Five Questions with… Russell Wangersky

Russell Wangersky, author of Walt 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 Russell on October 28, as well as a copy of Walt! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: You’ve published novels, collections of short stories and non-fiction. Is there a form that you enjoy writing most?

Russell Wangersky: I like all three forms, but I think short stories are the ones I like working on the mostprimarily because you can keep the whole story in your head at once, and can work on it all in a single sitting, there in the dark under your desk light. With novels, on top of the difficulties of having to work back into changing mood and tone (finding where you were in your head when you were working on it last), there’s the sheer problem of remembering where and when things happen so that you don’t trip up. And non-fiction? It’s just plain hard workthere is so much research to do behind every sentence, and it’s also so close to my daily job as a newspaper editor that it’s too much like work.Russell Wangersky

IFOA: Where did the idea for Walt come from?

Wangersky: Walt came from two places: first, from covering court as a reporter, and watching all sorts of truly awful people in the dock who still had family and friends who clearly loved them in the courtroom. It made me wonder about how people who do awful things justify it to themselves, and how others end up loving them. The second was the notion of concerns about personal privacy and the way that we’re all supposed to be concerned about electronic privacy while we go around shedding concrete personal information every day to people who can just pick it up off the ground.

IFOA: Walt is described as a psychological thriller. Was it difficult to maintain suspense throughout the writing of the book?

Wangersky: It’s described as a thriller, but it didn’t start out that way. It was a story I was interested init ended up a thriller almost by default. The suspense has everything to do with Walt himselfwhat he’s willing to do, what he’s willing to explain. So suspense wasn’t that hard to maintain, especially because most of the book is in first person. It was just a matter of staying in his head, which was not always a nice place to be. It was hard to go back later and maintain pace and tone in the editing, though, because edits feel like good muffin batterlumpy.

Wangersky, WaltIFOA: The grocery notes that begin each chapter, which Walt collects, are real. Were you ever unsettled by this primary research for your novel?

Wangersky: I have hundreds of grocery notes now, and I’m still collecting themevery time I pick one up, it’s like the bones of a much bigger story, and now that I’m in the habit of picking them up, I can’t seem to help myself. Calling it “primary research” gives it much more dignity than it felt like at the time. Unsettled? I was asked by the publisher at one point after the book was done to put together a collage of the notes and photograph them. Looking at the photos, all the different handwriting and papers, some of them clearly stepped on or driven over, was suddenly quite unsettling. A clear intrusion of privacy, but I used them anyway.

IFOA: If you could meet any author, living or dead, who would it be?

Wangersky: Cormac McCarthy. Just to ask howhow you get the nerve to write like that, to use language as if you own it, without ever seeming to have any doubt. Suttree? Pure linguistic magic.

Russell Wangersky is a writer, editor and columnist. On October 28 he presents Walt, a dark, psychological thriller about a grocery store cleaner who is pursued by police detectives unsatisfied with the answers he’s given about his wife’s disappearance.

Five Questions with… Lois Leveen

Lois Leveen, author of Juliet’s Nurse 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 Lois on October 26, as well as a copy of Juliet’s Nurse! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your bio says that you “dwell in the spaces where literature and history meet.” What kind of historical research went into Juliet’s Nurse?

Lois Leveen: Lots! I read medieval cookbooks to plan meals, and medieval medical manuals to figure out how pregnancies, infertility and breastfeeding would be handled. I did research on the impact of the plague, to understand how it continued to affect Italian society even after the initial outbreak ended. I read about fashion, which was key in this period, not just in terms of what people wore, but because fabric and clothing served as a kind of exchange commodity, the way we might think of currency or precious metals you would pawn or trade. I read a lot about vendettas and violence, and about marriage contracts. But the book is set in the era before the printing press was invented, which means the written records are quite limited. So I found that visual art and material culture were also incredibly helpful. For example, if a woman was pregnant or had just given birth, one gift she might receive was a parto tray, on which special meals would be served to her. Those trays often had scenes painted on them, and those scenes would be of women, usually saints, who had just given birth. So you can look at a tray and see what that parto room would look like: where is the mother? where is the child? where is the wet-nurse? Even religious objects would be decorated in ways that would reveal what people wore and how they acted in particular situations. I traveled to Verona while I was working on the manuscript, and during my time there I took over 1,000 photographs just in one day. Understanding how a private house would be laid out, how frescoes would appear on the walls, what it would have felt like to move through a crowded medieval city—all of that relied on being there in person. But, of course, you have to be careful not to get so caught up in the research you forget about the story. The historical details work their way in, but ultimately the novel is about the characters and what happens to them.

© John Melville Bishop

© John Melville Bishop

IFOA: What made Juliet’s nurse an intriguing enough figure for you to build a story around?

Leveen: The idea for the novel came to me so immediately, it was stunning. I was actually struggling with another novel that just wasn’t coming together, and the title “Juliet’s Nurse” came into my head. I knew the nurse was a comic figure in the play, but the truth was I hadn’t read Romeo and Juliet since high school. So I pulled my copy off the bookshelf, and discovered how incredibly complex and compelling Shakespeare made her. In her first scene in the play, we hear this amazing backstory: she had a daughter who was born the same day as Juliet but died. What was it like to lose one child, and then immediately take comfort in caring for another in such a physically, as well as emotionally, intimate way? We also learn a bit about her husband, and how he interacted with Juliet. But what was he like? What was his relationship with Angelica, the nurse? Later in the play, Angelica describes Juliet’s cousin Tybalt as “the best friend I had,” which is odd because they’re not in a single scene together. So what was their friendship like? Even in the play, Angelica is an intensely emotional character, and I sensed that shifting the focus squarely onto her would tease out new aspects of this seemingly well-known story. And I’m very interested in what history I can learn as I work on my novels. Here was a way to think about women’s roles in late medieval and early Renaissance Italy, including women of very different class positions. So really, once the idea came to me, I couldn’t NOT write it.

IFOA: How much of Juliet’s Nurse was informed by cues from Romeo & Juliet? Was the play a rigid influence or a point of departure for you?

Leveen: I like to have some sort of boundaries to play against when I’m writing. So I tried to stay true to Romeo and Juliet as much as possible. But of course the play already exists, and my task was to create something new, which meant the play also always had to be a point of departure, even if I wanted to stay as true to it as possible.

One of the challenges of writing first-person fiction is that you can only convey what your narrator-protagonist sees, hears, knows or surmises. Which means I had to figure out what to do about things that happen in the play that Angelica doesn’t witness herself. How could those things be part of her story?

And there’s also the complicating factor that Shakespeare is pretty fast and loose with his history, so although the play is ostensibly set in Verona in the 14th century, some of what he writes is really more about England in his own era. For example, he has Tybalt, Mercutio and Romeo dueling with rapiers, which were common in Shakespeare’s day but didn’t actually exist in the period when the play was set. So I gave myself permission to get the Italian history right, even if it meant departing from the play.

Leveen, Juliet's NurseIFOA: Did you have any hesitations about writing a novel that takes one of the most famous plays of all time as its main intertext?

Leveen: Not when I started. I was so entranced with Angelica, I didn’t hesitate at all. But last April, after the novel was finished, I spoke at the Shakespeare 450 conference in Paris, probably the world’s largest gathering of Shakespeare scholars. I think participants were there from 80 different countries. And suddenly I realized the enormity of what I’d done. Shakespeare, the most famous playwright in English, and Romeo and Juliet, the most famous English-language drama. How could I have been so brazen? And yet, of course, there’s a huge literary tradition of reinterpreting Shakespeare (not to mention the stage tradition: pretty much any time you stage a Shakespeare play, you’re “interpreting” the text). Mostly I’m glad I didn’t think about it until the novel was done. Ignorance is the better part of bravery, I suppose.

IFOA: What is the best compliment a reader can give you about your work?

Leveen: I’m always so grateful to hear from readers who are moved by my work in any way. It feels like a true honor to be able to create something that can affect another person deeply. My first novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on the true story of a former slave who became a spy for the Union during the American Civil War, and I heard from many readers for whom that tale of race and valor was personally inspirational. Is there a parallel for this novel? Perhaps. Only as I was finishing the first draft of Juliet’s Nurse did I really confront the fact that it is, in part, a book not only about surviving loss but specifically about losing a child to suicide. Well, of course, that is what Shakespeare gives us, but thinking about how the rates of teen suicide are rising in our own era, I felt like what I was writing about this period in the past needed to resonate with what is happening today. So I would say now that the most profound thing I can hope to hear from readers is about that. Maybe some of what Angelica goes through in trying to understand Juliet’s choice can spark conversations about how we can keep real people we love feeling secure enough to make different choices. It might be a lot to expect from a novel, but I’m hopeful.

Lois Leveen  is a novelist, poet, educator and historian. She presents Juliet’s Nurse alongside other authors on October 26.

Tweet to WIN!

Celebrate IFOA by tweeting or instagraming your best IFOA photo. It could be a picture of one of our IFOA authors, you reading your favourite IFOA 35 book or something else—the more creative, the better. Tweet or instagram your photos throughout the day on tweetTuesday, October 21 for a chance to win the ultimate IFOA Golden Ticket: 2 tickets to an IFOA event of your choice (excluding the PEN Benefit) and an invitation to our exclusive Welcome Party, where you can rub elbows with some of today’s hottest authors. Be sure to hashtag your tweets on Tuesday and throughout the Festival using #IFOA35. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @IFOA and on Instagram @internationalfestivalofauthors!

Don’t have Twitter or Instagram? Send us your photo via email to media@ifoa.org. Good Luck!

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.

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