Five Questions with… Krista Foss

Krista Foss, author of Smoke River and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions.

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IFOA: Where did the idea for Smoke River come from?

Krista Foss: The idea for the novel came from a convergence of many things, including my grandfather’s struggle to claim his native ancestry, my experiences as a journalist and teacher, my interest in the land disputes of Oka/Kanehsatake and Caledonia/Six Nations and my own anchor to the geography in which I was raised. I wanted to write about the idea of land, and how it’s invested with history and identity and the complexity of our interconnections.

© Fehn Foss

© Fehn Foss

IFOA: You worked for many years as a journalist. How has that experience informed your fiction writing?

Foss: Journalism taught me to pay attention; to watch for the singular, concrete detail that telegraphs many layers of meaning. The discipline of constant deadlines also made me push past my natural inertia and write even when I didn’t feel like writing.

IFOA: What has been your most unlikely or unusual source of inspiration?

Foss: Field guides. I am a bug and botany nerd. My mother passed down all these wonderfully evocative folk names for everything in the woods and fields: purple boneset, Campion’s bladder, dog strangling vine among them. As children, there wasn’t a berry that we didn’t pick and eat. So I never got over the romance and sustenance of wild plants, nor the desire to name them. Plus I was that weird girl who was into insects—both enthralled and secretly terrified by everything that crawled and flew. I allayed my fears by being able to identify them.Foss, Smoke River

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Foss: I’m on a CanLit bender: I just finished Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Currently, I’m reading both David Adams Richards’ Crimes Against My Brother and Nadia Bozak’s El Nino, so I can ask them pithy questions!  Next up: Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Foss: I am taking notes and planning for another novel. I have some short stories I would like to pursue, too.

Krista Foss is a former journalist whose short fiction has twice been a finalist for the Journey Prize and longlisted for CBC’s Canada Writes contest, as well as published in several literary journals. Foss presents her compelling debut novel, Smoke River, alongside authors David Adams Richards and Nadia Bozak on May 21.

An Evening with Claire Cameron, Karen Russell and Helen Walsh

By Janet Somerville

Last Thursday, Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother, hosted readings by Random House of Canada authors Claire Cameron, Karen Russell and Helen Walsh, which were followed by an open Q&A.

Recently longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, Claire Cameron read an early scene from The Bear, where a quick-Cameron, The Bearthinking father puts Anna (age 5) and Stick (age 2) in a large metal cooler when a black bear invades their campsite in Algonquin Park. Squished inside “Coleman,” Anna holds her teddy bear Gwen for comfort, and observes, “I see stars and the wind is not breathing…. Outside the bones go crack crack crack…. It smells like rotting leaves under the cottage or fish guts in the boat. Yuck.” In her five-year-old stream-of-consciousness narrative, the bear’s wet nose reminds Anna of the leather chair at her grandpa’s place, and the lemon polish his housekeeper uses to make it shine. That thought comforts her in the face of fear.

Russell, Vampires in the Lemon GroveKaren Russell, named a MacArthur Foundation Genius Fellow in fall 2013, applauded Cameron’s “shout out to lemons in The Bear,” and about her short fiction collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, said, “It’s not even a metaphor. There are vampires in the lemon grove.” When she visited Sorrento, she saw “a tiny Italian grandfather with a lemon rind for teeth. He looked like a vampire on methadone.” Self-deprecating, warm and delightful Russell read from the titular story, in which the narrator explains, “Most people mistake me for a nonno with a tan that will not fade until I die and I never will.” In the lemon grove, Santa Francesca’s limonetta is the best on the planet, and the only drink that can touch his unquenchable thirst.

Helen Walsh, whose fourth novel, The Lemon Grove, was just recently published, claimed she still hadWalsh, The Lemon Grove not mastered the art of providing a précis, and was grateful to Emily M. Keeler for doing just that. It’s a contemporary tale of lust, set in Mallorca, told from the third-person limited point of view of Jenn, about the summer holiday she shares with her husband, Greg, her adolescent stepdaughter, Emma, and Emma’s 17-year-old boyfriend, Nate. Jenn finds herself “constantly adjusting to the weathervane of Emma’s moods,” and it is such tension between the two female characters that Walsh plays out so brilliantly.

During the open Q&A, each writer explained the challenges of and motivation behind their pieces. For Cameron, writing in the voice of a five-year-old meant the first draft was “more like acting.” She did not plot it out, but rather “threw obstacles in front of Anna.” And, before she began giving public readings from The Bear, she worked with a voice coach from Soulpepper Theatre, who had her “sing passages and work on my breathing… find new ways to be humiliated.” Russell “had fun playing with the vampire conventions.” Originally she was “thinking about an addiction story where bloodlust is undiminished, but blood won’t fix it. It is a difficult truth about desire.” Walsh needed “some light in my life. It’s in a different landscape for me, so the language evokes Mallorca.”

Spending time in the vibrant imaginations of all three writers was a heady antidote to the never-ending dreary cold of this Toronto winter.

 Follow Janet Somerville on twitter @janetsomerville.

Five Questions with… Ania Szado

Szado, Ania (c) Joyce RavidAnia Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex, answered our five questions.

IFOA: What initially drew you to the story of Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupery?

Szado: I’d always loved The Little Prince. Then I came upon Stacy Schiff’s Saint-Exupéry: A Biography and became completely enamoured of its subject. Saint-Exupéry was charismatic, charming, infuriating and complicated—he was an aviator, inventor, magician and mathematician as well as a great writer. I was amazed to learn that he was living in New York when he wrote The Little Prince.

IFOA: How much time did you spend researching your historical characters and settings—and how did you know when you had the material you needed?

Szado: I spent several years researching Saint-Exupéry—while writing early drafts that had almost no resemblance to what eventually became Studio Saint-Ex. When I finally figured out what I had to write, I wrote and researched simultaneously, letting the demands of the story send me searching for the information and understanding I needed. I found it in numerous Saint-Exupery biographies; his own writings; material on WWII New York, the history of American fashion design, the Garment District, Manhattan’s French expat community, and other topics; and by drawing heavily on the knowledge of an incredibly generous Saint-Exupery scholar in New York, as well as querying Stacy Schiff at a critical juncture.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Szado: I picked up Lonesome Dove recently and was quite surprised to find myself loving it. It’s an epic American cowboy story—not something I thought I’d particularly like. But I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to stop turning the pages—looking, in particular, for more of Augustus McCrae. I still keep catching myself thinking about the book’s characters and landscapes, and wondering how Larry McMurtry managed to do so much with such barebones material: dust, thirst, desire. Of course, the story is in the desire.

IFOA: What’s one thing you wished you’d known when starting out as a writer?

Szado: I wish I’d realized a long time ago that I need to spend occasional blocks of time writing in complete isolation. As long as I can take a week or a month for myself now and then, thinking only of my story night and day, writing for at least 15 hours daily, I can remain balanced and optimistic in my interactions with the world.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It really doesn’t matter if…

Szado: It really doesn’t matter if I write a paragraph, a page, or a chapter—just the act of having written makes me feel complete.

Szado will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 1.

Five Questions with… Jennifer Close

Jennifer Close whose latest book is The Smart One, answered our five questions.

Jennifer Close

IFOA: Tell us about something new you tried while writing The Smart One, your second novel.

Close: Well, I don’t know if this is something new, but it’s something that I became very aware of while writing this book. I started taking breaks from looking at it—sometimes for a week, and once for a month—and then coming back to it with fresh eyes. Part of the reason was just circumstance, because my first book came out and I got married in the middle of writing it, so it was a really busy time. And while I did take the manuscript with me on my honeymoon, I only peeked at it once. It makes me a little nervous to step away from a project for so long, but what I learned is that it helps a lot. Sometimes things would just click into place while I was taking a break, and sometimes I’d come back to it and realize that a whole scene or chapter needed to be cut or added. Now, with the new stuff I’m working on, I’m less afraid to take a little break if things are getting confusing.

IFOA:  Is your protagonist Weezy Coffey (great name, by the way) based on someone you know? Who or what inspired her?

Close: The first character that came to me in The Smart One was Claire, followed shortly by Martha. Once I had those two, I knew that their mom (Weezy) would be a narrator as well. I just felt like I couldn’t write about sibling rivalry, or the feeling that one child was favored over the other without giving Weezy a voice, a chance to explain herself.

Weezy isn’t based on anyone I know. What’s funny is that a lot of the character of Weezy reminds me of myself. I don’t have children yet, but I think often about what kind of mother I’ll be. I’m a big worrier—anytime that I have to leave the dog in someone else’s care, I worry he’ll die. (I’m hoping that I’ll loosen up a little when I have kids.)

I really feel for Weezy—she just wants the best for everyone. She wants her children to be happy and healthy and feel safe, and she’s still struggling with realizing that she can’t control that. And I think that what you start to understand when you get to know her is that she’s rooting for all of her children to succeed—she just has to root a little harder for Martha. Weezy is also really funny, I think. And I was a little surprised to learn that she was my husband’s favorite character!

IFOA: What’s your idea of a perfect day?

Close: My perfect non-working day would go like this:  I’d sleep in, and then get some coffee and snuggle up on the couch or maybe back in bed to read a great book. Then I’d have a lazy brunch with my husband, and take the dog for a nice long walk. (In my perfect day, it’s also about 70 degrees out!) I’d read a little bit more in the afternoon, and possibly scribble down some writing ideas. Probably watch some TV on the couch with my husband and dog. To end the day, I’d meet some friends for drinks or dinner.

My perfect working day is a little different. I’d get up at a decent time, take the dog for a good walk, drink some coffee and answer emails. Then I’d read over what I wrote the day before and I’d feel great about it, like it’s going somewhere. I’d write some new stuff for a few hours, taking a break for lunch and maybe yoga or a quick run. Then I’d come back to my desk and write for a few more hours. I’d end the day making dinner with my husband and having a glass of wine. And if I had a great book to read before I went to sleep, that would be ideal! I’ve had perfect working days like this one, but they don’t come around too often!  So when they do, I really appreciate them.

 IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Close: I just finished The Engagements by Courtney Sullivan, which was fantastic. It comes out in June. And before that, I read The Good House by Ann Leary, which I can’t stop recommending to people—it was so funny and sad and just wonderful all around. I’m currently reading Wise Men by Stuart Nadler and really enjoying it. I’m only about halfway through, but whenever I look forward to getting into bed to read, I know I’ve got a good book.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It’s hard to believe, but…

Close: I’m even more nervous for this book launch than I was for my first book.

Close will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on April 10 .

Five Questions with… Taiye Selasi

Selasi, Taiye (c) Nancy Crampton

(c) Nancy Crampton

Taiye Selasi who presents her debut novel Ghana Must Go at this week’s reading series, answers our five questions.

IFOA: You’ve said you wanted to be a writer since childhood. What was the subject of your very first story?

Selasi: I wish I could recall! Most likely some plucky little girl with magic powers and without a bedtime; I was obsessed as a child with magical powerful girls. (Still am.)

IFOA: What was the hardest part of writing Ghana Must Go?

Selasi: Finishing it.

IFOA: Whose writing career do you most admire?

Selasi: Arundathi Roy’s.

IFOA: If you could time travel, where and when would you go, and why?

Selasi: Lagos in the 70s or Harlem in the 20s: for the art, the music.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: The best part is…

Selasi: Love.

Selasi will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on March 27.

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