Humber School for Writers presents: How We Write

By Janet Somerville

Workshop leaders Kevin Barry, Wayson Choy, Karen Connelly, Valerie Martin and Nino Ricci appeared in conversation on Wednesday with Antanas Sileika, novelist and Director of the Humber School for Writers, and their discussion opened with their responses to this question: What should a beginning writer know?

Kevin Barry

Kevin Barry and Karen Connelly

Dublin IMPAC-winning novelist Kevin Barry began by suggesting that “books and stories come out of our fear and anxiety, out of our dark places” and that it was essential to “finish everything. You must finish the bad stories so you know what the good ones are when they come.” His other advice: “Develop in yourself a sense of patience. There’s always a glow when something is finished, and that’s when you should put it in a drawer.” Finally, he referenced Annie Dillard’s wisdom to “keep your overhead low.”

Contrarian Karen Connelly, author of The Lizard Cage, claimed, “I encourage you all to be atypical. Penelope Fitzgerald didn’t start publishing until she was 62. You have to have the courage to take your life and return it to the world. Be daring.” Veteran American novelist and Orange Prize winner Valerie Martin, whose most recent book is The Ghost of Mary Celeste, insisted she has lived and written by the motto that “art saves your life and art ruins your life.” Her sensible advice: “Be patient. Be dogged. Don’t be afraid.”

Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Trillium Book Award winner Wayson Choy, whose The Jade Peony is now in its 30th printing, said, “Learn about craft. Figure out, for example, how James Joyce wrote such a memorable ending to ‘The Dead.’” Nino Ricci, whose first novel, Lives of the Saints, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, claimed his delusion he had as a young writer kept him going: “You want to keep a writer writing, by not telling them the truth.” Ricci suggested also to ignore the tolling laments of “Nobody’s reading anymore” and “The novel is dead,” because “the joy of the first book that you write is a gift you will never have again. Just write. Do as much as possible. Every day.”

Responding to Sileika’s prompt, “What do you mean about writing about life in the world,” Connelly said, “I lived in Thailand and I wanted to keep moving. I wanted to live in other cultures and discover what it meant to be human in different places. It’s such a powerful and transformative experience. Where your body is is what you’re going to write about. It’s good to feel born in the wrong place, because it makes you curious and seeking.”

For Choy, “Chinatown was a place I wanted to forget about. It was a ghetto. People only spoke with each other. But, Chinatown travelled with me. Carol Shields suggested in a creative writing class that I write about it. It turns out that who you are and where you come from may be the source of your greatest material.”

About his bold use of language in City of Bohane, Sileika asked Barry, “How do you make language fresh?” His answer: “I grew up in Limerick and Cork in working class communities. Language is used and abused there. I wanted to free myself from having to hove to the actual. It’s kind of a retro future in 2053, but I wanted to give the sense that it could be 1853 or 1953, that is, another world.”

Wondering how Nino Ricci dared to go into the territory he did in Testament, Ricci said, “People don’t really care that much about Christianity anymore. As a child, I always believed that Jesus was Italian. In my novel he’s the son of a Roman soldier. And, it seemed to me that we were living such unexamined lives about religion.”

Wayson Choy

Wayson Choy

Each writer described their process. Barry said he tries “to be still half asleep when I write. You’re closest to the murky place then. DeLillo says, ‘write when you are puddled in dream melt.’ And, places where you embarrass yourself and recoil in horror, those are the good bits.” Connelly insisted that for her, “procrastination is an important part of the process. I read. I do administrative work, and then I write in the afternoon, often standing up, for two to three hours each day.” Like Kevin Barry, Valerie Martin admitted to writing best “when I’m fresh from the dream. Often I’ll start about the dream. I write longhand on loose leaf paper.” Choy claimed he begins with a ritual: “I take out all of my fountain pens and arrange them. It’s sort of zen. Now I write in transit. When I can. When I will.” Ricci lamented making the mistake “of switching from handwriting to computer” and pledged that he’d change his ways.

Develop patience. Learn craft. Don’t be afraid. Have the courage to take your life and return it to the world.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

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.

Rebecca Lee, Ben Lerner, Jess Walter: considering language and lost in translation

By Janet Somerville

Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney was a gracious and thoughtful host of the reading/interview featuring Rebecca Lee (Bobcat and Other Stories), Ben Lerner (Leaving the Atocha Station) and Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins). My table companion in the Brigantine Room, David Kent (President of HarperCollins Canada), may have revealed himself to be an equal Lit Nerd to me, as ebullient and supportive as he was about all of the participants and their intelligent comments throughout the afternoon.

The event began with each reading from their work. Lee picked a story about plagiarism, set circa 1985, pre-Internet, when students “had to be bullied into admitting it” in which the accuser asked, “who helped you? A book or a person?” Lerner read an excerpt grounded in misunderstanding because of his poet protagonist’s assumed inability to communicate in Spanish as he tried to establish a life for himself in Madrid, where he “looked at the water and was sober,” comprehending only “in chords.” Walter introduced his Hollywood producer, Michael Deane, “a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed,” one who was seventy-two “with the face of a nine-year-old Filipina girl.” George Hamilton, anyone?

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c)

Jess Walter reading at IFOA 2012 (c)

Prompted to consider lost in translation as a motif in each of their pieces, Lee suggested it was like falling in love, while Lerner said he found it interesting that “ambiguity is celebrated in poetry–it’s not a problem.” And, in Leaving the Atocha Station, his protagonist “believes people only find him interesting when he speaks in enigmatic fragments. He’s trying to keep fluency at bay.” For Walter, “miscommunication creates interesting distances.” When two of his characters “find each other and fall in love, but don’t speak each other’s language” it seems a “perfect metaphor for stumbling along in any of our lives.”

On writing itself as a process Lee said, “the essential struggle for me is moving ahead in the story and writing it beautifully. I have to write the first sentence and care about it.” For Lerner, “language is what I am most sensitive to, in love with, and annoyed by.” Walter admitted, “the lines drive me in the writing. I have to like the sound of them.” All of that is true for me as a reader, too. What matters is the phrasing, the rhythm, the pacing of each mindfully selected word. How many bars of Ella Fitzgerald do you need to listen to in order to know she’s great? It’s the same with finely crafted writing. You know in a moment or two.

Visit for more event listings. Follow Janet Somerville on twitter at @janetsomerville or on her blog Reading for the Joy of It.
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