The Novella: neglected middle child of prose

A canoe is not a small ship, a shrub is not a miniature tree, a child is not a pint-sized adult and a novella is not a short novel (sorry Merriam-Websters). It is the middle child of prose, defined against the (longer) novel and (shorter) story. And like a middle child, it is often left out and therefore free to make its own discoveries and carve its own path.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

After poetry month (April) and short story month (May), June is novella month. We do not make this up. But someone did.

We’ve all read a number of novellas. The list of possibilities is impressive and includes: The Awakening (1899, Kate Chopin), Heart of Darkness (1899, Joseph Conrad), The Metamorphosis (1915, Franz Kafka), Of Mice and Men (1937, John Steinbeck), The Stranger (1942, Albert Camus), The Little Prince (1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), Animal Farm (1945, George Orwell), The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951, Carson McCullers), A Clockwork Orange (1962, Anthony Burgess), Black Water (1992, Joyce Carol Oates)… Goodreads has a list (of course) of the “greatest novellas.”

Historically, some consider that English novelist, dramatist and spy, Aphra Behn, published the first novella. Oroonoko, a love story about an African king, slavery, dismemberment, decapitation and death was published in 1688 (she died the next year, at age 49). Of course the Russians made the novella into an art form. Ivan Turgenev published the autobiographical novella First Love in 1860, about a young man in love with a woman that he eventually discovers is his father’s lover (in a creepy scene involving a riding crop) and everything ends horribly (misogyny alert).

A novella is defined, in part, by its length — somewhere between 20,000 and 50,000 words (whereas a novel is generally somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words). This translates to about 100-150 pages. While length isn’t everything, it does limit and guide structure. The novel has the luxury of more pages with which to explore sub-plots; a novella does not.

Novellas tend to focus on the personal, psychological journey of one main character, through one point of view, and usually over a period of just a few days.

Although, there are exceptions. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie covers 20+ years (1969, Muriel Spark). Like the novel, the poem and other written forms, “although, there are exceptions” could be added to each of the points I make here. Language is slippery like that. So are writers.

A novella does not usually have chapters. Like the short story, passages of time or changes of location are differentiated with extra paragraph spaces, or sometimes a blank page but not chapter numbers or titles.

Novellas are not easy to sell. I once came across what I thought a comical piece of advice to writers on a well-known publisher’s website. In answer to a writer’s question about how to get his novella published, the expert responded with something like, “my first piece of advice to you is to expand your novella into a full-length novel.”

Novellas are often published with other short stories, such as the case with Mavis Gallant’s The Pegnitz Junction: A Novella and Five Stories (1984) and Stephen King’s Different Seasons (1982), a collection of four novellas, three of which ended up on the big screen, including the popular “Shawshank Redemption.” Alice Munro’s “The Albanian Virgin,” considered by some to be a novella, was published in her short story collection Open Secrets (1994). By my rough estimate, this story is about 17,000 words, so a bit on the short side for a novella. And it’s much more complicated than many novellas in terms of passage of time, so again not neatly a novella. (But that’s Alice Munro for you. For each rule writer’s learn, any Alice Munro story can be held up as an example of breaking it).

Years ago, Descant sponsored a novella contest. Unfortunately, the time and money required outran the staff and volunteers at hand, so we didn’t keep it up. But our very own Michelle Alfano, now Descant’s assistant-editor-in-chief (administration), published a novella. Made Up of Arias won the 2010 Bressani Prize for Short Fiction. Michelle managed to pack a lot of character into the slim volume:

Lilla, Joey and Clara Pentangeli, their father Salvatore and their mercurial mother Seraphina live on Paradise Street behind a giant billboard, in a charmed world filled with operatic heroines. Seraphina idolizes Maria Callas. Between bouts of housework, she re-enacts Violetta’s death scene from La Traviata, dresses in a kimono like CioCioSan in Madama Butterfly, and concocts outrageous tales for her three enchanted children.

The Malahat Review sponsors a novella contest every two years. Their next deadline is February, 2016. Not many literary magazines will publish a novella for the obvious reason that they take up so much space. Publishing one writer’s novella means not publishing several other short story writers. But here is a link to a list of places that do consider novellas for publication.

Quattro Books Logo

Quattro Books, in Toronto, consider themselves “the home of the novella” (literary only, not genre). Their Ken Klonsky Novella Contest inspired my idea for this blog post. From June 1st to July 31st, 2014, they are accepting submissions for their novella competition. If you win, your  manuscript will be published this fall — yes, you could go from an idea to a book-in-hand in less than six months. Of course, in that same time, Stephen King will have written two blockbuster bestsellers, but don’t think about that. Think about the launch party and how great it will feel to be both a contest winner and an author, all in one fell swoop. (Just make sure you avoid clichés like that). One of Quattro’s Ken Klonsky Novella Contest winners for 2012 was Terri Favro, for The Proxy Bride (in which there are chapters). Writing tip #54: Always a good idea to read the work of previous winners before entering a contest.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

Terri Favro won the Quattro Ken Klonsky Novella contest for The Proxy Bride, in 2012.

I’m rereading James Joyce’s novella The Dead. If a short story is something to sink your teeth into and a novel something to which you lend your heart and soul, The Dead suggests to me that a good novella merges these two experiences. A novella is intense, like a short story, but it also refracts and extends your vision, similar to a novel. And, recalling the ending of James Joyce’s brilliant story, I want to add that the novella can bring you, suddenly, to your knees.

 

 

 

 

Descant feature volunteer interview: Jann Everard

One Sunday afternoon each month, Descant volunteers, interns, co-editors and staff meet to read submissions and discuss the business of running a literary magazine. Sometimes people ask me about the kinds of people at these meetings (I know what they’re really asking is: what kind of people are judging my writing?!). There have been up to 30 of us at these meetings although generally it’s closer to 20. Some have degrees in English, though certainly not all. Some are interns, and come from a publishing program at Ryerson or York University. And some, like Jann Everard, come in off the street — Word On The Street, that is.

Michael XXXX, Descant's Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous WOTS spot.

Michael Chen, Descant‘s summer 2013 Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous Word On The Street spot, September 2013.

When we set up our tent for the annual event last fall, in Toronto, I grabbed a bunch of colourful flyers and started pacing our allotted 12 feet, looking for a friendly face to accost, in a literary manner. One of those faces turned out to be Jann’s and soon enough she and I and Michelle Alfano, now our Assistant-Editor-in-Chief (Administration), were chatting about writing and mutual friends and, of course, Descant. Jann came to our next launch and then editorial meeting and has come to each one since.

Jann Everard is well published — that is, she has been published often and in good places. She has had three essays published in The Globe and Mail, “Facts and Arguments,” she’s had short stories published in Grain and The Antigonish Review (this spring), as well as Room, The Fiddlehead, The Dalhousie Review, and at least a dozen other publications. In fact, reading her writing resumé could be considered a good introduction to Canadian journals! Here is just a selection of her publications.

Her answers to the following questions about being a writer are candid, useful and funny. While she admits in this interview that she struggles with getting to the page, in the eight months I’ve known her, I’ve come to regard Jann as a serious and dedicated writer. She is also, as other serious writers are, a great support to all her writing friends.

And of course, she’s a great addition to our Descant family.

***

Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

When (or how) did you first know you wanted to write?

JE: I suspect that every avid reader has a moment when they are inspired to give writing a try. I took a break from employment to be with my kids when they were young so I tried my hand at writing children’s books first. I took a course with Sharon Jennings, author of some of the Franklin’s First Readers. All those early efforts still sit in my files. Children’s books are harder to write (and get published) than people think.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

JE: I don’t have much discipline. I don’t get up a 5:00 a.m. to write. I don’t write every day. I fit writing around the rest of my life. But years ago I went to a CANSCAIP event and the keynote speaker said something that resonated. I don’t remember her name but she had four young kids, a full-time job and had published five or more books. She said it was important for her to see herself as “a writer who is a mother” not “a mother who writes.” I still fall into the latter camp. But I see a time, very soon, when I will finally be a writer first.

What do you find easiest and hardest about the writing life?

JE:  I didn’t start writing seriously until after a 14-year career in the Ontario Ministry of Health and a few years at home. I have an MHA, not an MFA. At work, I spent a lot of time writing briefing notes and policy papers. So I had a steep learning curve when it came to creative writing. I took some courses and went to workshops to help me get started but, for the most part, I learned through trial and error. It was hard to figure out who I was as a writer. After children’s writing, I explored travel writing and poetry. I sent a couple of personal essays to the Globe and Mail’s “Facts and Arguments” and they were accepted. So then I looked into creative nonfiction. It wasn’t until writer/editor Deb Loughead rejected a piece I’d submitted for an anthology, with a kind note suggesting I submit it to Room Magazine, that I started to look closely at the adult short story as a form. It took me a long time to get to that point. Others may be surer from the start.

The easiest part of being a writer? What’s better than sitting in the local pub listening to other writers read to you?

What do you know now that you wish your first teacher or mentor had told you, but didn’t?

I’m sure my early writing teachers told me everything I needed to know. But did I listen?

One of those early teachers was Sarah Selecky. I told Sarah I had trouble revising my work. So Sarah developed a course on Deep Revision. She was very gentle. We sat in her living room with soft lighting and herbal tea. She guided us through various techniques to help see our work with fresh eyes. At one point she suggested we cut our MS into pieces and physically rearrange it. I couldn’t do it. I was still in love with my imperfect draft. I wish she’d beaten me over the head and forced me to hack at it with scissors! I still find revision hard.

(Btw, Sarah has been offering much of that instruction free on her website as part of the run-up to her contest deadline.)

What are 3 things you think a new writer should know?

JE: 

1) Your work will be rejected.

2) Your work will be rejected, even though it is good work.

3) You will rarely be given a reason why your work has been rejected.

Corollary: I can’t overemphasize the importance of finding a group of people who will provide constructive criticism. Treasure those people. Buy them drinks. Return the favour when they need feedback. Analyzing someone else’s work hones your own skills. It forces you to ask what’s working and what’s not working.

It’s also important to recognize that the kind of feedback you will need (or can give) will change and evolve with time. In my early career, all the people in my critique circle were women. I purposely sought out some male writers to help me later on. I needed to know that my male characters rang true. Some of my original writing friends are now working on, or finishing, novels. I feel less equipped to help them with structure, but I can still offer them copy editing.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

JE: Meeting other writers. They are a diverse and interesting group, for sure! I’ve made some close friends in writing classes. I obtained my current part-time job (totally unrelated to writing) through a connection I made in a writing class.

What is the thing that (negatively) surprised you most about being a writer?

JE: That what I spend on paper, ink, postage, journal subscriptions and books is always so much more than what I am paid as a writer. While I was flattered to discover recently that a college in NYC had used a story of mine in a workshop, I was disturbed to find out that 1) it was available to them online through an academic listserve without my knowledge, and 2) creators are not compensated when universities make these arrangements.

Have your parents ever read your stories and what do they think/say?

JE: They have read a few. By the time a story makes it to print, I’ve moved on. It seems anticlimactic and I’m not good at self-promotion. If it’s near Christmas, I’ll slip a journal with my writing into my father’s stocking. He has written several military history books and, at 87, is still a prodigious reader. He thinks my short stories lack proper endings.

What’s the longest you’ve waited to hear back from a magazine?

JE: Up to a year. I’ve also had stories rejected that I’d previously withdrawn. And one journal rejected the same story twice, even though I hadn’t resubmitted it. That felt harsh! But these moments have to be laughed off. Journals are often volunteer-run. We all make mistakes.

What’s your advice to new writers about handling rejection?

JE: Have lots of dark chocolate on hand. I mean lots.

***

Jann Everard is new to Twitter! You can find and follow @JannEverard.

 

10 Lit Links to Fill up 10 Weekends: Our First Listicle

Apparently, we online idlers cannot resist the appeal of listicles, those ubiquitous numbered lists of themed ideas fleshed out just enough to pass for an article. You know the ones I mean:

  • “3 Tips to Feel Happier Right Now,” or
  • “5 Ways To Get Published Before You Die,” or
  • “10 Meditations to Alleviate the Pain of Rejection.”

I suspect this musical version is the original.

Here’s our contribution to this form of *cough* journalism. It has taken me months to compile because I kept falling in. I hope there’s a little something for everyone here — but lists point to absences so please use the ‘comments’ below to let us know about others you’ve used and would recommend. Happy falling! Maybe pack a lunch…

***

10 Lit Links Covering… Everything?

1.  May is short story month (who comes up with these things? where is their office?), so I’m going to start with one of my favourites. Chris Power writes a column for The Guardian, “A Brief Survey of the Short Story.”

http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/abriefsurveyoftheshortstory

So far, he’s written about 59 short story writers, including Canadians Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. I send out this link on twitter occasionally and also to friends (sometimes AS a birthday present). I want The Guardian to organize it better, and then I want them to print it as a book. If you can think of a short story writer, she or he is likely in this survey. And Power writes so well it’s just a pleasure to read anyway.

Chris Power

Chris Power

(I don’t know where he finds the time to do all the reading and writing and bon-vivant-about-town that he does. Do you have a stable of ghost writers, Chris Power?)

2.  The Gutenberg Project was started in 1971, long before desktop computers were available to the masses.

http://www.gutenberg.org/

They offer 45,000+ online, free, public domain books for you to download or read online.

3.  WorldCat, according to their website, “is the world’s largest network of library content and services.”

http://www.worldcat.org/

It is The Library of all libraries, and therefore the largest library in the universe. (Only the internets and its meta-searchers make hyperbole pedantic).

4.  Representative Poetry Online. General editor, Marc R. Plamondon. 4800 poems in English and French by 700 poets, over 1400 years.

http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/

Vous n’avez pas besoin d’autres. Pour le weekend.

5.  History of Canadian Literature starting “from presettlement to 1900″ – both English and French Canada:

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/91950/Canadian-literature

 6.  You can search The Paris Review of Author Interviews by specific name, or by decade.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews

Starting in the 1950s, you can read interviews with Isak Dinesen, Joyce Cary, and Frank O’Connor (and many others), up through the decades with Eudora Welty, Chinua Achebe, Paul Auster… Oh never mind. It took me 3 hours to write that sentence. Must.Stop.Falling.In.

Paris Review217

 

7.  The Theoi Project website has more than 1,500 pages of information about Greek Gods, organized alphabetically, by family tree and vertiginous twigs.

http://www.theoi.com/

This is a great resource if you are reading a book with explicit or nuanced mythological themes and you just want to, ahem, remind yourself of their origins. Of course it’s also helpful if you want to include any of these superpowered characters in your own work. From their website:

“Welcome to the Theoi Project, a site exploring Greek mythology and the gods in classical literature and art. The aim of the project is to provide a comprehensive, free reference guide to the gods (theoi), spirits (daimones), fabulous creatures (theres) and heroes of ancient Greek mythology and religion.”

8.  100 Search Engines for Academic research. For writing that requires research, or if you want to get answers for that pesky recurring thought about the meaning of life, try these (recently updated) meta-links to academic search engines.

http://www.teachthought.com/technology/100-search-engines-for-academic-research/

 9.  American, Canadian and First Nations Literature Database. This University of Northern British Columbia site is not pretty, but be patient.

http://libguides.unbc.ca/content.php?pid=451991&sid=3703468

You can either type and send a direct question and you will receive an answer by email, or you can search the database.

There’s also a link here to the Postcolonial Literature Research Guide.

If you want to peruse or buy books written by First Nations authors, check out the First Nations-owned and operated Theytus Books, the oldest publisher of Indigenous authors in Canada. According to their website: “In Salish, ‘theytus’ means ‘preserving for the sake of handing down.’”

10.  And then there’s YouTube. Type in an author’s name — even someone long dead, or alive before the invention of TV — and there will likely be a clip of some kind. I uploaded 10(!) examples in this blog post. I recommend you type in the search words “big think interviews writers” in YouTube. You will get pages and pages of clips of authors responding to questions about writing, from 3 or 4 minutes long, to more than half an hour. The first few pages are heavily weighted with men, but there are more women as you head through the pages. Here is the wonderful Isabel Allende, a Descant contributor, talking about where her ideas come from and about her writing process:

So this weekend, hop on the bus, Gus, you don’t need to discuss much. Just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free… In the morning you’ll begin to see the light.

If you ever get to bed, that is.

Launch of a New Lit Mag: Welcome Humber Literary Review

At the launch party on Wednesday, hooting and hollering accompanied publisher Vera Beletzan’s announcement of the birth of The Humber Literary Review. At a time when every other self-appointed arts pundit proclaims the death of the book/magazine/reader, the enthusiasm in the packed Gladstone Hotel venue was heartening.

A year ago, Vera Beletzan and her colleagues in Humber College’s English Department floated the idea and asked: (1) Does Canada need another literary magazine? and, after the resounding Yes, (2) How hard can this be?

Issue 1, Volume 1. Designed by Kilby Smith-McGregor. Featured artist Kirsten McCrea.

Issue 1, Volume 1 of The Humber Literary Review. Designed by writer and Descant contributor, Kilby Smith-McGregor. Featured artist Kirsten McCrea.

If you’ve ever tried to design and run even your own blog, you can perhaps imagine the answer to their second question. But one year later, Issue 1, Volume 1 of The Humber Literary Review is hot off the press. Which may help explain the heat in that second floor gallery venue. (Let’s just say that women of a certain age were willing to bare arms).

This is not a bad photo of a crowd. It is a photo of the distant door that I really wanted someone to open!

This is not a bad photo of a crowd. It is a photo of the distant door that I really wanted someone to open.

The first issue is a real looker, thanks to the design work of Kilby Smith-McGregor and featured artist Kirsten McCrea. Vera Beletzan joked that, for a Department of English faculty, they were surprisingly unable to articulate a vision for how the magazine should look. A good designer is first an excellent listener, so kudos to writer Kilby Smith-McGregor for turning catatonic academic-itis into an appealing format — one with a wee bit of an intro textbook look to me, but not in a bad way.

I’m pleased to see Kirsten McCrea’s work on the cover and throughout the magazine. I discovered her at church about a year ago. The annual arts and crafts sale at Trinity United, that is. In fact, I bought and framed one of her colourful ampersand prints and it hangs above my desk; there’s one on page 33 of the HLR that I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you tore out and stuck to your bulletin board. I think of it as a sign-of-encouragement-and-prompt-rolled-into-one, for writers: “& then what?… .” I hope the HLR folks keep her patterned designs as part of the regular layout.

Micah Toub and Bryony Halpin(+), talking to Christopher Doda who has two poems in the new magazine. Micah told me that his own first-in-print work in the inaugural issue is a bit dirty. But we agreed that I should call his story "edgy" instead.

Micah Toub and Bryony Halpin(+), talking to Christopher Doda who has two poems in the new magazine. Micah told me that his own first-in-print work in the inaugural issue is a bit dirty. But we agreed that I should call his story “edgy” instead.

Russell Smith and Eufemia Fantetti were acting very normally -- until I pulled out my camera.

Russell Smith and Eufemia Fantetti were acting very normally — until I pulled out my camera. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially if you’re girl crazy.

The Humber Literary Review will be published twice a year, with spring and fall launch parties. They’re also online which is where you’ll find interviews with:

  • Eufemia Fantetti, recently shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed award for her debut collection of short stories, A Recipe for Disaster;
  • Beverley Cooper, playwright and Governor General’s literary award nominee for “Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott,” and
  • Krista Bridge, author of The Eliot Girls, and Rogers Writers’ Trust and Danuta Gleed nominee for The Virgin Spy.
Eufemia Fantetti, Jael Richardson and Beverley Cooper...

Eufemia Fantetti, CBC award-winning author Jael Richardson, and Beverley Cooper.

Becky Blake and Ayelet Tsabari...

Becky Blake, 2012 CBC short story prize winner, and Ayelet Tsabari, author of the short story collection, The Best Place on Earth

But you weren’t at the HLR launch and you don’t know all these people walking around waving $9 glasses of wine and bottles of beer, hoping no one hugs them in that stifling heat. You are not an adept schmoozer, a wearer of fancies, or an award-winning/nominated author. But… you’d like to have the chance. Maybe at all three. So here’s the scoop. And it is a scoop. I cornered Managing Editor Hillary Rexe and asked her for something for our Descant readers. She started to tell me about the new magazine and I stopped her (ever so politely) and said no, I want something I can’t find online.

Online! Here’s the scoop: The Humber Literary Review, published in its colourful inky glory twice a year, will also publish (other) poetry and non/fiction online, throughout the year. Things may change, so keep your eye on their website, but the policy Hillary Rexe told me is that you must first submit a query email. (Let me just say here, as someone who reads a lot of cover letters, do yourself a favour and brush up on the skill of the well-written, succinct query letter).

Meaghan Strimas and Hillary Rexe, the "scarily capable" Managing Editors of The Humber Literary Review, according to publisher Vera Beletzan.

Meaghan Strimas and Hillary Rexe, the “scarily capable” Managing Editors of The Humber Literary Review, according to publisher Vera Beletzan.

In the main venue space for the launch of the HLR, most people wore black, nibbled from artfully arranged appetizer plates and listened to a musical trio. But off to the side I spotted a table of bright orange- and blue-iced cupcakes, topped with sprinkles and decorations. Naturally, I had to ask. It turns out that Meaghan Strimas and Hillary Rexe made all 200 of the cupcakes themselves for the launch.

Cupcake code!

Cupcake code!

Now you have all the information you need. You know there’s a new literary magazine looking for work, both for print and online, and you know a thing or three about the managing editors. Yes, you do. Look at those cupcakes. They are detailed, individual, a tad ironic; whimsical, but warmhearted. Open to the alternative perspective (there was a separate, gluten-free tray). And amongst the sweaty and schmoozing literati — a breath of fresh air.

Now get to work. It’s Friday already! The day to send out congratulations emails. You can count it towards your daily word count. Writing Tip #67: the worse your writing week, the more supportive/congratulations emails you should send to other writerly people. When you build up your community, you build up yourself. And … it’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too.

The Madman in the Palace: Descant’s Justin Lauzon reviews Texas

If “CanLit” refers to relatively conventional storytelling, often with regional themes and characters with pioneering spirits befitting their age/geographical location/occupation, then Claudio Gaudio’s Texas perches awkwardly on this shelf.

Texas is a post-structuralist novel (first clue: the opening words are “My exit”). Nothing is as it seems; seams reveal nothing and nothing itself is a character. It is rife with comma splices — a trick with a knife that few can pull off (Beckett can) — and deconstructionist strategies, including an impressively unreliable narrator who sees everything from a locked room wherein he awaits his death (“From this room I resist the words that will remake the world”). Or the death of American military and cultural imperialism (“I have consented to the fall, but not the splat!”).

The narrator of Texas is trapped, in almost every possible way, including the ways we are all complicit, er, trapped: “The people of the world are the same and the other… host and hostage.”

The debt to European, particularly French, intellectuals (bonjour Derrida) is apparent in Texas, but while reading it I was reminded of the American writer David Markson and his brilliant, experimental novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988). I honestly can’t think of a Canadian comparison, but if you can, let us know.

Reading Texas will make you want to be a better writer. Regardless of your own style and voice. Reading it might even make you a better writer. Exceptional books have that power. It is not a “difficult book”; it is a thoroughly engaging book.

(A word of advice if you plan on a trip to the US this summer: don’t bring this book with you. In this post “9/11″ world, border guards, er, customs officials, have detained people for much less: “… freedom, or free enterprise… both are worth killing for.”)

You can listen to Claudio Gaudio reading from Texas here.

Enough of my blather. Here’s Justin Lauzon with his review of Texas.

***

The Madman in the Palace

A Review of Texas, by Claudio Gaudio

 

Texas, by Claudio Gaudio. Published by Quattro Books, 2012, 198 pages.

Texas, by Claudio Gaudio. Published by Quattro Books, 2012, 198 pages. On the cover, the unmistakable shape of a certain middle-east country.

Claudio Gaudio’s writing takes a degree of dedication to read, but it is a commitment that yields a rewarding return. He writes in a tradition of prose-poets, where there are never easy answers, while wielding a particularly distinct voice.

In Texas, Italian-born and Toronto-based writer Gaudio presents a layered narrative in this style, discussing global politics, madness, philosophy, and above all, language. The novel primarily explores the conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East through reflective poetic-prose, yet it is difficult to know whether we are in the hands of a poet or a storyteller. Whatever the author may be, it’s clear that Texas is balanced precariously on the line between the two. This balance is not always maintained, and at times there is straying and stumbling, but Gaudio is always able to return to his exquisite writing, a style packed with stimulating wisdom.

Texas is one of those unique books that can be approached at any page to experience the beauty of its writing. Since the plot is thin (an American diplomat, unnamed throughout, is captured by Middle Eastern insurgents where he awaits death in a plain, unadorned room – yes, that’s all) it’s Gaudio’s meticulous focus on language, his intimate knowledge of global politics, his use of philosophy as art that lifts from every page, every paragraph, every sentence. He makes precise philosophical assertions with an acute ear: “The condemned man is the opposite of the king. Things are because they do not belong to him, and that includes the sun and the wind.”

Even the title is layered. The “Texas” the diplomat so often addresses throughout his imprisonment is really only a substitute-name for the United States as a whole, possibly even a euphemism for all political empires. It is a place larger than itself; even the diplomat comments on how, when he travels, he lives “in New York. New York is in Texas.” This same largeness extends to its influence, which is as complicated as the United States’, and just as unreliable. Gaudio’s “Texas” is a hodgepodge of an entire country with a longstanding tradition of questionable political values – it is imperial.

Since the narrative doesn’t rely on the story as much as it does on the diplomat’s global introspection, there isn’t a moment in the novel when something innovative isn’t presented. We are constantly jumping from one desultory thought to another as he drags “random pieces laughing and screaming onto an incredulous page.” Trying to absorb so much in such a short space, without the structure of a shifting plot, can be daunting. The struggle pays off, however, through a reflection of the writing, and the frequent emergence of breathtaking imagery:

“Night follows day, not as foil but another light before the day breaking. The sacred sleeps on broken glass, eyes open and opening with each and every scar.”

The key word of the novel is invent. As Gaudio actually uses it a number of times, no word is a greater representation of what the author is attempting (and often achieving) in this work. Gaudio is an inventor of new ways to approach the English language. As the diplomat says:

“I am writing in English, a distance separated by commas and an ocean that whispers of a stream where I am still weeping. Waiting to be born. Then this will end, better for having tried, or worse.”

This could easily be formatted into a poem, as much of the novel could be, and is the beauty of its invention. Every moment of the story we are in two worlds. The diplomat thinks in poetry, and so as a proper response, Gaudio’s poetry “thinks” in politics.

Through this process, much of the novel becomes comprised of expanding symbols. The diplomat is a fluid character, a representation of global relations throughout history – he’s there in the Middle East, he was there “to take in the ocean” when the Titanic sank, he was there when “Moses tried to escape in a basket,” he served the presidents of the last 100 years – and he comments on these events with a singularly insightful perspective. Yet his views are so various, at times he contradicts himself. The diplomat is political history, therefore he is increasingly irrational.

Toronto-based writer, Claudio Gaudio.

Toronto-based writer, Claudio Gaudio.

Gaudio’s careful balancing of insanity and reason is one of the book’s strongest features. He shows us how poetry, politics, and philosophy all originate from the same puddle of madness. Two of the novels most interesting characters are a pair of cryptic-speaking animals, an opposing dead bird and a mouse, who visit the diplomat in his cell. They converse with him about his ever-forthcoming liberation, or his pending death, or his relations with Texas, or even whether they are real or not. He develops relationships with these figments, trades information with them. And as the diplomat deepens in his insanity, he begins to produce exquisite visions:

“With Sisyphus I stood at the top of the hill, he smiled as we watched his boulder roll to the bottom. Kings perish but my work goes on, he said, I am learning what I have already done.”

It’s clear that Texas is a novel that must be digested slowly. It is just shy of 200 pages but reading it will certainly take you the time of more. Fortunately, Gaudio knows how to properly feed you this dish. Every chapter comes in bite sizes (no less than four pages, no more than six) and is often comprised of only twelve paragraphs.

It is this simple detail of construction that pays dividends to enjoying the reading process as a whole, preventing us from thinking, “Oh no, he must mean to kill me with this seventeen page chapter of prose-poetry political philosophy! Damn you, Gaudio!”

He keeps the form simple to allow for a complex subject. But like any piece of complex work, there are evident snags. Gaudio sometimes participates in what I like to call the “Woody Allen Dialectic,” wherein a sentence or phrase is constructed by taking two obviously unrelated ideas and thrusting them together to share the same space. With Allen, the effect was always comedic:

“I ran into my brother today at a funeral. We had not seen one another for fifteen years, but as usual he produced a pig bladder from his pocket and began hitting me on the head with it.” ~ Woody Allen, Without Feathers

There is little (if any) meaning to these words, but their jocularity emerges from their ridiculousness, their clear incompatibility within our frame of references. This, too, happens in Texas, but toned down and with a much more serious, poetic twist:

“Hope is a little bit of thread, a patch of wheat, a peach, things a geologist cannot find. Men with scarred lungs stumble out of mountains, sometimes it’s called Egypt and sometimes it’s Wyoming. It’s just people making things, mostly from dust or dry rot.”

The WA Dialectic often works in Texas, wherein Gaudio acts as a veritable poetic chef, serving up dishes of new flavour and wondrous un-tasted combinations, but there are times when it doesn’t work, and we are asked to digest a sentence of disagreeable quality, one that doesn’t sit well in the mind’s digestive tracts:

“There’s no difference between breasts and the Himalayas except the mountains have been speechless for longer.”

Or, my favourite -

“If I could draw, there would be a cat on the bed and blood in the Whitehouse.”

I’m not sure what these sentences mean exactly, and even looking at their context within the paragraphs, I’m reasonably lost. Texas is a book closer to poetry than prose, but that doesn’t excuse it from avoiding lines which slow down rather than progress the reading. The good thing is that these illogical phrases occur far less frequently than the lines of eloquence for which Gaudio should no doubt be lauded.

And it’s in those perfectly executed lines that we see Gaudio at his best. Texas may waver at points, but it comes in a package teeming with political and philosophical wisdom, with unusual word combinations and phrases which elevate the novel as an important Canadian text, poignant and insightful, willing to push boundaries. I will leave you with his narrator’s wise words, a moving comment on art:

“I’m hoping to meet myself again in the future. In an invention perhaps, an idea without a blueprint, I’m tired of the replication. Art is the smoke, the vestige, not the thing, an explanation that explains nothing. But where or what could nothing be? All through history it’s been a mystery, and sometimes it rhymes.”

By Justin Lauzon

***

Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. Last week he reviewed Kafka’s Hat and, with Jack Hostrawser, co-authored this review of Rove for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, “The Alternate Take,” here and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.

The M Word: life in (part of) the ‘hood

If you’ve ever looked into the small earnest face of a young child and felt that it was sucking the life out of you, your guilt exceeded only by months of exhaustion, you probably didn’t tell anyone. We don’t have casual conversational starters for those moments: “My child is a wrecking ball come through the fortress of my marriage. I can tuck my breasts into my jeans and I haven’t gone to the bathroom alone in two years. Please pass the salt.”

In The M-Word: Conversations About Motherhood, Kerry Clare, Toronto-based writer and mother of two, has gathered the stories of 25 women writers, hers included, about their experiences of motherhood. While it should come as no surprise that life in the ‘hood isn’t all snug-fitting onesies and bath time bubbles, this anthology lays waste to any remaining doubt. Writers, after all, like specifics.

“Regardless of the fact that I’ve been at it for sixteen years now, it still feels like I’m not ready for motherhood.”

~ Nancy Jo Cullen

Gooselane 2014...

Goose Lane, 2014, 314 pages.

The M Word is organized alphabetically, by writers’ surnames. Clare said she tried to organize it by theme but found “it just didn’t seem to work that way, there were no ‘themes’ that made more sense than the women’s individual stories.” So, unless you are a stepmother, who will easily recognize the chapter title “Wicked” (Susan Olding), you will just need to put your feet up (on your kids, if you have any) and go for the ride:

pregnant the old fashioned way, as planned; not planned; home birth; home made; successful infertility treatments; unsuccessful treatments; accidental pregnancy continued; abortion; giving baby up; family adoption; foreign adoption; no kids; never kids; only one, thanks; four, please; oh crap, twins; miscarriage; death of baby; stepmom; person not wanted to be called “stepmom”; parenting toddlers; teens; hanging on; letting go; grandmothering; and every possible bodily fluid, in many improbable ways.

Given the A-to-Z order of the anthology, it is incredibly fortuitous that the first chapter, “Truth, Dare, Double Dare,” by Heather Birrell, is one of the strongest and would have made an excellent first choice had the book been organized any other way. She writes plainly and eloquently about the difficult birth of her first child, the subsequent strain on her self, her husband and her marriage, an unexpected second pregnancy, the contemplation of an abortion, the everyday grind of it all, and she manages to make a clear political statement about women’s reproductive rights. She also has the funniest one-liner about breastfeeding but it absolutely cannot be told out of context.

“… it’s hard to put your finger on the glint of joy in the dirty dishwater of drudgery. It slips away, seems a trick of light…”

~ Heather Birrell

Like Kerry Clare, I tried to map out these stories so I could write about them within the boundaries of a review. And, like her, I could not make anything fit neatly. I cannot even tell you how many of these women have children, without further explanation. In fact, having just taken a few minutes to do some counting and considering, I cannot even tell you how many of them are mothers. Surely an adoptive mother is a mother, a stepmother is a mother (“adoptive” and “step” being but adjectives) – but what is an aunt who raised two nephews and a dog, almost full-time? Diana Fitzgerald Bryden’s description of their relationship reads as though she is in fact the boys’ mother, although she is respectful of the fact that she is not, actually.

Because women are still defined by whether or not they are mothers (and, as mothers know, there is another pecking order inherent in that one), it was a wise editorial choice to include the stories of women who have decided not to have children. I don’t think, however, that a book about motherhood needs to devote (almost) a third of the space to these stories. But it does need some of them, for here, too, is complexity. Some of these women made a very clear decision; others left it until the decision was taken out of their hands for medical reasons and one woman is still decidedly undecided. I can’t help but wonder if reading the other 24 stories in The M Word will sway her, either way.

“… the irony is that we harm our planet by having babies. The hope we put into our own children can and does eliminate the hope of other children around the world.”

~ Nicole Dixon

Instead of themes and categories bumping alongside each other, these stories of motherhood speak to each other. Myrl Coulter’s compelling account of giving her baby up for adoption in the late 1960s (a memoir excerpt that makes me want to buy the book), is echoed in Kerry Clare’s chapter about her own abortion. Thirty five years after Coulter feels forced to give up the son she was forbidden to even hold, Clare uses the same language of stigma, shame and being “in trouble” to describe her own unwanted pregnancy at the beginning of the 21st century. Our bodies are still very political grounds. More than one of the contributors to The M Word reminds us we need to remain vigilant.

Three of the women, Ariel Gordon, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang and Fiona Tinwei Lam, each decided to have only one child (in Lam’s case, as a single parent) in order that they could better manage their writing lives. Award-winning writer Carrie Snyder has four children and yes, your shock, horror and sort-of-envy secretly motivates and delights her.

“A bomb had exploded in the centre of my identity.”

~ Heidi Reimer

All the women delight in their children, or the children in their lives, some of the time. I think that’s the only fair statement I can say after reading all 25 stories. You might be put off if you start with Heidi Reimer’s story. She writes unabashedly about her love for her newborn, her powerful mothering instinct and all the things that make our knees buckle when it comes to that stage of our (and their) lives, but doesn’t, years later. But then she talks about her other daughter, their complicated relationship and ongoing struggles. I found this chapter to be one of the most intimate portraits of motherhood, in its range of feeling and Reimer’s candid expression of agony.

And there is a lot of agony and loss in The M Word. Alison Pick realizes she first came to see herself as a mother not after the birth of her first child but during her first pregnancy, which resulted in a miscarriage. Christa Couture is a mother of two sons and she wears a locket with their photographs, even though, unimaginably, they are now both dead. While most women complain about the long term physical effects of pregnancy, Couture likes to rub her hand along the stretch marks on her belly, her closest physical connection to her sons, the place wherein there is “this feeling that I’m a lighthouse that searches and beckons.”

“I worry my heart isn’t big enough to give them what they need, what they deserve, that my love for them doesn’t have the room to be at peace with the possibility of letting go, doesn’t have the room to face their deaths. You need a whole hell of a lot of love to be open to that, and I simply don’t have enough of it.”

~ Marita Dachsel

There is another kind of loss, the one we associate with our lives “before” children. Julie Booker’s pre-twins life was enviable. Her life now, with toddler twins in her mid-40s? Shining moments in a sea of smelly diapers and pawing needs. (But better her than Ariel Gordon, who writes, “If I had had twins, I would have eaten one.”) Deanna McFadden’s pregnancy almost killed her and a few years into her son’s life she is still recovering, physically and emotionally. Does she adore him and is she glad he’s here? Well of course. Most of the time.

“But where is the space where I can resent him a little bit for plowing me over just by coming into this world? It’s not practical; I don’t resent him, I don’t even dislike him, I revel in him, but it’s not enough – it’s not enough, this being a mother.”

~Deanna McFadden

Perhaps the only thing that ties these stories together is an echo. Whether conspicuously absent, mentioned in passing with disdain, regret or remorse, it is the mothers of these women writers who lurk between the lines and beyond the pages. In her (uncategorizable) story, I am left with the sense that it is Maria Meindl’s own mother that is laid into her waiting arms. It is a nice touch that the book ends with a chapter by Michelle Landsberg, written from her point of view as a mother and now a very involved grandmother, though she, too, is wary of the role and the often impossibly awkward dance between a mother and her grown children.

“It is a cliché to say that I came to understand my own mother better when I became a mother myself, but it is very true.” 

~ Fiona Tinwei Lam

The strength of an anthology — that it gathers different perspectives, written in different voices — is also its Achilles’ heel. The range of mothering experiences in The M Word is wide, but the range of mothers is not. The vast majority (trans: not all!) of its contributors are straight, white, and/or middle-class women. They live in houses and can afford to stay at home, or they have professional day jobs; they have cars (or can afford the choice not to), helpful partners and daycare. This won’t be a problem for most readers because, let’s face it, that’s who will buy this book. But I couldn’t help think of all the women whose struggles are magnified many times over because of limited financial resources, as well as the infuriating and heartbreaking complications of negotiating racism — among other systems of social disenfranchisement — for themselves, and their children. I’m sure none of the women who contributed to The M Word would disagree with this (that so many mothers have these added burdens) and a couple do speak to their privilege directly. I also know that one person’s story does not and cannot represent one particular group of people. My point is that there was room for some of these stories in The M Word and their absence feels like a significant omission. Perhaps it is a part of the motherhood conversation we are still not ready to have.

Kerry Clare, far left,....

Kerry Clare, far left, with The M Word contributors Heidi Reimer, Julia Zarankin, Maria Meindl, Heather Birrell, Nicole Dixon, Julie Booker, Deanna McFadden, Patricia Storms, and Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, for the Toronto launch at Ben McNally Books.

When a friend tells you she is pregnant and “I’m thrilled!” what you say is, “Congratulations! You will make such a wonderful mother!” This cultural imperative to somehow morph into Wonderful Mother in nine months plus one instant, is the stuff of little girls’ dreams and grown women’s nightmares. The stories in The M Word are the often searingly candid tales of the reality behind the pressure to be a wonderful mother, or even a mother at all. If I was a publicist for Goose Lane, I’d get this book into high schools (optional reading for girls, compulsory for boys?!), university courses, midwives’ and doctors’ offices, community centres and political offices of all stripes (okay, maybe not all). I’d also cancel the “Are you Mom Enough?” PR posters. Just sayin’.

I did not find my own motherhood story in the chapters I thought I might. Instead, I found it woven throughout the stories in The M Word, throughout the lives of the women who, like me, find that there are no easy answers and that the promise of love is not all-sustaining. Our many, many ways of mothering – each other and each other’s children, included — are as indignant as they are forbearing: as intricate as the rivers of our stretch marks, unfathomable as the oceans of our loss.

A Hat Trick: Descant’s Justin Lauzon reviews Kafka’s Hat

Franz Kafka worked for an insurance company even though he’d studied to be a lawyer. He hated being financially dependent on his day job but the labyrinthine bureaucracies he pilloried as a writer, and his descriptions of psychological torture, gave rise to the term Kafkaesque. Let’s face it — Kafkaesque, used to handily describe all manner of existential confusion, became a very useful word in (and for) the 20th century. I don’t see it going out of fashion any time soon.

Kafka’s brilliant stories, like “The Hunger Artist,” “The Trial,” “The Castle,” and, the bad-day of all bad-day stories, The Metamorphosis, are hard stones of profound alienation that often begin on a note of wide-eyed fairy tale:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

Like Franz Kafka, Québec author Patrice Martin has worked behind a desk within the labyrinth of government — as clerk for the House of Commons, and as a municipal councillor. Kafka’s Hat, his debut novel, is translated by Chantal Bilodeau, an award-winning New York-based playwright and translator, and is published by Talonbooks. Their almost-50 year longevity makes Talonbooks one of the oldest surviving Canadian book publishers which they attribute to an unbroken chain of mentoring and a commitment to new literary fiction. From their website:

“We are Canada’s largest independent publisher of drama; do more translations from Québec than anyone else; and publish more Native voices than any other Canadian publisher with the exception of First Nations publisher Theytus Books.”

For information about manuscript submission, see their Submission Guidelines.

And now, here’s Justin Lauzon with his review of Kafka’s Hat.

***

Space, Time and Text

A Review of Kafka’s Hat, by Patrice Martin (trans. by Chantal Bilodeau)

Trans by ... Pub'd by... 20##.

By Patrice Martin. Translated by Chantal Bilodeau. Talonbooks, 2012. 144 pages.

Kafka’s Hat is a book of narrative freedom. Darkly humorous, inventive, and insightful, Patrice Martin’s imaginative tale is a story that extends beyond the possibilities of reality and enters the realm of magic. Beware: this short novel is layered and entwined, and may cause a deep sensation of tickled ribs and a strained mind.

The novel follows the adventure of P., the succinctly named main character, as he is sent on a personal errand for his boss to search for and acquire the famed hat of Franz Kafka. The majority of the action occurs in a single building, eventually incorporating two other storylines, which detail other characters entirely. These three sections, divided very clearly, each have a separate function in the novel as a whole.

It’s impossible to accurately describe the novel without noting Martin’s influences, which he does not shy away from revealing to us. He includes Franz Kafka, Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino in a variety of ways in the narrative. Each has a large bearing on the story itself in terms of style, voice, and narrative direction, but eventually the latter three become characters themselves in the narrative, hinting at our need to know who these guys are. Fortunately, you don’t need to have read these writers to enjoy the novel, but it helps. Although not explicitly stated, each author seems to belong to one of the three sections of the novel, bearing their acute influence, which Martin executes extraordinarily well at most times.

First up to bat: Italo Calvino. The main narrative, following the principal character P., reads much like Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, which is about a similar character – introverted and over analytical – although to a much more dark and humorous effect. Martin steps away from the deep philosophical analysis that Calvino engaged in and embraces the neurosis of everyday life, deconstructing the most mundane tasks as complex, infinitely regressing actions.

In his search for the hat, P. finds himself in horrendously playful situations, like carefully reasoning where to hide a dead man, or lying to the blind. Martin’s approach is so effective, we are left in chuckling bewilderment that such a character could even get up in the morning, let alone have a job. It becomes obvious that while Martin is certainly paying homage to his literary influences, he is quite obviously poking fun at them too, revealing how a thoroughly analytical mind like Palomar’s can be debilitating. He has created a laughable, relatable character with P. through this contrast.

Whereas insightful Palomar casually cranes his neck to philosophize about the heavenly bodies, for pages, P. doesn’t even think to look up when stuck in an elevator, which, he is informed, 99.4 percent of people do. Immediately he “wonders why he didn’t react like everyone else,” and is shocked to know he is “now in the camp of people he loathes – irrational, unthinking, unpredictable people!” He wants to be Mr. Palomar, but he can’t quite make it. He’s only P., a strange character, set against the backdrop of literature’s most insightful minds. This is what makes him so singular and endearing.

A young Franz Kafka. With that hat.

A young Franz Kafka. With that hat.

Next up: Paul Auster. The second section, far less humorous than the first, follows the character Max in his quest to publish his manuscript about P. (revealing that the first section is only part of a manuscript – er – sort of), by presenting it to Auster, the main influence of this section and a character later in the novel. Yes, Martin’s short narrative does become increasingly layered, but that only adds to the fun of the book later.

This section is written well enough, but is marked by a lack of what makes the rest of the book truly interesting. It stands with the same clear and clever writing, but most of it seems to be used just as a vehicle to complete the novel later. Martin presents new characters but doesn’t give them much depth, and so this section falls slightly flat, finishing rather undeveloped.

Last to the plate: Jorge Luis Borges. The third section is where meta-fiction lovers (myself included) get their real treat. This one has Borges written all over it. Here, Martin sets the three principal writers, Auster, Borges, and Calvino, on a drive from New York to Montreal to participate as the guests of honour in a conference called The Writer as Character (not too subtle there, Martin). The three authors, who clearly never carpooled together in real life, engage in a conversation of ideologies, of philosophy, and of storytelling.

Take, for instance, Auster-as-character’s analysis:

“For them, life only makes sense insofar as it can be broken into increasingly smaller, observable parts, or viewed through increasingly larger, universal principles. Life is here, in the countless details of day-to-day experience, in all that is unpredictable and incomprehensible about the very act of living.”

You can decide with whom to throw your hat.

Despite the distance of time and space which limited this conversation in the real world, which Martin refers to in the text, he presents the impossibility with such clarity and measured pacing, the reader might be persuaded to think this event actually did happen, and Martin sat there with these great masters writing it all down. It’s a clear tip of the hat to Borges’ surpassing of the space-time continuum in stories such as “The Other” and “August 25, 1983,” while carrying elements of Auster’s writing like City of Glass to really give it a punch.

It’s the conclusion of the final section (no, I will not reveal to you what happens), bringing together the other two narratives about P. and Max, that leave the reader (that would be me, and eventually you) thinking for days. Although it ends rather abruptly, these three stories intersect, becoming endlessly layered atop one another like a fictive-labyrinth. In fact, it becomes so delightfully complicated that you may be compelled to use some scrap paper to figure it all out (take a lesson from P. and use numbers to keep everything straight – I did), as Martin suggests: “the reader should immediately take out the notebook in which he writes his thoughts, because in a few lines, it might be too late.” Martin knows the immense task he’s giving us, and even if you still have difficulty, the conclusion is too playfully inventive to be frustrated with it.

The one major misstep of the novel is length. As if still trying to pay homage to his heroes, Martin keeps the book strikingly brief at less than 150 pages. While there is a tradition in French Québec literature of these concise novella-length novels, I find this form restricts Martin’s complex work rather than tightening it up. P.’s narrative could have been at least 20 – 30 pages longer, as could Max’s, allowing the space to flesh out the characters, or even vary the emotional range. At the length it is now, issues with repetition, character depth, and the ending’s abruptness become rather glaring. On that note, I would have enjoyed spending more time in conversation with the characters as well. They all had so much to say, but they didn’t get the chance.

That said, this novel is endlessly interesting to discuss, map out, and timeline with a few good friends. Just as the way many of the three authors’ stories looped and fell back on themselves, Kafka’s Hat successfully does the same. Anything is possible in fiction, Martin seems to be telling us. Literature incorporates the mundane with the infinite, the laughable with the grim, and for his first novel, Patrice Martin achieves this through the singular axiom of the masters: “words are all we have to describe the world and create it. Everything else is trivial.”

By Justin Lauzon

***

Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. He recently co-authored, with Jack Hostrawser, this review for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, “The Alternate Take,” here and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.

A Literary Wake: saying goodbye to Alistair MacLeod

If, as John Donne observed, each person’s death diminishes us, I think it also makes us feel more lonely. When I heard of Alistair MacLeod’s death on Sunday, April 20th, I was shocked, and saddened of course. But over the next two days I began to feel something else, something more like loneliness. After I’d written an obituary post, and read other ones, the loneliness felt like something I wanted and needed to share with others.

I sent out a few tweets and emails, suggesting that, across Canada, friends and admirers of Alistair MacLeod meet at their local pub or café that Friday and raise a glass and tell stories in his memory. Shelagh Rogers, long time friend of Alistair’s, supported the idea on social media and as it gathered steam I picked a spot here in Toronto. That Friday, about 50 of us gathered at the Dora Keogh pub to honour the life and work of the talented and beloved Alistair MacLeod.

Carolyn Tanner, Mary Sutherland and Theresa Fawcett came to the Toronto literary wake for Alistair MacLeod. In the background, Greg House gathers guests' names.

Carolyn Tanner, Mary Sutherland and Theresa Fawcett came to the Toronto literary wake for Alistair MacLeod. In the background, Greg House gathers guests’ names.

Many came alone or knew only one or two other people. Despite this, it quickly became an intimate evening as we asked each other about our favourite MacLeod stories and how it was we came to be there. Because of that intimacy, I didn’t think I would write a post about it. I like that some things are left as memories, as shared experiences that remain private and accessible only to those in attendance. But enough people have asked me what happened that I thought I would try to share the sense of the evening. For some, the wake lasted into the very wee hours, and the conversation never veered from Alistair MacLeod, his writing, and discussions about writing and literary culture.

Although it wasn’t a formal event, I stood by the door and greeted each person to explain what we were doing. I asked people why they’d come and everyone said the same kind of thing: “I just felt that I should do something, that we should be together.” Whether biological, cultural, or both, we have an impulse to reach out to one another when we have lost one of “the tribe,” as Margaret Laurence would say.

There were a few writers in attendance, like novelist Trevor Cole, 2012 Journey Prize finalist Kevin Hardcastle and 2013 Gloria Vanderbilt-Exile short story prize winner Sang Kim. Toronto writer Claudio Gaudio read us an excerpt from Alistair MacLeod’s short story, “Clearances.” A number of other people I talked to were, let’s say, shy writers, those not quite ready to declare themselves (hi Shawne and Sara). A handful of new Descant volunteers showed up as well as some people in book publishing. One woman, Diane, said she was in the neighbourhood to meet her daughter for dinner but when she heard about the wake she told her daughter to meet her there instead. John, the quiet guy at the bar that we later teased for looking more like he was with the hockey team in earlier, is a truck driver with a degree in English, and a devoted Alistair MacLeod reader.

Cristina was there, a friend of the MacLeod family. She offered to help us get the book of condolences we all signed, to the MacLeods. Among the comments are: “an incredible influence on Canadian writers,” “our best writer,” “we needed this,” “an honour to be part of this,” “your sentences, every sentence, goes straight to my heart,” “a great loss for Canada, but he gave us so much,” “Thank you Alistair for your gift to us all.”

Everyone I talked to was there because they had read and loved Alistair MacLeod’s work. And some, like geologist and writer David Burga, were also there because they had studied with him. David has written this post about his experience being a student of MacLeod’s. It’s the kind of story often told about the man who taught and generously supported so many writers over his career.

At such short notice, many people who wanted to come, could not. Instead, they sent me their stories — of how mischievous Alistair MacLeod could be, how proud he was of his writer son, Alexander, how he was the friendliest face at any literary gathering. Antanas Sileika, writer and Director of the Humber School for Writers, was kind enough to let me read some of his Alistair stories at our gathering.

Douglas Gibson and his wife Jane Gibson came. Doug Gibson was Alistair MacLeod’s publisher and friend. As he explained in one of his funny stories, he was actually MacLeod’s friend first, which made things rather awkward when he became his publisher and had the job of trying to pry manuscripts out of the writer’s hands. Gibson called him “the stone carver” because of how carefully and slowly he wrote. If you’re aware of the list of internationally acclaimed Canadian writers that Douglas Gibson has published, and if you have heard him speak, you know he is an accomplished and self-assured professional. But at the literary wake, Doug was a friend of Alistair’s, a friend who was clearly heartbroken and who choked up a few times as he tried to read us the last two pages of No Great Mischief. While his stories had us laughing, about the lengths he would go to retrieve a manuscript, and about nights of Cape Breton dancing and drinking, it was his sadness and his love for his friend that touched us.

Douglas Gibson, wearing his family Buchanan plaid, under his Alistair MacLeod 'No Great Mischief' t-shirt.

Douglas Gibson, wearing his Buchanan family plaid, under his Alistair MacLeod No Great Mischief t-shirt.

It is my observation that we are sometimes a bit too quick to jump to “but he/she left us so much” when someone dies. We skip to the happy-ever-after by skipping over our sadness. I wanted to start the evening with what had brought us all together: our grief and sense of loss. In a funeral scene from No Great Mischief (page 128 in my copy), a violinist plays Niel Gow’s Lament. I had asked Toronto musician Stephanie Cadman if she could join us and play the lament and she agreed immediately (despite the fact that she was having a dinner party that night).

With kind permission from Stephanie Cadman, Trevor Cole posted his video of her moving performance for us. I will leave you with Niel Gow’s Lament, so that in our shared loss, in the death of Alistair MacLeod, and in our other losses, you will feel less alone.

 2012-07-13 12.58.44

 

Cartooning Degree Zero: the launch

What started out as a chat between a couple of friends at a pub, two years ago, became one of the most stunning issues we have ever produced. Tomorrow night we celebrate the launch of Cartooning Degree Zero, Descant #164.

Cartooning Degree Zero: the launch

Tuesday, April 29th, 7-10pm

The Handlebar, 159 Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market, Toronto

Come for the snacks, stay to hear and meet the contributors!

A mix of comics and essays, about comics.

A mix of comics and essays, about comics.

Production Editor Trevor Abes has taken Guest Editor Sean Rogers’ vision and produced the first Canadian literary magazine graphics issue in over a decade. Cartooning Degree Zero weighs in at a colourful and hefty 272 pages. The list of contributors includes well-known veterans of the art, as well as some newer comics artists. See for yourself:

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Here’s just a tiny sneak of a peek (with kind permission from artist Shannon Gerard):

We chose one of Shannon Gerard's images for the cover of Cartooning Degree Zero.

We chose one of Shannon Gerard’s images for the cover of Cartooning Degree Zero.

Descant

 

Join us tomorrow night for the launch. There will be comics – everywhere. And we do mean every.where.

And, just for the record, we are confident that we’ve settled the old question of whether or not comics belong in the world of the literary arts. When you get your copy of Cartooning Degree Zero, you’ll see what we mean.

 

Alistair MacLeod: an appreciation

Alistair MacLeod’s death, on Sunday, has deeply saddened readers and writers across Canada. I can’t be the only one who was struck that the man who wrote so beautifully about family, was a father to seven (he and his wife Anita lost a young son), a quietly faithful Catholic and thoroughly decent man, died on the weekend that so many of us were celebrating Easter and Passover, with our own family and friends.

The landscape-as-literature style of Alistair MacLeod’s stories, most of which are set in or near Cape Breton where he grew up from the age of 10, is so superbly local, specific, and particular, that the stories are transcendent, universal and haunting. I once heard him read aloud his story, “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun.” It was nothing short of astounding. Since then I can only read his stories with the sound of his own voice in my head. It is the sound of an old storyteller, sitting on a rock by the side of the road, his dog at his feet, his eyes looking out to sea. A seanchaidh.

Island contains the stories from X and Y and aslkfjsklfj

Island contains the stories from The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986).

Alistair MacLeod's only novel won Ontario's Trillium Prize and the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (1999, McClelland & Stewart).

Alistair MacLeod’s only novel won Ontario’s Trillium Prize and the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (1999, McClelland & Stewart).

He was not a prolific writer. If you read his novel No Great Mischief (1999) and his collected stories in Island (2000), you will have read all but two of his stories. MacLeod’s publisher, Douglas Gibson, has told the story about how hard it was to pry a manuscript out of Alistair MacLeod’s hands and how one time he gave up on phone calls and simply dropped in on the MacLeods. Expectantly. After some chat he put an envelope on the table in between them and said there was a cheque in there, did Alistair have anything for him? Gibson left with the manuscript. To hear him tell the story, you get the sense that he ran to his car with it in case MacLeod changed his mind and started to chase it down for one more edit.

I once heard someone ask Alistair MacLeod for writing advice. The question was phrased something like, “How do you do it?” The answer was given in Alistair MacLeod’s quiet, drole voice: “Well, first I write one sentence. Then I write another one…” Everyone laughed. After all, ha ha, everyone knows that the only secret to writing is the getting down to it, the stringing together of sentences, one after the other. But I’ve since realized this is probably not exactly what Alistair MacLeod meant. The man who was loathe to give up his manuscript was a perfectionist who did not (absolutely not) write according to the advice which goes something like: for your first draft, just write a lot of awful stuff and when it’s done, it will of course be terrible, but that’s where the craft comes in, that’s when you go back and rewrite it. Or, as Hemingway said, more succinctly, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Not so for Alistair MacLeod. Each sentence was carefully and thoughtfully written (and rewritten) before the next. There was nothing casual or exploratory or “let’s just see where this takes us,” the method vaunted by a much younger generation of writers. Alistair MacLeod had things to say and wanted to say them well, so they would stand, and withstand:

“When I’m halfway through all of my stories, I write down the last sentence. That’s how certain I am. Because I like to think that this last sentence will be the last chance I have at their ear, and I think it’s important to say something strongly to the reader before you say goodbye.”

But this seriousness as a writer belies a mischievous sense of humour, evident in his eyes and when he gave talks. Antanas Sileika, author and Director of the Humber School for Writers, where, for the past 10 years Alistair MacLeod taught in the summer workshop, tells a funny story about the two of them playing a prank on author Wayson Choy. The three writers were in Siena, Italy. Wayson Choy said that he would consider himself officially Famous if he were to happen upon a person reading one of his books in the Piazza del Campo. Like a couple of kids, Sileika and MacLeod made their plan (oh, the nerdish joy!) and soon after, Wayson Choy happened upon a man reading a copy of his The Jade Peony in the piazza. I’ve always meant to ask Antanas if Alistair took off his tweed cap for the occasion and whether or not he was reading the book aloud.

Your local bookstore either has, or will order copies of Alistair MacLeod’s books for you. There may not be a lot to read, but there’s an awful lot to chew on. Savor and enjoy his storytelling. And if you are a writer, read them again and again to study and learn. The last time I reread some of his stories I was struck by the elegance of his mastery of rhythm. A friend I consider very well read, wrote to me yesterday and said: “I feel very sad about Alistair MacLeod. No Great Mischief is one of the best Canadian books I have read.” It is a long, fierce wail of a book, and it ends in a simple line that encapsulates the centuries-long struggles of a family, of family.

Alistair MacLeod with a sljfsljfsjfd

Alistair MacLeod with an unabashed and beaming fan, clutching her autographed copy of Island, in 2012.

When I met Alistair MacLeod I told him I’d heard that his son Alexander MacLeod was getting good reviews for his debut story collection, Light Lifting (2010). He looked genuinely pleased I knew this and he said he was proud of his son. I think it would be fitting to honour the memory of Alistair MacLeod by also reading his son’s work. A very different voice, and another very good one.

Enjoy this lecture (2011) by Dr. MacLeod, where you may be surprised to learn who gets credit for the first Canadian novel (technically, not quite yet “Canada”). Just a gentle warning, his opening line will catch your breath.

On behalf of all of us at Descant, I wish to extend our condolences to the MacLeod family and friends, and to the students (University of Windsor, Banff Centre for the Arts, The Humber School for Writers) whose academic, intellectual and personal lives Alistair MacLeod touched as a teacher, for more than 40 years. For here, he was prolific beyond measure.

“He looked up at the sun. It had reached its zenith and was about to decline. He looked down at his dog as it trembled beside him. ‘Neither of us was born for this,’ he thought, and then, from a great distance, across the ocean and across the years, he heard the voice of his friend the shepherd. He lowered his right hand until his fingertips touched the bristling hair on the dog’s neck. A small gesture to give each other courage. And then they both took a step forward at the same time. As the blood roared in his ears, he heard the voice again, ‘They will be with you until the end.’”

~ Alistair MacLeod, from “Clearances”