Blue Met panel recap

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Here’s a photo of me peeking out between some folks in the audience at my Blue Met panel on Thursday. For a summary of what we talked about, a blogger has written about it over here: http://nascentnovelist.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/the-city-as-a-character/

If you’re looking for reading material involving “the city”, I talked about What We All Long For by Dionne Brand, Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall, Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill, The Tin Flute or Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy and Lisa Moore/Michael Winter/Kathleen Winter’s portrayals of St. John’s. I mentioned an anecdote about D.H. Lawrence that I picked up from Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage. And of course, my fellow panelists own books – Gail Scott’s The Obituary is about Montreal’s Mile End/Plateau area and Peter Dube’s latest, Subtle Bodies, is set in surrealist-era Paris.

Having never spoken at this kind of writerly thing before, I was nervous, but in the end was happy with how it turned out. I learned that it was a good thing I didn’t write down word for word what I wanted to talk about or else I would’ve just read off the paper, and I didn’t want to do that. I learned that a glass of red wine beforehand will make me feel less nervous. A last minute purchase of a new dress from H&M helps too. I learned that a conversation involving writers and Montreal will eventually turn into a discussion about what it’s like being an anglo writer in this city and I realized that because Montreal is the city where I first truly felt comfortable calling myself a writer, I haven’t faced the particular challenges that might come with growing up and being a writer here. I learned that if you’re at a book signing table sitting next to Bernhard Schlink, probably you will sign zero of your own books. I learned that despite being wired on adrenaline for the longest time afterwards, I will still wake up at 5:45 the next morning to watch the royal wedding. All great lessons, no?

Blue Met, next Thursday

In the past week or so I’ve done many things: participated in a mass sing along at a Pixies show, watched the Montreal symphony orchestra play Debussy’s The Sea, ate sublime Portuguese food and mediocre Indian, made homemade pasta, had kitchen table talks with the loveliest of houseguests, delivered the entire first drafty-draft of my novel to my writing mentor, attended a bachelorette party that involved sparkly red nail polish manicures and a stripper named Will Power, worked a few 12 hour days, and, after all of that, started developing the beginnings of a cold. Of course. So, I need a few days to rest, and hopefully an Easter Weekend trip to Toronto will do the trick.

But first I wanted to let you know about a few things:

1) Kim posted an interview with me over on her website. Thank you, Kim!

2) If you live in Montreal, I will be participating in a panel as part of the Blue Metropolis literary festival on Thursday April 28 at 8 pm. I’ve been attending Blue Met events since I moved to Montreal (for example.), and am looking forward to participating in one. The panel is called “City as Character” and it’s being presented by the Quebec Writers Federation. Here’s the description:

From Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles to Sherlock Holmes’ London, the city has long played an important role as character in some of the most fascinating fiction of the last two centuries. Following on that tradition, three writers consider how “the city” plays an important role in their recent work.

With Gail Scott, Peter Dubé, Teri Vlassopoulos. Hosted by Sherry Simon.

Duration: 75 minutes.

More details are here: http://bluemetropolis.org//2011_prog2.php?act=programme1§ion=festival&event=28

Hope to see you there!

Uninterview: Obsessing with Betty Jane Hegerat

I’m perpetually intrigued by how stories we hear in the news, in our communities and from our friends weave their way into our own personal narratives. Once they’ve lodged themselves in our brains, these other people’s stories, I’m interested in what we do with them. Even the most horrible of stories can help us gain insight into ourselves and, for writers, they can spark the imagination.

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Betty Jane Hegerat has taken a very public story and transformed it into a personal one: part fiction, part memoir. The Boy, which was recently released by Oolichan Books, is about the real life mass murder of a couple and their 5 children in a small Alberta town in 1959. The murderer? The father’s son from his first marriage. The boy. I haven’t read it yet, but it sounds absolutely fascinating.

Betty Jane has written 3 previous books and she also teaches creative writing. I learned about her first through Susan Toy and when I found out she was doing a blog tour of sorts for the book, I jumped at the opportunity to talk to her about her creative process. (And no, there was no Canada Council for the Arts grant money behind it.) Betty Jane agreed to meet with me to chat about The Boy on a bright Sunday morning. I’d woken up earlier than expected, sent off a quick email saying I was online whenever she was ready, and soon enough we started chatting, the morning light streaming into my work space at my kitchen table. Despite the sunshine, our conversation veered to darker territory: obsession. I wanted to know how the Cook murders became the basis for Betty Jane’s latest work, and I was curious about how her own sons reacted to the fact that their mother was writing about this particular story.

Betty Jane has also posted an audio excerpt from the book that touches on some of the topics we chatted about. She has some book launches coming up in Alberta over the next few weeks – be sure to see her if you’re in town. Thank you, Betty!

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Scrapbook #9: Repetition

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My birthday is coming up, and the week around it is all flooded with music. I’ve already spent one evening watching Marie Chouinard’s bizarre and amazing modern dance interpretation of Orpheus and Eurydice – all half naked, gyrating bodies and music composed more of singular sounds than songs – wails and bells and distorted lyre strums (thank you, Caro, for the ticket!). I’ll spend another night watching Anton Kuerti play songs on the piano (thank you, Andrew!) , and then another with the Pixies making their way through Surfer Rosa (thank you um, me!).

So I’m thinking about music and about getting older.

The other day I went searching for some songs I thought I’d lost on an old hard drive, but found other mp3s instead, these little, teeny tiny songs I wrote at the height of a time where I felt most serious about making music, not just listening to it, around 2001/2002. Listening to these songs was a like meeting an old friend I used to know well, but lost touch with for awhile.

The One That Got Away.mp3
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These songs are so strange to me! And embarrassing! I apologize for the painful hissiness of them, like they were recorded in a room with a tin roof on the rainiest day of the year. This was before the ease of digital recording, recorded on two-track cassette player and then painstakingly wired to a computer. Lo-fi still felt kind of charming back then.

All Those Years.mp3
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I wanted to write songs like Lee Hazlewood, full of heartbreak and regret and swagger, but these songs are nothing like Lee Hazlewood. I never really had the stamina or music vocabulary for songwriting, either – these barely scratch the 2 minute mark.

I Only Stay.mp3
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But I’m grateful to that younger version of myself who had the arrogance and the ego to commit these half-formed songs to tape. It’s a nice reminder from my 22 year old self to my (almost, practically) 32 year old self to do these kinds of things, even if they’re a little raw and out of tune. Also useful: my 30-something self plagiarized the lyrics from one of the songs in the novel I’m working on.

I remember learning how to play the guitar when I was 16, before I took any lessons or knew how to form chords, just sitting with a nylon stringed classical guitar and plucking out songs I knew note by note. The same songs, the same notes, repeated. And then I learned chords and soon my parents got a dial up connection and I would print out pages and pages of guitar tablature, punch holes in them and keep them in a fat green binder. All these songs I could play, a new kind of freedom.

There is something about playing music that feels, for me, like the most tangible expression of learning, like I can feel my brain processing, chugging along while I do it. I think this is one of the reasons why I’ve never been a brilliant musician – it’s too clunkily attached to my physical self; I can’t really noodle around or god forbid, jam. (Unless you need someone to play G and C chords over and over? Then I’m your girl.) Writing, on the other hand, is more mysterious. It comes from somewhere I don’t understand. For me music is comforting because it’s nice to know that dogged repetition is how I go from not being able to do something to being able to do it.

Junk shop in Vermont

I try to apply that principle to writing: repetition works. (I try to think this when I psych myself up about jogging too, but I’m still not there yet, probably because I can sit at home in my PJ’s to play the guitar, but have to get dressed, wear running shoes, go out into the world, etc. if I want to run. Laziness sometimes trumps other pleasures, and the older I get the more I’m okay with that.) But still, the act of doing the same thing over and over makes that thing, whatever it is, easier, and I also know that the more I remind myself of that, the more I’m likely to believe it.

Yay for Fresh Fish, KIRBC and YOSS!

There’s been some nice Bats or Swallows love in the blogosphere this week.

Kim wrote an incredibly lovely and thoughtful review of the book over at her blog, Fresh Fish and Foolishness. Thank you, Kim!

Over at the Keeping It Real Book Club, Jessica Westhead made a great video recommendation for Bats or Swallows. I love it!

Jessica just released a book of short stories called And Also Sharks, which I’m very much looking forward to reading. Speaking of Jessica and short stories, have you heard of the Year of the Short Story manifesto, created by her, Sarah Selecky and Matthew J. Trafford? The mandate of YOSS is simple and admirable: To unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause—to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves. Yes! I can support this wholeheartedly.

Here’s some short story love from my site and beyond:

And if you haven’t read my short stories yet? Details here. You can buy it in book or e-book form depending on how you roll. And if you roll “cheap”, the e-book version is under $5 and you don’t even need an e-reader to read it.

Scrapbook #8: Auspicious

Towards the end of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, the word “auspicious” starts popping up a lot.* The main character, who spends the first half of the book living a much too fabulous life at the Biennale in Venice, starts disappearing into himself while he’s in Varanasi. He invents his own kangaroo god; he baptizes himself in the Ganges. He notices auspicious signs. I like the word auspicious. I like auspicious things; I collect them. Early spring is an especially good time for looking for them, something about the light and the way the air smells. More looking up, less huddling inwards.

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One day you’re in a bookstore in Athens and you buy the collected poetry of a famous Greek poet. You pick poems at random to read, which is usually how you tackle big collections, by introducing this element of chance. It’s admittedly not the most intellectually rigorous approach. You find a poem you like a lot, dog ear the page, forget about it. A few years later you pick up the book again and reread that poem, and it makes reference to mythological characters you’ve never heard of before. You look them up and think, huh, they kind of fit with the writing thing you’re working on. Actually, they give you a lot of clarity on the writing thing you’re working on. You keep writing. You think about the poem more, and start looking for analyses of it to understand it better. You find some; they’re interesting enough. But then you find something lovelier: an essay written by the poet himself, explaining that exact poem. It’s written as a letter to a friend, and it’s chatty and informative and circuitous and when you read it, it’s kind of like you got the chance to meet this dead, Greek poet for coffee.** You keep working on your writing thing.


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Villa de Souvlaki is on Sherbrooke just before the Decarie, on a dreary stretch that also includes a store specializing in Swedish fur hats. It looks particularly dingy from the outside – good Greek places are generally holes in the wall, anyway. It had been recommended a few times, but we only recently got around to trying it out. We ordered food and it looked promising, but what really sealed the deal was the faded poster on the wall featuring the obscure beach we went to last year with our friend Tassos, the beach where we saw dolphins, where we went swimming in cold, clear water, where we watched kids jumping off the big rock into the sea. I took a photo of the poster, emailed Tassos to let him know, and he replied right away with a Will you ever believe I was just talking about you… And if there’s someone who would believe that? Me.

* And with that book I’m official out-Dyered for the moment.

** He also says, bluntly, “It seems to me that any explanation of a poem is absurd.”