Book Review: Eufemia Fantetti Was Ready for Her Close-up… Are You?

A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love

By Eufemia Fantetti, Mother Tongue Publishing, 2013, 86 pages

In A Recipe for Disaster, Eufemia Fantetti limns a domestic world where women in particular — sometimes depressed, sometimes violent — abuse and abandon their husbands, lovers, sons and daughters. And yet, the most common notations I’ve made in my copy of the book are exclamation marks.

Eufemia Fantetti knows how to wield her wry, sardonic and intelligent wit, by turns a paring knife, for intricate work and control, and a spatula, for the well-timed turn and scrape of family life. A world where unhappy marriages slam children up against walls and drag young adults into the depths of insomniac-wracked relationships, where the only comfort is food.

Eufemia Fantetti's debut short story collection.

Eufemia Fantetti’s debut short story collection.

On the front cover of A Recipe for Disaster, a 1950s doll-like, aproned woman stares dementedly past the string of batter dripping from her mixing spoon. Her shadow suggests that Betty Crocker really did have a (very) dark side; the shadow of the dripping spoon across her chest suggests the rawness of inner feeling, a bleeding heart. Each of the stories in this debut collection invokes food as a trope for our hunger — to connect with lovers, family and self – and our insatiable need for comfort when our hunger is not, or cannot be, met.

The opening, title story, begins like a recipe:

PREP TIME: Imprecise

COOK TIME: In Season

YIELD: Serves 2

Meet someone you are ¼ compatible with. Base this compatibility ½ on the fact that you are carbon-based life forms and ½ on your sad pasts.

Eve, struggling with insomnia and overeating, starts to see a counsellor when she realizes that all she and her boyfriend Adam (who “always orders ribs”) have in common is “their mutual dislike of green peppers, celery and certain celebrities.” Read that sentence out loud to see and hear how it works so beautifully. In her grief, Eve turns on the oven despite the summer heat and goes on a baking binge. She delivers her loaves of bread and fishes, er, apple crisps, to neighbours. Soon thereafter, Eve “develops a mild intolerance to gluten, lactose and Adam.” (Think of the hilarious biblical repercussions of this).

Unlike the mother in the background of the title story, whom we are told served up “shredded guilt garnished with lament,” the mother in “Sweets” is a not-ready-for-prime-time horror show. She waves her cigarette around, using her young daughter for an ashtray, and warns the child to stay away from her drunken boyfriend after he shows the child a scrap of affection:

“… she slammed me up against the kitchen wall and yelled, ‘Don’t go getting any ideas!’ I felt the snap in my arm all the way to my teeth.”

This story has a great first line: “When the police arrive, Mamma is calm, her forehead smooth like the Buddha on Mr. Steinberger’s desk in the school detention room.” It reminds me of the evil/innocence foreboding in the superbly contracted first line of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web: “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’ Fern said to her mother.”

Eufemia Fantetti deftly shows the malice and passive aggression in a soured relationship in “Loss of Appetite,” through the making of a sandwich:

“She made him a sandwich of shaved Black Forest ham and cheddar cheese with mayonnaise because he is allergic to dairy and has been trying, unsuccessfully, to lose weight. He will be forced to hate her at lunch, and she reasons that will curb his appetite.”

This is typical of Eufemia Fantetti’s style – understated, hard hitting.

She’s also suddenly funny, but not necessarily the laugh-out-loud kind; more the purse-your-lips-in-glee-and-look-for-someone-to-tell kind:

“I stare at him, sitting across from me, still wearing his barbeque apron. He wears it every time he cooks, and each time I see it, I think, this must be what it feels like to lose an erection.”

A Recipe for Disaster is subtitled “& Other Unlikely Tales of Love.” But none of the tales is at all unlikely. They are desperately, if tragically, quotidian. For the subtitle, I would be more inclined to use a line from the last story: “some things are broken and cannot be fixed.” Maybe this is why my least favourite of the stories is “The Hunger” – it has a more overtly hope-y ending than the others, more of a ‘and then she picked herself up and moved on’ kind of thing, a bit tidy. But this tells you more about me than anything else. This same story has a fabulous scene of every ex’s nightmare: to be dragged out in public after weeks of feeling sorry for yourself at home, only to have your ex walk in to the same restaurant where you are sitting, fat, and unkempt, in plain view. And your ex is with someone lean and lovely and they look happy and very, very kempt.

And while we’re on the subject of subjectivity, there are a few exchanges like the following, where simpleton-sayers are put in their place, to my deep satisfaction:

“… But he was better now; he’d read The Secret. He slurped his java chip frappuccino and talked about the fundamental law of attraction: positivity attracts and negativity repels.

‘Except in magnets,’ I said.”

There’s one line in particular that stopped me, probably because I wasn’t at all expecting it, and I find myself going back to it in my mind. I’m just going to leave it dangling here for you, as well. In “Punch Drunk” a dad teaches his son how to box: “The world is a dangerous place for boys without mothers.”

In “The Bread of Life,” the protagonist, estranged from her mother, relates a dream she has wherein she is presented with the bleeding heart of Jesus, on a wooden tea tray. (There are two or three short dream scenes in these stories, all handled well, a difficult and, some would say, risky undertaking for a debut writer). Her mother appears with St. Jude, then grabs the saint’s club and starts to beat the heart out of her daughter’s hands before raising her own hand to strike her daughter’s face. The mother turns to St. Jude to introduce her daughter:

“’My daughter. The one I’ve been praying to you about for all these years. She still doesn’t know how to consume the body of Christ and not his bleeding, aching heart.”

After you’ve read the entire book, re-read this section, then skip to the last line of the book and re-read that, then go back and forth between them, like a child scrounging for a morsel of affection in a deeply wounded and broken family. You won’t thank me for this tip, but you’ll know what I mean.

Eufemia Fantetti. Author photo courtesy of

Eufemia Fantetti. Author photo courtesy of Ayelet Tsabari.

I want to talk about the physicality of this book. I happen to have a soft spot for small books; I am drawn to them as I am drawn more to the backyard studio than the big house. Where most trade books are punched out at 9 x 7 inches, A Recipe for Disaster is 8 x 5 1/2. Its thick, glossy cover is more-or-less spill proof: not a necessary quality in a work of fiction, but it lends a cookbook-like quality. At first I had trouble with the pink front cover, both because I don’t like the colour baby pink, and because I worry that this will girl-ghetto the book in bookstores and libraries. But as it sat on my nightstand and desk for the past couple of weeks, I began to see that the pink-and-blue cover colours serve to underscore the drama of the domestic scenes between the French flaps. But still, I worry.

One of Joy McKinnon's illustrations for A Recipe for Disaster (Non-Stop Design).

One of Joy McKinnon’s charming illustrations for A Recipe for Disaster (Non-Stop Design). There are 8 illustrations throughout the book, each of a kitchen implement, many of them vintage-looking.

I had a chat with Mona Fertig, of Mother Tongue Publishing (that is, she is Mother Tongue Publishing), and I asked her if she had any behind-the-scenes stories about A Recipe for Disaster. I don’t know what I was expecting, but not this: Mona approached Eufemia Fantetti, by email, and asked her if she had a manuscript ready for consideration for publication. Eufemia did, sent it to Mona (who loved it), and, A Recipe for Disaster was published. (But Mona is quick to point out that all the books she publishes are sent out to experienced editors first, including Eufemia’s).

Before you roll your green eyes, here’s the important part of that story. Small presses sometimes work this way. They ask around. They put out calls for submissions. In this case, Mona Fertig asked the writers she knows as well as some of the mentors in writing programs, and one of the names she got was Eufemia Fantetti – because Eufemia Fantetti has been writing and studying writing for years and her mentors spoke well of her. And, the most important part of this story is that, Yes, she had a manuscript ready. When her ship (okay, canoe) came in, Eufemia Fantetti was not only on the dock, she was packed and picnic ready. This impressed Mona who hasn’t published many short story collections.

A Recipe for Disaster, at six stories and 86 pages, is a short, short story collection. But as Mona Fertig said, “some writers tend to pad their collection. I thought the six Eufemia sent me were wonderful as they were.” She’s right. They easily pull their own weight.

I think of A Recipe for Disaster as an amuse-bouche, that lovely and unexpected delicacy that the talented chef sends out to your table to please and impress you, to whet your appetite and raise your expectations for what’s to come. I’d like to see what Eufemia (pronounced Eu-FEE-mia) Fantetti will give us next. I think that if she gives herself the room to maneuvre, in either longer stories or a longer work of fiction, the hard-hitting, understated drama, poignant humour and compelling dialogue will spread out before us, like a gingham table cloth, weighted down on one side by a line like her, “I’m in mourning for my life,” and on the other, “I had to stop [reading poetry]. It made me want to kill myself.”

Somewhere between the poles of family tragedy and despair-fueled, intelligent, life-saving comedy, is a 5-course meal that I want Eufemia Fantetti to make me. My expectations have been raised. My napkin is ironed.

Dead Dogs, Binge Writing and Contemptuous Comparisons: Weird-good Writing Advice from Michael Winter, Stacey May Fowles and Brian Francis

I don’t know if Michael Winter, Stacey May Fowles and Brian Francis are real-life friends, but at last night’s Open Book Toronto event, Advice For Myself: Writers On What They Wish They Knew Back Then, the literary trio made an engaging and simpatico panel. Their answers to questions about the writing life, posed and moderated by Becky Toyne, were refreshing — and by that I mean unexpectedly odd.

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For instance: Michael Winter has devised a strategy for resisting the internet during his writing hours. The computer he uses for writing is “dead” to the world wide web. “Think of two rooms,” he said. “In one room there’s a cute little puppy. In the other room there’s a dead dog. Of course you want to go in to the room with the puppy! But the room with the dead dog is the room with no distractions. The puppy is the internet. The dead dog – the novel.”

(Actually, he said to imagine that the dog has been dead for three days. His point is that writing is an intense and difficult thing to do and writers must simply force themselves to get down to work, regardless. I hesitated to tell you about the dead dog part in case you misunderstood him. He’s clearly a decent person, and even plays with dolls. But more on that below).

In a writing climate (over)flowing with courses and books and advice blogs on How To Write, Stacey May Fowles admitted that she’s “not a big fan of rules.” Does she write every day, the not-so-secret Secret Rule of Writing? No – “I’m a binge writer.” She works on her paid writing assignments during the week, and usually works on her novel during the weekend, at strange hours, and for long stretches that sometimes involve “a glass or two” of wine. One of the reasons she likes to write essay-length non-fiction and book reviews  (e.g., for The Walrus and the National Post) is for that sense of completion that novels are short on: “that vast expanse ahead that’s just so ugly!” And yes, she does check her various online accounts while she’s writing: “I like to know that my friends are out there and that someone still loves me.”

Stacey May Fowles, author or Infidelity (2013), Fear of Fighting (2008), Be Good (2007).

Stacey May Fowles, author or Infidelity (2013), Fear of Fighting (2008), Be Good (2007).

Brian Francis has a full-time job, so he writes when he can: “You will find the time when you need to… As frustrating as it is to work full-time, when I get home I know what I want to do, and not everyone can say that.” Michael Winter said that having a child made him pull up his socks. He now writes five days a week, from 9 until noon, when his young son comes home from school. (This is the time he tweets what he’s having for lunch, according to Stacey May Fowles. He didn’t say if he uses the recipes that Brian Francis posts on his blog).

While Stacey May Fowles admitted that when she’s writing a novel she reads only non-fiction (“what if she’s better than me?”), Brian Francis went as far as to suggest that writers should read bad books. For one, there’s always the self-righteous motivation of, “for crissakes if they got published, then I can.” But Brian Francis suggested that we give ourselves permission to not like certain books (the ones otherwise lauded in the media or on prize lists) and, importantly, to ask ourselves Why? As Michael Winter later pointed out, this advice is an interesting subversion — during Freedom to Read Week, we should acknowledge that we also have the freedom not to read certain things.

Brian Francis, author of Natural Order (2011) and Fruit (2004).

Brian Francis, author of Natural Order (2011) and Fruit (2004).

What I particularly appreciated about this panel was their pragmatic approach. Brian Francis agrees that there is a lot of luck involved in the publishing world, but, if you’re not “out there,” in the first place, then no lucky breaks for you. He gave the example of his 2004 novel, Fruit, chosen as a Canada Reads finalist in 2009, something that could never have happened had he not finished the book in the first place: “One decision maker can make all the difference, but it’s up to you to be out there in the first place.”

Stacey May Fowles admitted that she “wrote a lot of really bad stuff” early on (and is forever thankful that it was before widespread use of the internet so no one will ever see it, the fact of which brings her “great joy”). But she eventually found a way to make her place in the writing world. She worked in circulation for a respected literary journal (that would be Descant!), then wrote book reviews, magazine and newspaper articles: “It all happened in increments. You need to diversify.”

The money question. This actually came up early in the event but if I have to write the expression, “don’t quit your day job” one more time, I fear I will be killed in my sleep by the Enough’s-Enough Cliché Fairy (who, I imagine, has wild curly red hair and a t-shirt with “Eff Off” on the front).

Michael Winter said that he’s “filled with despair” when his writing students perk up for the part of his course about the publishing business: “Money is a lure. You can only write the one book you want to and can write… You must use your true voice… you can’t look at fads and trends.” Stacey May Fowles writes because she’s “trying to figure something out… Something will drive me insane… The hope is that someone reads [what I've written] and feels better.” You can, of course, make money, possibly even a lot of it — but only if you are willing to write what other people want you to write, like ghost-writing inspirational books for big biz.

[Despite all this, one of the first audience questions was: "When did you first start making money?" There was muffled laughter and embarrassed groaning -- from the rest of the audience, I hasten to add, not the panel.]

Brian Francis admitted to the thing that so many writers can’t get over: “I get that I won’t write something that doesn’t already exist.” Nice ego check. Instead, he plays a kind of psychological game with himself: “Your characters become your people. They’re in your head for three years before you even start writing. At some point I feel responsible to these lives… If not for me, these characters’ stories wouldn’t get out.”

Michael Winter, author of the 5 novels Minister Without Portfolio (2013), The Death of Donna Whatlen (2010), The Architects are Here (2007), The Big Why (2004), This All Happened (2000) and 2 short story collections, One Last Good Look (1999) and Creaking in their Skins (1994).

Michael Winter, author of 5 novels, Minister Without Portfolio (2013), The Death of Donna Whalen (2010), The Architects are Here (2007), The Big Why (2004), This All Happened (2000) and 2 short story collections, One Last Good Look (1999) and Creaking in their Skins (1994).

Brian Francis advised writers to “allow yourself to write really shitty.” He told us that his novels went through “about 15 drafts” before they even got to an editor: “There’s only so good I can get, then I need help.” As Stacey May Fowles pointed out, even after years of practice, and publication, “the goal posts are always moving.” There is rarely, or never, a moment in a writing career when the writer sits back, looks at a completed manuscript and says, “There, that’s it. I’ve done it. The best book I’m ever going to write.” And while a writer may feel at times dazzled by his or her brilliance at a particular paragraph or section, by the end of the book, according to Stacey May Fowles, “you no longer think you’re brilliant, just pretty good… that’s when you know you’re done.”

I’ll leave you with Michael Winter’s words of encouragement. He pointed out that when musicians and artists are being derivative (which is all or most of the time) no one is bothered. But somehow this accusation is levelled at writers with a particular vitriol: “If someone says you are being derivative, shoot them!” He went on to say that there’s not nearly enough encouragement in the world of writing and that if a writer is lucky enough to have a supportive friend, that friend should be treasured and kept. Forever.

The unfortunate thing about last night’s venue (besides the $11.50 drinks) was that the panel was not visible to those sitting, say, in rows 3-to-the-back. So it was a treat when Michael Winter stood up to show us a doll his sister made for him, about 20 years ago:

Michael Winter and his cloth doppelganger.

Michael Winter and his cloth doppelganger.

He said the doll reminds him of how far he’s come. Writing, he said, “is like driving, where the headlights only ever show 20 feet in front of you. But after  twenty years of that, you’ll be home.”

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30 Years of Freedom to Read Week: plenty of reasons to hug your librarian

Warning: This blog post contains language suitable for some complainants.

February 23rd to March 1st is Freedom to Read week in Canada, an opportunity to remind us that not only are we fortunate to have at our fingertips (literally, in the age of e-books) 47.63 gagillion books, but we are free to read any of them. Well, almost any.

Despite the battle for free range reading, there are still, even in Canada, dust-cover-ups at the border, the results of which are decided behind closed doors in government offices. Schools and libraries continue to receive requests to remove books from reading lists and shelves.

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most often censored books. This is one of the scariest home shoots I've done.

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), the Queen of censored books. (Fear not, only one slightly singed eyebrow in this home shoot.)

As you know, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was so often banned from school reading lists and libraries (obscene, blasphemous, immoral…) that it’s hard to know if its persistent success is based on literary merit, or all the ruckus. Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was banned for the same reasons that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still in dispute (use of the word “nigger”). If you read down a list of these books, you could almost change the heading to “Recommended Reading”: The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Beloved, Catch-22, Howl, In Cold Blood, Moby Dick, Native Son, The Red Badge of Courage

Good thing that’s all behind us, we say. Smugly. Too smugly.

According to a 42-page list of banned reading material on the Freedom To Read website, a number of Canadian novels continue to be challenged, including, as recently as 2011, Timothy Findley’s The Wars; in 2008, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; and, in 2006, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. All the Harry Potter books have been challenged at some point (wizardry, witchery, blasphemy, etc.), and To Kill a Mockingbird and books by John Steinbeck remain popular with the conflagration dancers.

In the 1980s, Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women was debated, and Margaret Laurence continued to face challenges from libraries and schoolboards for The Diviners (prime suspect), Jest of God and, for heaven’s sake, The Stone Angel (all for naughty language and sexual content), which I read in high school. In fact, I distinctly remember coming across the phrase “pubic triangle” in The Stone Angel and wondering if my teacher had missed it before assigning the book. This is the same school that cut out the 3 minute bed scene in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet when they played it for us one lunch hour (which of course had the effect of making us all rent it that weekend). As publishers know well, there’s nothing like even the whiff of censorship to boost sales.

Yes, that’s Alice Munro being interviewed by none other than Conrad Black, in 1979. Listen to the controlled fury in her voice.

 

Children’s books are also vulnerable to the moral claims of adults who say they find the contents disturbing. From the bottom of page 23-24 of the “Challenged Books and Magazines List” document:

2005 – During Freedom to Read Week, the Lethbridge Public Library displayed books that had been challenged in North America. The inclusion of Daddy’s Roommate [by Michael Willhoite] in the display prompted one library patron to request the removal of the book from the library. Objection – The complainant said that this fictional children’s book, which has a homosexual theme, was “not a proper role model for children.” Update – The complainant did not pursue the challenge, so the book stayed in the library.

In 2000, a Toronto Public library patron complained about a children’s book wherein a black family moves into an all-white neighbourhood and encounters racial prejudice. The library-goer complained that the book, “reinforces negative stereotypes about blacks and positive types about whites.” Result? “The book was retained in the library’s collection.”

The majority of challenges to books come from parents of school-aged children, or card-carrying library members. It is teachers and school boards, and librarians and library boards that must address each complaint. After reading all 42 pages of the “Challenged Books and Magazines List,” I can report back to you that the vast majority of schools and libraries in Canada have, after deliberation, kept the books on reading lists and on shelves. But not always.

A children’s book was tossed into the recycle bin after a library patron noticed it contained the expression “red Indians.” A complaint was lodged and after discussion, the library decided that indeed the reference was offensive, the book outdated and unnecessary and out it went. Your reaction, as you read this, is either an indignant, “Well, I should think so!” or a more modified, “Yes, it’s certainly offensive now, but it is a historical document and throwing something out does not deal with the social issues it addresses. You can’t erase the past.”

But if you are in the latter category, would you feel the same way about a book that contains repeated scenes of women being beaten? Or children being abused? Or any other number of seemingly endless hideous human behaviours? In other words, not all challenges to reading material are necessarily clear cut cases. We most often assume that someone wants to censor a particular book because he or she is prudish in some way. But identity politics and cause-oriented claims are also powerful and contentious. One person’s edgy is another person’s over-the-edgy.

Which brings me to librarians, the people who often decide these challenges to books and cries for censorship. Thanks to Hollywood, the stereotype persists of the plain, bookish librarian whose quiet demeanor belies… another quiet demeanor. She (it’s usually a woman) wears sensible shoes, long wool skirts and sweater sets. She is shy; unless you are late returning your book.

Except, these are the people who are reading all the smut, guts and blasphemy that apparently offends the most sensitive among us. Not only must librarians read this graphic stuff, they must discuss it, write about it, read it again and face down the complainants. Or face up to the political storm that sometimes ensues.

If it weren’t for librarians, you may not have read a third? a half? of what you’ve enjoyed. Sexplicit, violent or otherwise disquieting, distressing and/or disgusting, our librarians have read it all and stand at the forefront against censorship. There’s Kevlar under those sweater sets.

Librarians want you and your children, and your children’s children, to have the same intellectual rights they enjoy. Because they know, more than most of us do, that our freedom to read — widely, broadly, badly — must constantly be defended.

In the words of Holden Caulfield:

“I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.”

“People always clap for the wrong reasons.”

 

 

 

Andy Verboom: Inspired By His Prestigious Winston Collins/Descant Poetry Prize Win

Andy Verboom, a 27 year old PhD student (English) at Western, is deep into his second year comprehensive exams. When our managing editor, Vera DeWaard, called him yesterday morning to tell him he’s won the prestigious Winston Collins/Descant Best Canadian Poem Prize, he was gobsmacked.

We can understand why. Last year, John B. Lee won, for his poem “Bringing the Farmhouse Down.” The contest is judged by Mark Kingwell, professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor to Descant and Harper’s Magazine, and the Toronto-born New Yorker, Leanne Shapton, an artist illustrator and writer who has contributed to The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Jane, Seventeen, Saturday Night, and Maclean’s.

Andy Verboom spoke to me last night, from a pub in London, Ontario, where his friends were treating him to celebratory libations.

Andy Verboom, celebrating his Winston Collins/Descant poetry prize win.

Andy Verboom, celebrating his Winston Collins/Descant poetry prize win in a time- honoured tradition. Photo credit Meghan O’Hara.

LK:  First of all, congratulations! I read your account of the events this morning, on your blog, about when you got the call. How are you feeling about it now that you’ve had time to digest the news?

AV:  Well, my surprise turned more to shock when I realized how established all the previous winners are. I’ve been writing for at least a decade, but I didn’t have any publications for the first few years. Honestly, I’ve been very lax about submitting for publication. I haven’t taken myself seriously as a writer. I always enjoyed the writing process more than sharing my work or seeing it in print, so I focused on that, perfecting and revising. Last September or October, after a year of my PhD, my time committed to my own writing had eroded so much. So I blitzed a bunch of competitions.

LK:  Who was the first person you told about this prize?

AV:  I called my partner Emily, first. Her response helped, it was very convincing, I mean, her lack of surprise. She’s been a great supporter of my writing.

LK:  What does this public recognition mean for you?

AV:  This means I really need to get my act together and write! It’s just so hard when you’re doing it yourself, for so long. But now I feel like I have an excuse to dedicate my time to my writing.

I’ve been doing it wrong for a long time. I mean, I haven’t been making any time to write and submit, and I regret that. It’s hard to put the effort in when, for so long, you’re doing it for yourself, without any significant feedback. But winning this award is immense feedback. It means I really need to get my act together and write!  Now I feel like I have an excuse.

LK:  Can you tell us about that, something about your writing process?

AV:  I had a conversation with a friend the other day whose student is considering a creative writing degree. She asked the student if he wrote every day and he said no. For her, this meant he wasn’t capable of being a writer, because he didn’t have a daily impulsion to write. But writing is not an impulsion. It’s an issue of time management. You put in blocks of time on a regular basis, and those blocks will prime you for that so-called inspiration, as it comes and goes. And, realistically, there’s always time. Work expands to fit the time we allow for it. If I have two weeks to write a paper, I will take two weeks to write the paper. We can always fit one more thing in. I’ll just spend less time on Facebook!

I’ve been most productive when I’ve worked at boring menial jobs that give me bits of time to write now and then… When I have too much time, I get too obsessed with form or writing sequences. I’m terrible. I plot out an arc and the more labour and infrastructure I put around it the worse it becomes.

LK:  Can you tell us about your winning poem, “Rite”?

AV:  I first wrote it in 2010, I think, and although I’ve gone back to it, to tweak it, it hasn’t changed significantly since then. I really appreciated what the judges had to say about it. In fact, they reminded me of the gleeful aspects of the poem. I think that I began to write it with a great concern for detail but also with a sort of irony, with a kind of anti-nostalgia or quasi-nostalgia, so I forgot the simple glee it communicates.

LK:  Can you give our readers an idea of what it’s about?

AV:  I grew up in Nova Scotia, and at the end of every school year, my friends and I got together to burn our notes from the year, in a fire pit in my parents’  backyard. It didn’t start out as a self-conscious rite, but isn’t that always the case? When you’re performing a ritual, when you’re seeing it from inside, you don’t see it as a ritual but as a simple action or community practice. But that’s sort of what it became, in retrospect. Each year the group got larger.

“According to custom, beginning with the softer subjects
they burn everything. Thin dossiers of home ec, of gym,
of experimental courses in career and life management
torn from binders with calculated glee, filed into a pit.
Illumination by BBQ lighter, match, or cigarette
indicts suspect recipes, exotic laws of movement,
pamphlets urging  C A L M .”

LK:  How would you describe “Rite,” stylistically?

AV:  That’s not easy to answer. Style is a pretty overdetermined word. I don’t really follow any particular form in “Rite.” Usually I develop a form for a poem as I write it, giving the inventiveness of the poem something to push against, but also letting it break that form when the poem is being held back.

LK:  But would you say it’s lyrical, or-

AV:  I can see why it might be called lyrical, despite my deliberate absenting of an I, yes, but I have to say that it’s more auto-ethnographic narrative. This shouldn’t really apply to poets, who should excel at talking about their craft, but you know how horrible it can be to read visual artists’ statements, right? I don’t know what it is, I just made it, but I don’t know what it is! [laughs]

LK:  That sounds kind of Warholian.

AV:  Okay, I’ll take that. It’s just that – the original events just have their own power when described in enough detail. Whatever rhetorical tricks I had, whatever irony or critical distance I slapped on, like a poor coat of paint, the original still has an emanation that I couldn’t really disrupt, even if I wanted to.

                           “Flies lifting off the heap of black fruit
occasional lit pages ride the updrafts, twirl and fist
on strings far above them, creep along night’s rafters,
snag on bright nailheads. In the cool beds of nearby
fields or woods, one or two land, the twinkle of maggots
still cruising along its edges. Leaves’ cheeks moon
the fire.”

LK:  Who are your favourite poets, the ones who have influenced you the most?

AV:  I’m not so much influenced by particular poets. At least, I’m not conscious of their influence, which I think is both a good thing and a typical thing. I tend to be repelled by individual poems and write against them. I’m hyper conscious about the way I reject poems.

LK:  But which poets do you turn to, more often?

AV:  [pause] That’s hard to say.

LK:  [After several failed attempts, trying, for our readers, to get a straight answer, I pulled out my secret "spectrum" weapon...] Well, for example, from Bukowski to-

AV:  I hate Bukowski! In fact I loathe him. He’s too easy! His affect is too easy. There’s a very long history, thousands of years, of poets writing in that drunken poet genre, and all of them do it better.

LK:  And instead, you prefer-?

AV:  Well, I guess if I were to wish myself into being a particular poet, it would be [Joseph] Brodsky, probably. Who is it that grouped Brodsky, Heaney and Walcott together as the three great masters of English verse? Well, I’ve always  found [Seamus] Heaney a bit boring. I took a poetry class with [Derek] Walcott, but we were not on very good terms in the class and I’m afraid this has always affected my reading of him. Brodsky is the only one who consistently takes my breath away. I also like the British poet, Mark Haddon, right now, for his lyrical inventiveness, but I’m a fickle reader. My love affairs with poets are short.

LK:  As well as getting your poem published in Descant, the cash prize that goes with this award is $1,000. May we be so rude as to ask what plans you have for the money?

[To be completely honest, for the next few minutes, Andy Verboom and I discussed what to do first with the cheque: take a picture of it? scan it? use the image as desktop wallpaper for daily inspiration?]

AV:  This summer my partner is travelling in Europe and teaching in the UK, in sussex, and I’m tagging along. Now I can use this money to finance a bit of a writing retreat there.

***

All of us at Descant congratulate Andy Verboom and look forward to meeting him in person at our next launch, where he will recite his winning poem, “Rite,” excerpted above.

When I checked his blog yesterday, he’d written that, come the launch, “the drinks are on me.” When I asked him about this, he said he meant only drinks for his close friends. I pointed out that, as a wordsmith, he should know better and shouldn’t be surprised when all assembled for the launch slap him on the back in thanks for their drinks. (I don’t think he realizes just how many people come out for our launches, and I could see that $1,000 disappearing over the bar rather quickly.)

But serious poets are not the dreamy, ephemeral type. Andy Verboom pointed out to me that his blog has an edit function and he would be using it after our interview. Yet another kind of incineration.

Announcement: The 2014 Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem

Descant is pleased to announce the 2014 Winston Collins/ Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem valued at $1000!

The winner of the 2014 prize is Andy verboom
for his poem “Rite”

This year’s judges, Mark Kingwell and Leanne Shapton, describe Andy Verboom’s poem:

Rite is a beautifully anarchic, even witchy poem: a detail-heavy tale of euphoric conflagration, a demon-lover’s catalogue of things and ideas sacrificed to fire. Academic knowledge of every conceivable kind is incinerated – “Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion,” David Hume enjoined against all system-building metaphysics. Insects, fruit, writing instruments, and notebooks all meet the same fate. There are arresting phrases throughout: ‘plashing / of plastic bags’, ‘Lascaux-style genitals’, ‘Pencils turn charcoal, their erasers / harder nipples’. Partly a sort of a high-toned version of Alice Cooper’s  School’s Out for Summer, partly a perverse but gorgeous lover’s-quarrel-with-the-world anti-poem, this neatly enjambed lyric is, finally, a funny and moving paean to fire. Like so many excellent poems, it communicates its own ars poetica even as it instantiates that position. Destruction, it says with quiet glee, is the linking concept of all language, ritual, human interaction, indeed life itself.

This is Andy Verboom’s first time as winner of the Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem.

Judges

The judges for this year’s competition are Mark Kingwell and Leanne Shapton.

Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a contributing editor of Descant and Harper’s Magazine. His latest book, Unruly Voices (Biblioasis, 2012) is a collection of essays about politics and human imagination.

Leanne Shapton is an artist illustrator, and writer who was born in Toronto and lives in New York. A previous contributor to The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The New Yorker, Jane, Seventeen, Saturday Night, and Maclean’s, she has published several books and is also one of the founders of J&L Books.

Prize

This annual prize is in memory of Winston Collins, writer and enthusiastic teacher of literature at the universities of Cincinnati, Princeton and Toronto. The prize will perpetuate his remarkable talent for encouraging self-expression through writing.

Last year’s prize was won by John B. Lee for his poem “Bringing the Farmhouse Down”. Lee also won the inaugural Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem in 2007.

For more information about the prize, please visit our website.

Mavis Gallant: Descant Celebrates a Brilliant Short Story Writer

“I have lived in writing, like a spoonful of water in a river,” Mavis Gallant wrote in the introduction to her Selected Stories. The Canadian-born writer died in Paris today, where she has lived for more than 60 years as a self-supporting short story writer.

In Transit, 20 stories originally published in the New Yorker, in the 1950s and 1960s. Penguin Books

In Transit, 20 stories originally published in the New Yorker, in the 1950s and 1960s. Penguin Books

Gallant’s work has been lauded by, among others, Michael Ondaatje, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood and Alberto Manguel. She is famous for her fastidious use of language, her need for the exact right word, and her willingness to rewrite an entire page (longhand) when she decides on a better word.

Mavis Gallant’s stories are hard, bright stones; investigations, often surgically precise, of fractured lives. Her writing reminds me of her American contemporary, the self-exiled J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories (1953)particularly “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and “For Esmé with Love and Squalor.” But both in style and substance, Gallant’s writing stands in stark contrast to contemporary confessional, emotive writing. The too-often self-consciously clever and practiced ironic tones of contemporary stories lack what Mavis Gallant could evoke with a superbly controlled elegance — qualities of compassion. Not a compassion on display, nor a compassion heralded by others, but a compassion developed slowly and quietly in the reader, word by word, gesture upon telling gesture, stone by stone. And often, and just as compelling, the limits of this compassion.

Mavis Gallant’s characters, even the most brave and arrogant, are all lost, dislocated or abandoned. In their efforts to reunite — themselves with themselves, themselves with each other — they sacrifice qualities of dignity and independence, power and pleasure. Many are exiles, struggling through personal cold wars, in a landscape that clicks by like an old 35 millimetre film, grainy and indifferent to their suffering.

My Heart is Broken (1957). Eight short stories and a 100-page novella, "Its Image on the Mirror." New Press/Random House. The Moslem Wife and Other Stories (1994). McClelland & Stewart.

My Heart is Broken (1957), eight short stories and a 100-page novella, “Its Image on the Mirror.” New Press/Random House.
The Moslem Wife and Other Stories (1994). McClelland & Stewart.

Going Ashore (2009), with an introduction by Alberto Manguel. McClelland & Stewart/Douglas Gibson.

Going Ashore (2009), with an introduction by Alberto Manguel. Thirty one of her “missing stories.” McClelland & Stewart/Douglas Gibson.

Although her writing was seldom blatantly autobiographical (with the exception of the Linnet Muir cycle, in Home Truths), if you know any of the details of her life, you can see and feel them in her stories, in the lives of the briefly or unhappily married women, and in the women — and men– trying to assert their personal independence in the face of oppressive social mores. But most of all, Mavis Gallant’s early life is evident in the abandonment and exile of her characters, a reflection of the many boarding schools her mother shipped her off to, before Mavis left home (and her difficult relationship with her mother, and a step father she did not love) at 18. Not that she talked openly about these things or their connection to her work; when interviewed, she wanted to talk about her writing, her characters, her process.

Here is a brief clip of her describing how it is her stories and characters come into her imagination. Not so much a process, really, more of an aesthetic comprehension:

Last week I re-read her story “In the Tunnel,” about a young woman whose father sends her off to study in Grenoble, but she ends up spending the summer on the Riviera with an older man, and his oddly-matched married friends who own the cottage where she and the man stay (believe it or not, that was the hardest sentence to write in this piece, and if you’ve read Mavis Gallant, you’ll be nodding your head).

Home Truths won the Governor General's award in 1981. "In the Tunnel" is in this book, in a section titled "Canadians Abroad."

Home Truths won the Governor General’s award in 1981. “In the Tunnel” is in this book, in a section titled “Canadians Abroad.”

The first line, “Sarah’s father was a born widower,” almost, but not quite, prepares you for the third and fourth sentences: “He thought Sarah was subjective and passionate, as small children are. She knew she was detached and could prove it.”

It would be silly, not to mention presumptuous, to sum up a life’s work in a sentence, but there is something about that sentence — “She knew she was detached and could prove it” — that holds within it both the real Mavis Gallant, the determined young woman who left her job as a journalist in Canada to live in Paris, alone, as a writer, and the microcosm of her writing. The palpable detachment in her stories is always held in close tension with the struggle to “prove it,” which belies the compassionate centre of her work and the almost unbelievable talent she had for pushing and pulling us toward that very centre, that place where we struggle against our own selves, inside a historic moment indifferent to our suffering, but demanding our submission.

 

for R.P.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Spine Poetry: within your means and never stale

The price of a dozen roses is astrohorticulturally beyond the means of many. And although chocolates are always nice (to eat), it can feel a bit like handing over a gift-wrapped cliché on February 14th.

But poetry? It’s within your means and never stale.

For Valentine’s Day we suggest you write, er, build a special someone a book spine poem. Could be your sweetie, favourite co-worker, new friend… It’s easy.

The Brink and the Break Overhead in a balloon Everything rustles Am I disturbing you? wild stone heart Who do you think you are? Marrow, willow all that matters A broken bowl small beneath the sky

The Brink and the Break
overhead in a balloon
everything rustles
am I disturbing you?
wild stone heart
Who do you think you are?
marrow, willow
all that matters
a broken bowl
small beneath the sky

Actually, it’s not that easy. But it’s incredibly engrossing. You will wish you had more books — or at least more books with prepositions in the titles. In the book spine poem above I decided to use only Canadian authors (because the first three titles I picked happened to be Canadian). But think of the possibilities if your criteria are more catholic. Or the challenge if you limit yourself to only books with red covers, or with the words love/heart/stultifying in the titles.

Your book spine poem doesn’t have to be good (see example above), just a heartfelt attempt. Take a photograph and email your built poem to your person. Send it out on twitter too, where we will see it and admire your architecture of love (@DescantMagazine). And if you’re not a writer and therefore can’t justifiably find the time for such procrastination, then just list the book titles, poetically of course. We will imagine it on the page.

If February 14th isn’t your favourite day then pin on your Red Badge of Courage, because, when Things Fall Apart, and you find yourself in the Heart of Darkness, remember that today is just A Wrinkle in Time. After all, you are not the first Catcher in the Rye, nor the only Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

***

 

kjjkjkj

The books in this built poem are: Descant‘s latest issue, “The Brink and the Break,” Mavis Gallant’s short stories, Overhead in a Balloon, Jane Silcott’s debut collection of personal essays, Everything Rustles, Anne Hébert’s poetry, Am I disturbing you?, Sharon Butala’s novel, wild stone heart, Alice Munro’s stories, Who Do You Think You Are?, Maureen Hynes’ new book of poetry, Marrow, Willow, Wayson Choy’s novel, all that matters, Patrick Friesen’s poetry, A Broken Bowl, and Lorna Crozier’s memoir, small beneath the sky.

 

Dig Deep, Write (dangerously) Well and Publish… more!

Each kid in my grade four class was given a little bible (hint: this was a long time ago). I remember its red, fake-leather cover and the embossed gold words on the front. I had absolutely no interest in God, but I treasured this little book for the answers it gave me.

At the back was an alphabetized index of human experiences, linked to a page in the book that promised solace. I would look up “Sadness” and “Jealousy” after a fight with my friend Sarah (her family was Sikh but she got a red bible too), or “Anger” and “Justice” when I was grounded. Of course at that age I neither understood nor appreciated the verses I read; I just liked knowing that someone had indeed figured these things out and that the answers could be found in a book that fit in my small hands. I treated this index like a prescription, the scriptures and psalms like medicine. I was 9.

Fortunately, my hands and reading tastes grew. On the long literary journey from omnivorous to discerning, I ate it all up and spat out nothing. Now I understand that it wasn’t medicine I sought or needed; it was simply comfort.

When a wonderful teacher read aloud a 17th century poem in my first year English class, I read along silently, bored by the olde English, the subject matter and, frankly, the course itself. When the prof read the last line, I could not hold back my tears and the sense of bursting I felt. I put my head down and tried, discretely, to wipe my cheeks, appalled that the earnest looking boy beside me might notice. But it also felt good, very good. I left that class knowing there was  something more to me, something more to the world, than I had previously understood. It tasted very good, as poetry does when it finds you at the right time. Which is often a bad time.

All readers and writers have at least one of these stories, a Joycean moment when, even if our own words fail us, the words we read make us stronger. Not like medicine, not an anaesthetic or sedative, not an antibiotic or a vaccination. Not like any of these things because there was nothing wrong with us in the first place — except perhaps that we are human and therefore in profound need of comfort and because, whatever else divides us, we are ineluctably and reluctantly joined by what is hardest about being human: the unresolvable tensions, the wounds inflicted and the pains of tenderheartedness among even the most wretched of us.

Image 1

So readers, read more. More! And writers — write more and then more; and then more! All the better for us when you publish it and make it available for the one, the few or the many whom it will find and bring comfort through its off-key humour, odd characters, twirling story line, bizarre ending, experimental syntax, jarring rhythms, sensational language or flowery descriptions (thank you Charles Dickens). Anyone who has been to more than one writing workshop knows that one person’s learned idea of “good writing” is another person’s “meh.” The theme, or a particular character in an otherwise badly written story can stay with you for days. Years. A technically well-written one, perhaps worked on for years, can leave you dry. Overweening, self-conscious writing provides no comfort, never mind joy.

Categories of goodness do not inhere in the phenomena. There is no “canon.” There are only readers. Readers of varying tastes, with various methods and modes of reproduction at their disposal. What was left out of your high school anthology is much more dangerous than what was ushered in.

Write more. Publish more (much easier said than done, I know). Don’t write to impress. Don’t necessarily write to make the world a better place. Write because it gives you comfort. Admit it gives you comfort. Then send it out into the world for others to enjoy. Then write more. The politics of it all will come crashing through occasionally, or often, but that’s part of what motivates you to write and what you write about or against. And it’s definitely part of why I want to read what you write. Some people will need to read what you write. Especially if they can’t find themselves inside any canons.

Go ahead. Write more. Encourage each other more. Learn more. Publish more. Maya Angelous’ injunction always bears repeating: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Sing people, sing.

 

 

Canadian Fiction Writers’ Average Income: reality cheque please!

How much do Canadian fiction writers earn, on average, per annum?

Writers generally hate being asked how much they earn. But then, so do most people. To be fair, it’s often a difficult question for writers to answer. How much do they earn from book royalties? from spin-off gigs associated with their published work? the promised-but-not-yet-actual movie rights? freelance magazine and newspaper writing? And how do they count the years they earned nothing, or nearly nothing, because they were writing, all day, every day?

But we are curious. I think it might go something like this:

  1. Stephen King is a writer.
  2. Everyone knows Stephen King’s name.
  3. Even if you say you don’t read Stephen King, you watched at least one episode of “Under the Dome” last fall.
  4. If everyone knows Stephen King’s name and some of his movies, then-
  5. Stephen King must be rich. Really, really rich.
  6. So if you meet Writer X, whose name you also know, then Writer X must be on her way to similar fame and riches and therefore-
  7. One day you will be, too. I mean-
  8. How hard can it be?

Alas, there are more things to leaven, regarding worth, than are dreamt of in this philosophy.

Let’s keep it simple: book royalties. How much do Canadian fiction writers earn, on average, each year, based on physical book royalties alone?

I was given this as a child with a note admonishing me not to ever fold it, or the value would decrease. I have kept it nice and flat and mostly untouched and last I checked, it has in fact doubled in value. I have a writer's instinct with money.

I was given this as a child with a note admonishing me not to ever fold it, or the value would decrease. I have kept it nice and flat and mostly untouched and, last I checked, it has in fact doubled in value. I have a writer’s instinct with money.

First — a brief reminder about the meaninglessness of the statistic called “average.” It’s usually the only one we remember from high school math classes, and it’s certainly the one wielded most often in broadcast and print journalism, from weather (“the average snowfall this month was…”), to violent crimes (“on average, the number of murders per capita is much smaller in big cities than in towns X, Y and Z”).

But here’s why averages aren’t that meaningful.

A guy goes into a bar. No, really. He sits down and orders a drink. He is joined by a colleague and they sip and chat. After a while a third colleague joins them (must be the bar in the building where they work). The first guy makes $50K a year, the woman makes $60K, and the third person rakes in $70K. On average, then, these colleagues earn an annual salary of $60K. Not bad for a single income in Canada.

Then a fourth colleague walks in and foists herself on this happy trio. Except that she owns the company. She earns $1.2 million a year. At least, that’s how much it says on her tax forms. So now we can say that, on average, this table of collegial drinkers earns $345,000.

Suddenly it’s hard to explain the boss’s house in the south of France and her racing yacht, and the fact that at least one of the co-workers is having trouble paying down his student debt. An average is the result of pushing the top down and the bottom up, towards an imaginary middle. The meaningless middle. It’s not the number that tells you what most people are earning or anything about the breakdown by other meaningful factors.

There are plenty of bad words and "average" is one of them. (photo credit Edward Scoble, Flickr Creative Commons)

There are plenty of bad words and “average” is one of them. (photo credit Edward Scoble, Flickr Creative Commons)

Why did I tell you all this (which you already knew anyway)? It was, of course, to soften the blow of the following statistic:

  • The average fiction writer in Canada earns about $500 a year in royalties.

That’s five hundred dollars, per year. When the CEO of a major publishing house recited this statistic to a group of paying listeners at the Humber School for Writers in July 2012, you could have heard a pen drop.

And many did.

But now you are armed with the knowledge that this is a meaningless statistic, so you can read on with an enlightened and more optimistic heart. Even though the meaningless middle will gnaw at your insides.

Ideally, writers receive royalties as a percentage of the list price of their book. (Although some publishers offer royalties on net receipts, so it’s up to the authors and their agents to negotiate for list price.) These list price percentages range from a typical low of 7.5% to a decent and less common 10%. So if your published book is for sale at $22.95, you would get about $1.72 (7.5%) for each book that sold. If your book became a Canadian bestseller, which means it sells 4,000+ copies, you would get about $6,680 in royalties, and possibly more depending on your contract. That’s a nice chunk of change – if you wrote your book in a month. But it probably took you at least a year. Or three.

Despite one or two exceptions (and of course there are always exceptions, even though few of us have ever met one in the flesh), self-publishing remuneration isn’t much better.

The days of the astronomical advances are gone (exceptions, exceptions, I know). Advances are modest and sometimes don’t come at all until the writer has a good track record with two or more successful books. And “advance” means just that — it’s a paycheque you get, in good faith, before you’ve earned the royalties. Some writers never see a royalty cheque at all because the royalties don’t earn out the advance.

Wayson Choy speaking in the Humber School for Writers tent, at Word on the Street.

Wayson Choy taught English at Humber College for 30+ years until his retirement a few years ago. His insightful, intelligent and honest teaching style make him a favourite at the Humber School for Writers. (photo credit ardenstreet, Flickr Creative Commons)

Agents, the people you never pay up front to flog your book to publishers, typically make 15% commission on domestic book sales and it could be 20% for foreign sales. Commissions on other intellectual property rights and territories vary, but roughly speaking, 15% is a reasonable guideline. Where “reasonable” is  subject to change.

If you thought the world of grammar, syntax, style and literary critique was complicated, you should see a state-of-the-art book contract. Some run the length of a novella. That’s why you need an experienced and recommended agent. For now, the Toronto-based PS Literary Agency offers a few helpful points.

You can often earn more money talking about and teaching writing, than you’d earn from your royalties. Some Canadian writers command single engagement fees of $5,000 – $10,000. But of course those are the writers that are already published and well-known.

The Canadian Authors Association pays invited speakers about $100 (it varies from branch to branch), for a 40 minute talk followed by 20 minutes of Q&A, and most of these speakers are fairly well-known, at least in their particular fields, within Canada.

And then there is the problem of getting paid at all. There are plenty of stories of writers who waited a nail-biting length of time to get their due. Well-known, award-winning writers are not immune.

Antanas Sileika, former Descant co-editor, now author and Director of the Humber School for Writers, makes the important point that:

  •  A writer’s first book publication opens the door to other money-making possibilities.

Only those with a published book get asked to give talks, workshops, and seminars. The most lucrative grant applications often require that you already have one published book. Your chances of being awarded a grant may only be one in five, but without a published book, they are significantly worse.

The Stone Diaries won a pulitzer...

Carol Shields’ first five novels didn’t sell well. Then she published The Stone Diaries in 1995 and won a Pulitzer. After that, royalty cheques from the first novels picked up.

About 200,000 books a year are published in Canada. The vast majority of these  Canadian writers have day jobs. Many are teachers, often in creative writing or English programs. A lucky few have working spouses who have agreed, for awhile anyway, to be a patron of the arts. Kafka was a legal secretary in an insurance company, Kurt Vonnegut managed a car dealership after the publication of his first book, and, in the early days of her writing career, Alice Munro raised three children and worked part time in a bookstore (but okay, she and her husband owned it). Canadian writers on the bestseller list are offered $600 to provide a writing workshop for a room full of hopefuls. Hmm. Maybe not Ms. Munro.

The Writer’s Union of Canada (TWUC) is a great place to start when looking for more information regarding contracts, fees and writers’ rights in general. You can join them — after you publish a book.

Remember the words of Gustave Flaubert –  better yet, if you are a writer, emblazon them on something near your keyboard, or a tattoo, perhaps, on the back of your dominant hand:

“Writing is a dog’s life. But it’s the only life worth living.”

The publishing world is fifty shades of crazy. Don’t dismay and, as Wayson Choy would tell you, “Don’t suffer for your art!”

We encourage you to get out to literary events where you can talk to other writers and find out how they are making a go of things. Because many are. Maybe no racing yachts — but who can write at such speeds anyway?

Keep your hat on, your head down, and your pen on the page. Maybe one day we can brag that you got your start in Descant.

 

Famous Writers’ Recorded Voices: the little sob in the spine

Writers talk about the need to find their own voice — that ineffable combination of style and skill, wielded in just the right way to make a writer stand out, recognizable as That writer.

Raymond Carver’s voice cannot be mistaken for Samuel Beckett’s, though both are known for the spare quality of their work. Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries may remind you of Margaret Laurence (more than the title, I mean), but the voices are distinct.

But what about their actual voices, the sounds that come from writers’ vocal chords, through their lips, to our ears?

George Elliott Clarke reading from his Illicit Sonnets (2013), at our launch of The Brink and the Break. It's not the best photo, but I think my hands were shaking. It was a hot reading!

George Elliott Clarke reading from his Illicit Sonnets (2013), at Descant‘s launch of “The Brink and the Break” last week. It’s not the best photo, but I think my hands were shaking. If you were there, you understand why.

It was the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s birthday on January 25th and a number of people on social media forwarded a link to a recording of her voice on the BBC in 1937. This got me thinking about writers’ physical voices; particularly writers who died before the explosion of television, and long before the internets. Writers whose voices we haven’t heard.

The following 10 audio/video recordings were not derived through any scientific methods. I just looked up at my bookshelves and whatever book spine names I could read from where I sit, I looked up on YouTube — as long as the writer was well-known and long dead. There are, of course, many more names. After you check these out, you may feel inspired to do your own search.

If you are a writer, you can spend an entire afternoon doing this and call it research.

These are more-or-less in chronological order (at least by decade) of recording:

This audio of James Joyce (d. 1941), reading, some time in the 1930s, is all the proof we need that Finnegan’s Wake was meant to be an audio book: “Every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and the she of it.” An audio book with subtitles.

Virginia Woolf‘s voice, from a BBC recording called “Craftmanship,” in 1937, when she was 55 (d. 1941). In a marbles-in-the-mouth voice, she reads from one of her essays in, “The Death of the Moth and Other Essays”:  “How can we combine the old words, in new orders, so they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth. That is the question. And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer.”

Zora Neale Hurston (d. 1980), whose 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God often makes the top 10 of 20th century favourite novels, is obviously fed up talking about zombies, but agrees to do it. One. More. Time. (If only she knew what mainstream television would do with this, decades later.)

Vladimir Nabokov (d. 1977) in a panel discussion of the then-controversial Lolita. Nabokov is the one in the middle: “I don’t wish to touch hearts and I don’t even want to effect minds, very much. What I want to produce, really, is that little sob in the spine of the artist/reader.”

An uncomfortable looking Carson McCullers in 1956 (d. 1967). Her interviewer not only puts his arm around her and snuggles in, but he keeps cutting her off. She gets her own back by smoking in his face. Here she talks about adapting her novel, A Member of the Wedding, for the stage.

Benjamin Disraeli once wrote that, “There is no index of character as sure as the voice.” But in this recording of Flannery O’Connor (d. 1964) reading from one of her most famous short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” her young voice belies the depth and darkness of her Gothic stories of the south.

Samuel Beckett (d. 1989) reads from his second novel, Watt, published in 1953. If this recording reminds you of the first one above, James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, remember that Beckett helped Joyce finish that book.

Langston Hughes (d. 1967), who, according to his introduction here in 1958, is on his way to give a lecture at UBC. In this recording he reads his poem, “The Weary Blues” accompanied by a jazz ensemble:  “I feel the blues a-comin’, I wonder what the blues will bring?… Sweet blues comin’ from a black man’s soul.” The last line, and the look he gives into the camera…

Margaret Laurence (d. 1987), interviewed by Adrienne Clarkson in 1966, talks about her fiction:  “Well I made up my mind that I was stuck with the Scots Presbyterians of Manitoba, you know, for better or worse, God help them and me!”

Anais Nin (d. 1977) and Henry Miller (d. 1980) were passionate letter-writing correspondents and lovers in the 1930s. Here she begins by talking about the beginning of her famous diary which, she says, “began as a letter to my father” (yikes), and her love of D.H. Lawrence. Later, she and Henry Miller talk about the meaning of a secret self and the idea of trusting the artist to do the dreaming. At 8:05 Nin talks about when it first occurred to her that she needed “to take a path of my own.”