Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

IFOA's Eavesdrop Salon

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By Monique Mathew, a budding writer, curator and OCAD graduate. She lives in Toronto.

While most author panels involve gathering writers for a discussion centred on a chosen theme or subject, the IFOA Eavesdrop Salon, held on one of the last days of the festival weekend, broke from convention. Held in the Harbourfront Centre's sunny Brigantine room, Walrus Magazine Arts and Entertainment editor, Daniel Baird, led authors Amanda Boyden, Paul Quarrington, Nathaniel Rich and Nathan Whitlock in a sprawling and entertaining discussion that touched on everything from fiction writing to zombies.

The first half of the conversation was sparked by Baird's initial question to the writers: What is the point of fiction? Baird asked the four to explain their motivation in transforming ordinary stories of life into fiction. The authors spent a good deal of time ruminating about the word "ordinary," musing about whether an ordinary story even really exists. Nathan Whitlock described how his novel, A Week of This (ECW Press), explores the extremely ordinary and mundane world of small-town life. He suggested that the ordinary is only considered so because it is what we've been told, and stressed that readers want to identify their own narratives within a greater narrative. Nathaniel Rich, who brought a great deal of humour to the discussion, remarked that when you consider that we are all floating in space, any story that happens at all is extraordinary.

When responding to Baird's question of what the point of writing is, Rich answered that, like many other writers, he found that writing was the only thing he was good at. "Otherwise, I'd be a baseball statistician, but I'm not good at numbers," he quipped. As the discussion broadened to question the point of reading fiction (as well as writing it), Amanda Boyden explained that the act of reading fiction mirrors readers back to themselves. She made the interesting argument that reading allows an audience to inhabit the skin of characters in a way that television or film cannot. The presence of a camera over someone's shoulder creates a distance from a work that is not present in reading.

The idea of the novel's role of reflecting reality was visited several times during the discussion. Whitlock recalled a quote from Nabakov that describes the whole history of literature as "polishing the mirror." He cited Jonathon Franzen and Zadie Smith as examples of writers today who, like Balzac before them, self-consciously try to document and reflect their society. Paul Quarrington stressed that he reads novels for a narrative and story, and not for historical study. Rich also agreed to some extent, explaining that novels that are steeped in a larger historical context, such as Joyce's Ulysses, can be anxiety-inducing for readers to approach. Whitlock clarified that when a novel is truly engaged with reality, it will resonate with readers, regardless of when it was written or what time period it is based in. He described being able to recognize books that are not grounded in this world, as they come a across as "empty, floating aesthetics," or "beauty." Boyden agreed, discussing the need to connect with readers on an emotional and psychological level.

Rich, at one point, asked Boyden (who teaches Creative Writing MFA students in New Orleans) if she had noticed any new approaches or trends in her students' writing. Boyden joked that writing about vampires was becoming less popular but that a new trend of writing about zombies was taking its place. The authors joked about the relationship of zombies to writers, some professing their love for the burgeoning zombie genre.

After much laughter and chatting, Baird asked the group to discuss what inspires or "launches" stories for each of them, which the latter half of the salon was spent exploring. Quarrington explained that his inspiration was different every time, and shared a story of how a footnote in a book on circus people inspired one of his novels. While reading a passage in which a bearded woman in the book claimed that she had a beard that "any member of the House of David would be proud of," Quarrington found a corresponding footnote that explained that the House of David was a local baseball team comprised of fanatically religious and bearded men. The sheer absurdity of such a baseball team actually existing became the starting point of what would become a 450 page novel. Boyden described the devastation and after-effects of Hurricane Katrina as the starting point of her novel, while Rich said his own personal fears, anxieties and the impossibility of expressing oneself through language were what informed his work. For Whitlock, the initial reason for writing his novel was to "get even" with his past, but through writing, the novel eventually transformed from an act of revenge into a love letter to the past.

Baird opened the discussion to the small audience, and the writers took turns answering a question on the role of reading in their writing practice. All of the writers read voraciously, while some had exceptions to when and what they read: Quarrington tries not to overwhelm himself by reading the work of masters like Saul Bellow while writing, and Whitlock finds that he has to read fiction while writing fiction, because it helps him to stay in the rhythm of what he was trying to write. Boyden reads fiction while writing to allow for a much-needed escape from her characters into someone else's.

The Eavesdrop Salon offered a relaxed and entertaining discussion on writing, with all four authors speaking very openly about their writing process and the many concurrent forces at work in creating fiction. Baird was a humorous and informal moderator, allowing the writers to explore tangents and offering his own insights and musings throughout. While the writers were extremely witty in their banter, the serious consideration that they gave the ideas discussed during the salon lent the event a pleasant balance of gravity and lighthearted conversation.

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