5 Questions with Catherine Graham

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We asked Catherine Graham five questions about her latest novel, Quarry; the 80s in southern Ontario and juggling writing projects for her book launch on June 1 courtesy of IFOA’s Toronto Lit Up.

IFOA: Quarry is your debut novel. Tell us a little bit about the different creative processes you went through while writing your first novel?

Catherine Graham: As a poet, writing prose was a very different experience for me. With poetry, I work with fragments, images and often incomplete thoughts to give the reader space to develop their own interpretation. Prose, on the other hand, demanded expansion. It was a place to round out thoughts and images by building scenes and bringing them to life through character, description and dialogue.

The image of a coiled spring comes to mind when I think of the difference between the two—compact for poetry, stretched for prose.

When writing Quarry, I started with poems I’d already written and then wrote bridges of prose between them. I liken the process to learning how to ride a bicycle—the poems were my training wheels. Once I felt confident enough with the prose, I could let the poems go. Looking back now I see how I was trying to transition myself from one form to another.

IFOA: The story is set in 1980’s southern Ontario. The title is Quarry. What’s the significance of “place” in the story?

Graham: The central image in the novel is a water-filled limestone quarry. At its edge, sits the bungalow in which Caitlin Maharg and her parents live. As the story builds, the quarry serves as metaphor for Caitlin’s journey. Layers of stone, watery depths and seasonal changes all connect to the complexities of her inner and outer lives and often mirror what’s happening to her.

IFOA: I understand you grew up beside a water-filled limestone quarry and like Caitlin Maharg, you lost your parents at a tender age. Is Quarry more fact than fiction?

Graham: Yes, like the protagonist in Quarry, Caitlin Maharg, I too lost my parents as a quarry-cover-jpeg-2teen/young adult. Even a cursory glance at my life story will reveal many of the same touch points that anchor my novel. Some have asked if this story is autobiographical. The answer is—it’s complicated. While Caitlin Maharg and I share many experiences, the novel is certainly not an autobiography.

Of all the characters in the book, the two most true to life are Caitlin’s parents: Donald Maharg and Mary Ellen (Rusty) Maharg. Their portrayals more or less accurately depict my own parents, including their first names. This was purposeful as I saw the book as a tribute to their lives, a way of keeping them alive, having lost them before I could know them as people and not just as parents. The novel was a way to mark the places they once held in this world like fossils in a limestone quarry.

The rest is largely fictionalized. Although, as with most novels, certain living people may see themselves as characters. I share many of the experiences of my protagonist—working as a lifeguard, selling bus tours in Niagara Falls, attending university and struggling with body image issues.

Quarry contains elements of my life but Caitlin’s story is not mine and neither is my story hers. I hope readers will take the book as a whole unto itself and won’t be concerned with what’s real and what isn’t. Besides, what is the truth? As Caitlin Maharg discovers: All of life is a bend of the truth, the curve in the question mark.

IFOA: You are also launching a poetry collection in the fall. Were you writing Quarry and The Celery Forest at the same time? How easy was it to switch back and forth between genres?

Graham: I had to concentrate on each genre separately. I carved out writing space for both to avoid switching back and forth. My editors—Alexandra Leggat of Two Wolves Press for Quarry and Paul Vermeersch of Wolsak & Wynn for The Celery Forest—are happy with the results. I respect them both so much that their affirmations gave me comfort. It was time to let these two manuscripts go. It just happened to be during the same year.

IFOA: You also teach creative writing at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. What is the ultimate advice you give the emerging writers you mentor about the stories they write?

Graham: I tell them to make time for writing, even if it’s five minutes a day. Try and keep some kind of connection to the writing life to avoid resistance. It’s easy to tell yourself: I’ll write tomorrow. And then tomorrow turns into a week, a month, a year.

In terms of their overall writing journey, I encourage them to keep learning the craft. Read more, take more courses, join a writing circle or work alone. Keep writing, reading and learning.


Catherine Graham. Two Wolves Press. Quarry. Catherine Graham is the author of five acclaimed poetry collections including Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects; a finalist for the Raymond Souster Poetry Award and the CAA Poetry Award. She received an Excellence in Teaching Award at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies where she teaches creative writing. She was also the winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW. While living in Northern Ireland, Graham completed an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies around the world. Quarry is her first novel.

IFOA and Two Wolves Press invite you to the release of Quarry on June 1 at 7PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series. Mary Lou Finlay, radio and television journalist, will interview Graham at the launch.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Sanchari Sur

We asked Sanchari Sur five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Sanchari Sur. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.IFOA: Why do you write?

Sanchari Sur: I am not quite sure. I have tried to give up writing for a long time, convinced it was only this idea of grandeur that I was allowing myself to believe in. There is a certain bit of je ne sais quoi that accompanies the idea of being a writer.

But the stories wouldn’t stop coming, and writing was the only recourse.

IFOA: What are some of the themes that you explore in your writing? Why?

Sur: Again, I do not choose the stories (and by extension, the themes). However, I suppose some themes haunt my narratives like familiar ghostly encounters.

I am most interested in the idea of gender and sexuality as malleable concepts. The binary of masculinity and femininity is frankly quite boring, and slightly clichéd. Another theme that crops up a lot is the idea of negotiation of different parts of one’s identity such as race, class, age, caste, (dis)ability and so on; that is, navigating one’s spectrum of privileges and the lack thereof.

IFOA: What are some of the genres you explore in your work?

Sur: I started out writing poetry and genre fiction (mostly, horror), but it is literary fiction that I have gravitated towards time and again. Currently, apart from my academic work, it is writing short literary fiction that consumes my writing hours.

IFOA: Who is your favourite author, poet or writer?

Sur: The book that started it all was The God of Small Things. So, in that sense, I will forever be indebted to Arundhati Roy for turning me into a lit fic enthusiast. Reading her book (several times since I was fourteen) made/makes me think: if only I could write an ounce of what she has written…

IFOA: What inspires you?

Sur: Random things. Some of my stories are based on very real experiences and some are just by-products of the theory I have been reading for school at the moment. And some are based on news items I come across on CTV when I am doing my thirty minutes of cardio at the gym.

Mostly however, it is usually an image, or a scene, or even a feeling (or, as Sara Ahmed would say, an “affect”) that sticks to me, and haunts me for days until I give in and try to figure it out through writing.


Sanchari Sur is a feminist/anti-racist/sex-positive/genderqueer Canadian who was born in Calcutta, India. A doctoral student of Canlit at Wilfrid Laurier University and a curator of Balderdash Reading Series, her work has been published in Jaggery, The Feminist Wire, and Matrix.

Sur is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Doyali Islam

We asked Doyali Islam five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Doyali Islam. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Doyali Islam: As a poet, lived experience—my own and that of others—is crucial to my work, but language is the mat to which I return.

To return to language is to resist in the most deft, complex and powerful way that I can. I like to think about existing language and its potential for poetic yield. I also like to invent words such as ‘geesturing’. (To ‘geesture’ is to gesture at geese!).

As a human seeking to become ever more human, I am moved by friends who are both fantastic poets/writers as well as gentle-fierce, curious and intentional beings: Geffrey Davis, Stevie Howell, Sheniz Janmohamed, Sylvia Legris, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Roger Nash, Soraya Peerbaye, Pearl Pirie, Sanchari Sur, Kim Trainor, Phoebe Wang and Chuqiao Yang come to mind immediately, but there are more.

As for my home life, I take inspiration from minimalism. ‘Minimalism’ is a trendy word these days, but I don’t mean the term in a narrow way. It’s basically an intentional approach to living in which one clears away physical, mental and emotional clutter to distill that which is essential. Poetry-making is not so different.

IFOA: What’s the story that you have to write no matter what (at some point in your life)?

Islam: I don’t believe in having to write anything; only that which arises as urgent, and compelling enough to invest time, attention and energy into for the sake of intrinsic reward.

Furthermore, I only publish—make public—poems that I think are working and that might have value to others. (I say ‘working poems’ instead of ‘good poems’ because I am trying to avoid the pernicious language of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.)

IFOA: Where do you write? Is there a specific place you do your writing?

Islam: I can’t generate new material in a café or public space. It’s my cat-nature. I need a cozy and familiar environment to be able to work. I wear my bathrobe when I write at home – the stereotypical poet! Clothing irritates me and makes it hard to focus.

These days, I most often work on drafts at my desk which was gifted to me by a friend—thanks, Sue!—during my time in North Bay (summer 2012 – spring 2015). The desk is longer than I am tall and takes two strong people to move it anywhere. I have been minimizing my possessions over the past two years ever since undergoing marital separation and subsequent divorce, but I kept this functional and handsome object.

Today, as I was dusting it, I felt an unexpected joy—sense of epiphany—in the maintenance work. So now I think that maintenance can offer up its own kind of pleasure and reward – what it might mean to polish a cherished kettle until it shines. Then again, perhaps, my perspective reveals a certain amount of privilege.

I sometimes revise by hand. I can print and carry a draft in my purse and work on it while I wait for an appointment, or when I’m on the subway. (I never revise on the bus. I look out the window or listen to the street sounds.) However, I still save and number all of my drafts in Microsoft Word – for example, “site draft52”. For me, a poem usually requires between 25 and 100 drafts.

IFOA: If you could ask your favourite author a question, what would it be?

Islam: I don’t know. I do think it’s important to contribute to the literary landscape beyond one’s own poems whether it be through interviewing/moderating (asking direct questions), curating, reviewing, adjudicating, or editing. Also, I think we all need to be asking, “What is the most important question I can ask myself right now?”

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Islam: My current full-length poetry manuscript is heft and sing. I have been working on it since 2010 and the manuscript is almost complete.

As a collection, heft and sing is formally innovative and lyrical. It contains a section of ‘parallel poems’ – a poetic form that I invented in the summer of 2010 and have been working in since then. One of these ‘parallel poems’ is my contribution to The Unpublished City collection, “43rd parallel”.

The manuscript of heft and sing also contains my innovations on the traditional Shakespearean sonnet, in the form of my self-termed ‘split sonnets’ and ‘double sonnets’. The poem bhater mondo, which was nominated for the 2017 National Magazine Awards, is an example of my ‘split sonnets’.

As for my ‘double sonnets’, the poem susiya, published in Kenyon Review Online, is still one of my favourites as is the poem two burials which won Contemporary Verse 2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize for writers under 35.


Doyali Islam is the winner of Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2016 Poem of the Year Contest, and other poems can be found through CBC’s Sunday Edition, Kenyon Review Online and The Fiddlehead. Her current poetry manuscript is the formally-innovative and lyrical heft and sing, which contains her ‘split sonnets’, ‘double sonnets’, and ‘parallel poems’.

Islam is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Simone Dalton

We asked Simone Dalton five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Simone Dalton. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.IFOA: Why do you write?

Simone Dalton: I always feel somewhat exposed when I’m asked to answer questions like this one. Not because I don’t think the “why” is important—I believe there is power in pinpointing your passion for, or the impetus to do what ever the thing is that you do—but I cannot say in the definite terms that I often hear other writers express that I was born to write, or I’ve been writing my whole life and have the journals to prove it.

I do have journals, but not one of them is complete. I will say this: I’m passionate about people and the stories that they want to share or the ones that they unknowingly unravel as they move through life.

The oral tradition of storytelling has also been a cornerstone in my life. I come from an extended family of storytellers and theatre performers. One of whom is Trinidadian-Grenadian poet and short story writer, Paul Keens-Douglas.

His poems were the first I ever memorized and performed as monologues. My mother’s sister, Gloria Keens-Douglas, was an educator who wrote allegorical Caribbean folktales for all ages. And my mother made sure my appetite for books was satiated in my youth. These influences shaped who I became as a reader and have helped shape who I’m becoming as a writer.

IFOA: What are some of the themes that you explore in your writing? Why?

Dalton: Inherited histories or cultural inheritance within families is one of my theme obsessions at the moment. It’s about how we echo the lives that started before our own, how imprints from our parents are left within us, and what triggers those parts of ourselves to come forward.

I’m currently exploring my own inheritance from my once absentee father.

IFOA: What are some of the genres that you explore in your work?

Dalton: Creative non-fiction and fiction are two of the genres I currently explore in my work; however, I’m intrigued by writing for stage and screen. I sometimes dream of characters in words, but at times, those characters are sharper and more compelling as people beyond the two-dimensional page.

IFOA: Who is your favourite author, poet or writer?

Dalton: Three women stand out for me, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat and Toni Morrison, but I will tell you about the first author in my list and her book: Annie John. Before reading Annie John, I was starved for voices that sounded like my own—like the people in my life—which always sounds absurd to me since I was born and raised on an island not far from Kincaid’s.

It was the first “ah-ha” moment that gave an example of people like me who could write—and do so successfully—in the way that Kincaid did. It was also a powerful portrait of motherhood and one that I identified with immediately.

IFOA: What inspires you?

Dalton: The words of people who have fallen six or seven times and still got up to succeed on their eighth try.


As a writer, Simone Dalton is grappling with the chaos of her relatively new ‘wokeness’. She is learning how to bring this reality forth on the page as a student in the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA program. Simone was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago.

Dalton is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Nicole Chin

We asked Nicole Chin five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Nicole Chin. Author. The Unpublished City. Shooting the Bitch. BookThug. IFOA. House of Anansi.IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Nicole Chin: Writing that completely takes me by surprise. I usually feel the most inspired to write when I’m reading something new that I really love and that’s just supremely special.

It can be poetry or prose, it doesn’t really matter, there’s just a magical kind of cosmic zap that happens when something grabs you.

IFOA: What’s the story that you have to write no matter what (at some point in your life)?

Chin: I’m not sure about that one. That’s a question I really have to think about. I’m not sure what story I have to write no matter what, but I do know that no matter what, in the near future, I want to write something that feels like an honest expression of myself where I don’t feel like I’m self-censoring in any way.

Sometimes my fears can be my biggest saboteur.

IFOA: Where do you write? Is there a specific place you do your writing?

Chin: I usually write on my couch, but in the last while, I’ve been writing a lot on my phone during my commutes on the train.

IFOA: If you could ask your favourite author a question, what would it be?

Chin: “What made you realize that writing is what you wanted to stick with for the rest of your life?” I really like hearing those kinds of stories, not necessarily from writers only, but from artists across the board. Stories like that are always so interesting and life-affirming. They make you feel like you’re not alone.

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Chin: I’m working on a novel. I realized I wasn’t writing the kind of thing that I love reading, so I made a change. I feel at home with my project now! It’s cozy but not too cozy.


Nicole Chin is the author of the House of Anansi Press Digital Short, Shooting the Bitch, which received the Mcllquham Foundation Prize for best original short story. Her work has appeared in Joyland Magazine, Room Magazine, The Puritan, Found Press and others. She has been long-listed for the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Short Story Contest and was the recipient of the Helen Richards Campbell Memorial Award.

Chin is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

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