An old-fashioned newspaper columnist once told me that writing a daily column meant sacrificing his day to thinking up the next column. “It’s a bitch of a mistress,” he said. “She takes up every waking minute.” I don’t know what running a literary magazine entails exactly but I can’t help thinking it, too, is a bitch of a mistress, and that brings me to Karen Mulhallen who celebrated the last issue of Descant Magazine tonight with her staff and a packed house at the Supermarket in Toronto’s Kensington Market.
Karen has run Descant for over 40 years; as its editor-in-chief, she thought up the concepts, she found the staff and the funds (often from her own pocket) and she created a Descant community based on writers, artists, and people who walked in off the street and who had never heard of a literary magazine before along with dozens of young interns who often became Descant contributors after they left. Like many literary journals, Descant was not just a magazine; it was a community. But I don’t know any other journal that lets an intern become the production assistant who puts out the issue. Or that was so open to new writers. When I was teaching creative writing at York University, I used to tell my students to be sure to send their work there because the editors were watching for new talent and not just publishing their friends on the board.
Descant was also notable for its design flair and for its appreciation of creativity in general. Tonight Karen said the human brain was a cabinet of curiosities (the theme of its last issue, Number 167) and she told us she’d wanted the magazine to be a picture of the human imagination.
My own connection to Descant goes back to 1978 when Karen published an excerpt from my first novel, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World, about the giantess Anna Swan. It was my first literary publication and Karen ran the excerpt from my then unpublished book under the heading, A legend is born. I’d never met a literary magazine editor before or asked for funding support, which is what writers often ask of literary editors. So at my first meeting with Karen in her glamorous apartment on Washington Avenue near the University of Toronto, I was awestruck. She asked me how much money I wanted and I said, As much as you’ve got! She laughed and scolded me. That wasn’t the way to ask for money, she said, and told me to come back with a carefully worded budget. I did what she said. As many, many writers before or since have done.
Descant, number 167, is on sale at some bookstores and it is the last issue of a literary gemstone. For those who want to say good-bye to the magazine there will be a wrap part March 25 at Revival in downtown Toronto. The photograph here is of Kay Armatage, U of T prof and former TIFF programmer, reading from her essay about women’s film festivals in this issue.
Thank you, Karen, and thank you Descant for helping not only my generation but many generations that followed to find our voices.
I’m giving a writing workshop in Orillia on February 22. Come if you’re in the area. You can find out more information from The Writers’ Community of Simcoe County http://simcoewriters.ca/simcoe/news/ Here’s some of the information about my workshop published on their website
IS YOUR WRITING DEAD OR ALIVE?
It’s a compelling issue in the craft of writing. This February 22nd Toronto novelist Susan Swan will focus on how to make your work live on the page. Swan has been a published author and creative writing teacher for over 30 years and she can show you some of the professional techniques she’s used in her own fiction, which has been published to acclaim in sixteen countries.
BONUS: WCSC Workshop participants are encouraged to send up to 12 pages of their own prose two weeks before the workshop.
More information about writing is available on her website www.susanswanonline.com Be sure not to miss her website blogs on Anxiety Pancakes: Life in the Middle of a Novel.
Bio: Journalist, feminist, novelist, activist, teacher, Susan Swan’s impact on the Canadian literary and political scene has been far-reaching. Her critically acclaimed fiction has been published in sixteen countries. Susan Swan’s new novel, The Western Light, was published in the fall of 2012. It shares a narrator with her international bestseller, The Wives of Bath. The Western Light was nominated as one of the best books of 2012 fiction and non-fiction by the Ontario Library Association. A feature film based on The Wives of Bath was released in the summer of 2001 in the U.S. and Canada under the title Lost and Delirious. The film was written by Judith Thompson and starred Mischa Barton, Piper Parabo and Jessica Pare. It was shown in 32 countries and picked for premiere selection at Sundance and Berlin Film Festival 2001.
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OK, I’m cooking Christmas dinner early with Sang Kim for about 40 special guests at the Wind Up Cafe. The meal is based on Big Louie’s traditional Christmas dinner in my novel The Western Light. Big Louie is Mouse’s grandmother and she tops things off by cooling sparkling Burgundy in the snow.
So if you want to get Christmas over with, or if you want to bone up on how to make perfect hard sauce and unlumpy Christmas gravy, be sure to join Sang and I as we cook up our feast. We talk, you see, as we cook, and you watch and eat. The price for the meal is $45 and the time is six thirty on Dec 3. There is only space for 42 guests so sign up right now if you’re interested and let us sock some Christmas cheer your way.
Organized by the Confucius Institute at the University of Waterloo, at Renison University College, October 25, 2014
Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and Our Environment
On October 25, 2014, I’m talking at the University of Waterloo which is hosting an international literary symposium entitled “A Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and our Environment”.
The main theme of the symposium will be an exploration of the intersection of literature and environment in Chinese and Canadian literature. Topics of discussion include literature and the urban environment, a sense of place and space in literature, writing about nature and the role of faith and beliefs in literature.
I will be speaking about the political environment in Canada and how it affects our literature. Since Stephen Harper became our prime minister in 2006, our federal government has drastically reduced funding to the arts.
There are no longer funds for Canadian writers to travel to other countries. Before Harper, our Canadian consulates promoted Canadian culture abroad by bringing in Canadian writers and artists. These programs helped Canadian writers grow audiences in foreign countries and successfully introduced now world famous writers like Margaret Atwood to new readers, and filmmakers like David Cronenberg to new viewers. That sort of helpful boost to artists is a vital part of any nation’s cultural identity but it is no longer happening here because Harper cut 11.4 million dollars to these programs in 2007. The result? Stats Canada says that for every dollar invested in the arts we get eight dollars back. So the cuts that Harper made actually cost Canada approximately $90 million dollars in potential arts revenue.
One of the reasons for these kind of cuts is the Harper government’s attitude to art and culture. Primarily, our current government sees literature as entertainment rather than art, and it is interested in writers competing like manufacturers in the global marketplace, making profits so they don’t need government support. Competing like business entrepreneurs, in other words but without the same level of support that many businesses get from our current government. Just as our Ministry of Natural Resources benefits the oil industry by researching oil fields, and just as the flow through tax credit encourages Canadians to develop risky mines, cultural funding abroad used to help the arts contribute to the economy. But no more.
How realistic is this approach for a small country like Canada, a country that used to have a proud national literature? The answer: our media mostly tells our readers about a tiny sprinkling of Canadian bestsellers, the ones that manage to get sales and marketing support from multinationals, huge publishing conglomerates which flood the Canadian market with their own foreign books.
I doubt if any other country in the English-speaking world is so welcoming of books from other nations. Partly it’s because Canadians speak English and we live next door to the second largest economic power in the world. (China is now the first.) I can’t imagine the United States government allowing their country to be a dumping ground for foreign books at the expense of American literature.
What is so terrible about competing in the global marketplace? At least, a few Canadian books manage to penetrate it and these books can have great financial success. That’s true. But those books are mostly genre books like psychological thrillers. Books on difficult subjects, or books that tell Canadian readers about their own lives may be less common now.
And even when a Canadian thriller does well our bookstore chain Indigo still prefers to flog American books of the same type. For instance, Indigo continues to give display preference to the US bestseller Gone Girl by Gilligan Flynn while downplaying The Silent Wife, a psychological thriller by Canadian writer A.S.A. Harrison whose novel has been a huge commercial hit all over the world and is currently number four on the Globe and Mail best seller list.
I was struck by something Joe Cressy said last night at an informal gathering at the house of my friends, architect Robert Chang and writer Karen Connelly. Joe is pictured above with his wife Nina. He is a candidate for Ward 20 in our city election and last night he told us how he was being portrayed in some of the media as “a tax and spend” guy–as if he was going into politics to empty our pockets until we don’t have a sou left to our names.
Then he laughed. And that’s what’s great about Joe Cressy. He has the confidence to see how bogus the tax and spend criticism is.
Taxes are inevitable, he pointed out. We need them for our schools and our roads and transit system and for child care and clean air and water. We can’t avoid taxes so the important issue is how wisely we spend them. Government spending is not a social evil, in other words. It’s how we take care of ourselves and our communities. It is, in fact, the foundation of democracy, and we need to spend our tax money well so a city like Toronto can be a creative, prosperous place to live.
I like someone who says the truth when it needs to be said. For too long, it feels like Torontonians (myself included) have dwelt inside a bubble of magical thinking, expecting our roads and schools to be good and not wanting to pay for the things that make them that way. Well, time to grow up, huh? Let’s stop being swayed by accusations of government over spending and examine how it can be done better.
The other thing I liked about Joe Cressy’s views on Toronto is his belief in our waterfront. Right now the number one thing tourists come to see in Toronto is the Eaton Centre. Number two is our waterfront. “Wouldn’t it be great,” Joe asked. “If our waterfront was number one?”
Yes, wouldn’t it? And that means not expanding the island airport so planes dominate our harbour. Joe says the Billy Bishop expansion plans will harm the wonderful rebuilding of the waterfront that is going on right now. More planes will make it harder than it already is to enjoy the new promenades and civic spaces.
As you can see, Joe is also down to earth. Intelligent, sincere and honest. Maybe that’s the definition of authenticity.If you want to read more of his views see his recent article in Now, Progressive is not a four-letter word http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=199716
My old home away from home is no more. The Hotel Chelsea is being gutted for high end condos. Unfortunately, the renovations have destroyed the old suite that used to belong to Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, the famous American novelist from the 1930’s. That Wolfe wrote many of his novels at the Chelsea and I often stayed in his fascinating old room. It had a working fireplace, floor to ceiling windows and wooden Victorian shutters.
Last week I visited my friends at the NYC hotel, the writer Ed Hamilton and his wife Deb. (Yes, a few hold-outs still live on in Chelsea rooms and the hotel’s new owners are obliged to pay for new homes for them.) I had a tour of the building and saw that the contractors have torn down the beautiful wood panels in the hallways. At least the wrought iron staircase was still intact although souvenir collectors have been stealing parts of it.
The hotel is a shell of its former self. I had a peek at its newly renovated section. The renovated part was totally uninspired and could have been in any apartment building in any old place and not in the Chelsea, the celebrated home to Twentieth Century artists, singers, composers and writers. Many of its tenants gave the former owner Stanley Bard paintings instead of paying rent. Plaques to writers like Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas and Thomas Wolfe are by its front door unless the new owner intends to take the plaques down too.
Why do we do this to our historical monuments in North America? You can bet that twenty or thirty years from now, some enterprising soul will try to rebuild the Chelsea in its former glory. As Ed Hamilton says, the sad thing is that it didn’t have to happen.
Last week, I tagged Jane Urquhart for the great Writers’ Blog Tour. Thanks to Jane for taking part and giving us a sneak peak into her writing process:
#1. What am I working working on?
I have recently finished a novel, The Night Stages. It is to be published in spring by McClelland and Stewart in Canada and Farrar Straus Giroux in the USA.
#2. How does the novel differ from others of its genre?
Difficult question. I’m not sure. It may be more important to say that it is different than any other novel I myself have written. Admittedly, parts of it are familiar terrain for me, but there is a significant subject in this book that concerns something I have never written about before.
#3. Why do I write what I write?
I am more comfortable in my skin when I know I have an alternative reality to disappear into. I have always day dreamed, and feel very blessed in that I’ve been able to make some use of that day dreaming.
#4. How does my writing process work?
I am always astonished when I finish a book in that I can never remember writing it. This is not to say that I can’t recall characters or landscapes. I mean the physical act of sitting down and typing out the sentences. I am not sure, therefore, what my writing process is. One thing I do know, however, is that it has been a great privilege to be able to spend a good portion of my life doing the two things I like the best: reading and writing.
Have you heard of the #Writers’ Blog Tour? (Google it, and you’ll see all the various writers on the Tour.) Each writer tagged to join the tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to the posts of writers who came before. Jane’s website is currently under development, so I was happy to share her answers on my blog. To see what I wrote for the tour, check out my blog below.
My friend, the author Lauren B. Davis has tag teamed me for the next Writers Blog Tour. This summer, I’ve been isolated on a remote rock in the Georgian Bay, away from the online world but here we go again–the digital bliss of interconnection. I’m to answer the four questions below and then ‘tag’ two other writers to pick up the challenge:
1. What am I working on?
I’ve just finished my third draft of my new novel, The Dead Celebrities Club. It’s about a white collar criminal (born in Toronto) who runs a dead pool in an upstate New York jail. The idea is to pick the celebrity who will die before the other ones do, and there is a prison jackpot for the lucky winner.
2. How does my new novel differ from others of its genre?
I can’t think of another novel that resembles The Dead Celebrities Club and I’m not sure how to classify it. Maybe the safest thing to say is that it’s a portrait of a certain kind of individual, the sly fox, who is always up for a new way to make money, an optimist who is out of touch with his feelings until the events he sets in motion catch up to him.
3. Why do I write what I write?
In Heroines of the Sexual Gothic, my recent theatre show with the Billie Hollies (an all female Gothic Noir musical group), I talked about how the protagonists in my novels represent a part of me that I repressed when I was younger because exposing that side of myself would have been dangerous or humiliating. But The Dead Celebrities Club has nothing at all to do with this theory of mine. So there you go!
4. How does my writing process work?
After I think and think and think and after I do a lot of research and make notes on a huge drawing pad, listing things like the ten most important scenes, and each character’s three favourite words, I dictate chapters in my first draft on an audio file. My assistant or myself types up the chapters. Then I revise until I’m blue in the face. For me, writing involves discovery although I usually have a bare bones outline that I use to start myself off. I don’t write about what I know exactly. I believe in writing about what obsesses you, and what you know will inevitably come into the story.
Have you heard of the Writers’ Blog Tour? (Google it, and you’ll see all the various writers on the Tour.) Each writer tagged to join the Tour posts answers to the same four questions on their blog. They might post answers all at once, or one at a time, whatever suits. They also provide links to the posts of writers who came before. To see what Lauren wrote, check out her blog below. And to see what the other authors wrote on their blogs, google the great Writers Blog Tour.
Karl Ove Knausgård image by Kjetil Ree (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Karl Ove Knausgaard is coming to the IFOA in October. Be sure to check him out. He has turned fiction on its head by using real names in his fictional work. I talked more about this in my essay in the Globe this spring: Here is the old unedited draft I wrote for the Globe, warts and all:
Growing older, it’s not only the wrinkles I notice, but a new sensibility created by a generation of younger writers. If I felt paranoid, their sensibility could rock my boat. But I love new frontiers so for me, their writing is a reason to get excited.
One of the leaders of the new writing, a generation I call “the new (unromantic) romantics,” is Karl Ove Knausgaard, a Norwegian novelist who has created an explicit and powerful autobiographical fiction that has been standing the literary world on its ear. This spring, the third volume of Knausgaard’s six novel series titled My Struggle is out in English. It follows the English translations of his first two novels. Three more volumes in English are coming soon.
I’ve read My Struggle: Book One and volume two titled A Man in Love, so I came prepared to Boyhood Island. But before I talk about Knausgaard’s fearless work let me explain why I see him as part of the new writing. While literary prizes are lost or won, and creative writing schools teach graduates how to shape story arcs, this brash new fiction has been finding a younger, less traditional audience for its very non-traditional approach.
Influenced by the confessional nature of the Internet, with its disregard for literary forms, the younger generation of fiction writers includes Sheila Heti, whose brainy, original novel How Should a Person Be? is quickly becoming a classic; Ben Lerner, author of Leaving the Atocha Station, a virtuoso tale of self-exposure; and Kate Zambreno, who wrote Heroines, a daring personal account about the condescending way modernist fictional heroines were treated.
Countless others under forty are part of this gritty new sensibility, novelists like Tamara Faith Berger, author of the vivid, transgressive Maidenhead, and Marie Calloway who wrote about her sexual exploits in the unclassifiable, what purpose did I serve in your life.
Most fiction offers us a story or plot. But the audacious fictional accounts of the new romantics often have little time for narrative masks or literary frames. They aren’t interested in post-modernism either and its fascination with how stories are told. Disclosure is the spirit of our age, and their work seems designed to bring the reader “close to a self,” as Knausgaard puts it.
For instance, when Sheila Heti started writing How Should A Person Be? she purposefully did everything a writer of realistic fiction is NOT supposed to do. She disregarded the modernist notion that the novelist should be invisible behind his or her work and she ignored the dictum about coming up with the brilliant, telling detail that conveys the world of a story.
The authorial signature of this generation vis-a-vis most modern novelists is like comparing a naked story teller to one in an Edwardian ball gown. Or maybe it’s more like the difference between a very intelligent reality TV contestant and an English professor schooled in Victorian literature.
Why do I call them romantics? This new generation of fiction writers makes the self their subject and describing the self and its emotions was a preoccupation of the early Romantics.
Of course, writers like Henry Miller and Marcel Proust have made themselves the subject of their fiction before, but their work is washed through with romanticism and its view of the writer as an Olympian explorer of the human spirit. No such romantic notion of the writer shows up in the writing of the new generation who report on the deepest, shallowest, creepiest and most unworthy feelings and thoughts that can go on inside an individual.
Ultimately, there’s nothing dignified or heroic in their stance, although the authoritative “I” who writes the story always gets the last word, and there’s a tinge of Olympian power in that.
Knausgaard, at 45, goes further than most of them. His fiction is controversial because it says extremely revealing things about real people in his life without bothering to disguise their identities.
In interviews, Knausgaard says that the naming of real people is an ethical issue but he believes that to create literature of lasting value, a writer must carve a freedom outside the rules of society. That means putting honesty before consideration. These days he tends to beat himself up over the pain his fiction caused his family. But when he was writing My Struggle he put his art first. He had felt bored and overwhelmed by the millions of paperbacks, hardbacks, DVDs and TV series whose stories were all about made-up people in a made-up world. He preferred genres like diaries and essays that focused on the voice of the writer’s personality.
So in all three English volumes he immerses the reader in his Norwegian time and place without worrying much about narrative structure. Knausgaard excels instead at describing sensory details, whether he’s writing about the shelves of sweets he saw in stores as a boy, or his deep shuddering hatred of his tyrannical father. It’s the depth of his far ranging feelings and philosophical reflections that make his autobiographical work read like fiction. (I used to teach a course in the memoir at York University and most contemporary memoirs describe a less complicated journey through one particular kind of experience.)
Critics sometimes compare Knausgaard to Marcel Proust, and the two are certainly alike in their flowing descriptions about the minutiae of daily life. One critic said it took Proust seven pages to describe a man turning in his bed. You could say the same sort of the thing about Knausgaard. But the similarity stops there.
Proust was writing elegantly about retrieving lost time and he sometimes disguised gay relationships as heterosexual. Knausgaard, on the other hand, is telling shamelessly personal truths with an excoriating honesty that feels masochistic. For instance, he incorporates a description of his bowel movements because he sees “shitting” as worthy of attention too.
In the first two widely praised volumes of My Struggle, he deals with his difficulties as a boy, the son of an English teacher and a nurse, and later, his frustrations with trying to write while he helps his wife raise their children. In volume two, although he accepted child-raising as the duty of a progressive husband, he walked around the streets of Stockholm “with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me.”
In volume one, Knausgaard deals with his father’s death from alcoholism, and describes the experience of cleaning up his father’s childhood home, where furniture has been burnt and excrement has been smeared on the furniture and the walls.
In this third volume, Boyhood Island, he exhibits the same hypnotic descriptive powers displayed in the first two volumes. And his father and his pernicious influence on Knausgaard emerges as the central theme. He takes almost four hundred pages to tell us how the man terrified him, (not by beatings or starving a child), but through a continuous vicious deflating of a child’s natural boisterous spirit.
In one of the childhood scenes, Knausgaard describes himself looking out the window and watching a cat hunting a mouse. What could be more clichéd than a cat chasing a mouse? Yet he brings the mouse’s fear and the cat’s playful cruelty to life on the page. As I read on, it was obvious the cat and the mouse were a metaphor for Knausgaard’s relationship with his father.
Here he is describing his father in volume three: “I was so frightened of him that even with the greatest effort of will I am unable to recreate the fear …His footsteps on the stairs—was he coming to see me? The wild glare in his eyes. The tightness around his mouth… And then his voice: Sitting here now, hearing it in my inner ear, I almost start crying.”
In adolescence, other children called Knausgaard “a Jessie,” high school slang for an androgynous person. Knausgaard knew it wasn’t true; he was a teenage boy who loved boyish things like sports and pop music but he still suffered over not fitting in.
Knausgaard’s father, who was modern enough to share household chores with his wife, had a Victorian remedy for his child’s problems; he would lash out when the boy expressed his feelings. As a result, Knausgaard’s childhood struggle to be himself may have set up a life pattern that’s repeated in his fiction. First, there’s self-expression, followed by anger and retribution. (Some of Knausgaard’s family tried to sue him when the first volume was published, then dropped their case.)
Luckily, Knausgaard’s mother was a kinder, gentler person. She encouraged Knausgaard in his love of books although, mysteriously, she didn’t protect him from his father’s verbal abuse or cruelty. When the pair separate, the mother seems weirdly detached. Either she couldn’t share her emotional grief over a failed relationship, or like many women of her generation, she was relieved to rid herself of a difficult husband.
So Boyhood Island is another triumph for Knausgaard.
However, Boyhood Island didn’t always hold my attention and I longed for more of his philosophical reflections on adult life. Maybe agency is necessary to sustain a lengthy narrative, and agency is what children lack. Knausgaard himself points out that the landscape in childhood is different. In childhood, he writes “every rock, every tree, has a meaning and because everything is seen for the first time and because it is seen so many times it is anchored in the depths of your consciousness not as something vague or approximate the way a landscape outside a house appears to an adult … but as something with immense precision and detail.”
In other words, childhood is a land of sharply felt sensory impressions, and he’s described it masterfully, shaking out his younger self like a pillow until the stuffing, feathers and all, bursts out and floats away on the wind.
(Susan Swan’s latest novel The Western Light will be available this June in paperback.)
The world of Mouse Bradford is constrained by a number of factors: her mother is dead, her father – the admired country doctor – is emotionally distant, her housekeeper Sal is prejudiced and narrow, and her grandmother and aunt, Big Louie and Little Louie, the only life-affirming presences in her life, live in another city.
Enter Gentleman John Pilkie, the former NHL star who’s transferred to the mental hospital in Madoc’s Landing, where he is to serve out his life-sentence for the murder of his wife and daughter. John becomes a point of fascination for Mouse, who looks to him for the attention she does not receive from her father. He, in turn, is kind to her – but the kindness is misunderstood. When Mouse figures out that the attention she receives from the Hockey Killer is different in kind and intent from the attention her Aunt Little Louie receives, her world collapses.
Set against the beautiful and dramatic shore of Georgian Bay, the climax will have readers turning pages with concern for characters they can’t help but love.
Buy it at Amazon.ca (paperback version available spring 2014)