Saturday, November 1, 2014

Vancouver Writers Fest Highlights 2014

The weather in Vancouver was
sunnier than the forecast predicted.
There were 100 authors included in the Vancouver Writers Fest and I was in heaven, surrounded by avid readers. For me, this year was all about the queer authors, even though I didn't get to a couple of my favourites: Shani Mootoo and Dionne Brand. Dare I complain of overabundance? Highlights include:

Ann-Marie MacDonald! She is razor sharp, smart and funny. Some (paraphrased) quotes:
"Everything I write is about truth coming out."
"I'm not going to be guilty of pretending that everything is roses and light."
"Comedy lights up the underworld, so you can see what you are scared of."
"Everyone has a personal abyss that opens at the darndest time. Mine is the produce aisle."
"Mrs. Dalloway haunts [Adult Onset], especially when she goes out to buy tulips."
My sweetie currently has dibs on MacDonald's latest novel, and I'm eager for my turn.

Lively conversation between Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters (photo above) about writing historical fiction, and especially about the inclusion of real people or events. Waters disguised the sensational 1920s true crime that inspired Paying Guests by turning the heterosexual couple into lesbians. Donoghue stayed as close as possible to the facts in Frog Music, while inventing her own plausible solution to an unsolved true crime. When you've got a real woman who kept getting arrested for crossdressing, and who was murdered, there's no need to create someone more interesting. Asked if she isn't disturbing skeletons, Donoghue replied, "Yes, but in a dancing-skeleton-Day-of-the-Dead kind of way."

Michael Cho was the best surprise of the festival. I had expected to hear Cory Doctorow on a panel with Mariko Tamaki, but Cho was there instead. I had just finished reading Cho's fantastic graphic novel Shoplifter, and have been recommending it right and left. He talked about Toronto being a character in the book, which is one of the reasons I loved it. When asked about the challenge of writing a female protagonist, Cho explained that if he focussed on gender, the character would be a stereotype. Instead, he worked hard to make Corrina Park an individual. Another reason that Shoplifter hit me in the heart.

And while I'm on the subject of characters with heart, Mariko Tamaki talked about This One Summer, as well as Skim, one of my all-time favourite graphic novels. She showed a slide of Skim's original cover art (by Jillian Tamaki), which included the words: "This is the diary of Skim Dakota so fuck off." The publisher didn't go for that one.

Vancouver has the sea as well as the Writers Fest.
Characters are really important to me, so I paid close attention to authors who talked about this aspect of their creative process. Cristina Henriquez said, "There's no one immigration story" and "Latino is not a monolith culture." She began The Book of Unknown Americans when one sentence popped into her head -"We heard they were from Mexico"- and expanded her idea from there. Maylis de Kerangal talked about disguising herself by spreading out different small bits of herself into each of her many characters in Birth of a Bridge. Damon Galgut spoke about the contemplative pacing of his novel Arctic Summer, and the way he wanted to use that to mirror E.M. Forster's inner life. Nadia Bozak has placed a coyote/dog cross at the moral centre of her novel El Nino. Tom Rachman: "What is vital about literature is experiencing the world through lives different from one's own. (Yes!)

I saw Rabih Alameddine at a couple of events and I was smitten. I hadn't imagined that he would be impish and campy in person. He's the author of a book that thoroughly delighted me: An Unnecessary Woman. In the '80s, Alameddine was motivated to enter the conversation about AIDS because he didn't see his anger reflected in the gay novels being published then. (Note to self: read Alameddine's earlier works.) The book that made the greatest impression on him and gave him the idea that he could be a writer at all was Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, because it reflected a family much like his own. I believe this book was an influence for Shani Mootoo, also.

Tim Winton mentioned a similar experience. Coming from a working class background, he owes his greatest debt in becoming a writer to Huckleberry Finn and the way Samuel Clemens turned common folk's vernacular into poetry. Winton likes people who write about their own patch, like Michael Crummey. (Me too!) Winton said landscape is a character - a determinant - in his stories. "The ecological reality of a place determines what can come out of it." (There it is again. A reminder that the fiction I love has a strong sense of place.)

When asked how much of Eyrie is autobiographical, Winton said, "People are quick to conflate me with Keely, which is unfair. I've had the occasional hangover, but not a 30-pager." Another question from the audience was about the ambiguous ending of Eyrie. Winton: "I'm not much interested in closure... Life is not that neat." He said he doesn't believe in housekeeping for the reader. He also said, "I don't buy magical realism. I don't buy realism either. Life is confounding and strange."

Some of my ticket stubs...
I was surprised by how much of Heather O'Neill's fiction is autobiographical, according to her. When she was 7, her mother sent her to live with her father in Montreal... since he was no longer in jail. They lived in rubby apartments in the red light district."My dad was always giving me useless advice. Like, you can't keep a diary; that'll be used against you in court."

Michael Crummy talked about how place is connected with identity in Sweetland. He also said, "Everything I've ever written is elegy. I'm interested in cultural loss."

Three First Nations authors were together at one powerful event: Thomas King, Lee Maracle and Richard Wagamese. King said "I see a lot of empathy for Aboriginal people in Canada, but not a lot of knowledge about Aboriginal people." That's why he wrote The Inconvenient Indian. Wagamese: "The story of Canada is the story of her relationship with her native people."

Maracle said she lied to her grandpa when she was very small. He looked at her for a long time and then told her, "That's a good story. Now I'll tell you one." Over the course of one summer, she learned a lot from him about storytelling. He told her, "White people pay good money for beautiful lies." Mink is a trickster in Maracle's new novel, Celia's Song. (Maracle asked the audience to repeat after her: "Raven is NOT a trickster.") She said "Salish women are strong because our mothers raise us to look after families of 400 people, even though we don't live in longhouses anymore."

At the start of almost every event I attended, the host acknowledged that the Vancouver Writers Fest takes place on unceded Coast Salish territory. Thomas King said, "All art is political. Good writing is a blueprint for the imagination." Maracle joked: "I finally got old enough to justify being idle and then these kids started up Idle No More."
Entrance to Granville Island, under the bridge.
View from the top of the Granville Bridge, including the mural
on the cement plant, created by a pair of Brazilian artists.

The final event on Sunday evening was fittingly inspirational and entertaining. Jane Smiley and Colm Toibin were interviewed by the incomparable Bill Richardson. Hal Wake warned them before they came onstage that it had a metal mesh floor: "I hope no one is wearing high heels." Richardson, waving his hand through the curtain from offstage: "I am!"

Talking about the dark places stories can come from, Smiley said, "If you turn something into a story, any experience is worth it." When he was a small boy, Toibin liked a particular visitor because she brought sweets, but even more because "she never had anything good to say about anyone." He quickly learned that what mattered was the thing that people couldn't bring themselves to talk about. "It is our job, while alive, to notice as much as possible."

Both Smiley and Toibin derive artistic nourishment from visual art and music. They closed the evening with an a cappella rendition of Whisky in the Jar. Big hit! I enjoyed hearing Toibin so much that I plan to attend his speaking engagement in Edmonton later this month. [Of his many acclaimed books, I've reviewed Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary.]

I'm always sad when the festival ends and it's time to return home. But on the plus side, I have a wonderful stack of new books to read!

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