Poison pen: Stacey Madden on violence, literary influences, and publishing his first novel

October 19, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

“I’m interested in the aesthetics of violence,” says Stacey Madden, sitting in a downtown Toronto café and appearing pretty much the polar opposite of a violent character. Indeed, Madden admits his fascination with aggression in a literary context is somewhat paradoxical, given that he will go to just about any lengths to avoid it in real life. “If I hear a beer bottle fall over in a bar, I’m out of there, because I think somebody just smashed it over somebody’s head, not that somebody spilled their beer. Maybe it’s that fear of violence in life that attracts me to it in literature.”

The author has just published his first novel, the darkly comic neo-noir Poison Shy, which allowed him free rein to indulge his taste for fictional mayhem. “I wrote a book that I wanted to read,” he says. “I wrote a book that I thought would be dark, because I like to read dark books. I wrote a book that I though would be funny, because I like to read funny books. And I like to read violent books.”

The book in question is a nasty little number about Brandon Galloway, a gormless twenty-nine-year-old pest control worker who becomes involved with a provocative university student named Melanie Blaxley and her contemptible “roommate,” Darcy. Brandon spends his days tending to his mentally ill mother and working for Kill ’Em All, an extermination company in the fictional Ontario town of Frayne (the main street is called Dormant Road, and the locals refer to Frayne University as F.U.). At night, Brandon becomes ever more deeply enmeshed with the redheaded firebrand Melanie, an obsession that leads him into an uncontrollable spiral of sex and depravity.

Clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, the result is a lightning fast, tightly calibrated read. As reviewer Alex Good said in Quill & Quire, “It’s hard to think of a recent novel with less dead air.”

At least one reviewer did express reservations about the book’s structure, in particular Melanie’s disappearance, which is hinted at in the opening pages, but does not actually occur until close to the novel’s end. But Madden defends his decision to build his story this way. He didn’t want to follow the easy, predictable trajectory of a character who disappears early on with the other characters forced to spend the balance of the book looking for her. “If I had adhered to that formula, it would have made the book more like a novel, and less like the chaotic nature of real life.”

The work that Madden has produced is a kind of literary hybrid: not strictly a genre novel, but certainly not a work of documentary realism. “I didn’t want the book to be realist in the sense that a lot of writers mean that these days,” Madden says. “I didn’t want it to be so authentic that anything out of the ordinary shouldn’t be expected to happen because it’s too weird. I think that real life is very weird. Strange things can and do happen all the time.”

Given Madden’s penchant for anti-realist fiction laced with violence, it should come as no surprise that the author numbers Flannery O’Connor, whom he calls “an incredible prose stylist, and a writer of non-realist realism,” as one of his primary influences. “She totally changed my perception of what fiction could be,” Madden says. “I was kind of scandalized after reading her, in the best possible way. I thought: wow, you can say that and you can write about that kind of stuff and describe things in that way, and it’s okay?”

Madden wrote Poison Shy as his thesis project for the University of Guelph MFA program, where he was taught by Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, and Russell Smith, and mentored by Andrew Pyper. “It helped me in the sense that I’m kind of lazy,” Madden says of his experience in the program. “This kicked me in the ass to actually finish something.”

Although critics have suggested that MFA programs are akin to factories for writers, Madden disavows this interpretation as it applies to his experience. “I don’t think the program at Guelph-Humber is a factory. I don’t think it churns writers out like cookie cutters. Sitting here, I’d be hard pressed to think of any two writers [from my cohort] that I could compare and say, ‘These two do the same kind of thing.’”

Madden’s involvement with the Guelph-Humber program, and the writing of Poison Shy, was an outgrowth of a longtime affinity for books and writers, something he indulges as a bookseller at the Toronto mini-chain Book City, where he has worked for the past decade. “It’s helped me to feel like an insider, sometimes,” Madden says. “When I had aspirations about writing but didn’t know if I’d ever be published, I could still think, ‘Well, at least I work in a bookstore and sometimes writers come in and sign books.’”

Now that he is a published novelist, Madden retains his job as a bookseller, and claims not to be entirely fatalistic about the future of either profession. “I’m always a pessimist. But there’s a little flicker of optimism inside me.”

He goes on to say that his optimism about the book business comes from having met “a ton of avid readers and book buyers.”

“Some people say that books will become niche items, will become like what records are now. But I don’t know if I agree with that because every reader I know still buys books and swears that they will always do so,” he says.

“Books are here to stay.”

Stacey Madden will appear at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors along with Matt Lennox, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, and Tanis Rideout on Sunday, October 21 at 4 p.m. Tickets and information available at the IFOA website.

What to see at IFOA

October 18, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

For ten days each October, the International Festival of Authors gathers some of the most prestigious international literary talent in one place for a series of readings, panel discussions, and author signings. Administered by Authors at Harbourfront Centre, this year marks the Toronto festival’s thirty-third anniversary. This year’s festival kicks off tonight with a PEN Canada benefit featuring a rare appearance by Rohinton Mistry, and continues with readings by the nominees for a quartet of prestigious Canadian literary prizes: the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction; the Governor General’s Literary Award; the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize; and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

This year features appearances by international bestsellers Michael Chabon, Junot Díaz, Louise Erdrich, Deborah Harkness, and Richard Ford, along with established and upcoming Canadian talent including Vincent Lam, Sandra Ridley, Linden MacIntyre, and Larissa Andrusyshyn.

With more than 70 different events featuring more than 200 participants, there is always more to do than can possibly be done by any single person attending the festival. But here is a very shortlist of events that have piqued my interest.

Reading/Interview: Lee Child
Lee Child is an international bestselling author of thrillers featuring ex-U.S. military man Jack Reacher. They are the kind of bubble-gum actioners that get snapped up by the bushel by commuters and beach readers, and there’s a film out this December starring Tom Cruise as Reacher. Although Child’s brand of escapist entertainment is not totally my speed, I’m intrigued by the pairing of the author with interviewer Adrienne Clarkson, who seems at first glance a counterintuitive choice. This kind of iconoclastic pairing often makes for the most intriguing conversations.
Saturday, October 20, 2 p.m. Brigantine Room

Reading/Round Table: Roo Borson, Phil Hall, Don McKay, Sadiqa de Meijer
Poetry gets short shrift in this country, selling in even lower numbers than short-story collections. Which is a shame, because Canada features no shortage of strong poets, both veterans and newcomers. Three of the former – Borson, Hall, and McKay – join the winner of this year’s CBC Poetry Prize for a reading and discussion moderated by Garvia Bailey of the Ceeb. For verse enthusiasts, this event should prove enlightening and entertaining.
Saturday, October 20, 4 p.m., Studio Theatre

Reading/Interview: John Ralston Saul
The author of Voltaire’s Bastards is an intimidating public intellectual, and it takes a brave soul to go toe-to-toe with him. Philosopher, professor, and author Mark Kingwell may be one of the few people who can fill the bill. This discussion should be all the more interesting given that Saul’s new book, Dark Diversions, is the author’s first work of fiction in over a decade and a half.
Sunday, October 21, 12 p.m., Fleck Dance Theatre

Round Table: Matt Lennox, Stacey Madden, Aga Maksimowska, Grace O’Connell, Tanis Rideout
“The novel is dead” seems to be a perennial theme among people who talk about literary matters, but this quintet of young authors, all graduates of the University of Guelph’s well-regarded MFA program would beg to differ. Each writer has a debut novel out this year, and this discussion about breaking into the industry and the challenges facing new writers in a rapidly evolving literary landscape sounds interesting. Novelist Catherine Bush, who administers the Guelph program, moderates.
Sunday, October 21, 4 p.m., Lakeside Terrace

Publishing Keynote Speaker and Interview: Jonathan Galassi
Each year, IFOA sponsors the International Visitors Programme, which offers publishing industry insiders the opportunity to come together for discussion, networking, and socializing. This year’s participants include some international heavy-hitters, such as Virago Press publisher Lennie Goodings and Blue Rider Press president and publisher David Rosenthal. This year’s keynote address, which is open to the public, is presented by Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Galassi will be interviewed by David Kent, president and CEO of HarperCollins Canada.
Monday, October 22, 4:30 p.m., Studio Theatre

Round Table: Marjorie Celona, Anakana Schofield, Rebecca Lee, Leanne Shapton
The women on this panel are unafraid to take risks with their approach to storytelling, employing a variety of forms – from short story to innovative memoir – to explore the idea of narrative. This discussion, titled “Basic Instinct: Style vs. Content,” is moderated by NOW magazine’s Susan G. Cole.
Wednesday, October 24, 8:00 p.m., Lakeside Terrace

Round Table: Deborah Harkness, Alen Mattich, Jo Nesbø, Corey Redekop
Take an historian descended from a line of witches, a secret policeman being targeted by Bosnian thugs in the Yugoslavia of 1991, a hard-boiled Norwegian detective, and a gay actor who just happens to be a zombie, and you’ve pretty much got a recipe for a lively conversation about genre, the supernatural, and the modern novel. Bestselling literary thriller writer Andrew Pyper moderates.
Saturday, October 27, 12 p.m., Brigantine Room

Round Table: Emma Donoghue, Andri Snær Magnason, Alix Ohlin, Cordelia Strube
This group of writers defines the term “iconoclastic,” representing a wide variety of approaches and attitudes to fiction. How do these writers settle on their subjects, styles, narrative voices, and settings? How do these choices affect the stories they tell? I’m moderating this one myself, so feel free to come out and watch me get totally schooled on the art of fiction.
Saturday, October 27, 5:00 p.m., Brigantine Room

Found in Translation: Japan@IFOA
Next to poetry and short fiction, works in translation are among the least-read in Canada, which is baffling to me given our multicultural makeup and a vibrant publishing scene in Quebec. For my money, Japan has produced some of the most fascinating works of world literature in the past decade, so I’m interested to hear the writers on this panel – poet Hiromi Ito, novelist Hiromi Kawakami, and translator Motoyuki Shibata – talk about their work and their approach to writing. York University professor of Japanese literature and film Ted Gossen hosts.
Sunday, October 28, 4:00 p.m., Studio Theatre

More information about these and other IFOA events, as well as location and ticketing information, can be found at the IFOA website.

“That’s a long speech, isn’t it? But it means something.”

June 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

This is one of the best things I’ve come across in a long, long while.

New PayPal policy brings charges of online censorship

March 8, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

A new policy instituted by PayPal, an offshoot of eBay, has prompted online self-publishing service Smashwords to revise its terms of service and has sparked calls of censorship from a diverse group of organizations representing publishers, writers, and Internet advocates. On February 18, according to a Reuters article reprinted in today’s Globe and Mail, PayPal sent a letter to Smashwords founder Mark Coker indicating that access to PayPal services might be “limited” should Smashwords continue to host writing that featured “obscene” content, including incest, bestiality, “underage erotica,” or “rape-for-titillation.”

In response, on February 24, Coker sent a letter to all “authors, publishers, and literary agents who publish erotica at Smashwords,” redefining what is and is not allowable for publication. According to the letter, prohibiting “underage erotica” is “not a problem” for the administrators of Smashwords, even though a strict reading of this term would disallow Nabokov’s Lolita. Similarly, Coker writes, “We do not want books that contain rape for the purpose of titillation.” This sounds reasonable, although it would arguably prohibit the works of the Marquis de Sade and the pseudonymous erotica of Anne Rice. Bestiality is also a no-brainer, although Coker is quick to clarify that “this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form.” So the Twilight crowd can breathe a sigh of relief. Whether Marian Engle’s novel Bear would pass muster is another matter altogether.

Only when it comes to incest does Coker acknowledge the “slippery slope” that is created when one starts to set artificial boundaries on imaginative works:

The legality of incest is murky. It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers, and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie e-books. The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision. The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.

Meanwhile, the Reuters article indicates that a number of groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the Association of American Publishers have signed a letter protesting PayPal’s new restrictive policies:

PayPal “is now holding free speech hostage by clamping down on sales of certain types of erotica,” the groups said, according to a draft of the letter sent to Reuters. “We strongly object to PayPal functioning as an enforcer of public morality and inhibiting the right to buy and sell constitutionally protected material.”

They are right and they are wrong. The American constitution only protects speech that is infringed by the government; it does not protect speech that is infringed by private enterprise. PayPal is perfectly within its rights to decline any transaction it sees fit. Writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog, Rainey Reitman elucidates this point:

Frankly, we don’t think that PayPal should be using its influence to make moral judgments about what e-books are appropriate for Smashwords readers. As Wendy Kaminer wrote in a forward to Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography: “Speech shouldn’t have to justify itself as nice, socially constructive, or inoffensive in order to be protected. Civil liberty is shaped, in part, by the belief that free expression has normative or inherent value, which means that you have a right to speak regardless of the merits of what you say.”

But having a right to speak is not the same as having a right to be serviced by a popular online payment provider. Just as a bookseller can choose to carry or not a carry [sic] particular books, PayPal can choose to cut off services to e-book publishers that don’t meet its “moral” (if arbitrary and misguided) standards.

When Heather Reisman decided that her chain of Indigo bookstores would no longer carry Mein Kampf, people who wanted to access the book simply went elsewhere. One problem with PayPal’s move is that they are, if not the only game in town, at least the most visible and influential. Their new mantle as moral arbiters of what gets published online may be legally sound, but it sets a dangerous precedent in what should be a free and open marketplace of ideas.

“Narrow that phalanx”: Martin Amis vs. the space invaders

February 16, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Martin Amis has always concerned himself with games, sports, and other assorted pastimes. Here he is in an essay entitled “Chess: Kasparov v. Karpov,” which was originally published in the Observer:

Nowhere in sport, perhaps nowhere in human activity, is the gap between the tryer and the expert so astronomical. Oh, I have thrown 180 at darts – twice in a lifetime. On the snooker table I have brought off violent pots that would have jerked them to their feet in the Sheffield Crucible. As for tennis, I need hardly hype my crosscourt backhand “dink,” which is so widely feared in the parks of North Kensington. But my chances of a chess brilliancy are the “chances” of a lab chimp and a typewriter producing King Lear. Even at the most rarefied level, though, chess has a robust universality. The two Ks start a tournament tomorrow, but they will also be starting something else: scores are to be settled, grudges are to be purged. Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully, they will be hunting each others’ blood. That we can understand.

Here we can identify many of the signatures of Amis’s literary style: the brazen machismo, the colourful jargon (“violent pots”; “my crosscourt backhand ‘dink'”), the rhetorical flourishes (the two chess masters will not just be hunting each others’ blood, they will be hunting it “Openly and avowedly, noisily and pridefully”).

Now imagine that high literary style applied to classic arcade games.

In 1982, four years before the piece on the rival chess masters appeared, Amis published a little-known volume entitled Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines. The cover of this curious guide is quaintly retro from the perspective of 2012: a tanned, earring-bedecked gamer sporting a glistening pompadour and what certainly passed for space-travelling duds in the recent wake of the television series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (Google it if you’re too young to remember) leans against a gigantic arcade machine around which a threatening, vaguely electric-looking black form with menacing green eyes glares. The author’s name appears below in the bitmapped font that was au courant at the time for any text designer who wanted to convey a futuristic feel. The book’s introduction is by a young Hollywood wunderkind named Steven Spielberg.

Invasion of the Space Invaders is long out of print, and has been disavowed by its author. In a review of Steven Poole’s 2001 book Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, Nicholas Lezard admits he once suggested to Amis that Invasion of the Space Invaders was the author’s best book, a comment that was met with an expression containing “perhaps more pity in it than contempt.” Regardless, the book has become so storied in certain circles that one of the few copies to be found could command upwards of $400 in 2005.

I learned about Invasion of the Space Invaders from a fascinating article by Mark O’Connell posted at The Millions. O’Connell unearthed a copy of the book in a university library, and provides some excellent commentary about it. The passages O’Connell quotes are painfully funny, but also contain flashes of a filigreed style that can belong only to Amis: “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” The advice on how to win at Pac Man, O’Connell suggests, “might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide,” but the guide to prevailing at Space Invaders – “Rule one: narrow that phalanx” – is “technically correct.”

O’Connell’s piece is really valuable, however, for the way it contextualizes Invasion of the Space Invaders, a book he winkingly refers to as “the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction.” “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” writes Sam Leith in a review of a recent Amis biography; O’Connell’s piece is demonstrative of the truth in that aphorism. He provides a reading of the text at hand, but also opens his discussion outwards to encompass pervading themes and approaches in Amis’s other, more serious, work:

Games and game-playing are, after all, both a presiding motif in Amis’s novels and a fundamental principal [sic] of their construction. His most successful fictions are arranged around antagonisms, rivalries, and hidden maneuvers. London Fields is an elaborate trap-like construction in which three male characters (including a blocked novelist) are manipulated by a female mastermind into bringing about her own murder. The Information is about a failed writer’s increasingly malicious attempts to destroy the career of his more successful friend. The plot of Money is a Nabokovian conceit in which Self winds up the loser through failing to recognize the game. In that novel’s most bluntly metafictional moment, the character called Martin Amis lets Self in on some of the secrets of his trade: “The further down the scale [a character] is, the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.”

Even a great writer’s failed, flawed, or rejected writing can help us better appreciate and understand that writer’s unique significance.

Steven Heighton’s memos on writing and reading

December 13, 2011 by · 4 Comments 

Workbook: Memos & Dispatches on Writing. Steven Heighton; $18.95 paper 978-1-55022-937-0, 80 pp., ECW Press

“We make of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” So said W.B. Yeats, whose tidy observation provides the springboard for Steven Heighton’s little book of musings, or “memos,” as he prefers to call this collection of thoughts on writing, reading, and criticism. The epigrammatic structure of Heighton’s book, reminiscent of Marcus Aurelius, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard, results from the author’s sense that fully formed essays are inevitably incomplete; the Hegelian cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis will necessarily only lead to the discovery of a second thesis that will begin the process over again, and again, and again ad infinitum. “I grow impatient with the enterprise,” Heighton writes in his foreword, “and yet the alternative would seem to be mendacity through omission, which is akin to propaganda.”

Heighton is not a propagandist; he is a careful and thoughtful writer who uses the short, sharp shots in this book to sketch out an artistic manifesto of sorts, a fractured and meditative riff on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (the young poet, in this case, being a youthful version of Heighton himself). His numbered lists of memos address subjects – insecurity, jealousy, fear, failure – that occupy all writers’ thoughts, whether or not they admit to them. Thus, number eight under the heading “On Criticism”: “The writing life’s cruellest irony: while failure can make you miserable, success won’t make you happy.” In “A Devil’s Dictionary for Writers,” failure is defined as a “phenomenon that allows writers to retain their friends,” and a “writer’s writer” is “one who lives at or below the poverty line.”

These observations are refreshing in their honesty, directness, and humour. Also refreshing is Heighton’s refusal to compromise on the discipline required to write and read well, at one point excoriating lazy readers who are “unwilling or unable to empathize with characters different from themselves.”

Throughout, Heighton is concerned with emphasizing the importance of complexity and nuance, whether he is addressing writers, readers, or critics. Of the last, he quite accurately recognizes that the “bad reviewer’s art involves universalizing, in authoritative, pseudo-objective language, a totally subjective response to a book,” and notes that “you can always criticize at a higher level than you can compose; you can always spot flaws in a classic novel that you could never hope to write yourself.”

Heighton is especially hard on writers who abandon fidelity to an artistic vision in favour of mainstream acceptance and recognition: “Careerist writers don’t confront and relish challenges, they crash into obstacles, which they naturally resent and fear.” He rejects the careerist writer’s definition of success, which is inevitably caught up more in the pursuit of awards and accolades than a focus on artistic purity. He urges readers who are interested in truly significant art to bypass recent award winners and buzz books and turn their attention to those volumes that have stood the test of time, although he also recognizes the “small masterpieces, initially neglected” that “still languish unread.”

If there is a contradiction here, it is one that Heighton would likely embrace. Despite his book’s formal affinity with Kierkegaard’s epigrams, Heighton is not a fan of either/or propositions. He is aware of complexity, and confident enough to allow it free rein.

Atwood, VanSickle, and the silly season

August 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

The summer is generally described as the “silly season” in the media: that part of the year, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, “when Parliament and the Law Courts are not sitting,” during which not much happens and any news is frivolous or uninteresting. A propitious time, in other words, for TSR to take a much-needed hiatus.

Unfortunately, life intrudes. The silly season has turned out to be silly indeed, although not in the expected manner.

Anyone who follows municipal politics in Toronto will be familiar with last Thursday’s marathon session at City Hall, during which the council’s executive committee heard from a pantheon of stakeholders who appeared to voice their concerns over possible cuts to city services. Mayor Rob Ford, who won a landslide victory last October by promising to “stop the gravy train” of waste at City Hall, faces a daunting $774-million operating budget deficit, and has been looking for areas to save money (the much heralded “gravy” having failed to materialize). Those areas include garbage collection, public transit, and, perhaps most contentiously, libraries.

It might seem strange that libraries are the most contentious issue on the table, given that police services and public health nurses also face the potential axe, except for the fact that one of Toronto’s most visible and influential citizens, novelist Margaret Atwood, decided to take the fight to Twitter. On Thursday, July 21, Atwood retweeted a message that read, “Toronto’s libraries are under threat of privatization. Tell council to keep them public.” There was a link to a petition set up by the Toronto Public Library. Some of Atwood’s 225,200 followers (as of July 21, by the Toronto Star‘s count) took up the challenge, driving so much traffic to the server hosting the petition that it crashed for about 30 minutes. On July 22, Atwood followed up by tweeting: “Here is direct link to the @torontolibrary petition http://t.co/hPNMV8P to stop closure & privatization. Thanks to all, pass it around.”

And that, indeed, might have been the end of it. Except, you will recall, it was not just any citizen who chose to enter the fray. It was a writer with enough clout to get the attention of Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother and right hand on council, who was quoted in the National Post as saying, “I don’t even know her, she could walk by me I wouldn’t have a clue who she is … But she’s not down here, she’s not dealing with the problem. If she did, tell her to go run in the next election, and get democratically elected. And we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

That’s when all hell broke loose. On one side, Atwood’s supporters began howling about the philistines on city council, and on the other, supporters of the Brothers Ford started yelling about entitled elites and their artistic pretensions.

Now, on one level, this is all quite silly. What does it matter, really, if Doug Ford would recognize Atwood on the street? Does this say anything about his relative ability to govern Canada’s largest city? Well, perhaps, if you believe that someone entrusted to such a position should be familiar with the municipality’s more lauded figures. But for the moment, let’s give Ford the benefit of the doubt. What’s more problematic is his evidently dismissive attitude toward Atwood and her concerns, as well as his suggestion that for her to be taken seriously, she must run for public office. This flies in the face of our democratic principles, which are based on the idea that government works for us, not the other way around. It also flies in the face of Rob Ford’s own campaign slogan, “Respect for Taxpayers.” Whatever else Atwood may be, she is a taxpayer. So where is the respect?

To give Doug Ford his due, the (grudging) respect came the following day, when after a storm of criticism, he conceded, “What I was saying is, everyone knows who Margaret Atwood is. But if she were to come up to 98% of the people, they wouldn’t know who she was. But I think she’s a great writer and I look forward to her input.” The respect came from other quarters with the inauguration of a “Margaret Atwood for mayor” campaign backed by a Facebook page and various venues around the city.

Today, Atwood herself responded, saying, “I am not running for mayor yet. But if it comes to be true that people cannot voice an opinion unless they have been elected, then we are no longer in a democracy.” And here, Atwood has hit on what is decidedly not silly about this whole tempest in a teacup: the way in which our municipal leaders are trampling all over the idea of democracy while pursuing an ideologically driven program of tax cuts and smaller government.

Mayor Ford touted last Thursday’s executive meeting as “something this city has never done,” that is, allow upwards of 300 people to directly voice their concerns. The meeting began at 11:00 a.m., and Ford decreed that it would continue without a break until everyone who had registered to speak got his or her chance. Each speaker was given three minutes to address the executive committee, and the committee was allowed time to question the speakers. If a speaker missed his or her spot in line, he or she was not allowed another chance to speak. What this effectively meant was that a large group of citizens, some undoubtedly with families and other responsibilities, were stuck in City Hall, waiting their turn at the mic, in some cases for hours on end. The meeting finally adjourned after 6:00 a.m. the following morning.

When all was said and done, despite all the hurdles put in their way, some 168 speakers (and singers, and puppeteers) had made their voices heard. One of those was children’s writer Vikki VanSickle, author of Words That Start with B. VanSickle spoke in the wee hours of the morning, around 4:30 a.m. When she was asked about her book, she said, “Words That Start with B. Like budget.” Which prompted the mayor to mutter, “I can think of another ‘b’ word for her.” It was late, the executive committee had been through a gruelling ordeal. But for that, Rob Ford had no one to blame but himself. And his comment was definitely not silly.

You can hear Ford’s version of “respect for taxpayers” at the 0:20 mark in the video below.

History and its discontents: TSR interviews Antanas Sileika

April 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Antanas Sileika has a complicated relationship with history. The author of the new novel Underground, a love story set among the Lithuanian partisans who fought the Soviet communists in the years immediately following World War II, Sileika has mined his own family’s past for material, but had to overcome his own discomfort with his heritage to do so. “I have this weird view of things,” he says, “this Lithuanian background, which when I was growing up was appallingly boring. You didn’t want to mention it. I didn’t even like the word.” Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Weston as part of what he calls “a pre-multicultural generation,” Sileika was acutely aware of a sense of otherness that attached to everything from his accent to his name. Until university, Sileika went by the name Tony; it was only in his post-adolescence that he began insisting people call him by his birth name. “I have these meek vestiges of uncoolness. But now that I’m older and smarter I realize you get your material wherever it is.”

Underground is the third book in a loose trilogy about the Lithuanian experience that also includes the story collection Buying on Time and the novel Woman in Bronze. The first book in the trilogy is about the suburban immigrant experience, something Sileika is passionate about defending. “To claim the suburbs are banal is a kind of hipsterism that drives me crazy,” he says. The second book is about a Lithuanian expat sculptor in Paris in the 1920s. For the culmination of the trilogy, Sileika felt that there was one more defining aspect of the 20th century he had to address: “I had dealt with the suburbs, I had dealt with art, and now I thought I had to deal with war.”

Sileika was helped in his research by a raft of recently published books about life behind the Iron Curtain. In particular, he credits Norman Davies’ Europe, Tony Judt’s Postwar, and – especially – Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands for exploring a time and a place that had largely remained unexamined. “The Iron Curtain is only now rising,” says Sileika, which made the subject attractive to him. “I thought, what we don’t know about here is the period in the immediate postwar. Nobody I knew, outside of Eastern Europeans had any idea about the partisan war, about the resistance. And it occurred to me that I’ve got something to say. I’ve got access to something to say about that war, and about the impossibility of choice.”

The “impossibility of choice” is a subject that weighs heavy on Sileika. The decision to drape his narrative in the garb of a love story was, in part, an attempt to highlight this impossibility. Much of the dramatic tension in the novel arises from the collision between personal desire and the march of history. “I’m particularly fascinated by people who have a series of bad choices,” Sileika says. The partisans in his novel, faced with the constant threat of capture, death, or betrayal, are confronted with numerous bad choices that only get exacerbated when mixed with affairs of the heart. “How do you express love in an impossible situation?” Sileika asks. “How does love even survive?” These are questions, he is quick to add, that hardly even occur to Canadians living in relative comfort at the start of the 21st century. “We live in a kind of history-free zone,” Seleika says. “We live in a Disney zone, where if you try really hard, you’ll get what you want. Whereas if you lived in Eastern Europe, no one gave a damn what you wanted. When history crushes you, it crushes you, and you’re lucky if you get out.”

Despite his evident investiture in his subject, Sileika was initially reluctant to write about it, because it presented him with unremittingly dark material. “You’re looking into a kind of heart of darkness. I have no idea how people work in places like Holocaust centres or oncology wards. It’s very, very hard.” Indeed, Sileika intended to do extensive research for the book (he also reads Lithuanian), but found he had to cut this short. “I was going to read all the books on the subject; I read about 35, and I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”

As if that weren’t enough, while he was writing the book, his son shipped off to fight with the Canadian armed forces in Afghanistan. “I wrote this book under extreme further stress because my son was in Afghanistan. So every day that he’s in Afghanistan as a front-line soldier, when I go out into the street in the morning, I look up and down to see if someone’s waiting for me.” The circumstances of Sileika’s personal life found themselves reflected in the material he was writing about. “I was writing about people who are in a kind of hopeless situation, and I felt hopeless myself.”

Given all of this, it is unsurprising that Sileika bristles at the suggestion that historical fiction is somehow an invalid or shopworn mode for writers to adopt, a suggestion that has been floated many times in Canadian critical circles. “It crops up in Russell Smith’s piece last year in Quill & Quire, it comes up from time to time in the Globe, or in the literary press: ‘We are so tired of the typical Canadian historical novel.’ Which gives me pause on all kinds of different levels.”

Sileika, who is the artistic director at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, becomes decidedly animated when confronted with the suggestion that historical fiction is the default setting for Canadian novelists. “The first problem is: who do you mean? Tell me six historical novels that you think are unjustifiably praised. Most people won’t name names, and I think, ‘You cowards.’ And the next problem is: what is it about the past that we should be ignoring? When all our output is about now: all the magazines, all the newspapers are about now. So to say that we shouldn’t be writing historical fiction is a bit hard to maintain.”

What is it that bothers us about historical fiction, Sileika asks. “Is it Elizabeth Hay’s novel about the Depression where the woman rises from the pillow and there’s a halo of dust around her? Is that what bothers people – that romantic thing? Or is it Jane Urquhart’s landscapes? If you read Jane Urquhart carefully, she’s very interesting in what she does with landscape. Most people don’t think about landscape. In fact, we’re stupid about landscape. She’s being smart about landscape. What’s the problem with that?”

“Why do people write historical fiction?” Sileika asks. “Well, why do they write romance or science fiction? Can you imagine suggesting to le Carré that he give up espionage?”

Moreover, Sileika suggests, historical fiction is in many ways harder to write than fiction set in the present, because the writer has to pay constant attention to historical detail and language. “When I think of the language of the past, and of a foreign place, this is also very tricky. Annabel Lyon had all of her characters [in The Golden Mean] saying ‘Fuck this’ and ‘Fuck that,’ which is a type of effect and it’s interesting in that way. My attempt was to strip all present expressions away and try to get to a version of a very direct language. But given that one must struggle more with the language, why should this elicit disdain? It continues to perplex me.”

Still, says Sileika, “I’m keenly aware that I have an anachronistic view of fiction, an old-fashioned view.” That “old-fashioned” view is predicated upon the idea that fiction should be about big subjects: war, love, death. This is another reason why the situation in postwar Lithuania proved so attractive: “It’s so dramatic there. All decisions have major consequences.”

Yet, for all of that, Sileika is also keenly aware of his distance from the events he is describing in the novel, and does not shy away from interrogating the relative comfort that has allowed him to write the story in the first place. “I ask myself this question: if I had relatives who died in the Gulag or lived in horrible conditions and I live here in luxury, what does this mean? How is this possible? Did people have to die for me to enjoy my chicken cutlet down at the St. Lawrence Market? Is history that perverse?”

Ultimately, Silekia likens his experience in Canada to being in exile. “I have a place far away which I can have access to, but I’m not of it.” And this exile, for the author, is something of a double-edged sword. “People of my generation are cast away in paradise. There’s no going back there for me. There is here, which is very important to me. … I’m still figuring these things out. It’s a project under construction.”

Spring cleaning: UPDATED

April 4, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

Anyone who has had occasion to pass by TSR of late has probably noticed that it looks somewhat abandoned: vines are drooping over the verandas, the lawn is overgrown, and the roof of the garage has caved in. This state of disrepair is the fault of the author, who has succumbed of late to a kind of lethargy that makes matters of daily upkeep seem close to impossible. However, with temperatures creeping ever upward, the robins returning, and the tulips doing their best to poke up out of the ground, it might be a good time to clear out the cobwebs, slap on a new coat of paint, and get the old homestead looking respectable again.

To that end, we’ve lined up a busy couple of months at TSR. April is jam-packed with goodies for the literary minded:

  • The Toronto Public Library is hosting the Keep Toronto Reading Festival 2011. The program includes a series of events throughout the month, including appearances by 2010 Man Booker Prize winner Howard Jacobson, Alissa York, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, and Judy Fong Bates, whose novel Midnight at the Dragon Café is TPL’s One Book for the year.
  • In conjunction with TPL’s initiative, Jen Knoch’s Keepin’ It Real Book Club is spotlighting videos of public figures recommending a book that has changed their lives. You can hear, among others, Richard Crouse on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Fallis on Three Cheers for Me, Jessica Westhead on Bats or Swallows, and Iain Reid on The Beggar’s Garden. There are more to come, including, just maybe, one from yr. humble correspondent.
  • April is also National Poetry Month, which is a chance to celebrate a genre that TSR has historically neglected. We’ll try to talk poetry around these parts in the coming days and weeks, and we’ll also try to inveigle a few guests to come aboard to do likewise.
  • There are a couple of blog tours stopping by here in the next few weeks. Stop by on Friday for Antanas Sileika, author of the newly published novel Underground, and on April 30 for Sarah Selecky, author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection This Cake Is for the Party.

Selecky’s appearance on TSR leads nicely into May, which is Short Story Month. This year, Selecky, along with Canadian authors Jessica Westhead (And Also Sharks) and Matthew J. Trafford (The Divinity Gene) have inaugurated a project they’re calling YOSS: The Year of the Short Story. Their manifesto states that YOSS “aims to unite fellow writers and readers everywhere in one cause – to bring short fiction the larger audience it deserves.” An admirable endeavour, and one that TSR, which has always been an advocate of the genre, can wholeheartedly endorse. This site’s contribution will be more modest: for the third time, we’ll launch our 31 Days of Stories, featuring one story per day, plus as many goodies and Easter eggs as time and the generosity of fellow contributors permit.

So, an ambitious plan for the next couple of months. I’m planning to throw open the windows and let some air into the joint. Hope you’ll join me.

UPDATED April 8: An earlier version of this post neglected to include Sarah Selecky as one of the founders of YOSS. TSR regrets this oversight.

Ritual sacrifice and the faith of the artist: TSR interviews Timothy Taylor

March 13, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Clean cut, dressed in a grey, pinstriped suit, and seated behind a desk in an office at the Toronto headquarters of his publisher, Knopf Canada, Timothy Taylor could easily be mistaken for a corporate executive, which is what he very nearly was. Taylor holds an MBA from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and was well on his way to becoming a fixture in the financial world, working in commercial loans for TD Bank, when, with his wife’s blessing, he left banking in 1991 and took up a consulting business that allowed him time to indulge his first passion: writing. Twenty years later, with three novels and a story collection to his credit, the consulting business is long behind him, but the writing continues. The third of those novels, The Blue Light Project, has just been published, which is the occasion for our meeting.

In the novel, a terrorist has seized control of a television studio where a show called KiddieFame is shot. KiddieFame is a variation on our millennial fascination with American Idol–type reality programs, but instead of adults, the subjects are children. They perform for the cameras and are rated by audience members; if there is enough dislike for a particular child – resulting from antipathy or jealousy – the audience can vote to enact a “Kill,” in which a group of actors dressed as soldiers storms onto the set and “eliminates” the contestant in question.

“Reality television is a quasi-sacrificial system,” Taylor says in reference to the elimination aspect of KiddieFame. “Sacrifice has been a ritual function of all human societies, and we have evolved into creatures for whom real human sacrifice in superficial everyday happenings is unacceptable. And yet we maintain the ritual through these actions where we sort of ritualistically humiliate people.”

Mov, the hostage taker in the novel, is no stranger to humiliation: he worked for the government breaking down prisoners prior to interrogation at so-called black sites (think: Abu Ghraib). Indeed, there is a parallel between the ritual humiliation of contestants on a reality television show and the humiliation of prisoners at black sites – a parallel Taylor acknowledges. “One machinery is known, superficial, and everyday, and the other is hidden, terribly real, and profound,” says Taylor. “I would be roundly chastised for making any moral equivalency between torture and reality television. But do I think they respond to a similar impulse? Yeah, I do.”

Mov’s nom de guerre is a reference to Movsar Barayev, one of 43 Chechen rebels who took over the Nord-Ost Theatre in Dubrovka, a suburb of Moscow, in 2002. The Moscow Theatre Crisis was very much in Taylor’s mind as he wrote The Blue Light Project. “The Moscow Theatre Crisis really captivated me in reading about it and reading survivors’ accounts, and it struck me as the kind of incident that I wanted to explore.”

The idea of a hostage crisis came to Taylor early in the writing process. “It’s one of those narratives that you open and it’s clear that it can’t end well for everybody,” he says. “And that’s a good feature in fiction.”

It’s a good feature in the kind of fiction that Taylor is interested in, certainly. Listening to the author speak, what becomes clear is that no matter how thematically dense his work may be, he considers himself a storyteller first, and acts on the impulses that will help create a compelling story. When asked why he used a city on edge as a backdrop for telling three very personal stories, his answer is quick and definite: “I wanted it tense.” But lest this be mistaken for glibness, it should be pointed out that Taylor never seems content to operate on only one level. Having provided what he admits is a “superficial” response to the question of storytelling, he immediately puts that response into a more nuanced context. “All storytellers to one extent or another manufacture a precipice in order to speak about what it means not to be falling into it.”

If the precipice is the moral bankruptcy of a society that can simultaneously produce KiddieFame and the hostage taker Mov, what is there to prevent us from sliding inexorably into it? For Taylor, one answer is art, and in particular the kind of street art produced by anonymous graffiti painters and poster hangers in urban environments like Toronto or Taylor’s home town of Vancouver. One of the main characters in the novel, Rabbit, practices a variation of Parkour that he calls Freesteal, which involves infiltrating public spaces and leaving behind a work of art. Rabbit’s artistic work finds its apogee in a city-wide installation he calls The Blue Light Project.

Taylor’s fascination with Parkour led him to watch hours of YouTube videos about the subject while working on the book; he says that the Parkour notion of rejecting the limiting nature of urban topography felt like a nice complement to the idea of producing street art. “Ninjalicious – I love the name – wrote a seminal book on what is sometimes referred to as ‘urban exploration,’ or ‘urbex.’ There are relationships between urbex and Parkour, because the principle of Parkour is that I’m going to move from here to there in the cleanest line possible. That’s really why the vaulting and the climbing and the wall-running takes place. That act of liberating yourself from the constraints of the city is similar to what the urbex explorer does. Layering the street art impulse on top of it just made it a nice, attractive package.”

On the subject of street art, Taylor displays an equal fascination, coupled with an abiding curiosity about the impulse behind its creation. “I’ve watched street artists at work,” Taylor says, “and the fundamental question to me is, ‘Why are they doing what they’re doing?’ By no conventional metric can I make sense out of this activity.” What was most puzzling for Taylor initially was why these people would go out in the middle of the night, often in the freezing cold, to hang a poster or paint a mural on a wall, with no hope for recognition or acclaim. Indeed, the anonymity of the artists in question is one of their defining features. It was only when one of Taylor’s friends, Vancouver photographer Lincoln Clarkes, told him that street art is a gift that the impulse behind its creation began to make sense. “When he first said it, I thought that it was very idealistic. But the more I watched them, and the less I was able to explain what they were doing, the more it occurred to me that what was happening was a kind of gift-giving: it was an instance of a person acting without explicable self-interest, and that in itself is a remarkable moment in human affairs.”

Taylor is quick to point out that The Blue Light Project was written before Banksy appeared on the scene. “Banksy has to some extent complicated this,” Taylor says. “To Banksy, it seems that we can ascribe motives that we understand: there seems to be an interest in increasing his own profile and increasing his own fame, despite the false cloak of anonymity.”

By contrast, the anonymous street artists that Taylor so clearly admires are able to provide an offering to a troubled world that testifies to what the author sees as a pristine human impulse: they underline the redemptive quality of creativity by combining it with a truly selfless act. Whether that in itself is enough to pull a fallen society away from the precipice it teeters on is uncertain, but Taylor retains an almost aggressive faith in human potential. “Can art save us?” Taylor asks. “Perhaps not. But the magic of bringing something into the world for no reason that benefits yourself – from that source, the beauty of art arises, and in that is a glimpse of divinity.”

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