Reading Like a Writer: authors and their beloved books

By Brianna Goldberg

Well, I’m pretty sure that was a first: a poem composed especially for an IFOA discussion. “On my tombstone you can write ‘Susan Swan the writer may be dead, but Susan Swan the reader read and read and read’” was presented at Sunday afternoon’s roundtable, Reading Like a Writer, where Canadian novelist Susan Swan (the writer and reader, both very much alive) noted in verse so many of the literary influences who have shaped her writing career.

From Canterbury Tales to the Secret Garden and Simone de Beauvoir, Swan’s loving and artfully rendered list of favourites betrayed just how fervently authors love to openly feed off the literary fruits of those who have gone before them—and the ones that go alongside them, even now.

The mission of the round table, led by novelist and Humber School for Writers director Antanas Sileika, was to reveal how authors read “as professionals.” But, truthfully, much of the discussion was dedicated to reveling in shared appreciation of books the roundtable writers just really, really love. Alongside Sileika and Swan, whose most recent novel is The Western Light, was James Clarke, a poet and memoirist whose latest work reflecting on his childhood is called The Kid from Simcoe Street; novelist Christine Pountney, whose most recent book is Sweet Jesus, the story of a group of siblings who reunite a week before the 2012 US election (weirdly coinciding with the real-life date of the IFOA event); and Kyo Maclear, a novelist, visual artist and children’s book writer, whose latest work, Stray Love, tells the story of an “ethnically ambiguous” character raised by a surrogate father in London and Vietnam in the 1960s.

As Sileika provided simple prompts—favourite stories as a child, for example—the authors jumped at each chance to speak about the virtues of their most beloved books. Maclear lit up at the chance to explain her love of Richard Scarey’s Busytown, Pountney blushed at her own adoration for a series of animal-based children’s books about a wandering hedgehog, Clarke bloomed into a grin while describing The Great Gatsby and, of course, there was Susan Swan and all the homages in her charming poem. Certain names did pop up again and again as having played a role in the roundtablers’ literary development: Raymond Carver, Marguerite Duras, F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Russians.’

But when Sileika asked the authors, who had spent so much time discussing works with which they are besotted, instead about whose works they rather loathe—all the fun and frolic of the earlier conversation dropped away. It was kind of sweet to watch them all cringe and bite their tongues, not wanting to speak ill of anyone else in the profession. However, Swan did admit she can’t stand writing that’s unabashedly clichéd, noting 50 Shades of Grey as an example, while Clarke offered a literary product that’s universally hated: bbq instructions.

Find out more about Goldberg on her website, or follow her on Twitter @b_goldberg.

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