Harris examines what has been lost in Internet age

The End of Absence:
Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection

By Michael Harris

Published by HarperCollins

243 pages, $29.99

Reviewed by JoAnn Dionne

I loved The End of Absence the moment I heard of it, sometime late last summer, through an email linking to the Can-Lit website 49th Shelf.com. As the non-owner of a smartphone, as a person who dearly misses her pre-Internet brain, I felt like this book had been written just for me.

And what a relief to learn that someone, namely 30-something author Michael Harris, eleven years my junior, thought the same way I did about our tech-saturated world. It made me feel less alone, less an old fuddy-duddy, less a Luddite. Indeed, it seems Harris did write this book for people like me, those of us born prior to 1985, who knew life as adults before and after the rise of the Internet. The “straddle generation,” as he calls us. The last of the daydreamers.

We are, as Harris points out, witnessing a unique moment in history. Soon, there will be no living memory of a time without the Internet. In the first half of his book, Harris reminds us that for everything we’ve gained from the Internet, something has been lost. And what we’ve lost most is absence. Remember when, he asks, we used to read books on grassy hillsides then gaze up at shifting clouds? Remember when we could hike for weeks in England and no one knew where we were? Remember when we poured our souls into private diaries and not into video confessionals on YouTube? Remember when we could savour a moment without tweeting it? Remember when we used to remember? When we used to forget?

Harris tries to break away from the on-line world in the second half of his book, to find some of this absence lost. To retrain his attention span, he sets himself the task of reading War and Peace in two weeks. I laughed out loud at spots in this chapter, and again in the chapter where, after duct-taping his cell phone to an old phone cord and duct-taping the cord to his kitchen counter, Harris embarks on an “Analog August,” a month of no-Internet-anything. At the end of both exercises, Harris feels calmer, more awake—and more acutely aware of just how “irrevocably, damnably, utterly wired to the promise of connection” he is. We all are.

My inner-Luddite was hoping for a call to arms by the book’s end, a mass rejection of all things on-line. But no. Harris’s advice is more sage, more practical than that. Technology is here to stay, he reminds us. Our job is to live intelligently with it. We must be mindful of the absences we’ve lost, and choose, daily, when and how to connect. Perhaps, then, this book wasn’t written for people like me, but rather for “digital natives,” those born post-1985, who will never know life without constant connection, who will never truly understand absence, and may never realize they have a choice.

JoAnn Dionne is the author of Little Emperors:  A Year with the Future of China, and teaches at the University of Victoria.

Editor-writer recognized for cultural work

Third-generation British Columbia resident Betty Keller will receive the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence at the B.C. Book Prizes gala on April 25. Keller, who has edited almost a hundred books about British Columbia in her 40-year editing career, is an award-winning author herself, with biographies of such cultural figures as Pauline Johnson and Ernest Thompson Seton. Her book on Pauline Johnson (Douglas & McIntyre, 1982) won the Canadian Biography Medal. She co-authored Skookum Tugs (Harbour, 2002), which won the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award in 2003, and co-authored A Stain Upon the Sea: West Coast Salmon Farming (Harbour, 2004), which won the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize in 2005.

Keller is also the author of Pender Harbour Cowboy (Touchwood, 2000), a biography of BC fisherman/novelist Bertrand Sinclair, as well as a tongue-in-cheek history of Vancouver, On the Shady Side (Horsdal and Schubart, 1986), a history of the Sunshine Coast, and a novel set in Vancouver, Better the Devil You Know (Caitlin Press, 2001). Her most recent book, A Thoroughly Wicked Woman: Murder, Perjury and Trial by Newspaper (Caitlin, 2010), is also set in Vancouver.

Keller began her career as a high school drama and English teacher in 1963, then worked as a faculty associate in education at Simon Fraser University and as a sessional lecturer in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. When she “retired” to the Sunshine Coast in 1980, she took up a whole new career as founder and producer of the Festival of the Written Arts (1983 to 1994). In addition, she co-founded the SunCoast Writers Forge and the Sunshine Coast Writers-in-Residence Program. Countless writers cite her support and mentorship as essential to their careers. Keller recently discussed her career with Lynne Van Luven.

Betty, congratulations on your award. Can you talk a little about your response when you heard the news?

I was thoroughly overwhelmed. I also feel a bit guilty to be accepting an award for doing something that is ample reward in itself.

You have been both a writer and an editor simultaneously for so many years. Can you describe the different joys and challenges of each role?

I am a substantive rather than a copy editor, so I am generally called in to work on manuscripts that have “substantive” or basic problems. In my first reading of a manuscript, I ask myself whether it communicates the message that the author was attempting to communicate. Is the information or the story line accessible to the reader? Do I have to reread sentences and/or check back fifty pages to find the beginning of the author’s argument in order to understand what he has to say in later chapters? Since lack of accessibility almost always depends on structural problems, I then have to isolate the spine of the work and help the author to reorganize the material attached to that spine so that the reader can move easily from concept to concept or, in the case of most fiction, from event to event. So structure comes first, but it’s always a joy to begin an edit job and realize that, although the manuscript may have problems, it already has “good bones.” So then it’s a matter of looking at the author’s style. While it is vitally important to nurture the writer’s style, sometimes a unique presentation can overwhelm the lines of communication to the reader, so here the editor has to walk the fine line between nurturing style and promoting communication. Then comes grammar and syntax and usage and punctuation, areas where a distressing number of writers have little or no knowledge whatsoever, so I experience pure joy when I edit a manuscript in which the author obviously understands parallelism and restrictive clauses and hasn’t even dangled modifiers!

When I am writing, I have to wear both my editing and creating hats, and then the pleasure comes not in the initial writing but in the rewriting and revising until I get the effect I am striving for—or at least as close to it as I can get before a great editor comes along and gives me the final nudge in the right direction! But that, as Hugh MacLennan (Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes) once wrote to his student Marian Engel (Bear, Lunatic Villages, The Tattooed Woman), is what a writer’s life is like. (See Dear Marian, Dear Hugh, University of Ottawa Press, 1995.)

What has been the most interesting change in the publishing world, in your opinion, within your years of engagement?

For most writers I think the answer to that question would be the introduction of ebooks and downloading and Kindles and all the technological changes in book publishing in the last 20 years. But for me it was the initial introduction of the personal computer. The pure joy of simply deleting or moving a passage instead of typing it all over again is impossible to describe to those who never composed a book on a typewriter. As one who literally cut and pasted her first seven books, I think that a computer is a lovely, lovely thing indeed.

When you relax, and just read for pleasure (you are so busy, I am not sure you do that!), what authors do you turn to?

These days at least 80 per cent of my reading is manuscripts, and I have to admit that reading for pleasure has become an indulgence I reserve for trips by ferry or plane and for holiday visits to my sons and their families in the U.S. and U.K. My Saturday mornings, however, are always devoted to newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, and my bedtime reading begins with The New Yorker (even though the punctuation style is maddening!) and extends to “must read” books recommended by friends. These are usually non-fiction in the environmental/political category.

Can you tell us about the power of writers’ festivals and writers in residency, with respect to the creation and recreation of writers?

When we created the Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt in 1983, our original goal had been to provide a forum for writers to talk to writers, but we decided to welcome readers as well because it allowed us to introduce more Canadian writers to the reading public—and also because it made better financial sense! However, in my years at the helm of the festival it was always a pleasure to see the number of novice writers in the audiences taking notes and absorbing inspiration, and this was the stimulus behind the festival society’s introduction of the writers-in-residence programs that we ran from 1987 to 1994. Our goal was not to “make” writers but instead to help writers find their voices. But critiquing by a professional writer is only part of the benefit of such programs; there is also invaluable input from the other members of the class and in the informal discussions of writing techniques and problems that occur between classes.

In the last 20 years I have moved my own teaching to very small classes—three is my preferred size—that meet on a weekly basis for eight or 10 weeks. This format allows in-class time for a thorough exploration of each member’s work, and the limited term means that writers (and I) can take a writing “breather” before signing on for another term. The intensity of the sessions also means that everyone in the group is completely focused on finding his/her voice and on overcoming writing problems in a limited period of time.  

Belfry Theatre’s Chekhov blend goes down smoothly

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike 

By Christopheer Durang

Directed by Michael Shamata 

The Belfry Theatre

April 14 – May 17, 2015 

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Playwright Christopher Durang admits there are echoes of Chekov in his 2013 Tony Award-winning play Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. He likes to say he’s taken Chekhov characters and scenes and “put them into a blender.” That’s a pretty fair description.

The setting for the play is rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (Durang and his long-time partner John Augustine moved to Bucks County several years ago, and Durang says it was this move to the country that turned his mind toward Chekov.)

In the play, Vanya, Sonia and Masha are 50-something siblings whose amateur thespian parents named them after Chekov characters. Vanya and his adopted sister Sonia stayed home to nurse their parents through dementia and, after their deaths, stayed on at the family farm (think Uncle Vanya). Masha left home and became a B-grade movie star (think of a technologically-updated Arkadina in The Seagull). Masha’s money supports the farm, as well as Sonia and Vanya, who don’t have jobs.

As the play opens, Masha (played with unabashed self-absorption by Brenda Robbins) has come home to tell her siblings that she has decided to sell the house. As in The Cherry Orchard, this threatened loss of the family estate provides the core conflict and theme of the play. In this production, the importance of the home is established by a handsome set designed by Cory Sincennes, who earned a degree in Architectural Studies from Carleton University before studying design at Ryerson Theatre School. The peace of the countryside is effectively evoked by lighting designer Brian Kenney, whose warm red dawns and sunsets flood through the expansive leaded glass window upstage.

Another Chekhovian theme, unrequited love, plagues the title characters. Sonia (played by Vancouver actress Deborah Williams) suffers from a life-long yearning for Vanya (played by lauded Canadian actor R. H. Thomson) who has no interest in her “that way” because he is gay (but apparently not in a relationship). Masha, married and divorced five times, is in a relationship with a much younger “boy-toy,” Spike (played by Lee Majdoub), who is fond of disrobing down to his underwear in public and flaunting his well-muscled body, much to the discomfort of both Masha and Vanya.

As in Chekhov, there is also a pervasive sense of missed opportunity and loss, and of the approaching end of an era. At one point, Vanya walks into the room and finds both Sonia and Masha sobbing loudly, Sonia because she feels she’s never lived, and Masha because she feels she’s lived but lost.

It is left to Vanya to voice misgivings about the perceived end of an era, which he does in a 10-minute Baby Boomer rant that bemoans the loss of everything from postage stamps that had to be licked to the passing of such 1950s “shared experiences” as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Bishop Sheen’s TV sermons. This long rant demanded the complete unravelling of Vanya’s carefully buttoned-down control. Thomson, who had just days earlier won a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for lifetime achievement, was, despite that recognition, not quite up to the task on opening night. His choked delivery seemed too reservedly Canadian for this quintessentially American tirade.

There is also, as in Chekov’s plays, a certain genre confusion in this play. Chekhov insisted he was writing comedies, but his plays were produced as tragedies, or, at least, as lugubrious drama. Durang’s play is billed as a comedy, and no one would mistake it for a tragedy—Williams’ transformative impersonation of Maggie Smith alone is a send-up worth the price of admission—but this play pushes well beyond comedy into farce. Any doubt is dispelled by Cassandra, the housekeeper (played with appropriate exaggeration by Carmela Sison in her Belfry debut), who, like her mythological name-sake, receives presentiments of the future; she also resorts to voodoo at crucial moments. The only non-farcical character is Nina (played with sweet sincerity by Yoshie Bancroft), a modern-day version of the young, unspoiled Nina in The Seagull.

You don’t have to know Chekov to enjoy this play, but, if you do, it’ll add an extra layer of texture to your pleasure. When Sonia insists she’s a “wild turkey” and your mind flies to The Seagull, your laugh will broaden into a guffaw.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Friesen explores life of Crazy Bone in new long poem

Patrick Friesen is an award-winning author, formerly from Winnipeg, now living in Victoria. He was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for poetry and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1998 and 2003 and won the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in Manitoba in 1996 and the ReLit Award for Poetry in 2012. He adapted his book The Shunning for stage; it premiered at the Prairie Theatre Exchange in 1985 and was performed in 2011 at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre. He has also collaborated with various musicians, choreographers and dancers and recorded two CDs of text and improv music. Friesen will present his new collection, A Short History of Crazy Bone, on April 23 at Russell Books in Victoria. Recently Friesen answered Cornelia Hoogland’s questions for The Coastal Spectator.

In awarding you the P.K. Page Founders’ Award for Poetry in 2012, John Steffler wrote “Friesen’s ‘storm windows’ seems to me to go an extra step in conjuring up and offering an experience of poetry’s ability to transform consciousness, alter perception, and enlarge our awareness of ourselves, our lives, and our world.” Trusting you had similar goals in writing A Short History of Crazy Bone please talk about the ways in which writing the long poem enabled you to enlarge your own awareness of your character/narrator Crazy Bone.

My great-grandmother Anna is where Crazy Bone began. Anna was a trickster and someone who crossed community borders and became an outcast. I have written her into other work, including one of my plays. In carrying the shadow, a book published in 1999, I included a middle-aged woman, dressed a certain way, wandering the countryside. Maggie Nagle, who had acted in my first play The Shunning, wrote me and wondered whether I would consider writing a monologue based on this woman. Some five years later I began writing a series of poems fusing this woman with Anna. After I had completed about half the poems I shifted to a monologue, finished that, began a two-hander with Crazy Bone, and then returned to finish the poems. That’s how the process worked, somewhat simplified. The character took on a life of her own as fiction. I also found myself entering the character and engaging in my own thinking process. So, in a way, Crazy Bone is a combination of certain aspects of Anna, of the woman in the previous book, and my own thinking process. There were other influences as well.

What are your aesthetic concerns around writing the long poem? What formalities or restrictions did you place upon yourself? Do the conventions of the long poem allow for greater inspiration, and do they more deeply release, rather than limit, your subject?

I’ve often written in couplets, particularly when I’m writing short-lined poems. This is the primary restriction I placed on this long poem. I also chose to use a pared-down, simple language to suit the character Crazy Bone. From the first poem on I knew I would be working with two voices, Crazy Bone’s voice and an objective, observer’s voice. The rhythms of these two voices changed as I went along. The observer’s voice tends to dominate the first half of the book, but Crazy Bone takes over in the second half. I think this happened because I found myself getting more and more comfortable in Crazy’s voice/thinking and what she was thinking and saying became more important than what she was doing. I’ve written other long poems which were one continuous development. This book doesn’t work that way. It works in fragments (which I’ve also done before in different contexts), fragmentary comments by Crazy for example. Each separate poem is part of the long poem but can probably stand on its own as well.

I see the separate poems within this long poem as flashes of thinking. Not completed, worked-out thoughts, but momentary hummingbird flashes. When you put these together you can begin to see a development, a continuity not based on a systematic workout, but an accumulation of moments in a life.

Writing the long poem can be understood as an extension of a main idea, for instance, in a lyric poem. In A Short History of Crazy Bone, I see you moving your idea/originating impulse into different contexts and making that idea/impulse respond to different voices. Where does that focus lead? Am I correct in seeing the shape of this long poem as the shape of a mind inventing itself? Is that what it’s about? A short history of the mind’s work of invention?

Yes, in a way this long poem is a mind shaping itself, or revealing its shape, a shape the character doesn’t consciously know until experience fused with language reveals it. A friend wondered about the title of the book suggesting that, in fact, this was not really a “history.” True enough, if history means a coherent series of events. It is, though, a history of a mind. Within that there are other histories, fragments of cultural history for example. There is no plot in this book, but there is a subplot. Crazy is wandering about through fields and bush; she alludes to a former lover, but this story is never completed. She has five stones she wants to return to their original place. But it’s a vague mission, and she is not truly driven by it. It may be the excuse for her starting out on this journey of her mind.

What are the contingencies that Crazy Bone meets in her travels? Would you say that the contingencies (such as admonishing voices, or her clothing and other props) are a way of working through the same idea via different metaphors?

There are no real barriers for Crazy. Her mind is like a river flowing. If there is a stone, it flows around it. She has no particular expectations of her mind, she just lets it move. This is the motion of the book, the movement of a relatively unfettered mind. She also moves physically, not just in walking, but in occasional flamenco and butoh movements. This is a mind/body moving through space.

What tensions are you creating with third and first person voices? Does switching back and forth allow you to modulate your distance from the poem as you reveal more or less intimate truths? Even within a poem in first person, hierarchical positioning is playfully undermined, and Crazy Bone lifts off the page, far beyond the clutches of those who would disparage her. For instance, in poem 60 Crazy Bone says (and I do want to end this interview with Crazy Bone speaking),

they said dancing led to pregnancy
they were right

I have given birth
a thousand times

shame on you
they said

and I ate their shame

Crazy Bone is a gentle anarchist (well, she expresses the desire to build a house in order to burn it down, which isn’t all that gentle). She thinks in contradictory terms, is not impressed by hierarchy or wealth or status. She sees the idiocy of human pretension, and she sees existence as shot through with humour. The third person voice establishes setting, suggests Crazy’s physical movement through space, some of her actions. As in a play, this gives us a context for Crazy’s voice, the motion of her mind. Whatever judgments community wants to place on Crazy she shakes them off. Mostly she doesn’t bother engaging in battle with community, rather community is irrelevant. She accepts their judgments sometimes. Why not? The judgments are ridiculous and not worth countering.

Hornby Island poet Cornelia Hoogland‘s sixth book, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Relit Award. Hoogland’s new long poem, “Deep Bay,” is written in response to her brother’s sudden death. 

Mother’s loss to dementia inspires personal essay collection

Edmonton writer Myrl Coulter uses the personal essay to explore the passage of time and the loss of her mother to a rare form of dementia.  Her book, A Year of Days, is published by University of Alberta Press, which is fitting as Coulter has a PhD from the U of A, where she taught English for eight years. Coulter recently talked online with Lynne Van Luven about her new book and the personal essay. She will be in Victoria for the Creative NonFiction Collective’s 11th annual conference, April 24 to 26. 

Myrl, perhaps because I have a father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, my favorite chapter in your book is “Death by Dementia,” in which you trace the way Primary Progressive Aphasia robbed your mother of her words and, eventually, her life. Can you talk a little more about how you regard the connection between language and personality?

Of course, the connection between language and personality is intimate. One of the primary ways personality develops is through language. My mother, like everyone, had her own language patterns and quirks. As she deteriorated, she lost her nouns and then her verbs and eventually her entire sentence structure. But even at the end, her unique language personality was still there. One phrase I particularly remember is “boy, oh boy,” a vague saying she used all her life. In her last years, she came to rely on it when she was no longer able to string words together in a sentence. Whenever I heard her say “boy, oh boy,” it took me back and I’d think about the different times I’d heard her use that phrase over the years.

Beyond language, personality is also evident in non-verbal ways. When dementia progresses and language skills deteriorate, body language is still visible. Much of my mom’s personality was present even when many of her words were gone. I knew she was still in there, just by the shrug of her shoulders or the look on her face.

Because your book is organized into 15 personal essays that explore the passing of a calendar year, readers might think you wrote the book in a year. How much time passed between your eulogy for your mother’s funeral and the final publication of A Year of Days? I guess what I am asking is how long did it take you to be able to write about your mother as a person no longer physically present?

Considering the slow process of traditional book publishing, this one came together quickly – it was less than four years from my mother’s funeral to publication. After writing the eulogy, I knew I needed to write more about her. But in the year after her death, I read much more than I wrote. I read books about emotion and loneliness and holidays and the human brain. I doodled around the internet a lot. I spent time in libraries and coffee shops. I walked miles and miles.

The essay “Wearing Black” came first, inspired by the eulogy. I took it to the Banff Centre’s Writing With Style workshop in the spring of 2012. Then I began to see a structural shape, so I wrote out a Table of Contents and a plan, which I used to apply again to the Banff Centre. I was accepted into the Wired Writing Studio, where I had the great good fortune to work with Charlotte Gill. After that, it didn’t take me long to write the first draft, less than a year.

The days in my book come from the cycle of a single year, but I go to many different years in these essays. The title refers to the days that come around year after year. As time goes by, we experience those days differently, with hope and anticipation when we’re younger, with nostalgia and yearning as we get older.

You talk about visiting your mother and watching her sitting silently, staring at her hands. You write, “I tried to imagine my brain leaking words, tried to feel what it would be like to have the lake of my vocabulary draining a paragraph or two at a time through some unseen puncture in my head.” You say the questions you asked yourself about your mother’s loss of language made you afraid. Can you talk a little more about what you meant by that?

That’s a big one. Fear like that is hard to manage because it’s not rational. When a dementia-related condition strikes a family member, irrational fear is almost inevitable. And it increases as the patient deteriorates. Mine has abated now because I’ve realized that I’m not my mother, that she had her destiny and I have mine. But while I watched her language skills disintegrate, I felt vulnerable to her fate, especially because Alzheimer’s had already claimed my aunt, my mother’s older sister. Every time I hesitated in a sentence or had to search my brain for a word I couldn’t find, I’d think, “Oh crap this is it. It’s started. I’m a goner.” It got so bad that I mentioned it to my doctor. When I told her I was worried about my brain, she said, “Well, Myrl, you are writing books. I think you’re okay for now.” I’m deeply grateful for that simple rational statement. It was, and is, so calming.

As my parents age, I have been reading dozens of books about the aging process, about the loss of capacity induced by dementia-like illness, and I have been thinking a lot about the issue of physician-assisted suicide.  Did your family ever discuss that incredibly potent topic during your mother’s decline?

No. Not once. Never even thought about it. My mother denied her diagnosis vehemently, so that would have been an impossible conversation for our family. Still, I’ve followed assisted suicide cases closely, especially the Gillian Bennett story last summer. I admire how she and her family handled their situation. But every case is different because every family has its own dynamics. There is no blueprint here, no step-by-step prescriptive we can apply generally. That’s what’s so hard about these dementia conditions. Families have to find their own way through the maze. Dementia care options must be made more elastic, more adaptable to individual cases, and perhaps most of all, more available when needed. Families need choices. Our health and geriatric care system isn’t where it yet needs to be in this area.

I am interested to learn aspects of the personal essay drew you to it, as a vehicle of grieving for your mother. More precisely, how does the process we now call life-writing, wherein one explores a private dilemma, evolve into the creation of polished essays which move beyond the purely personal into ruminations one can share publicly?

The purely personal is diary-writing, journal-keeping: it’s therapy, a helpful tool long prescribed by counsellors and psychologists. This kind of writing is good for healing and recovery, but not for publication.

Personal life-writing for publication is the result of craft. It takes work, research and time. The successful personal essay has resonance, is driven by curiosity, a need to discover, a quest for connection. It expands beyond the writer’s life, examines social and cultural contexts, creates links readers can identify with. My first book is a memoir, but I wrote each of its chapters as personal essays that would build a memoir story. In this one, I wanted to avoid the memoir shape, so I set out to use as many different versions of the personal essay as I could. It’s such a flexible form to work in. If it were a visual art form, it would be classified as multi-media because personal essays use many different elements and take on a wide variety of structures. Some chapters in A Year of Days are linear and others are braided. Some build to revelations that came during the writing flow. Others follow questions I had in my head. The opening essay is a taxonomic exercise that illustrates the impossibility of categorizing emotions. The next is a straightforward travel story. One is a process essay shaped loosely as a recipe; another is about the many ways to cross a bridge. Some are anecdotal and some have lyric qualities (I hope). For each one, I picked a topic and usually ended up writing about it and something else. That’s the beauty of the personal essay – it’s not bound by the topic or the self. Its movement is outward.

Adderson reveals the dramatic, messy world of Ellen

Caroline Adderson’s novel Ellen in Pieces has been nominated for a 2015 B.C. Book Prize. She is the author of three previous novels, A History of Forgetting, Sitting Practice, and The Sky is Falling, two collections of short stories, Bad Imaginings and Pleased to Meet You. A two-time winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, Adderson’s work has also been nominated for many awards including the Scotiabank Giller (longlist) and the Governor General’s Literary Award. Recently Adderson answered Traci Skuce’s questions for The Coastal Spectator.

Each chapter in Ellen in Pieces reads like a short story. In fact three of the chapters won, or were long listed, for various magazine awards. At the same time, there’s a cohesion and propulsion that moves the reader from one chapter to the next. Can you comment on your choice of form? Did it grow out of the character, Ellen, or did Ellen grow out of the form?

Neither, actually.  The idea of the form came about as a kind of protest. In 2009, I read Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which I thoroughly enjoyed, except for the fact that it was touted as a novel when it is obviously a collection of linked stories. The next year I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I loved even more, but again, there was that word on the cover — “novel”. I was irritated for two reasons. First, did publishers think readers wouldn’t notice that they were reading stories and, second, were they so ashamed of the form (my favourite) that they wouldn’t even admit to publishing it?  Once I got over my irritation, I started to wonder if it was possible to write a novel wherein each chapter is a stand-alone story. That’s what I set out to do. Once I finished the stories and put them in order, however, I had to do a lot of cutting and shaping, mostly to eliminate the repetition of background material that each stand-alone story needed.

How Ellen came to me was quite dramatic.  I write for children, as well as adults. (I’ve published 12 kids’ books now.) Kid lit is a genre, meaning simply that it has rules. One of the primary rules is that the child protagonist, or the child-substitute (the squirrel or the bear), must solve her problem on her own, not have an adult solve the problem for her. In other words, she must be active. As soon as I grasped that principle, I recognized a flaw in my own writing – that my protagonists tend to be, while not necessarily passive, quite reflective.  Suddenly a door kicked open in my head and there stood Ellen, Super-Active Protagonist. She acts. She messes up her life, and then she fixes it, and everyone else’s while she’s at it.

The novel also breaks down into two parts: Act One and Act Two. The first two-thirds of the novel (Act One) is told mostly from Ellen’s point of view (with the exception of two chapters), but none of Act Two is. When in the writing did you realize you’d have to break out of Ellen’s point of view? Or had you intended it from the outset?

I intended it from the outset.  I wanted to make readers feel that Ellen was their close personal friend.  When the event happens which forces Ellen to retreat inside herself, her point of view disappears and we see her through the eyes of other people.  I was trying to mimic what happens when we actually lose a friend, how the stories about her are all we have left.

So when I started reading the book, I glanced at the blurb on the cover by Annabel Lyon: “Sexy, searing, and very, very funny.” And, of course, Ellen is so outrageous and bawdy in some moments that I laughed out loud. The sex is funny. The lice. Her father’s constipation. At the same time, the beauty, the real art of your work, is that you balance this with tragedy. My heart ached for these characters. I thought and worried about them—even dreamt about them! Can you talk about this balance between tragedy and comedy? Why striking that balance is important for you, and also the reader?

I’m sure there are readers who won’t go near my books after hearing what some of them are about: Buddhism and spinal cord injury (people actually recoil when I tell them that one!); the fear of nuclear war; hairdressers who make a pilgrimage to the Auschwitz Museum.  I’m a tragic-comic writer. I’m interested in dark subjects, but I explore them with a lot of humour. Life is suffering. Better laugh when you can.

I found Ellen to be incredibly self-aware. Anger, her default emotion, flares frequently, and sometimes she acts upon it, and sometimes not. But she’s able to name it, cool it out when she has to. She also reflects on the past, sees her part in things (particularly strained relationships) even if she doesn’t like what she sees. She’s also in her mid-forties. So I’m wondering how reaching mid-life impacts the way Ellen mulls over the past?

The book is really about middle-age and the great contentment that’s waiting there, unseen by the young. It’s so freeing to get some distance on what you’ve already lived and see that the things that seemed so important at the time, aren’t, and as a consequence, that the things ruffling you in the present perhaps aren’t going to turn out to be very important either. So why not just get on with life? That’s one road anyway. The other is bitterness and regret, such as Larry, Ellen’s ex husband, feels. Ellen, being an active protagonist, chooses life. So could we.

Many many writers have been directly (or indirectly) influenced by Chekhov. And in Ellen in Pieces, there’s a chapter where Ellen takes in a stray dog and in her search to name him pulls Chekhov’s “Lady with the Lap Dog” off the shelf and rereads the story. I loved that she did that, that you showed this character engaged with a story, both remembering the feelings she’d had reading it when she was younger and the new insights she gained as a dog owner. Can you talk about the ways you feel Chekhov has influenced you? And about the process of integrating literature—particularly Chekhov—into your stories and novels.

My last novel, The Sky Is Falling, was partly about the love of Russian literature. I worried about doing a similar thing in this book too, but it seems that Ellen is reaching more readers, so perhaps those who connect with that chapter might like to pick up the last book and really indulge themselves. Apart from the fact that Chekhov revolutionized the short story by making it about character instead of plot, quiet moments instead of dramatic revelations, it’s his tone that draws me.  Again, the stories are incredibly sad, yet so funny, which is the balance that moves me as a reader and a writer.  Also, in Russian writing — Chekhov and Tolstoy especially — there are continual references to both writers and literary characters. Yet in contemporary writing, there is very little of this. The characters rarely even read books. I’ve always found that odd. Ellen is very much a reader; she even has an old-fashioned dentist chair specifically to read in. I enjoyed rounding out her character through her literary tastes. In one chapter, for example, she manages to shake off a crush on a man because he offers her a Dean Koontz novel.

Traci Skuce lives in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Zombie tale served with literary twist

All Day Breakfast

By Adam Lewis Schroeder

Douglas and McIntyre

378 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Aaron Shepard

Zombies, as cultural icons go, are surprisingly durable and versatile: they can do straight-up horror or gross-out comedy horror. And they seem to have something more to say about us humans than the one-note, sexy vampires. Their shambling gait and rotting flesh suggests the entropy of society, the emptiness of our consumer culture. Their mindless rage reflects the futility and irrationality of our own. Zombies are the scapegoats we send out into the wilderness (and decapitate when they come stumbling back).

But what if zombies weren’t just the brainless seeking brains? What if they were just like you and me, only more flippant when losing a body part? What if their rage could be entirely– well, mostly – justified? What if they didn’t need to eat brains at all, just a bottomless supply of bacon?

That, in a nutshell, is Schroeder’s premise. When substitute teacher, vegetarian and recently widowed father Peter Giller leads his grade 11 class on a field trip to a plastics factory, an accident seems to trigger bizarre changes in them, including a ravenous urge for nitrites, and limbs that randomly fall off (“I must have slept on it funny,” one student mumbles nonchalantly about her missing arm). When it becomes apparent that someone – a mysterious corporation, the military – is hunting down everyone involved in the accident, Peter leaves his two children with his mother-in-law and hits the road with his fellow undead in search of a cure. Along the way they struggle with identity crises, anger management issues and their imminent decay.

Given Schroeder’s well-acclaimed past works – two novels and a short story collection that offered new takes on historical literary fiction – the question arises: is he merely slumming in the horror/comedy genre with All-Day Breakfast? Or is this literary fiction in disguise?

The answer is that he’s bringing the best of both genres together. While there are nudges and winks toward the CanLit scene (the name “Giller” is likely no coincidence), including a sly allusion to the late Paul Quarrington’s band, Pork Belly Futures, the story is heavier on action and plot than your average CanLit read. In fact, with subplots that include genetic experimentation, military contracting and the Congolese civil wars, All-Day Breakfast has more twists and turns than most horror novels. Packed with dense prose, the long ending threatens to lose steam while tying up loose ends, but is salvaged by a satisfying act of revenge. This is a loose, anarchic read tempered by intelligence and wit.

What really sets the book apart, though, is the depth of characterization. Schroeder’s characters, armed with razor-sharp dialogue and exquisite attention to detail, are (ironically) so full of life, the reader becomes quite attached: a dangerous thing in a novel where not everyone gets to live, true, but this lends his story a surprising poignancy. Peter Giller’s grief for his dead wife, absent children and undead students, serves to unify and enrich the often horrific imagery. As Giller frequently tells us: We each fall apart in our own time and in our own way.

Aaron Shepard’s first novel When is a Man is published through Brindle and Glass.

Robertson talks reviews, novels and life post-Wallflowers

Eliza Robertson’s debut collection of short stories, Wallflowers (Hamish Hamilton), has been praised in Canada, across the Atlantic and in the United States, with The New York Times calling it captivating. In recent years Robertson, a B.C.-born graduate of the University of Victoria, won the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the piece “We Walked on Water,” was a finalist for the 2013 CBC Short Story Prize and earned a MA in prose fiction from the University of East Anglia, where she received the Man Booker Prize Scholarship. In the midst of completing her PhD in the U.K., Robertson talks to The Coastal Spectator’s Erin Anderson about delving into novel-writing and plotting out her next steps.

It is unusual I feel for a short story collection to get as much press as Wallflowers. The book has received many favourable reviews–what have been some of your favourite reviews or turns of phrase used to describe your writing? 

Well, I like when reviewers acknowledge its darker places…but also when they use adjectives like “weird.” The stories function on both levels. Probably my favourite review came from Stinging Fly, which is a journal in Ireland. I don’t remember the words the reviewer used, but she was the only one to mention the stylistic exploration. Some of the stories can be frustrating to read if you’re not someone who likes denser prose. I suppose she acknowledged that readers will have to work for a few of these stories, and that that is okay.

Some reviewers of Wallflowers made note of the collection’s diversity. What was your approach to curating the book? Were there stories that didn’t make the cut? Which story or stories do you feel best reflect where you want to go as a writer?

Its diversity reflects how much I wanted to try new things at the time… which I still do, though it may be less obvious in the writing now. There were a few stories that did not make the cut, yes. Similarly, I thought about removing a few stories that did make the cut, but ultimately they stayed in. It’s been interesting to watch– some reviewers’ least favourite stories are other peoples’ (and occasionally my own) favourites… and some of my personal least favourites have been picked up as the strongest. It’s reassuring, in a way, to know you can never please everyone with a book like this. I’m not sure if any of them specifically point to where I am headed as a writer–I don’t know where I am headed as a writer myself. But the final story, “We Walked on Water”, is one of my favourites. 

You had a novel ready at the same time as Wallflowers. How did the short story collection end up being your first release? It seems like novels still run the market so to speak–do you agree? What do you see as the differences between novels and short stories as both a reader as a writer–other than length?

A first draft of the novel had been written, but it was nowhere near ready. (Can you tell I have had trouble with the transition from story to novel writing?) I think my agent wanted to wait for the novel to be more fully formed, but then I won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and she thought it savvy to capitalize on that attention… So she sent out the story manuscript before the novel was ready. In fact, neither of my publishers had seen a lick of it before they agreed to buy it. (But nor would they buy the story collection without promise of a novel to follow.)

Yes, they do still run the market, unfortunately. Every time a story collection does well, the commentary seems to begin or end on the exclamation, “and it’s a story collection!”

As for the difference between the two forms… well– I think stories can be a lot more playful. They can shape-shift between forms and styles and voices more easily than a novel can, which is why I love them. They can also be launched from the momentum of a single moment, whereas a novel needs slower build up. I don’t know if I have gotten the hang of it yet.

You are the midst of your PhD right now, part of which is writing a novel. Are you finding time to write outside of that commitment?

The PhD is a creative-critical hybrid, so it involves writing a novel as well as critical research, which keeps me pretty busy. On top of that, I am redrafting a different novel (which was sold alongside Wallflowers in the two-book deal) and teaching an undergraduate course.

I can’t tell you too much about either novel yet, as they’re both remain embryonic. (The new one because it is new, the old one as an effect of its redrafting.) You see, I spent an intensive three months changing everything about it–point of view, structure, chronology, the characters’ ages, names… and I am awaiting my editor’s feedback. It is sitting in a quiet mental box until then.

Essentially, it’s about a girl trying to friend her friend in Vancouver. But I can’t divulge too much beyond that.

What are your plans post-PhD? Do you think you will stay in Europe or return to Canada? Are you hoping to focus entirely on writing or do you plan to keep up some kind of day job, teaching perhaps?

I have no idea! I miss Canada, though. I could see myself living in Montreal or Vancouver. Equally, I’ve always wanted to try living in the U.S…. not forever, but one or two years might be fun. In my ideal world, I would live 1/4 of the year in Canada, 1/4 of the year in the UK, 1/4 of the year in northern California… or New York, cliché as it is… and 1/4 of the year in the south of France.

Of course I would love to focus on writing, but that’s not likely if I hope to maintain an income. Even if I did have the luxury to write full-time, I am not sure it’s ideal. I think I like writing more when I have a distraction. That distraction could be teaching–I am doing that now. But in many ways I would prefer to do something completely unrelated to literature. Like film production or work for some open office space with bean bag chairs.

Artful folk suffuses Mike Edel’s second album

Mike Edel

India, Seattle

Cordova Bay Records

Produced by Colin Stewart, Jason Cook and Mike Edel


Reviewed by Chris Ho

It’s hard to believe it has been four years since the release of Mike Edel’s debut album The Last of Our Mountains – a debut that earned the Victoria folk singer-songwriter national recognition with its roots firmly grounded in Western Canada. Born in rural Alberta, Edel’s songs re-awaken that sometimes long-forgotten Romantic era where vast wheat fields, outstretched blue skies and nostalgic landscapes inspired poets to capture the otherwise indescribable feelings of love and loss, and the memories of childhood. Once again, Mike Edel’s songwriting style feels spontaneous, organic and hard-hitting throughout his highly anticipated sophomore album, India, Seattle, which is set to release on April 14.

Those who are already fans of Edel’s debut album The Last Of Our Mountains, can sleep soundly knowing that the seasoned Island songwriter hasn’t strayed too far from the path on which he began. India, Seattle gives rise to much of the same folk-pop sentimentality found on his debut album, with its enchanting guitar hooks, compassionate lyrics, and infectious vocal melodies.

At the same time, his sophomore album is laden with twists and turns that dance uninhibited along the lines of straightforward folk-rock rhythms and artful, progressive soundscapes. Songs like “Blue Above the Green” and “St. Columba,” for example, begin with expectant acoustic guitars but then build gradually into a crescendo of crashing symbols and soft ambient noise that fill every crack and corner of the audio mix. The effect is emotionally potent – as if Edel has carefully plotted out the points where lightning strikes suddenly and a great storm whirls in all its chaos and darkness.

You can feel this especially in the climax of “St. Columba,” as Edel’s voice rises up through the reverb-rich guitars and splashing symbols: “Cut the ribbons, open the doors, down on your knees close to the floor and pray it will remain.” The “it” here is likely referring to nature itself; bringing to mind a timeless lyric where Bob Dylan is, arguably, addressing nature as he sings “you’re gonna’ make me lonesome when you go.”

Needless to say, India, Seattle stands as a testament to Mike Edel’s growth as a songwriter and musical poet. It is tastefully infused with newfound depth and artful ambience that hadn’t been as thoroughly explored in his previous debut, The Last Of Our Mountains.

It is also worthwhile to call attention to the eclectic nature of the new album, which is another element that makes India, Seattle stand out from The Last Of Our Mountains. Edel may be consistent, but he is not repetitive. There are many different influences that make themselves apparent in his latest album.

Some songs, such as “East Shore West Shore” and “Sunny Outside This Afternoon” have a very classic roots and folk sound to them; whereas others like “Thought About July” and “All The Morning” veer slightly to the way of alt country, with their twangy guitar licks and soft lap steel sounds. And there are even moments in “East Shore West Shore” and “All The Morning” that burst in the background with vocal hooks and bells singing brief little melodies that bring to mind an alt-pop vibe similar to Feist’s third full-length album, The Reminder.

Mike Edel makes no apology for the creative liberties he takes with India, Seattle. The pace of the album feels unrushed and effortless, and it is uncontrived in its deeper expression of love and nostalgia and the landscapes that shape our conceptions of the world around us. Where words fall short in describing the sometimes-cloudy haze of emotions, or the memories that remind us of what was found and what was lost, India, Seattle serves as a reminder that sometimes all you need to do is listen. And take it all in.

Chris Ho is a freelance writer and guitar and voice instructor.

Writers, publishers and booksellers unite for Read Local

In April, 23 publishers, 300 authors, 50 bookstores and 40 libraries will unite to celebrate the talent of British Columbia’s writers. Events for Read Local B.C. will take place throughout the province until April 22—from Victoria to Vancouver, Tofino to Fernie, Williams Lake to Haida Gwaii. It’s an initiative of the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., which works to support the long-term health and success of B.C.-owned and controlled publishers. Hannalora Leavitt spoke to the association’s executive director, Margaret Reynolds, about the province’s extraordinary depth of writing talent.

When I first looked at the press release for Read Local B.C., my first thought was wow, what a great, grass-roots approach—getting writers, booksellers and publishers out there face-to-face with readers. Can you tell me about the initiative and how it came about?

There were two influences. One was that last year we did an event at the Legislature called B.C. Book Day. We had our publishers there in the rotunda of the Legislature buildings. The MLAs and their staff were invited to come down to meet with us. We gave away books, and it was a huge success. The Lieutenant-Governor was there as well. There was real excitement and buzz in the building. But, it was a private event. Then we wondered, how can we roll this out a little more so that it engages the public as well as our representatives in Victoria?

Simultaneously the booksellers who were actually at that event came to us and shared that they’d just returned from a conference in the States. There’s quite an active, independent booksellers’ community in the States. They’ve done some very successful campaigns that focused on their importance in the community and the importance of local publishing. We had some discussions about how we might work together on a campaign that focused on the local, whether it’s the local bookseller or the local writer or the local publisher. That’s how it came together.

B.C. Book Day 2015 will take place on April 22 in Victoria. So we backed it up and we’re doing three weeks of author interviews and events in stores and libraries. We want to give it a wider attendance and awareness.

How it has been received by the publishing industry?

When you look at what the festivals are doing in this province, they are hugely successful. Last year the [Vancouver] Writers Festival completely sold out. Every year they seem to do better and better. The Sunshine Coast Festival is hugely successful. [There’s] one in Shuswap; another one in Victoria on the Island. There’s definitely a lot of interest from the public and the writers are out there.

One of the challenges in our industry is to get the word out about what we do. We don’t have a lot of media any more. We have social media which is definitely helpful but we don’t have the traditional newspaper, radio and television that we used to have to support us in getting the word out about books. Now we have to be a bit more creative about how we do that. Read Local is probably one of the ways we can get the word out but the writers festivals are another way. We really want to see those festivals continue.

There’s a confluence of effects of libraries and booksellers and publishers and writers that has helped to create an industry and to generate interest in local writers. That has been sustained, but I think it’s somewhat threatened when you don’t have a way of getting the word out about events. We do our best, but it’s definitely a challenge.

There are so many events planned throughout the province. Can you talk about the creativity that has gone into that process? Of course we expect events in major centres, but could you share some of the more remote events scheduled during Read Local B.C.?

As part of the campaign we wanted to ensure that authors throughout the province are recognized, and that both small towns and large cities can participate in the festivities. The event farthest from our headquarters is in Haida Gwaii at the Masset Maritime Museum. Our Stories Behind the Stories features local authors storytelling and readings, in partnership with Literacy Haida Gwaii. There’s a Poetry Picnic at Tofino’s Botanical Gardens or an afternoon at The Book Nook with author Bruce Burrows at Cafe Guido in Port Hardy as well.

Two Read Local B.C. events of note taking place in the Lower Mainland are North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley Public Library’s hosting of Secrets, Booze & Rebellion: Vancouver’s Unknown History, and Fishing for Tales held at the Pacific Angler, where two celebrated authors will deliver a unique perspective on the ocean, its wildlife, and the people who work on its waves. The campaign includes events in Victoria, such as On The Road and Poetry Without Borders. Both feature a range of talented and award-winning writers, and we’re very much looking forward to these flagship events in the city. Check out the events calendar.

Is there a way to measure the success of this initiative? Or, is it a matter of just doing it?

In a sense it is just give it a try because we’ve never done this before, not on this kind of scale where there are events taking place all over the province. If you’re just measuring by sales, it’s pretty much impossible to know whether it’s related to this campaign. We can certainly measure books going out. Our publishers can measure that. Gathering the information is a complex matter. We are going to try to measure orders from the booksellers over the course of the event and the subsequent months.

A terrific outcome of this campaign is if we could introduce books that half the people didn’t know about, books that have been published here by people who live down the street and the public didn’t even know. You never know who you’re touching when you do an interview or bring a person to town. But if you don’t do it, then people won’t know. I’d like to emphasize how positive a campaign this is. This is about the kind of creativity that goes on, both on the writing and on the publishing end in this province.

I’ve always understood that B.C. is the most well-read, literate region of Canada. But does that necessarily translate into a healthy industry? Today we hear so much about the demise of the print book because of digital technologies. In your role as executive director of the association, could you share what the industry looks like from your perspective?

Historically it has definitely created an environment where it is possible to publish books here. We’re far away from the centres of publishing: Toronto and New York. We have the largest English-language publishing community outside Toronto and within Canada. Library-book circulation is also one of the highest in the country. For the longest time, we had the most independent book sellers in the country, and I think we’re still pretty good. That end of things has changed, but historically that kind of symbiosis, readers who are interested in reading about where they live and where they come from, created this environment where it was possible to publish regional books or literary books about where we are. The industry really started in the early 1960s and over the years we now have magnificent children’s publishers, a scholarly press and lots of trade publishers.

Overall, I would say that the state of the industry is pretty buoyant right now in B.C. We’ve got a lot of great publishers doing really good publishing, highly professional, award-winning type publishing. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges in our industry. The retail market is complex and difficult right now.

The indie bookstores are getting, I think, more aggressive, more engaged and are rising to the occasion. They can see how important they are on the one hand and how difficult it is coping in cities like Vancouver where there are so few indie booksellers.

I can see some good things on the horizon, but it’s still a pretty challenging industry. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. However, that said, I think we have a very strong community here, a lot of it focused around our association. There is a lot of co-operation, energy and creativity within the organization, which has led to initiatives like Read Local B.C.

Hanna Leavitt is a Victoria writer. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from UVic.