Five Questions with…Tim Lilburn

Tim Lilburn, author of The Names and a Toronto Lit Up participant, answered our five questions.

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your latest collection of poetry. 
©Michael Huston

Lilburn: It’s a collection that’s interested in my family, aunts, uncles, and some of the people I grew up with in north Regina. The book also has quite a bit of Vancouver Island in it. From both places it draws a bunch of names, all of them, in Ibn al-Arabi’s way of seeing, divine to a degree.

IFOA: If you could give your younger self any piece of professional advice – say just before you were about to publish your first book of poetry – what would it be?

Lilburn: Have a good time. Enjoy yourself. Find your music. Indulge your enthusiasms. This is more or less what I’ve done.

IFOA: Who are some of your favourite poets you can recommend to our readers?

Lilburn: Oh, this would be a very long list. Maybe I could say who is on my desk right now – Ronald Johnson; C.D Wright; Basil Bunting; Reliquiae, an annual brought out by Corbel Stone Press; Roy Fisher. I’m interested in looking at Neal Mcleod’s Cree Narrative Memory and his Indigenous Poetics in Canada, once I can find copies and a patch of free time.

IFOA: You currently are a professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Have you found teaching writing over the years has affected your own writing at all?

Lilburn: We’ve had some great students in our poetry program these last several years, poets like Melanie Siebert, Kayla Czaga, Garth Martens, Kevin Paul, all Governor-General nominees, and Arleen Paré, who won the award. Then there is Anne-Marie Turza, Ali Blythe, Maleea Acker and numerous others who’ve produced superb books. Both Lorna Crozier and I worked with them – it’s been an exciting time. I also teach a class on nature writing and a few ideas have come out of it for me. Assiniboia, a previous book, grew from one version of that class.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Lilburn: I was commissioned over a year ago by Edward Poitras to write what felt to me like an opera –a long, multi-voiced poem – on Honoré Jaxon for the dance company New Dance Horizons. It’s been performed, with music by Jeff Bird of Cowboy Junkies, and choreography by Robin Poitras, and the whole spectacle may be toured. I’d like to write an essay on the experience of helping to put this together. I’m also working on an essay collection (poetics, politics, eros, land), called The Larger Conversation. This will complete a trilogy on these themes that began in 1999 with Living in the World As If It Were Home.

The Public Author

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

I’ve given numerous author talks, participated in dozens of panels and joined several hundred book clubs, either in person or via Skype. Much as expected, there are questions about inspiration, character and plot, and a great deal of curiosity about how I write a book: Do you write longhand? Every day? When you began, did you know how the story would end? What’s been a surprise are the questions about me: Do you have sisters? What’s your experience with suicide? Alcoholism? Do you believe in God? I answer honestly and haven’t minded (except perhaps once, when a reader, asking why I chose to pollute my novel The Painted Girls with so much vulgarity, preceded the question with a lecture worthy of an evangelist). I sometimes wonder, though, if there is anything to the argument that books ought to stand on their own merit, that authors ought not to exist beyond the printed page.It would be a notion I pondered as I lapped up the International Festival of Authors this year.

The reclusive author—one who would almost certainly decline an invitation to the IFOA—is nothing new. In the case of American poet Emily Dickinson, it was likely some form of agoraphobia, rather than a decision not to meet her reading public, that kept her housebound for 20 years. For J.D. Salinger, it was an intense desire for privacy that drove him to request his photo be removed from the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye soon after publication, and then two years later, to move from midtown Manhattan to rural New Hampshire to take up the life of a recluse in earnest. For Cormac McCarthy, his near absence from public life seems to be linked to a dislike for the literary world. In the only interview he would grant in 15 years, he explained to Oprah his preference for the company of scientists over writers.

Italian writer Elena Ferrante famously keeps her identity private and does not tour to promote her books. The decision appears not to have arisen so much from the practical considerations of Salinger and McCarthy as from the idea that to know an author as a living, breathing entity dilutes the experience of reading her work. She told Vanity Fair “For those who love literature, the books are enough” and further explained herself in The Paris Review: “If the author doesn’t exist outside the text, inside the text she offers herself, consciously adds herself to the story, exerting herself to be truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement, at a book launch, at a literary festival, in some television broadcast, receiving a literary prize.”

Hmm. Has my extensive public blathering about, say, the profound love I have for my three sisters, despite some pretty alarming teenage rows, negatively impacted the experience of readingThe Painted Girls?

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © ifoa.org / Tom Bilenkey

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © ifoa.org / Tom Bilenkey

At this year’s Festival I listened with rapt attention as Miriam Toews mentioned tracing a thought she didn’t want to lose into the dusty surface of her car at a stoplight and as Anne Michaels described how indispensable self-doubt is to writing, how she always feels she is striving, and was moved by the absolute care and persistenceof such seasoned, accomplished writers in creating their art. Guy Vanderhaeghe spoke (comfortingly for me and, I expect, any writer) about knowing the imperfections, the places where he failed to do what he set out to do in Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, a book that had just won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Meg Wolitzer said every novel that works has an imperative, a reason to be, and I found myself contemplating that imperative for my novel in progress and know I will go on to consider it for the books I read. While this is only a smattering of all I’ve gleaned at this year’s Festival, I can’t quite imagine how any of it can lessen the experience of reading the contributing writer’s work. In fact, how could it be anything but enriching to me as both a reader and a writer?

On Wednesday night, I attended the 25th anniversary of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company at the Festival, and as though on cue, Zadie Smith settled any lingering doubt. She told the audience how she loved meeting writers through reading their work, how she felt she was experiencing their way of being in the world. Then she went on to describe how, when she was on tour with White Teeth, she made a point of seeking out a writer in each place she visited. In Chicago that writer was Aleksandar Hemon, who was also part of the evening’s anniversary panel. She turned to him and described how his knee bounced up and down as he spoke at their initial meeting, how very struck she was by his kinetic energy. “It brought so much to reading your work,” she said.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls is a #1 National Bestseller in Canada, a New York Times bestseller and has garnered rave reviews and been showered with special attention. Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection. Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, she now resides in Toronto.

Connect with Buchanan on Facebook or Twitter.

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Recap: James Ellroy in conversation with Linwood Barclay

By Janet Somerville

The candlelit café tables of the Brigantine Room were crowded and it was standing room only on Friday night for noir novelist James Ellroy’s conversation with thriller writer Linwood Barclay. Barclay wisely kept his introduction simple, noting Ellroy would read from Perfidia, the first volume of the second L.A. Quartet, “a story of war, romance and an astonishingly detailed homicide investigation.” Ellroy sashayed up to the mic, encouraging the applause by raising his hands like a preacher, and, in an amusing schtick, announced that after he read the prologue and chapter two in Kay Lake’s voice and chatted with Linwood about the book, he would “welcome the most invasively over-personal questions that every one of you peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty-sniffers, pimps and punks has for me, your foul owl with the death growl.” The room, full of acolytes, ignited in laughter.

© Jennifer Carroll

© Jennifer Carroll

Before he read from the novel, in order to set the tone, Ellroy referenced poems by T.S. Eliot and Anne Sexton, words that he quoted by heart. First, from “Four Quartets:” “In my beginning is my end… and in my end is my beginning.” Next from “With Mercy for the Greedy:”

“My friend, my friend, I was born

doing reference work in sin, and born

confessing it. This is what poems are:

with mercy

for the greedy,

they are the tongue’s wrangle,

the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.”

And then, he invoked himself in the mystery: “Tonight I’m your rat and I’ll hitch you to my star.” Perfidia begins on December 6th, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and continues in real time for the next 23 days, at its heart, “the grave injustice of Japanese internment.”

Ellroy spoke and read in well-paced rhythm. He made the weight of every word count. His performance, for surely that is what it was, was hypnotic, and the audience was soon under his spell, a co-conspirator, as he weaved his siren tale.

Barclay suggested that “unless you’re a Glenn Miller fan, perfidia may not be a term you connect with, but its lyrics, at least these ones, contribute to the novel’s theme: ‘While the gods of love look down and laugh / At what romantic fools we mortals be.’” Ellroy added, “Perfidia, the novel, is history as yearning. And, it also means betrayal. Graham Greene made a career and a life out of betrayal, right?” Then he sweetly sang the opening bars of the song, “To you, my heart cries out Perfidia / For I found you, the love of my life / In somebody else’s arms.”

The genesis of Ellroy’s book? Early in 2008 “I was looking out my office window, wondering why women kept divorcing me and why I didn’t have a girlfriend. Then, I had a flash of Japanese heading to an internment camp in a military vehicle, the grave injustice of that, but also a vision of the murder of a Japanese American family in the hours before the Pearl Harbour attack.” He re-read seven of his novels to refamiliarize himself with the characters and decided to make Kay Lake a protagonist, because she was his “favourite female character. I’ve lusted after her for 30 years. It’s a narcissistic and onanistic love and I stand indicted.”

Because Perfidia includes characters who were people of the time, like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Jack Kennedy, Barclay asked, “is there any sense of responsibility to the people who are real that you are writing about?” Ellroy responded, “I will do what I damn well please. If my human dramas are plausible or convincing, if they are morally sound, I will make you believe them.” Noting the two driving events in Ellroy’s life as “the murder of your mom when you were 10 and the Black Dahlia case,” Barclay coaxed the response from him that “my mother hot-wired me to history and I’ve been making hay ever since. I love to lie in the dark, brood and yearn. I am a yearning motherfucker and I wear it well.” Wondering further if contentment was an enemy of creativity, Ellroy noted, “for every traumatic moment there are probably 35 days of joyous time spent in libraries researching.” As a kid he was happy there, reading James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald. The last novel that Ellroy loved was Watergate by Thomas Mallon, “a breathtaking and heartbreaking book.”Ellroy, Perfidia

Prompting comments about his style of tight, staccato sentences, Barclay asked, “why does that appeal to you?” Ellroy said, “Content dictates style. I love the American idiom in all its forms. I’m here to exalt in its language. I love profanity. I love Yiddish. I love Black hep-cat jive jazz patois. I love alliteration. In my world all hard “c” words should be spelled with a k-k-k.” As for process, Ellroy always begins with a detailed outline that runs hundreds of pages long and makes sure that everything connects: “I block print in capitals. That’s how I’ve written everything. I have a typist who can read my handwriting. I edit constantly. I want to write huge books that are word perfect. I am out to create seamless verisimilitude. I rewrite history to suit my own needs. It’s benign megalomania.” What makes an Ellroy novel? Well, according to the man himself, “historical shit, sexual shit, booze and dope shit, racial shit, hilarious cop shit and internecine police intrigue.”

Ellroy was careful to note that “Perfidia isn’t meant to refract anything contemporaneous. I’ve never had a cell phone. I don’t have a television. I go to the store. I talk to people on my landline phone. I’ve absented myself from the world as it is.” When Barclay suggested “it must be great to not be part of this maelstrom,” Ellroy responded, “I’m appalled by it. I’m a solitary being. I live to an uncommon degree in my imagination, but I am not delusional. I have enough anxiety as it is.” Anxiety that he sometimes assuages in his red-walled music room decorated with framed Deutsche Grammophon LP covers, sitting in an Eames chair, facing his Beethoven shrine, the music by “the most inexplicable genius” blasting.

When asked by someone in the audience about the connection between substance abuse and the creative life, Ellroy, who refers to himself as a sober alcoholic, was quick to implore, “You better get sober, Jack, or you won’t have any creativity.” And, his final words in response to the age-old question, why write? Borrowed ones from Dylan Thomas, recited passionately, in full plaintive song:

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

I labour by singing light

Not for ambition or bread

Or the strut and trade of charms

Or by the ivory stages

But for the common wages

Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart

From the raging moon I write

On these spindrift pages

Nor for the towering dead

With their nightingales and psalms

But for the lovers, their arms

Round the griefs of the ages,

Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.

The audience roared to its feet in celebration of James Ellroy, L.A. noir’s acknowledged bad-ass master, sporting his Mr. Rogers camel-coloured cardigan. Oh, what a night. A wondrous ride with the demon dog.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

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