Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Q&A with Sara Heinonen

From the back of the book: "Sara Heinonen's first book of stories is populated with characters forced to confront unusual circumstances and hostile environments. When disappointment or disaster loom, they look to nature for solace, but sometimes nature itself is the threat. This is fiction that is fascinated with the moments when life gets both stranger and more beautiful."

Sara Heinonen's stories have been published in literary journals such as The Fiddlehead, Grain, Event, and Taddle Creek. She lives in Toronto where she writes fiction and works as a landscape architect. She'll be reading in the eBar Saturday Nov 2 at 7:30 pm along with Sean Johnston and Stacey May Fowles.

The Bookshelf This is your first book! Is that nuts? Is "Dear Leaves..." what you thought your first book would be? Has the experience so far been what you thought it would be?

Sara Heinonen Yes, it's entirely nuts. It's bananas as well. Me having a book, finally, after ten years of applying myself to fiction writing, covers most of the food groups. It's that amazing. The book is so absolutely new I haven't yet held it in my hands. But the experience of selecting which stories to include and whipping them into shape with my editor Stuart Ross and publisher Denis De Klerck was certainly a rigorous and challenging experience so I'm really pleased.

BS Is there a through line to the collection, either intentionally or accidentally?

SH The stories are pretty diverse in setting and character and tone. I was playing around and experimenting with my writing through the years and this is the result. I attempted a guinea pig theme and then I tried an everyone-is-heartbroken theme but my editor would have none of it. So, it's a grab bag. There are, however, four stories floating within the book that follow a character named Barb and her family through each season in a seemingly apocalyptic year. She's a neurotic environmentalist on the alert for signs of collapse. It's all a bit wry, or so I intended. And I did manage to sneak a Chinchilla named Gandhi into one of those stories.

BS At some point, every writer of short stories has to answer for the form (no one ever seems to ask a novelist, "Why the novel?"), so this is your turn: Sara, why the short story?

SH I was hacking my way through a novel at one point and took a short story course with Michael Winter and because of that I began reading Canadian short story writers and really liking the aesthetic range and potential of the form. I realized that this very distilled way of telling a story is also really tough to get right. Liking a challenge, I felt determined to try and was soon smitten. Writing short fiction is a great way to work on the craft of writing without the same enormous time commitment and complexity of a novel. Though the truth is that a short story is complex and can take a ridiculously long time and an appalling number of drafts to get right, at least in my case.

It's been said countless times but I'll say it again: the short story is the perfect form for these time-crunched times. So get with the program, readers of novels! I must disclose, however, that I am currently hacking my way through the writing of a novel.

BS There's this surreality almost to your stories, but going back and reading them with this in mind it strikes me that the characters themselves aren't unrealistically wacky, and the writing isn't bonkers or anything, but there's a way that the individuality of your characters meets the individuality of the prose that births a kind of oddness. Can you speak to an "outlook" or an "approach" to your writing? Or, What makes a Sara Heinonen story a Sara Heinonen story?

SH What I do is hide the surrealism in the spaces between the words where nobody thinks to look and by the end of the story they have seeped through the whole thing. Maybe it's also that the devilish oddness is in the details? Maybe defining a Sara Heinonen story would take a novel-length answer? I'll leave that fine and difficult question to whistle mysteriously in the wind through the branches of the trees around Guelph.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Q&A with Stacey May Fowles

From the back of the book: "Ronnie is a hairdresser with a history of recklessness, stifled by the predictable, comfortable life laid out before her with her live-in boyfriend. Charlie is an anxiety-ridden award-winning writer, burdened by his literary success and familial responsibility, including a bread-winning wife and a child with autism. When the unlikely pair meets, a filmic affair begins on office desks and in Toronto hotel rooms, creating a false reality that offers solace in its secrets."

Since the release of her first book, Be Good, in 2007, Stacey May Fowles has contributed a distinct and sure voice to the Can Lit conversation. Fear of Fighting came next, illustrated by Marlena Zuber. Her writing has graced The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Quill & Quire, Taddle Creek, Hazlitt, and PRISM International, and has been anthologized in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity, Yes Means Yes, and Finding the Words. Recently, she co-edited the anthology She's Shameless: Women Write About Growing Up, Rocking Out, and Fighting Back. She is a regular contributor to the National Post books section, and currently works at The Walrus.

Stacey will be reading from Infidelity along with Sean Johnston and Sara Heinonen in the eBar on Saturday November 2nd at 7:30om.

The Bookshelf  The infidelity within Infidelity could be seen as being driven by Ronnie and Charles' attempts to be faithful to themselves--their own happiness, their own wants and needs. Was this understanding with you at the writing's outset, did it come up during, or am I way off here?

Stacey May Fowles My big secret shame when it comes to writing is that a have absolutely no idea what I’m doing with a story when I start. I just write and a narrative—hopefully a good one—develops out of it. I have no real plan, or outline, or goal. I certainly never have any idea how it’s going to end.

I do know that when I started Infidelity I was thinking a lot about exactly what you describe, so it makes sense that the story would organically try to answer those questions. I think it’s terribly hard for so many of us to balance the needs of others with the commitments we have to ourselves, and often we end up sacrificing ourselves completely, becoming trapped in other people’s expectations, or swinging the complete opposite way into the realm of betrayal.

BS Emily Schultz called your first novel, Be Good, "essential reading for women in their 20s," can you conceive of an essentiality with Infidelity? For that matter--and I'm sorry if this is too huge to ask as an add on--do you think that fiction--you know, the emotional hijinks of made up people--still has to power to effect people's thoughts and actions in their real lives?

SMF Oh, of course it does. You see people having really personal, very emotional reactions to literature all the time—especially when they see themselves represented in the text. Great writing never loses its impact, and its ability to shape our lives.

I would like to think that Infidelity looks at the less talked about problems we have with prescribed roles and relationships. I think many of us find it difficult, or are afraid to articulate that we don’t want the lives that are expected of us, and I hope that readers will find some solace in characters that share that discomfort.

BS Writing non-fiction for places like The National Post and The Walrus, you, when the piece calls for it, have not shied away from using your own experiences. Has it been a problem that readers of your fiction try to read yourself in the story. If so or if not, do you even give a care about stuff like that?

SMF I’ve never really encountered a reader who has done that. I’ve certainly had friends and family who have winkingly ask me about certain scenes, feelings or details, but nothing incredibly overt. I wouldn’t say that I use my own personal experiences in my fiction, but I do collect up real life moments and weave them into a story. Usually they’re just tiny things that felt too meaningful to let go of, things that needed to find their way into a book.

BS I don't think it's at all hyperbolic to say that you rank high amongst this up-and-coming generation of Canadian writers. Do you have any notion of what Canadian Literature will look like as you and yours grow into greater prominence?

SMF I think it’s hyperbolic, but thank you. There are certainly lots of exciting things happening in Canadian Literature right now if you know where to look. The work that organizations like CWILA (Ed. Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) are doing to bring writing generally overlooked by the mainstream into the spotlight is certainly doing its part in innovating the canon. My hope is that Can Lit will slowly break out of its stereotypical narrative and cover much more ground, and I think that’s happening already. We’re starting to respect lesser-told stories as valid ones, and that can mean nothing but good things for writers and readers alike.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Q&A with Sean Johnston

From the back of the book: "Listen All You Bullets tells the story of a young boy named Billy who is trapped on a hardscrabble North Dakota ranch with his lonely mother and wheelchair-bound father. But Billy isn't just any boy stuck on any ranch: Billy and his family are the creations of Jack Schafer's popular 1939 Western novel, Shane. Long after that novel's action has concluded and its plot and characters have seemingly solidified into popular myth, Sean Johnston sets out to explore the possibilities of a story's resistance to its own arrested afterlife."

Author of award-winning prose and poetry, co-editor of Ryga: a journal of provocations, and teacher at Okanagan College, Sean Johnston will be reading from Listen All You Bullets along with Stacey May Fowles and Sara Heinonen in the eBar 
on Saturday November 2nd at 7:30pm.

The Bookshelf First off, have you always been a Westerns guy? Bullets seems just as interested in celebrating the genre as it is in subverting and complicating it.

Sean Johnston Not always, no. I’ve gone through phases, I guess. I loved cowboys, as young boy, and read Westerns then, but I just generally loved stories with heroes that were supposed to be models for young men, whether they were science fiction, western, fantasy, or whatever.

BS Why Shane? What about that particular narrative speaks to above, say, The Virginian or Riders of the Purple Sage?

SJ There are a number of reasons, such as it’s a one syllable name, it’s similar to my first name, it’s quite well-known. But the main reason is from my childhood, I think. We were taught this book in grade seven, and my family had recently moved from St. Albert, just outside of Edmonton, to an acreage a few miles from Asquith, a very small town in Saskatchewan; I was still learning my new world and my place in it—as any child that age is, I suppose, but also as someone foreign to my environment. Shane spoke to me then because I thought it was about the rural prairies, and however it was intended, it seemed to me as if it was meant to be instructive, as if the title character really was meant to be a model.

Later on I resented its hold on me, and the Western’s hold on society in general. No matter how often you’re told it’s fiction, when you’re young it becomes some kind of truth.

BS You schooled for a spell in South Dakota and hail from our prairies (and Bullets reaches across this boarder, too), do you see a commonness in these places? A commonness of myth? Landscape? 

The places have something in common, yes, though they are not as similar as I thought they were when I moved to South Dakota. Maybe my desire to move there was from a nostalgia for my home in Saskatchewan, maybe it was from a nostalgia for a time when the Western myths were more important and believable to me.

What I found was there was less in common than I thought, but was this discrepancy caused by a nostalgic rewriting of my own past or by and actual difference between Saskatchewan and the Dakotas? Who knows? It must have been both. But I do love the landscape, where you can be alone under the sky and there is nowhere to hide.

BS If on a winters night a traveler gets mentioned in the text, and mention of the character Sean Johnston's love of Leonard Cohen can't help but bring to mind Cohen's monkeying with myth in Beautiful Losers. What are some of Bullets other peers or ancestors?

SJ Donald Barthelme is one of my favourites. Maybe the favourite. Also Ondaatje, whose Coming Through Slaughter is maybe my favourite Canadian novel.

I admire writers who are deceptively simple, whose work plays in between the sentences, but whose sentences are still accessible. Grace Paley is another one that comes to mind, and a number of Atwood’s stories.

BS Where do you feel Bullets stands in relation to your other work? Is it a place you've arrived to, or a place you're heading?

SJ That’s a hard question. Every work feels, as it’s being written, as if it is the culmination of whatever’s come before. Then when I move on to the next thing it feels as if it’s simply a digression.

This novel is the product of a particularly difficult time in my life and part of its form comes from a sort of crisis of faith—I no longer believed in the efficacy of literature in general, and the novel in particular. Part of the reason it’s a novel that refuses to be a novel is a kind of child-like anger—I was angry because I felt like I’d been lied to all along.

As John Gardner wrote, in his book On Moral Fiction, “[w]hen a metaphysical system breaks down, the forms of art which supported that system no longer feel true or adequate.” But he goes on to say that there is no philosophical progress implied, that “it usually means only that the hunter has exhausted one part of the woods and has moved to a new part, or to a part exhausted earlier, to which the prey may have doubled back.”

It seemed true to me when I had just finished Listen All You Bullets, and it seems more true to me now, as I work on short fiction, and a the second draft of a new novel whose first draft corresponded roughly with the birth of my daughter. The external factors change my aesthetic somehow. I sometimes never know their effect; other times, such as with Bullets, it is pretty clear.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

November Non-Fiction Book Club

Last month's Book Club was fantastic! Participants talked passionately about Thomas King’s An Inconvenient Indian—a book on the history of Europeans in North America which doesn't shy away from controversy which elicited a few opposing stances in a group of people with varying backgrounds and experiences. We shared food in The Greenroom, debated and talked through the book, everyone being respectful and having a good time. 

For November, we have a great line up of non-fiction books to chose from. They include:

·      Physics of the Future by Michio Kuku
·      Blood: The Stuff of Life by Laurence Hill
·      David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
·      The War on Science by Chris Turner
·      Command and Control by Eric Schlosser

This month's Book Club will take place in The Greenroom on November 21st at 7:00 pm. We are always looking for new members. If you buy the book at The Bookshelf for any book club, you will receive 10% off. The poll will be up until Friday.

Which Book Would You Like to Read for November Book Club?

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blood: The Stuff of Life

Blood: The Stuff of Life
Lawrence Hill

As a surgeon, I have had a long and quite vivid experience with blood, not all of it pleasant. So I was drawn to Lawrence Hill’s Blood: The Stuff of Life. The latest in the prestigious CBC Massey Lectures is a comprehensive reflection on identity and its fallacious instantiation with the hemoglobin-containing bodily fluid that flows in and nurtures all vertebrates. The stuff of life indeed!  

Restricting his examination to the human animal, Hill documents the multifold “meaning” of blood in human history. The book’s scope is impressive: from human sacrifice to therapeutic blood transfusions; from blood as expiator of crime and sin to its transformation through disease into an existential threat to the body that produces it; from witches to vampires, with figures as diverse as William Harvey (who first discovered circulation), Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Louis Riel and Ben Johnson. Finally the book settles on blood as an instrument in demarcating Self and Other. Here, Hill, the son of white and black Americans who settled in Canada and author of the celebrated The Book of Negroes, is in very comfortable territory. 

The book is enlivened by Hill’s personal and familial experiences with blood, both real and metaphorical. While identity, specifically the African-American identity, and the ways society denigrates and dismisses certain of its members are clearly important to Hill, he affirms the humanist and scientifically accurate description that we are all part of the unfolding diversity of the human family.  Amen!

Brian Ostrow is a retired surgeon who volunteers internationally. He knew he wanted to be a surgeon the first time he cut into human flesh!

The Massey Lecture will be held at Lakeside Hope House, October 29th @ 7pm. Tickets are available in the bookstore.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Sometimes You Just Gotta Run!

There have been rumours of this for years, but a recent study in the journal Science certainly gives added gravitas to the notion that reading literary fiction enhances our empathy and emotional intelligence. To summarize the study plot, readers were given two to three dollars to read for just a few minutes. Some were given excerpts from Wendell Berry or Don Delillo while others were given passages from Gillian Flynn or Robert Heinlein. You can read more about the testing procedure here.  If the proof is in the pudding, yes, indeed you will become a more empathetic person by reading literary fiction.

But is there a downside to constant empathy? I have just finished my 18th Lee Child, Never Go Back, in five years. I started reading him when my father died and found that I couldn’t concentrate. It provided much relief because at least it allowed me to read. Since then, I’ve discovered many other espionage and crime writers that have given me a lot of pleasure. When I start a story from this genre I don’t stop. My head is down for a couple of days and, for the most part, I’m able to crawl into a space that has nothing to do with me or the world around me. And I race read.

But now that my reading concentration has returned I usually have two books going—one in which I am chasing spies or drug barons, the other which allows me to amble and reflect.  I interchanged Never Go Back with Canadian short story writer Shaena Lambert’s Oh, My Darling. I couldn’t race read her. Often her writing shimmered so much that I re-read passages just for the pure wonder of how a human being can so perfectly capture a moment. At one point, some of the sorrows of the life of my own mother flooded into my consciousness in a way that I have never experienced them.  And this was because of just one sentence in Lambert’s writing.

I guess this is what you might call balance in reading. The adrenaline high from racing through a thriller can be wonderfully counterbalanced from the insights that you might experience in the literary world. Cheers to both!

- Barb

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Green Reef

A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change

Midway through his new book A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change, Stephen Henighan takes us back to late 1939, early 1940, when Canadian troops were deployed to Europe. They “expected to enter a growing conflagration, but when they reached their bases in the United Kingdom they found that the Allied and Axis sides, armed and mobilized, were at war in word but not in deed.” What followed was a period of calm known as the Phony War—or der Sitzkrieg, or The Bore War. “The knowledge that death and destruction were on the horizon did not prevent many people in Europe from continuing to live as they had before.”

How we’re living now (yes, we—I’m looking at you as much as I’m looking at anyone) in relation to simmering environmental disaster leads Henighan to suggest that “we are once again in a Phony War.”

Though slight (49 pages), A Green Reef is never pithy or lacking. Henighan does not claim to try and solve the issue—or, not issue; let’s call it a reality—but does unpack it and lay out all the components—from global to personal—for assessment. This is not a scientific consideration of climate change. Flick a cigarette butt and you’ll hit one of those. Here, Henighan is looking at environmental ass-over-teakettling from the perspective of humanities. 

 “Art is humanity in its concentrated essence,” Henighan writes. “However horrible the billions of deaths that await us may be, humanity’s most enduring loss in the long term may be that of its artistic heritage.” The value of human life and the value of art seem egrigously uneven when pitted against one another. On second blush, though, part of Henighan’s push in the book is to soberly explore a broader understanding of what encroaching anihilation would actually mean for our capital C Culture.  What happens to this “us” that we describe to ourselves when conditions either erase or condense us?

“Environment” is a tricky word. I had a friend castigate me once for referring to the Environment as though it were some Other, something separate. She explained that this is one of the biggest hurdles in inspiring any kind of change in people, to get them to stop looking at the Environment like a broken down car that needs to be fixed. A Green Reef is concerned about the whole, but is worried about the individual, and ultimately argues for the connectedness of the lot of it. The “most bracing challenge is that of reimagining outselves," Henighan writes, "our heaven, our source of meaning."

- Andrew

Stephen Henighan will be in the eBar Tuesday October 8th at 8pm to read from and discuss A Green Reef.