Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Getting Lost on Purpose: Stroll Book Launch at Lula Lounge

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By Stacey Madden

As I stood across the street from Lula Lounge on Tuesday evening, I saw Shawn Micallef walking toward the bar, looking around in all directions as though he were lost. He stopped in front of the marquee and looked up at the title of his new book in bold capital letters. TUES STROLL BOOK LAUNCH 8PM. He’d have to put his wanderings on hold for the night.

The book in question, Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto, published this month by Coach House Books, is essentially a revised and expanded collection of his Stroll and Psychogeography columns that first appeared in Eye Weekly, complete with a number of beautifully illustrated maps by Marlena Zuber. Would-be flâneurs and psychogeophers alike packed themselves into Lula Lounge for a chance to hear Micallef speak about his column-turned-book, his love for the city and how it all got started.

Though there were two chairs set up on stage for Micallef and his interviewer, Eye Weekly’s Edward Keenan, the entire conversation was conducted with both men standing up. All that walking makes for strong leg muscles.

“My parents think it’s odd that I walk around and then write about it for a living,” Micallef quipped, deadpan. “They wanted me to write a Harry Potter.”

Micallef grew up in Windsor and has only lived in Toronto for the past ten years. Toronto was something he used to zoom through in the backseat of his parents’ car as a kid; a scary metropolis to be avoided. When he arrived here in 2000, what he found was not a space-age city from the future but a diverse patchwork of residences and ravines, tunnels and parks, suburbs and alleyways. He started walking in order to discover these unsung nooks and crannies, and became a flâneur in the process.

“A flâneur is someone, sort of a dandy type, who wanders the city and simply observes,” Micallef said, when asked about his definition the term. “He or she will walk around and try to get lost on purpose. It’s a lazy pursuit. You have to have a lot of free time.”

What about Psychogeography? “It’s a term that can mean different things to different people. My personal definition of psychogeography is simply getting excited about the concept of place, and how places feel.”

Micallef feels a great deal of love for Toronto, especially the places that tend to garner criticism, even from Torontonians. He says he’s a big fan of Robarts Library for example, the peacock-shaped behemoth at the heart of the U of T campus. Why? “It keeps books safe. And people are there!” He has love for Dundas Square for similar reasons. “Whenever I go to Dundas Square I see lots of people. Some might say, ‘Oh, it’s just Toronto trying to be New York.’ I don’t see it that way. It’s a commercial centre, something every alpha-city needs to develop.”

He also has love for the suburbs, which he regards as exploratory gold mines. We see a lot of people downtown, but the suburbs are where most Torontonians live. “If you were to fold Scarborough over Toronto it would almost reach Mississauga. That’s an enormous chunk of the city full of people with stories about their neighbourhoods.”

When asked about how he was able to obtain the oral histories and first-hand accounts of various Toronto residents that inspired some of the stories in Stroll, he said, “You need to have a weird art project in order to get into people’s living rooms.”

The suburbs, Micallef says, are great hubs of opportunity and “wild economics,” places where families can start small businesses that would be too expensive to run out of a building downtown. They are also where Toronto gets its multicultural flavour.

There was an awkward moment when someone in the back of the crowd asked Micallef who his pick for mayor was. Micallef replied, “Right now? Nobody. In my opinion, nobody is speaking to the betterment of the city.” The crowd member then shouted an expletive and claimed to be a mayoral candidate. It was unclear if the whole thing was a joke.

After the interview, Micallef waded his way through the sea of urbanites on his way to the book signing table, stopping a number of times along the way to chat and pose for pictures with fans. There was a dance party scheduled for later in the evening, but I didn’t stick around for it. I was eager to get lost on my way home.

Stacey Madden is a writer and avid reader from Toronto. He works at Book City, and has published articles in various newspapers, including The Globe and Mail. He is currently at work on a novel.

For more information about Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto please visit the Coach House Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Photos by Stacey Madden. Click on thumbnails for larger images.

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