Category Archives: Rants, raves and faves

Author captures slacker heroes

David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories

By D.D Miller

A Buckrider Book

246 pages, $20

Reviewed by Adam Hayman

Here is the easiest way I can summarize this book: if someone made a collection of short films out of D.D Miller’s stories, the director would have to be Louis C.K. However, if you’ve never seen the show Louie, that won’t make much sense, so let me put it this way: if a close examination of the “post-millennial” man is what you’re after, then Miller is able to deliver that, and he does so from a handful of angles.

A dozen stories in this book all paint many men in, what I’m afraid to call, an honest light. Men who think about porn, fantasize about waitresses, and fail to act at times they know they should.  These guys are held back by what they think of as laziness, but any undergrad in a first year psych class would call fear: fear of failure, being alone, or commitment. It certainly isn’t a flattering light, but somewhere in this collage of characters many men could share a sentiment. Miller doesn’t give the impression that he’s writing these characters out of humour. They seem to come from an understanding of their humanity.

The stories’ premises vary from something as simple as two couples on a beach, to an untethered, pig-blimp flying over a city in the midst of a city-worker strike. There are men in every stage of modern relationship; the women they all long for vary. The stories to watch out for:; Son of a Son of a Flying Pig; David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide; and My Summer With Seth. The last story piqued my interest because it is written in the form of a letter, and more importantly, it features a character that is likened to Seth Rogan. What gen-y-guy hasn’t laughed at the odd Rogan flick?

Reading several stories of different men pining over the sexual image of a woman, and enjoying the feeling of a cold beer can, however, loose its attraction. The Tudor, a story in the collection, is a prime example of this. The main character describes vivid sexual fantasies involving one of the university students he is tutoring. It is at times a little uncomfortable to read, especially for those not interested in such subject material. It is, however, well written. The main characters’ thoughts and actions are what make it uncomfortable, but if the author had left them out the story would’ve fallen flat.

This collection is a great tool for anyone looking to study the “slacker hero,” or for anyone simply looking to find great examples of characterization. This is Miller’s first book, and I am all too excited to see a full novel come from his desk. The chance to read Miller explore every aspect of a character would be hard to pass up.

Adam Hayman is a writer and student journalist.

Poet illuminates fragmented life

Poet Chris Hutchinson’s new book, Jonas in Frames: An Epic (Goose Lane), is brilliant, funny, challenging, a hybrid form for our times.  Born in Montreal in 1972, Hutchinson has published three books of poetry: Unfamiliar Weather, Other Peoples’ Lives and A Brief History of the Short Lived. He has a BFA from the University of Victoria and an MFA from Arizona State University. He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about his life and work.

 Chris, I found myself both chuckling and laughing out loud in Jonas in Frames, mainly because of all the usual suspects that you skewer so skillfully. Can you talk a bit about the origins of this book within your writing practice as a poet?

Firstly, I’m glad you chuckled and laughed as you read. Even though many of the raw materials I excavated for the book came from a younger, more cynical version of myself—someone more prone to rages and depression who took himself much too seriously—I hoped to transform these materials into something else, worthy of a reader’s attention. In many ways Jonas is the artsy book about suffering I wanted to write when I was in my early twenties, but I had to wait until I was in my early forties before I could make any attempt that didn’t indulge in explicit autobiography or morbid confession. It’s hard to write black humour when the darkness surrounds you. Fortunately, time allows for new perspectives, and maybe even room for some levity and light.

Also, my so-called practice as a poet you mention—which has included the whole gamut of trials and errors, from subsisting as a self-styled poète maudit, to publishing flarf under various pseudonyms, to studying Old English and translating Beowulf in academia—this poetry habit, this “craft so long to learne,” along with its requisite discipline, has gradually taught me not only how to think more cautiously, critically and even technically about my own experiences, feelings and ideas, but also how to then move beyond them in order to make (the word “poet” coming to us from the Greek, poiētḗs, or “maker”) something I might refer to (while suffering a relapse of grandiosity) as art. I’m also much better read in poetry than in other genres, and so this might have something to do with how I conceived of Jonas in Frames as a epic poem (tongue planted firmly in cheek) disguised as a (picaresque?) novel.

Some readers may characterize Jonas as anti-social, but I found him to be wonderfully observant. In the segment called “The Good Life,” Jonas visits “long-lost friends” and observes that “Now all of them have babies.” His descriptions of the infants as “pink-headed babies with slobbery jowls,” “toothless sponge-cake-faced babies with sea anemones for hands,” struck me as terrific images.  In fact, that whole segment reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent comment that parents today regard their children as “artisanal projects.” Did Chris the Author worry that Jonas the Observer was going to cost him a lot of sensitive friends when this book was published?

Artisanal projects! I wish I had thought of that. But neither Chris the Author nor his creation, Jonas the Observer, holds anything against young well-to-do parents or the products of their adventures in procreation. God bless anyone who can provide a safe home for their children. And Chris the Author has enough sensitive friends that he can afford to lose a few if their sensitivity overwhelms their ability to discern between literary fiction and so-called real life.

My sense is that Jonas isn’t as much anti-social as he is socially incapable and embarrassed—a subtle but significant difference, I think. Most of us can probably recall something like this from childhood, or we can be reminded visiting a busy playground: some kid who gets left out is still hovering around the edge of the circle, desperately wanting to join in, but for some reason he can’t. Maybe he’s shy, afraid, or he doesn’t understand the correct playground protocols. Or maybe there’s some nameless thing about the child, some slight difference or sensitivity, which the other kids sniff out and feel gives them permission to be cruel. This dilemma can extend into adult life where social estrangement might broaden to include cultural, political, and economic estrangement.

So it is with Jonas, who isn’t necessarily repulsed by these bourgeois parents or their babies; rather he’s flummoxed, fascinated, somewhat envious, and hurt by a larger and more general feeling of exclusion. As a hovering outsider Jonas is in a sort of double bind. He can enjoy a remarkable independence of consciousness and a unique perspective from which to observe, yet his enjoyment is short-lived as time and time again he runs up against a failure of communication. Put another way, he can watch but he can’t participate; consequently his vision turns inward and involutes. I think this is also one of the tragic letdowns of Romanticism: when our language becomes too private, too subjectively saturated, it ultimately betrays us.

Another idea I’ll float out there is that this predicament, this feeling of being isolated or “left out,” might be a generational soul-sickness born as the wave of prosperity of the baby-boomers crashed amidst their children’s expectations for upward mobility, success, or even riches and fame. In this light, Jonas can be seen as having been barred from participating in a certain cozy vision of the future based on the hippie fallacy that each of us is somehow inherently ‘special’ and thereby entitled to certain first-world privileges.

A colleague of mine recently observed that we live in discontinuous times because we are so often being assailed by floating “hits” of information and image.  It seems to me Jonas’s take on the world reflects that somewhat.  Has the electronic invasion of our lives affected you as a writer?

I recently joined Twitter. I am now a part of the problem. Although it seems to me that the latest tool for the dissemination of information is nothing new under the sun, and that we’ve been living in a “discontinuous” state for a while now. The world, as always, is too much with us. I have no doubt that I am a product of my specific historical moment in more ways than I can ever consciously know—even as I’m left wondering whether Twitter and Facebook are just the most recent symptoms of the kind of mind-body dualism that goes back beyond Postmodernism and Modernism to at least the 17th century of René Descartes…

At any rate, yes, Jonas’s world is jumbled and fragmentary, and his experience of reality is one where “it appears that something or someone is removing segments from (his life) and now only frames—isolate, disjointed—remain” (JIF). And while the world of Jonas in Frames doesn’t deal directly with online culture (an oxymoron?) per se, it’s true that many of Jonas’s identity issues and relationship crises seem to stem from his fear that he is trapped inside an existence where his thoughts and actions are being monitored and controlled by a power beyond his ability to perceive or comprehend.

Maybe his fear is unfounded, irrational. Maybe it’s not. We might ask: what does it mean that we voluntarily modify our identities so that they fit snugly into little boxes to be stored inside some digital database whose contents now belong to the highest bidder on the open market? What does it portend when we do this so cheerfully? These are the kinds of questions that might drive Jonas mad, although his head never stops buzzing long enough for him to be able to ask them coherently.

Content without form is meaningless, and alas, Jonas’s thoughts are all sprawling content, tangents without origins, signs without stable referents, broken links, broken mirror shards of self-reflection. Therefore Jonas doesn’t have much of a “take on the world” as he is himself taken by the world: its forms are imposed on him and so he is like Jonah swallowed down by the whale. As such, I’m not sure he’s so very different from the rest of us.

You and Jonas share a certain kind of peripatetic rootlessness.  I see from your bio that you’ve lived in six or seven wildly different cities — Montreal, Victoria, Vancouver, Dawson City, New York City, Houston, not to mention Kelowna — so I am wondering, is a writer truly the sum of all the places he has resided?

Don’t forget Nelson, Gibsons, Toronto, and Phoenix! If nothing else, moving and living around in North America has given me the chance to survey certain recurring features of the socio-economic landscape, so to speak. Issues of gentrification, for example, are not unique to any one particular city. What’s happened in Williamsburg, NY, has also happened or is happening to every other blue-collar neighbourhood I’ve tried to live in: working class families and whole communities with historical ties to specific regions are being forced to move. Artists (like Jonas) are getting priced out of urban centres. None of this is news (and it’s not as shocking as factory workers beating their CEO to death, which happened recently in West Bengal), but witnessing and to some degree participating in these reiterating first-world class-tremors gives you a sense of the scope of what is certainly a burgeoning North American crisis. Perhaps writing Jonas into being was, in part at least, my attempt to illustrate, via the pathos of tragicomedy, some of the spiritual fallout of all this.

Again I’d like to note that I wasn’t as interested in documenting my own mazy meanderings and personal catastrophes (like regrets, I’ve had a few) as I was in embodying certain aspects of our collective psychosis (what else to call it?). Jonas might be my shadow-persona, but he’s also a parodic, down-on-his-luck everyman. Whereas I have roots in the Pacific Northwest and I’m lucky enough to have been somewhat stabilized by my colleagues and loved-ones, and the occasional teaching gig, Jonas is dangerously adrift, somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis. His parents are dead, he is next to unemployable, and he is quite possibly incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with another human being. Travel may have broadened my horizons and extended my parameters, but Jonas is diminished by travel, driven as he is by a desire to flee and to hide himself away. Perhaps he is the sum of all the places he’s been, but to me this is a recipe for mental illness. I’d say it is folly to believe, as Jonas wants to believe, that “enough information, once gathered and incorporated, might one day crystallize into wisdom” (JIF).

What has the audience response been as you tour with your book? Do readers “get” Jonas?  Do they “get” you?

The book is still very new, but already there have been a few positive echoes, including a brilliant spinoff comic called Born Stumbling by Sunshine Coast artist, Alex Cieslik, and a Jonas-inspired spoken word/sound piece by Joel T. Springsteen of the London, UK-based band, Giant Burger. I can’t think of better responses than these. But, as one reviewer has already plainly stated about the book, “By no means is it for everybody.”

Andrew’s CD starts strong

Jeff Andrew, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke
Produced by Jeff Andrew, Tyrone Shoe and Corwin Fox ($7 Digital)

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak 

Jeff Andrew’s sandpaper drawl is the first thing that draws the ear on his newest release, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke. He really doesn’t sound like many other singers, but he isn’t really singing as much as spouting stories picked up from his myriad travels across the nation.

Many of his songs, such as “Reasonable Doubt,” are testimonies to Canada’s shadier tales of injustice — this one in particular about the debated conviction of Nicole Kish, a woman who allegedly murdered a panhandler in Toronto in 2007. Although Andrew makes it interesting, his delivery is a bit graceless. Compared to a song about a similar situation, such as Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song,” it’s clear there’s probably a more refined way to act as champion for the wrongly convicted.

The next song, “Professional Asshole” takes an even stronger punk-rock-pass at police forces in general, but loses credibility on account of its crudeness. The ethics of authorities has indeed become a more prominent issue in Canadian society recently, but Andrew’s delivery weakens the case he’s trying to promote. It’s nice to hear someone thinking rationally, but there are far more eloquent ways of raising a point.

These quibbles notwithstanding, the first seven songs feature excellent acoustics and atmosphere, given by sessions done in a giant tunnel underneath East Hastings street in Vancouver. The ubiquitous producer-engineer Corwin Fox lends his signature sound as well, resulting in a clean, pleasant listen — good for whether you’re tidying up the house on a Sunday, or a few hours into your spring road trip.

Strange instrumentation lights up the mostly traditional arrangements on TT&T – Andrew, a former University of Victoria student, notably plays both the five-stringed fiddle and the antiquated Stroh violin, which boasts a resonator and a phonograph horn. These fit very well in the reverb-drenched tunnel tracks, especially “The Graveyard Downtown.” Perhaps Andrew was inspired by fellow violinist, the late Oliver Schroer, who famously played in the grand churches of northern Spain on his album Camino. Either way, the choice of recording space is effective.

The back half of the record, which liner notes identify as a set songs previously recorded in 2010 as The Treehouses & Trainsmoke EP, is unfortunately less polished than the first half (named as simply Tunnels, from 2013). I heard some weird vocal fluffs and flats, and basic rhythmic discrepancies between drum and guitar tracks. Having two  different producing engineers involved, over two sessions three years apart,  creates incoherence.  Perhaps Andrew simply should have separately released the best four cuts from each session. Nova Scotia balladeer Joel Plaskett, who himself is not particularly known for being concise (see his triple album, Three), once said “Putting out a 3 or 4 song EP is as good, if not better, than a full length.”

Jeff Andrew presents us with some interesting stories, some rambling arrangements, one or two truly sublime bright spots (mostly punctuated by his violin and fiddle playing) and lots of political, road-weary angst. That’s cool, for a little while. We all need a reality check. But what we really need is a concise, clear statement; for that, Andrew needs to head back to his drawing board.

Noah Cebuliak is a Montreal poet, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who leads a lyrical jazz-pop conspiracy called Ghost Lights.


A whole book from a glass of water

Michelle Mulder’s new book Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home, was recently published by Orca Books of Victoria, which creates a variety of top-notch books for young readers.  Mulder grew up in Port Moody, B.C.,  and can be seen pedalling her bicycle around Victoria, where she now lives with her husband and child. She’s a lifelong reader and a world traveller. She and Coastal Spectator editor Lynne Van Luven  had an e-mail chat about her work and publications.

Michelle, Every Last Drop is your third book in the Orca Footprints series.  Can you talk a bit about the first book in the series, Pedal It!, and how you got involved writing these sorts  of educational non-fiction books with this Victoria publisher?

I never imagined becoming a non-fiction writer. My passion has always been novels, both as a reader and a writer.

Another one of my passions is bicycles. I ride my bike every day, and whenever I travel, I notice other people’s bikes. One time, I was sitting in my inlaws’ living room in Buenos Aires, Argentina, when I heard a strange sound outside. I went to the window to investigate and saw a man pedaling slowly down the street, blowing into a whistle. Suddenly, across the street, a door flung open, and a woman came charging at him with a knife in her hand … and a big smile on her face. The man stopped his bike, propped it up on a kickstand, took the knife, jumped back on the bike and started pedaling, setting in motion a sharpening stone set on the handlebars.

All at once I realized that I’d underestimated the humble bicycle. I began researching bicycles and their uses around the world, and the more I researched, the more excited I got. But three years passed before I worked up the courage to approach Orca Book Publishers with a proposal for Pedal It! I chose Orca because they’d published two of my novels, and I love the relationships they establish with their authors. I knew they published non-fiction, but I didn’t know how they’d respond to my book idea. As it turned out, their answer was a question: would I be willing to write not only this book, but two more in a brand new series about ecological issues?

I took a deep breath, signed a contract, and started researching like mad. Last fall, my book Brilliant! Shining a Light on Sustainable Energy hit the shelves, and this spring, Orca released Every Last Drop: Bringing Clean Water Home. Every book has been an exciting adventure, and I love all the learning I do as part of my writing process.

 What sorts of books did you like to read when you were a kid?

I loved novels. I devoured Beverly Clearly’s books and then Judy Blume’s. In particular, I remember reading and rereading Judy Blume’s Deenie. It was the first book I’d read about a kid who felt like she didn’t belong, and for me it was a revelation. Although I never worn a brace for scoliosis like Deenie did, I’d always felt socially awkward, and this book showed me that I wasn’t the only one in the world who felt this way. Even though I had very little in common with the main character, reading her story somehow made it okay to be me.

As a teenager, I stopped hanging out in the children’s section of the library and headed for the adult books. I read everything from pot-boilers to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and I loved them all for different reasons. The books that I read as a young person have stayed with me all my life. I may not always remember the titles or the names of the authors, but each story is like a separate life experience, and by the time I hit university, I felt like I’d lived several lives already!

 Once in a while, I meet someone who (erroneously) thinks that writing for kids is much easier than writing for adults.  Can you talk a little about your philosophy of writing for young readers?

Whether I’m writing for kids or adults, I want to write honestly and clearly, in a way that engages the reader. This can be challenging when I’m writing non-fiction for young people because my research materials are all written for adults. Sometimes I can’t even understand my sources myself!

That’s when I seek out experts. I write to them with many questions, and they’ve all been extremely patient in answering. When at last I feel like I could chat knowledgably about every aspect of my topic, I begin to write. I believe a good children’s writer can explain absolutely anything in a simple, thorough way that both engages and empowers the reader. For me, that takes a lot of research and revision. And then a lot of polishing to make it all look effortless.

Every Last Drop reminded me how much Canadians take water for granted, and how much we waste.  What has been young readers’ response to this book when you visit them in schools or at readings?

I think they’re surprised that someone can write a whole book about a glass of water! Funnily enough, though, I found it challenging to make the book so short. The first chapter is about how humans have collected drinking water since the dawn of time. (How do you tell that story in ten pages or less?) The second chapter discusses where our water comes from, where it goes once we’ve used it, and how climate change affects the water cycle. The last two chapters explore how people get and conserve water in countries around the world.

I’m fascinated that I can turn on a tap and fill my glass with a healthy, danger-free, life-giving liquid. I hope that, by the end of the book, young readers will share my fascination.

Can you discuss what your next book will be about — or is that an impertinent question?

Rubbish! That’s what the book is about. A few years ago, I read Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal (Penguin 2009). I was horrified to learn that, in North America, one third of all our food gets thrown away as garbage—tossed out of farmers’ fields, or into grocery store dumpsters, or into garbage cans in homes. I wondered if anyone had written about this for kids, and I began my research. I read both about what we throw away as a society and people who live off of the garbage of others. Then I read Zero Waste Home, by Bea Johnson. It completely transformed the way I thought about waste (not to mention how I shop)! We got rid of our garbage can, and I wrote a proposal for Trash Talk! Moving Toward a Zero-Waste World. It’ll be on shelves in Spring 2015.

Learn more about Michelle Mulder’s world at

Playwrights Guild of Canada focuses on gender

By Joy Fisher

The Playwrights Guild of Canada at its annual general meeting in Montreal recently turned its focus to redressing the chronic underrepresentation of women in key creative positions in Canadian theatre.

The Equity in Theatre (EIT) initiative will call on the theatre community as a whole to respond to gender inequities in the industry, according to Rebecca Burton, PGC’s Membership and Contracts Manager, who is coordinating the initiative.

“Although approximately 70 per cent of theatre audiences are women, and women make up 50 per cent of PGC’s membership, only 22 per cent of plays produced in Canadian Theatres in 2013/14 were by women playwrights,” Burton said. PGC’s Theatre Production Survey revealed that percentage varied by province, with Manitoba scoring highest at 44 percent and British Columbia dragging the bottom with only 18 percent of produced plays by women.

The percentage of productions by women playwrights reached a record high between 2000 and 2005 when 28 per cent of productions were plays by women according to an Equity Study published in 2006. “The figures demonstrate an actual regression since then,” Burton noted.

A key component of the initiative will be a symposium to be held in Toronto in April 2015 facilitated by an equity and diversity consultant funded by Canada Council’s Leadership and Change program. Participants will include partners from industry organizations such as Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, Canadian Actors Equity Association, Associated Designers of Canada, and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas as well as associations of the underrepresented, such as Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance and Artists Driving Holistic Organization Change. The end result will be the development of a first draft of a strategic plan for improved equity in the theatre industry as a whole.

In the year following the symposium, a series of monthly play reading events will be held across Canada in partnership with Play Development Centres and other organizations. Other events and community actions will also be developed. Women patrons, for example, could exercise their consumer power by demanding more plays by women (reflective of their own reality and age demographics) from the theatres they support.

A research project will seek to identify successes in the industry and to establish best practices. A website will be created as an informational hub to facilitate meet-up groups and provide advice on how to create social actions. It will also house a searchable database of Canadian women artists, including playwrights, to serve as a resource to communities.

The desired outcome is to see representation rates rise to 50 percent, which would not only provide increased opportunities for women but would also produce a more balanced and inclusive vision of Canadian society for audiences to enjoy. “We’ve studied this problem for years,” Burton said. “Now it’s time to act.”

The official public launch of the initiative will be in September 2014.

The link below offers the PGC website and Valerie Sing Turner’s lyrical and compelling article Redefining Normal: A Challenge to Canadian Theatres & Artists which explores equality and redefining the norm in Canadian theatre.

Joy Fisher is a UVIC writing graduate and a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. 

Rewilding could reinvent our world

The forward-thinking proposition of restoring our planet to its more natural state– of “rewilding” it– lies at the heart of J.B. MacKinnon’s latest book, The Once and Future World.  His first work of creative nonfiction, Dead Man in Paradise won the RBC Taylor Prize. His second book, The 100-Mile Diet, co-authored with Alisa Smith, became a bestseller. The Bloomsbury Literary Review and Comic Book Resources called his third work, I Live Here, a “groundbreaking ‘paper documentary.’”  MacKinnon has also been published in many magazines and is a past senior contributing editor of Explore, Canada’s outdoor magazine.  In short, he knows a thing or two about great creative nonfiction, and how humans interact with our natural world.  Adam Hayman recently had the opportunity to question MacKinnon about his work and ideas.

To say you’ve had your finger on the pulse of the environmental scene for a number of years would be an understatement. What about last year made it the right time to publish this book?

Writers are lucky: our role in society today is to dig deep in a culture that constantly encourages people to stay on the surface. A few years ago I sensed that traditional conservation had lost its edge—it had become the depressing art of hanging on to the last wild places and fading species, what one scientist called “managed extinction.” People were beginning to talk about the need for a newer, bigger vision: not just fighting for what was left, but rebuilding what’s been lost—rewilding the world. That inspired me, and obviously it inspired several other writers at the same time, in different ways, such as George Monbiot in the U.K., and Jon Mooallem, Miles Olson and Emma Marris in the U.S. Suddenly, rewilding has its own bookshelf.

You mentioned during an interview that the reading of captains’ logs and explorers’ journals was, for you, an interesting part of the research for this book, but you also had to research and report on some gruesome stuff, like live auks thrown onto fires as fuel; living tortoises being stacked like barrels in the hulls of ships for a year at a time with no food or water. The list is long, and in such a comprehensive book it certainly is necessary, so how was the research process for you on a whole?

The challenge with writing about emerging ideas is that the pieces of the puzzle haven’t yet been put together, and you have to do that work yourself. It feels risky—you’re constantly asking yourself what gives you the right to say these things. So, out of a sheer lack of self-confidence, I researched everything to death.  I spent two weeks just reading about whale shit for what ends up being a page or two in the book. At the end of that, I was probably one of the world’s leading experts in whale shit.

What I’m always looking for in my research, though, are those little details that bring information to life—a scientist’s poetic reference to whale feces as “flocculent plumes,” or a pioneering scuba diver’s memories of sea bass rising from the depths, singing their spawning chant. Who knew that fish made noises? Not me. It’s these little discoveries that can make 12 hours in the rare books section of the library feel like an adventure.

The question “which nature?” stayed in my mind after finishing this book. Which nature do I want to live in? I thought it was very honest and realistic question to ask, and something that environmental skeptics and supporters should ruminate on. If you had the chance to ask two people this question who would they be?

First, I have to say that we can’t ask ourselves that question without first knowing what our options are. Much of what I try to explain in The Once and Future World is that nature as we know it today is a skeletal version of what it was in the past. In other words, our choice of which nature is much broader than almost anyone imagines: we can live with astounding natural richness and diversity, or in a grossly simplified and degraded version of nature, or somewhere in between. But we at least need to be honest about what our choices really are.

So, assuming everyone on earth has read my book — ha! — I would want to ask the which nature question of someone with real power: the president of the United States, say, or the CEO of the world’s largest corporation. Just out of curiosity. My other choice would be the next stranger I meet, because this is a question I feel we all need to think about, and one that I hope will infiltrate our culture.

You’ve mentioned the efforts of building nature into the cities we inhabit, which is a great step for those looking to add a bit of rewilding to their city lives. Hearing about the “bee boles” and other past and present “Habitecture” was fascinating.  Have you seen or heard any advancements since the release of this book?

I’m constantly hearing new examples. In my hometown of Vancouver, there’s Habitat Island, an artificial island park that became the city’s first herring spawning ground in decades and may have helped bring whales and dolphins back to urban waters. I recently learned that some First Nations in Eastern Canada traditionally built shelters on raised platforms to house pine martens in their communities. Dark-sky cities, where constraints are put on artificial light, are a form of habitecture, as many species depend on darkness and the stars in various ways. Digital technology is making it possible to imagine fenceless fields, which could revive the incredible long-range herd animal migration routes that used to criss-cross the continents. Then there’s “daylighting,” or bringing streams buried by development back to the surface—Seoul, South Korea, tore up a freeway to bring a river back to the heart of the city. And all of this is just the beginning.

As a pop-culture lover I smiled when I saw you used an Arcade Fire lyric as a quote, and I couldn’t help but assume, (even if the reference was unintended) that the section on the hypothetical “Lost Island” – an interesting section where you try and introduce humans onto an untouched island without losing the island’s biodiversity – was a reference to the TV show Lost. My question is, have you seen rewilding grow into pop culture since this book came out the same way the 100-mile diet did?

It’s definitely moving in that direction. I find it amazing how quickly people embrace the word “rewilding”: I gave a talk to a group of architects, and by the end they were talking about rewilding as if it had been part of their lexicon for 20 years. People are giving the term their own meanings: for some people, it’s about rewilding the landscape, and for others, it’s about rewilding themselves or their families—getting back in touch with nature. And sure, it’s showing up in pop culture, too, from Adbusters magazine to NPR’s Radiolab to interviews with Shailene Woodley, the star of Divergent.

What was most exciting about the 100-mile diet was the way it blossomed into a million different experiments, some personal and some community-based, that ultimately showed that a different food system was not only possible, but could offer us all a better quality of life. I hope something similar happens with rewilding. Thinking and talking about an idea are important, especially in the beginning, but it’s when ideas are lived out loud that we truly reinvent our world.


Routley internationally recognized for LGBT lit

Andrea Routley, an alumna of the University of Victoria, has recently published her debut short story collection, Jane and the Whales through Caitlin Press. The collection is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, an international English-language award for LGBT literature. Previously, Routley’s work  has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including the Malahat Review and Room Magazine. In 2008, she was shortlisted for the Rona Murray Prize for Literature. She is the founder and editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine. She also edited Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press, 2010). Recently, Coastal Spectator Managing Editor Nadia Grutter discussed Jane and the Whales with Routley via email.

Andrea, I was delighted to read a series of short stories that skims so close reality. Your stories—particularly “The Gone Batty Interpretation”—challenged and moved me emotionally. Would you mind describing the emotional journey you went through writing this book?

Well, each story is its own journey. I didn’t begin writing the first story with an over-arching concept for a collection, but, like any writer, your obsessions begin to reveal themselves in your writing patterns. That particular story, “The Gone Batty Interpretation,” I wrote about six months after the suicide of a high school friend, so it is not a humorous story or an intellectual story at all. Suicide is something that comes up in several stories. So many of us are touched by this, but I most often hear it talked about in medical terms, as a treatable disease, and it’s not that simple. “The Sign,” on the other hand, deals with the same subject but in a way that (I think) is humorous. It looks at choices like that from a more logical perspective.

Your writing is powerful in its restraint—both in its brief form and concise content. Is this something you learned to cultivate through, say, workshops during your time at UVic or has your writing style always been so distilled? Basically, how did you learn to write the way you do?

When I first started writing stories, I’d often get the question, “Is this the beginning of a novel or a short story?” At first I felt proud of this question, like looking like a novel meant it was a big, fat, interesting story and this was a good thing. Then I realized this just meant I had a lot of superfluous detail or was alluding to potential plot twists that were never going to happen. You definitely learn to pare down the more you write. (And yes, I learned this while at UVic with the fantastic instructors!) I think this is in part because your writing becomes less precious to you, simply as a result of quantity. I’ve axed characters from some of these stories who I’d thought were critical in early drafts. For example, there was a kid like a wild animal who likes to stalk around in the sage by the clay cliffs and hisses at people, but eats his wiener like it’s corn on the cob. Maybe he’ll come up in another story, and if not, that’s okay too–it was fun to write the scenes with him. It’s not about publishing everything you write. It’s imperative to just enjoy writing, too (or just feel compelled to do it).

Your stories are very diverse content-wise. How did the stories inform each other in the writing process? Was there one core story that sparked a sort of leap-frog of ideas into the other stories?

Every story explore in some way humans’ and animals’ relationships with the world around them, that search for a place. “Habitat” certainly carried over into “The Gone Batty Interpretation” with the protagonists both coping with grief and expressing their sadness through empathy for an animal, among other things. Many of the stories have characters trying to make sense of the past through their unreliable memories — or the way we discover just how unreliable our memories are when something surprising happens to a person we thought we understood.

The conclusions to your stories strike a careful balance between inevitable and surprising. What did the process of rounding out an individual story look like for you?  

I’m glad to hear the conclusions feel that way. I try to write a “satisfying” ending to stories. Sometimes stories end so abruptly and the satisfaction is really delayed; it only comes later when you’ve had time to unlock its meaning. I can appreciate those endings, but I don’t really “enjoy” them. I try to write something that will feel concluded and satisfying, but give enough to leave you with something to chew on. For some of these stories, the rounding out involves the editor’s feedback, deleting one line too many, or adding one more beat. (Sometimes more than that, of course, like going back and rewriting a scene that obviously was not doing its job of setting up the ending and things like that).

Are you working on any projects aside from Plenitude at the moment?  

I have some crazy, daunting, stupid idea of writing another book, one of linked short stories of exclusively queer characters, across decades. I have read at a couple queer events and it was incredibly rewarding to read a queer story for such an engaged, lively, appreciative crowd. I want to make more of those characters that we are obviously in need of — “we” includes me. The queer past is full of diverse and wonderful people and experiences, and there are not enough of us in story. If anyone would like some ideas on new queer books to read, though, I have an ever-growing list of new queer Canadian titles at

For more on new queer Canadian titles, visit

Poet tackles life’s uncertainty

The Fleece Era

Joanna Lilley

Brick Books

105 pages, $20

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

Joanna Lilley’s The Fleece Era is the discovery of Brick Books’ spring season, a first poetry collection with a subtle, shifting vision of ecological and human connection. Lilley is a transplant, raised in England and now living in the Yukon. Because of her northerly coordinates, I thought first of snow clouds and then of sheep when I read fleece. In fact, the title poem refers to that fuzzy synthetic fabric so symbolic of current environmental questions. The narrator, a lost hiker, talks to the man who’s given her a ride: “Big deal, he said, we can make / sweaters out of plastic pop / bottles, yet there are places / where it’s illegal to hang your / washing out to dry.” This question of relationship—between strangers and family members, between individuals and culture, between human beings and nature—drives the collection.

The Fleece Era is divided into four parts. Each gathers variations on the theme of relationship, which modulates from section to section. The first part, “A Riddle,” concerns family and distance—both emotional and geographical. The narrator of “Overheard” imagines herself “shouting from the shore / of my mother’s Atlantic teacup.” The next section, “Emotional Expenditure,” considers the intricately interwoven social and bodily alienation experienced by its female narrator. In complement, the third part, “At Each Exhale,” examines the latent violence of intimate connections like marriage. “Scientist” narrates a painful disconnect between partners, enacted while skiing: “How is it I’m lost / yet you’re not, although / we’re on the same blank trail.” The troubled relationships of The Fleece Era remain open-ended.

The final section, “Nobody Else Dies,” takes up the vexed relationship of human minds to the natural world. “Ten Thousand Trees” is stark about the destructive drives of even ethically committed human beings: “I didn’t know the flash / of a forest gash could mesmerize, that there could even be a lust / to witnessing the first road ever forced on feral land.” In “Earth Twin,” the collection’s closing poem, Lilley writes wryly of a scientist who theorizes that “there might be planets even more / suitable for human life than ours.” She recognizes this as a dangerous fantasy: “It takes / a day or so for me to comprehend / he was talking about Heaven.”

Across the four sections, key relationships, characters, and themes create a world that feels consistent. There is a mother and a father, sisters and a brother, a husband. Yet there is a perceptual wobble, or say a parallax, built into the language that describes the central figure of these poems. This figure is sometimes an “I,” sometimes a “she,” and sometimes a “you.” This unstable centre, surrounded by more static figures, builds a sense of self-alienation across the collection. It seems an appropriate choice given the ecological position of contemporary Canadians, whether in the Yukon or Victoria. As Lilley queries in “Earth Crack,” “What if the piece of the world / I’m on tears off?”

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.

Farrant fearlessly paints life’s details

The World Afloat

By M.A.C. Farrant


96 pages, $12.95

 Reviewed by Marjorie Doyle

I’ve been taken on a wild ride, with reflective stops along the way.  I wasn’t scared.  I trusted the driver.

Reading through M.A.C. Farrant’s stories is like taking a tour through the psychedelic album covers of the 1970s – simultaneously laughing and probing for meaning.  These 75 “miniatures” invite us to loosen up a little, see the world through a freshly cut lens.  Many readers will know the Vancouver Island writer for her 11 previous books, especially wonderful 2004 memoir, My Turquoise Years.

Miniatures, yes.  Or if we see Farrant’s new collection like a painting, like a wide comprehensive Bosch-like canvas, these are details, lifted from the whole and magnified, allowing us to look more closely.  We never fear we will go adrift in this world afloat because the narrator is anchored.

Characters roaming this canvas include the teen who talks “outside of humans like a poet.” The couple “speaking to each other in Vain, an old, old language. He said, she said, neither one of them listening.” A man named Mark: “Short, rugged, lovable, and not unhandsome.” The person who arranges a busload of Japanese schoolgirls in a Zen garden: “one schoolgirl to every ten thousand pebbles.” And Muses who “have gone mad and are living as lady golfers in Palm Springs California.”

The distinctive voice is breezy and energetic.  Farrant is playful but never frivolous.  She’s a humorist (that rare breed!), but as with all good humour there is a point.  You can sober up quickly in the middle of a guffaw.

Some pieces are complete stories, but short. Others are teasers or hints or scenes.  And some are small works of genius – laugh out loud funny or thoughtful.  She has perfected this technique – nay, it is an art.

Consider the story “Our Spiritual Lives.”  It opens: “We’ve seen stains on tea towels that look like Jesus Christ’s face so we know he exists.” We then meet a woman who lost all her money to fiscal fraud, “So we pray to the banking industry not to do the same thing to us,” and a man who doesn’t pray.  He’d “rather trust the presence of hamburgers in his life to render it benign.”  The story moves along to composite pictures tacked on telephone poles.  Then:

“It’s Jesus Christ again.  The pictures are meant to show what he’d look like if he were alive today and sixty-nine years old and lost. Like practically everyone we know.”

“Along the Way” satirizes the funeral industry.  As we’re half laughing at embalmed corpses sitting in rocking chairs, we are gently towed into a thoughtful reflection on life and mortality – in a few hundred words.

As with most good art, some pieces eluded me, but who gets everything on one visit to a gallery?  I must, and will return.

 Marjorie Doyle is a writer in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  Her latest book is A Doyle Reader:  Writings from Home and Away. 

Genuine heart animates Real Ponchos

Real Ponchos, Since I Let You Go (May 6th, 2014)
Produced by Jesse Gander and Real Ponchos
Catch Real Ponchos at Logan’s Pub on June 13th.

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak

Real Ponchos’ debut full-length, Since I Let You Go, is refreshingly honest, optimistic and devoid of the clichés that often muddle country and roots music. Real Ponchos describe themselves as “psychedelic alt-country soul,” and from the first track, “Aged in Oak,” this Vancouver band demonstrate their capacity to deliver goosebumps up the spine. The opener is a heavy, open highway, big-sky victory of a song, with an earworm electric guitar riff and swelling pedal steel and organ, all under Emile Scott’s unique, honeyed voice.

Real Ponchos boasts two vocalists, and the following track, “Outta This Place,” features the gruff Ben Arsenault, who sounds like he’s come from a sunny southern state. Arsenault and Scott trade songwriting and main vocal duties throughout the record, a successful trick that reminds me of Conor Oberst’s Outer South, on which his Mystic Valley Band members contributed songwriting and lead vocals. Speaking of Oberst, Real Ponchos are alike, but far lighter and clearer – again, it’s refreshing. Some other positive comparisons include early Randy Travis (Storms Of Life, No Holdin’ Back), early Wilco and Victoria’s The Wicks. A thread of real authenticity and genuine heart carries through all of the above, and Real Ponchos follow in that lineage.

The rest of Since I Let You Go is a satisfying listen. Co-produced with Vancouver’s Jesse Gander (Japandroids, Pack AD, Corbin Murdoch), the sonic atmosphere and mix is crisp and welcoming. Juxtaposed with the exceedingly popular electronic music of today, with its quantized rhythms and saccharin synth glitch, Since is packed full of human warmth. Rhythm section Michael Wagler (upright bass) and Emlyn Scherk (drums) are absolutely solid in their tempo and rhythm, never cluttering, always adding nuances that reveal themselves after multiple listens.

Real Ponchos show their Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers’ likenesses on the back half of Since, with extended jams “Along The Way,” and “Take Me Back Home.” They ride the jam-band edge carefully though, keeping the movement and story of each song progressing tastefully, while demonstrating their instrumental skill at creating contemplative atmospheres reminiscent of their country roots.

One of the most interesting aspects of the overall production on Since is the now-rare quality of delivering deep emotion – nostalgia, hurt, longing – in a strong, masculine way. The record’s big heartbreaker is the song, “Just Like A Slow Burn,” which builds to Scott’s beautiful vocal testimony, singing long and with longing over sweet, glimmering guitars and dark-chocolate piano chords.

Emotional and sonic depth animate the success of Since I Let You Go. It’s a strong debut from inspired, talented young men on an honest mission to make their best music. ($7 Digital / $12 Hard)

Noah Cebuliak is a Montreal poet, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. He leads a lyrical jazz-pop conspiracy called Ghost Lights.