Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Joe Fiorito

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Joe Fiorito

The corner of Queen and Victoria Streets in downtown Toronto has no particular mythology to it. It is a busy, central crossroads sandwiched between the city's busiest shopping mall and one of its oldest churches. You can view St. Michael's hospital, or squint up the road to see Massey Hall. For Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito, however, this gritty corner became a key to seeing Toronto for what it is. He spent 18 hours, over three days, observing the city from this central perch. The result is Rust is a Form of Fire (Guernica Editions). Part prose, part poetry, and all urban love letter, the book "pulses with second-by-second discovery" according to Leon Rooke. Francine Prose also praised Rust is a Form of Fire, saying "Who would have imagined that such a large, complex city could be so neatly contained — and so eloquently celebrated — in so few words?

Today Joe speaks to Open Book about his experience writing Rust is a Form of Fire, why he chose that particular corner and Toronto's evolving identity.

If you want to catch Joe and other great Guernica authors in person, don't miss the Guernica spring 2015 launch in Toronto! Additional guest authors include David Joiner, Calvin White, B. W. Powe, Lynda Monahan and Max Layton. The launch takes place at 4:00p.m. on Sunday, April 19, 2015 at Supermarket (268 Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market).

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Rust is a Form of Fire.

Joe Fiorito:

The book is a gloss on the idea that, if you stay in one place long enough, and pay attention closely enough, you’ll see what really happens; in my case — hanging out on a downtown corner for 18 hours over three days — I was able to fashion a photographic look at the ebb and flow of the city, its currents, its habits and, by extension, our character.


How did you pick Queen and Victoria as the place you would conduct this experiment?


The easy thing would have been to choose an intersection everybody knows. My preference, as a rule, is to look for something ever so slightly off-centre, because that is where, if you look closely, you stand a chance of finding something new or unexpected.

The intersection of Queen and Victoria is just such an eddy in the city stream, well-worn, familiar and, as a result, often overlooked; it is one of those places between here, and there.


You have such a deep connection to the city. What are some of the things you love most about Toronto, and what are some things that worry or upset you about it?


I am puzzled by this city; hence my curiosity. We are on the way to somewhere, but we are not there yet. We are in flux, and we have been for the past 60 years or so. We are neither Muddy York nor Hogtown, nor are we Toronto The Good unless that claim is made with a sort of smirking irony.

We have no fixed identity here, unless it is one of constant change — which is why I wanted to take a snapshot of here and now.


How would you describe the genre in which you're writing? Is "prose poetry" an accurate label, or are genre divisions of little value to this project?


Is it prose or poetry? It is neither, and both, but it surely is a combination of my first love, poetry, and my current trade, which is journalism. Call it non-narrative non-fiction if you want a label.

I’m a bit surprised there isn’t a series based on the format. Georges Perec — I used his book as a template — did St. Sulpice, in Paris. I’ve done a particular corner of Toronto. But where are the short sharp sletches of those similar off-centre places — the ones we almost know — in Rome, New York, Kabul, Chennai, Lagos, Istanbul?


How did your writing process change for this book, given the unique experience of spending three days outside as part of the writing? How did you approach the writing?


There is no secret to the “writing process.” I simply kept my eyes and ears open, hoping for nothing more than what might happen in front of me. I took notes. I gathered observations. I wrote declarative sentences. It’s what I do.

I did not intervene, except once. But neither did I shrink if I was approached. The goal was simply to look, in the hope that I might see. The method is, fundamentally, the same one that I use in my newspaper column.


What are some of your favourite Toronto-centric books (fiction or non-fiction), as a reader?


My favourite books about Toronto are those written by the Callaghans, Morley and Barry; also the work of Raymond Souster, Toronto’s city poet — I read him when I want to clear my head.

I also owe a serious debt to the late Greg Clark, who gave me a Toronto of the imagination when I was a boy growing up in Northern Ontario.


What are you working on now?


At the moment, I’m working with Ricky Atkinson, the most prolific bank robber in the history of the country; he is now out on parole, and he has written a gripping, and in some ways terrifying, memoir. Ricky’s book is also a portrait of the city unlike any other, filled with stories you wouldn’t know unless you grew up smart and tough and black on the corner of Dundas and Spadina in the Sixties.

Finally, I should also say that writing Rust Is A Form Of Fire seems to have unlocked something, because I’ve also begun working on a book of city poems.

Joe Fiorito

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