International Festival of Authors – Roundtable: The Family Dynamic

As part of the IFOA, I am delighted to be hosting a panel discussion with Canadian & US novelists writing about family myths and secrets: Alexi Zentner, Jennifer Haigh and Sina Queyras.

It should prove to be a very interesting discussion, so if you are in Toronto please do come down and join us.
It is THIS Saturday, October 22, 12 noon, at the Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Queen’s Quay.
Check out the Harbourfront website for more information on my panel discussion and other events as part of IFOA at Harbourfront Centre.

All this information can also be found on my Facebook page(s).

Read More

The Journalist’s Tale: Running for Your Life Across a Dessert Border

The Journalist’s Tale: Running for Your Life Across a Dessert Border

This month, I met Aaron Berhane in a Bloor street Starbucks and he told me how he had escaped his country’s secret police and lived to tell the tale. I still had the flu and I became progressively more feverish as he described starting out as a journalist in Eritrea, the small African country next to Ethiopia. I could feel myself sinking deeper and deeper into my hard-backed chair as if I was being driven into the ground by the moral force of his story. I couldn’t help putting myself in his position and wondering if I would show the same courage. Even as a little girl, I used to suspect myself of being a coward. Would I be brave enough to fire machine guns like Canadian soldiers in France? Or would I just run away? Some of my fears were triggered by the GI comics of the 1950’s. And the other part comes from within me: a nagging curiosity about the depths of my own courage or cowardice.

Here’s Aaron’s tale: Aaron was one of the first graduates of the journalism and mass communications program in the University of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. (This program has since been closed by the Eritrean government. It’s also worth noting that there are no privately owned media outlets in Eritrea.) After Eritrea got its independence in 1991, Aaron was critical of the way his government was running the country, but he couldn’t get his letters and articles published by the government owned newspaper, the only publication in the country. So he co-founded the first independent newspaper himself– over the objections of his father. He didn’t want Eritrea to become intolerant and repressive which is what he believes has happened to a number of African countries after their independence.

Read More

Singapore Slings with the Enemy

A long time ago, when I was a working journalist, I agreed to meet an official for an East Asian government who wanted me to stop writing about the political prisoners in his country’s jails. He invited me for drinks at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and when we met in the bar we spent the first fifteen minutes comparing our drinks. He claimed his was more delicious because he had chosen a Singapore Sling and I had ordered a Gin and Tonic, which, let’s face it, is not as sugary as a Singapore Sling—which happened to be the kind of drink I drank when I first started going into bars. My companion politely asked me to stop my work for Amnesty International, and sipping my G and T, I just as politely inquired why his government felt the need to put their countrymen in prison for expressing their views. He answered that his country was young, and dissent wasn’t helpful at this period in its growth. I told him that my country was young too, but we didn’t put people in jail for dissent. At least, not on the scale that his country did, and he nodded sagely. “Some day,” he said. “Some day, we, too, will allow dissent, when we are strong and prosperous.” Read More

A Writer’s Life: the Dark Side First

This spring I attended an event comprised mainly of writers much younger than me whose short stories were being published by Joyland: a digital hub for short fiction. Three young writers were interviewed by three other young writers and they answered questions instead of reading from their work although one writer Natalee Caple read a limerick. Her name is Natalee Caple and she is a friend of mine. Her poem was about the federal Conservative government winning a majority in the recent election.

Culture is broad, Natalee said, and a community of writers is important, and she wrote her short stories as a way to express her own joy and interest in magic and allegory even though her agent had told her not to do this because she has a novel coming out soon and a digital collection of stories might interfere and possibly dampen her readers’ interest in the novel. Read More

Why Casanova?

My interest in Casanova grew out of an unresolved argument with a family member. My uncle-in-law, the late Jack Crean, argued that only non-fiction captured the truth of human experience. I, of course, argued for fiction. One evening, Jack brought out a new example: the 12-volume memoir by Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life, and challenged me to top it. He said the passage describing Casanova’s escape from the Leads, the Venetian prison next to the Bridge of Sighs, was the best suspense narrative in Western literature.

Somewhat disdainfully, I took away the memoir and began to read it. All I knew of Casanova was the man who been passed down in public myth. An infamous womanizer, in other words, one of those playboys your mother told you to avoid. I’d also seen Fellini’s movie, Casanova, which cemented the womanizer myth. This film is a masterpiece but it doesn’t show the literary side of Casanova? The European man of letters who had translated The Iliad, written poems and operas and essays and engaged in scientific discussions.

Of course, Jack Crean ended up winning the argument (if such arguments can really be won) because I was transfixed by Casanova’s description of his escape from the Leads. I went on to read most of the 12 volumes and I was struck by the fascinating paradox of the man who didn’t appear to resemble the public perception. Here was a legendary rake who insisted on seeing women as people and once famously said: I cannot make love to a woman unless I can speak to her in her own language because I like to enjoy myself in all my senses at once.

Inspired by his memoirs, I visited Venice, Casanova’s birthplace, and was struck by the city’s atmosphere of longing, which must have its origin in the thousand-year separation from the Italian mainland. This atmosphere gave me my insight into Casanova, who was able to dwell creatively in a permanent state of transit. That may be the reason for his enormous capacity to appreciate life. In my novel, he pays homage to longings:

Our longings provide us with the text of our lives and lead us to the faiths we need to enact our destinies. And our paradox is this: the true art is not to satisfy our longings, but to learn how to cherish them

Who really was Casanova? Born April 2, 1725, he was the son of lower-class actors. His mother was (beautiful, remote and) celebrated on the stage of Europe and he grew up equating women with creativity and intelligence as well as beauty, love and sexual conquest. A master of role-playing, he (had many careers, as) was a law student, a preacher, a novelist (he wrote a science-fiction fantasy, Icosmeion), an alchemist, even the director of a state lottery. He met Voltaire and Catherine the Great; he was imprisoned in Venice in l755-56; he returned after eighteen years in 1774, and went into second exile in 1782. He wound up as a librarian for Count Waldstein at the count’s castle at Dux in Bohemia and died there on June 4, 1798.

Most of the facts in his memoirs appear to be true. The English scholar Arthur Symons found Casanova’s papers in boxes at the caste in Dux 100 years after Casanova’s death and in those boxes were letters from many of the 122 women he had affairs with because he continued to be friends with them after the love affair was over. Sometimes he found them rich husbands who provided the security he was never able to offer himself.

In my novel, Casanova is an old man returning for a last look at the city he loves when he meets Asked For Adams, a descendant of Puritans and the young cousin of American president John Adams. A mellower, wiser Casanova than the young man described in his memoirs, he espouses travel as a form of love and emphasizes the romance not the clash of civilizations.

His own memoirs only go up to the year 1774, and I was conscious of choosing a time in his life that he didn’t write about. The blank periods in the lives of historical personalities are more interesting to a novelist because these gaps leave room for invention. Although it may seem odd to write a novel about Casanova now his way of moving in the world is a good antidote to today’s climate of fear. And I’ve always liked the critical notion that historical novels are written out of the Utopian hope that new stories about the past create fresh possibilities for the future.

The Wives of Bath’s New Prologue: About the Process of Making the Book into a Film

Writers often dream of their novel being made into a successful film. But a (a sad, little sinking feeling) overcame me the moment I heard the screenwriter wanted to set the film version of The Wives of Bath in the present. This would mean jettisoning the time period of my novel about a murder at a girls’ boarding school. Its tale of a friendship triangle between three girls reflects some aspects of my own experience, as a boarder at Havergal College in Toronto in the early 1960s, so this period was nostalgic for me. It was a transition era before the protest generation – dominated by President Kennedy and the Peace Corps, lingering sexual taboos and rigid definitions of what it meant to be male and female. The ideas associated with this period were central to the novel. Hence my sense of loss. Could I bear to let someone else change my story? But the screenwriter, Judith Thompson, one of Canada’s best-known playwrights, thought these ideas could carry over into the present. She didn’t grow up in the 1960s and preferred to use a contemporary idiom.My background in the theatre meant I already knew that adaptations of novels were not adaptations at all but translations, and with a very few exceptions, most theatre performances and films will suffer if the director tries to duplicate the book. Likely all of us have gone through the experience of going to the film of a well-loved book and coming away disappointed. Surprisingly, these films are often the result of a director trying to stay slavishly true to the novelist’s vision. Directors risk turning a novel into a lifeless film unless they are free to create their own interpretation of a book. I’d learned this in the 1970s collaborating on theatre pieces with Toronto choreographers. Time after time, I was told my word-based notions wouldn’t read on the stage. Time after time, the choreographers were right, and I learned to trust those with theater experience.Using language skillfully is not only the novelist’s most (powerful tool, it’s the central tool) and the matrix of the story. Novelists have to create the effects, including making a character, through dialogue and descriptive passages. Plays depend, in part, on verbal play for their dramatic impact while films are not a linguistic medium at all. Dialogue aside, language in screenplays is used to point to the right kind of imagery. This is humbling, but essential for a novelist to understand! So I uttered a bittersweet sigh and gave Judith the go-ahead with the modern setting. Later, reading Judith’s original screenplay, I was delighted by her interpretation of the boarding school triangle although superficially her script looked vastly different from my novel. For one thing, Judith’s characters now spoke modern slang. And there were other changes. One of the girls cultist worship of King Kong as a symbol of masculine power had been exchanged for the love of a falcon, kept secretly on the school grounds; the boarding school of Bath Ladies College was now liberal; and Mouse, the narrator, had lost the hump that might have made her look a little grotesque on the big screen.Still, I was pleased to see how closely Judith kept to the emotional ground of the story and to its three characters. Intact were Paulie Sykes, the boarding school rebel who wants to pass as a boy; the kind and beautiful Tory Quinn, who struggles with Paulie’s idealizing love; and Mouse Bradford, the timid new boarder. She’d made Paulie, Tory and Mouse come alive through believable screen dialogue and skillful interpretations of the emotionally important scenes in the novel.

For instance, in the novel, Mouse has a dream in which she is unable to help her dead mother when one of the vengeful boarding school matrons shears off their mother’s golden (hair) in a tower room and pours oil on her mother’s frilled blouse. In the screenplay, the three girls read, out loud to one another, letters they they’ve written to their mothers. Tory confesses she’s addicted to her mother’s love as she is to chocolate; Mouse worries that she can’t remember her mother’s face now that she’s dead; and Paulie asks her mother, a teen prostitute who gave her up for adoption – to meet her for a beer on the same street where, Paulie writes, “you sell your ass.” This is a funny and profound scene because the audience sees not only Mouse’s vulnerability but the vulnerability of the other two and the way all their fates are inextricably affected by their mother’s personalities and expectations.

A mother is, for better or worse, a girl’s first role model. And for me, the core of the novel revolves around the struggle of the three girls to come to terms with what they feel is an unheroic identity, namely, growing up female. In the novel, Mouse is confused by the two female choices in the early 1960s. On the one hand, Mouse sees the mothers of the boarders who meet feminine standards of the day, but lack real power or authority. On the other, she encounters the teachers and matrons of the boarding school who remind her of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath because they are the only women she has met who live by their own rules. Yet even their power is limited, and Mouse concludes near the end of the novel: “We were all Wives of Bath – from the teachers who terrorized us with their bells and gatings.But no matter how hard any of us struggled. Bath Ladies College was only a fiefdom in the kingdom of men.”

In Judith’s script, set in the 1990s, the teachers and matrons are kinder and less marginalized than their counterparts in the novel. They actually seem to like the girls and identify with them, although they are just as helpless as older women were in the novel to prevent Paulie’s self-destructive and violent descent. In the early days of the filmmaking, Judith and I on occasion read our version of the same scene from the novel and screenplay at literary festivals. Inevitably, I was struck by how little she needed to say to evoke a character. For instance, once after I read the novel’s opening pages (in which Mouse explains to the reader who she is and then sets up Paulie’s crime as “a bizarre, Napoleonic act of self-assertion”), Judith brought down the house – theatrically speaking – with her terser version in Paulie’s voice, “I killed him for his dick.”

The film of The Wives of Bath changed both directors and production companies twice before the option to make the film was given to the award-winning independent director Lea Pool and Montreal producers Cite-Amerique, who premiered the film to great acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival in 2001. Half a decade after I agreed to a present-day setting, I was lucky enough to see Lea Pool’s film Emporte-moi. When Cite-Amerique came in with an offer that included matching the talent of Lea Pool with Judith Thompson’s original screenplay, I accepted readily.

If Judith understood how to make the passion of teenage girls live in scenes and dialogue, Pool, in her turn, appreciated the Sapphic quality of their teenage love. However, as Pool (told) and audience member at Sundance, she never saw the novel or her film as a lesbian coming-out story. For her, it is a story of adolescent love at a time in girls’ lives when they are unaware of sophisticated political and sexual preferences. This was very much how I saw the story too.

The representation of adult sexuality in Lost and Delirious, as the film was eventually called, is openly celebratory, unlike the alienated sex scenes ion the novel which reflect the repressions of the early 1960s when boarders were so embarrassed by their bodies that they undressed in washroom cubicles or took their uniforms off under their nightgowns. Consider the scene in the novel when Mouse spies on a fellow boarder, Ismay Thom, struggling into her merry widow. “She appeared to be stuck in the tight, elasticized material, which squeezed her blubbery thighs together like breasts. A gross kind of leg cleavage you could say.” The sexuality on the novel has little n common with the stunning sex-positive scenes that had film critic Roger Ebert remarking on a Chicago Sun-Times review (January 2001) that, “You’re absorbed from beginning to end because the character are enormously interesting and likable. And because they are gorgeous. And because you could hear a pin drop in the 1,400-seat Eccles Center during the sex scenes which are not explicit, but are erotic.” Despite the beautiful sex scenes in Pool’s film, the actors nevertheless express the girls’ frustration with their female roles, and their need to make what is perceived as unheroic, heroic. In the film, the girls discuss Lady Macbeth in a class (a scene that is not in the novel) in a way that underscores, comically and movingly, how young women can see femininity as something weak and passive.

I was inspired to base the conclusion of The Wives of Bath on a heinous crime that took place in Toronto in 1978. A seventeen-year-old girl, who regularly passed herself off as a male gas jockey, murdered an elderly Toronto taxi driver. Dressed as a girl, she lured him to her room on the pretext that she needed his help with some luggage. Then she killed him with a baseball bat, cut off his genitals and pasted them on her body with Krazy Glue. In this woeful garb, she presented herself to her girlfriend’s father, who had accused her of not being a real man.

Although you will not see this real crime portrayed in Pool’s brilliant film, you will see something equally surprising and stirring in its place. When I found out late in the production of the film that Pool had left out the novel’s ending, I suspected the producers of watering down the story for commercial reasons. As the credits came up, and my film agent Tina Horwitz, and I staggered happily from our seats, I realized that I was relieved that Pool had chosen another ending. The crime in the novel was a device to reflect on the character’s thoughts and feelings about themselves as girls, but (Lea) Pool’s camera didn’t need the crime to convey these same things. To stick with my ending might have tipped her powerful drama over into the genre of film horror because cinematic effects are so much more visceral and immediate than words on a page. To portray something so horrific in the film might have interfered with the audience’s ability to stay with the story.

It’s rare for novelist to be shamelessly satisfied with their book’s journey into film. However, I feel as if my story about boarding school girls has passed through the imaginations of three women sitting around a campfire, each one adding their unique knowledge to my tale of female rebellion and adolescent love. Writers and readers should never hold it against a film if the film isn’t exactly like the book it was based on. The question is – is it a good movie? That, in the end, is the film’s truest service to a work of literature.

Susan Swan
New York, 2001

What Only the Peacock Knows

Do Teachers learn from Their Students?


Last week end, one of my former students, Canadian playwright, Paul Ciufo, interviewed me at a book event in Bayfield, Ontario. We kicked off the evening with Santa Claus and the lighting of the Christmas lights in the town square, and then Paul and I went back to the Village Book Shop, which is run by its new owner Mary Brown. One of the first questions Paul asked was about a remark I’d made in a creative writing workshop at York University.

“You need to tell me something that only the peacock knows,” Paul said, quoting my feedback on his short story  about a peacock.

He said my remark had haunted him as a playwright and what on earth did I mean? At first, I hemmed and hawed. Had I given Paul bad advice? Shouldn’t I have given him more information instead of making mysterious pronouncements about peacocks?

Flummoxed, I took a stab at what I had meant twenty years ago when he had been a promising and talented student in my class. “We need narrators who are like us and not like us so we have room to invent,” I replied. Paul looked at me blankly. I went on. “And students tend to offer a long and often cliched laundry list of descriptive details about a character instead of finding the specific, defining details that let us see who their character is. So I wanted you to tell me specific things about the peacock. Instead of using vague, general  language to describe your peacock.”

Paul still looked puzzled, and I knew this wasn’t what I had meant at all. So what had I been going on about?

Reflecting on our conversation this morning, it strikes me that I was telling Paul what writers do. Our job is not only describing what our character knows but what is special about what our character knows. And in each case, it is up to the writer to find out that special knowledge and convey it. The writer can express this in a variety of ways, through an image or a metaphor, or an inner dialogue of some kind.

And that reminds me of something that Thornton Wilder once said, that an artist’s job is to reveal the truth and hide it at the same time. And what did Wilder mean by that? Only the peacock knows.

Mouse is back in Susan Swan’s prequel to ‘The Wives of Bath’: a Globe and Mail review


Published Friday, Nov. 02 2012, 4:00 PM EDT in The Globe and Mail. The following is an excerpt.

Full article available here

Mouse Bradford, the central character in Susan Swan’s The Western Light, first appeared in The Wives of Bath (1993), and I fear my enjoyment of this new novel was hampered by knowing what happens after the events in it.

Here, 12-year-old Mouse is trying desperately to connect with her widowed father, Morley, a dedicated doctor who has given over raising Mouse to his housekeeper, Sal, since his wife’s death eight years earlier. But Mouse’s grandmother, Big Louie, decides that Sal is ineffective, so she dispatches her daughter, Little Louie, to help raise Mouse.

Swan captures the 1950s time frame as well as the setting of Madoc’s Landing, a tourist town on Georgian Bay. Mouse is the narrator, and while it’s clear she has grown up, most of the story is told from her perspective as a girl, not an adult. She is a delightful character – intelligent, thoughtful and curious. She wants attention from her father, but he spends nearly every minute on his patients. And when he’s not practising medicine, Morley coaches the local hockey team. He loves his daughter, but cannot carve out any time for her. It’s no surprise when Mouse befriends an older man, a father figure.

But her choice is unexpected. The town has a psychiatric hospital, where John Pilkie has been incarcerated for killing his wife and baby daughter. Swan’s clever twist is that Pilkie was a star National Hockey League player, and some people, including Morley, believe Pilkie’s violence stems from hockey concussions. Pilkie is a charming man and a snappy dresser. And he treats Mouse with kindness and respect. It’s no wonder she responds so favourably.

The tensions the novel builds on are the parent-child relationship, messy love affairs, the limited (or perhaps non-existent) rights of people deemed insane and locked up in mental institutions for crimes, and the national love of hockey and the damage the players are helpless to avoid. And Mouse is going through a touchy time. She’s on the cusp of physical maturation, and she’s resisting it. She has one leg damaged by polio and worries about how people perceive her.

The novel delves deeply into Mouse’s relationships. Swan develops Mouse’s strength while never losing sight of her youth and that she cannot solve her problems by herself. Neither can the other characters, including Pilkie, who is frantic to get his case reviewed. Clearly, Mouse and Pilkie are parallel in significant ways: Both are damaged, and both need the attention of someone with more power than they have.

Full article available here

Why Casanova?

For the Sarnia Book Club Marms:

I have posted this blog this week for the Sarnia Book Club Marms who are celebrating What Casanova Told Me at their November 25 book club event. Click the multi media section on the home page of my blog for the song What Casanova Told Me by Alberta folksinger Corrie Brewster. The song was inspired by the novel. Judith Keenan’s first Bookshort evokes the novel and it, too, is under the multimedia link on the home page. Here’s the reason I became interested in Casanova:

My interest in Casanova grew out of an unresolved argument with a family member. My uncle-in-law, the late Jack Crean, argued that only non-fiction captured the truth of human experience. I, of course, argued for fiction. One evening, Jack brought out a new example: the 12-volume memoir by Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life, and challenged me to top it. He said the passage describing Casanova’s escape from the Leads, the Venetian prison next to the Bridge of Sighs, was the best suspense narrative in Western literature.

Somewhat disdainfully, I took away the memoir and began to read it. All I knew of Casanova was the man who been passed down in public myth. An infamous womanizer, in other words, one of those playboys your mother told you to avoid. I’d also seen Fellini’s movie, Casanova, which cemented the womanizer myth. This film is a masterpiece but it doesn’t show the literary side of Casanova. The European man of letters who had translated The Iliad, written poems and operas and essays and engaged in scientific discussions.

Read More