Writing is a Dialogue

By Sheniz Janmohamed

IFOA and I have a long history. When I was a bright-eyed student in the University of Guelph’s MFA in Creative Writing programme, students had the fortune of attending master classes, readings and round tables at IFOA. I remembered thinking, “This is where the professionals come to play.” I shook hands with Wole Soyinka (and swore to never wash mine again), interviewed Mohsin Hamid and sat in a master class with Mark Strand. It was an enriching and inspiring experience for all of us, and the words of mentors and literary idols come to mind when I’m faced with a writing roadblock.

Back then, I was in love with the idea of writing (I still am) and the perks that come with it—meeting the greats, dining with publishers and writing for a living. Almost eight years later, I have come up against the hard truth of being a writer. The uncomfortable truth that being a writer is rarely glamourous, often tedious and mostly fulfilling.

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Lee Maracle at IFOA by © ifoa.org/George Lobb

And so, returning to IFOA as a Delegate, I had difficult questions to ask. Questions about survival, appropriation and labelling. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the answers I was looking for. Part of me already knew that asking those questions would require action, not words.

I found myself in an IFOA van with the gloriously funny Lee Maracle, en route to the Woodland Cultural Centre for IFOA Branford. As we left Toronto, she pointed out where the wild rice fields used to grow, the meaning of Toronto (“Gathering Place”) and reminded us that water remembers. It was a fascinating conversation—a conversation that did not separate the political from the personal, the communal from the individual. She listed off the vegetables she grows in her garden with the same passion she listed off her favourite poets: “Dionne Brand is Canada’s greatest poet—elegant, direct, simple. Every poem is a feast.”

The length of the journey and the casualness of our conversation allowed us to jump from storytelling to our traveling experiences in a matter of minutes. I learned that Maracle travelled to India for a conference and theatrical collaboration. We spoke of the politics of class and the caste system as well as our disdain and love for Indian-style bucket baths.Maracle reminisced about the days when she set up her living room with mats and blankets for her children and children’s friends—and they’d spend the weekend reading an entire book aloud.

We laughed, paused to reflect and returned to the discussion with thoughtful questions. It was fulfilling because I was speaking to Lee Maracle, not the literary idea of Lee Maracle. We talked about writing that is deemed “too ethnic,” the fine balance between tradition and evolution, and the challenges of writers who do not speak in their mother tongue. Maracle spoke of storytelling as an interwoven web that is linear and simultaneously spirals in/out. Characters’ names have positions, not just meanings.

Maracle reminded me that writing is a dialogue with your community, not just yourself. And that’s what IFOA is really about—bringing together writers who have never met, who haven’t seen each other in a long time, who have nothing to say to each other, who have too much to say. It raises questions that require contemplation, action, change. It provides answers that are sometimes unexpected, often understood and at times, complicated.

It doesn’t end when the curtain closes. It has just begun.

Let’s continue the dialogue.

Sheniz Janmohamed is an author, artist educator, spoken word artist and the Artistic Director of Sufi Poets Series. She has been published in a variety of journals, including West Coast Line, Catamaran Literary Reader and SUFI Journal. She has published two collections of poetry: Bleeding Light and Firesmoke. Janmohamed is also an IFOA Delegate.

The Importance of Setting

By Brian Francis

On November 1, as part of the IFOA Delegate programme, I attended a roundtable discussion about the importance of book setting. The panel featured writer David Bergen (Leaving Tomorrow), Richard Wagamese (Medicine Walk), Christos Tsiolkas (Barracuda) and was moderated by Lewis DeSoto (The Restoration Artist).

Richard Wagamese, David Bergen, Christos Tsiolkas and Louis DeSoto

Richard Wagamese, David Bergen, Christos Tsiolkas and Louis DeSoto ©ifoa.org/Ricky Yu

One mistake that aspiring authors sometimes make is not paying close enough attention to the setting of their stories. But an evocative setting is crucial to a story’s success. After all, if you can’t create a believable world that your characters inhabit, how will readers believe in those characters?

Setting can play such an important role in your story that it can even become, as Lewis DeSoto pointed out, an extension of a character. Setting can even be a character, providing the obstacle your characters need to overcome. Think blizzards, jungles and shopping malls during holiday season.

But setting is more than the physical location. As David Bergen pointed out, setting is also how people speak, how they talk, the cars they drive. Often, it’s not about the physical setting but its nuances that contribute to creating a believable backdrop for your readers.

When it comes to researching your setting, the panel agreed that while Google comes it handy, it doesn’t provide the sensory details you need in order to truly capture your setting. You, as the writer, need to experience your settingthe smells, the landscape, its inhabitantsif you want to create a believable place that will captivate the imaginations of your readers.

Brian Francis’ most recent novel, Natural Order, was selected by the Toronto Star, Kobo and Georgia Straight as a Best Book of 2011. His first novel, Fruit, was a 2009 Canada Reads finalist. Francis is also an IFOA Delegate.

David Nicholls at IFOA 35

David Nicholls is the author of the bestselling One Day, adapted into a film staring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess. Nicholls presented his latest novel, Us, at IFOA 35. In case you missed it, the discussion with Bert Archer is below.

Five Questions with… David Bergen

David Bergen, author of Leaving Tomorrow 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 David on November 2, as well as a copy of Leaving Tomorrow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In an interview with Mark Medley of the National Post, you said, “I always have a book that I use that somehow inspires my novels.” What book inspired Leaving Tomorrow?
Bergen, David

David Bergen: For this novel, there was no one specific book, though The Red and the Black and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were humming in the background. And Ecclesiastes. And Flaubert.

IFOA: Leaving Tomorrow focuses on young Arthur finding his place in his family and the world. How did you go about creating such a psychologically compelling character?

Bergen: I try to figure out what the character is pushing against. That is my starting point, and usually that leads to other discoveries. Nothing is obvious, and usually the little moments are the ones in which the character reveals himself.

IFOA: What was it like having one of your novels (The Age of Hope) selected to be part of CBC’s Canada Reads in 2013?

Bergen: Strange. Canada Reads is geared towards discussions of “issues” or “relevance,” and certain novels are not inclined that way. That said, I was pleased to have attention paid to The Age of Hope. Good people at Canada Reads, and I got to meet Ron MacLean.Bergen, Leaving Tomorrow

IFOA: Do you have a writing regiment?

Bergen: When I am writing and lucky enough to be in the midst of a novel, I write five days a week, six hours a day, at my office in the Exchange in Winnipeg. I aim for five hundred words a day.

IFOA: What was the best piece of writing you read in the past year?

Bergen: Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman.

David Bergen is the award-winning author of eight novels, including The Time in Between, winner of the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize. See David on November 2 as he reads from his latest, Leaving Tomorrow, an emotionally powerful story about a hopeful young man who yearns for a larger life outside of his small town in Alberta.

Five Questions with… George Fetherling

George Fetherling, author of Travels by Night 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 George on November 2! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: You’re presenting the 20th anniversary edition of your memoir Travels by Night at IFOA. How does it feel to revisit a memoir 20 years later?Fetherling, George

George Fetherling: Re-reading (and expanding and revising) the text was an odd experience for someone in his mid-60s looking back at what he wrote in his mid-40s about his first 21 years. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because I scarcely recognize the narrator today except in some matters of diction. So the effect is a little like shaking hands with one’s ghost.

IFOA: How has the Canadian publishing industry changed since your early involvement in it?

Fetherling: Pretty well everything about Canadian publishing has changed in my time, sometimes for the better, but mostly not. On the plus side, the industry is certainly much more cosmopolitan and diverse than it used to be. But is it any more stable? Old publishers are always folding up, shutting down or being sold off as new and unexpected ones spring up and graduate from small- to middle-sized.

IFOA: Your literary output is extraordinary. Which of your own projects are you most fond of?

Fetherling: Travels by Night is my best-known book, I guess, but two others that people seem to like are the novel Walt Whitman’s Secret (already made into a play in the US, with a Canadian production now in the works) and The Sylvia Hotel Poems. My own favourite of my books—but no one else’s evidently—is my biography of the late George Woodcock.

Fetherling, Travels by NightIFOA: What project is next for you?

Fetherling: I’ve been working on a novel, a kind of noir, because after all I was raised noir. It will probably be called The Carpenter from Montreal.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I often wonder…

Fetherling: I often wonder how I have survived against the odds—and how long I might continue to do so.

George Fetherling is a prolific poet, novelist, cultural commentator and memoirist. He presents the expanded 20th anniversary edition of his memoir Travels by Night, which discusses literary life in the 1960s. On November 2, he discusses writing and real-life inspiration alongside four other authors.

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