Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The News of the World of 1812

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You can’t believe everything you read: a truth universally acknowledged and one that grows seemingly more true (yes, I snuck a pinch of doubt into that on purpose) by the minute.

As I write, every newspaper in the UK has the same story on the front cover; and no, it’s not Rio Ferdinand and his 11 lovely ladies (though thanks for that, too, the Daily Star). The News of the World phone hacking scandal, which has been bubbling away for months now, has met with national vitriol. The revelations that phone hacking has been routinely carried out, not just on celebrities but on the families of victims of war, terrorism and other unspeakable crimes, has shocked a nation and indeed the world, but it also got me thinking about the ways in which we propagate stories.

One of the most thought-provoking (and well attended) events I went to at last month’s Luminato festival was a panel entitled “Modern Day Shahrazads.” Moderated by Eleanor Wachtel, it featured Elizabeth Hay, Miriam Toews, Leila Aboulela and Maxine Hong Kingston and, as you might expect from a panel inspired by a female storyteller, addressed a lot of questions about women as the passers on of the family narrative. Toews noted that models for storytelling all seem to come from parents and grandparents, particularly women, an idea that floated around in my mind as I read J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine, an Irving- or Franzen-esque tale of the Kelleher family, focusing on four women spanning three generations who have spent decades’ worth of summers swarming a beach-front property in Maine. It’s the women of this family who tell its story and hold both its grudges and secrets. How different would the story of the same family have been if told from the perspective of the Kelleher men?

Maine itself came as some light relief for me after ten days spent up to my eyeballs in the scalping and musket fire of Pierre Berton’s War of 1812 (a 900+ page reissue coming your way late this year). With only a few exceptions — most of them actually quite inspirational — Berton’s story is told by and about the men. Somewhere around the mid-point of my full-body Canadian history immersion a friend asked me how it was going and joked, “What’s the main love interest?” There isn’t one, of course. Nineteenth-century women were too flimsy and perpetually pregnant a species to be running off to war, and so the story — brilliantly imagined in Berton’s pioneering style, which focuses on the narrative, or “story,” part of history — is a tale almost exclusively about the guys. In an epilogue, the book sums up the remaining days of each of the main players: politicians and military types. But just as I wondered how the Kelleher’s story in Maine might have read differently if viewed down the male line of descent (the patriarch, Daniel, is a soldier when he meets his wife-to-be, but we never learn of his experiences of war), I wondered about the unwritten pieces of Berton’s book: what stories were told by mothers to their children, what Chinese whispers passed from one isolated house to the next. What, to put it in thoroughly modern terms, would these women’s Twitter feeds have told us…?

I mention Twitter not to be flippant, but because today of course we are all obsessed with passing on miniature stories and propelling narrative forward at every minute of the day. In the Luminato panel, Miriam Toews noted that a child assigning a narrative to an imaginary friend is like a storyteller bestowing one upon a character: it’s a way to work through our problems. Can we believe everything we read? One of the things most commonly put to novelists must be “The Autobiography Question,” borne of a desire to sort out fact from fiction, if indeed there be such a boundary any more. We believe everything and nothing at the same time: embellish our true stories with extra detail, enrich our invented stories with truth.

The War of 1812 had been over for three months when the final battle was fought, such was the time delay in shuttling messages back and forth across oceans and continents, but here in decade two of the 21st century stories move a lot more quickly. When I started writing this piece, the news was full of a phone hacking scandal. Somewhere midway through, the News of the World announced that it had pulled all of its advertising for this coming weekend’s issue. By the time I was typing this penultimate paragraph, the next issue of the NoW was to be its last. Often the fastest moving stories are the ones that write themselves.

The News of the World didn’t have stories passed down to it of course; it stole them, thereby becoming the villain in the story of its own demise. However we come by the narratives we share, we make a sliver of his(or her)story when we write them down. If you’re hitting the beach or the cottage this summer, enjoy getting fully immersed in your summer reading and sharing stories around the campfire. Just remember to take both fact and fiction with a tiny pinch of salt — or at the very least a tiny pinch of s’more.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One, a bookseller and events and communications coordinator for Type Books, a member of the communications committee for the Writers' Trust of Canada, and the author of a monthly column about Toronto's literary scene for Open Book: Toronto. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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