Second Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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2
Monday
Jun

Perth Writing Contest

FIRST ANNUAL PERTH WRITING CONTEST

Sponsored by the Booksellers of Perth

 

 

 

The contest is open to residents of Perth and area, which includes: Town of Perth and the three townships of Tay Valley, Drummond / North Elmsley and Lanark Highlands.

 

Category A: Student (age 13-17)

         o Short Story (maximum 1500 words)

         o Non-fiction story or essay (maximum 1500 words)

Category B: Adult (age 18 and over)

         o Short Story (maximum 1500 words)

         o Non-fiction story or essay (maximum 1500 words)

 

Entries must be the original, unpublished work of the entrant.

There is no entry fee. Entries are limited to two per entrant: as a maximum two short stories, or two non-fiction pieces, or one of each.

Each entry must be in English, typed, double-spaced, on 8½” x 11" paper, one side only, page-numbered consecutively on bottom right of pages.

Indicate category, entry type (short story or non-fiction) and title on top left corner of every page.

 

Contest is blind judged. Entrant's name must NOT appear on the submission(s).

For each submission, include a separate cover page with contest category and type, title, name, address, phone number, and email address.

Prizes for each category: First: $75.00, Second: $25.00.

The Ottawa International Writers Festival Perth Chapter reserves the right to withhold any prize should entries fail to meet expected standards.

 

Deadline: Friday, August 1, 2014.

Mail entries or drop off to any of Perth s booksellers:

        o The Book Nook and Other Treasures, 60 Gore Street East, K7H 1H7

        o The Bookworm, 76 Foster Street, K7H 1S1

        o Backbeat Books and Music, 6 Wilson Street West, K7H 2M5

        o The Word, 37A Foster Street, K7H 1R8

        o Blackwood Originals, 1 Gore Street West, K7H 2L5

 

Entries postmarked or dropped off after midnight Friday, August 1, 2014 will be disqualified.

Submissions will be neither acknowledged nor returned.

Entries not conforming to the above rules will be disqualified.

Winners will be announced and prizes awarded at The Ottawa International Writers Festival Perth Chapter Literary Event, August 22-23, 2014. Date and time of presentation will be announced.

 

This contest is made possible by the generous sponsorship of the booksellers of Perth  and by  The Perth Writers Guild, for providing contest judging 

 


 

27
Tuesday
May

Writers Festival Perth Chapter!

The Ottawa International Writers Festival is thrilled to announce the launch of the PERTH CHAPTER!

 

We have joined forces with the Town of Perth, Chamber of Commerce, BIA, Library and some Perth businesses to bring to the stage our brand of world-class events, featuring writers and thinkers of local, national and international renown.

Heritage Perth, Ontario, known as “The Big Town of Festivals” and one of the prettiest towns in Ontario, is the perfect host for this, the newest chapter in the Ottawa Festival’s growth and outreach.

 

Our first year is packed with events that showcase reading and writing in fresh, exciting ways. And most events are included in Ottawa Festival memberships. Of course we’ll also be launching a literacy program for students, bringing authors to schools and the library and building on the highly successful Ottawa programs, “Step Into Stories” and THINK INK.

 

Perth Chapter events will be posted here as they are confirmed. Tickets are available online here or in person at Tickets Please, 39 Foster St., Perth, www.ticketsplease.ca

 

JOIN US!

 

June 21: tent in Stewart Park as part of the Kilt Run festivities

August 22-23: award-winning authors, writing workshops, a book fair and more!

 

 

 

1
Thursday
May

Another Word for Nothing Left

It is with a cheerful and a sad feeling coming to the end of this Spring session of the Writers Fest. It was cheerful and even buoyant because it was such a successful session with fifteen hundred participants listening and discussing with 47 writers, poets, bloggers, entertainers, et al.  Sad, of course, because the festival has ended, for the time being that is. And personally, I was also sad because the hall wasn't filled to the last seat at this final event as it had done for most of them.

 

For us, who listened to the three engaging readings and the discussion, moderated by CBC journalist, TV host and community activist, Adrian Harewood, the last event was a great treat indeed. The authors, from very diverse backgrounds, were not lost for words at all and – contrary to the title – had much left to say.  Each novel had a strong political and/or social underpinning, while the stories themselves delved deeply into personal lives of the novels' characters.  From the reverberations twenty years later of the Air India fatal bombing in 1984 to growing up in Luanda, the capital of Angola, to crossing physical and emotional borders in an unnamed desert, we were introduced to accomplished wordsmiths and imaginative thinkers.

 

Nadia Bozak was born and raised in London, Ontario. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature and has written novels and short stories.  El Niño is the second novel in a trilogy that is linked by theme rather than characters. Inspired by J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace , El Niño tracks the survival of one woman and a young, undocumented migrant as they journey through the no-man’s-land of a remote southwestern desert.  Borders, physical and psychological, are of central importance to the story. Borders can be defined in many ways. The people attempting to cross them, successfully or not, have stories to tell.

 

Ondjaki is an award winning fiction writer, poet, children's book author and more.  Most recently he won the prestigious José Saramago Prize (2013). He was born and raised in Angola, studied in Portugal, and lives in Luanda, the capital. Returning from Brazil he flew in the night before to join our panelists.  In the introduction, Neil Wilson expressed special thanks to Ondjaki's translator Stephen Henighan, who has brought Ondjaki to the attention of the North American reading public. Stephen is the general editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, based in Windsor, ON - a project that deserves the attention of all internationally curious fiction readers. Ondjaki's new novel, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret , is inspired by the stories told by author's own grandmother.  "Energetic and colourful, impish and playful, Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret is a charming coming-of-age story…" states the book's back cover. From listening to him read, you can tell it will be fun to explore.

 

Padma Viswanathan, born in Nelson, BC, raised in Edmonton and currently living in Arkansas, is a fiction writer and playwright. In her new (second) novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao , she imagines the devastating long term impact and aftershocks of the fatal Air India bombing on families of those who perished. Her central character is Ashwin Rao, a psychologist, whose study into "comparative grief," allows him to remain an outside observer for some time. However, this distance to the tragedy collapses as he becomes increasingly involved with one family in particular. Furthermore, his personal experience of loss pushes him to confront his own emotions leading to a deep crisis of faith.

 

Adrian led the discussion by asking each of the authors about their motivation for their novel. Padma started with an idea for a novel about a psychologist who, through external events, faces a life crisis. The Air India tragedy grew into emotional centrality as the novel developed. Adrian stressed that the most unique aspects of the novel is that it is the first time that the Air India bombing, an event that has continued to be like an open wound in the Canadian consciousness, has taken the central role in a substantial work of fiction. 

 

The questions for Ondjaki were as much to tell us more about Angola and the literary scene there as about the book itself.  Angola, he said was probably mostly in the news at the time of independence and not much since then. In contrast to Portuguese people, who gave the impression that they tended to feel sad and down, Angolans were upbeat: they loved music and dance – one of their exports – and always hoped for a better tomorrow. The literary scene is expanding and quite healthy, he explained. Young people approach him and ask for advice how to "become a writer". They don't necessarily like his answer of having to read and write a lot in the process.  Given the publishing market is not very developed, he tends to circulate his books to friends and others around him. Adrian asked about his upbringing; he felt that maybe women had a great influence on Ondjaki's upbringing. Yes, he smiled. He grew up with two sisters and both his mother and, in particular, his grandmother have influenced him greatly and still do.  The new novel centres on Granma Nineteen and he explains, among other things, the reason for her nickname.  It sounds like a very entertaining read. Ondjaki has a great sense of humour that was not diminished by him having to use English instead of Portuguese. 

 

Nadia, in response elaborated more on her theme of 'borders', real or arbitrary, and the challenges of cross-cultural encounters.  Landscapes she explained can define borders as can personal relationships.  Social and political issues are of great importance to her and fiction is also a device to explore those in a personal way.

 

An interesting discussion developed in response to Adrian's question of the "power of narrative." For Padma it was to use narrative to develop better understanding of pain; the freedom to reorder events and timelines to tell the story in a different way. Nadia's interest is to expand the conversation on the plight of marginal people, a tool for exposure of the vulnerability of characters. In this novel, the dog/coyote mix takes a central place and while he is not anthropomorphized, he is also an object.  Finally, for Ondjaki it is the power of "playing God," the fear and pleasure to imitate life in fiction and to follow reality in a new way. 

 

The evening concluded with a pertinent, general question from the audience:  while many of the writers we have met during the Festival are of the younger generation, the majority of the audience has been of the older generations. What to do? One can only hope, the consensus of our panelists was, that when the young people reach middle age they will move to reading books. In the meantime, all three authors (as many others) either teach or are otherwise engaged with young people to motivate them to read and enjoy stories.

 

1
Thursday
May

Blog Out Loud

With a glass of wine in hand, Claire Fowles of Foodieprints took to the stage for her reading of Wine Wednesday – Pretentious Twaddle, one of the 11 juried selections at the 2014 Blog Out Loud. She was  probably a third of the way into her piece when I realized she wasn’t just giving a hilarious introduction to her post’s topic: wine reviews. She hadn’t glanced down at her paper once, and it didn’t occur to me that she might not be speaking extemporaneously. But then she glanced at her notes before starting a sentence, and her “introduction” never transitioned into a reading...

 

The way a well-crafted blog can roll of the tongue the em dashes and italics adding their lilt and spice — is truly incredible. With each post constrained to a single thought, the event was a little bit Pecha Kucha and a little bit monologue series.     

 

Blog Out Loud  may be a new addition to the Writers Festival, but it’s not new to the Ottawa scene. Veteran blogger Lynn Jatania from the blog Turtlehead started the local event in 2009 for those “with BlogHer attendance envy.” But unlike the big stateside conference, Blog Out Loud was free — and male friendly. Sure, there were more momblogs than manblogs represented, but each of the bloggers deserved their spot on stage.

 

After all, the blogging life is not always easy.

 

“What is it about blogging that makes people so dismissive, so quick to judge the author's use of their time?” asked blogger Tanya Snook of Spydergrrl.com in Crisis of Conscience: Why Do I Blog? You could feel the mmm hmm’s in the room as she continued: “Would you roll your eyes because someone keeps a journal and then turns it into a book? [...?!?!...?!]” <– (Why blogs read out loud are so much better.)

 

Written words weren’t the only focus of Blog Out Loud. Janet Lalonde of Cartoon-Colored Glasses was featured for Shoveling Metaphors, a pithy post of prose and pictures. Here’s a taste:

 

“I tend to see cleaning with a toddler in the house as shoveling before the snowplow comes by and pushes all the #@&$ snow back in your driveway. In this case, your 35"-tall plow circles the block alllll day long.”

 

 

As Lynn reminded the crowd at the beginning of the evening, each post itself may be relatively short and limited in scope, but the collection of a blogger’s posts reveal much about who they are as individuals.  We didn’t get that at Blog Out Loud, but having singular glimpses into each into blogger’s repertoire was like being at the Costco on a Saturday.

 

We’d better keep our little toothpicks and napkins, because we’ll be coming back for more.

 

For a full list of the featured bloggers and posts, visit Blog Out Loud

 

29
Tuesday
Apr

Lunch with Toews in a few photographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

29
Tuesday
Apr

Where You Stumble

I entered Knox Presbyterian Church in more of a rush than I would have hoped, thanks to the perpetual lateness of buses, and was greeted by the buzz of a room filled with literature enthusiasts excited about the evening ahead. This, in turn, made me even more enthusiastic about the event. Where You Stumble brought together three fantastic Canadian authors - Miriam Toews, Jonathan Bennett and Arjun Basu - to discuss their latest novels and their work in general. I have to admit, as a badly-informed Brit, I was only familiar with Miriam Toews before deciding to attend this event but I quickly caught myself up on Bennett and Basu to fully understand how interesting the discussion would be.

 

The evening was hosted by Sandra Abma, who asked all the right questions at all the right times and often seem in awe of her interviewees, as we all would have been in her place. We were first treated to readings by the authors from their most recent works, starting with Arjun Basu whose novel Waiting for the Man is about a man who starts listening to a voice in his head (“the man”) who ends up taking him on a journey, both physically and metaphorically - as is the case with all the best literature. Next up was Jonathan Bennett who thoroughly surprised me by being Australian. Once I’d got over his accent, I was interested to learn that his latest novel – The Colonial Hotel, a loose retelling of the story of Helen of Troy, moving the tale to an unspecified developing country where Paris is a doctor for an NGO and Helen is a nurse – started life as an eighty page poem. From the excerpt he shared with us, I think poetry’s loss is definitely the novel’s gain. Finally we heard from Miriam Toews whose novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is about sisterhood, love and loss. She read from the second chapter of the book and left it on such a cliff-hanger that I’m desperate to get my hands on a copy to find out what happens next.

 

All three novels take their protagonists on journeys, and this was the focus of the discussion which followed the readings. It was interesting to hear how the novels had come into being, from idea to page, and that the story can go to places even the author wasn’t expecting. I particularly enjoyed Bennett’s comment that he sometimes learns about his own books through his readers’ personal insight something which, as a former literature student, I think gives an extra level to all those essays that are written about authors’ hidden meanings and secret agendas.

 

The discussion also explored the personal element of novel writing, especially that of Toews’ whose work has been influenced by her own family tragedies, which she spoke about in an elegant and beautiful way, unsurprisingly given the beauty and elegance of her writing. I was also tickled to hear Baru’s secret to writing: he challenges himself by writing “Twisters”; Twitter stories of exactly 140 characters. Since this isn’t something I feel I could do, I was happy to learn that there was no consensus to The Trick Of Writing A Brilliant Novel except that there really is no trick: Toews’ draws from personal experience, Bennett’s imagination is endless and Baru is indeed the king of Twitter.

 

Way back at the beginning of the evening, Miriam Toews’ reading touched on how to leave your audience feeling “happy and content” rather than “wild and restless” and I think it’s safe to say all three authors were already in on that secret. 

 

29
Tuesday
Apr

Life, Death and Everything “In-Between”

It was standing room only in the Knox Presbyterian hall as our host, Neil Wilson read us this quote from Patricia Pearson’s book Opening Heaven’s Door to set the stage.


“The more critical reason dominates, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, and the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more life we integrate. Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion, the individual is pauperized.”  -- Carl Jung

 

Alongside her own personal experiences, it was this perspective particularly which prompted and spurred on Patricia’s research and interest in what exactly happens when we die. She noticed that especially in the last few decades, the pendulum of our shared cultural understanding of death has swung far to the side of the intellectual atheist’s -- that when you die you cease to exist. But she argues that this idea that believing in life beyond death is a serious blow to one’s credibility is blocking the general population’s ability to express their own experiences which suggest that there may be something more.

 

Through her readings of several passages in her book and recounting her own stories and those told to her by others as she compiled her research for the book, Patricia led us through many compelling stories of people making contact with a force beyond that which we can observe with our earthly senses. The stories fell into two general categories of those experiencing “Near Death Experiences” (or NDEs) and people experiencing the spiritual presence of a friend or loved-one.

 

These experiences might seem unthinkably rare, like an urban myth. Not so, says Patricia! These stories are all around us. They are so commonly recognized in hospice or long-term care facilities that the caregivers have their own vocabulary to describe them.  She tells of people bringing stories to her when they found out about the subject of her research -- close friends that she had no idea had had encounters with the other side. But her opening the topic created a welcoming place for people to share the experiences which had  been so meaningful for them. After the event, I was surprised to find that, when discussing the event with a friend, he was able to recount two separate post-death spiritual encounters within his immediate family! This taboo about open discussion on the matter is creating, in Patricia’s mind, “a real subterranean world of spiritual experiences.” All around us people are having encounters, but not feeling able to discuss them, and so many keep these experiences private, missing out on the reassurance of those who can say “me too.” Writing this book was Patricia’s first step to bridging that gap.

 

In the Near Death Experiences she heard about, the experience of the now cliche “white light” was described with stunning uniformity across all cultures. Those experiencing it describe it as “simply indescribable” above all, but the words that fit the experience best were consistently akin to a “sentient emotional light”, “profoundly comforting”, and the feeling of “dissolving into light, like a drop of water joining a sea of light.” One described it as feeling “I had been lost for centuries and found my way home.”

 

Though nearly every organized religion has its sacred passages drawing parallels to god(s) and heaven being “pure light,” Patricia also quickly points out that this experience, for those who have had it, does not seem to be about organized religion at all. As you would imagine, being on the brink of death and discovering what lies beyond is an incredibly jarring experience, and one that takes years to fully integrate into your worldview. It takes on average twelve years, according to Patricia’s research. But she mentions that in almost every case, no matter what the subject’s initial religion, they leave the constructs of their organized religion, feeling the lack of fit with what they’ve experienced on so personal a level.

 

Is it possible that this sentient, emotional light is a glimpse of our same shared spiritual reality that is more complex than any one religion can convey? Patricia doesn’t say one way or the other, and in our short time did outline other options and explanations (as well as her reasons for finding them wanting) An oxygen starved brain? A grief hallucination? A rush of serotonin? The biochemical process of the brain shutting down? Their effects wouldn’t satisfactorily match the description given by so many she interviewed. And though Patricia notes carefully during the question period that she’s “non-declarative” on the subject of exactly what the afterlife is like, she shares something we can all take comfort in -- her belief that death is nothing to fear. Those facing their moment of death are much more likely to feel a calm and peace, than fear and isolation. Whatever that force may be is that takes us into its arms at the moment of our passing, in that moment no one dies alone. 

 

29
Tuesday
Apr

Enlightenment 2.0 with Joseph Heath

Joseph Heath was one of the first writers I happened to see at the Writers Festival, where five years ago he came to town to speak about his then newly released book Filthy Lucre, which is still one of the best popular (i.e., non-technical) economics text to have come out post-2008. Heath has the air of an introverted wonk, but it belies his irrepressible enthusiasm when he is talking about a subject that he clearly loves: why do people believe and act the way they do?

 

After giving us a précis of his work, Heath was interviewed by Andrew Potter – a frequent host, and writer on previous occasions – to whom Heath’s newest book, Enlightenment 2.0, was dedicated to. The main premise of the book can loosely be pinpointed as a sort of paean to rationalism, particularly in the arena of politics.

 

The Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, the joint project in 2010 by Messrs. Stewart and Colbert were mentioned as starting points in his book. While it may now seem dated, this was an example of a time when over a quarter million people gathered on Capitol Hill for the sole purpose of extolling rationalism and calling for it be restored in public discourse. Perhaps the largest such gathering in the name of reason since the French Revolution.

 

To get to what reason is, Heath stated that it was important to have a sense of what it really means. Once defined, we’d need to then genuinely examine whether it is indeed the case that were are suffering from a deficit in politics and in the public square.

 

As Daniel Kahneman explained in his magisterial Thinking, Fast and Slow, our brains prefer shortcuts as a way of increasing efficiency, and this can often lead to many irrational behaviours. If we suspend physiological factors for a moment, we can clearly see the pattern of mental shortcuts in action when it comes to addiction, and much more nakedly with respect to procrastination. Often the advice is to “think/try harder!” But this approach is rarely effective simply because operating in a rational mode is too taxing to be sustained for more than relatively short periods.

 

This is where our brains could use external aids to help us self-regulate. Heath says that the simple process of “writing things down,” gave us a huge advantage in helping us to be more efficient. This simple idea of freeing up our working memory or RAM by capturing items in a secure and trustworthy storage device like a Moleskine or digital calendar, form the very foundation of the very successful time management program by business guru David Allen. Since we are heavily dependent on our environment, it would help if we could re-structure it to suit our long-term ends.

 

Community as environment was an interesting example. Many cultural and subcultural settings have often reinforced desirable behaviours and this is largely absent in an individualized setting where the self becomes the sole and final arbiter of the right course of action and behaviour. Heath gave the example of his own marriage as mutual form of regulation within a secure commitment, and mused that perhaps this was the reason that married couples are on average happier and more financially successful than those who are not. Taxes, in Heath’s view, to encourage desirable collective action whether in the positive sense through tax credits or in the negative sense such as the Bloombergian soda tax are seen important environmental regulators. Since much of what is “common sense” has now gained currency, this may mask the fact that what may offend us at the surface may actually be the better solution, and since it can be so counter-intuitive, we need closer and deeper examination of why this is so. Yet there were instances where Heath contradicted himself on this very point. Mandatory Minimums in criminal law override the discretion of the judge, but could it not in the same sense act as a helpful external regulator that helps the often irrational mind of the human judge – however experienced – to perhaps make deliver justice more consistently?

 

Conservatism originally, as exemplified by Burke and Hume, affirmed tradition against revolution or “progress” in the name of reason. Conservatism now, with a heavy dose of populism, is seen to be for “anything-but-reason” instead of tradition. This again is a false choice, that Heath didn’t explore, for it implies that there is nothing reasonable about “that’s the way it has always be done,” falling prey to the hubris of the “old fogeyism” that Heath himself cautions against.

 

While the degradation in the quality of discourse has recently been decried, Heath mentions that the 24/7 cycle and the ever constant presence of Twitter as sharing part of the blame. This is a rather simplistic approach, and both Potter and Heath agreed that there was no putting the toothpaste of the Internet back into the halcyon tube of the analogue age. The media are also seen to be complicit in certain issues as they form an interest group. This means that the merits (or drawbacks) of open access and transparency are never properly discussed. Heath mentions that many public servants simple say that “I’ve never talked on the phone so much in my life!” as a remedy to having all their e-mails be subject to public scrutiny.

 

Finally, I wish that Heath had had time to get into ethics since much of what is right may not necessarily be rational, or rational in a much more winding way that it takes a form of moral reasoning to arrive at how this is indeed the case. And to assume that rationality started with the Enlightenment is historically untrue. His strongest contribution may be in emphasizing the role of the external environment; having stable and strong institutions collectively and useful tools individually to help us make better choices.

 

28
Monday
Apr

Fiction Cabaret

This Cabaret was intellectual and fruitful in nature. It was different from the cabaret you had in mind – you know, the one where actors prance and other characters sport super glue haircuts. There was no stage or heavy lighting, just the corner of a pub with a microphone stand. Ray Robertson said he’s been here about nine times, but he may have been over exaggerating. He is a fiction writer, after all.

 

It was hot and muggy in the Manx basement, but it rained a chill outside. CBC Journalists and professors from local universities collected themselves on stools to hear what Ray Robertson and Harry Karlinsky had to read. Two polar opposite authors brought forth an abundance of kind ears, ones which encouraged laughter and scientific intrigue, all within the hour.

 

Harry Karlinsky politicized the discussion surrounding literary awards in a world where some vote themselves in or are pushed to the top by inner circles. “What about Sigmund Freud?” he questioned, and expanded on his disappointment with the history of the Nobel Prize. Curated words and a research-based novel awakens the senses of the mature intellects; luckily there were many of them. I learned that Freud philosophized by saying that it is “from air to air that one discovers truth”; a path of righteousness that few dare to travel. If Freud were still around, I’d give him props.

 

Ray Robertson read with the aura of a Beat era poet and questioned the difference between published and self-published. This let out a few warm giggles because the festival’s attendees understand this dilemma quite well. He made us consider the advantages and disadvantages of being born rich, which immediately made me think, rich or self-rich? Someone who is having an inner battle with these questions, would surely argue “Google me! I’ve got my own website and I’m only one click away” (WINK) – which is something Ray read during his performance.

 

Just before Ray sat down to devour some edible delicacies, which out of chivalry prevented me from asking him a few questions, he left a lasting impression by sharing that, “sometimes, broken hearts sound like an attractive option.”

 

I’ll ask you about that on the tenth time you’re around, Mr. Robertson, as I'm sure you'll be coming back.

 

 

28
Monday
Apr

Living History with Sean Michaels, Steven Galloway, and Eva Stachniak

The April showers didn’t stop the crowd from gathering at the Knox Presbyterian Church on Saturday evening. I was one of a handful of folks purchasing books before the panel even began, so I clearly wasn’t the only one expecting a line-up afterwards! It’s always fun to hang out around the book displays once the festival is in full swing, anyway, to hear the chatter about the authors people have already seen and the ones that they’re excited to read. The chatter had already turned toward the authors we were about to see.

 

The panel kicked off with introductions from moderator Mark Medley. Each author read from his or her latest book, but Sean Michaels was the only one to put on a musical performance! His novel, Us Conductors , is inspired by the true life and loves of the Russian scientist, inventor and spy Lev Termen, who was also the creator of the theremin. Sean gave us a demonstration of playing the theremin, which is quite a thing so see since the theremin is controlled without physical contact by the performer. (Sadly, Steven Galloway, whose novel is inspired by the life and death of Harry Houdini, did not perform any magic tricks to go with his reading.)

 

Once the readings were complete and everyone was settled on stage, Mark Medley started the discussion by asking why the authors chose to write about the historical figures that they did. The range of answers on the panel was quite interesting—and, as my husband pointed out when we were on our way home, the seating order of the authors was also intriguing. Eva Stachniak, who was sitting next to the moderator, is likely the only one of the authors who writes “old school” historical fiction (in terms of genre, but also technique). On the other end of the panel was Sean Michaels, who said that his work is not like Eva’s: he used the story of these real-life characters as a silhouette and “filled it with fictions to let the silhouette convey things I was grappling with.” Steven Galloway, who was right smack in the middle (seating-wise), also seemed to fit somewhere between what Eva and Sean were doing with their historical characters, albeit with closer leanings to Sean.

 

Their answers, then, ranged from Eva’s fascination with Catherine the Great (“I want to imagine myself in this world; I want to stand by and watch her live”) to Steven’s simple answer about his interest in Houdini (“I think Houdini is neat, but I wanted to use a magician, and if Houdini didn’t work, I would have found someone else”) to Sean’s rather eloquent take on a writer’s inspiration (“Writers walk around with bulging pockets; you pick up bits and pieces that interest you or that you’re curious about—and Lev’s story was one of those bits that I had tucked away”).

 

The discussion then turned to invention in historical fiction, and Steven made the interesting point that the difference between historical fiction and creative non-fiction is the agreement with the reader that the novel in their hands is a work of fiction. It isn’t a biography, so they should be prepared to suspend their disbelief. In other words, there should be room for invention. Eva, who tries not to invent details, brilliantly compared her own (more traditional historical fiction) work to that of a sonnet writer: the form is already there (i.e., the historical figures, events, and facts), but she can write whatever she wants within that form. The motivations of characters and their thoughts are what she invented, but she had done so much research ahead of time that she is “confident in that world.”

 

All of the authors did quite a bit of research to write their books, actually. Mark mentioned the shelf full of books about Houdini in Steven’s office, and Steven explained that he didn’t reference the books while he was writing, but doing the research ahead of time makes things easier. He could have made up how Houdini did his tricks, or he could look it up. “There’s quite a lot to make up already,” he explained. He also went on to joke about the (disappointed) reactions he gets when someone asks him if a scene was real or made up. “It’s way harder to make it up!” he laughed.

 

Sean’s father built his theremin for him as part of his research, but he also travelled to Russia. “The main thing a writer does is conjure a continuous dream,” he said. “The vividness and continuousness of that dream takes [lots of writing] practice.” He said that his trip to Russia was a subtler aspect of research, one that helped him with the vividness and continuousness that he was seeking in his writing. He noted that he could have looked up famous landmarks and other photos in books or online, but “to describe the sunset or how it feels on the streets, I wanted [to go to Russia myself] to be able to trust my own instincts in writing this.”

 

Before things wrapped up and the floor was open to the audience for questions, Mark asked the panel how they would want to be fictionalized by another writer, possibly decades or hundreds of years from now. All of the authors would be happy to be fictionalized themselves. Eva made the point that by writing, you give that character another chance at life—who wouldn’t want that?—and that there might be something in your own story that you might not even realize is important. Sean would be perfectly happy with a completely fictional version of himself gracing the pages of a future book. “If a made-up version sings an interesting song, then that’s fine,” he said. Steven joked that the real version wouldn’t be very interesting (“guy goes into room alone and types for years on end”), so he declared that his fictionalized self should be “taller, handsomer, funnier, and more dramatic.”

 

I like the way they think.

 

Overall, this panel was put together quite well and the discussion gave me a lot to chew on about the relationship between history and fiction and where the author’s responsibility lies. It’s a topic that I’d like to see come up at future festival panels, too, because it can be a fascinating discussion. Each author was charismatic, and I’d be happy to see any one of them again, as well. Now, on to delve into their books…