Tag Archives: 5 question interview

Brick’s GM multi-tasks for poetry

Coastal Spectator contributor Julian Gunn recently sat down over coffee to chat with Kitty Lewis, the general manager of poetry publisher Brick Books. At this year’s League of Canadian Poets gala, Lewis received the League’s Honorary Life Membership Award. She insists that her contribution is to support the artistic vision of Brick founders Don McKay and Stan Dragland. Still, it’s obvious how much the poetry community appreciates that contribution. Gunn’s interview encompassed a discussion of Brick’s current projects, the history of the publisher, and its commitment to Canadian poetry.

Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Brick Books?

The press started 39 years ago, and I’ve been around something like 25. I always forget how long. Don McKay, who’s a poet, and Stan Dragland, who’s a poet, novelist, and essayist, were both teaching at Western University (the University of Western Ontario in those days). They kept coming across students who were writing poetry, and they said, “We should publish some of this.” They started with chapbooks, and then, as people started sending in longer manuscripts, we got into applying for grants for full-length books.

I don’t do the choosing. I don’t do the editing. I don’t do production. I do everything else. I’m the administration. You need someone practical. There are artistic people who are running presses who can do it all. They can write, they can edit, but that’s not one of my talents. What’s great is that I get to run a business but I’m not risking my own money. (She laughs.)

So what’s it like in the Brick Books office? Are there people always coming and going? Interns?

No, no.  It’s in my house. I work strange hours. I tend to stay up really late at night. I maybe start working in the morning at 10 or 11. At 8 o’clock I might watch some TV, and then I might do a couple more hours of work. I go away in the summer. I have a cottage and I just move Brick Books there. As long as I have the Internet, I can run the business.

It never worked out to get an intern. I love to impart what I know, and I’m always happy to meet with people. If anybody writes asking about Brick Books, I will usually meet with them, because they’re interested in publishing. I’ll just sit them down, and we’ll have a chat so I can give them an idea of what it’s all about.

I’ve found through the years that the more you do, the more there is to do. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter years ago. We didn’t have the Internet.

Speaking of which, Brick Books has a broad-based Internet presence. You seem to have ventured into all available social media. I’m assuming that’s a deliberate strategy?

I started on Facebook because my older son said “Hey! My friends are on here. Lots of people would like to be friends with you.” Then I started looking around, and I saw that other publishers were on the Internet. I just started building that up.

There’s a grant called the OMDC Book Fund – that stands for the Ontario Media Development Corporation. There are grants for film and television and books, all under the same umbrella. In the past, the grant was more for something over and above what you would normally do. In 2008 we had two poets laureate on our list: Agnes Walsh from St John’s, Newfoundland, and Lorri Neilsen Glenn from Halifax. I said, “Are you interested in visiting other poets laureate across the country?” Because you know, I network. I had met these people or at least been in touch with them. So we got the grant, and then the poets said “You don’t suppose we could go up north, do you?” Well, I had no contacts up there, but one of our authors had been to the Whitehorse Poetry Festival (www.whitehorsepoetry.com), so I got that person’s contact and we went north. We went to Edmonton, Yellowknife, Whitehorse – I went with them to those three – then Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. So that was the kind of thing we were proposing in those days.

Then the OMDC grant added funding for digital projects. I wanted a project that was going to raise our visibility and discoverability. I knew someone in Toronto who was really good at social media, Julie Wilson. I told her “I’d like to talk to you sometime, but I don’t want to just talk to you and get advice and then buzz off and do it. I want to talk to you, and then I want to hire you.”

We’re a poetry publisher. We’re not looking for fireworks. We’re solid, we believe in what we do, and we believe in quality. I felt that she would understand who we were. And what she came up with is podcasts. We’ve done the whole history of Brick Books. We have books that we published in 1975, and I’ve now got three of the books from Fall 2014 already recorded. We’ve got almost a thousand poems recorded now.

We launched the podcast in Poetry Month one year, then created the YouTube channel. We do about six poems from each book, just to give a taste. On the YouTube channel we put those together and that’s a single podcast. I think the authors really like it. We’re including everybody. We’re not excluding you just because we published you in the 1990s – you’re still part of it.

Of all the things you do to connect readers to the poetry, which do you think are the most effective?

We just keep chugging away. Every year when you’re doing a new grant, you trot out your numbers. So the views on the YouTube channel are increasing, the number of podcast poems is increasing. We have more followers on Twitter. Facebook has become really hard now because they’re only showing 30 per cent of your people. That’s unfortunate, because that was a really good method. We’re still using it.

The Literary Press Group is creating an online bookstore which will be launched in the next few months, so that’s going to be the Canadian place to go. It includes Canadian literary presses – I think there are 35 publishers on board now. We do sell books from our own website, but people are looking for the author, not Brick Books.

I’m constantly networking with reading series . . . Then you have something like Victoria’s Planet Earth Poetry reading series. They do that too, but there are more spaces, so that flexibility is great. Planet Earth is definitely my go-to place.

I know Brick Books is interested in emerging poets as well. Is that a policy?

Don and Stan were teachers, right? If we wanted to publish just established authors, we could, but that’s not where their hearts are. We do seven books a year, so we don’t say “Okay, three need to be first books.” It just happens. We don’t publish a first book just because. We read submissions between the first of January and the end of April every year. We get an average of a hundred submissions, and we have enough money to do seven books. So the manuscript kind of has to sparkle to rise above the others. Those ones will go into the finals. There might be anywhere from eight to 15 that we have to choose those seven out of and that’s hard because there’s not a lot of difference of quality between them. They’ll be strong in different ways. We do about 60 per cent first and second books and then 40 per cent third and up. I’ve been keeping the statistics.

The thing that’s nice about Brick Books is that we only do poetry, so it’s very easy to treat everybody the same way. If you do fiction, you’re probably going to devote a little more time to the fiction because it might make more money and help you afford to do the poetry. We do seven books and everybody gets treated the same way. It suits my temperament, like being inclusive with the podcasts and the ebooks – we just include everybody.

We are trying to run a business and we are trying to be fiscally responsible. But – as Don says – we have the hearts of peasants. We believe in people. We believe in writing. We believe in treating people with respect. Once you’re a Brick author you’re always a Brick author.

(In addition to Lewis’ recent award, on February 23rd Brick Books received the first Publishers’ Award from the Galiano Literary Festival.)

Novelist explores loss and identity

Victoria author Margaret Thompson’s new novel, The Cuckoo’s Child (Brindle and Glass) is a compelling exploration of a character’s loss of both son and brother, as well as her own sense of identity.  Overall, it’s a hopeful narrative about accepting life’s mysteries. Thompson says her initial idea for the novel sprang from a 1980s  news report about a kidnapped boy who had been missing for 12 years but then suddenly turned up at a police station.  She says her first draft “hibernated in a drawer for several years” until she “dusted it off” and did the final editing.  Thompson is the author of an award-winning young adult novel, short stories and two collections of personal essays.  She’s a past president of the Federation of BC Writers.  This month she will be reading April 15 at 7 p.m. as part of Russell Books “At The Mike” Fiction Night .  On May 23, she will give a 4 p.m. reading at Salt Spring Library.  Coastal Spectator Editor Lynne Van Luven and Thompson conducted the following conversation via e-mail just after The Cuckoo’s Child was published.

 It is always interesting to read novels by writers one knows because their invention of characters and creation of narrative are studded by facts and events in the public domain. What tactics do you deploy to balance all three?

Tactics sounds frighteningly intentional! I think the process has something to do with different compartments in the brain contributing to the mix. The characters come from the creative department; they are almost entirely inventions, though Magnus  owes a lot to a head gardener I once knew, and there are a few people who might find something familiar about the three Wimbledon ladies [from whom Livvy Alvarsson rents a room]. I think it’s essential to fabricate the characters because that is the only way to maintain any sort of control over them. Even then, they sometimes get away from you and insist on having their own way. It’s handy, though, to be able to slot them into some kind of framework, and that’s where facts from the information vault come in. The inclusion of fact—things like geography, architecture, the Second World War, the Thatcher era, and the hurricane which flattened 15,000,000 trees in the UK—lends reality, but also imposes limitations that may affect the narrative. The novel’s present, for instance, is the late 1980s; most people at the time had barely heard of computers and certainly didn’t possess their own; there was no Internet, no email, no social networking, so the kind of search Livvy undertakes would of necessity entail a journey and personal effort. The last element to include is memory—untrustworthy by definition, but essential for colour and warmth. I may not remember the exact dates of my visits to the estate I based Hescot Park on, but I can vividly remember every detail of the place and how it made me feel.

The Cuckoo’s Child is a compelling meld of family mystery and searing meditation upon loss. Can you talk about the impetus to combine those themes?

Like most undertakings, things started simply and got more complicated the more I thought about them. I think that long-ago news item about the kidnapped boy had planted the seed of loss, but it took a little jolt in my own life to bring the family mystery idea to the surface. I would have said my family history was boringly transparent until the day shortly after my father died when my mother said, à propos of nothing at all, “Of course, he had another wife before me.” Nothing sinister about that, but it drove home the truism that every family has its secrets! I already knew I wanted to explore loss—how would it be, I wondered, if I took away the family anchorage, too? What effect would that have on the sense of identity?

I notice that, as your novel’s setting ranges from Sechelt to Prince George to London to the English countryside, the narrative action moves naturally through geography once familiar to you. Did you have to revisit these sites or did you write solely from memory?

I had to do a bit of research on places like London and Brighton, but that was just for general topography rather than precise detail, and I wasn’t above taking liberties, either! Most of the details of the various settings came from my own memories.

I don’t want us to give away the novel’s conclusion but I do want to know if you struggled with keeping the ending credible without being sentimental. Can you comment on that?

Fiction rather encourages the inclination to play God, but I am no sentimentalist and I do distrust the pat ending. I wanted an ending that allows Livvy to embrace her future with confidence, but realism ensured that it wouldn’t turn out exactly as she hopes. Life just isn’t like that. So, I deliberately took away as I restored, and left loose ends, some that may turn out well, and others that will never be explained.

I loved Livvy’s dry, sharp comments about teaching that I deduce are drawn from your own experience. I find it interesting that Daniel’s disappearance finds its way into Neil’s art—that is, he is eventually able to externalize his pain at the loss of his son, while Livvy seems to have more difficulty in “dealing” with loss, hence her need to try and “save” Stephen. Can you talk a bit about how that came about in the narration?

Making Livvy a teacher was well nigh irresistible! And the staff meeting scene came from the heart; that Them/Us vibe was so much a flavour of the time during the 80s. As for the art, that arose from a need to turn up the narrative heat a bit. It’s another truism that everyone grieves in his or her own way; it stood to reason that Neil would not react in exactly the same way as Livvy and that his way could be alienating for someone who doesn’t share it. It’s also true that losing a child often puts a huge strain on the parents’ relationship. I didn’t want that rupture—I wasn’t looking to make Livvy a sort of female Job!— but having her run that risk and experience further drift and isolation seemed dramatically feasible. Neil’s art serves another purpose, too. Daniel himself sees it as his father’s way of keeping him alive, which suggests that even though Livvy’s literal attempt to save Stephen fails, there are other ways for her to preserve her brother.