Category Archives: Books!

An Interview with Gillian Wigmore: on what it really takes to write a novella

Gillian Wigmore has dried food all over her house. She and her husband are taking their two children, 11 and 12, on a kayak trip through the Broken Islands. As well as being a poet and fiction writer, a wife and mom, and her job as a full-time coordinator at the Prince George Public Library, she’s helping to organize dried meals for the family’s two-week holiday. Partway through our interview she mentions something in passing and I have to ask her to repeat it to make sure I heard correctly: she’s also working on her MFA through UBC. So, yes, she’s busy. But she is also gracious and gives up a half-hour lunch to talk to me about her new book Grayling, which we reviewed here.

Gillian Wigmore grew up near the small town of Vanderhoof in central BC and the largely rural and agricultural setting shows up in her writing. She has been described as a poet of place and noted as someone who pays careful attention to the specific plants and animals that inhabit her landscapes. In her 20s, Gillian spent some time as a guide for river rafting and ocean kayaking (“but canoes are the best!”) out of which grew her lifelong passion for such trips.

I asked her if she had any hobbies and immediately regretted the ridiculous question. When would this woman have a minute for anything else? And why, in such a full life, would she need a hobby?

Then she said, “Playmobil.”

Playmobil? She laughed and said, “Yes, I’m addicted to those little things. I say I buy them for my kids, but really I think they’re for me!” Did not see that one coming. But it makes sense — that a busy writer would enjoy an excuse to play with colourful little characters, that, as a mom, she must be constantly picking up.

In a telephone interview, a person’s voice is all you have to get a sense of who she is and what she’s like. Gillian Wigmore’s conversational speech is articulate and thoughtful. I got the sense that she takes everything she does seriously, but in a practical way. She’s a woman who gets things done but doesn’t make a big deal about it; competent, not overweening. I am left with the impression that I could talk to her about anything, from intellectual and  spiritual matters to the best type of manure for my garden (not that that isn’t a spiritual matter, I hasten to add). In short, Gillian Wigmore is the kind of person who would make a great companion on a long kayak trip.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

What has it been like to have your first novella published?

GW: It’s been wonderful. We had a great launch here in Prince George and all my friends and family came out to support me. Then I had a wee mini tour of Vancouver and Victoria, for my publisher [Mother Tongue].

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Are you pleased with the attention Grayling is getting?

Yes! The thing about fiction writing is that you actually get reviews, sometimes even before the book is out. But with poetry you’re lucky if you get even one review, two years after the book is published. It’s such a shame.

What was your inspiration for Grayling?

GW: I wanted to go back to the landscape around the Dease River because of a trip I took there with my family in 2007. My son was three and my daughter was four then and it was the beginning of our life on the water. It was a very important trip for our family. It was so beautiful there and I hadn’t seen that landscape in literature before. It just seemed a privilege to get to try and do that myself.

I know you’re going on a two-week kayak trip soon –

GW: We leave this weekend! We’ve been busy dehydrating dinners this week and we still have to get my son a new life jacket. You should see our house, there’s stuff everywhere!

Do you bring a notebook with you on those trips?

GW: I do take a notebook but it’s more of a journal, to record the events. But I did go back and mine old journals for landscape details for Grayling.

What about the story itself, where did the inspiration come from?

GW: I let the characters introduce themselves to me and let them take me on the journey.

Oh dear. You do realize that at least half of our followers will stop reading at this point? Jealousy is ugly that way.

GW: [laughs] But it’s true! I just started typing. I knew if I put a fellow on the river, eventually he’d have to get off that river.

That reminds me of that Kurt Vonnegut quote, “somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”

GW: Exactly!

How long did it take you to write Grayling?

GW: It took three months to write and then years to edit. The three months was so much fun. Every night was a journey. I’d head down to my desk in the basement and it was like, “here you go, Jay.” I read every sentence out loud, many times, to make sure I got the sound just right. I rewrote the whole book a few times myself then I worked with an editor for Mother Tongue, Jack Hodgins, for at least seven more drafts. Jack is such a great teacher and I am so grateful for the experience but it was hard work. After I sent him my first revised draft, he sent me back 30 pages of single-spaced notes. And then I cried! The next time he said “Great draft” and sent back 20 pages of single-spaced notes. And for each draft I wept – at  how hard it was. But after we’d whittled it down to four pages of notes, we knew we were close.

You are a published poet – why the move to fiction?

GW: I am first and foremost a reader and I read a ton of novels. I just wanted to try, to see if I could do it. I like a challenge! But it’s quite different in that I had to approach the writing of fiction more like a job and make myself do it every night. I had to be meticulous about sitting down and doing it. Whereas with poetry, I never force it. I just let them come – then of course I do a lot of editing. But that initial poem just has to arrive. And novellas are addictive, they’re so much fun to write. There’s more room to move around in a novella than in a short story. Short stories require a certain kind of succinctness, an epiphany that leads to a particular ending. I don’t think I can write anything with any answer already set. Grayling felt like a question I didn’t know the answer to.

You have published two books of poetry and you have one coming out in the fall. How would you say that Grayling, as a work of fiction, is different from your poetry?

GW: My poetry is really effusive, it doesn’t hold back at all, but Grayling is spare. I wanted it to be a spare story. The landscape seemed to call for it, a judicious use of language and small sentences. I didn’t want to editorialize at all. I wanted the place to speak for itself. This was part of the difficulty with all those drafts, trying to strike some kind of balance between fleshing out the characters and describing the landscape, but staying true to my vision.

When I read your interview with poet Ariel Gordon, I couldn’t understand how it was that you could write at all, your life seemed so full and busy.

GW: [laughs] Well it was very busy then and for a while I just didn’t get much writing done. But now I’m really trying to fit it in. I’m finishing up my MFA right now through UBC and I work full time. In the next six weeks, after I get back from the kayak trip, I’ll get up really early and write for an hour in the morning. I’ve usually been a nighttime writer. When you start your day writing, it turns you into such a dreamy person for the rest of the day. It’s hard to come back to reality.

Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore, at home on the water. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore is a BC-based poet and fiction writer. She has published two books of poetry, home when it moves you (2005) and Soft Geography (2007), for which she won the ReLit Award and was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her third collection, Orient, will be available this fall with Brick Books.


Between the Shores of the Sacred and the Profane: Descant’s Jack Hostrawser Reviews Grayling

Grayling, Gillian Wigmore’s debut novella, follows a man on a canoe trip and personal journey through a dark night of the soul. There’s not a lot more I want to or can tell you about it, specifically, and this is what Descant reviewer Jack Hostrawser and I debated before agreeing on a suitable style for his review, below. Like the northwestern British Columbia landscape in which it is set, Grayling often camouflages more than it reveals.

number of pages, MotherTongue Publishing...

Grayling, by Gillian Wigmore, Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages. Cover painting by Annerose Georgeson.

But there are two scenes I will tell you about. One involves Leonard Cohen. No, not in a sleeping bag (sorry to interrupt your fantasy). The main characters in Grayling have a protracted conversation about the academic and existential meaning of Cohen’s poem-turned-song, “Suzanne.” The scene sticks out and I wondered: What was this long discussion doing there? Why “Suzanne”? Then I remembered — it’s exactly the kind of conversation friends have on a long camping or canoe trip like the one in Grayling. Someone starts something, apropos of nothing, and suddenly everyone’s an expert and wants to weigh in; as though we crave intellectual stimulation but nothing too serious. These are conversations that feel tinged with a sagacious quality simply because they are happening on water, or under stars; they mean everything and nothing. (You know that they’re half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there). But there is another reason why this scene does in fact fit in so well, but I didn’t see that until I’d finished the book. And then it took a while again, until the book was finished with me. Grayling echoes like that.

There’s another scene that I understood immediately and profoundly. The main protagonist bathes a woman in a makeshift bath he has invented for her near the shore. He washes her body carefully, methodically. If you have ever washed the body of a parent or an ailing spouse, you will understand the attention that Gillian Wigmore pays to the gestures in this scene to evoke this deliberate act of devotion. And yes, it’s even more powerful because it is a man washing a woman.

I like how Jack has quoted longer passages of Grayling in his review, rather than excise a sentence here and there. Gillian Wigmore is a published poet but I agree with Jack that Grayling isn’t self-consciously poetic. Like the river landscape in which it’s set, Grayling winds an enigmatic story between the rocky shores of the sacred and the profane.


Chaos Theory: A Review of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling

by Jack Hostrawser

In Grayling, Jay sets out in a canoe on the Dease River, trying to make a clean break from his past. A mysterious woman, Julie, saves him from hypothermia then talks her way into the canoe, interrupting his isolation and sending the trip in new directions. Throughout their voyage the book tries to navigate our relationships with intimacy, meaning and the wilderness itself.

“He thought of deer leaping over bushes, out of the path of the fire. Animals too small or slow to get away from the flames occurred to him: beaver and rabbits, their twisted forms vivid, black and red, in his mind. He shivered and paddled on, away from the burn.”

Gillian Wigmore moves from the big questions to focus on detail and character, and she has a poet’s eye for details: her real-life outdoors experience is evident immediately, as well as her talent as a writer. The book is built of a focussed prose that sets to work with energy and draws the meandering river patiently. Her writing has a patience that allows the novella to feel fuller than its few pages suggest.

As the active, observant prose accumulates you realize that the novella is managing, in only one hundred and eleven pages, to carve out a multi-levelled parable that addresses our relationship with sexuality, nature and existentialist fears. Gillian Wigmore crafts a two-person story with depth and convincing, hard-earned humanity, whose characters’ individual needs and desires tangle compellingly. Jay lives a bitter coping strategy that evolves quietly across the narrative in a frustrating and poignant way. Julie begins as an enigma but reveals herself as the two grow closer. These are two people as stubborn, hopeful and frustrating as any of us.

“He looked at her and wondered if she’d decided something while he was sleeping. She didn’t look decided, she just seemed tired and a little dirty. Her hair under her bandana was tangled in clumps. She had soot in the crease of her nose. He saw her small hands around her mug, no rings of dirt under her nails, and he saw her lashes against her skin as she watched the fire, and he felt like there wasn’t a time before he knew her. His world had shrunk to the state of her body and their minds and the particular gravel bar they’d beached upon.”

Gillian Wigmore seems to be a visual writer more than she is a musical one and I think her sentences sometimes miss the mark, overplayed by narration that momentarily loses faith in its ability to enact the emotions it describes. But it was never the individual sentences that made me like this book; it was her reach. The ideas are big — so big I missed some the first time I read it (a certain blog editor had to enlighten me) and I had to reread it immediately to see everything I had missed.

Grayling aligns the minutia of fumbling human relationships with a wilderness that has been both predator and muse since we first tried to lift our heroes into the stars. It takes courage to risk an ambition like that. Gillian Wigmore stands fast and determines to do things I didn’t think could be done in the short space of a novella. And despite the size of the task, she pulls it off.

The final scene enacts a twist that puts everything before it into question. Her conclusion opens new possibilities as it steals away our expected ones; there is never a perfect, clear answer to our questions or our demands. Instead it is simultaneously sun-baked granite, dark pine trees, rough water and the “cold contracting muscle” of a glimmering grayling. You have to leave your calculations and preconceptions at the shore. In the chaotic rush of the Dease, even the pearlescence of a common fish could be sacred.

 “Another him, one from even a year ago, would have exclaimed at the sight, would have even appreciated exclamations from others, but he stayed quiet, trying to soak the sight in: the swath the river cut into the earth, inarguable, ageless, so enormous and unapologetic he felt as dwarfed and bent as the trees. He couldn’t hold his eyes open wide enough to see it all: the scooped expanse of sand stretching skyward, the small birds swooping out from holes in the cliffs and soaring. The sound of rocks breaking off and crumbling into the river echoed down the valley. In the bow, she was still and silent, too.”

Grayling is a careful but slippery, quiet but brash and ultimately beautiful novella.


Jack Hostrawser received the York University President’s Prize in short fiction and is published in Existere, Steel Bananas and The Quilliad. He sometimes chases tornadoes and is being taught patience by an old motorcycle. He is currently production editor at Descant (for the fall 2014 Berlin issue), when not working on his first novel.

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[And now this, because you know you need it.]



The Future is Hear: Writers and Readers in the Age of New Media

I attended a conference on the future of the book in March and wrote a blog post about what I learned: that the future of the book will involve curating more than single-artist creativity; that “reading as something you do by yourself will be outmoded for our children’s children”; and that the future of the book is being developed in the gamer world. And then I promptly went back to my work as a solitary editor and writer, who reads novels and poetry at night and to small children whenever she can.

courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, Young

courtesy Flickr Creative Commons, Young.

Nikolina Likarevic, who has joined the Descant team through a practicum opportunity with Ryerson University, expands on the ideas of the future of the book in her post below. Nikolina sets the discussion in the context of old vs. new media and provides us with some useful links to explain and support her ideas. (Plus, she gets bonus points for being the first Descant blog writer to use the verb “descant”).

Let us know what you think in the comments section that follows. Do you see this future as really that different from what’s going on now? Is the predicted difference one of degree or kind? And, in this new literary world where everyone shares their ideas and there are no more celebrity writers, um, dare I be so pedantic as to ask: who gets paid, how much, when, and will it be even worse than it is now?

Margaret Atwood, one of our most celebrated and well-known writers, writes alone even though she is one of the biggest proponents and users of new media. Would she be willing to have her next novel “curated” by online readers and editors?

Would you?


The Future Writer: Creative Collaborator

by Nikolina Likarevic

It’s easier to change one’s terminology than it is to change one’s ideology.

To fit in a new media world, many writers will need to consider shifting their professional ideology from solitary genius to creative collaborator.

Creative communities made up of writers and readers are cropping up all over various new media networks. New media is anything that provides around-the-clock access through digital networks (like YouTube, Facebook and blogs) on digital devices, with constant feedback from other digital network users. This means new media actively promotes a creative, collaborative culture. In this culture, no one person is an expert, or solitary genius; instead everyone contributes to an idea.

courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, Sean MacEntee.

courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, Sean MacEntee.

For instance, with this blog post I am directly communicating with Descant blog readers, because readers can debate my ideas — which I have come to through collaboration in long conversations in seminars and speaking with publishing experts — in the comments section at the bottom of this post. Readers can communicate with me in real time, and together we can build on and/or debate my ideas. In fact, in the Western literary culture of the near future such statements as “my ideas” will likely be irrelevant as ideas become more about the collaborative effort of many individuals in real time.

If technology is the future, and new media changes and is changed by technologies and networks, new media will likely morph the future publishing industry even more than it already has. How can writers access these changes?

  1. By co-operating with each other.
  2. By reaching out to their readership, writers can become creative collaborators.

But before a writer can become a creative collaborator, an ideology shift is in order.

Ridding Ourselves of Solitary Genius, Finally

Writers have been working with publishing houses, editors and literary agents for a long time. How is new media so different than the collaboration that has already been happening?

New media demands a fluid relationship between author and readers, and even between author and author. New media ideology is all about changing the long held concept of “the expert,” or solitary genius, that one person can and should claim responsibility over an idea.

From the Vlogbrothers channel on YouTube. Author John Green collaborates with his brother, Hank Green, using YouTube, and their thousands of subscribers create and collaborate with them:

The end of the expert is explored in Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Author Douglas Rushkoff comments on how Aristotle’s idea of stories having a beginning, middle and end has become less relevant. An example he uses is the kind of storylines on The Simpsons and Family Guy. The storylines for such TV shows rarely end with the traditional “resolution.” If one idea starts the story, it rarely becomes the middle and/or end discussion. Rather, these storylines display what I would call a tangent mentality. Start with X, X leads to D, and D leads to Y, and you never really feel like you get to a Z. This tangent mentality distorts the A→Z storylines we are used to.

And new media facilitates and encourages this. Now that information and stories are accessible to millions of people and can be commented on and created by millions of people (for example, Twitter and video blogs, or Vlogs), commentary can continue as long as the digital network exists and there are users on that network. Tied-up endings are no longer paramount.

In a story culture where no ending or resolution is in sight, how can one person (i.e., an author) be held responsible for representing the beginning, middle and end? Tangent mentality suggests there is no line between creator and reader, and that ideas flow from person to person and snowball, becoming greater for it.

How to Become a Community Creator: With Each Other

Is new media killing the publishing industry? Professionals are saying significant changes are forthcoming. (Take a look at the article “Literature Is Not the Same Thing as Publishing,” for more about the publishing industry.) The large presses and news conglomerates often cannot adapt quickly enough to keep up with new media. Yet, if you’re a writer or artist, having new media at your fingertips is invaluable.

New media, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, make it easier than ever for writers to find their own representatives (i.e., managing editors and literary agents) and to access smaller presses. Whichever way these relationships are fostered in the near future – whether writers hire editor(s) for assistance with grammar, ideas, and/or collaboration – as the “big” publishing industry shifts, editors will have more recognizably collaborative roles.

made of this article

A wordl cloud made from the text of this article.

Additionally, as Douglas Rushkoff discusses, in a new media culture where everyone’s opinions are heard at once, it is vital for writers to come together and create community.

This ensures a support system for writers (and editors, literary agents, etc.) and the possibility to collaborate with others. In a new media culture it is important for writers to have the opportunity for validation and to fully descant on their artistic projects.

How to Become a Micro-Community Creator: Readers

Writers (with the editor, literary agent, and/or fellow writers, etc.) can work beyond their kitchen tables by reaching out to potential or existing readers through new media.

With digital networks the author can be interactive. For example, the writer can:

  • Discuss writing/ideas in blog posts and readers can comment.
  • Create storyboards of their process online, on such programs like Twine, or share their notes on Google Drive.
  • Create videos, and/or Vlogs (video blogs), on YouTube.
  • Set up a funding platform on Kickstarter, or Subbable, where readers can actively support the art about which they are passionate.

These interactive networks give readers the chance to share what they love with the creator(s) and other readers – to create a micro-community. On such digital platforms readers can respond with their own art and collaborate with other readers and the author to create more art.

If you search author “Stacey May Fowles” (former Descant circulation intern!) on YouTube, you’ll find a video titled “Books in 140 Seconds: Fear of Fighting by Stacey May Fowles,” in which readers Jen Knoch and Erin Balser give a 140 second review of the book:

Authors interested in creating a virtual community can create a YouTube channel and comment on videos like the one above, or link to them on their blogs. This increases the chances of them being seen by more people and connects the author’s readership/viewership. A potential collaborative project, based on the content in the above video, could be an author reaching out to reviewers for a virtual interview.

In this way, new media offers up the possibility for writers to organize which communities they want to be a part of and to communicate with their readers, creating micro-communities based on their particular cultural productions.

It’s looking like writers in the near future will be nothing without their micro-communities.


Nikolina Likarevic joins the Descant team through a practicum for the MA in Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University. Currently, she is working on a science fiction novel and on creating a career out of writing and her other interests (cultural studies, new media, political science, etc.). Feel free to contact her on her personal blog here or on Twitter (@NLikare).




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.





manuscriptus minimalistus: editing our bookshelves

We’ve been dealing with a number of awkward things here at Descant.

Some of them fit neatly into boxes, some definitely do not. If you came by our yard sale on the weekend, you know what I’m talking about and just how many things we had to handle. Thanks to those of you who did stop by to say hello and buy that perfect and unusual objet d’art for yourself or a friend. We talked to some interesting folks and had fun sharpening our haggling skills. At least, I did.

Gathering, organizing, pricing (thanks, Ms. Alberta), displaying and discussing all of the things that were generously donated (thanks again, Ms. Alberta) prompted some interesting conversations with passersby. Quite a few people said, “I just love that, but I have no room for it.” I had an interesting conversation with Wendy, longtime supporter of Descant, about what – if anything – one should buy a friend who is committed to a Western-style minimalist lifestyle. Wendy’s minimalist-living friend has only one or two of most things, and in the case of dishes, just enough for four dinner place settings. Wendy really wanted to buy her friend the set of white dishes we had for sale but wasn’t sure if her friend had the psychological room for them, lovely as they were.

And then there were the book buyers. The bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs. Those who seek a certain out-of-print book, or an oddity for their collection of Simmel (you know who you are); those who love big, fat, colourful art books and those who covet beautiful, old covers. The sniffers (guilty), the corner turn-downers, the aficionados, the collectors and the dabblers.

Books can hold up sentimental things…

… or sit on them…

… or be them. I scored this set for $5 at a university sale in the early noughties.

But books, too, are things. Things that take up real space in real living rooms, bedrooms, offices, hallways. Many of us understand that the presence of bookcases, with their predetermined and finite number of shelves, eventually has little bearing on the number of their oftentimes obstreperous inhabitants.

Sometimes, there is simply no more room for more books. There, I said it.

You could, of course, make other things out of your books. But unless you have the day free, do not do an online image search for “things made out of books.” A book igloo is very cool, but do you really need one?

The 40 year old sinologist and compulsive bibliophile, Peter Kien, is so obsessed with his books that he cannot bear to leave his home without carrying a suitcase with a carefully selected sample from his library:

“He clasped it tightly to him, in a very particular manner which he had himself thought out, so that the greatest possible area of his body was always in contact with it.”

When he returns home, he goes immediately to his extensive library to make sure,

“that the books were still in the order in which he had been forced to leave them an hour before.”

Herr Doktor Professor Kien is the protagonist in Elias Canetti’s first (and only) novel, Auto Da Fe (finished in 1935 when Canetti was only 30, but published after WWII, in 1946). It stands out in my mind as one of the most clever and witty books about books and collecting and dwarf chess players and… But I digress. As I would if I told you that (hyperbole warning) it also contains the funniest wedding-night sex scene in all of 20th century literature. Especially for book lovers. And bookish lovers.

So what to do, what to do, Descant readers, with our treasured books when they  outrun our living space? The ones with signatures from family members or lovers;  the ones bequeathed and inherited; the ones we love and the ones we love to hate. Our undergraduate Norton Anthologies. Our almost-complete collections. The book we read once a year and the books we’ve never read, but won’t admit it (The Great Gatsby? The English Patient? Anna Karenina? Moby Dick?).

Is the answer simply to buy an e-reader? Then would I (could I?) pack up and give away my grandfather’s beloved wartime collection of Dickens, my almost-complete set of the almost first edition of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time ($15 at my local Sally Ann), and the signed books of poetry and fiction my parents bought me over the years? How does that work?

I don’t know the answer. What do you do? What method is there in your bibliophilic madness? Are you a voracious reader but non book buyer? Is visiting the library enough to fulfill the inner longings to possess favourite books?

Descant wants to know: where do you stand on the thingness of books?

And, can they be incorporated, in any way, into a dinner place setting?