The Roads Taken: place, plot and process

By Brianna Goldberg

“I just started writing and writing until I had a 300 page blob,” said Andri Snær Magnason of his award-winning novel, LoveStar, “and then I started un-writing.” And it was this process of un-writing, revealing how authors discovered the narrative paths their stories have followed and all the many ones abandoned along the way, that was the focus of Saturday evening’s round table discussion, The Roads Taken.

Steven W. Beattie, Emma Donoghue, Andri Snær Magnason, Alix Ohlin and Cordelia Strube at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

At the table was a varied bunch: Emma Donoghue, Irish-Canadian author of award-winning novels including Room and the new historical short fiction collection, Astray; Alix Ohlin, author of the Giller-nominated novel Inside, about a Montreal therapist and a man who attempts to hang himself, and a recent short story collection, Signs and Wonders; Magnason, the Icelandic renaissance man who has directed documentaries as well as written fiction (such as the above-mentioned LoveStar), non-fiction, plays, best-selling collections of poetry (yes, you read that correctly—best-selling poetry) and children’s books such as The Story of the Blue Planet; and Cordelia Strube, award-winning playwright and author of eight novels, including her latest, Milosz, about a friendship between a man and a young autistic boy.

With a group as diverse as the one gathered, and a topic as wide as the process of writing, demands on the moderator are great if the audience is to fully understand and engage in the conversation. Thankfully, Steven W. Beattie, writer, critic and reviews editor for Quill & Quire magazine, was at the helm, steering the conversation with confidence as well as a deep knowledge of each of the authors’ works.

Much of the evening’s talk emerged from the dichotomy of intuition versus structure at the beginning of a project. While Ohlin said she arrives at the realization of her stories “spastically, through intuition,” Donoghue admitted that if she followed her intuition alone she would be able to write no more than a one-page story. Strube described her desire to fully disappear into the world of the novel she creates, befriending the characters and totally living in their world for years at a time, and that this desire structures her whole approach to writing a story. Ohlin and Donoghue, though, said they enjoy the freedom of the short story format to take risks such as experimenting with new genres or bizarre constructs.

Ohlin also recounted advice she once received from an agent, suggesting she remove Canadian references that might make her work more difficult to market in the USA. She said that the stories this approach resulted in felt, to her, shallow and generic, and that she now prefers to feature details like the word “depanneur” in her work, as it is the challenge of using such culturally specific terms in an accessible and meaningful way that makes a story compelling.

Cordelia Strube added that she feels a responsibility to reflect such specific cultural details, believing it is the job of a writer to “document our time.” Donoghue, meanwhile, admitted that in writing she desires “the freedom to travel” to different eras and different geographies, which certainly opens access to a whole new set of roads to take.

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

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!

© readings.org

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.

Meet our bloggers

As part of our commitment to bring you great coverage of the International Festival of Authors (October 18-28), we’ve recruited four stellar bloggers to attend events and share their highlights with all of you. Without further ado, here they are!

Brianna Goldberg is a writer and producer from Toronto whose work has appeared in both of Canada’s national newspapers and on all three radio services of the CBC. She recently returned from two years of travelling through the Caribbean and Africa, where she freelanced on topics ranging from terrorism to lingerie trends to the general awesomeness of Virginia Woolf. Find out more about Goldberg’s work online on her website or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg.

Corina Milic reads, writes and edits for a living. She is the poetry editor at Canada’s funniest magazine that features a simian, The Feathertale Review. Monkeys don’t pay bills though, so she also works as an online editor and community manager at MSN.ca, Canada’s (legitimately) largest portal. She is currently trying to read every single book in her home. Track her progress here.

Iain Reid is the author of the critically acclaimed comic memoir One Bird’s Choice, which won the CBC Bookie Award for Best Non-fiction Book of the year and sold internationally. His second book, The Truth About Luck, will be published by House of Anansi Press in 2013. He writes regularly about books and writing for the National Post. Follow him at @reid_iain.

Janet Somerville teaches literature at Royal St. George’s College, a school for boys in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood where many of the authors who appear in her courses come to classes to talk about the writing life. A former PEN Canada board member and longtime volunteer, Somerville also curates an annual event called Get Caught Reading to benefit the Children’s Book Bank. She has poems published in Calling Cards: New Poetry from Caribbean/Canadian Women, tweets about books at both @janetsomerville and @TeenBoyLitCrit, and blogs about what she’s reading at Reading For The Joy of It.

Our bloggers are looking forward to the Festival, which begins October 18. For more information about our incredible lineup of authors and events, visit readings.org.