Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Carpenter and a Holton Walk into the Gladstone Hotel...

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Two Montreal authors launched their latest books in Toronto on November 17: J. R. Carpenter, Words the Dog Knows (Conundrum), and Emily Holton, Dear Canada Council / Our Starland (Conundrum). Now in this exclusive web interview, Emily Holton and J.R. Carpenter dig the dirt on each other and discuss their brand new books!

(Orchestrated by Nathaniel G. Moore, Toronto Literati Mob Boss and ex-Conundrum author)


Words the Dog Knows is a story about people and their dogs, but very much about their neighbourhood (Montreal's Mile End) as well. You state in the edition notice that the characters are all make-believe, "except for the dogs. They're real, and they're telling the truth." Was it important to you that the Mile End in your novel stays close to the real thing as well, and tells the truth?


I wanted to be as realistic about Montreal as possible. That turned out to be pretty hard to do. I tried to represent the different stages one goes through in a relationship with a city. Simone, the narrator of Words the Dog Knows, starts off with a romantic idea of the city. She falls in love with Montreal and decides to move there (at the age of twelve) by reading books by Montreal authors. When she finally arrives in Montreal, nothing is as she thinks it will be. She has to learn the city – by ear, as it were. I wanted the reader to learn along with her. I used actual street names, inserted French expressions with no translations and named Montreal landmarks, some of which don’t exist anymore. Just as Simone is starting to feel at home in Montreal, her neighbourhood changes. Rapidly. Words the Dog Knows is critical of the gentrification that’s going on in Mile End right now, accepts it as an inevitable part of the evolution of a city and attempts to document a Montreal that’s already slipping away.


In both Dear Canada Council and Our Starland you cite a wide range of sources, from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Merleau-Ponty. How important is research to your work?


I used to use a lot more found images, and was constantly collecting stuff to put in the books. Photocopy art encourages a kind of hunter-gatherer approach to art making. A "thanks! I'll take it from here" approach. In writing too, collecting, collecting, cutting it all up, arranging, and then filling in the gaps is a process that works for me, and it's where making this stuff really contributes to my quality of life. I read stuff I would never read otherwise, and read it in a totally different way. I read like a thief, feeling for an unlatched window. And that means that when I find a line like that beautiful, beautiful one from Gilgamesh, "I have to enter [that country], climb its slopes, cut down a cedar that is tall enough to make a whirlwind as it falls to earth," I get to keep it, and carry it around with me. I don't call it research; I call it stealing, and everyone gets upset when I talk that way, like I'm not giving my own idea-generating ability enough credit. But whatever - taking a line from a four thousand year old poem and finding a home for it in a drawing about Mark Dailey from CityTV is an idea in itself.


You are a web artist, and much of your work is made to be viewed on a screen. I assume you wrote this book on a screen as well, but was the process different for you, knowing it would eventually end up on paper?


I’ve been using the internet as a medium to create and disseminate experimental texts since 1993. But most of my writing projects start out with a pen in a notebook. I’m old fashioned that way. And very slow. That hasn’t been such a problem in the past as I’ve specialized in the very short story. It can take me years to finish a 950-word story. And then I’ll turn around and make a totally different version online. Many of my electronic literature projects begin with poems or stories that have already been published in print. Sometimes print just doesn’t seem finished enough. Not when I know I could expand the text, create structural complexity, illustrate with maps, images, and video, and mark-up my text with found texts and other meta-information to create multiple readings. The prospect of novel writing is terrifying in every respect. That the end result is a printed, immutable book is practically unbearable. Words the Dog Knows kind of suck up on me. I thought I was proposing a collection of texts and images from recent web-based works. Conundrum Press editor Andy Brown tricked me into expanding Entre Ville, in absentia and How I Loved the Broken Things of Rome into novel form. It took me a while to get the hang of it, but eventually I figured out that the looming finality of the novel form had the power to force me to fill in all the gaps in a larger narrative that previously, with the web based work, had only been hinted at. Fortunately, the whole thing happened extremely quickly, relatively speaking, so I didn’t have time to be properly terrified.


You studied visual arts. How did you come to write?


I spent the first two years of my degree drawing and painting, but as soon as I got through the foundation stuff and had some freedom in what I could make, I started messing around with photocopiers and making books. I made books like crazy, and they became more and more text-heavy as I went along. NSCAD has a long, wonderful, zine tradition, and they were fine with me doing basically whatever I wanted. I feel really lucky that I started writing in art school. No one worried about whether they were comics, or art books, or short stories. It was assumed that image and text belonged together - it made perfect sense to tell a story that way. In critiques we talked about the books as if they were paintings. I had the time and space to do whatever I wanted, however I wanted, and there were no expectations at all around what it would all look like in the end.

J. R. Carpenter grew up on a farm in Nova Scotia and has lived in Montreal since 1990. She is a two-time winner of the CBC Quebec Short Story Competition and a Web Art Finalist in the Drunken Boat Panliterary Awards 2006. Her electronic literature has been presented internationally. Her short fiction has been broadcast on CBC Radio, translated into French, and anthologized in Le livre de chevet, Short Stuff, Lust for Life and In Other Words, and has appeared in journals including Geist, The New Quarterly and Matrix. A fellow of Yaddo, Ucross and the Vermont Studio Center, she currently serves as President of the Board of Directors of OBORO Gallery in Montreal.

Originally from Hamilton, Emily Holton graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design before moving to Toronto in 2005. Her drawings and writing have been published in Brick, Matrix, Geist, Broken Pencil and most recently, Miranda July's new book, Learning to Love You More. Holton's first book, Little Lessons in Safety, was one of Zoë Whittall's 2007 book of the year selections for the Globe & Mail.

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