A Whirlwind Weekend

By Amanda Leduc

Here’s a bookish no-brainer: when the IFOA gets in touch with you and asks if you’d like to come to their Festival in exchange for attending some events and writing a wee blog post about some of said events, you do it. You do it especially if you’ve been reading books since before you really understood what words were all about. (Picture a two-year-old Amanda, book open on her lap, making up the story and “reading” as she goes. That book was a doorway even back then, even when I hardly knew what it meant.)

Most readers think that books are magical, and I am no exception. As I’ve gotten older and ventured out as a writer myself, I’ve discovered that peeking behind the pages—as it were—of a book and hearing what the author has to say about their process can be every bit as magical as letting that book world take you away. And so: a weekend of author events? A chance to mingle with the literary luminaries themselves? Yes, please! Where do I sign up?

This weekend, I heard the Irish novelist John Boyne discuss the role that the Catholic Church abuse scandals played in his latest book, and watched him talk about how the interviews that he conducted for his novel increased his empathy for villains and victims alike. I watched him speak passionately about how he refuses to “write down” to his younger readers. I’m trying to get them to think, he said. I’m trying to get them to move.

At another panel, I watched Marianne Ihlen—the muse behind Leonard Cohen’s “So Long, Marianne”—be gracious and gently funny about her time with the poet. What does a muse do, she was asked. Her reply? Well, she keeps the house. She had us all in giggles.

_TB11245In another room, another discussion, another panel filled with writers, I watched people grapple with the question of how to plot a novel. How to understand words on that deepest of levels. How to wrestle them together. The consensus of this particular panel was that no one knows, really, how to wrestle words together at any given time. It just happens.

The message: sometimes, no matter how long you’ve been doing this, reading and writing and making your way around, things still keep their magic.

I watched Alison Pick and Shelly Oria tease apart the question of how their respective Jewish heritages have shaped their works. I watched Adam Sol, Matthew Thomas and Russell Wangersky talk about how teaching has influenced both their writing and the way that they approach books.

Every talk brought me something new—some different insight, some other side of the writing process. They were all talks about books, and yet they managed to talk about so much more than books at the same time. As a reader, as a writer, as someone who just loves stories no matter how they’re told, I can say that every moment of my first Festival weekend was like holding that long-ago book in my lap and stepping into a new world all over again. People telling stories. People telling life.

There’s a whole week of the Festival to go yet. I can’t wait to see what stories we’ll uncover next.

Amanda Leduc holds a Master’s degree in writing from the University of St. Andrews and has had her short stories, essays and articles published in Canada, the USA and the UK. She is one of the co-creators of Bare It For Books, a calendar that features nearly nude Canadian authors and is being sold to benefit PEN Canada. Leduc is also an IFOA Delegate.

A Boy and a Man

By Anthony De Sa

About a month ago, my 12-year-old son, Simon, came home from school with a new book he had selected from his school library. It was John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. He read the first few pages at school, and when he came home, he stole himself in his room to continue reading. I had never seen this behavior from him. My three sons have always been terrific readers—something I’m very grateful for—but Simon had never immersed himself in a book quite like this. He gobbled it up and a day later asked if I could bring him another book, one that dealt with the Holocaust or WWII.

Yesterday, I realized I was covering an Artist Talk for IFOA with Irish author John Boyne as the guest artist. He is the author of nine novels for adults and four for children, but I didn’t know this. I must admit, other than Boyne’s big hit, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which sold over 6 million copies worldwide and was recently made into a feature film, I knew little about him as a writer. What I learned from him deeply affected me as a writer, a teacher, a father, and it has remained with me still.

John Boyne is fascinated with “telling stories about people that never existed,” and writing for him is “an ‘active release’—part of my writing process.” That’s how any other author might answer the question posed about the creative process. But what made John’s response more interesting was his lack of distinction between the ways he treats a novel geared for a young reader and his other novels, those that are written for an adult audience. In fact, in his experience he sees the distinction between the two treatments as greatly diminished. The forms share the same process: “my process is simply to write the book I feel most passionately about.” It is incredibly refreshing for an author, working in both YA and literary fiction, to make such a candid admission. It speaks to him as person, first, and it resonated with me as a high school teacher, as a father of three young boys and as a writer, who at times feels the pressure to be everything to everyone. I think Steven Beattie, the moderator of the event, said it well when he suggested one of the reasons his books work so well with children, books that are often centered around difficult topics, like the Holocaust or gender and sexuality, is that he doesn’t condescend to children. Boyne recognizes how sensitive and smart his readers are; they understand things that adults are often too jaded to fully realize. More about this point later.

DSC04203The discussion then turned to religion, in particular, Catholicism. Now, most authors would shy away from questions of faith or ideology of a spiritual nature. These questions are always answered with the preamble, “Now this is just my belief,” or the apologetic, “I don’t want to offend anyone, but…” When Steven Beattie asked if he was Catholic, Boyne responded that he was not, and then went on to explain his personal stories, many of which could not be told fully because we simply did not have the time. “In Ireland the Catholic Church destroyed itself—they didn’t believe in their own tenets.” Although he recognized there were good people in the church now, the kind of young boys who had been groomed to become priests in Ireland didn’t have the opportunity to develop and mature fully. It is no wonder there were so many issues of abuse. This will be the focus of his upcoming adult novel, The History of Loneliness (February 3, 2015 from Doubleday Canada). It has taken Boyne 15 years and 12 novels to write about his home country of Ireland, but he has done so now in what many say is his most powerful novel to date, a novel about blind dogma and moral courage, and about the dark places where the two can meet.

Pressed further, Boyne went on to say, “Even in silence, there is criminality.” He didn’t hold back. There was nothing “safe” about what Boyne said. It was unflinching—a word reviewers use far too often and badly—and honest.

So I asked my son Simon, what he liked most about The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Here’s what I got. First response: “I don’t know.” Typical. I thought about what Boyne said, how he tries to get children to think, tries to get them to read and move them. He said, “I write about the most extreme violent event in the world, without the violence.” Using this as my springboard, I asked Simon how he felt about the violence in the novel, and this is what he said: “I liked it because he [the author] didn’t hide anything. He just wrote it like it was.” It’s real life. It’s what John Boyne wants to write about, and for me and my 12-year-old son, it doesn’t get better than that.

Anthony De Sa grew up in Toronto’s Portuguese community. His critically acclaimed debut, Barnacle Love, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and a Toronto Book Award. His most recent novel, Kicking the Sky, was also a finalist for a Toronto Book Award and a national bestseller. He attended the Humber School for Writers and currently heads a high school English department and creative writing programme. De Sa is also an IFOA Delegate.

Connecting at IFOA 35

By Ania Szado

At IFOA 35, several industry folk have been invited to participate as Delegates. We’ve promised to attend events and contribute our thoughts via discussion, social media, blogging and so on.

Julie Joosten at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Poet Julie Joosten at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Me, I think of it as making connections. I’m not talking about networking, though that’s almost inevitable at a festival that brings together so many industry peeps, both on stage and off. The connections I’m referring to are the unexpected kind. The ones that remind you that being a writer need not be isolating or lonely. The ones that come of being open to possibilities. Serendipitous encounters that prove that—as in the pursuit of writing—the first and most important act is to show up.

Sometimes the click comes when tossing 140 characters into the Twittersphere. In the dark of the Studio Theatre yesterday, thumbing away, I broke into a grin at seeing the #IFOA35 hashtagged tweets of Delegates and pals Anthony De Sa (@antiole) and Amanda Leduc (@AmandaLeduc) pop up in my feed. I couldn’t spot the tweeters in the audience, but the real-time awareness of our shared enthusiasm for author John Boyne‘s forthright, thoughtful comments on writing and religion added a certain energy to the experience—the zing of connectivity.

Jacob Scheier at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Jacob Scheier at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

One hour later, one step beyond. As Mary Ito introduced a half dozen amazing poets, I posted a plea: “Tweeting as an #IFOA35 Delegate…with a raging toothache. Take me outa my pain, poets! Root canal is Monday.” From somewhere in the room, blogger Vicki Zeigler (@bookgaga) picked up the signal, sending condolences—which alerted me to the chance to retweet her play-by-play while my nerve endings went into high buzz.

And then, suddenly, I was okay. The poets’ voices took hold of me. Their bold, beautiful, mesmerizing words sent me out of myself, made me forget about pain, made me think about possibilities—for writing, for living, for learning. Sitting in the dark, ears alert and thumbs poised, I savoured the gifts I’d been given: a kaleidoscope glimpse into other worlds and other minds. Inspiration. The pain-busting thrill of connection.

In 2014, CBC called Ania Szado one of “Ten Canadian Women You Need to Read.” Her short fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize and the National Magazine Awards, and her bestselling novel Studio Saint-Ex has received international acclaim. Szado’s debut novel, Beginning of Was, was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Szado is an IFOA Delegate.

All downhill from here?

By Becky Toyne

Saturday afternoon.

INT. HARBOURFRONT CENTRE.

A grey couch is tucked in a quiet corner of Canada’s largest literary festival, next to a wall of windows.

Outside, an autumnal, cloudy view of Lake Ontario.

Festival-goers with tickets in hand stride with purpose along the corridor that links three theatres filled with authors and audiences. Around the corner, the festival bookstore hums with quiet commerce.

The flip-flip of pages as books are signed to fans waiting in line.

On the couch, Becky, with time to kill between events, rests her feet, gathers her thoughts, hydrates.

An IFOA staff member, walkie-talkie in hand, ID badge around the neck, wanders over.

– Becky! How’s your Festival so far?

– Hi! Pretty good, pretty good.

– Were you at the ECW party last night?

– I was. I exercised massive restraint though and left while it was still hopping. This festival-run is young but I am not as young as I used to be. A girl’s gotta get some sleep and pace herself, you know? This is only day three of eleven.

– I hear ya!

– Did you get a chance to see any of the James Ellroy event last night?

– Nope, but I heard good things.

– Oh man, it was so good I’m actually disappointed.

IFOA staffer raises inquisitive eyebrow.

– Because it’s probably all going to be downhill from here on in.

– But the festival’s only just started!

– I know. It’s a total bummer.

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© Tom Bilenkey

– But what about Karl Ove Knausgaard tonight? Are you going?

– I am. And I’m super excited. I think it’s going to be great. But Knausgaard’s whole thing is that he’s dark and brooding and his books are about disappointment and shame. Also love. And hiding beer in a ditch. But quite a lot about disappointment and shame. Plus the point of the My Struggle cycle is that it’s about the ordinary life of an ordinary man with ordinary neuroses, so he needs to be a bit careful with this whole international literary rock star thing he’s been catapulted into. He has to not become too rock star-y. So I think the interview will be great, but it will also be very serious.

Now: James Ellroy. He writes about some deep, dark, hardboiled s___, but he’s all Hollywood about it. And he’s a performer. He attacked the event like it was a show. He had all these memorized “bits” that he did. He walked straight up to the podium and addressed us all as “people, prowlers, predators, panty sniffers, pederasts and pimps” and told us he would welcome our “most invasive personal questions,” which from a guy with a back story like Ellroy’s is a pretty enticing offer. Some very well known Canadian crime writers were in the audience, which made it feel like he’s a god of the genre and all his disciples had come to see him. He talked about the first time he heard Beethoven in 1960 and how it changed his life, how he’s learned more from classical music than from any writer he’s ever read, how he likes to “lie in the dark, brood and yearn.” Oh, and he also recited Dylan Thomas out of nowhere. He made us laugh. He made us feel very grave. Sometimes literary events can make you feel like you want to take a nap. James Ellroy made everybody feel very, very awake. Way to sprint out of the starting blocks, IFOA.

– Well, I’m sorry I missed it. I’ll listen to the recording when the Festival’s over.

– Do it!

– But really, you don’t think anything else is going to be better than James Ellroy?

– Well, I was really excited to see Roxane Gay, but then she cancelled because she broke her foot. Which is ironic really, because I said to her publicist way back in June that I was going to kiss her feet when she was here, because An Untamed State left me like a bowl of jelly it was so darn good.

– Should I read it?

– You must! It’s the most profoundly affecting, all-consuming thing. But be warned that you won’t find the experience “fun,” and that you will also be needing a giant box of Kleenex.

– She’ll be back. We’ll reschedule her. You can kiss her feet then.

– I should probably state for the record that I wasn’t actually going to kiss her feet. I don’t want the festival to take out a restraining order…

– Noted.

– Oh shoot, is that the time? I have to go and see an event with Marianne Ihlen. She was Leonard Cohen’s muse, y’know. See you later!

 

Sunday afternoon.

INT. HARBOURFRONT CENTRE’S FESTIVAL HUB.

An IFOA 35 crest hovers on a Farrow and Ball-ish wallpapered wall.

Becky and other festival-goers browse the Festival bookstore.

ENTER IFOA STAFFER. Walkie-talkie in hand. ID badge around neck.

– Morning, Becky, back again.

– No rest for the wicked.

– How many events are you planning to get to?

– *counts* Including the ones I’ve already done: 22.

– That’s a lot of events to be going to if it’s all downhill from here on in.

– Well, I may have altered my position on that.

The inquisitive eyebrow again.

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© Tom Bilenkey

– Knausgaard was brilliant. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Sheila Heti asked such smart, reverential questions. He gave very long, thoughtful answers. The event had a slight awkwardness to it that was perfect for the subject matter and wasn’t actually awkward. There was an obvious affection between the two people on stage. The audience seemed to be a bit nervous, which was weird. They laughed when things weren’t funny, almost as if they felt compelled to fill any silence. If the audience is a bit nervous that means they’re all feeling quite reverential too. There aren’t too many authors who inspire that collective feeling in a room.

Knausgaard said he’d always thought of My Struggle as a parenthesis in his writing life. A parenthesis! Do you know how bonkers that is?! It’s 3,500 pages long and has made him crazy famous! It just goes to show. Sometimes you just need to not over think things and you’ll end up doing your best work of all. Hope for everybody!

– So things might not all be heading downhill after all?

– It seems not, no. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m pretty tired already though. How many more days are there to go?

Becky Toyne is a books columnist, editor and publicist based in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, as well as an IFOA Delegate.