Leading Men

By Janet Somerville

International Dublin IMPAC award winner Colum McCann, bestselling crime writer George Pelecanos and this year’s American novelist darling, Philip Meyer, joined Globe and Mail books editor Jared Bland to discuss compelling characters—and anything else they damned well pleased relating to the writing life—on Sunday, November 3._TB12996

For Meyer, a good character “appears to support ideas of a book in an organic way. Their thoughts and speech rhythms have to work with themes. And, you’re learning the voice and physicality of each as you write.” In his two most recent books, Pelecanos said that, “writing a younger character like Spero Lucas has allowed me to get energy to write about sex. And, I prepared by reading Roth.” But, his favourite character is Derek Strange, the one most unlike him. For McCann, “the way a character comes along and knocks you sideways and holds contradictory things” is endlessly fascinating. He insisted that, “you have to pretend it’s easy when it’s difficult, when underneath you’ve got torn ligaments.”

In creating the indelible, complicated frontiersman in The Son, Eli McCullough, Meyer noted that it “was a happy moment in some ways because I’d found the key to the book. He seems the most compelling because he’s in an extreme situation, having been kidnapped.” About Derek Strange, Pelecanos said the character is “like guys I looked up to in D.C. He keeps an office on the street so kids can watch him turn the key and see what a man does. And, he screws up with women a lot, which is true for any man. Once you figure out who the characters are, they write the story.” McCann observed that you need “to catch the moment in flight. To abandon yourself to whoever the character is. Sometimes the characters lead me in the most unusual way. It’s interesting that we have as much responsibility to fictional characters as to real characters in the world like Frederick Douglass in Transatlantic.”  His best advice: “You should write towards what you want to know.”

Meyer begins a new piece without researching, “by writing to the limit of my knowledge.” Though, he said, he read approximately 250 books about Texas as he was writing The Son, “because I don’t have the confidence to put words down. The first time I saw the galley of my book, I thought, this is all I’ve got to show for five years?” Pelecanos interrupted, graciously insisting, “If you haven’t read The Son, it’s the best book of the year. Discovering that Meyer was a Michener Fellow, he added, “you know these little arts grants make these kinds of books possible. It’s the price of a tank that’s never going to be used.”

About his own process Pelecanos said, “I get letters from guys in prison. I do reading programmes there. And, I think, what can I learn today that I can use in a book. I’m proud that I’m at the top of the bestseller lists in prisons.” Because The Son is rife with sensory detail, Meyer explained that “I know what a deer smells like and I can tell if it’s a buck or a doe.” He learned how to quarter a buffalo “because the animal was such a central force for the people I was writing about.” He went so far as to “drink a cup of blood from one of them, which was obviously disgusting.”  McCann tells his students at Hunter College, “I can’t teach you a damned thing. Process is about stamina. You have to force yourself to sit there. If you can foster stamina, desire and perseverance, you can make it as a writer.” Meyer added, “it comes from a place inside you and you trust instinct and feeling more and more. You want to move the reader through with rhythm and pacing. Storytelling is like a symphony,”

In Transatlantic, McCann admitted, “I wanted to braid these things together: those who made history and those who suffered history—and they’re as important to the political and social process. We all know that history is agreed upon lies, so let’s make it more democratic.” About editing himself, he remarked, “I try to look forward 20 years from now and ask, will I be embarrassed by any of this then?” Meyer added, “I try to shut out every other voice but my own. A character doesn’t have to be sympathetic, as long as they’re fascinating.” Pelecanos observed that his protagonist in The Double, Spero Lucas, is “the only guy who is a killer. True Grit is my favourite novel. Maddy Ross is not very likable, but the voice is enduring.” On writing for The Wire, he added, “We were just trying to depict people as they are in the city. Omar is the moral center. He never swore. He observed Sunday truce.” Before that collaborative writing experience, Pelecanos had never been in a room “where other writers were critiquing what I was doing. I was told often, it’s too on point. As a result, in my novels I’ve gone to my strength, which is dialogue. Writing how people talk.”

About endings, McCann said, “An ending can only go one particular place. I will write in a fever of 16 to 18 hours a day.” For Meyer, “it’s a feel that it’s done. You don’t go back and tinker with it.” And, Pelecanos added, “I rewrite at night what I’ve written earlier that morning. The end just comes. It should end when it feels right.”

Final words from each of them about their chosen craft: McCann: “You can’t believe only the good stuff. You must also believe the bad stuff. It’s the natural corollary;” Pelecanos: “You have to go to work every day. I treat it like a job. I get dressed. Remember, John Cheever used to put on a suit to go to his desk;” Meyer: “You need to be doing this because it is in you to do it.” Story is a river running through all three of them. And, we readers are all the more fortunate for such flow.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

A Tribute to Alice Munro

By Janet Somerville

The Fleck Dance Theatre was packed to the gills on Saturday, November 2, and the evening’s warm-hearted playfulness was established with IFOA Director Geoffrey Taylor quipping, “through the magic of prerecorded voiceover, I just got to introduce myself.” He celebrated Alice Munro as this year’s Harbourfront Festival Prize recipient, “who has made a substantial contribution to Canadian letters,” noting how delighted he was “that the Nobel Foundation agreed with us about a month after our announcement.” Avie Bennett, former Chair of IFOA and President of McClelland & Stewart, accepted the prize on Munro’s behalf and said, “Please settle for my assurances that I’ll convey both the cheque and your good wishes to Alice.”

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson

Douglas Gibson, Munro’s longtime editor, who made her feel “that short stories were worthy fiction” decades ago, hosted the evening. About the Nobel nod this year, Gibson recounted how he sat by the phone for the past five years, awaiting THE call in the wee hours of the morning. This year, as soon as the news spread, he was invited to do several “interviews of exaltation” that went like this: “How great is it?” “It’s really, really, really great!” Well, it IS. Since a video of the evening was being sent to Alice, Gibson encouraged the audience to show its appreciation for her work, and we roared to our feet, cheering and clapping, absolutely chuffed for her.

Jane Urquhart

Jane Urquhart

The first to pay tribute was Alice’s longtime friend Jane Urquhart, who claimed Alice’s stories, grounded as they are in small town life, “gave me permission to play with the notion of writing myself.” She unfurled the tale of their first meeting in 1987, when Urquhart retrieved Munro from the bus depot in New Hamburg, “practically incoherent with excitement.” In her diary at the time, Urquhart mused about the number of exclamation marks: “Yesterday I spent the day with Alice Munro!!!! She sat in precisely the right chair at the kitchen table!!!!! She told me about her father’s book and she cried.” Urquhart then read an excerpt from Robert Laidlaw’s book and from Alice’s story “Working for a Living,” collected in The View From Castle Rock. She concluded with another piece from her own diary, where she recorded, “Alice told me that the Clinton librarian had been captured by Albanian bandits. She wondered if she could write a story about it. I hope she does!!!!!!!”

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews, who Gibson noted, “grew up in the shadow of Alice and found the shade not depressing, but inspiring,” spoke next. Toews remembered that when she was twelve, her sister went away to university and told her to “stay out of my room,” a plea she ignored and therein found a copy of Lives of Girls and Women on the bookshelf, its cover image “like looking out my window.” Between its pages she began her “own course of study on life with Del Jordan. Serious. Badass. Hardcore adult literature.” And, after reading an excerpt from that coming-of-age collection, she noted, “Alice Munro initiated me into the world of literature and I am grateful for her exquisite company.”

Colum McCann

Colum McCann

Novelist Colum McCann took the stage after Toews, noting “literature is an intimate form of admiration. The short story is an imploding universe, a white star with hot language and beautifully defined singularities. I see Alice Munro as the absolute antidote to despair.” And, then he read a heartbreaking, exquisite excerpt from “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” the piece that Sarah Polley adapted into her Oscar-nominated screenplay Away from Her.

Alistair MacLeod

Alistair MacLeod

Celebrated short story writer and fellow IMPAC winner Alistair MacLeod waxed on about how “Alice notices everything and that is one of her great strengths.” Consider the details of the washing on the line, the Rhode Island red hens, the velvet paintings of Niagara Falls in the kitchen and other bits of what might be observed in Jubilee: “deep caves paved with linoleum.” With his rumbling East Coast cadence, MacLeod read from “Passion,” one of the stories in Runaway.

Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble

As Gibson introduced the final speaker, Margaret Drabble, he noted she had “a grandparent called Bloor and loves to return to Toronto where there is a subway line named after her family.” Who knew? Drabble began by delighting in carrying Munro’s complete work on her Kindle and her thrill in re-reading Alice, which is equally rewarding to discovering her for the first time. “She is a virtuoso, but with none of the self-conscious showmanship. She writes with insight, sympathy and great wit. Her stories turn ‘round on themselves, and come back to where they began. When I think of her work, I think of landscape and long journeys. Settings are described with poetic precision. Alice has such a powerful sense of the way landscape shapes our lives.”

Alice Munro’s stories reflect the narratives in our own lives. What, in fiction, is more powerful than that?

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.