Canterbury Tales to the Secret Garden and Simone de Beauvoir, Swan’s loving and artfully rendered list of favourites betrayed just how fervently authors love to openly feed off the literary fruits of those who have gone before them—and the ones that go alongside them, even now.

The mission of the round table, led by novelist and Humber School for Writers director Antanas Sileika, was to reveal how authors read “as professionals.” But, truthfully, much of the discussion was dedicated to reveling in shared appreciation of books the roundtable writers just really, really love. Alongside Sileika and Swan, whose most recent novel is The Western Light, was James Clarke, a poet and memoirist whose latest work reflecting on his childhood is called The Kid from Simcoe Street; novelist Christine Pountney, whose most recent book is Sweet Jesus, the story of a group of siblings who reunite a week before the 2012 US election (weirdly coinciding with the real-life date of the IFOA event); and Kyo Maclear, a novelist, visual artist and children’s book writer, whose latest work, Stray Love, tells the story of an “ethnically ambiguous” character raised by a surrogate father in London and Vietnam in the 1960s.

As Sileika provided simple prompts—favourite stories as a child, for example—the authors jumped at each chance to speak about the virtues of their most beloved books. Maclear lit up at the chance to explain her love of Richard Scarey’s Busytown, Pountney blushed at her own adoration for a series of animal-based children’s books about a wandering hedgehog, Clarke bloomed into a grin while describing The Great Gatsby and, of course, there was Susan Swan and all the homages in her charming poem. Certain names did pop up again and again as having played a role in the roundtablers’ literary development: Raymond Carver, Marguerite Duras, F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Russians.’

But when Sileika asked the authors, who had spent so much time discussing works with which they are besotted, instead about whose works they rather loathe—all the fun and frolic of the earlier conversation dropped away. It was kind of sweet to watch them all cringe and bite their tongues, not wanting to speak ill of anyone else in the profession. However, Swan did admit she can’t stand writing that’s unabashedly clichéd, noting 50 Shades of Grey as an example, while Clarke offered a literary product that’s universally hated: bbq instructions.

Find out more about Goldberg on her website, or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg.