November 17, 2009

On literary prizes

This morning I went to the announcement of the winners of the Governor General's Literary Awards at the Grande Bibliothèque. It was an interesting format in that it was part press conference, part ceremony: it was mostly attended by members of the media, but the writers and illustrators still crossed the stage and delivered acceptance speeches. The speeches were mostly decorous and deeply thankful. Some of the writers explained the origins of the ideas behind the works in question (one, I can't remember which now, started as a Grade 11 school assignment!). It was a cheery and inspiring way to start off the day, and I learned a little bit about a lot of books I might not otherwise know about.

I wanted to write about prizes today because November 17th will always be a special date for me. Exactly one year ago today, my name was called out at the Writers' Trust of Canada awards gala as it was announced I was the winner of the Journey Prize. A giant picture of my face went on the screen and I went onstage and delivered a giddy and probably mostly incoherent speech, much of which I can thankfully no longer remember. I didn't blog about it here when it happened because it seemed too magical to be real. It still does.

Somebody pinch me! (Photo courtesy of the Writers' Trust of Canada)

It felt particularly meaningful for me because I'd been buying and reading the McClelland & Stewart's Journey Prize Stories anthologies for years, and so many writers I admire have appeared in those volumes.

I know there is a lot of debate about the merits of literary prizes, and certainly the winner is always chosen by a subjective process, influenced by who-knows-what kind of internal processes between the jurors, but I think they're a good and necessary part of the literary culture in Canada. They help the writers, they help the readers make some headway in providing some guidance in what to choose, and they give us all something to talk about. Without prizes, there would be a lot less media coverage of literature in general.

And since it is awards season, after all, I'm going to go get ready to attend the QWF Awards gala (where last year I was not so lucky, but still had a fabulous time). It's not too late to come if you're in Montreal! Tickets are just $15 ($10 for students) at the door. The reception starts at 7 p.m., and the awards start at 8 p.m.

November 10, 2009

Career options for fiction writers

I've been getting a bit restless working from home all day, every day, and I've started to think about day jobs versus career matches for professional fiction writers.

I'm familiar with the concept of a day job: employment, unrelated to writing, that pays the bills. I've worked at a video store, a community centre, for the police, and as a university administrator, all while pursuing writing as a calling --- in my spare time. And I thoroughly enjoyed all of those jobs and the different skill sets they entailed. I wouldn't hesitate to do any of them again, either. Part of me really thinks that it might actually be better in a writing life to have a job that gives you a break from writing.

But part of me is a little bit envious of my peers who are developing careers as professionals in other, non-artistic fields. I've never let myself consider anything (e.g. educational choices that might lead to practical career options) that might derail myself from "becoming a writer." I didn't go to law school, or library school, or even do a Ph.D. because it seemed to me that I could probably only productively pursue one goal, the only one which has ever had real ambition behind it. (What's the point of going to law school if you don't *really* want to be a lawyer? What's the point of doing a Ph.D if you don't *really* want to be a professor?)

But with a certain (admittedly modest) amount of credibility as a writer established, I've been wondering if there's anything else I'm suited for, beyond the solely administrative-type jobs I tend to gravitate towards, given my undying love of a nice spreadsheet. What do other writers do to pay the bills (besides writing gigs of varying kinds)? What should fiction writers naturally be good at? Here's what I've come up with so far:

Teaching (literature, language, writing), library sciences (I've been thinking seriously about this), journalism, publishing, editing, communications. And what about more overtly creative communications jobs? Advertising? Marketing? These seem like they would be good fits, too.

What am I leaving out? I'm remembering now that T.S. Eliot worked for a bank.

November 9, 2009

Naming fictional characters

One of my favourite parts about writing is naming characters. Growing up, my writing consisted of little else. I'd spend ages constructing a name, a description, a family situation, only to finally start a story that would usually fizzle out after a couple dozen pages. (Though, in retrospect, the world is probably better off without the further adventures of Danya Wilkinson or Calliope Dryden --- or even those of the less outlandishly named Tessa Gilmore.)

To name something is to give it life, to make it real, to make it something in the world. A name is the strongest kind of word there is, a kind of magic word, really. Names have always been important in mythology and religion. In initiation rites, you take on a new name to signify the change you've undergone, but part of the magic of the change is worked by the name itself.

Last week I was working on a narrative essay drawing on some elements of my high school experience, and as always, when trying to write about my own life, I found myself getting hung up on the details --- things that had mattered to me, but which wouldn't matter to anyone else. I was getting especially bogged down by the people in the story, some of whom I could barely even remember. The things I did remember I wasn't sure I could trust. I found myself stumbling through half-sentences, stopping, starting again. I was using initials in place of people's real names, thinking I would sub in some pseudonyms once I had a draft. But after a few unfruitful hours, I started thinking I had better rename them sooner rather than later.

And once I'd renamed them, they became other people. Lighter, freer. Characters who were similar in some respects to the real people who inspired them, but still strangers to me in most of the ways that count. In other words, people I could write about.*

For me, a character name usually starts with a first letter, or a feeling for a letter, and an idea of syllables. I don't think I'm alone among writers in not only having strong feelings about words, but for letters, too, and rhythms. So I might have the idea of something starting with a "B," two syllables long, and I start looking from there. The naming process happens at a very early stage in the creation of a character, early enough that the relationship is symbiotic. The name suggests the character to me as much as the character suggests the name.

I've had a copy of Baby Names From Around the World since I was nine, bought for this very purpose at a long-defunct Coles bookstore on Bank Street in Ottawa. (I remember getting a lot of concerned looks and questions about it when I was toting it around as a pre-teen.) As for as choosing an appropriate name by looking up its meaning, I think it's usually overkill in fiction to be that obviously thematic. But if the meaning is secretly relevant to you as a writer, for understanding the character, then that can only be a good thing.

Of course, there's no need for a baby name book now. The internet is full of resources for this sort of thing (these days baby names sites seem to be as ubiquitous, and nearly as spammy, as song lyrics sites). I often do just use names I like, but depending on when I want the character to have been born, I consult the U.S. Social Security Administration website, which gives you a list of names by gender and popularity for every year since 1879, or I Google to find a more specific list, like "Newfoundland surnames" or "Algerian boy names." No matter what, and I'm not sure why this is or what complex circles of influence control this, but I'm always absolutely in line with or slightly ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of my favourite names (four first names from my short-story collection appear in the Top Ten of the Top 100 Baby Names in Canada in 2008). So for that reason, I feel like I have to be careful when creating characters not born within, say, the last five years.

When I'm working on different sorts of projects, something where I just need to get ideas quick for a whole host of characters, I have fun with the Random Name Generator. It uses information from the U.S. Census, and it has an adjustable obscurity factor. It's wonderful for last names in particular, especially as phone books are turning into a thing of the past.

If you have any other good tricks for finding the perfect character name, please share.

*Whether the people in question (should they ever read the essay) would make much of this distinction is less certain, and is a troublesome enough topic for another time.

November 8, 2009

Recent book haul

I know I've already confessed here about the number of unread books I currently own, but I recently acquired a very nice (and huge) new bookcase, which made me feel a little bit freer to pick up a couple of books as needed. Well, the annual McGill Book Sale came and went, and I left with a tidy pile (sadly, I would have left with many more, but their debit machine wasn't working, so I had to leave a few behind and I didn't manage to make it back). Here's most what came home with me (leaving out the all the vinyl from the record section):

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden
The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn
Oxygen by Annabel Lyon (I'd already read but didn't previously own this book)
The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life by Camilla Gibb
Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens
The Divine Economy of Salvation by Priscila Uppal

An exciting-looking list, no? It kind of makes me wonder what I'm even doing sitting here writing about it! It might be my best haul yet --- only books I actively want to read, not just books I randomly purchased thinking they might turn out to be interesting. I've also picked up Because I Have Loved and Hidden It by Elise Moser and What Boys Like by Amy Jones at a couple of recent book launches, so let's face it...I'm a little bit spoiled for reading material at the moment.

November 7, 2009

Song of the Day

The other night I tuned into the live-stream of U2's Rose Bowl concert, and I was surprised when I couldn't really tear myself away. I haven't been a hard-core U2 fan for years, and I haven't even listened to their last album. But watching the concert rekindled some of my old affection, and I've been replaying my U2 CDs and checking out some of their music videos online. I've even discovered some videos I've never seen before for some older tunes. And thanks to a number of uploaded concert videos of dubious quality, I've learned that on this tour they've started playing two songs they've never played before in concert: Electrical Storm and Your Blue Room --- both favourites of mine. I'm starting to think I might need to go see them when they come, even though I'm not usually a fan of arena shows.

Anyway, that was a long preamble for just this one old song (no video, since I like the album version so much):

November 5, 2009

Writers on writing -- links

Last night's reading at Arts Cafe was great, with a really strong lineup of readers. My friend Alice Zorn was one of the readers, and I was happy to discover that she was also featured yesterday on Love Ms. Julie. She talks about her writing routine and you can look at a photo of her rather serene-looking desk. A desk that makes a desk look like a good idea.

Friend and poet Linda Besner also recently recorded a piece for The Next Chapter on the trouble with titling her first collection of poetry, which will be coming out with Vehicule. She polled me and writer Rob Weston about whether we supported her title or the one proposed by her editor. It's about 20 minutes into the show if you want to give it a listen --- but you should also listen to the first 20 minutes as it's an interview with Jessica Grant about her novel Come, Thou Tortoise (a novel I loved and have already raved about here).

And writer Jonathan Ball talks to CKUW about his new book of poetry Ex Machina as well as his short films. He has the audio hosted here on his website. Jonathan and I are attempting to post every day this month (what is known in the blogosphere, perhaps somewhat unfortunately, as NaBloPoMo --- not to be confused with NaNoWriMo, which I am decidedly not attempting), so you should check out his blog here and encourage him. Today's post is about the best method for undertaking revisions --- something I am trying not to think about while I'm finishing this first draft....

November 4, 2009

Readings, readings, readings!

We've been wonderfully fortunate in our literary events lately in Montreal. Thanks to the Concordia Writers Read series, George Saunders was in town two weeks ago to give a reading, which I can honestly say was the best reading I've ever attended (a close second being Yann Martel reading from Life of Pi at a free event at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival, the same morning he found it was shortlisted for the Booker). Saunders read from his recent story in The New Yorker, "Victory Lap." It's a classic Saunders story -- I'm not sure anybody does tragicomedy better than he does. He did different voices for the characters, including a Mickey Mouse-type voice for the imaginary baby deer (read the story, you'll understand) that is still cracking me up whenever I think about it. He answered the questions generously and interestingly and humbly. Everyone I went with was equally impressed.

Then this past Monday was the Biblioasis Metcalfe-Rooke reading at Drawn and Quarterly, where Kathleen Winter, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Amy Jones read from their winning short-story collections (actually, in Rebecca's case, she read a new story, which was a treat). They were all excellent and inspiring readers, and there were some yummy snacks there to boot. Kathleen very nicely sent me home with some of the leftover blue cheese. I'm pretty sure that living off of literary reading leavings means that I'm a REAL writer now.

And tonight at Arts Cafe is a poetry and prose reading, with a lineup including Alice Zorn, who will be reading from her wonderful book Ruins & Relics. The collection is deservedly shortlisted for the Quebec Writers' Federation McAuslan First Book Prize, and I'm rooting for it to win. And on the subject of the QWF Awards, why don't you come to the gala? As always, it promises to be a great event, and at just $10 a ticket, I suspect it is the most affordable (yet still glitzy) literary gala in the country.

November 3, 2009

writing comics diversions

A comic apropos to yesterday's post about iPhone e-readers, which I meant to include but forgot:

iPhone ebook camping

I didn't manage to go camping this summer, but I did go to a cabin and I was looking forward to reading books on my iPhone there -- until I lost track of my charger for the whole trip! That's one advantage a book will always have. It never runs out of batteries.

Debbie Ohi at, author of the comic above, does lots of wonderful writing-related comics and posts tons of great writing links and ideas on her site. Always good for a procrastinating click or two (or more...). Here's another recent favourite of mine:

Adverb Discrimination

I've definitely become one of those people who try to excise all their adverbs, so this comic hit close to home!

November 2, 2009

Reading ebooks on the iPhone

So the reason I've been reading Dracula is the wonderful Classics app on my iPhone. The look and feel of the thing is incredible, and I love that I can read it in bed with the lights off. The pages are a lovely cream colour and I can flick them, silently, with a stroke of my finger. There's no difficulty in positioning the thing to see, as there would be with a hardcover, with my head on the pillow. If I stop turning pages, it shuts itself off. And it totally removes the need for a book light, which has already come in handy for me while sharing a hotel room earlier this month.

Thus far I haven't seen the appeal of e-readers (why would I want to start carrying yet another device?), but there is something wonderful about always having something to read right in my phone. For one thing, it makes my purse a lot lighter. It isn't the first e-reader I got for my iPhone, but so far it's the best. And since I downloaded it, there have been a bunch of similar applications released. I'm probably going to get something called the "Charles Dickens collection" next, because that will definitely be easier to lug around than the actual novels.

When it comes to buying e-books rather than paper books, I don't know where I stand. Everything I've been reading so far has been in the public domain. I'm so much of a bibliophile that I can't imagine not wanting the actual object, but possibly I would consider it for trashy reads -- say if I was somehow dying to read the new Dan Brown or something else I wouldn't want to actually ever put on a shelf. But we'll see.

But anyway, hurray for e-readers on the iPhone! From the looks of things, it sounds like Apple is well-positioned to take over the e-reader market. According to a story today on Mashable, book application downloads for the the iPhone have even outstripped game downloads.

November 1, 2009

Dracula: less sexy than your average True Blood vampire

So for reasons related mostly to my iPhone (more on that later), I've recently been rereading Dracula. I read it once for school back in first-year university, probably the night before the exam, and I remember really enjoying it and finding it impressively creepy. But I was shocked at what I didn't remember, which was most of it: Dracula's moustache, the novel's structure (a collection of diary entries, newspaper articles, letters), the terrifying story of the boat crossing as the sailors are done away with one by one, Van Helsing's conceit of laughter as a king after he is convulsed by uncontrollable mirth:

"Ah, you don't comprehend, friend John. Do not think that I am not sad, though I laugh. See, I have cried even when the laugh did choke me. But no more think that I am all sorry when I cry, for the laugh he come just the same. Keep it always with you that laughter who knock at your door and say, `May I come in?' is not true laughter. No! He is a king, and he come when and how he like. He ask no person, he choose no time of suitability. He say, `I am here.'..."

I've been astounded over and over again by how frightening and absolutely gripping Stoker's novel is, not to mention surprisingly modern. I've been reading it slowly over the past week to get into the Halloween spirit. In other literary Halloween news, last night I dressed up as a character from one of my favourite books, Alice in Wonderland:

In case you're wondering, the cake makes her get bigger.

October 25, 2009

Orhan Pamuk on Character and Plot

Back from another trip to Boston, this time with a detour to Portland, ME and a drive along the coast of Maine. It was another enforced separation from the novel-in-progress, but while I was away my laptop was repaired (its faulty fan had been making the most awful racket for months) and I had the fun of starting a new story in my notebook (which I am dutifully ignoring for the time being until the novel draft is finished), so all in all it didn't feel like a lost week.

The trip coincided with a series of Norton lectures by Orhan Pamuk at Harvard University on "The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist." I had a chance to attend Lecture 3: "Character, Time, Plot" -- all subjects of intense interest to me, as you can imagine. I brought pen and paper to take notes.

The gorgeous Sanders Theatre just before the talk.

It was a treat to attend a free lecture at Harvard and fun to imagine myself as an Ivy Leaguer, if only for an afternoon. Pamuk read last week to a packed crowd at IFOA, so I've also been feeling a little smug that I managed to attend such an interesting lecture for just the cost of the subway fare from Boston. And to my amazement, who was introducing Mr. Pamuk but James Wood? I would have been excited simply to attend one of his lectures on fiction. (Has anyone read How Fiction Works yet? I keep meaning to pick it up.) And who was moderating the question period but Homi Bhabha? What a world Harvard is.

Pamuk read his lecture, so I suspect it will only be a matter of time before his Norton series is published as a book. One of his main points was that contemporary literature places too much emphasis on character. Pamuk scoffed at the notion that a novel really begins with a character above all else, following the trajectory of that character as he or she changes. He suggested plot should not be a secondary consideration, relegated to the concerns of genre fiction.

During the question period, a freshman mentioned that he had met a number of people who truly were interesting characters, the kind of amazing individuals Pamuk was suggesting are entirely the product of fiction. Pamuk acknowledged his point as valid but replied that in his own experience he had never been so fortunate as to meet anyone actually unique!

September 23, 2009

Eden Mills Writers' Festival

Eden Mills!

I had lugged along my laptop with the intention of blogging throughout the festival, but although the Guelph Travelodge receives top marks in continental breakfast (mini fat-free yogurts! hard-boiled eggs!) and extremely friendly and helpful staff, its high-speed internet leaves something to be desired. (Namely, a wireless signal.)

So this is me trying to blog in a timely fashion for once and get it all down before I forget.

First of all, the village is completely picturesque. Old stone houses with gracious porches and lovely gables. And to make their gorgeous town even better, Eden Mills is going carbon neutral. To that end, all the writers received adorable little Mason jars of water in lieu of bottled water (though I forgot mine in town...still kicking myself).

I read at the Mill, a beautiful location on the river. It was a unique set-up, with the microphone on the opposite side of the water from the audience, who seated themselves on blankets and lawn chairs along a grassy slope. I liked the magical moment of walking over the little bridge, though I felt oddly apart -- just a little too far to see or hear how most the audience was responding. I was nervous and very happy I was in the first set because soon as I was done, I was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the day. Many of the writers I wanted to hear were reading at the same time, so I did a lot of hopping around between locations. And though the festival has apparently suffered rain the past two years, we had gorgeous sun the whole day.

It was wonderful to reconnect with writers I've met over the past year since Mother Superior came out (actually just about exactly one year ago now) or earlier at the Banff Writers' Studio. I was amazed by how many people I already knew when I arrived! It was also a pleasure to meet other writers for the first time. It's a unique kind of event where you can have a twenty-minute conversation about first sentences, or talk in an amorphous way about a novel-in-progress where people actually understand you instead of only nodding in an uncomfortable or confused way.

I also met some very fine writers with whom I'd only previously interacted in the virtual world: Rebecca Rosenblum and Zoe Whittall. (Get their books -- you will not regret it!) There was even a brief sighting of Julie Wilson of Seen Reading fame, who was reading as part of the Fringe.

Oh, and I met Stephen Henighan, who -- though reputed to be one-third of "the snarling dog-head of the anti-establishment shit-talking Cerberus of CanLit" -- turned out to be a total sweetheart.

What else? I drooled over the wares at the Biblioasis stall and met the charming Dan Wells. After lengthy deliberation, I had a piece of plum pie at the end of a festival dinner featuring no less than ten pie varieties. I drank $2.50 Budweiser and watched a football game with Paul Quarrington and Ray Robertson. I had a friendly exchange in the elevator with Lynn Johnston (yes, THAT Lynn Johnston!), though I was too bashful to introduce myself.

But my favourite part of the festival: the organizers and volunteers (100 of them!), almost all of them local to the town and extremely dedicated . They welcomed us upon our arrival (calling "Welcome, writers!" "The writers are here!") as we debarked from the school bus that brought us from Guelph, they fed us, procured coffee, and enthusiastically and intelligently discussed all of the books. The story of how the festival started is an amazing one of happy happenstance, and I am so thrilled that they are still keeping it going. And of course, I'm even happier to have been a part of it. I've already used the word magical once in this post, so I'll just

September 1, 2009

Questions and Answers

It's the first day of September, and the weather couldn't be more gorgeous. Autumn is my favourite season and one that Montreal always does beautifully. The fresh nip in the air coupled with weather warm enough to still be sweater-optional has me feeling positively tingly with optimism. The only problem is I keep feeling like I should be buying books and going back to school. I think working at the university was enough to keep this feeling at bay before, or at least sublimate it by helping students register for classes and schedule meetings with their advisors. Now I'm tempted to console myself by buying some new pens and maybe some new books, too.

I know, I know --- I was just worrying about all my unread books. Incidentally, I finished reading The Girls last week and it was really wonderful. Highly recommended. It was particularly interesting to me since it's about two sisters, just like my current novel-in-progress. Are there other Canadian sister-novels out there?

My 12 or 20 Questions is up at rob mclennan's blog now. I love reading these, so I was really happy to be part of it! I warn you, though: it's a dangerous place to lose time if you're prone to procrastination. I think it's wonderful what rob's doing with this. It's quite a comprehensive archive and shows no signs of slowing.

Oh, and the ReLit Awards shortlist was announced today, which means my hopes of a literary piece of jewelry have been dashed. But congratulations to all the shortlistees! And good luck winning the precious.

August 29, 2009

Classy Alice

My review of the new Alice Munro collection, Too Much Happiness, is in today's Montreal Gazette and online here.

In case you don't feel like clicking through, I might as well tell you that I loved it, and I was really thrilled to have it assigned to me! (As absolutely ludicrous and surreal as it seems to for me to be reviewing the Master, but that is sometimes the way things work.)

The Globe has the excellent Anne Enright reviewing it, though she only has a few paragraphs about this collection, the rest of the review taken up with more general (but very eloquent) praise.

McClelland & Stewart also announced yesterday that Alice Munro requested Too Much Happiness not be submitted for consideration for the Giller, a prize she has already won twice, in order to leave the field open for younger writers. I think that this is an extremely classy move, though if you read the comments on Bookninja here and on CBC here you will find some other opinions (e.g. it's an arrogant move to assume her book will win, it taints the prize for anyone now who does win, etc., etc.).

August 23, 2009

how long is your to-read pile?

I had an Amazon order arrive not so long ago, and I'm feeling just a wee bit guilty about the purchase considering all the books I have piled up, still unread, from the past two years or so. A lot I purchased new, some second-hand (but still in beautiful condition), and some were gifts. A number of them, I'm afraid, are by people I know --- but I will leave those off this list for the time being, since that shame is of another, greater kind, and in any case I intend to read those ones first, and very soon.

Here then is the list of books purchased with the intention of reading in the very near future, sitting still unread:

Sylvanus Now - Donna Morrisey
Kit's Law - Donna Morrisey
The Book of Beasts - Bernice Friesen
The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolano
October - Richard Wright
The Culprits - Robert Hough
Mercy - Alissa York
Deafening - Frances Itani
The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst
Blindness - José Saramago
The White Bone - Barbara Gowdy
Where Has She Gone - Nino Ricci
The Girls - Lori Lansen
Special Topics in Calamity Physics - Marisha Pessl
The Secret History - Donna Tartt

Then I have a few books I won from various Twitter giveaways on the 'net:

The Outlander - Gil Adamson
Fear of Fighting - Stacey May Fowles & Marlena Zuber
The Disappearance of Seetha - Andrea Gunraj
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

My latest Amazon purchases, selected in a fit of Parisian longing after looking at too many "Summer Reading" booklists online:

Bonjour Tristesse - Francoise Sagan
The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

I should say that these are all relatively recent purchases. No sense in getting into the all-time list of unread books, as there simply isn't time.

Where to start??

August 21, 2009

vacation satiation

Now that a week has passed since my vacation, I'm ready to look back on it with nostalgia, rather than as the source of dehydration (too much sun) and achy legs (too much walking) and sleep deprivation (too many late nights and early mornings). Actually, all that was a meagre price to pay for good times with good friends, outrageously good food, and a little time in one of the world's great cities (NYC, though Boston's no slouch either).

Boston's North End.
I walk more purposefully when carrying a box full of pastry (specifically, ricotta cannoli).

This time we skipped the Strand, since I have
too many books still unread, and hit up Williamsburg and Coney Island instead, which was just as fabulously weird as I had been led to expect. I'm not sure whether it was the recorded messages blaring invitations to the 50-cent freakshows or the disgusting corn dog I ate, but it was just seedy enough to make us want to leave in a hurry.

Sometimes I think that mostly the reason I leave home at all is so that I can be reminded all over again how lucky I am to live where I do. And there's something to be said, too, for enforced separation from a writing project -- such that you're daydreaming about it and longing to get back to work.

On Brighton Beach. Beaches are a novelty for this Montrealer.

August 19, 2009

The Benefits of Leaving Town

One of the perks of leaving town for a few days is coming home to a pile of linky goodness on Google Reader and Twitter. Is there anything more satisfying and relaxing than zoning out with a cold glass of soda water in front of a metric ton of new blog posts? (Well, possibly. But not during a heat wave.)

Annabel Lyon has been posting lots on her blog (her last entry includes a link to an excerpt) for her brand-new novel about Alexander and Aristotle, The Golden Mean. I can't wait to read it! It and February by Lisa Moore are the two books I'm most excited about that I haven't gotten my hands on yet.

Ami McKay just posted this very cute and fun kids magnetic poetry site on her Twitter feed.

Hannah Sung at the CBC Book Club linked to a Times Online list from Adrian McKinty of the 10 Best Lady Detectives. Glaring omission (to my mind): Veronica Mars! (I'm still crushed that that show -- my favourite since Buffy -- was cancelled.)

The Guardian Book Club takes on Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha -- a book I loved when I first read it in Grade Twelve but which I haven't yet had a chance to revisit.

I think that's all the sharing I can manage before facing the fact that my little vacation really is over. Back to work!

August 14, 2009

laptop anxiety

I'm heading out this morning for four days to Boston and then New York City, leaving my laptop behind. These are my parting moments with the machine with which I spend, for better or worse, many of my waking and virtually all of my working hours. So it's a temporary goodbye to both work (completely) and the internet (mostly), and both prospects make me a little panicky. But it'll be good, right?? All my characters will be making the trip with me, anyway, at least in my mind.

Er, but I'll avoid mentioning that to the border guard.

Hope everyone makes it through the heatwave weekend without melting!

July 31, 2009


I've been working steadily away at my novel with a daily word count I record scrupulously (okay, obsessively) in a spreadsheet that I find endlessly encouraging as I watch the totals creep up. When I passed the 280-page mark a few days ago I was positively triumphant. After all, 280 is so very close to 300, and 300 is the number I've been carrying around in my head as the one to aim for. 300 pages is a novel, no doubt about it.

Of course, 300 pages or 100,000 words does not automatically give you a novel. I know that. But I had the idea that once I had a sizeable draft and had more or less wrapped up the story, I could go back and tweak things and put things in the right order and edit to my liking and I would have a draft that could at least be worked on and possibly even read by other people.

And so, over the past week, seeing how close I was getting to this magical number, I started readying the manuscript by putting sections in order, so that I could more easily see what was missing and what still needed to be put in. And --- long story short (I know, too late!) --- I realized I have to cut 52 pages.

These 52 pages belong to a secondary narration I'd added in at a late stage, hoping to prevent reader exhaustion with my protagonist, who narrates in present tense. But I see now all his narration was doing was staving off my own exhaustion at the time, as I tried to keep up my word quota in spite of feeling, at that time, a bit directionless. Reading over these 52 pages, I think I only really nail his voice in a few sections, perhaps 5 or 6 pages total. And the whole sideline I got caught up in with his character is both highly improbable and impossible to resolve. So.

It's time to cut.

Given how many problems this will solve, I should be happy. But it's impossible to not feel a little gloomy about all those wasted pages.

July 30, 2009

Do you write in your books? Or, Against Underlining.

Reading this Guardian blog post on marginalia, I was wondering how many people out there write in their books. I don't, as a rule. I'm careful about my books: no dog-earing, no reading in the bath unless the book is secondhand and already decrepit or very occasionally (shhhh) a library book. (Librarians, this is not as callous as it seems. I have not dropped a book into the bath since I was nine years old. And yes, I am still haunted by it. It was a Scholastic book club order, forever after marred by its wrinkly pages.)

I do see the utility of marking a book for study, and I've used Post-Its for this purpose. But in a novel? I have never once encountered anything interesting written inside a novel apart from an inscription. More often than not, the things I've found underlined have seemed completely random. I find it baffling at best and vandalism at worst. Then again, perhaps I simply haven't been fortunate enough to inherit a marked-up novel from a top scholar.

I have been known to underline poetry, mostly Blake, and only in a rather unspecial Wordsworth classics edition. And only then with an unsharpened pencil, the barest of fair lines. And for an upcoming short-story collection I'm reviewing, I haven't at all minded writing notes in the bound galleys. Especially since I know there's a lovely fresh hardcover on its way. Mmmm.

The fact is that I like to come to a page unmolested, without something giving an undue weight to a particular phrase. Though it might be interesting to re-read something and try and discover if you still value whatever it was you thought important enough to highlight the first time around...

What do you think?

July 19, 2009

Judging stories

I recently finished a stint as one of several first-readers for a literary journal's fiction contest. I had a stack of 50 stories to read, which I had to whittle down to a top five that were sent on to the final judge(s). This was my first time on the other side of a literary journal, reading submissions instead of writing them, and though I was initially alarmed at what I foresaw as an agonizing slog of painful decision-making, it turned out to be easier than I thought.

There were a number of stories I set aside right at the beginning:

Genre stories: types of stories not published by the magazine in question, e.g. fantasy, horror, science fiction ---- I was surprised by how many of these there were. Probably at least a fifth of the pile I had, maybe more. Many of these were well-written, but didn't establish any kind of specialness outside of the traditions they were working in.

Stories with almost nothing at stake, e.g. twenty pages of how to get a kid to eat his vegetables. Ones that were boring from the first page. Again, many were technically well-written.

I was also surprised by the number of stories about someone on his/her deathbed, looking back on a life (a potential variation of nothing at stake, in a way, if there's no present conflict or narrative line through the reminiscences) or set in 50s-style small towns (nothing wrong with this -- I was just taken aback by how many there were).

At the end of this process of removal, my pile of still-viable stories was significantly smaller, and finally there were a few hard decisions, after all. But not as hard as I expected.

I don't know if I'll ever get the opportunity to try this experiment, but I think I could have sorted the stories into three piles (Yes, Maybe, and No) based on the titles and first sentences alone ---- and the piles would not have looked very different from the ones I ended up with after reading all of the stories. Well, perhaps the Maybe pile would be bigger if my selections were based on just the first sentence. But the No pile would be the same, I'm sure of it.

All in all, it reminded me that the short story is a difficult animal. It is not enough to be a good writer to win a story contest. You need to read a lot of short stories and try to understand how they work. And it REALLY helps if you read previous issues of whatever magazine you're trying to publish in. (Until this experience, I could never understand why so many writing resources harped on this point.)

In the course of reading the submissions, I happened upon this blog post on How Not To Write a Story (written by a writer judging a story contest) and it was an eerie echo of many of the things I saw. Good advice.

The most exciting part of the process, though, was finding the gems and being surprised by where they took me. All the best stories were surprising.

July 18, 2009

Reading American

One of my personal goals lately has been to read more American and British novels, and to that end I decided to read Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, partly because I liked the original cover (pictured) and partly because of all the excellent reviews. And partly because it has laid claim to a spot in the elusive Obama book club.

It has a dreamy kind of pace as it's mostly flashback and meditations, and I found it a bit melancholy, but I liked it very much. Even the cricket parts. The highlights of the novel for me were the lovely sentences and observations, like the following:

On the state of generalized panic in NYC following 9/11:

"Very little about anything seemed intelligible or certain, and New York itself---that ideal source of the metropolitan diversion that serves as a response to the largest futilities---took on a fearsome, monstrous nature whose reality might have befuddled Plato himself" (24).

On a woman visiting the narrator's apartment, realizing he must be separated from his wife:

"Like an old door, every man past a certain age comes with historical warps and creaks of one kind or another, and a woman who wishes to put him to serious further use must expect to do a certain amount of sanding and planing" (109).*

By a fortunate accident, just as I was finishing the novel, the excellent literary blog The Elegant Variation posted a four-part interview with Joseph O'Neill here, here, here, and here. (They're also having a giveaway contest for the novel until tomorrow, Sunday, July 19th, if you want to win a copy for yourself.)

* page references from the Vintage trade paperback.

July 10, 2009

my new favourite book

I've already ranted to anybody who would listen about the awesomeness that is Jessica Grant's novel Come, Thou Tortoise. I've tweeted about how every page just makes me want to hug it (ouch, pointy corners!) and I still haven't come close to describing how much I love this book.

I don't want to summarize the book or try and write a review (you can find some here and here), but I do think it is simply wonderful and you should go read it. It's funny and clever and touching. I cried on and off through the last twenty pages, not so much because it was sad but because it was so perfect and I was sad it was ending. It reminds me of how I felt after reading A Complicated Kindness, and I hope this book becomes as successful as that one because it really deserves it. I can't imagine anyone who wouldn't like it, to tell you the truth, and I'm not sure I'd want to be friends with someone who didn't.

I've also since finished reading Making Light of Tragedy, Grant's short-story collection which I've actually had for a while now. I picked it up at the McGill Book Fair after remembering a few writer friends of mine had strongly recommended it to me. It's also terrific: twenty-three short short stories every bit as surprising and hilarious as the novel.

Jessica Grant is also a member of the ever-more-astounding Burning Rock Collective (think Michael Winter, Lisa Moore, Libby Creelman). Does Canada have any other writing groups that have seen this kind of success? I'm curious. All I can think of right now is the Montreal Group (more a movement than a group, yes?) and that was a long time ago now.

The only bad thing about this book is its cover.

June 29, 2009

Winnipeg and a 2004 flashback

I returned home today from a week-long visit to Winnipeg. It was a whirlwind visit with barely enough time to see everyone I wanted to see/do everything I wanted to do (and let's be frank with my priorities here: eat what I wanted to eat -- I never made it my-favourite-of-days-gone-by Thai restaurant around the corner from my former apartment, and by the time I made it to the King's Head, the kitchen had closed as far as fish and chips were concerned). But one thing that happened that I was thrilled about was a gathering at my friend G's place.

When I lived in Winnipeg, G's place on Gertrude was the most frequent and regular haunt for our Wednesday night writing group. Like lots of other writing groups, this one originated from a university writing course and gradually grew to include other friends who liked to write. We exchanged work, gave feedback, drank tea, snacked, and chatted (these last few being the three constants). Even though many of us had different aesthetics and divergent types of projects, it was wonderful to get feedback from other perspectives and feel support for one's endeavours. Plus having a weekly writing date was a terrific incentive to produce new work.

By a very happy coincidence, another Gertrude St. alumni was in town the same weekend and G was kind enough to invite us both over for dinner. Not only did I get to see (and chat with) G's beautiful wife, see (and hold!) his delightful offspring, I got the pleasure of revisiting those fun times in 2004. We ate yummy takeout Thai food and talked shop about writing, comics, reading and learning. G is a teacher now, bringing his inimitable enthusiasm and creativity to Winnipeg high school students. I hope they realize how lucky they are!

June 23, 2009

Time for Lives of the Saints?

Last week I finished reading Nino Ricci's The Origin of Species, and I loved it. I saw him on a panel at Blue Metropolis this year, and something he said (maybe that the book was anti-religion? but don't quote me on that) coupled with my basic knowledge of the plot (set in Montreal in the 1980s, centred on a Ph.D. student in English trying to write his dissertation) made me seize it when I saw it available at the Grande Bibliothèque. It was the same day I finally got a membership there, and I could scarcely believe my good luck at walking out with a brand-new, Governor-General Award-winning novel without having been on a waiting list for weeks.

And it didn't disappoint. It's deliciously long, with a strange adventure section set in the Galapagos that I found impossible to put down. Ricci's prose style is excellent, and he tackles all the big questions in this one novel: death, God, living authentically and ethically. It's the kind of novel that for another writer is simultaneously inspiring and deflating --- a capital N Novel with all the hallmarks of time, research, genius, effort. Read it!

June 18, 2009

WESTFEST in Ottawa, June 13

Last Saturday I participated in Ottawa's WESTFEST, a free arts festival in Westboro. It went pretty well! I think I'm getting a little better at these things.

It was a beautiful day, sunny but not too hot -- very key since the festival took place outdoors. I was happy the weather cooperated with my plan to wear a new sundress. And I was excited to be on the lineup with the other excellent writers (Priscilla Uppal, Nichole McGill, who also curates WESTFEST Lit, Mark Frutkin, and Mike Blouin, who was shortlisted just this week for the First Novel Award), and I really enjoyed all of the readings. The never-ending stack of books I want to read is always getting longer!

WESTFEST itself was a really fun weekend event. Since everything is free, it makes for a really great atmosphere and a really diverse mix of people. We caught part of the Spoken Word sets, and saw Prairie Oyster later that night. Also, I pretty much just love a street festival. Any street festival. If there is a street blocked off for pedestrians and food vendors, I'm there.

One thing: it was a family-friendly event, and I'd chosen my selection accordingly, but I did have one line with the word "crotch." I saw it coming on the page, but I couldn't think of a way around it on the fly. In context, I think it was more or less innocuous, but maybe my own self-consciousness came through and made the word feel more loaded. Two women with a few small children between them got up from the front row and left shortly thereafter. But maybe it was a coincidence, yes? There were other supportive audience members smiling and making eye contact. Love supportive audience members. Maybe even more than a street festival.

Here's the whole WESTFEST literature crew, photo courtesy of Nichole McGill:

(L to R): me, Priscila Uppal, Mark Frutkin, host Lucy van Oldenbarneveld, Mike Blouin and Nichole McGill

June 17, 2009

classroom visit to Concordia

So at the last Pilot Reading Series at Blizzarts a few weeks ago, I met someone who, upon introducing herself, told me we'd just missed meeting the night before at the roller derby (we were sitting close to one another in the stands, with a mutual friend between us) AND that she, K, was teaching a story of mine in her Canadian Literature summer class at Concordia.

Teaching my story in a university class. My story. University class. (!!!)

It was so shocking that I didn’t even ask a single follow-up question, not even to ask which story. I think I changed the subject back to roller derby. I was thrilled and too bashful to bring it up again. Then a few days later K emailed me to ask if I'd be willing to visit the class on the day they were scheduled to talk about the story. I could come at the end, after the lecture, and do a brief reading and answer questions. So I did!

Really, the headiness of the whole thing is enough to dine on for months, if not a lifetime. But I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to give it its due here, so let me do so now.

I’m a Can Lit student myself, and the other story on the syllabus that night was Lynn Coady's wonderful "Play the Monster Blind" (from the collection of the same name), which was a story I'd studied in one of my graduate seminars. The idea that 70-odd students also had a story by me in their coursepacks is still almost more than I can really take in at the moment. (In case you're wondering which story, it's "Bloodlines" -- incidentally, the story I'm currently developing into a novel. A fact which was also brought up during the question period by one of the students, who had done some Googling!)

It was a diverse and very bright group of students and they were very nice to me and asked lots of questions and made me feel welcome. I could tell, too, that a number of them were writers themselves. One of them put me on the spot with a question about whether or not I consider myself a Quebecker (I'm still puzzling this one out. I said, Montrealer, absolutely. But the implications of this are a bit tricky.)

One of the first things I told the class was that I no longer commit the intentional fallacy --- that is , I don't think that what the author says about his or her story is the final word. I was nervous about inadvertently contradicting or undermining something K. had said in her lecture. (I needn't have worried, of course. She had already warned them that I might have a different take on things.)

One of the questions from the students did give me a clue as to a bit of what was discussed in the lecture: “If hair is such an important theme in the story, why didn’t you bring that out more?” Good question!

(My answer, minus a bit of extraneous babbling: it's difficult as a writer to know what's coming across as blatantly heavy-handed or overly subtle. Walking that fine line is a what a lot of the work of writing is about, and editing even more so.)

So all in all, it was an amazing experience. I left the loneliness of my apartment where I'd been shut up working on the novel all day long to go an evening class full of smart and enthusiastic students who were asking me questions about the very same characters. To say "renewed sense of purpose" would be an understatement! I'm so grateful to K. for having read and liked the story enough to include it in her course, and for inviting me to do the visit.

June 16, 2009

the intentional fallacy

Have you ever heard of the "intentional fallacy"? It's one of the key notions of New Criticism, a movement of literary criticism that rejects the idea that the meaning of a work of literature depends on authorial intent. In other words, it doesn't matter what the author thinks the story is about or what they intended for it to mean. A text can only be judged by a close reading.

When I first encountered New Criticism in an undergraduate literature course, I felt, as an aspiring writer, that the theorists had it all wrong. Of course the author knew what the work meant. They wrote the thing. It meant what they said it did!

But now --- after having shared my work with a number of other writers, mentors, and editors, after having heard and read the reactions of plenty of reviewers and other readers, and after stumbling through my responses to more than one question to do with "what is this story about?" --- I've completely revised my take on the New Critics. They may not have had it all right (what theoretical approach does?), but certainly a text is more (can be more, should be more, please let it be more) than whatever the writer hoped it might be.

I don't think I'm completely blundering blind through the writing, but I have a feeling that with all my focus on individual words and phrases and the rhythms of each and every sentence (although how else does a novel get written except word by word?), I tend to try and let some of the bigger things (themes, symbols) take care of themselves, sometimes without me knowing... explicitly, anyway.

June 10, 2009

How do writers stay in shape?

For the first time tonight, after four or so years of (occasionally dedicated, mostly sporadic, never impressive attempts at) running, I think I finally experienced that endorphin rush that exercise enthusiasts never stop insisting exists. So I'm forced to conclude it hasn't been a sustained worldwide conspiracy from the beginning of time until now on the part of people who have nothing better to do with their time besides stay healthy and happy. Great!

Now I need to figure out how to make it happen again. I switched up my normal routine in a couple of ways -- including going at night, when I'm actually awake, instead of during the afternoon, when all sensible writers and other unemployed folk are enjoying a nice siesta. There was also an novel interlude with a stairclimbing machine that might have played a role.

No doubt it's all those endorphins making me overshare all this, but it actually does touch on a topic I wanted to cover: how do writers stay in shape? Lots of office workers spend their days sitting at a desk, but at least going to an office entails a more considerable geographic displacement than from bed to (in my case) couch. When the writing is going well, a trip to the gym seems like pure indulgence. I know that exercise is supposed to keep the brain working well, but it's so hard to always keep that in mind. (Especially, I suppose, when one hasn't been exercising. The ole memory starts getting rusty.)

I've been combing this great blog for ideas (sadly, it hasn't been updated in ages), but the top few entries mostly indicate the consumption of Benzedrine and whiskey. If you have any tried and true tips, please share.

I was almost going to include a faceless photo of a famous writer with a big belly in order to provoke a cruel and body-image-anguish-inducing guessing game, but that seems slightly mean, and also a bit time-consuming. Instead you get this picture of a StairMaster.

May 21, 2009

more reading non-monogamy

I'm trying to make a push on my novel manuscript right now, and adjust to the new pressures of not working (oh yes, there are pressures --- do I nap now? Or nap later?), so I'm finding I don't have too much to say. Even the reading is going slowly, though possibly this has something to do with being midway through three books at once:

Apologize, Apologize! by Elizabeth Kelly, about a dysfunctional wealthy family that pushes the boundaries on quirky. I don't want to say too much else about this book as I'm only halfway through, and much of what I want to say constitutes spoilers. And I hate spoilers, and so do you. (Or you should.)

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai. It is taking me forever to read this, even though I really, really admire what I've read so far. I think I'm feeling reluctant because I decided I had to read it when I was trying to prepare for my Blue Metropolis panel on India and Pakistan. There's a part of me that always drags my heels with mandatory reading. What this means is that I have yet to finish a book by a so-called Indian writer, unless you count my own (which I don't).

Then there's Concluding, by Henry Green, which is the most unexpectedly riveting of the bunch. I mostly stick to contemporary fiction these days but this book fell into my hands and so far I'm loving it, though I'm keeping it strictly to bedtime reading because I kind of want to draw it out. It's set at a boarding school, and so far there are girls named Mary, Merode, Moira, and Marion (never mind Miss Marchbanks) and I can tell them all apart! This is kind of a triumph for me (and, I think, a good point in favour of Henry Green). I can't tell you the misery I suffered at Tolkein's hands with Sauron/Saruman.

Usually what happens when I'm reading too many books is that one will surge ahead, one will slowly, slowly finish, and one will completely fall to the wayside --- but I think I'm going to see all of these through.

May 19, 2009

Seen Reading

Today was my first post over at Seen Reading, hallowed website of literary voyeur, Julie Wilson. After years of spying on Montreal readers and nowhere to broadcast the news, I've happily become a contributor to the expanded site, which as of right now is featuring sightings across the country, in Nova Scotia, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.

I'm really excited about it! I've been having so much fun. It's one thing to see the bestseller lists, and quite another to spot someone on the bus 200-pages deep into Late Nights on Air or Tess of the D'Urbervilles. So watch out, Montrealers --- I'll be watching you.

I've been checking out everyone's shoes, too. This is Montreal, after all.

May 13, 2009

National Short Story Month

Did you know that May has been declared Short Story Month? Dan Wickett at the Emerging Writers Network has been covering it with a ton of new posts every day, blogging daily about three short stories: one each from a published collection, a print periodical, and an online journal. A very impressive feat as well as a very dangerous procrastination destination for writers who are supposed to be, ahem, writing.

Along the same lines, the National Post's excellent literary blog The Afterword is doing Q & A's with short story writers this month, starting today with yours truly.

Since I've been working away on this novel lately, I've been wondering whether it actually, in general, takes longer to write a short story than a novel ---- in terms of time average time spent per sentence by published authors. Maybe the very fact that I'm contemplating this study is a sign I should get back to work..?

But seriously, what's the fastest you've ever written a (passable) short story? I'm curious. For me, it was three weeks, but most of the ones I've written have taken much, much (MUCH) longer.

April 30, 2009

Teaching writing workshops at Blue Metropolis

Last week I had the pleasure and honour of teaching a couple of sessions of creative writing to 15- to 17-year-old high school students through the Student Literary Programme at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. If I hadn't been too stressed out and busy in the lead-up to the festival, I would have written about it here already, but I was just preoccupied enough to have to keep my pre-workshop jitters and neuroses to myself. You're welcome.

In preparation, I revisited old class notes from workshops I've attended, I lurked on the blogs of other writers who have recently been facing this challenge, I pulled out a few creative writing books I'd purchased but never read, and I polled writer-friends on what they wished they'd been taught about writing in high school but didn't end up learning until later. I ended up with a jumble of thoughts on inspiration (don't wait for it!), first sentences, "show, don't tell," ideas for timed writing exercises, and editing tips. Then I spent some time making up handouts --- as much to give myself a roadmap as to give the students something to take home and look at later.

In the first session, I tried to do too much. There's only so much about writing that can be conveyed in two hours. The second day, I mostly skipped over the material I'd prepared on point-of-view and narrative voice and boiled down my editing tips to cutting down on adverbs and reporting tags.

In some cases, I was truly astonished by what was produced in our 10-minute timed exercises. The students were writing at different levels, but the more experienced writers were very impressive indeed. I was also thrilled by how many of the students were willing to speak up and share what they'd written. And I was grateful to the teachers, all of whom participated by doing the exercises and who seemed to share a terrific rapport with their students.

All in all, it was a great learning experience for me, especially in terms of reconnecting with teenagers (I spend a fair amount of time writing about them, in my novel-in-progress). I hope the students got something out of it, too!

March 28, 2009

on revisiting books

Dear 15-year-old-self,

The Catcher in the Rye does not "suck." Trust me.


March 26, 2009

how to read a review

I'm sure I'm not the only writer who "reads" a review by scanning for criticism. You find the damning sentence(s), memorize the critique, let each of your inner editors (I've decided there are a whole host of them, each with her own manic quirks) take turns weighing it for truth, accept it as fact or something less ego-shattering, and keep writing. Usually, any critique will give you something you can use to be a better writer. The rest of the review, however complimentary, feels less vital and always, ALWAYS less believable.

But it occurs to me that the positive parts of a review might be worth paying attention to (if still dangerous to actually, say, believe). You want to know what sticks with people, what moved them. What works.

I've vowed that the next review I read (assuming there is a next one), I will try and take away at least one positive thing.


March 17, 2009

Help! I'm a prisoner in the library!*

The Guardian Books Blog has an article today on books you couldn't put down once you started, in reference to an article in the Mirror about a man who had a panic attack after being locked in a library when he didn't notice it close, so absorbed was he in his reading.

There are lots of books I couldn't stop reading (most recently Kate Atkinson's excellent When Will There Be Good News?), but I can think of only a few instances of books randomly picked up in a library where I felt compelled to read to the end:

Anthem by Ayn Rand, which I found by accident in Grade Seven when we were given a library period to find a book for a book report. It was on one of those metal spinning racks alongside Gordon Korman paperbacks and copies of Island of the Blue Dolphins, masquerading as a regular sort of YA book. It had a lot going for it: a bleak dystopian future, and a forbidden love story --- the romance between Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000.

I should say that this is the only Ayn Rand I've ever read, and though I certainly found it compelling (it was completely different from anything I'd ever read before), it did not turn me into a little twelve-year-old Objectivist. At least, not that I know of...(*cue ominous music*)

And in high school I was at the Ottawa Public Library, getting books for a paper I had to write, when I started reading a collection of Pinter plays and stayed there for hours finishing it. I'd never heard of Pinter (this seems slightly appalling now, but I hope not terribly unusual), but I was fascinated by the brevity of the dialogue --- just the way it looked on the page -- though in retrospect I think my fascination was fueled in no small part by a major case of procrastination on the assignment I was there to research.

*The title of this post is a reference to a book that I had as a little kid:

Two sisters go in search of a bathroom during a blizzard and get locked in a library. I remember it being fantastically spooky! Not actually scary, but the delicious type of creepiness where you know it's only your imagination but knowing that barely helps stave off the panic.

March 11, 2009

more good news

I forgot to mention that I received a statement for my short-story collection sales, along with a (very small) cheque. A cheque! This means that the book has earned out its (very modest) advance! I *think* this means that I am officially not a liability for my publisher, which is a good feeling.

I also reviewed Ali Smith's new short-story collection for the Gazette
a few weeks back. It made me want to reread The Accidental, which I remember thinking was perfect when I read it. I recently decided to add in another voice to my novel-in-progress, and I remember this being an example of a novel that really manages to pull off different perspectives. (Although I do feel a bit guilty re-reading something when there are so many new books I want to read. Not guilty enough to not do it, mind you.)

February 3, 2009

hardcover or trade paperback?

I know for most book collectors, it goes without saying: hardcover is the way to go. Sewn bindings and acid-free paper mean a longer-lasting book. An ideally bound hardcover will, over time (think of ones you get from the library) lie open flat on your lap, which is certainly convenient. But many trade paperbacks use high-quality paper now, and more and more hardcover bindings are glued, not sewn, all of which complicates the decision about whether or not to shell out the extra money on a hardbound book.*

I judge books by their covers all the time, not necessarily in terms of the quality of what one might contain but often at least in terms of whether it is something I am interested in buying. Usually I already know what I want (that's what reviews are for), but sometimes a cover just grabs you and you end up looking up the reviews afterwards. But with most hardcovers, the cover design is only included on the dust jacket (with the book itself usually swathed in tasteful monotones) --- and this sometimes makes me want to wait for the trade paperback.

I don't quite get the concept of the dust jacket. It's supposed to keep the hard cover itself pristine, but if the distinctive cover design is printed only on the paper jacket, then I end up being more worried about its wear and tear, rather than that of the book itself, especially since dust jackets seem particularly fragile, often unlaminated and susceptible to tearing. (Maybe this concern for the dust jacket is bizarre, but I don't think it's uncommon. I've seen lots of people tenderly stowing away jackets before carting around naked hardcovers.) The jacket is, after all, what's going to be wrapped around the book while it's sitting on a bookcase, where (presumably) it will live out most of the rest of its bookish life.

All of this is also a long preamble to talk about how much I like the hardcover for Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances. (I also quite like the book, but I'm still reading it so I won't say anything further at the moment.) Now it's not evident from the picture below, but the cover design is printed right onto the hardbound book itself and there is no dust jacket. (I guess probably technically the cover is very closely glued on.) Does anyone know the name for this kind of cover? It strikes me as a nice way out of the dust jacket dilemma. I am aware that some hardcovers come with both the printed-design cover as well as an identical dust jacket (I'm thinking of my hard-bound Harry Potter books), but that just seems overly fussy somehow.

Attractive, eh? When I was Googling for this image, I also stumbled upon a book trailer for the novel. I can't say I've ever seen a book trailer before, but I wonder how one would be put together for a book that didn't have an attractive illustrative design:

* I should mention the fact that many of the new books I've purchased over the past year (often from small presses) were never released in hardcover, which simplifies things.

January 27, 2009

a presidency in photos

I just lost the last half of my evening (how?) reading through this long post on Errol Morris' blog for the New York Times that I found via the wonderful tool of "Shared Items" in Google Reader. In it, Errol Morris asks the head photo editors of AFP, AP, and Reuters to share what they feel are the representative or iconic photos of George W. Bush's presidency, with commentary. From there I hopped over to the Reuters Photographers blog, where a number of their Washington photographers have personal entries to the same effect.

Bush hearing the news of the World Trade Center plane crashes from his Chief of Staff (AFP).