Tuesday 23 September 2008

Tonight at Drawn & Quarterly

Véhicule Press and Coach House Books bring two new nonfiction books that send readers around the world to Canada's capital.

Mary Soderstrom
launches The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Streets and Beyond and Anik See releases Saudade: The Possibilities of Place. The launch features short presentations from each of the new books, taking the audience around the globe with tales and images. Presentations will be followed by a Q&A with the authors about their geographically based nonfiction.

Where: Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore , 211 Bernard West
Time: 7:30 p.m.

Monday 22 September 2008

The Editor's Cut

‘Writers don’t encounter really attentive readers as often as you might expect, and find them balm to their twitchy nerves when they do; which gives their editors a good start with them.’
- Diana Athill, writing in her memoir,
Stet: An Editor’s Life
(Granta: 2000).

I’ve found this to be true, both in my experience as a writer and editor.

Writers may cram their acknowledgements with the names of friends who deserve the Purple Heart for having served as first readers of a manuscript, but these friends, ultimately, form a support group; their witness to the creative process is vital, but seldom curative, even if the tenor of support is usually, very positively, pro-life.

Editors, on the other hand, to make things right, brew coffee and stir it with a sharpened pencil, turn on their internal Tourette’s feature, and read behind every word with an eye to a kill.

Writing is not as much about reading as most people might think –- it has too much to do with encoding information, even encryption; but editing is certainly about very close reading, as is (or was) literary criticism in the old days of New Criticism.

Interviewing Emma Richler years ago about her novel Sister Crazy, I asked the first-time novelist if having a ‘good editor’ was akin to finding a very a good reader? That’s exactly it, she responded, and right away I felt a little better about wearing the editor’s cap at Esplanade Books.

Emma Richler’s favourite book by her father is Barney’s Version. ‘I remember reading the first page and just sitting up, physically straightening, and I thought it was astonishing.’ Its an opinion shared by Diana Athill, who worked with Mordecai early on.

Athill helped André Deutsch establish his London publishing house in the 1950s. After a half century as literary editor, and having worked with (among others) Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, and V.S. Naipaul, she retired in 1993. Her memoir, Stet (2000), written when she turned eighty, is an unpretentious and absorbing account of the book trade. Beyond descriptions of the editor’s life, Athill is wonderful at elucidating, or demystifying, the timeless and plain human elements of the business, such as the natural ebb and flow of the relationship between writer and publisher. Getting to the heart of the matter, she writes that a publisher regards a book ‘as one among many, and in terms of his experience in the market; while the writer is thinking in terms of the only book that matters in the world.’

The second half of Stet is given over to intimate, if blunt, chapter-length portraits of Athill’s favourite writers-to-work-with: Richler (‘He was the least phoney person imaginable’; ‘… both his second and third novels had been better than the first, but both were still dimmed by a youthful earnestness…’); Moore (‘He was to prove incapable of writing a bad book.’); Naipaul (‘That someone so lacking in sexual experience and so puritanical should have to resort to prostitutes is natural; though I guess he did so infrequently, and with distaste.’); and Rhys (‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’ first four novels can suppose she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.’)

Between the lines, emerges a formidable personality: Athill herself. The real prize for readers is her irresistible honesty. She is squeamish never, and sensible always. Her trademark is a disconcerting directness: logical analysis drenched in sangfroid. Witness this fabulous passage on the psychology of the writer and the making of a best-seller:

It is natural that a writer who knows himself to be good and who is regularly
confirmed in that opinion by critical comment should expect to become a
best-seller, but every publisher knows that you don’t necessarily become a
best-seller by writing well. Of course you don’t necessarily have to write badly
to do it: it is true that some bestselling books are written astonishingly
badly, and equally true that some are written very well. The quality of the
writing – even the quality of the thinking – is irrelevant. It is a matter of
whether or not a nerve is hit in the wider reading public as opposed to the
serious one which is composed of people who are interested in writing as an art.

Athill is the author of six other books, including Instead of a Letter (1963), and, more recently, Somewhere Towards the End (2008).

Saturday 20 September 2008

Praising Wiseman to the skies

In today's Montreal Gazette, Cary Fagan salutes Christopher Wiseman's book of WWII poems 36 Cornelian Avenue.

"Part memoir, part history, employing contemporary interviews as well as memory and research, Wiseman does a good job of conjuring the wartime atmosphere: the air-raid shelter in the dining room, the blackout cloth on the windows, the wartime songs and naughtier rhymes, the fear of German planes. Some of his memories are highly personal, but the most touching are the collective ones -- tasting bananas for the first time at war's end ('Delicious past belief;) and running toward 'our fathers coming home.' "

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Joint Launch at the Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore

September 23
– Travel 'Round the Globe at the D&Q Bookstore [211 Bernard West]

Mary Soderstrom and Anik See launch new titles with a worldview

Véhicule Press and Coach House Books launch two new books that send readers around the world, whether walking through the urban environment of Paris or taking the ultimate road trip in Australia.

Montreal author Mary Soderstrom follows up her acclaimed Green City, with The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Streets, a book that walks through Paris, New York, Toronto, North Vancouver and other cities to examine how cities have changed their citizens and to highlight the importance of a walkable city.

Author of the food memoir, A Fork in the Road, Anik See, returns with Saudade: The Possibilities of Place, a series of essays on locations as varied as the fishing ports of Sri Lanka, fishfrys in the Northwest Terriories and the rough roads of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Mary Soderstrom and Anik See will deliver brief presentations from their new books, taking the audience around the globe with tales and images. The presentations will be followed by a Q&A period.

Mary Soderstrom's Green City: People, Nature & Urban Places was selected as one of Globe and Mail's 100 Best Books of 2007. She is the author of Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens
and The Violets of Usambara. She lives in Montreal.

Anik See is the author of the food memoir A Fork in the Road
(MacMillan, 2000). Her writing has appeared in Brick, Prairie Fire,
the Fiddlehead, Geist, Grain, the National Post, Toronto Life and, as
a contributing editor, in Outpost Magazine. She divides her time
between Canada and Holland, where she works with books, old and new.

Friday 12 September 2008

This Island in Time

Please join us for the launch of This Island in Time: Remarkable Tales from Montreal's Past by John Kalbfleisch

Wednesday, September 17, at 7:30 pm
Westmount Public Library
4574 Sherbrooke Street,Westmount

From Montreal's founding nearly four centuries ago down to the present day, an astonishing range of people have trod the city's streets. Here we have no ordinary history of Montreal. This Island in Time is a portrait as colourful as the city itself.

John Kalbfleisch is a long time Montreal journalist. "Second Draft," his weekly column on the city's history, appears in the The Gazette. He lives near Perth, Ontario.

Thursday 11 September 2008


Maisonneuve Online has just published an interesting rant by Michael Carbert about the way so many literary readings are something to be "endured instead of enjoyed". The photograph to the left is documentary evidence of a damning anecdote Carbert tells about one of our own launches.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

Some like it messy

Proust did it in bed. Hemingway did it standing up, naked. And James Baldwin sometimes did it in the middle of a noisy party. Most of our writers prefer to sit down, often at a very cluttered desk, with a laptop. In his book of essays, Neatness Counts (2004), Kevin Kopelson, argues that the "topography of the desk corresponds to the topography of creation." You can see that theme at work in Evie Christie's wonderful new website Desk Space, which features daily entries on the work environments of Canadian writers. The room above belongs to the "bilingual and tri-coastal" poet and critic Zach Wells.

Thursday 4 September 2008

Refined Skill and Talent

We're very happy to announce that Calgary poet Christopher Wiseman, author of recent Signal Editions 36 Cornelian Avenue, is on the 3-person shortlist for the big Alberta Award in Literary Arts, the Grant MacEwan Award, worth $50,000. (Yes, $50,000. Do the Griffins know about this?) The Award will being given out in a big literary/arts gala on September 6.

Here's Claire Young's review of 36 Cornelian Avenue, published in the Calgary Herald on August 3rd.


Calgary poet Christopher Wiseman revisits his childhood years growing up in the seaside town of Scarborough, England, during the Second World War in his latest collection, 36 Cornelian Avenue.

Named for the address he lived at, Wiseman sifts together layers of memories with later research -- visiting places and museums and talking to friends and family -- to try to make sense of the events that shaped his youth.

The indelible etchings on his personality rise from the gnaw of rations, pitch-dark blackouts, fathers off fighting, frightened mothers at home, the strength of individuals' kindness to the community (such as the farmer who made sure the folks on the lane got a little extra milk or eggs) in addition to the usual traumas and insecurities of growing up. There's the powerful juxtaposition of the innocence and ignorance of youth playing alongside huge iron mines that washed up on the nearby beach.

There's the lingering guilt of drawing blood in a minor act of violence that reflects and informs the greater horrors of the time.

Wiseman describes his world, which could be as small, cramped and frightening as the space under the steel dining table where he would retreat with his mother and brother during air raids to a world as large as the catharsis of peace.

The hurts from youth sometimes carry through and are not forgotten in later life. There's the residual anger at the German pilot flying a black Junkers 88 who flew low over Cornelian Avenue one night, strafing and terrifying its 100 residents forevermore, for no tactical purpose.

Even though Wiseman won a schoolyard and later graduated from Cambridge, the sting of being underestimated by two teachers for both his athletic abilities and his academic prowess still resonates. Wiseman plumbs the depths of his love for his father, drawing parallels between the absences caused by war and from his later death. These are beautiful poems -- demonstrating refined skill and talent -- that evoke deeply emotional responses to the humanity and acute observation captured in them. Wiseman is a winner of two Province of Alberta Poetry Awards, the Poetry Prize from the Writers' Guild of Alberta and an Alberta Achievement Award for Excellence in the literary arts.
He has contributed to the province's literary growth by establishing in 1977 the creative writing program at the University of Calgary, where he taught from 1969 to 1997.