Five Questions with… George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke, contributor to The Great Black North and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win a copy of The Great Black North! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

george-elliott-clarkeIFOA: What are some of your responsibilities as Poet Laureate?

George Elliott Clarke: Annual address to city council; establishing a Poets’ Corner at City Hall, striking a medal and printing business cards, establishing an e-mail account; trying to work with other City Departments (success with Toronto libraries, no-can-do from Toronto Police and the TTC); establishing contacts with other arts organizations (success with the AGO and IFOA, nil from TIFF); trying to widen venues for poetry (Remembrance Day ceremony, Toronto International Book Fair, etc.); commemorating poets (plaque erected for Ray Souster, new plaque for Gwen MacEwen and Milton Acorn in progress); and speaking to organizations and penning poems for civic occasions, upon request. Also, I’ve launched the East End Poetry Festival, running annually in September.

IFOA: How did you select which poem of yours would be included in The Great Black North?

Clarke: My poem is from my epic-in-progress, “The Canticles.” It’s taken from Part 2, which rewrites Judeo-Christian scripture from “a Black perspective.”Mason John, The Great Black North

IFOA: Having written in a number of formspoetry, prose, playsdo you have a preference for one kind of writing?

Clarke: Poetry.

IFOA: You’ve enjoyed great success throughout your writing career. Is there one aspect you’re particularly proud of?

Clarke: That I’ve inspired others to take up poetry.

IFOA: What’s the best thing you’ve read in the past six months?

Clarke: HARD question. Setting aside classroom texts such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the most resonant work has been Thomas Hardy’s 800-page epic poem, The Dynasts, dealing with the Napoleonic wars.


George Elliott Clarke is Poet Laureate of Toronto and one of Canada’s most beloved poets. Join him and fellow contributors on February 8 for the launch of the anthology of contemporary African Canadian poetry The Great Black North.

Five Questions with… Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue, author of Frog Music and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Emma on October 1! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In a piece for The New Yorker, you said that sources for Frog Music “were gappy, mutually contradictory and fantastically suggestive rather than full.” Was your goal to structure and make sense of these historical fragments, or to use them as a point of departure for your own creative imaginings?

© Andrew Bainbridge

© Andrew Bainbridge

Emma Donoghue: Every time I write a historical-based fiction, I have both those goals, and I’m well aware of the paradox. First the studious, geeky, historian in me wrestles with the sources to make sense of them, weed out what doesn’t ring true and extrapolate to fill gaps… and then the novelist shoves that historian aside, saying “Leave the rest to me,” and starts reshaping the story and making things up.

IFOA: What were some of the pleasures of writing a crime or mystery novel? Frustrations?

Donoghue: The fundamental, throbbing pulse of keeping my readers in suspense: I so enjoyed that. I’ve had suspenseful moments or sections in books I’ve written before, but never till now committed myself to the particular writer-reader bargain of the mystery novel. And I loved making the who-pulled-the-trigger question also generate deeper questions about identity and responsibility.

Not so much frustrations as worries; being new to this genre, I kept fearing that I wasn’t doing the sleuth stuff right.

IFOA: Can you comment on the incorporation of music throughout the book?

Donoghue: This was a surprise to me: I invented the title (Frog Music) early on as a phrase to evoke the horny grunting of frogs (the animal Jenny hunts for a living), and then it occurred to me that all the main characters had a performance background, and then I found out that 19th-century people in general sang out loud unselfconsciously… Next thing I knew, the novel was becoming a babel of song.  Even at the late point of writing notes at the back on each folk song, I got more and more intrigued by the way these lyrics and tunes survive and morph in every generation.

Donoghue, Frog MusicIFOA: On your website, you mention that you’ve wanted to write a novel about the murder of Jenny Bonnet since back in the late 1990s. What initially drew you to her story and why did it stick with you?

Donoghue: It was Jenny who drew me inas a wisecracking, cross-dressing frog catcher she seemed the ideal (from a writer’s point of view), eccentric, live-while-you’re-young murder victim. And I found the setting of this crime (1870s San Francisco) irresistibly colourful. But when I finally found a space in my schedule to write Frog Music, it turned into the story of BlancheJenny’s friend and the one witness to her murder.  Which confirms my sense that point of view (who tells the story) is the key decision in writing every novel.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Donoghue: The Fantastic Family Whipple by Matthew Ward (out loud to my kids, and because I’m writing a novel for middle-school readers at the moment); The Farm at Lough Gur (a 19th-century Irish memoir by Sissy O’Brien told to Mary Carbery, for research for my next novel); The New Yorker, in my handbag; Dickens’ Little Dorrit (again) on my phone, to deal with insomnia without waking my beloved.

Emma Donoghue is a writer of contemporary and historical fiction whose eight novels include the internationally bestselling Room. Donoghue presents her latest novel, Frog Music, a lyrical tale of love and bloodshed among lowlifes in San Francisco in 1876. She discusses her novel with TWUC members Wayson Choy and Emily Pohl-Weary about what it means to write in Canada today.

Five Questions with… Emily Pohl-Weary

Emily Pohl-Weary, author of Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl 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 Emily on October 1! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your upcoming poetry collection is called Ghost Sick. Can you describe “ghost sickness” to our readers?

Emily Pohl-Weary: Ghost sickness or heartbreak syndrome is an explanation for what causes people to waste away from grief. In medical circles, it’s actually called “complex grief syndrome,” which is a label for when living people develop unhealthy relationships with death or someone who’s deceased. Essentially, it’s the belief that an angry ghost might return and try to take someone else with them.

IFOA: Your recent young adult novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, offers a twist on the paranormal romance genre. What inspired it?

Pohl-Weary: When I began writing Wolf Girl, I’d just finished reading a very popular series of novels featuring male werewolves and vampires who were in love with a human girl. Any guesses? She could barely stay on her own two feet, and there was absolutely nothing interesting about her, except for the two monsters who loved her. This seemed so absurd to me and I got to thinking about why fictional monsters are almost always men. Are we too afraid of monstrous girls? Why? What would a ferocious teen girl be like? There was a lot of unexplored territory. I decided to see what would happen if a small, pretty teen girl turned into the physical manifestation of her worst nightmare.

IFOA: You’ve worked on a lot of different writing projects recently (a teen novel published last year, a new collection of poetry, the revision of a feature film screenplay). Why is literary variety important to you?

Pohl-Weary: Each project demands its proper form and genre. I couldn’t have conveyed the experiences in Ghost Sick through anything but poetry, or the high-paced, character-driven plot of Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl in anything but a novel. It takes me a really long time to finish a writing project and when I’m learning—which is inevitable when you change genres—it’s easier to stay engaged. I’m influenced by all kinds of storytelling and want to write whatever I’m consuming. In my opinion, movies, TV shows, video games, songs and comics are just as fascinating and filled with potential as books.

IFOA: You’re currently working toward your PhD in Adult Education and Community Development. How have you balanced your education with your creative writing?

Pohl-Weary: Not too well! I’m hoping to get back to the research in the new year. But I love the way the scholarly community encourages people to wrestle with huge theories and concepts, and that little people (like me) get to stand on the shoulders of giants. My hope is that whatever thesis I eventually write will turn some important thoughts into a format that’s accessible to a wider audience. I’ve been thinking a lot about how popular teaching methods can make creative writing more accessible to a diversity of voices and life experiences.

IFOA: You’re very involved in literary outreach programmes in Toronto. Can you explain your role as the 2014 Toronto Public Library eWriter in Residence for Young Voices?

Pohl-Weary: From October to December, I’ll be available as an online resource for young Toronto writers via the TPL’s website at tpl.ca/teens. So if you’re between the ages of 12 and 19, and like to write, you can submit a story, poem, rant or whatever for feedback, and I’ll respond by email. I’m also going to be blogging about the writing life, tips I’ve gleaned, resources, and my path to becoming a writer. Basically, it’s an opportunity for me to geek out about writing while encouraging teenagers. How fun is that? I truly love the Young Voices programming at the library—it’s innovative and brings teen writers into the Canadian literary conversation.

Emily Pohl-Weary is an award-winning author, editor and arts educator. Join her and other members of The Writer’s Union of Canada on October 1 as they discuss what it means to write in Canada today.

IFOA in Review: David Mitchell

By Dylan Schoenmakers

This past Saturday, David Mitchell spoke to a packed audience at the Harbourfront Centre about “the monster [he’s] unleashed on the world”: his most recent novel, The Bone Clocks. Though published only weeks ago, the room was filled with fans well acquainted with the novel, eager to hear from the author himself about a work that redefines the context of his entire oeuvre.

Mitchell chose a selection from the third section of The Bone Clocks, set in 2004. On waking from a nap, Ed Brubeck, a war reporter recently home from Iraq, realizes his only daughter has gone missing. In a novel that delves into the occult and fantastic, it was a smart choice for those not yet initiated into The Bone Clocks: it is an eventful, realist passage that does not approach the fascinating and complex realm of Horology that Mitchell has created, and which dominates the end of the novel. Mitchell is a phenomenal reader of his own fiction: his voice registers Ed’s grief, his premature relief when he mistakenly identifies his lost daughter, and effectively captures the panicked pace of Mitchell’s own writing. Mitchell’s hands press and knead his forehead, channeling Ed’s anxious disbelief.

© Dee Hopkins

© Dee Hopkins http://editorialeyes.net

While faithful to his own writing and the performance of reading, and despite the emotionally frantic passage he chose, Mitchell’s reading was peppered with lighthearted comments and asides: “you do have Blu Tack here, don’t you?” – “apologies to Yorkshire, it’s the only accent I can do” – “anyone who gets that last reference watches far too much Doctor Who.” The genuine charm and generosity I felt when meeting him backstage, secluded before the reading, extended naturally to the entire room while he was reading and answering Jared Bland’s thoughtful and provocative questions. Mitchell is quick to poke fun at his own legacy and status, as he does in The Bone Clocks through the novelist character Crispin Hershey: “you can apply the G word to [Kafka], not me,” he says, before clarifying, “that’s genius, not git.” He laughs alongside the audience. Toronto was clearly taken with Mitchell.

Aside from a charismatic speaker, one of the most enjoyable aspects of attending readings and interviews is the insight into the novelistic process, the actualization from germ to completed work. “I always spend the first 6 months looking for the book among the gas cloud of ideas,” he admits. The Bone Clocks, in Mitchell’s initial conception, was meant to collect 70 short stories about Holly Sykes’ life from age zero to 70. Though Holly remains the centerpiece of the novel, the sections that make up The Bone Clocks are voiced by various narrators, Holly’s story intersecting with theirs both obliquely and directly. Part of Mitchell’s decision to change the book’s format (sections of a novel versus connected short stories) was the way Mitchell says we attend to reading various forms: “we read short stories differently than novels, like a poem, more attentively.” We have, as Mitchell says, different “gears of attentiveness.”

© Dee Hopkins

© Dee Hopkins http://editorialeyes.net

The Bone Clocks is stuffed full of details, important and ornamental, and careful readers of Mitchell will notice recurring characters from his other novels in what seems to be one of the most-discussed aspects of The Bone Clocks: its “macronovel” form. The Bone Clocks widens Mitchell’s novelistic scope to include a fantastic and centuries-long battle between Horologists, whose souls or consciousnesses maintain throughout time while occupying different bodies, and Anchorites, a dark sect who remain ageless by sacrificing victims. This enlarged universe and temporal scale accommodates and links Mitchell’s characters from various realms. Most notably, the consciousness of Dr. Marinus from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet returns, though in another corporal form. On reusing characters, Mitchell jokes of Hugo Lamb, who first appeared peripherally in Black Swan Green: “he’s a hungry actor; he needs the work.” Reusing characters, says Mitchell, solves the problem of saying goodbye to characters, novels and the themes they provoke. Mitchell compares this approach or conception of novels as akin to a box set of a television series, though not linked by plot arcs but by character arcs. On recognizing this novelistic connectivity, his publisher said to him, “You’re writing your very own Middle Earth.”

Despite its foray into supernatural territory, The Bone Clocks remains firmly in dialogue with Mitchell’s other novels. While acknowledging that he wants to diversify and invent, that he hopes his novels would remain unidentifiable if not for his name on the cover, Mitchell acknowledges archetypal themes that writers are drawn to. For Mitchell, this theme is causality: “Why do things happen? What does it mean that it happened?” Though set on a grander scale that incorporates his previous works into this newly expanded realm, The Bone Clocks concerns itself with very human questions: chance, chains of events, posterity and time, free will and predestination. Mitchell is quick to say that the point of the author is not to answer these questions, but to explore them. And as Mitchell explores, he creates, enriching and expanding his own fictional world and our own.

Dylan Schoenmakers is the Communications Intern at IFOA. He recently completed his MA in English Literature at the University of Western Ontario.

IFOA in Review: Ben Lerner and Ian McEwan

By Dylan Schoenmakers

Last night, Ben Lerner and Ian McEwan took to the stage of the sold-out Fleck Dance Theatre for a reading and discussion with interviewer Carol Off. Both authors brought life to their latest novels by reading a selection of passages, and then fielding questions from Carol and the packed audience.

After the reading and interview, both authors chatted with a large crowd of fans and signed copies of their books.

It was one of the first events of IFOA Weekly’s 41st season, and an excellent taste of what’s to come for upcoming IFOA Weekly events and the Festival, which runs October 23 to November 2. If you weren’t able to see Lerner and McEwan, don’t miss your chance to engage with another literary giant: David Mitchell visits IFOA this Saturday, October 20 for a reading and interview. Grab your tickets here!

Check out some pictures from the evening, below!

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Dylan Schoenmakers is the Communications Intern at IFOA. He recently completed his MA in English Literature at the University of Western Ontario.

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