In late August I joined novelists Monia Mazigh and Shani Mootoo on stage for ‘Ideas at Stratford: The Challenge of Words,’ part of the festival’s forum series. CBC host Paul Kennedy asked us each to prepare a short opening statement. Here is mine:
THE CHALLENGE OF WORDS
For a writer, words are skin. They are our bodies when we are being creative. Language is how writers are in the world perceptually; as spirits in bodies, decidedly of bones and flesh. Language is how we breathe in and out, how we express what we perceive and feel and think and think about — or express, at least, our desire to express those things.
In writing that cares about itself, there is no separation between what is being said and how it is given voice. No great story that happens to be badly told. No good book that has terrible prose. To abide some clear divide between the two would be to agree to have our skin stripped off because it was getting in the way of our muscles doing their work. It is all one body: language, expression, perception — the corporeal literary self.
Except for this. Language has it up on most of us. We – the royal human ‘we’ – may have made language, but we don’t own it and we don’t have very much control. Put simply, and put as a writer, no matter our efforts, our yearnings, our unceasing needs, we can’t quite get right what we want, need, yearn, to say. Can’t find the right words, in effect, even while giving it our best and abusing tens of thousands of them in the process.
I’ve thought about this conundrum – living in, living off, language, without being good enough with it, good enough for it – for decades. Two brief observations for this event this morning in this particular town. First, William Shakespeare was good enough for language. Was he ever. Shakespeare could say what he, we, wanted to say, needed to say, and could so do over and over. His genius, which is as mysterious to me as a coral reef or a sky of stars, is grounded in an astounding facility with language. His great stories are poetry and his great poems tell stories. In English, at least, only James Joyce has come close to him. How did Shakespeare do it? I haven’t a clue. This afternoon I will close my eyes during parts of ‘Breath of Kings: Rebellion’ and just listen, almost like it is music.
Which leads to my second observation about the challenge of language. I do think all art aspires to the condition of music, and I think it does so because melodies ‘voice’ our sense of ourselves as disastrously, most likely accidentally jumped-up mammals with an absurd self-awareness and some very strange repetitive dark urges in exactly the right manner. That manner, no surprise to me, is without those words that fail to capture our true feelings — without the language that the majority of us simply can’t use well enough. Music says: Hush up and listen, let it flow over you, all this tempo and meter, melody and pitch – all this harmony and beauty and mystery. Music gets, in my opinion, the best lines. As well, you can dance to it, which can’t do to a book. And everybody, whether they know it or not, loves to – needs to – dance. After all, that is the real body talking.
Worse still, individual pieces of music often strike this listener as being, in effect, perfect. Not a note too many. Not a second too long. Works of prose, in contrast – a dozen Shakespeare plays and perhaps Joyce’s Dubliners aside – never strike me that way. Now, I love novels above all other literary arts – love writing and reading them equally – but I also believe there is no better, more sympathetic definition of the form than this: “A novel is a long work of prose that has some problems.”
Another reason, perhaps, to aspire to the condition of music.
Finally, given who I am sharing the stage with today, I’d like to briefly state the obvious: that language first comes to writers as it comes to every other human being — via our ethnic, cultural, geographic backgrounds. Via our – yes – native tongues. Our native tongues are not necessarily our literary tongues, but of course they are. We all come out of the womb talking, more or less, and don’t ever quite get beyond the language of our parents. If that language happens to be a dominant one in a society, it behooves the user of it to think a little about the bias, perspective, and privilege that may have come with that random birthright. As a younger author I considered it my primary task to not write dull and/or bad prose. I still believe that to be the principal challenge – to write at a level that avoids the triple failure defined by novelist Martin Amis as “clichés of the pen, clichés of the mind, clichés of the heart” – but as I age I am also more concerned about the challenge of language that relates to our given and/or adopted linguistic identities, and how that, in turn, determines how we talk, as one of those corporeal literary selves, through words.
THE VIEW FROM THE SHORE: A Writer Takes Stock in Mid-Career
(published in Canadian Notes&Queries, summer 2016)
EARLY in 2006 I signed a contract with Knopf Canada to write a biography of Mordecai Richler. The advance was in the low six figures. Guessing the project would take years – better, that I would insist on producing a big book about a big subject – I applied to several agencies for further funding. All turned me down. Running a tab against the advance, I spent twelve months researching Mordecai, including stints in London and New York, and then three years writing it. Factoring in travel expenses and my agent’s fee, I earned maybe $20,000 per annum during this period, a figure bumped up to a less embarrassing tax bracket by large quantities of freelance journalism. All my workdays were long and there were few weekends or holidays. I was in my late forties and getting by with neither an assistant nor a net. My tax guy kept asking if, in my fatigue, I’d forgotten to list any income. I wished I had.
The manuscript was submitted in December 2009 at 300,000 words. My editor, Louise Dennys, slimmed it to 245,000, and together we spent the next several months assembling the behemoth that appeared the following October. I was indeed tired throughout 2010, but had also taken a contract to write a short thematic biography of Maurice Richard for the Penguin “Extraordinary Canadians” series. All the authors in the series were paid the same, courtesy of terms negotiated before the recession of 2008 and the rise of e-books, meaning I was, arguably, slightly over-compensated for time spent. Either way, I can’t clearly recall producing the first draft of the manuscript. Records show that I did so, however, between March and May. To repeat, 2010 was tiring.
Mordecai went on win some prizes in 2011. I made another low six figures from them, which was good, given that, despite hardcover sales alone of 10,000, I hadn’t – and still haven’t, as of early 2016 – earned out the original advance. Foreign publishing contracts might have helped, but my book was long and my subject mostly forgotten beyond Canada – for the moment.
It proved to be another busy year. Maurice Richard appeared that spring, and between more than seventy-five events for Richler, and another twenty for the Rocket, I found myself rehearsing how not to pronounce on the acerbic Jewish Montreal novelist Maurice Richard and the mercurial Catholic Montreal hockey player Mordecai Richler. It didn’t always work, but I usually got a laugh at the (presumed) joke.
Subsequent to the two MR books, I wrote a novel, Planet Lolita, for which I was fairly paid by HarperCollins, whose publisher, Iris Tupholme, has supported my work since the early 1990s. But Planet Lolita didn’t find many readers. I also kept trying to follow up the biographies with a major non-fiction project. In 2012, I spent several months working on a co-authored book about China, one that attracted ten international publishing deals based only on an outline. The project collapsed before anyone received a penny, due to my co-author’s woeful state of mind, leaving me with a folder full of contracts and more pitying questions from my tax guy. In 2014 I finally settled on a subject for a new book with Knopf Canada, in no small part to have a reason to work with Louise Dennys again. I was offered significantly less than I’d received for Mordecai.
Why all this dollars-and-cents literary business? Like most writers, I rarely discuss money, and am reluctant to commit even these cloaked figures to the page. Except for one thing. For the vast majority of us, dollars rudely interrupt the reveries of making sense of ambitions and talents, especially once the romantic fog of creative youth has lifted. Patterns become evident in the clear light of mid-career, as do proclivities and pathologies, few of them helpful to conjuring, never mind living, bigger book dreams. The writerly body, too, now past pretending energy is boundless enough to be cheerfully misapplied again, suffers. As does, for that matter, the creative eye, maybe faintly jaundiced, certainly shot through with the blood red of having-lived-long-enough to just know… and to be no longer able to pretend otherwise.
In summer 2015, I cancelled my contract with Knopf, walking away from a book I’d have been happy to write. The advance had not been adequate for the research, time, and travel that would have been required, and I’d have had to either continue living in prize-winner literary poverty for several years more or else hustle the project through to publication, at the risk of leaving it half-realized. Observable to anyone who sits on a non-fiction jury in Canada is that there are too many memoirs, written for cheap, and too many potentially excellent books that fall short, literally, of being researched enough, travelled enough, contemplated enough – i.e., financed enough to reach their potential. Most Canadian authors can’t afford to write non-fiction beyond the budget of our own experiences. The view out the back window is about all we have the funds to explore.
I cancelled the contract because I’d taken a job eight months earlier, a “real” job, and all that implies. Now a year and a half into “working for a living,” as my father would put it, I stand on the shore watching, out on the lake, the literary regatta that I took part in for nearly three decades. It suddenly seems far away, too far to discern who is crewing the boats, which team has the lead, even where the buoys are designating the course, and the actual race. My eyesight isn’t what it once was, and many of the flags are new. Then there is the midday sun off the water, its glare blinding.
And there is me on dry land, shielding my sore eyes with my hand.
For the past eighteen months I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about books – instead, admittedly, of writing them. More precisely, I’ve been tracking the paths my mind seems to want to wander down, generally without conscious permission, and assembling a map out of the rambles. To my own surprise, recent career fluctuations represent just one path, and it is by far the shortest and least interesting. I rarely bother taking it.
To start, there is no larger narrative to follow. There are only individual events and their consequences, most of them unintended. For any writer hoping his or her (mis)fortunes can be traced to the pitiful tastes of editors and prize jurors and the reified appetites of mass readerships, this is an ongoing disappointment. It is true that non-fiction in Canada is increasingly underfunded and, as a result, under-realized. But there are plenty of recent exceptions – Rosemary Sullivan’s internationally lauded and Canadian-prized biography of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s Daughter, leaps vividly to mind – and plenty more, one suspects, to come. As so often in life, no plot, never mind a conspiracy, where none intended.
Worse, down this mental path lies the thorny terrain of personal bitterness. If only my agent had sold Mordecai internationally. If only that film director had turned one of my earlier novels into a sleeper hit, with back-end residuals and a tie-in edition. Even more certain to draw blood are the pricks of self-recrimination: If only I’d written stronger novels and chosen smarter subjects for biographies. If only my luck had been better. If only I’d made better luck for myself.
Several less anxious rambles have been offering healthier exercise. There is the minor matter of literary muscle loss. I started writing every morning at age twenty-two and, aside from holidays and sick days, did so without exception or exemption until age fifty-four. Then I stopped. Unexercised muscle turns soft and flabby, a tendency exacerbated by age. But surely the craft built up by rigorous daily exertion for decades is beyond atrophy? Surely both the mechanical skills of book creation, and the ardour fueling the mechanics, are as embedded in my being as my very name? Talent isn’t a bicep fated to end up underscored by skin wattle, is it?
Okay, some anxiety there.
A longer and more engaging walk follows the stages-of-a-creative-life path. On learning that I’d taken a job running a Not-for-Profit, a friend commented: “Maybe you have nothing left to say as a writer.” My answer to him was the same I’d been giving for years to variations on the question. As a writer, I replied, I can’t run out of things to say for the simple reason that I’ve never had any – at least, not in the way most people mean it. A discerning critic of “Sarsfield Bridge,” a story I published in 1982 as an undergraduate, and of 2014’s Planet Lolita, will likely detect a through-line of interests and preoccupations, the same thematic and aesthetic itches being scratched over and over. But something to say? Not at all.
Literary fiction, in fact, relies for its success on its authors having no direct intent or bolded purpose. Plots need to be satisfying and characters should invade private space and overshare almost like the passenger in the seat next to you on a plane. But the glue between reader and book isn’t those obvious adherents. Rather, the voice behind the story and characters, the one sounding loudly through all those words, is what makes the beautiful connection. Voice is how an author is in the world perceptually, emotionally, and morally. Voice is how an individual consciousness does its best with the challenges and deep mischief of language in order to best mark its brief time on earth. Not to argue anything; just to be present, observant, and unafraid; dismayed and amused; stirred and awed and, above all else, unable to keep silent.
Until, that is, silence silences you.
But my favourite book-minded ramble is along the path that re-connects me to my own start. I was eighteen when I vanished into a paperback of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I re-emerged seventy-two hours later, stunned by both what I’d read and what it had done to me. I couldn’t quite believe the bodily effect, of having been drowned in language, or the parallel, sensory one – of suddenly seeing people and things newly, like I had actually died and been reborn. While I thought I’d been changed for good by Márquez’s magic realism, I’d really only been altered by it for a few days. The trick, as with any mind-altering experience, was to keep on experimenting.
All these decades later, my desire for the high is undiminished. My intentions, too, remain as impure as they were during a brief, shameful early phase when I physically pulled novels apart – second-hand paperbacks only – to better study how their author had constructed them: scaffolding, proportionality in story-telling, how pace translates into page count. Writers, after all, aren’t just readers. We’re also thieves. In our defense, we only steal from our own family members and the more honourable among us always leave behind disingenuous but well-written notes of apology and gratitude.
How does Donna Tartt hold my attention in The Goldfinch for nearly nine hundred pages, about a quarter of which seem to be about antique furniture? The audacity of that book’s material bulk and American solecism! How does a novel about homeless dogs in Toronto (André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs) affect me so bodily I have to sit in a dark room for half an hour to recover from it? And then there’s No Great Mischief, which I am presently re-reading: Alistair MacLeod’s poetic vision of life may strain under the weight of a full novel, but it also carries plot and character like a wave destined to crash into a Cape Breton shoreline without beginning or end.
Truth is, the architecture and wonderment of great novels keep my mind happiest company these non-writing days. Like a besotted lover – besotted equally at age fifty-five as eighteen— I can’t stop thinking about this girl/book I first met so very long ago.
Back to my original metaphor, of watching the boats out on the lake from shore through middle-aged eyes. The literary regatta, I’m coming to realize, is no longer what I want to focus on, or even care much to track. This includes my own tiny part in it; what some might describe as my “career,” although I only began using the term quite recently, and then always with the usual hedge of those inverted commas. Instead, the horizon itself has become the preoccupation. Children, because life is so simple and unknowable, and old people, because life is so complex and mysterious, look most naturally past near-shore busyness to what lies further out. Kids, the elderly, and some artists – the latter group a kind of black dot moving within an etched circle made up of the first two – all drawn to where earth meets sky.
Artists such as Herman Melville. The American novelist called that distant point “the howling infinite” in the opening chapter of Moby Dick, foreshadowing the terrible fate of Captain Ahab and the great white whale. But the line proved no less prescient about its creator. Published in 1851 in the wake of several popular sea-shanty adventures, Melville’s masterpiece received mostly baffled reviews. It also sold poorly. Stunned and dispirited, he insisted on publishing two more challenging novels that decade, each one deepening the hole he’d dug with Moby Dick, and then lapsed into a creative silence that ended only with his death, in 1891. The novella Billy Budd appeared posthumously.
“Call me Ishmael,” rings the famous opening sentence. “Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” All about the “insular city of the Manhattoes,” Ishmael claims, “stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries.” For most, dry land simply won’t do. Not with “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open”; not with how “we see ourselves in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
The call to action is as clarion as it is disconcerting. Are our creative reveries so collectively oceanic? Do we all yearn to strike out, in our work, into that wonder-world? Plenty of writers I know are making art that certainly swings open the great floodgates. In the last year alone I’ve read three Canadian novels – Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us, Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, and The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel – infused with such wanderlust. But Herman Melville likely would have found them too landlocked as well. He believed it the function of art – his mature art, at least – to seek that ungraspable phantom, “the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself,” and damn the consequences. As it turned out, Moby Dick took almost another century to find its footing as a classic, long after its author’s descent and demise. Damned indeed, Ahab and Melville.
By standing on dry land, I too am failing to truly strike out, to risk all, to be reckless, mad, and glorious in pursuit of the overwhelming idea, whatever it may be. But my gaze is out there on the water where earth meets sky, and it is intent. That must be enough for now.
—From CNQ 96, the summer issue, July 2016
Earlier this spring I was interviewed by the the University of Toronto A&S Alumni newsletter. I liked the questions, and enjoyed answering them. Below is the text:
A&S: You were recently appointed CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), a non-profit charity, founded by U of T alumna the Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson and John Ralston Saul, whose aim is to accelerate new citizens’ integration into Canadian life and to encourage all citizens to embrace active citizenship in their daily life. Why did you take the job?
CF: I took the job for a couple of reasons. The Institute has ambitions to develop a bold thought leadership dimension in Canadian society and beyond. That interests and excites me. The ICC already embodies much about our nation that I admire most: inclusion, belonging, a deep instinct for how Canada is perpetually ‘becoming,’ rather than just ‘being,’ a unique and vital conception of nationhood, and one well suited to succeed in the 21st century. What we were already doing as an Institute, coupled with what we are planning to do, proved irresistible, and I am honoured to have been asked to lead it.
A&S: What do you see as the big challenges facing new Canadians and how will the ICC address them?
CF: New Canadians have their challenges, of course, real, on-the-ground ones: how to find footing for themselves and their families, how to nurture their talents and opportunities, how to belong and participate. Of equal importance, to me at least, is the challenge our perpetually evolving society poses to ‘old’ Canadians. That would be to remain collectively open and welcoming, alert to the pleasing reality that Canada is, and forever has been, the sum of its newcomers. They are us, we are them. Better, we are One, and are far stronger for it. A parallel challenge for that ‘One’ is to recognize our First Nations as original residents of the land, and never forget that the equation of belonging outlined above must be truly inclusive.
A&S: Is it a case that “all the roads you’ve taken have led you here”?
CF: Hard to say exactly how the continuous past informs the daily present. Easy to say that it does, obviously. Good news if that past is congruent with the present, in the broad sense of values and passions and what keeps you humble and fully alive.
At first blush, it may seem I’ve stepped away from being a writer and teacher to run a small NGO. On reflection, the two occupations are in harmony. They are about thinking and communicating, formulating ideas and pressuring those ideas into good public conversations and, with any luck, positive change.
It’s true that a lot of my writerly work, starting back at U of T, has circled around notions of belonging and place: how things build up, how they fall apart, in the context of social and political upheaval, in the context of stressed individual lives. It’s true too that I published a short story in 1985 called “Boat People,” about Vietnamese refugees struggling to get by in Toronto. I was barely 25, and had already lived in Ireland for graduate school, and was soon off first to the United States for three years, and then to Beijing. Now, in 2015, I am typing out these thoughts at the ICC offices at Spadina and Dundas, in the heart of the Toronto neighbourhood where the Vietnamese family in that story likely lived. In between the two experiences lie 10 years of living abroad, 11 published books, about a dozen relocations, two grown children, one long happy marriage. Definitely the same road!
Anyways, there is no road to contentment or happiness: contentment and happiness must forever be the road you are on, Grasshopper. (Sorry, ‘70s pop culture reference, obscure to most.)
A&S: You’ve been a vocal defender of free expression, as a fundamental human right, notably as president of PEN Canada. When you look at the world today, what do you see as the biggest threat to free expression—and why should Canadians be concerned?
CF: Freedom of expression isn’t faring too well in 2015. More and more of the planet lives within nation-state borders where that most fundamental of liberties, the freedom that allows all the others, has either never been properly granted, or else has lost footing in the new century. Worse, there are trans-national movements of alarming force which will not countenance free speech. These forces range from the violent and provincial, such as the ghastly medievalists bannered under the Al-Qaeda/ISIL insurgencies, to the more corrosive and insidious, such as the growing acceptance in the West of surveillance on the Net and the parallel abandonment of privacy rights—rights thefts often justified, ironically enough, by security ‘concerns’ emerging from the post-9/11 rise of radicalism. Finally, there is China, a nation whose economic surge over the past three decades, all done without giving an inch to freedom of expression, is modeling a nasty 21st-century paradigm: ‘success’ and ‘stability’ without respecting human rights. Take your pick of which is most concerning but please do be concerned. Freedoms are much easier lost than regained.
A&S: You participated as an alumnus in the Backpack to Briefcase (b2B) mentorship event for English. What advice did you have for the students there who wanted to know what they can do with their English degree after graduation?
CF: A degree in the humanities at U of T is no small achievement. At the b2B dinner I was astounded by how eloquent and poised and informed were the students. For argument’s sake, let’s declare those extraordinary young people the beneficiaries of how the humanities open us up to great traditions, great individual achievement, to the deepest, most enduring monuments from history. Let’s declare any employer who wishes his or her company to be staffed by alert, culturally-informed young people a fool not to want to hire a U of T graduate. Good companies know better, especially now, with digital literacy a low skill, easily obtained, but ‘analog’ literacy—i.e. the great sea of learning and knowledge we stepped out of, as a collectivity, some years ago, for reasons we now can’t clearly recall—a subtle but expansive skill set. Which would you want in an employee?
But I don’t want to end with a banal pro-job argument. I want to end on the idea of how to keep being a human, in the sense of a freely thinking, feeling and acting being, one engaged with both the Private Conscience and the Public Age. My experience has been that the most successful humans are those who have wedded what they love, what they value, with what they do each and every day. They don’t only walk with their heads held high but with their hearts open and their minds in a happily restless state of ease. They never stop learning how to ‘be’ because there is no road to happiness: there is only the happiness of the road you are presently on. If you’ve taken a degree in English or History or Philosophy at U of T, you are probably in love with the best stuff humans have had to offer. You really can’t go wrong.
*At the Cork literary festival, held in the glorious Triskel Arts Centre, I got to share the stage with a fellow Canadian, Lauren B. Davis. Even better, my old friend and Dublin flatmate, Dr. Eibhear Walshe, moderated the conversation. Here is a link to the coverage:
*Earlier in the month, at the Blue Metropolis festival in Montreal, I gave several Mordecai Richler walking tours. I also shared a stage with Lori Saint-Martin and Paul Gagne, to discuss their excellent new Quebecois French translation of Solomon Gursky was Here. Press coverage of the walks was surprisingly strong — due, no doubt, to the recent renaming of the Mile End library in honor of Richler. Here are samples:
*When the Toronto Reference Library asked if I’d interview Jane Urquhart about her new novel, The Night Stages, I was delighted. We had a fine time discussing the book, and Ireland, and other matters. Here is a link to the Youtube of the event:
*Mo Yan may be the most controversial Nobel laureate in recent memory. Frog is his first work of fiction to be written since winning the Nobel in 2012. Here is a link to my review of the book in Maclean’s:
*In late November I was asked to contribute to Kwe: Standing With Our Sisters, edited by Joseph Boyden. I was honored, and occupy a modest spot alongside many great writers. Below is a description of the anthology, and its purposes, from Penguin Canada.
Penguin Releases Limited-Edition Anthology Edited by Joseph Boyden, Supporting Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters
Monday, December 15, 2014—Penguin Canada is pleased to announce the publication of Kwe: Standing With Our Sisters, a 100-page anthology edited by Joseph Boyden, featuring new writing and original artwork from more than fifty contributors, including Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Gord Downie, Julie Flett, Tom King, Lee Maracle, Yann Martel, Michael Ondaatje, John Ralston Saul, and Tanya Tagaq Gillis. Conceived by Boyden as a way to raise awareness of the crisis facing Canada’s First Nations women, all proceeds from the sale of Kwe will be donated to Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters initiative. The anthology will be available in digital format for $2.99 via major online retailers beginning December 16. A limited print edition will be available at The Basement Revue in Toronto on December 18 and via the Amnesty International Book Club (amnestybookclub.ca) in January for $10 each.
“The idea for this book was born in November, from feelings of deep frustration, anger, and sorrow in the wake of yet another violent assault upon a First Nations woman,” says Boyden. “It came together quickly; within a week of the call going out, we had dozens of submissions from writers and artists eager to support the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women, artists who wanted to lend their voice. This is a call for action. We’re part of a rising chorus in this nation that demands that the federal government respond in a real way. I hope this collection draws much needed attention to the crisis and shows we can act swiftly when we put our minds to it.”
*Here is the link to a piece about Planet Lolita and contagions from today’s National Post. I was pleased to talk about this aspect of the novel, and will be happy to talk more about it at the IFOA tonight.
*Maclean’s offered me a chance to sit with M.G. Vassanji and discuss his new book, And Home was Kariakoo. The interview, and the piece, can be viewed and read at: http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/m-g-vassanji-travels-back-to-tanzania/
*My interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s The Next Chapter went to air on Monday, September 29th, and was repeated on October 4th at 4pm. You can hear it anytime at: http://www.cbc.ca/thenextchapter/
During the interview Shelagh described Planet Lolita as “a riveting 21st century coming of age story” that was “hugely rich, multi-layered.” “I devoured this book,” she said.
Later in October I’ll be first in Whistler, for their festival, and then in Vancouver. As well as interviewing New Yorker author Evan Osnos on stage about his book on China, I’m involved in two terrific events at the Vancouver festival. Here are the listings and links:
China: The Challenge of Democracy, Tues, Oct 21, 6pm
[note: originally, this event involved my interviewing Evan Osnos. As he had to withdraw, the festival decided to recast the night to engage both Osno’s book, and the unfolding drama in Hong Kong. I will be joined on-stage for a discussion with Madeleine Thien and Dr. Paul Evans.]
My Way, Tues, Oct 21, 8:30 PM, Waterfront Theatre
The Way We Live Now, Sat, Oct 25, 10:30-12 noon, Studio 1398
Finally, I am delighted, as ever, to participate in the IFOA at the end of the month. Here are the listings:
October 29 2014 – 7:30 PM
Some of today’s top writers explore society’s obsession with contagion and mass infection, and discuss writing them into their fiction.
November 1 2014 – 5:00 PM
Thoughts on Planet Lolita:
My friend, the critic, author and scholar B.W. Powe, read Planet Lolita, and offered these insightful words.
“Charles Foran’s new novel speaks through–and to–the global google facebook twitter email blackberry experience, in a way that is daring and constantly surprising. His ear for ibrain talk is uncannily attuned. And he catches young angst in the culture of the selfie with an originality at times deeply funny, at others deeply dislocating. I admire Foran’s books; and here he breaks out into other voices entirely, coming up with a work that is at once a lightning rod and a seismograph. The segue world he invokes, where images and pornography somehow mingle and even merge, makes Planet Lolita strange, and necessary.”
Also, professor and critic Charmaine Eddy offered some intriguing ideas about the novel on the Indigo.ca website. Here are Professor Eddy’s thoughts:
“I gave myself the gift of reading Charles Foran’s Planet Lolita on Canada Day. I have been a fan of Foran’s fiction for a number of years, and I have considered House on Fire his best, a novel that has affinities with those of Haruki Murakami, in its disturbing examination of global politics in part through the mechanism of alternate realities. Planet Lolita may have usurped House on Fire as my new favourite Foran novel. As the title’s allusion to Nabokov’s Lolita suggests, Foran examines disturbing aspects of masculine desire. He explores the world of child prostitution, and links these egregious human abuses, daringly and persuasively, to the way that communication on social media sites tends to objectify and eroticize young women. The fluid narrative voice enters convincingly into the world of a young teenage “half-half,” Xi-xi, whose sense of ethics and courage, though originating in the fantasy of manga, compels her to want to help the young girls she unexpectedly encounters. Abandoned emotionally by her parents, Xi-xi is entering into her own sexuality, and, despairingly, has the fate of these girls and Internet pornography as her sexual models. The recurring motif of Xi-xi’s father mistaking one half-Asian girl for another only makes it clear that there is no difference on Planet Lolita between the good middle-class girls and those who are bartered into sexual slavery. Alternate worlds exist in this novel as well, but Foran makes it difficult to determine where reality actually lies. Is the middle-class protected world the “real” or does its avoidance of contact with a more gritty reality that exists in the slums or on the streets mean that it is a cloistered fantasy world? Do we have our most immediate relationships with those we live with, or has Internet accessibility altered our emotional reality? And what is the relationship between the fictive and the real? Sailor Moon may be a fantasy, but it compels Xi-xi to political activism in the real, which her parents ignore. And finally, we have Foran’s version of Melville’s Father Mapple or Faulkner’s Reverend Shegog. Foran’s sermonizer is a transformed sexual predator, who preaches his conversion as a stunning tour de force at the end of the novel. Compelling, gut-wrenching, fabulous. You have to read it.”
Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, August 14-17, Sechelt, BC
Toronto Public Library, Runnymede Branch, September 18, 7 PM
Kingston Writers Fest, September 24-28, Kingston, ON
Whistler Writers Fest, October 17-19, Whistler, BC
Vancouver International Writers Festival, October 21-26, Vancouver, BC
Toronto International Festival of Authors, October 23-November 2, Toronto, ON
Windsor Writers Festival, October 25, Windsor, ON
Ridgeway Reads Fall Reading Series, November 21, Ridgeway, ON
In the current issue of one of my favorite publications, Queen’s Quarterly, is an essay I wrote on the mural culture in Belfast. The piece, based on a visit I made to the city this past May, also features photos of those famous murals, taken by the author, and his black cab driver, on their cell phones. Here is the link:
Plenty of events coming up. In Toronto, I’ll be reading from, and talking about, Planet Lolita at the Runnymede Library on Thursday the 18th. A couple of weeks later I am at the Kingston festival, first to interview Eleanor Catton, and then to share the stage with Kate Pullinger. Here is a description of the Sept 26th event: “Social media features in Charles Foran’s Planet Lolita (there is a QR code on the back of the book that readers can scan with their mobile devices to learn more) and Kate Pullinger’s Landing Gear (a digital collaboration online). These award winners read from their books and talk about the extent to which contemporary technologies permeate our lives and shape our tastes and identities. They discuss complementarity or antagonism between digital and traditional fiction, how their decision to incorporate digital material has molded their stories, and whether the internet has altered what readers expect from novels.” As well, Dan Wells is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his wonderful publishing house, Biblioasis, at Harbourfront on Sept 24th. Dan asked me to host the night, which I’ll do with pleasure.
A piece I did on the challenges of writing a novel immersed in social media ran in the online edition of the National Post. Here is the link. You can also find ‘Publishing Planet Lolita’ on this website, under Essays.
This week marks the 25th anniversary of the 1989 democracy movement in Beijing. More precisely, it is the anniversary of June 4th, the tragic culmination of an astonishing period in recent Chinese history. Though I vowed more-than-once to quit publishing pieces on the anniversaries – I did so on the 20th, 10th, and 5th, for sure – the quarter-century mark is too important to let pass. As well, I want to explore the resonances of spring 1989 from a very 21st century perspective; namely, how China has managed post-Tiananmen to delink a market economy from the liberal institutions associated with civil society. Once, the two were believed inseparable. The piece appeared in the May 31st edition of the Globe and Mail. It is posted as well in Essays.
May 27th marks the official pub date for Planet Lolita. It also marks my debut on twitter, both as myself and, from time to time, in the voice of Xixi Kwok, my intrepid teenage narrator. (Click on above to explore the QR code for her.) Reviews, media, a piece about writing the novel, to follow in the next few weeks. A schedule of appearances is still forming, but below are some confirmed dates, with links to the respective websites.
Publication date for Planet Lolita isn’t far off. The novel will have a strong digital dimension, in keeping with its decidedly 21st century nature. One example: a QR code on the back cover, allowing potential readers to learn more about the book by scanning it with their mobile devices. The initial contents of the QR code, ‘Who is Xixi Kwok?,’ a descripto-graphic with story information and focusing on the main character, can be viewed on the tab above. MUCH more about the world of Xixi Kwok, and the novel on-line, to come. As well, I will post a list of upcoming appearances in the summer and fall.
My profile of author Joseph Boyden appears in the April issue of The Walrus. You can read the piece on this website, or else check it out, complete with photos of Boyden, at The Walrus: http://thewalrus.ca/revision-quest/
On May 20th, HarperCollins Canada is publishing my new novel. Here is a brief description:
An electrifying novel about a chance encounter that changes everything for a girl.
On the remote Hong Kong beach where they are camping, bickering parents and their lonely teenage daughter awaken at sunrise to a strange sight: a dozen women suddenly on the shore. They seem to have washed in from the sea. Fifteen-year-old Sarah, known as Xixi, tries befriending them, and she snaps a cell phone image of a beautiful young woman she calls Mary. Soon after, Xixi, believing she has a connection with Mary, posts the photo on Facebook, triggering an online narrative she can neither comprehend nor control. Meanwhile, Jacob and Leah, distracted by their failing marriage, must also deal with the fury of an absent older daughter, Rachel, and a looming new SARS epidemic in Hong Kong. As fear and paranoia settle over the city, isolated Xixi grows more desperate to save Mary from her doomed circumstances. She dares herself to be brave, and take a risk, but her actions are perilous.
Told in the voice of a bi-racial, “half-half” girl and the language of social media, Planet Lolita is a riveting novel of desires and consequences in our unfolding digital age.
Starting in early January, I am once again teaching the contemporary Irish novel for the Celtic Studies program, St Mike’s, U of T. A few of the texts are new, as is the course description:
Though it yet dwells in his long shadow, the Irish novel since James Joyce has continued to evolve. Beginning with the surreal, formally innovative The Third Policeman and ending with the outrageous City of Bohane, this course examines Irish fiction since, in effect, Finnegans Waketested the limits of literary modernism. Authors include Flann O’Brien, Samuel Beckett, Molly Keane, Patrick McCabe, Anne Enright, and Kevin Barry.
The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien
Company, Samuel Beckett
Good Behavior, Molly Keane
The Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe
The Gathering, Anne Enright
City of Bohane, Kevin Barry
The New Brick Reader, offering some of the best writing from that esteemed literary journal, was published in early December by House of Anansi. Among its contents is ‘The Here and Now,’ part of my discarded preface to Mordecai: The Life and Times. Both halves of the preface are available on this website.
Last fall, another fine journal, the Literary Review of Canada, asked me to write about the essay collection The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age. My essay about the state and fate of analog literary forms is now also posted in, appropriately, the Essays section of Writings.
ARCHIVAL EVENTS AND NEWS
I am teaching again this fall at St. Mike’s, U of T. The course, SMC376, is titled ‘Irish-Canadian Writing.’ Here is a brief description: An exploration of Irish-Canadian writing must start with a simple question: does such a category truly exist? If so, how does having an Irish background, even a recessed one, inflect and shape a Canadian writer’s sensibility, including how he or she responds and relates to Empire? Using the work of Jane Urquhart, Peter Behrens, Brian Moore, Jack Hodgins, and James Reaney, the course examines the nature and uses of cultural and political inheritances.
A piece I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the Ai Weiwei show at the AGO in Toronto can be found in the recent readings section of this website. For any who attend the show, I also provide some of the audio, discussing both his life and career in general and particular pieces. Finally, I am giving a brief ‘pop up’ talk at the First Thursdays event at the AGO on September 5th.
(Below is a photo of myself and Ai Weiwei, taken at the Oct 2nd AGO event. Okay, only one of us was actually present.)
Paula Simons’ excellent IDEAS documentary “The Intermittently True Adventures of Moishe”Two-Gun” Cohen” airs on CBC radio in early September. I contributed some thoughts on Cohen’s amazing life, all of them the truth.
Sept 5: talk at First Thursday, AGO, Toronto
Oct 2: brief talk as part of Ai Weiwei: Voices of Freedom, AGO, Toronto
Oct 10: Priestley Lecture: ‘Telling Lives: The Fine Lines of Literary Biography,’ University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta
Oct 15: talk, Storyfest, Hudson, PQ
Oct 17: reading, Morris House, Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, PQ
Nov 13: on-stage interview with Jung Chang on her book Empress Dowager Cixi, Toronto Reference Library, Toronto
June: Named a finalist for 2013 Premier’s Awards for Excellent in the Arts.
Ireland Fund of Canada Writer in Residence: from Feb 25 to March 16, I will be Writer-in-Residence at Celtic Studies, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto. Along with public events and class visits, I will be available during this period to meet with U of T students, and friends of the program, and discuss their creative work. Visit the Celtic Studies website for more information.
February 28: St. Michael’s College, U of T, Toronto, talk and reading
March 14: St. Michael’s College, U of T, Toronto, lecture: ‘Scaring Himself Silent: Reconsidering Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman’
April 11: Quebec City, ImagiNation Writers Festival, reading
April 25: Metro Toronto Reference Library, Toronto, on-stage conversation about PEN and censorship, with John Ralston Saul
April 27: Atwater Library, Montreal, QWF workshop: ‘I’m Not Kidding: the Art, and Artifice, of Biography’
May 7: National Gallery, Ottawa, The Walrus debate
June 2″ Alumni Lecture, St. Michael’s, U of T, ‘Riding the Rocket: Maurice Richard and the Rise of Quebec’
June 15: talk on PEN, CAA Conference, Orillia
June 22: A Literary Picnic, Luminato Festival, Toronto
In the last 2 years I’ve done many print interviews about Mordecai Richler, Maurice Richard, and other happy subjects. Two of the more unusual were the mischievous ‘The Laferriere Questionnaire‘ for the CBC in November 2011 and a conversation this past spring about urban spaces for the on-line magazine Guerilla. Below is the Laferriere Questionnaire, in full.
1. If you were Alice, would you rather stay in Wonderland on the other side of the mirror, or come back to the real world to tell your story?
I’d come back. Stories, for storytellers, are all in the telling.
2. If your home were on fire, what prized keepsake would you grab on your way out?
Once everyone was safe, I wouldn’t care much. As long, that is, as I’d backed up all my files. Otherwise, I’d be saving the computer.
3. What childhood fear do you still have as an adult?
Closets, cells, any small, windowless room. Feared them then, fear them now. I doubt I’ll like being in a casket either.
4. Would it be okay to have a miserable childhood if that were a prerequisite for becoming a writer?
Childhood forms the adult. It’s involuntary and permanent, and you never, ever get over it. What kind of exchange is that – a miserable childhood for something to write about? A terrible one, in my view.
5. Do you wake up at night to read or write?
Only to read, and only because I can’t sleep. Not sure I’ve written a single nocturnal sentence in my life. Mornings are when I light up.
6. Do you feel anxious or excited when you start to write?
I feel relieved, purposeful, and alert.
7. Does darkness soothe you or frighten you?
Mostly, it is just darkness: near half our days, near half our natures. On occasion, though, it gets all existential – lonely, solitary, lost. Then I battle those feelings.
8. Do you tend to hang on to a thousand little scraps of paper, or do you regularly clean out your drawers?
Scraps of paper, sadly, are my inept ‘filing system,’ my lame ‘diary,’ my woeful ‘archive.’ Luckily, my head self-organizes pretty well, so I get by.
9. Which animal would you rather be: a cat or a dog?
Dogs smile easily and trust instinctively, and have natural happy feet. They walk upon this earth with just the right step.
10. Does love dry up your creative juices or make them flow faster?
Romantic love doesn’t enter much into it. (Remember: I don’t write at night.) Love of virtually everything else, cosmic and banal, eternal and fleeting, is my daily fuel. Love, and empathy, a desire, I suppose, to wrap my arms around ‘it,’ before it – or, rather, me – is gone.
11. Do you remember your dreams?
Only rarely. When I do, I take careful note. If a dream sticks around past my making coffee, it is probably a psychic flag, most likely red.
12. What’s your favourite colour?
No preference, especially not red.
13. What’s your favourite season?
Spring, summer, fall. Winter is the only problem. I know: I’m Canadian; how can I not have fallen for its bracing charms?
14. Does pressure motivate you?
As a painter friend likes to say: I don’t need an alarm clock – I have my career to wake me up every morning.
15. Would you rather live to write or write to live?
Not a choice. Two types of people: those who want to write, and those who need to write. Those who ‘want’ to will almost certainly live happy, rich lives doing something else. Those that ‘need’ to, well, they are going to live to write and, slowly, surely, the writing will kill them. (Or maybe it will be the life, which has it in for all of us, equally.)
16. What published book do you secretly wish you had written?
Martin Amis’s Money, if only I’d been born smarter, funnier, tougher, and more daring. Oh yes, and wicked with talent.
17. Are you the paranoid type or calm, cool and collected?
My sister once worked in a bank in suburban Toronto, and was held hostage for several hours by an inept, troubled robber. A local TV station covered the incident ‘live,’ and I remember my father falling asleep on the couch while waiting to find out what would befall his only daughter. That degree of calm runs through my veins.
18. What would qualify as the afternoon of your dreams?
A great lunch with my wife and daughters, a nap, a matinee of a smart, funny film, and then drinks with friends in a quiet bar.
19. Are you more like the sun or the moon?
Oddly, even though I burn, rather than tan, and suffer heat stroke after about an hour – I am too Irish, too freckled, and don’t wear hats – I love the sun, love the heat, love the tropics. Southeast Asia, where we lived for years, suited me well – except when I had to sit in a dark, air-conditioned room for days, on account of my love.
20. Do you hear voices?
I know a fiction project is going well when my characters talk incessantly – to each other, to me, to themselves. Sometimes they keep talking long after the novel is finished. Once, I finally had to promise them a sequel in order to get them to vacate my head. (I lied.) Does this describe a writer’s nature, or a psychological disorder? You decide: I can’t.
Recognition for Mordecai “probably the single most awarded book of any genre in the history of Canadian literature. ” (The Globe and Mail, November 15, 2011)
Winner, 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction
Jury citation: Mordecai: The Life & Times by Charles Foran is biography as high art, illuminating not only the character of Canada’s most provocative writer, but also, in the most vivid and compelling fashion, the times and places in which he lived. This is a grand, sweeping work that sets the standard for future literary biography.
Winner, 2011 Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust for Literary Non-Fiction
Jury citation: Charles Foran’s biography Mordecai is an epic work of scholarship and energy, capturing the career and life of the Montreal writer Mordecai Richler with a majesty that doesn’t betray the wit and sincerity of Canada’s most famous literary contrarian. Mordecai delivers an authentic portrait of a writer who could be both tragic and gut-bustingly funny in the same sentence. It’s a big book, inclusive, intelligent, and sometimes sad, framing the era, the communities, and the life of a man who could be mordant and comic, yet laced with the underlying perfume of tragedy. Charles Foran never wears his research on his sleeve, easing it near-invisibly into the web of this great life. Mordecai is well written, exciting to read, even-handed, and magisterial.
Winner, 2011 Canadian Jewish Book Award
Jury citation: A decade after his death at 70, Mordecai Richler has found the biographer he deserves. The jury declared that Charles Foran has written the definitive biography – generous, thoroughly researched, psychologically nuanced, highly readable. They lauded him for uncovering the demons that drove Richler to create. Foran shows how the novelist’s gritty early life in working-class Jewish Montreal and his experience as a child born of a poisoned marriage shaped his prickly personality, which remained unchanged throughout his life. Foran skillfully contrasts Richler, the tender father and husband, with the hard-drinking Richler who made people angry and uncomfortable. He reveals Richler as deeply moral, using his sharp wit to expose snobbery, hypocrisy, inauthenticity, lies, anti-Semitism, and cant of all kinds.
Winner, 2011 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction
Jury citation: MORDECAI: THE LIFE AND TIMES meets the immense challenge of writing about one of Canada’s most talented and controversial authors. Charles Foran has created a rich and compelling portrait of the man and his times.
Finalist, 2011, BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction
Finalist, 2011 CBA Libris Award Non-Fiction Book of the Year