IFOA 35 author Michael Crummey on storytelling in Newfoundland

At the 2013 IFOA, author Michael Crummey was joined by Wayne Johnston and Peter Robinson for a discussion about the importance of setting in their stories. In the below clip, Crummey describes how Newfoundlanders have, what he calls, “an inherent sense of narrative” and how that sense has influenced his own writing. “Storytelling in Newfoundland,” […]

Five Questions with… Beatriz Hausner

Beatriz Hausner, poet and author of Enter the Raccoon, participated in two events at this year’s IFOA. She answered our five questions about her inspirations and influences.  

IFOA: Enter the Raccoon tells of an erotic affair between a woman and a raccoon. Why did you choose a raccoon—of all animals—as the lover?

Beatriz Hausner

(c) Clive Sewell

Beatriz Hausner:  I can safely say that Raccoon, pure and simply, appeared to me on a day like any other. That this strange creature came in this form, as a human-sized animal with elements of the mechanical, is a mystery that I would rather not resolve. He quickly became an object of desire. There is significance to the timing of Raccoon’s appearance. I was at a crossroads creatively, still writing in a form I had developed and that is best exemplified by my books The Wardrobe Mistress and Sew Him Up. However, I felt a kind of restlessness. I felt unsatisfied with my writing. Quite by instinct one day, I decided to write the little essays and meditations I often conjured in my head. I did so with no specific purpose, nor direction in mind. As I was writing, free-associating, I turned my gaze and saw, for the first time, this incredibly attractive, albeit disquieting creature sitting with me in the room. What struck me at the time was the fact of Raccoon’s aliveness.

IFOA: You could have written about erotic love between two human figures. What does the non-human object of love—“Raccoon”—allow you to explore in these poems?

Hausner: What interests me is the possibility of transformation that occurs through poetic creation. To be fair to the question posed, it was the exploration of the more violent, the often frightening aspect of Eros, which this strange relationship allowed. Inventing a being who is at once animal, human and machine allowed me to be overt about those aspects of love that are not possible in realist representations. Wild animals change something in one’s perception of reality: they are utterly unsettling. As humans we’ve become more and more separated from animals; they belong less and less in our civilization. Entering the space between, the uncertain and liminal, inherent in this existential conflict, gave me the freedom to explore the erotic completely. Suddenly I was able to be fully sexual, to take it, and to be with a creature that could take it, without either of us dying. There is no question that the extremes I embraced in the process came at a time of greater psychological maturity. In our infantilizing of things erotic, we’ve ended up replacing animals with toys that are often machines. My raccoon offers possibilities for play through all his attributes, because he is a grown-up. Raccoon is the perfect lover.

IFOA: It’s clear from your poems that you have been strongly influenced by the work of other poets, artists, writers and thinkers. Who are some of your greatest influences, and why?Hausner, Enter The Raccoon

Hausner: It is true that I engage in a process that starts where others leave off. It wasn’t always so. I understood early on that the physical world, the emotions it engenders, as well as conscious and semi-conscious states were all at my disposal for transforming into poetry. After a while, however, I began to look elsewhere for echoes and clues that could lead to a deeper, more precise and more expressive poetics. True creation can’t exist in a vacuum. Very naturally I veered to the poets I felt an affinity with. My literary education is in Spanish and French, especially the modernist poets of Latin America and France, so I revisited César Vallejo, whose poetry expresses sadness and rage with an originality that is unparalleled. I love Robert Desnos and Benjamin Péret for their often whimsical take on things, and I am of the opinion that André Breton’s poetry is sophisticated and innovative, which is to say revolutionary, as all true poetry, regardless of its provenance and time of creation, must be. Closest to me emotionally and stylistically for a long time were the Peruvian César Moro and the Chilean Jorge Cáceres, both surrealists. These days I am interested in Classics like Dante, Ovid and the elegiac poets.

IFOA: You also work as a translator—what about the translating process do you most enjoy?

Beatriz Hausner after the Poet Summit round table on Oct. 26, 2013

Beatriz Hausner after the Poet Summit round table on Oct. 26, 2013

Hausner: The aspects of translation that interest me are not that dissimilar from those involved in the writing of my own poetry. Writing for me is an approximation to the truest expression I desire. Likewise, in translation, the transfer from the source text to the target language can’t be complete, because it is never truly rendered and remains, per force, an approximation. I have devoted much of my energy to translating Latin American surrealism, which means that I work with texts that were and are created in a spirit guided by the greatest of freedoms. I assume the same unfettered spirit when translating them, while always remaining true to their original intent. It really is too bad that none of the translations I have been working on for so long can see their way into print in Canada, where there is no official support for the publishing of international literature in translation.

IFOA: Do you have any rituals associated with your writing?

Hausner: I like writing in the mornings, soon after rising, while my mind is closest to that liminal state between dream and wakefulness, and, importantly, is still free of the pressures of my day job. I usually alternate between looking at images on the internet (usually fashion blogs), images on my walls or in print (art and design mostly) and reading from printed books (poetry and prose), which I take from my shelves at random, letting chance take over and dictate the process.

Beatriz Hausner has published many books of poetry and several chapbooks. She has also translated surrealist literature by writers like Rosamel del Valle, Olga Orozco, César Moro and others. She lives in Toronto, where she works as a public librarian.

Five Questions with… Lauren B. Davis

Lauren B. Davis, author of The Empty Room and a participant in this year’s International Festival of Authors, answered our five questions.

IFOA: You’ve been sober for 18 years. Why write a book about alcoholism now?

Lauren B. Davis

(c) Helen Tansey

Lauren B. Davis: It just felt like the right time. These things pop up, I believe, as they’re meant to. My life is so different now, so much more wonderful than I thought it would be when I was drinking. I can look back with a certain amount of objectivity, which I didn’t have in early sobriety. It’s taken a long time to feel I had anything to say on the subject that hadn’t already been said and that might be useful to others.

IFOA: Colleen, the protagonist of The Empty Room, is a lonely, recently unemployed, 50-year-old alcoholic. Is she how you imagine you might have ended up had you not stopped drinking?

Davis: She is how I feared I might have ended up. But in truth, had I kept drinking I don’t think I would have lived that long, or if I did, I would have been far sicker, physically, than Colleen. But, yes, one of my worst fears when I was an active alcoholic was ending up a disgusting, unloved, poverty-stricken, lonely old lady. So I drank some more to quell the fear. You can see the insanity of that.

IFOA: You’re a creative writing teacher. What do you enjoy most about that job?Davis, The Empty Room

Davis: That moment when an emerging writer shares a piece of writing they’ve struggled with, and persevered with, and crafted with blood and tears and laughter, and it’s good, it’s TERRIFIC, and you know it and they know it and all the work has been worth it.  What a great—and healthily addictive—moment that is.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Davis: Just finished The Professor of Truth by James Robertson and The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, and just started The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: Addiction is…

Davis: …a hell I’m incredibly grateful to have survived.

Lauren B. Davis is a critically acclaimed novelist, essayist and teacher whose bestselling books include The Stubborn Season, The Radiant City and Our Daily Bread, which was longlisted for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize and named best book of the year by both The Globe and Mail and The Boston Globe.

 

Trusting the Muse

By Janet Somerville

Each of the panelists, Cynthia FloodHelen Humphreys and Meg Wolitzer, began with a short reading from their recent books. Wolitzer read from an 1981 section of The Interestings, when New York City “looked like an episode of Kojak.” Flood read from “To Be Queen,” one of her stories in Red Girl Rat Boy, in which the 40-year-old narrator looks back to his childhood. Humphreys read from the beginning of Nocturne, a memoir in the form of a letter to her pianist brother, Martin, who died of pancreatic cancer, noting that “stopping a life is harder than it seems” and “we are lucky if what we devote ourselves to can give us some comfort in the end.”SONY DSC

Host and moderator Susan G. Cole opened up the conversation by asking what drew each to their form. Humphreys explained, “I actually was writing a letter to my brother after he died. I was being driven by grief. There was no room for the writer mind to take over. The only change I made to the manuscript was to structure it in 45 segments, one for every year Martin was alive.”

Flood, whose book is short fiction, noted, “I like being in a space that has a margin to it. My ideal process is to write two or three stories at a time.” And, Wolitzer admitted, “I love the fact that novels let you know what happens to characters. I’m affected by the sweep of time as in Michael Apted’s compelling Up Series of docs.”

Wolitzer continued that she likes to write from an idea. In the case of The Interestings, what happens to talent over time? Do people’s lives become diminished? “If I’m just writing about character, it feels small to me.”  On writing so convincingly about adolescence, she said, “When you come of age, you remember everything. It’s a time of firsts that remains vivid.”

Humphreys, a veteran novelist and dedicated researcher, could not read or write fiction for a year after her brother died. She began writing her way through her grief because “if writing can’t speak to the hardest things, then what’s it for?”

Considering the role of envy in her novel, Wolitzer said, “There’s this other kind of envy you feel for people you love. The ego is a moose head that juts out into the room. [My character] Jules, for example, can’t let go of her need to feel special and negotiate her place in the world.” Flood noted, “I like the process of embedding information, but it may not be unpacked the first time around.”

All three offered advice on the craft. Humphreys writes the entire first draft as quickly as she can; Flood writes as continually as possible; Wolitzer warns against self-censorship in early drafting and suggests, “Write the first 80 pages, even though they will be very different from the fantasy of what you intend.”

Do, as Freud said, “listen with evenly hovering attention” and, as Updike insisted, “submit to the spell of the story.” Sage, practiced advice from writers dedicated to entrancing their readers.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter?

By Vikki VanSickle

“When in Rome, decide to be Roman and convince the reader that they are Roman, too.”

-A.L. Kennedy

Sunday’s round table on national literature, part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference at IFOA, began as many academic English courses in Canada begin—with a reference to Margaret Atwood. Moderator James Grainger quoted from Atwood’s seminal Canlit bible Survival, providing a Canadian context for the theme of national literature. Grainger suggested that since the 1990s, Canadian writers have been moving away from a national literature and embracing a more regional literature.

All five writers hail from countries with something of a colonist complex: Canada, Scotland and Australia. They agreed that there is an overriding feeling that an English or American novel is by default the norm and anything else is “other.” Both Irvine Welsh and A.L. Kennedy touched on the fact that Scotland hovers somewhere between a region of the UK and nation. To define a novel as a Scottish (rather than British) novel is a political statement. Kennedy said that while it is paramount that countries maintain a culture life there is always the possibility that politicians will hijack the arts for cultural purposes.

Irvine Welsh, Kristel Thornell, Beatrice MacNeil, A.L. Kennedy and Liam Card at IFOA 2012 © readings.org

Is a national literature based on the writer’s nationality or the setting of the book? When and where does quality come into the conversation? An audience member observed that as an Italian-born Canadian, he appreciates literature that is both Italian and Canadian and does not draw distinctions between them.

With the fluidity of heritage, does a national literature matter? There are of course practical benefits to defining oneself as a Canadian or Australian writer. Kristel Thornell mentioned how her Australian citizenship allows her to apply for grants and be eligible for national awards. Her nationality makes her visible in a community and the cultural infrastructure of a nation provides support for its writers. This is definitely true in Canada, as well.

Welsh talked about globalism and how it has created bland consumable culture, and anything interesting is pulled into the mainstream and is sanitized, synthesized and mass produced before it has a chance to percolate. There was fear among the group that globalism and the desire for an international bestseller has publishers seeking the major common denominator in fiction, that original voices are being ignored, and we are experiencing a steady decline in imagination.

Despite this malaise, all the panelists swore that being true to one’s story and one’s voice was their number one concern, and claimed not to bow down to these perceived external pressures. As Kennedy says, a novel is a conversation between a writer and a reader. It is intimate and universal, regardless of the reader or the writer’s nationality.

This event was part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference, in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.

Follow VanSickle on her blog, pipedreaming, or on Twitter @vikkivansickle.
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