Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Interview: Noah Richler Talks Luminato & Toronto Literature

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Noah Richler

Luminato, Toronto's ten day festival of arts and culture, gets underway tomorrow, and it has much to offer book lovers. This year's literary component is being curated by journalist, author and documentarian Noah Richler, whose work includes This is My Country, What's Yours? A Literary Atlas and What We Talk About When We Talk About War.

For the 2014 iteration of the festival, Noah has built on past literary programming, expanding in both scale and variety. Highlights include panel discussions, such "How to Kill Like a Scandanavian" which pays homage to that region's prowess in the suspense and thriller genres, walking tours guided by popular and acclaimed local writers, and much more. The programme culminates in A Literary Picnic in Trinity Bellwoods Park on June 15th, which will feature forty-five authors reading and mingling with bibliophiles.

Noah speaks with us today about how he came to be involved with the festival, how literature and the city are connected and some of his own favourite Toronto literary experiences.

Open Book:

Tell us about some of the highlights and new initiatives for the 2014 incarnation of Luminato's literary programming.

Noah Richler:

I joined Luminato quite late — February — and the ambition was to put into place a solid but achievable core of programming that would be effective this year and serve as a building block for the future. To that end, one of the first things we did was to put the teetering series with the Toronto Public Library back on an even keel. Much as the adventurous and even the outlandish are tempting, there is always a place for the conventional — here, the simple but exciting gathering of a group of exceptional writers. Michael Redhill, my predecessor, achieved this last year when he had Sheila Heti, Miranda Hill, Claire Messud and Lisa Moore together. This year, Luminato has two panels of that caliber. For the first, on Sunday June 8th, “Kill Like a Scandinavian,” I have corralled three Scandinavian thriller writers — Denmark’s Jakob Melander, Sweden’s Dan t. Sehlberg and Norway’s Thomas Enger — and then, cheating a little, though also to remind this gang — amusingly nicknamed, by one of their publicists, the “Striking Vikings” — that Scandinavia’s position at the height of contemporary thriller writing is not eternally theirs by birthright, the fourth author on the panel being the formidable Herman Koch of Holland. (It’s not a competition, though come World Cup time, it can be fun to think that way).

The second panel, on Wednesday June 11th, is also a treat, and is a nod to the popular hashtag, “ReadWomen2014”, that originally I’d thought was a local response to the Toronto writer David Gilmour’s particular brand of hubris, but it is in fact an international and I thought it a fitting time for Luminato to pay tribute to it. Heather O’Neill, Miriam Toews and Lisa Gabriele (writing as L. Marie Adeline) all have their books on the bestseller list, it’s too easy to claim prescience, and what I really hope that the fourth writer on that panel, first-time novelist and Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti, joins them there what with her book being published in the forthcoming weeks. I’m really looking forward to these panels, enough so that I’m bringing my Mom.

The rest of the literary programming I have quite deliberately put into a single ‘Day of Literary Intensity’ — a Literary Picnic in Trinity Bellwoods Park, first of all, at which some fifty authors will be gathered and speak from three stages; these will be followed by a trio of Literary walks led through different parts of the city by the novelists Cary Fagan, Andrew Pyper and Alissa York — a ticketed event — and then poet Dennis Lee’s and musician Mike Ross’s marvelous cabaret, “Lost Songs of Toronto,” that I saw last year at Soulpepper and knew I wanted for the program. Dennis basically says, “every city is remembered in story and song, so here are a few of Toronto’s — only we don’t have any, so here are some we wrote.” And then he performs them with a superb set of Soulpepper resident artist musicians.

That, I hope, will be the cream on the cake of a day of celebration of the city from Scarborough to Mississauga, the Walks already having explored a few of the city’s psycho-geographical secrets and routes. As for the Literary Picnic, I truly believe that this is an event that is unprecedented in Toronto, a group of writers reflecting upon the city of “Toronto, the Unseen” and reading their stories inspired by or simply written out of the place. This group is singular in its diversity — a diversity that goes well beyond mere ethnicity, and if the fact of the group including First Nations writers, an Inuk writer, Africadian, Bajun-, Chinese-, Korean-, Italian-, Jewish-, Muslim-Portuguese- and plain old white Canadians in its number is remarkable, it is because that is Toronto’s reality and never will it have been so evident in a single event. But this multiplicity is just a part of the group’s ‘diversity’. The Literary Picnic will feature new voices, established voices, celebrated voices, up-and-coming voices, forgotten voices to be remembered, young writers, familiar writers, “literary” and commercial writers, poets, non-fiction writers and novelists. And they’re all terrific — and they’re generous, because I can tell you it’s not the moneymaking the writers come out, but their love of the city and their craft.


How did you become involved with the Luminato festival?


A friend at The Walrus let me know that Jorn Weisbrodt, the festival director, was looking for someone to sort out the literary end of the program, a job that my colleagues Michael Redhill and Josh Knelman (and Devyani Saltzman before them) had previously occupied. I remembered Josh having enthused about Jorn’s Literary Picnic idea at my local a couple of years prior, but also the torrential downpour that put a halt to the Picnic that Redhill had organized last year, which was terrible bad luck. (We’ve learned the lesson: this year we have a rain venue a block away). Jorn and I had a drink at The Oxley in Yorkville, where Raymond Perkins, a fellow soccer nut and the behind-the-scenes man at Roots, joined us. This is an important detail as it explains my getting, let us say, light-headed. That meant I told Jorn what I thought, and not all of this was complimentary. I complained that Luminato was dealing with literature as an afterthought and not turning any significant attention enough upon the city itself. Other things I said amounted to a job applicant’s hara-kiri, but very much to Jorn’s credit, and a bit of good luck for me, he is a fella who is impassioned, almost childish in the joy he takes from what he does, and he is insatiably curious. I was very taken with him. I also saw accepting the position as the right thing to do given my dissatisfaction with festivals as they are and the challenge, these days, of making any writer’s appearance at all interesting. The existential choice facing me was either to continue to complain to not much effect, or to try and pitch in and do something myself. I opted for the latter. And I will say that in a year in which Toronto has been repeatedly internationally embarrassed, it seemed a good time to try and put into place something uplifting.


This year's programming seems to be deeply linked to the city itself. Is it important to you to have guests and book lovers witness the interaction of the urban and the literary?


I have always been rigorously interested in the relationship of humans to place. My first book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, was entirely an investigation into the psycho-geographical relationship we have with the places we inhabit. These sorts of contemplations are endemic to Canada. We know, here, that the borders as they are have been drawn by peoples from elsewhere (not just First Nations have a right to feel this way) and make little sense, or at least used to make little sense (over time even the most arbitrarily-drawn borderline accumulates meaning) and so we turn to stories to explain the land and our relationship to it. This is as true in Toronto and the GTA as it is, say, in Nunavut or Nova Scotia. Even in Toronto we are so close to the mysteries of the territory that are, in this city, to my mind perfectly symbolized by the ravines that run like arteries through the city but are not visible to the eye, or at least easy to miss. Toronto is not a city that reveals itself easily, and writers inhabiting what I call the “middle space” — that space between the world as it is and as it is represented in art — articulate the stories and ideas that inhabit that space, and that most of us do not know are already on our minds, for us. As the writer Alexander MacLeod said to me some years ago, “There is no place without people, no people without place.” The elements of Luminato’s ‘Day of Literary Intensity’ — the Walks, the Picnic, Lee and Ross’s “Lost Songs” — are about celebrating and exploring Toronto’s “middle space.”


What is it you most hope people will get out of the Luminato literary events?


For the audience, pleasure; for the writers, proof of community in a difficult time. The world of writing, these days, is one of terrible, debilitating insecurity. Writers are earning too little to write, publishers too little to publish, bookstores too little to sell and the chain only gets behind the few blockbusters that are selling anyway. The effect is poisonous, and one of myriad results is that at the top end, the powerful run roughshod and often with great arrogance over the people and companies that were once their peers and part of the same, vibrant, delightful community of intelligent people almost ludicrously dedicated to what, of course, has always been an absurd business. And at the bottom end, even the writers who complain, with cause, about having work demanded of them for no pay, have come to rely inordinately upon the culture of free and are disinclined to pay for anything. The political economist in me finds this interesting. You have, in effect, a complete breakdown of the trust in the future that the use of money, in the first instance, signifies. Often, I wonder if there is such a thing as a literary community anymore. The complete and utter breakdown of money as a barometer of value in almost any exchange involving a book, or the written word, has been detrimental to whatever sense of equivalence and community and common opportunity that might have existed as recently as five years ago. If I sound despairing, it is because I am, though I am also in love with writing and a part of the point of accepting the position that I did with Luminato it was to see if there was anything, no matter how small, that I could do to restore something of this sense of community.

So, if the Literary Picnic is successful, its guests but also the writers will experience a day that helps to assure them of the worth of what they do — of the value of the ideas that they effectively broker, independent of whether or not these writers’ books are actually sold. Of course I would like that to happen too, and will be doing what I can to make that happen, but most of all I want the visitors and writers to feel elevated by what they hear, see and experience and for them to be excited and to benefit from the writers’ attention to the city they live in.


Tell us about a few of your favourite Toronto-centric reading experiences.


One of the most thrilling literary events that I have attended in Toronto, or possibly anywhere, was the conversation that took place between Alice Munro and the English writer Diana Athill under the auspices of PEN at the Harbourfront International Festival of Authors back in October 2009. Athill, an editor of V.S. Naipaul Margaret and Margaret Atwood’s back in the sixties, is one of the world’s great memoirists and so fastidious in her use of English that it nearly renders the impeccable kind she speaks a dialect. Now in her nineties — she enjoyed her own literary success quite late in life — she had wanted to meet Alice for ages. They had a correspondence, and it happened. The result was an evening of delightful conversation between two great literary figures, and I feel fortunate to have heard it.


What will you be working on next?


I’ve been working on the story of a retired scallop fisherman, Philip Halliday, whom I met in Nova Scotia, a province where I spend a lot of time and that I have been seeking a way to write about, for ages. Halliday got work on a second-hand Canadian Coast Guard vessel that he was told had been sold to a “gentleman from Spain,” and the boat was raided by the Spanish Guardia Civil bear Vigo, back in December 2009, and a ton and a half of cocaine found on board. Halliday spent more than three years in a Spanish jail, though my story is leaning now towards becoming one about the boat. The details of its life are endlessly fascinating and a chunk of the story — not an excerpt, I haven’t written the book yet — is appearing in The Walrus next month, I think. At any rate, I’ll be working on the story again when my Luminato is done.


Noah Richler made documentaries and features for BBC Radio for fourteen years before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been books editor and literary columnist for The National Post and has contributed to numerous publications, including The Guardian, Punch, The Daily Telegraph, The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Saturday Night, The Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail. His work has been nominated for numerous prizes, including the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, the RBC Taylor Prize for Non-fiction and the Governor General's Literary Award. In 2007, he was awarded the B.C. Award for Canadian Non-fiction. He lives in Toronto.

Luminato began as a dream that each year Toronto would invite the world to join us in celebrating creativity. A dream where the best artists in the world and the best artists in Canada fill the stage that is Toronto with new and wonderful creations. A dream that we could create in Toronto a festival that would become renowned the world over for its excellence, its originality and its accessibility to all people regardless of background or experience. Today that dream has become the reality of a boisterous festival sprawling all over the city with music, theatre, dance, visual arts, literature, film and celebrations of all kinds.

For more information about Lumniato please visit the festival website.

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