On Tuesday, poets Kenneth Goldsmith and Christian Bök were at Harbourfront Centre to discuss conceptual literature during an event presented with The Power Plant. Considered the founders of the conceptual writing movement, Goldsmith and Bök provided a fascinating history and read from some of their own conceptual texts. For a recap of the event, click here.
Our 39th season of weekly readings ended with lots of laughs. At Thursday night’s well-attended event, acclaimed author and columnist Carl Hiaasen was interviewed by bestselling novelist Andrew Pyper. Hiaasen read from and discussed his latest novel, Bad Monkey, and regaled the audience with hilarious stories of his golfing misadventures in Miami, which happened to involve some feisty alligators. See below for images from the event.
September marks the start of the 40th season of our weekly readings! We’ll be kicking things off with Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden. Stay tuned this summer for further information and other exciting event updates.
IFOA: Why did you choose the “Wild West” as a setting for your book?
Natalee Caple: I chose, partly, to do a Western because I was living in the West and the connection between landscape and culture was palpable and awesome. Awesome to see coyotes hunting in my backyard and grizzly bears ambling through the trees beside the highway. To get stuck because 30 elk are hanging out at the bottom of the street. The indigenous presence and the land as contested history is much more clear in the West in some ways because of the bigness of nature (the Rockies for example) and the visible encroachment on nature that cities represent. While in the West, I suddenly saw how diverse and how magical the people and their stories are. I felt like so much more diversity existed there than I had seen in literature and I wanted to add those stories in.
IFOA: What kind of research did you need to do in order to write In Calamity’s Wake?
Caple: I lived in Calgary and Canmore for seven years and travelled to small townships and to the badlands of Alberta and across the prairies many times. I researched a lot online and at museums like the Glenbow. I explored the Blackfoot land and history at the fabulous Blackfoot Crossing cultural centre and photographed the plants and land. I did a lot of seeing, smelling and tasting. I read and watched Westerns and studied the genre and feminist theories about writing. It was a massive process.
IFOA: Why did you choose to use no quotations in the text?
Caple: That’s an interesting question. I was very interested in the rhythm and sound of the book. I was trying for a very fluid, highly simplified punctuation style that embodied some of the magic of the story in a very natural way. Quotation marks seemed to interrupt the text, and I really wanted the reader to fall in and swim with the language. I think the style will work for some people, and for others it won’t, but for me, it helped maintain a certain suspended disbelief and aided in the poetic rhythm I was trying to balance.
IFOA: What is the most compelling thing that you learned about Calamity Jane?
Caple: Well, that it was impossible to ascertain anything about her for sure, not even her birth date or who she was at birth or even if there was only one of her. There is so much about her that is braided into dime novels and Wild West shows, movies and comic books. Biographers lied and she told her story many different ways. But she was kind. She risked her life over and over again to care for people that other people had abandoned. She was unconcerned with violent heroics but deeply concerned with precious bodies.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: “If I lived in Deadwood I would be…”
Caple: …the luckiest writer in the world!
Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane, answered our five questions.
IFOA: You describe yourself as an author and an activist. Were you both whilst writing On Sal Mal Lane?
Ru Freeman: I define my activism as a deep engagement with the world, so in that sense, yes, I wrote as I live, with my heart completely given over to the characters, really absorbing their experiences, and my mind simply translating what was “felt” into what was written. But at another level, no. A lot of what I do when I’m engaged in advocating for a cause—better public education, a positive environment for girls and women, justice for Palestine, space for the process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka—is to take out everything except what will further the cause. That isn’t always the complete story, though, and it disregards many other, often conflicting, voices. I don’t do that when writing fiction. When I write fiction, I let myself be permeable to all those other voices, taking all of them in, and maintaining compassion for each of their positions. It is why, I believe, fiction is the more truthful, transformative work that I do.
IFOA: Was there a book or author that made you want to be a writer?
Freeman: I never thought of a writer as a title, or as being someone who only wrote. I cannot remember a time when I did not write. My parents both wrote—poetry, scripts for documentaries, features etc.—and my brothers and I grew up reading and writing. Writing was something that we did as part of living. We ate, we drank, we had refugees of one sort or another living in our home, we were involved in politics, we read, we wrote. It wasn’t a job, or something to aspire to—it was what was done. So I guess I can’t say I wanted to be a writer so much as that perhaps I wanted to write books, but it was an extension of what I was already doing, and something to do alongside other things, not something to be separated from life.
IFOA: How did you choose the people who live on Sal Mal Lane?
Freeman: I knew the lane would mirror the composition of most lanes down Sri Lanka, where there is so much diversity—socioeconomic, religious, ethnic. I also knew there was a piano teacher and her father, I knew there was a family with four children. Beyond that, people just came into the story as it went along. I had a family move into a neighbourhood, and that led to other people living in that neighbourhood and interactions with those people, and so I followed the children and found the people they did. Whatever weight and place those other characters had, it reflected the weight and place given to them by the four Herath children.
IFOA: You write in many forms—essays, novels, short fiction, poetry—do you prefer one over the other, and if so, why?
Freeman: As a writer, I love the novel best. I love the way it permits exploration, the unfurling of language, character. I like complex sentences, and the novel allows for that. But as a reader, it is poetry that has my heart. I buy and read a lot of poetry, and what appeals to me most as a reader is the precise opposite of what appeals to me most as a writer: the way poetry condenses human experience, the way each word works so hard and yet sits so easily among the few others to convey that. It is just beautiful.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: “Home is where…”
Freeman: …people speak the language of my heart.
Rhidian Brook, author of The Aftermath, answered our five questions.
IFOA: You’re well travelled. What’s your favourite place in the world, and why?
Rhidian Brook: It’s a toss up between the Arizona/Utah canyons, Burgundy in France and my hometown, Tenby, Wales. But then there’s Lake Tanganyika in Burundi, Noosa (Australia)—and I can’t leave out the Dalmatian islands of Croatia. This isn’t fair. Do I have to choose? Okay… The canyons. Why? Because you know when you look at them that there’s nothing like them on earth and because the time taken in sculpting them gives the ego a necessary realignment.
IFOA: Who is your perfect reader?
IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
Brook: HHhH by Laurent Binet. Although Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain runs it close.
IFOA: The Aftermath is set in postwar Germany in 1946 and based on your grandfather’s experiences. What can you tell us about the research process for this book?
Brook: This deserves a longer answer, but my father and uncle were key in supplying the texture of those times; a visit to Hamburg and the house that inspired the story was vital; a key text was A Strange Enemy People by Patricia Meehan—a brilliant history of a very under-served piece of history.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: I write best when I…
Brook: …have walked round the block once and had a coffee.
Claire Mulligan, author of The Dark, answered our five questions.
IFOA: How did you become interested in the Fox Sisters?
Mulligan: I came across the Fox Sisters’ story while researching a scene involving a medium for my first novel, The Reckoning of Boston Jim. I was immediately intrigued by how Maggie and Katie’s childish prank could snowball into such a massive movement, as well as by how, in an age that marginalized women, they carved out a glittering, if tragedy-laced, career and did so, ironically, by using the belief of the weak and passive female to their advantage. I was further intrigued by the mysteries at the heart of the Fox Sisters’ story: the body in the cellar, John Fox’s disappearing act and how the sisters managed to fool so many for so long. Mystery and character. Theme and irony. True but fantastic events. The perfect ingredients for an epic historical novel.
IFOA: The Reckoning of Boston Jim as well as The Dark are both set in the 19th century. What draws you to this era?
Mulligan: Historical fiction offers a banquet of creative opportunities to a writer. The words for one. I love the resonance of old words and phrases. I love polishing them off and using them in new ways. I love, too, recreating the forgotten landscapes and world views, the Victorian cult of mourning, say, or the lost life of the canals or the way the social world was once an arena where reputation and status ruled. All this offers unique conflicts and dilemmas.
Now, the 19th century is particularly intriguing because it has that sense of being nearly modern, but not quite. It was a time of rapid technological change, a time when new ideas were being tested and debated, Spiritualism among them. And, yet with its photographs and gramophones, its copious extant letters, its world still held in memory by some very few, the 19th century is a historical era that we can know and own in a way we do not with other eras, as if it is almost within tangible reach.
IFOA: When does the line between fiction and history get blurred?
Mulligan: A story like that of the Fox Sisters can be challenging, exhausting and exhilarating to write, in part because the sisters’ public lives were well documented by them and by others, giving me difficult choices in what to include of their epic lives and what to set aside. I did think it important to hew as closely as possible to historical fact when the facts were available; however, the details of how the sisters perpetuated the hoax, the truth of their relationships, their motives, thoughts and most importantly, how much they believed in ghosts themselves, have all been fictionalized to greater or lesser degree. This is what makes The Dark a work of fiction rather than, say, creative non-fiction. And there can be a blurry line between the two indeed.
I must add that as a reader, I particularly enjoy novels that leave me feeling enriched and, well, smarter, even wiser than before, and I hope to give that similar sense of enrichment to the readers of The Dark.
IFOA: What was the most surprising thing that you learned about Spiritualism?
Mulligan: One of the many surprising things I learned while researching The Dark was just how powerful a movement Spiritualism was. Spiritualism had, in its heyday, millions of followers. It was taken very seriously by many (though others, granted, saw it as the entertainment of the moment.) The language used to explain Spiritualism—energy, vortexes, conduits, etc.—was adapted from scientific parlance, to give it credibility, yes, but also because people were rejecting the more dogmatic religions and trying to find a way to reconcile the advances in science and natural history with the desire for faith and meaning—a dilemma that is still with us today, as evidenced by our modern New-Age philosophy, which is, of course, the clear descendant of Spiritualism.
IFOA: Do you believe in ghosts?
Mulligan: No. Well, yes. Maybe. I’ve never seen a ghost, nor experienced any paranormal event, though I had the usual terrifying Ouija board experience as a kid. However, I have talked to many people who have seen ghosts of some kind, and I certainly believe they saw and experienced what they did. Spirits capable of visiting from another world? Or a mind capable of creating spirits? These are, to me, equally astonishing possibilities. And, yet, I do love a ghost story, a haunted house, a place where the past seems imprinted. I suppose like many people I can keep two contradictory ideas aloft. My rational side might not believe in the supernatural, but my romantic side is all for it.
Andrew Kaufman, author of Born Weird, answered our five questions.
IFOA: Superheroes and special powers are rampant in your work, why?
Kaufman: I love the power of metaphor and story. So giving everybody a special power lets me metaphorically explore personalities and the way people react to each other. This was really fun with Born Weird, since the books about how family makes you who you are.
IFOA:Where did the idea for your latest novel, Born Weird, spring from?
Kaufman: I have two kids, seven and five, the older they get, the more obvious how much both parents and family shape you. Maybe the book partly sprung from a feeling to write a future apology to my kids, a way of saying that I really did my best.
IFOA: What book from the past do you wish you had written?
Kaufman: Franny and Zooey, Cats Cradle, The Trial—pretty well all of them?
IFOA: Do you think people are born weird or is it something that is nurtured?
Kaufman: I think there are very few forces in our culture that are nurturing weirdness. I feel like we’re all encouraged to suppress our weirdness, pave over it with fashion and steady jobs. But I’m positive that we’re all born weird.
IFOA: Finish this sentence: “A blessing is a curse when…”
Kaufman: …seen from the other side.
Kaufman will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 22.