By Becky Toyne
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.
© 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…
– 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!
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.
© 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.