24
Monday
Oct
2016

Paranormal Prose

Host and science fiction/fantasy literature author Marie Bilodeau welcomed the speakers Nathan Alder, Kristi Charish and Kelley Armstrong to talk about their latest novels. Each of the authors read an excerpt from their books, telling stories of monsters, zombies and other strange creatures.

 

Nathan Alder, a member of the Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation, began by recording of himself chanting the words for monster and story in the language of the Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation people. He played the recording while he read from his debut novel Wrist, creating an eerie effect perfect for an indigenous ghost story. “Sometimes there isn’t much of a difference between magic and staying alive,” Adler read. Chilling and powerful, Adler’s novel is about dinosaur hunters, monsters, and dark family secrets and demonstrates the authors fearlessness to explore the darker side of life.

 

Before she was a novelist, Kristi Charish was a scientist. With a PhD in zoology from the University of British Columbia, Charish  “I’m the kind of person who should not have become an author, yet that’s the direction I went,” she said. She read from her novel, The Voodoo Killings. Kincaid Strange, a twenty-seven year old voodoo practitioner who picks up the phone ready to hang up on another kid wanting her to grow them a zombie, and is surprised to hear the voice of a man claiming to be the real thing. Suddenly she’s no longer running séances for university students, she’s chasing real live zombies. If the novel says one thing, it’s to except the unexpected, however ordinary a rainy day in Seattle may seem.

 

Number one New York Times bestselling author Kelley Armstrong took the stage to read from her short story The Orange Cat, inspired by “The Black Cat,” by Edgar Allen Poe. Her latest novel Betrayals is the fourth book in her Cainsville series. Not wanting to give anything away for those who hadn’t finished the first three books, Armstrong read from her short story, The Orange Cat, inspired by “The Black Cat,” by Edgar Allen Poe. The story begins with a man comes into a lawyer’s office asking about killing his cat with it’s “one yellow eye, staring at me all the time.” The story examines the nature of guilt with dialogue and imagery that do indeed remind the reader of Edgar Allen Poe’s haunting gothic stories such as “The Tell Tale Heart.”

 

During the question and answer period, the authors discussed the kinds of worlds they created in their novels. The three authors all have something in common: real world settings with otherworld creatures. Urban fantasy is different from high fantasy because it’s set in the modern world, Adler explained. For Charish, her science background influences her style. Everything works in terms of cost and benefit, you’ve got to work with the rules that are there, she said. Similarly, Armstrong said that her novels are based in the real world, but with something extra.

 

The authors also discussed the influence of folklore and traditional tales in their work. There’s a lot of folklore in Cainsville, the story has very Welsh roots, Armstong said. She gave the example of the folk story of Matilda, the story of a woman who loved to hunt but was told she would be forbidden to do so after her upcoming marriage. The night before her wedding she goes out for a last hunt against the wishes of her intended husband. After that she is forced to lead a wild hunt forever.

 

Adler said that a lot of traditional stories influenced his book. Wrist was greatly influenced by Aboriginal monster stories his grandmother told him. Charish stated that one of the things she wanted to do with her novel was to bring back the idea of voodoo zombies. There’s a lot of viral zombies out there, she said, people sometimes forget that traditionally stories were about voodoo zombies.

 

An audience member posed a writing question: what comes first, character or plot devices such as the influence of folklore? Charish said the characters are especially important for her as she needs play things out in her head when she is writing. Adler said he mixes it up. Armstrong said she uses both, and the important thing is that the story doesn’t lean too far one way or theory other.

 

The event was a place for readers and writers alike as the novelists offered advice on writing and also entertained the audience with stories that feel real, yet also involve the mysterious and unexpected from other realms. “What kind of ghost lives in Seattle,” Charish asks. One must read on to find out.

24
Monday
Oct
2016

Guy Gavriel Kay: Children of Earth and Sky

One could be forgiven for thinking that Guy Gavriel Kay, author of thirteen works of historical fiction and fantasy, has his feet firmly rooted in the past. After all, his writing has long been lauded as eminently well researched, a meticulously crafted blend of the real and the fantastical. But when hearing him speak it becomes clear that though Kay has an intimate relationship with the past, it is his ability to use history as a lens to tell universal stories that sets him apart as one of Canada’s greatest writers.

An eager crowd awaited him on Friday evening, despite the unrelenting rain and gloom. The audience buzzed with excitement. Which was your first? they asked one another. Tigana , some replied. Or Ysabel. Or Sailing to Sarantium. His titles were whispered and passed around like some form of communion among his devoted fans, perhaps fitting as we sat in a church.

Ottawa Citizen journalist and fantasy author Kate Heartfield delivered a brief introduction before Kay took the stage to a hearty round of applause. He began by introducing his practiced formula of crafting fictional worlds out of real historical events, a process he described as “rich historically and ethically,” as it allows him to write freely without the uncomfortable assumption that he’s occupying the minds of real people. His latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, is set in a world that resembles 16th century Croatia and the collapse of Constantinople. The passage he read was from a female perspective and drew the audience in, despite the awkward interruption due to audio difficulties.

For the question period, Kay had his hosts do something unique: paper was passed around for those with questions to write them down, rather than have people line up for a microphone. His theory was that sometimes the best questions are missed when people don’t wish to stand up in front of a crowd, and instead ask them later when getting their books signed. His social experiment was a success; host Kate Heartfield had more questions than time, and it gave her an opportunity to weed out redundant questions or those that would spoil the plotlines of Kay’s books.

The discussion between host and author was rich and interesting. Heartfield, being an author herself, was keen to ask questions about the craft of writing, which can sometimes bore an audience of readers, but Kay knows how to make a story out of even the most potentially mundane topics. He touched on how his goal as a storyteller is to avoid writing about the power players of history and instead focus on the people who were trying to get on with their lives. He spoke of how historical fantasy writing can be a commentary on contemporary times, and how the past fascinates him both because of the different worldviews of people in other times and the similar fears and desires that unite humans all throughout history.

A highlight of the evening was when Kay asked the audience to give a round of applause for the absent Ursula Le Guin on her 87th birthday, acknowledging the work she did and the path she forged for all the fantasy writers who came after her.

A question about the state of publishing fantasy did not elicit what could have been a wholly negative response from Kay, who implored writers to simply “write as well as you can,” claiming that the climate of the publishing industry is not as dire as others would have us believe. The barrier between genre and literary works is thinning as the next generation of writers and publishers grew up on Star Wars/Trek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They also grew up on the works of Guy Gavriel Kay, as evidenced by the audience before him. Perhaps he will be for our generation what Le Guin was for his: a seminal figure whose body of work helped to lay down a path for those who came after him. Fittingly, only time will tell.

 

23
Sunday
Oct
2016

Stories About Canada with Jane Urquhart

Rarely is a book so well suited to its launch venue as Jane Urquhart’s A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects was to the event space at Library and Archives Canada. After a decade of closed doors, being permitted into the second floor room felt like being allowed back into history, a perfect segue to Urquhart’s first book of non-fiction.

On its face, the project behind A Number of Things was both immense and contained: In honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial, Urquhart would tell a story of this country through 50 objects of her choosing. “Our story is here, in at least some of its forms,” Urquhart said, by way of explaining that her book is not the history of the country, but rather one look at our collective story.

Flanked by large TV screens showing slides, Urquhart’s presentation was the kind of generous, open look at a writer’s life and process that attendees at book launches dream of. Opening with a black and white photo of her young, pre-child parents sitting on the steps of a farmhouse, Urquhart told the story of how they travelled to northern Ontario — where she and her siblings would be born and raised — and of the dreams and objects they took with them.

A small, intricately painted and delicate sugar pot — already passed down through multiple generations before being carefully packed up and brought north; a pair of moccasins Urquhart was given as an infant from the chief of the Anishnawbe across the lake; a small Inuit carving of geese her father brought her from a trip farther north — Urquhart’s personal objects both inform and are completely separate from the ones she chose to include the book.

The refrain “This isn’t in the book” became a kind of running joke as Urquhart presentation veered increasingly into the personal, feeling at times like a glimpse at a family slideshow. “I think this is the last one,” Urquhart said about numerous slides, each time finding that, no, there was another — Urquhart as a young girl, afraid of horses (“A horse is one of the objects in the book,” she said), a Japanese sword guard, given to her at the launch for her 2001 novel The Stone Carvers , and many photos of her cottage in Ireland.

Of course, some of the photos lined up with the book. Many of the objects she wrote about have no connection to her, but Urquhart said she did find herself and her “pioneer” upbringing creeping into the essays.

One of the objects, Tent, was very particular for Urquhart. Although she left many of the objects mysterious or merely hinted at them — “You’ll have to buy the book,” she winked — she read the short essay she wrote for Tent in full. It is a story that starts with Irish immigrants working to build Maple Leaf Gardens. Among that crew is a man named Danny Henry who, after making his way to the mining towns in northern Ontario, would become her father’s best friend and her godfather. The titular Tent, Urquhart says, is really Henry’s prospector’s tent, the only real home he owned for nearly 40 years. But, tents have a much longer history in Canada, and Urquhart’s essay folds in a beautiful passage about the “skin tent” used by First Nations, detailing its construction, utility and portability.

That push-pull between the objects of immigrants and those of Canada’s First Nations is a ribbon throughout the book, and a theme to which Urquhart returned throughout her talk, as well as during the discussion with CBC’s Sandra Abma. It didn’t matter what object she was focusing on, Urquhart said, all the research came back to Canada’s Indigenous people and what has happened to them.

In part, Urquhart told Abma, that is why the book opens with the Beothuk legging. For Urquhart it is the most resonant object in the book, but more than that, she wanted it front and centre, where it could not be ignored.

Throughout the evening, Urquhart was warm, open and generous in both her presentation and, later, the way she answered audience questions. Surely one of Canada’s most celebrated authors, Urquhart is a respected poet, novelist and, with A Number of Things, has now taken the plunge into non-fiction. That breadth of experience makes Urquhart a perfect author to headline a night that was also a celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards — an award Urquhart won in 1997 for her novel The Underpainter . Books, of course, are objects too, and if “material culture” tells us what we value (as Urquhart asserted), then what better book to usher us toward both a celebration of our country’s 150th birthday and our longest running appreciation of the literature created here.


 

 

19
Wednesday
Oct
2016

The Promise of Canada



Charlotte Gray once got into trouble for referring to Library and Archives Canada as “a morgue,” but on October 17th, the scene at the LAC was most definitely alive. After being introduced by Festival director Sean Wilson and LAC director Guy Berthiaume, Gray asserted that the past is where Canadians must look if they are to find a coherent present. It is precisely in the archives, she argued, where we will find both our current identity and our future together. Gray’s newest book, The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country is a deliberately open-ended story of a nation whose story is still evolving. Structured as a series of nine short biographies, The Promise of Canada portrays the country as the product of its citizenry. The choice of which individuals to include is obviously subjective, and Gray acknowledges that the presence of neither prime ministers nor hockey players will undoubtedly be a shock to some readers. Instead, the better- and lesser-known figures included in Gray’s book portray a country where stereotypes fall apart on closer inspection, where the act of inclusion – whether in publishing, legislation or storytelling is an act of nation-building. Gray presents The Promise of Canada is an immigrant’s sesquicentennial gift to her new home country. That gift is not just the story of the nine figures profiled in The Promise of Canada, but the start of a new conversation about what it means to tell the story of a nation.    
 

Gray began her presentation with some of the highlights from her research: phenomenal images by painter Emily Carr; political intrigue and scandal-worthy gossip about George-Etienne Cartier and the moving life story of Elijah Harper, who rose to prominence as an Aboriginal leader in the Manitoba legislature in the 1990s. Gray tied each individual’s story neatly to her main themes of Canadian national identity: a commitment to federalism; an evolving dialogue of inclusion and multi-culturalism; the on-going human relationship with Canada’s vast and unforgiving natural landscape. The themes of immigration and outsider status also work their way through the Gray’s project, as does the recognition of a certain national tendency towards pragmatism and away from heroics. (Why, Gray asked, do so many Canadian narratives feature the lone survivor as a protagonist, as if public attention was merited only by the accident of survival from disaster?) Humorously conceding that her book is a reflection of her own interests and experiences, Gray invites readers to make their own lists of influential people and ideas. The Promise of Canada is a lively remedy for what Gray sees as a public tendency to disengage with Canadian history.

For the second half of the evening, the OIWF invited Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella to converse with Gray about her writing process. Abella, whose own impressive biography would probably merit inclusion in a sequel volume, led Gray and the audience through a series of thoughtful questions which could hardly be answered in a single night. This reviewer is still thinking of new answers for Abella’s questions, which included: “What holds Canada together?” and “Who helped embed Canadian qualities, whatever they might be, in the national psyche?” Gray responded with a distinct awareness of her role as a biographer, as well as great clarity about her own perspective as a British immigrant to Canada. Gray, who arrived in Canada during a “wobbly moment” of national identity in the late 1970s, has had time to think deeply about the role of individuals in creating a nation. Yet the story of Canada, like that of any other vibrant nation, is never complete. Each generation, Gray and Abella agreed, write their own story of their homeland, be it native or adopted.
6
Thursday
Oct
2016

One on One with David Mitchell

Before the evening’s main event, our own Daniel Bezalel Richardsen stands at the lectern to launch the latest issue of Foment , the Festival’s literary review magazine that is now in its fourth year of being. For Daniel and the other Foment volunteers (myself included) it has been a labour of love, and something we are all extremely proud to be a part of.

The man we are all here tonight to see is David Mitchell, who starts with a short reading of a passage from his most recent book, Slade House . In the passage, a young boy named Nathan is visiting the mysterious Slade House with his mother in 1979. He has befriended another young boy called Jonah and together they are playing a game called Fox and Hound. As they play, the garden of the house starts dissolving before Nathan’s eyes, and Jonah transforms from innocent young boy into a snarling beast – but is this real or due to the fact that Nathan is high on Valium? We are left wondering.

The evening is hosted by Peter Schneider, a long-time friend of the Festival. Schneider opens the conversation by asking Mitchell about the libretto that he wrote for his Dutch composer friend, Michel van der Aa, for the 3D opera film Sunken Garden.  Schneider commented on the similarities between the material for the Sunken Garden and Slade House.  Mitchell responded that he hates to waste material, it evolved into a new story within Slade House. He wanted a go at a ‘ghost novella’, the novella being a unique form to conquer this genre, by shortening the typical word count of the average ghost fiction. This is simply Mitchell being Mitchell – subverting the status quo and flipping it on its head.

When Schneider commends Mitchell on the fully dimensional characters within his novels, Mitchell balks at the praise, describing the compliment as something akin to likening him to ‘a giant among pygmies’.  He believes that to do anything less than provide his readers with fleshed out characters with distinctive voices, would mean that he wasn’t doing his job as an author very well. This modesty further endears you to Mitchell, whose self-deprecating charm has already sucked me in, all the more.

Though Slade House is a shorter work than Mitchell’s other novels, it is no less richly imagined. Schneider questions Mitchell about his attention to structure, pattern, and design, which is prevalent in all his works. Mitchell settles in for a lengthy discussion – he loves talking structure and jokes that he could talk about it all night. He states that structure is the author’s chance to be truly innovative – it is the casing for the narrative, which makes the novel better. On the subject of structure, Mitchell mentions Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life as an example of a book he read whose structure he was greatly impressed by.

Mitchell lived in Japan for eight years in the 90’s, and Schneider questions him about the impact the country had on him as a writer. It is clear he is influenced by the country, as he wrote his first two books there and he says that his early novelistic role models were all Japanese. His lack of the Japanese language contributed to the discipline of his writing, he described himself as “linguistically infantilized”, saying that having no one to talk to made him more introspective and insular. Mitchell talks about the dichotomy of the country, saying that it’s almost as if there are two Japans – the ancient Japan of wisdom and silence, and the neon, futuristic Japan of today. Despite their differences, they blend together to create a country of immense depth and history.

During the hour-and- a-half chat between Schneider and Mitchell, many deep and thought-provoking topics were discussed – the rise of technology and the effect it is having on children today; conformity versus individualism; the bond that story-telling creates between generations of humans; and finally Mitchell’s work towards heightening awareness about autism, and how having an autistic child has made him a more enlightened parent. With every new topic, Mitchell gave all of himself to the conversation, holding nothing back and speaking honestly and openly about his opinions and experiences. I believe this quality of his personality attributes to his astounding success as a writer – his ability to feel deeply and to express himself eloquently and profoundly. 

6
Thursday
Oct
2016

Kenneth Oppel: Every Hidden Thing

It says something about the cynical times in which we live when the phrase “Dinosaurs have really lost their luster” is met not only with laughter, but with nods of agreements from the audience. Gone are the days that these 16 foot tall monsters could inspire awe (and maybe even fear) With movies and other media representing the creatures in every way shape and form, dinosaurs have become a household staple over the past three decades.

In his book  Every Hidden Thing author Kenneth Oppel takes the readers back to a time were dinosaurs still had a bit of wonder and mystery hidden within their bones and explorers were fighting over the prestige of being the first to discover these fossils. Oppel spoke about his new book to a crowd of nearly 100 eager listeners, ages ranging from 10 to 60, offering passages from his story and insights into his research with the goal of reigniting some of the splendor that finding multimillion year bones used to raise.

Oppel began the night by offering a glimpse into the setting he created for his book. Alone on stage, equipped only with his novel and his PowerPoint, Oppel read a passage from his book to the crowd of eager young adults; an act that, judging by his demeanour and expressive tone of voice, Oppel had plenty of practice doing. Every Hidden Thing takes place in the late 19th century, and follows the tale of two 17 year old amateur paleontologists, pitted against each other by their waring fathers, in a hunt to track down “the black beauty”; a fossil specimen of ebony black bone, larger than any species discovered at the time. The passages Oppel read painted the characters as troublesome and adventurous, yet bright and motivated towards their goals; traits that the young audience could be seen connecting with as they laughed and nodded along to Oppel’s reading.

Oppel read his passages and engaged the audience with the enthusiasm and wit you would expect from an award winning author focusing on young adult fiction. He spoke with enthusiasm and expression as he excitedly went over the details of his characters, the adventure they were about to set out on, and the research expeditions he himself took part in to bring his world to life. In order to prepare for Every Hidden Thing, Oppel set off on a dig in Dinosaur National Park, Alberta, with a team from the Drumheller museum to excavate a skeletal specimen they had located. While he was quick to brush off (no pun intended) his own contributions to the dig, he spoke of the experience with the energy and exuberance of someone who themselves had just discovered a giant petrified skeleton in the ground for the first time. The “mundanity” of dinosaurs resurfaced again when he recounted a moment during his expedition where he excitedly pointed out a bone in the dirt that were passing, only to have his travel guide go “oh ya, those are everywhere. We mostly just ignore them”. Still, the energy of the night could not be ignored, and while the young crowds interest for these prehistoric monstrosities may or may not have been re-piqued, their interest in Oppel’s work, both past and present, hung in the air, and the question and answer period focused heavily on his past series and how these books impacted the readers that now filled the room.

Ending with a quiz for the audience (complete with t-shirt giveaways), Kenneth Oppel shared a night with his audience (both of the young and regular adult variety) that promoted his new book, as well as celebrated reading and story crafting as whole, finding ways to reignite fires that have grown mundane and dull, and re-finding our interest in the prehistoric which may have found itself hidden.   


Every Hidden Thing Is now available in bookstores everywhere. 

3
Monday
Oct
2016

Barkskins – One on One With Annie Proulx

Within the Southminster United Church on Friday night, over 200 heads nodded in accord with American novelist Annie Proulx as she and Charlotte Gray discussed the themes in her novel Barkskins : ecology, greed, the loss of culture, and the impact of humanity on a landscape. These are issues that a Canadian audience can relate to, especially one based in former Bytown, “lumber capital of North America.” It was evident from the discussion and the engagement of the audience that Proulx has struck a chord.

Proulx shared her story of the novel’s genesis, which began on a camping trip when she was only 11 years old. With roots in her childhood enthusiasm for the natural world, she said, “the idea of the disappearance of the woods began to take hold” as she traveled across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula some 20 years ago. She spotted a sign telling of a great forest of white pine that had stood, yet no trace of it remained. “All they had left was the sign,” she said, and the pathos of it drove her to write. Still, the story took a long time while Proulx completed other projects, gathered research, and mulled over the scope of the tale. “I began to see what an immense and frightening subject I had chosen,” she remembered, “the book was really about climate change.” Since she felt ill-equipped to tackle this technical subject, she focused on deforestation, and specifically the story of characters involved in the chopping of the great forests in North America.

The result is akin to a great Canadian novel, conscious of the landscape, its destruction, and the effect on its people. Gray noted how the story seemed not to recognize the border between the United States and Canada, to which Proulx replied that her approach is to consider a landscape without political lines.  “I imagine it in an earlier time,” to find where the story is really located. Gray also mentioned how the novel handled its Indigenous characters with a cultural sensitivity not common for American writers.  Proulx said, “I was intensely aware of the problems of cultural appropriation,” and that she had sought expert advice because she needed the Indigenous characters to be fairly and accurately represented.  “Those people equal the forest.” Her compassionate depiction resonates with Canadian readers struggling to integrate Indigenous history within the Western narrative.

Although Proulx spoke about these themes with a light tone and some optimism, she was passionate in asserting that, if possible, we must take action to revitalize the forests. Toward the end of their lively discussion, Gray challenged Proulx to assert an opinion on the effectiveness of sustainable forestry practices, which the characters in Barkskins eventually attempt. Proulx wasn’t sure. “It’s hard to remake a forest,” she said, “once it’s gone it’s gone. Fixing this is harder than anybody can imagine. It’s everybody’s business.” She encouraged the audience to start thinking about our history with forests, and the fact that we are indeed forest creatures. “If you have access to a forest, renew your acquaintance.”

29
Thursday
Sep
2016

Bold Acts of Bravery: Narratives of Women Peacemakers

Sometimes, the boldest, bravest act one can perform is simply to listen. CBC presenter Lucy van Oldenbarneveld gave Writers Festival attendees the chance to listen to a phenomenal exchange of ideas between the women writers and activists who contributed to When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upsidedown World Right. The new anthology, edited by Rachel M. Vincent of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, contains roughly two dozen stories of inspirational women activists, each in turned profiled by a woman writer who has thought carefully about the role of the individual in brokering peace and justice.

Oldenbarneveld skillfully mediated a conversation between Native rights activist Casey Camp-Horinek, poet Aja Monet, writer Madeleine Thien and Nobel Laureate Jody Williams. Monet, Thien and Camp-Horinek each read a selection from their contribution to the anthology. After the readings,  Williams joined the panel on stage for a discussion of what might constitute peace-making in 2016. On the night after the Trump-Clinton debate, these Canadian and American women mapped out an understanding of power and social change far more sophisticated than the mainstream media ever allows their audience to take home.

Seated in the pews of Christ Church Cathedral, listeners heard stories of how each author and activist came to understand her place in the world. Horinek spoke of carrying out the will of her mother, also a Native rights activist, whose followers continued to stream to the family homestead long after her death. Madeleine Thien spoke of the intricate relationship between her grief at losing her mother and the public grieving of Ding Zilin, who founded Tiananmen Mothers after she lost her son in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Aja Monet spoke of the power with which June Jordan’s poetry affected her; she emphasized the idea that the importance of poetry lies in its emanating from the personal interior, the “last frontier of colonization.” All the panelists, including Jody Willliams, spoke of importance of taking the first brave step towards empowering oneself and others; and of the necessity of having a space – either figurative or literal – where one can hear oneself think clearly. Oldenbarneveld and the panel then fielded questions from the audience, including a young girl who asked the crucial question of why so many women have been overlooked for their contributions to the peace process around the world. A highlight of the conversation with the audience was when Williams drew a very useful distinction between simple anger and the more important “righteous indignation” which leads some many women and men to take part in initiatives for peace and justice.


Published by the Ottawa-based Arts and Literature Mapalé Press, When We Are Bold: Women Who Turn Our Upside Down includes profiles of such figures as the Chechan journalist Natalya Estemirova, conflict negotiator Betty Oyella Bigombe, Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire and Canadian politician Flora Macdonald. The trajectory of each of the narrative varies, demonstrating not only how different leaders came to their positions in a diversity of ways, but also how their moments of influence varied according to the receptiveness of their audiences.

14
Wednesday
Sep
2016

Travels in the New China with Alexandre Trudeau

Famous man travels to China for six weeks and writes a book about it. Who is Alexandre Trudeau and why should we listen to what he has to say?

 

Most of the audience at the Writers Festival event held at the Library and Archives Canada auditorium could easily answer the question. As a journalist, documentary filmmaker and, last but not least, brother to the current Prime Minister and son of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Alexandre Trudeau is not an unknown entity.

 

Adrian Harewood’s gentle but insistent questions revealed that these labels weighed heavily on Alexandre Trudeau. It was an existential urge that drove Trudeau towards trying to discover the truth within the people he met on travels but also within himself. “You can’t know yourself until you’ve faced wilderness; And lack of comfort; And being pulled out of everything that’s easy.”

 

China is a deeply complex country that has a long history but is constantly changing. And China will “always [have] questions for you.” For Trudeau, Barbarian Lost is first and foremost a memoir of self-discovery.  Although Sinophiles will not be disappointed in the weaving of historical and socio-political context in the book – an approach that cannot be easily executed in documentary film, explains Trudeau – what will be refreshing is the philosophical transformation of a self-labeled “barbarian.”  And of course, stories of Chinese, young and old, happy, and grappling with the freedom of modernity.

 

“There’s no real travel unless somehow you’re transformed.”

 

Harewood’s deft handling of an often-meandering conversation gave the audience an inside look at Trudeau’s feelings about his first book and the journey to get to this point. Acknowledging the influences of his father, and the privilege of being allowed to explore what he calls deep China, Trudeau explains that he has come under the spell of the Dao, which forms part of the philosophical underpinning of his transformation.

Perhaps the part of the evening that was the most telling of what Trudeau gained through this journey, was when Harwood asked Trudeau, why a book, when he had previously "declared the book an antiquated form." Though still committed to film, Trudeau's stance on the book as an art form has changed to "our words make the world." Documentary films can engage an audience for an hour, but words on paper have a sense of permanence. He admitted that he had, in his younger days, "judged too harshly." This self reflection and continual evolution of his own narrative despite and in spite of the legacy of his father's name, is what makes Trudeau's voice interesting and worth exploring.

As someone who has dedicated his life to ideas, Trudeau’s trip to China has given him a new perspective, to be able to look at himself from the outside.  “I’m truly trying to write a book about the human soul… and what great travels that have been in China.”

 

If we took away his name, would Trudeau’s book still be worth a read? Trudeau made it clear that he wants the public to “choose people for their ideas” and not their names, though judging by the crowd lined up to get their books signed, the name is just as important as the ideas and there is no escaping that in Ottawa.
21
Thursday
Apr
2016

The Art of Listening: An Evening with Eleanor Wachtel

In her introduction to one of the last events on the last night of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Canadian writer Charlotte Gray said she was feeling intimidated about having to conduct the interview that was about to ensue.   

 

And, in a way, who could blame her for feeling a little self-conscious?

 

The person whom Gray would interview was none other than Eleanor Wachtel, one of the world’s finest interviewers. It was a rare opportunity to hear the Montreal native on the end of questions rather than delivering them, which she’s done now for more than 25 years as host of Writers & Company on CBC Radio—a new collection of interviews ( The Best of Writers & Company ) has just been published by Biblioasis.

 

“Put yourself in my shoes,” Gray said, before reading out the names of many celebrated authors Wachtel has interviewed as well as many of the impressive plaudits and awards she has received.

 

But not long after Gray’s own interview with Wachtel began, it was clear that there was really nothing for Gray to be intimidated about. Despite her very wide acclaim, Wachtel displays not even a hint of pomposity or self-importance; in person, she’s just as graceful and soft-spoken as the host that many have come to appreciate. Recounting some of the earlier years of her life in Montreal, she makes no attempt at self-aggrandizement, underlining instead the normality of her upbringing. One might have imagined a childhood filled with books, but Wachtel noted how her parents weren’t readers; books came from a local public library in the Snowden neighborhood of NDG, one which wasn’t, in her words, “very elaborate”. She said she didn’t even read all that much and of the books she did read, they were mostly chosen at random. Like many of her friends at the time, she traded comics and watched TV.  

 

Wachtel continued in this self-effacing manner throughout the rest of the interview, which included many funny anecdotes of interviews gone wrong. She discussed her university years in the English department of Mcgill, where she admitted, “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.” And then there was her winding and uncertain path as a freelancer writer and freelance arts broadcaster that led her to Vancouver and finally to Toronto, where she would eventually earn her own show on CBC.

 

By the time the interview was over, it was apparent that what ultimately makes Wachtel’s so appealing is not even so much her superlative skills as an interviewer, the way she’s able to pick the brains of and elicit interesting responses from some of the biggest writers in the world, but her hospitable nature—her desire to make the literary world accessible to all. This is captured well in the second segment of the name that Wachtel chose for her show—the ‘& Company’. With Wachtel, no one is excluded: she never wants to make herself the center of attention and is eager to make the audience part of the company.