Five Questions with… Ann Eriksson

Ann Eriksson, author of High Clear Bell of Morning 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 Ann on October 26, as well as a copy of High Clear Bell of Morning! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your current non-literary pursuits. Your website mentions that you do ongoing work as a consulting biologist.

Ann Eriksson: I have a degree in biology from the University of Victoria and have worked as a consulting biologist since I graduated in 1994. My work, in the area of marine and forest ecology, is mostly a writing job, translating scientific information into language and graphics easily understood by the public, although I have done some nature interpretation as well, which I enjoy a lot. Since I moved to Thetis Island in 2010, I’ve been putting my energy and talents to use in the non-profit conservation world and am a director of two conservation organizations: the Cowichan Land Trust and the Thetis Island Nature Conservancy, which I founded in 2012 along with a passionate group of islanders. Our focus is conservation education and stewardship as well as protecting land for nature. We’re in the midst of raising a half million dollars to buy a piece of land for the island’s first community nature reserve. It’s a lot of work but good work, exciting and satisfying. You can read more about the project at

© Gary Geddes

© Gary Geddes

IFOA: How does your background in biology influence your writing, and how do your literary pursuits affect your work as a biologist?

Eriksson: As the great, late ecologist Barry Commoner stated in the first of his Four Laws of Ecology: Everything is connected to everything else. My four novels all incorporate my knowledge and interest as a biologist, from Decomposing Maggie, which is infused with the natural history of the Gulf Islands, and In the Hands of Anubis, which is set in the prairie of southern Alberta, to Falling from Grace and High Clear Bell of Morning, which have scientists as protagonists and environmental issues as major themes. I’ve become braver as I mature as a writer and am more confident about tackling harder issues and bringing science more into my work. Having said that, I’m putting the finishing touches on a new novel which is not at all about science or ecological issues, although one could argue that even a book set in New York City and involving homelessness and fraud is about a different kind of urban ecology.

IFOA: Can you elaborate on the connection between environmental disturbances and mental illness in High Clear Bell of Morning?

Eriksson: When I started writing High Clear Bell of Morning, I thought I was writing two parallel heath stories: toxic pollutants in killer whales, and mental illness in humans. But as I did the research, the two came closer together until eventually, they crossed over. That moment came while reading More than Genes: What Science Can Tell Us About Toxic Chemicals, Development, and the Risk to our Children by Dan Agin, professor of cell biology at the University of Chicago. The book includes a chapter on links between mental illness and toxic industrial chemicals, with an emphasis on schizophrenia.

Like Glen in the novel, I presented a hypothesis. Does exposure to environmental toxins increase one’s chance of having a serious mental illness like schizophrenia? It’s very difficult to do a human health study to determine this. The psychiatric community speaks about “risk factors” rather than causes, as brain diseases like schizophrenia are poorly understood although it is thought to be multi-causal with a mixture of genetic and environmental risk factors. Much of the research has focused on prenatal brain development. For example, we know some chemicals cross the placenta and cause brain damage in the foetus, take alcohol and foetal alcohol syndrome, for example. Exposure to lead during foetal brain development may double the risk of childhood or adult schizophrenia spectrum disorder, and endocrine disruptors like bisphenol-A, a chemical found in plastic water bottles and the linings of tin cans, are implicated in the development of schizophrenia later in life. There are close to 90,000 industrial chemicals used in the world, with 1000 new ones introduced every year, and unless we eat them, very few are studied for their effects on human health. Body burden, breast milk and umbilical cord studies have shown the presence of hundreds of industrial chemicals in human bodies, no matter where they live or what they eat. Many of these pollutants are known neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors and immunotoxins. We’re living in a toxic soup. Does it affect our or our children’s mental health? I thought it was an important question to ask.

High_Clear_Bell-COVER.inddIFOA: You’re currently on a cross-country book tour with your husband, the poet Gary Geddes. How do you influence each other as writers?

Eriksson: Ours was a literary relationship from the start. We met at Gary’s granddaughter’s 12th birthday party a few months after my first novel, Decomposing Maggie, was published. I like to joke I got the GG for my first novel. I had just bought Gary’s floating memoir, Sailing Home, for my father, and the week after the party, on my way to Alberta to deliver it, I spent the flight reading about Gary’s deepest secrets. We married three years later.

I feel blessed to have Gary in my life both as a husband and as a literary partner. We read each other’s work, bounce ideas off one another, give feedback and support and most importantly, we both understand the nature of a writing life with its crazy time commitment and the glazed look of preoccupation. While we have separate writing spaces in our Thetis Island home, they are open to a common hallway and our doors are rarely closed (actually mine doesn’t have a door) so we often converse back and forth. How do you spell travelling, one l or two? This year is the first time we have books out at the same time and so we’ve been doing a lot of joint readings, which are great fun. Gary likes to say he tells the truth and I tell the lies.

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

Eriksson: I read a lot so I’m having a hard time picking a favourite. Right now I’m halfway through The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which I’m enjoying enormously, but my favourite novel from the past few months was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, so haunting and beautiful. A close second is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Ann Eriksson is an author and biologist. She presents her fourth novel, High Clear Bell of Morning, about a family dealing with schizophrenia and the frustrations that come with this tragic disease. See her on October 26 as she discusses her creative process. And stay tuned to the IFOA blog to see her husband, the poet Gary Geddes, answer our Five Questions tomorrow!

Five Questions with… Andrej Blatnik

Andrej Blatnik, author of Law of Desire 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 Andrej on October 25, as well as a copy of Law of Desire! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What is it about the short story form that is attractive to you?

Blatnik, AndrejAndrej Blatnik: With the short story there’s no fooling around. Every mistake a writer makes is immediately visible. The story has to move in limited space and has no time to lose. And the reader has more space to fill with his or her own reflection or imagination—which is maybe the very reason that the novel is a more popular genre.

IFOA: How has your writing changed over time?

Blatnik: It became more condensed and yet more open to the reality outside of the text. I started writing in the early 80s when life in my country, Slovenia, was different: there were lots of subjects you couldn’t speak of, lots of questions you couldn’t ask. Literature was a chance to express things that couldn’t be expressed otherwise, and for a young person, it was an escape to an area where everything could be arranged according to your wishes. Some books were read at that time for reasons other than literary; they expressed alternative versions of history, alternative political ideas, etc. These times are gone, and while literature retained its absolute freedom of creation (especially if the writer is not occupied with the possibilities of publication and success!), it has lost its former social impact.

Blatnik, Law of DesireIFOA: You have also worked as a translator. Is there a specific book that you would love to translate?

Blatnik: I’d love to translate a book of selected stories by Lydia Davis, concentrating on her shortest stories. I have a book of 50 stories no more than one page long, and when it was published in English (You Do Understand), quite a few people suggested I should have a look at her work—I did and I was immediately hooked.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Blatnik: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.

IFOA:Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but…

Blatnik: …believing is hard nowadays.

Andrej Blatnik is a writer of both fiction and criticism. He has also worked as a translator, translating the work of Paul Bowes, among others. Join him on October 25 alongside other international authors as they discuss how the translation of their work into English has unlocked a universal audience that was unattainable in their native language.

Five Questions with… Julie Joosten

Julie Joosten, an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions! She is the author of Light Light, which was recently announced as a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Julie on October 25, as well as a copy of Light Light! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: How has your poetic focus on nature developed? Why do you look to nature?Joosten, Julie

Julie Joosten: My interest in nature emerged out of fascination with thought and modes of attention. I found myself absorbed in the thinking of writers, scientists, artists and philosophers who, however obliquely, were exploring forms of attending to various objects, affects, processes and perceptions, and I discovered that the modes I was most excited by—self-forgetful, meditative modes that also supported rigorous thinking—often engaged with the natural world. My own thinking has been deeply influenced by the distinct and simultaneous temporalities and rhythms of the non-human world.

IFOA: What has been your most unlikely or unusual source of inspiration?

Joosten: Perhaps my most unusual source of inspiration is also one of my most mundane—it’s the rhythm I’ve established with my dogs. They get me out and walking twice a day for long stretches of time in all weather. Repetition, duration, variation. They also attend to different forms outside than I do, and occasionally our perceptions overlap, though we regularly have opposite responses to the objects of our attentions (especially squirrels and cats); this awareness of various “worlds” existing through distinct perceptual abilities and practices has been exciting and confounding and pleasurable to think and write about.

Joosten, Light LightIFOA: When and where do you write?

Joosten: I write at home at a desk I picked out when I was ten. It’s monstrous and offers a large gathering space for books and papers.

IFOA: What are you working on now?

Joosten: I’m working on some poems and essays. And reading.

IFOA: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

Joosten: Read. Reread. Repeat.



Julie Joosten has an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from Cornell University. She presents her first book of poetry, Light Light, alongside other poets for the Festival’s Poet Summit.

Five Questions with… Robin Stevenson

Robin Stevenson, author of Record Breaker 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 Robin on October 23, as well as a copy of Record Breaker! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Do you find it difficult to write such heavy subject matter into your stories for young readers?

Robin Stevenson: No, not really. My imagination has a tendency to go to rather dark places, and writing fiction is a good way to explore them. I hadn’t really thought of Record Breaker as particularly heavy though. I tried to balance the serious stuff with lots of humour.Stevenson, Robin

Actually, this is kind of the same question I used to get asked when I was a social worker: Do you find it hard to deal with such difficult issues every day? And my answer’s really the same too. When you work with people who are going through hard times, you see their strength and resilience. You see that there is always hope and that life goes on. I think this is the same perspective I have when I create fictional characters in challenging situations: usually they surprise and impress me with their resourcefulness.

So I don’t mind heavy subject matter, but I don’t think I could write a book where there was no hope. That just isn’t how I see the world.

IFOA: Where did the idea for a protagonist obsessed with breaking records come from?

Stevenson: When I was 10 or so, I went through a phase of poring over The Guinness Book of World Records and attempting to stand on my head or hold my breath for a really long time. With no success, sadly. But that’s probably where the idea came from. I think when my son was seven or so we were looking at The Guinness Book of World Records together (that guy with the crazy long fingernails!) and I remembered my childhood love of that book. The idea of writing about a boy obsessed with breaking a record arrived soon after that.

IFOA: Why did you choose to incorporate important historical events into Record Breaker?

Stevenson, Record BreakerStevenson: I’m not sure where that idea came from, to be honest. I often get curious about things I stumble across, and I’ll start reading about them and thinking about them, not necessarily with any intent of using them in a book, just because I’m interested. And some of them are passing interests and others seem to linger in the back of my mind. Sooner or later, two or three ideas somehow stick themselves together and start to grow into a story.

With Record Breaker, the idea of a kid obsessed with breaking a record managed to stick itself first to the 1960s, and to what was known then as crib death, and then to the Kennedy assassination. There wasn’t a logical reason for itit just felt right. I enjoyed doing the research though, and I thought the events of the early 60s made a great back drop for the story.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Stevenson: I’m currently reading too many books at once, as I tend to do: Ken Setterington’s Branded by the Pink Triangle; Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson; a murder mystery by Elly Griffith; and a collection of interviews and essays about unschooling, called Natural Born Learners. Plus I’m reading the Redwall series aloud to my son.

IFOA: Name one book that has made a lasting impression on you.

Stevenson: As a child, I fell in love with L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon. It was one of the books that made me want to be a writer.

Robin Stevenson is the author of more than a dozen books for children and teens. Her work has been nominated for numerous awards, including the Governor General’s Literary Award, and she is the winner of this year’s Forest of Reading® Silver Birch® Fiction Award. See her at her upcoming YoungIFOA event, which offers students from grades 3 to 8 the opportunity to meet authors through readings and Q&A sessions.

Five Questions with… Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue, author of Frog Music and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Emma on October 1! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In a piece for The New Yorker, you said that sources for Frog Music “were gappy, mutually contradictory and fantastically suggestive rather than full.” Was your goal to structure and make sense of these historical fragments, or to use them as a point of departure for your own creative imaginings?

© Andrew Bainbridge

© Andrew Bainbridge

Emma Donoghue: Every time I write a historical-based fiction, I have both those goals, and I’m well aware of the paradox. First the studious, geeky, historian in me wrestles with the sources to make sense of them, weed out what doesn’t ring true and extrapolate to fill gaps… and then the novelist shoves that historian aside, saying “Leave the rest to me,” and starts reshaping the story and making things up.

IFOA: What were some of the pleasures of writing a crime or mystery novel? Frustrations?

Donoghue: The fundamental, throbbing pulse of keeping my readers in suspense: I so enjoyed that. I’ve had suspenseful moments or sections in books I’ve written before, but never till now committed myself to the particular writer-reader bargain of the mystery novel. And I loved making the who-pulled-the-trigger question also generate deeper questions about identity and responsibility.

Not so much frustrations as worries; being new to this genre, I kept fearing that I wasn’t doing the sleuth stuff right.

IFOA: Can you comment on the incorporation of music throughout the book?

Donoghue: This was a surprise to me: I invented the title (Frog Music) early on as a phrase to evoke the horny grunting of frogs (the animal Jenny hunts for a living), and then it occurred to me that all the main characters had a performance background, and then I found out that 19th-century people in general sang out loud unselfconsciously… Next thing I knew, the novel was becoming a babel of song.  Even at the late point of writing notes at the back on each folk song, I got more and more intrigued by the way these lyrics and tunes survive and morph in every generation.

Donoghue, Frog MusicIFOA: On your website, you mention that you’ve wanted to write a novel about the murder of Jenny Bonnet since back in the late 1990s. What initially drew you to her story and why did it stick with you?

Donoghue: It was Jenny who drew me inas a wisecracking, cross-dressing frog catcher she seemed the ideal (from a writer’s point of view), eccentric, live-while-you’re-young murder victim. And I found the setting of this crime (1870s San Francisco) irresistibly colourful. But when I finally found a space in my schedule to write Frog Music, it turned into the story of BlancheJenny’s friend and the one witness to her murder.  Which confirms my sense that point of view (who tells the story) is the key decision in writing every novel.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Donoghue: The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward (out loud to my kids, and because I’m writing a novel for middle-school readers at the moment); The Farm at Lough Gur (a 19th-century Irish memoir by Sissy O’Brien told to Mary Carbery, for research for my next novel); The New Yorker, in my handbag; Dickens’ Little Dorrit (again) on my phone, to deal with insomnia without waking my beloved.

Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose eight novels include the internationally bestselling Room. Donoghue presents her latest novel, Frog Music, a lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes in San Francisco in 1876. She discusses her novel with TWUC members Wayson Choy and Emily Pohl-Weary about what it means to write in Canada today.

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