Tag Archives: interview

Silent-film romance speaks eloquently

British Columbia writer Margaret Gunning just published her third novel, The Glass Character, with Thistledown Press.  Gunning, a long-time print journalist, columnist and reviewer, as well as a poet, has written two previous novels, Better than Life and Mallory.  She recently took the time to sit down in her office in Coquitlam, B.C., to answer questions  from Lynne Van Luven about The Glass Character.  The novel is a well-paced narrative that melds a young girl’s coming of age story with insights into the ambition and competition that drove the creation of silent films.

Margaret, for some reason the subject of your new novel startled me.  How did a sensible no-nonsense journalist (as I think of you) get so interested in Harold Clayton Lloyd, a 1920s silent screen comedian?

The first thing I ever wrote or published was poetry, so I have never really been all that sensible! But if it hadn’t been for Turner Classic Movies, I don’t think this novel would have happened. Not only do they regularly feature silent movies in their programming, they seem to champion Lloyd above all the others (including Chaplin).  So I first became hooked five or six years ago when I tuned in halfway through The Freshman, during a hilarious dance sequence when Lloyd’s cheap suit falls apart piece-by-piece.  But as a kid, I distinctly remember seeing a full-page black-and-white photo of Harold Lloyd, I think in a coffee table book called The Movies. It was the iconic photo of him dangling from a huge clock, and somehow his name fastened itself to that image.

Can you talk about all the research you did to capture the nuances and action of the Jazz Era in your novel?

I kind of did this backwards! I had already become enchanted with Lloyd, but at that point I was interested in a lot of things and was randomly picking my way through YouTube snippets. Then at some point – I remember the exact instant, when I was sitting in my office chair in a daydream and the idea hit me like a brick – I realized I was going to write about Lloyd. This filled me with woe, because at that point I knew very little about him. I had ordered a superb DVD boxed set called the Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection – take note, it has all his best stuff in it! – but by the time it arrived, I was already writing. So the research ran parallel to the work, and continues today because I am still interested – or should I say, enthralled.

Your narrator Jane is an inspiring character on so many levels.  Do you think “Hollywoodland” would be any different today for an innocent, star-struck teenager?

I think it would be totally different. In the novel, I use the cliché of the girl from a small town getting on the bus, headed for stardom. I figured if it was such a cliché, it must have been true in a lot of cases. Nowadays, a girl could not just walk on a movie set and get a part as an extra. At least, I don’t think so. The devouring machine of these TV talent shows is shark-infested water, as far as I am concerned, and no matter how gifted and determined you are, it’s a lottery with almost everyone going home heartbroken.

As I continued to read your novel, I realized that I had a subliminal memory of seeing the occasional Harold Lloyd movie, but that I was more familiar with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  Do you identify with the ordinary guy/underdog epitomized in Lloyd’s many “Glass Character” roles?

Funny you should say that! Over and over again, when I told people I was writing about Harold Lloyd, I’d get a blank look. Then I’d say:  “You know, the guy dangling off the clock 20 stories up,” and then came the “Ohhh! Yes, I know who you mean.” He’s filed somewhere in the back of people’s minds, but one reason we don’t know him better is that he was overprotective of his movies. He literally locked them in a vault and refused to show them on TV. He seemed to be engineering his own oblivion. As for being the underdog, Lloyd described the Glass Character as “just a regular fellow,” so most of us could identify with him:  an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances.

I noted that you make no mention of Lloyd’s involvement with the Freemasons at the height of his career.  He reached an exalted level within the Masons, and that association was always part of his life.  Did you skip that fact as just too cultish and unromantic for Jane to absorb, a fact just unhelpful to your fiction?

Oh, there were so many things I could not cover, because Lloyd was the ultimate Renaissance man, an amateur scientist, painter, 3D photographer, show dog breeder, magician, golfer, acoustic innovator, and on and on. Right now, Freemasons are looked upon as targets for all sorts of conspiracy theories, but when my Dad was a Mason in the 1960s, it was just something you did, a dull men’s club. So in many ways it was the most conventional aspect of his life – but perhaps he needed it to remain grounded amongst all the more pedestrian souls.


5 Questions with Andrea Raine

Andrea Raine is a local Victoria author and University of Victoria alumna. She has participated in the Glenairley writing retreats led by Canadian writer Patrick Lane in Sooke, B.C. and has been attending the Planet Earth Poetry reading series since 1997. She published her first book of poetry, A Mother’s String, in 2005 through Ekstatis Editions and recently self-published her first novel, Turnstiles, through Inkwater Press. Recently, Nadia Grutter held an email conversation with Raine via email to discuss her writing experience.

1. First off, tell us a little about Turnstiles.

My novel, Turnstiles, is basically about three main characters who are struggling with inner demons, pushing the outside world away and yet, at the same time, wanting desperately to be a part of the bigger picture. They just need to come to terms with a few things first. Their chance (and relatively brief) meetings propel each of them in different directions, where they gain new perspectives on how to move forward. It is an empathetic and honest portrayal of human beings attempting to redefine themselves amidst the clash of idealism and societal expectations. It is a stirring, dramatic depiction of love, loss, impulse, and consequence.

2. Your first published work, A Mother’s String, is poetry. Turnstiles is fiction. Do you prefer writing in one genre over the other? How do they inform each other in the writing process?

I have been writing poetry longer than I’ve been writing novels. My poetic voice definitely influences my prose in how I paint a picture and play with language.

3. From what I understand, Turnstiles is self-published while A Mother’s String is not. How did the publishing processes differ?

A Mother’s String wasn’t necessarily self-published, but it was published through on demand by a small, local publisher Ekstasis Editions. I didn’t pay for the publishing and professional editing services, but I did need to pay for subsequent copies of my book at a discount price. It was entirely up to me to place my poetry book in bookstores on consignment, much like my novel Turnstiles. I published Turnstiles through a publishing package with Inkwater Press that included marketing assistance. So, my two publishing experiences are comparable.

4. Why did you chose to self-publish and would you do it again?

Initially, I tried to publish my novel, Turnstiles, through the traditional route by writing query letters and pitching to literary agencies. I received positive feedback, but there were other obstacles to landing a literary agent, i.e. my book didn’t fit their portfolio. I stumbled across Inkwater Press, an indie publisher, and was impressed with their mandate and services. Inkwater Press was eager to publish my first novel, and they have continued to be extremely helpful in marketing and setting up reading events. I am not opposed to self-publishing again because there is a large degree of freedom and control in the design concept. However, there is a price tag attached to self-publishing and for that reason I am going to first try traditional publishing again for my next book.

5. What advice would you give other authors looking to self-publish?

Self-publishing has its benefits, and is a good way to get your big toe into the book world. Still, authors who are self-publishing need to be savvy when it comes to marketing your book, keeping out-of-pocket costs down, and targeting an audience.

5 Questions with Catherine Bush

“I always wanted to make something with language,” Catherine Bush once commented about her early love for reading and writing.  Bush’s four acclaimed novels include Accusation, Claire’s Head, The Rules of Engagement and Minus Time.  Bush, who has also worked as an arts journalist, has taught creative writing at several universities.  She is the co-ordinator of the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Guelph.  Recently, Lynne Van Luven held an e-mail conversation with Bush about her 2013 novel Accusation, published by Goose Lane.

Catherine, as a former journalist, I love reading novels about the ethical conundrums journalists face, and that subject matter drew me to Accusation.  Can you talk a bit about what event or events sparked the novel?

The novel draws upon some actual incidents from the mid-1990s that touched me. While visiting my sister in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I and my then-partner spent some time with a children’s circus founded by a Canadian man, whom I interviewed. I wrote about the circus for The Globe and Mail; my partner made a low-budget documentary film. A few years later, some of the teenaged performers fled the circus while on tour in Australia and made an asylum claim, citing the circus director’s sexual and physical abuse of them. I felt caught up in the story, wondering what we had missed. The case became more tangled when another journalist, who happened to be an old friend of my sister, tracked the director down after he’d left the circus and vanished. He denied the allegations and claimed that the teenagers had been coached to say what they’d said in order to make a stronger asylum claim. In the novel I’ve taken events from life and reshaped them, including what the man does once found, which has a harrowing effect on the journalist. My characters are all fictional, however. What interested me was the way others responded to what happened: the assumptions and judgments we all bring to bear when accusations of this extremity are leveled against someone. I wanted to explore the complexities of the case, the difficulties of writing about such a case as a journalist, and the way in which we all judge others and decide whose story to believe.

Your character, the journalist Sara Wheeler, a gets drawn to an exciting story – the hopeful narrative of an Ethiopian children’s circus, Cirkus Mirak – which tells a “good news” story about a part of the world so often the source of sad news.  Do you find yourself frequently reading news about “developing countries” with a sinking feeling?

Stories of calamity tend to attract attention no matter where in the world they occur. Think of weather porn: we are all drawn to natural disasters. Also, acts of sexual predation can and do happen anywhere, across geography, across class, in the houses of affluent North Americans as often as in orphanages in Africa. I feel frustrated when heartening stories from the developing world don’t get told or told as loudly. I was lucky enough to be in Kenya two years after the post-election violence of 2008 and to observe the remarkable artistic response to the violence, the way artists did so much witnessing through writing and film and photographs to make sure that such terrible fracturing and killing along ethnic lines, driven primarily by economic stress, didn’t happen again. Globe and Mail journalist Stephanie Nolen did some amazingly in-depth reportage while posted in Africa, as she did subsequently from India – for instance, her stirring work on the education of dalit girls – and is now doing from Brazil. Philip Gourevitch has done some fantastic long-form journalism on Rwanda for The New Yorker, including a brilliant piece on young Rwandan racing cyclists which was simultaneously an examination of the legacy of the genocide in the generation that had been children at the time. What’s frustrating about much newspaper reporting is how little room it leaves for conveying complexity. This is Sara’s quandary in the novel. One of my aims as a novelist is to convey human experience with some depth and ambiguity.

I have noted that now and then critics claim that Canadian novelists are too dull or too parochial or too-something-not-cutting edge.   I have always felt your novels are critical of the sheltered and insular unexamined lives.   How would you reply to those critiques about Canadian writing?

There’s a strain of domestic, realist fiction that tends not to look beyond the interior life of the self, sexual and social relationships, the world that ends somewhere beyond the street where the characters live. You find it in British and American fiction, too. And yes I find that way of looking at the world limiting. At the same time, I wouldn’t want Alice Munro to do anything other than what she does best. Yet there’s plenty of Canadian fiction that doesn’t fit this description. A large part of the problem is that critics don’t see or don’t know what else is there. They operate according to self-confirming assumptions. If you don’t look for the outward reaching or the beautifully strange, you won’t find it. Among the work of my peers, there’s Michael Helm’s thrillingly smart novel, Cities of Refuge, which is a profound act of sympathetic imagination and links Toronto with the politics of Central America. There’s Martha Baillie’s formally odd and alluring The Incident Report. Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter tackles the legacy of the Cambodian genocide. My novels take in a world that expands beyond the domestic: it’s very important to me to link here, which in my case is usually Toronto, with various states of elsewhere.

In Accusation, Sara begins her story with what we might call good intentions.  But as her research and interviews progress, she begins to learn that the story is deeply complex, more nuanced, than she thinks, and that  Raymond Reneau, the leader of Circus Mirak, may not be purely heroic after all.  Can you comment on the “cautionary” aspect of your narrative, as it applies to writers of all sorts of stories?

The novel opens with Sara’s discovery on-line of the allegations against Raymond Renaud. Because she’s been falsely accused herself in the past of a much smaller crime and she’s spent time in Raymond’s company, she doesn’t want to leap to conclusions about him. She doesn’t want to assume he’s innocent but give him the space in which to be potentially innocent. This is one god intention. She also sets out in pursuit of him, ostensibly so that she can find him and give him a chance to respond to the allegations, another good intention, yet her pursuit brings further complication and harm. Any writing about an accusation risks spreading the allegation further. Yet keeping silent can be a problem. And the voices of those making serious accusations, such as of sexual abuse, must be listened to and taken seriously. While journalism attempts neutrality, fiction doesn’t pretend to it: it enacts our subjective struggle to make sense of the world, a world in which we can’t always find out clearly everything we want yet one in which we still have to act and make choices. We’re always judging others and trying to decide whether or not to believe the stories they tell us. Accusations intensify this condition.

I’m always shocked, even dismayed, when students express a disinterest in anything related to “politics,” if they think the political process is boring.  Do you think this aversion is just a phase the youthful pass through, or is there truly a disconnect between the under-25 demographic and the political process in Canada?

There are some incredibly engaged under-25-year-olds. Witness the Occupy movement. I talk to students who give voice to a great yearning for more meaning. The political process may have failed most of us. One of the problems with democracy is that its attention span exists in election cycles. The life of the planet, for instance, does not exist in election cycles. Our relentless preoccupation with purely human affairs may be the cause of our destruction. I’d like to teach 25-year-olds how to pay attention to the world. To frame the question not as being about politics or being political but about the practice and ethics of attention. How do we pay attention to the world around us? What is the world, your world, here and now? Name its particularities. Think about what gets left out. Every act of attention that focuses on one thing leaves out something else. How can we make those absences felt? In a writing class, with graduate students who similarly resist the political, I use questions like these as our starting point.


Rick Estrin and the Nightcats bring the Blues to BC

By Michael Luis

After meeting in 1976 in Berkeley, California, guitarist Charlie Baty and vocalist/harmonica player Rick Estrin formed Little Charlie and the Nightcats. After taking their modern take on Chicago-style blues all over the world for over 30 years, Baty retired in 2008, but Estrin has continued to tour and record with his namesake. The award-winning group is visiting Vancouver’s FanClub on December 8th to play new tunes from their 2013 release “One Wrong Turn,” and to share some favourites from the back catalogue.

Coastal Spectator: Any notable experiences playing in Vancouver in the past?

Rick Estrin: Oh, man. I got lots of memories from playing all over Canada. For Vancouver specifically, we’ve been playing there since the 1980s. We were coming up there regularly in a time when blues had a little resurgence in popularity.

CS: For the past few years you’ve been the bandleader and namesake of the Nightcats. How has this experience compared to years past when it was Little Charlie and the Nightcats?

RE: Part of my job is still the same: writing the songs and fronting the band. But I just have more responsibilities now with taking care of all the parts of it that require feigning adult behavior (laughs). There was somewhat of a learning curve, but I’ve been around it so long. And with Little Charlie, if I ever needed to know anything, he would tell me. I don’t know if I’d call him a control freak, [but] he didn’t really feel comfortable relegating the responsibilities [like] I have.

CS: You guys recently released a record, One Wrong Turn. How did the creative process compare with past releases?

RE: Well, the creative process started the same way. It’s the same thing. I’ll write songs. J., our drummer, he’s always writing songs so that’s not a problem for him. I like to feature him on at least one song. The rest of the process is similar to the way we always did it. I write the song at home on the guitar, and I’m a primitive guitar player so in a way I have a better chance of coming up with something a little different because I don’t know what I’m doing (laughs). So I’ll come up with these things and show them to Kid (guitarist) or show them to the whole band and they would come up with ideas. On this record it seemed that every song they would come up with something that was on the same page— that was what I wanted but even better. They would add things to it that just worked and would make my vision for the song come into focus.

CS: Nice, so it was just naturally organic the way the songs all built up.

RE: Yeah, there was just a synergy in the studio this time. It’s not like I’ve never had that before, but the synergy dial was turned up to 10, man.

CS: You were recently nominated for the B.B. King Entertainer Award at The Blues Awards. Looking at its namesake, B.B. King, he’s still doing it and going strong at his old age, so is that inspiring to see as a fellow blues musician?

RE:(Laughs) Yeah, yeah. The guy that was my role model for that was a guy that actually said he taught B.B. King a lot of stuff on the guitar, Robert Lockwood, Jr. He was even older than B.B. and he was a great guitar player. He was a good friend of mine, and just a role model for me for how to be old. He would show up, and carry in his own amplifier at 90-years-old.

CS: To wrap things up, what keeps you playing the blues after all these years?

RE: It’s my life. It’s all I know. If I didn’t do that, I mean, it’s not like I have hobbies and stuff. That’s my life. I can’t imagine what I’d do without it and it’s been my life for close to 50 years.

CS: Great answer, man. Anything else you’d like to add for your fans in Vancouver or anywhere else who may be reading this?

RE: Anybody who can make the show, anyone within driving range of Vancouver, make it to the show. I guarantee you’ll be happy. I’ll personally give you your money back if you don’t leave there feeling great.

More about Rick Estrin and the Nightcats at www.rickestrin.com.

Michael Luis is a Victoria student, writer, filmmaker, and musician. Check him out at www.michaelacluis.wordpress.com.

Frontier still with us, author says

By Liz Snell

Bruce Kirkby looks like a typical surfer dude: tall and tan, with a ready smile and grown-out blond hair. The Kimberley, B.C. writer, explorer, and photographer is certainly familiar with the ocean; he recently paddle- boarded from Vancouver to Victoria over four days, enlisting a high school student to film the trip.

But Kirkby’s adventures stretch far beyond the sea. Speaking at a recent event for Nature Conservancy Canada, he rattled off fantastic tales of his world travels, from hikes in Canada’s far north to traveling the Republic of Georgia by horseback with his wife and young children. Spectacular photographs accompanied his stories. He barely stopped for a breath as he spouted comments and jokes about his adventures in Myanmar: “We ultimately ended up trying to escape from [the military] and getting tossed in the clanger. But that’s a different story.”

Kirkby frequently dropped names, but rarely people’s titles; rather, “vetch,” “locoweed,” “reticulated python,” and “plain-pouched hornbill” freckled his stories as naturally as the rest of us might talk about TV show characters. His language made it clear he feels at ease in nature, though he appeared equally at ease speaking in front of a crowd.

During his stories, he frequently seemed overcome by enthusiasm: “You can hardly believe what you’re seeing.” Describing Burma, he said, “I can’t believe it. It feels like Eden; it’s like the books you read as a child.”

Kirkby communicates a deep passion not just for foreign travels but also for preserving Canada’s natural beauty. He frequently discussed the “archetype of the frontier,” which people first applied to the west coast, then to the far north. “It feels primal and enduring,” he says of the north. People  assume, “There’s always one more valley to go over.” But, Kirby says, “There is no more next valley. The frontier’s given and given and given, and now we’re at the point where we need to protect the frontier.”

In 2011,  Canadian Geographic published Kirkby’s article on the Darkwoods wilderness conservation area in BC’s Selkirk mountains. At 55,000 hectares, Darkwoods is the largest area in Canada ever purchased for conservation, and its caretakers face unique challenges. Kirkby visited Darkwoods 10 times over one year.  He exuberantly described the incredible vastness of the landscape and his encounters with both animals and the humans involved with the property. “I was just beside myself,” he says of swimming with bull trout in Darkwoods.

Kirkby noted his frustration over the politics surrounding conservation, saying that the ‘60s and ‘70s produced a view that “you either cared for the environment or cared for the economy, but not for both.” The two are not mutually exclusive, he said. “I don’t think a love for the environment makes you leftwing or rightwing; it makes you human.”

He encouraged people to develop an appreciation for nature and wilderness in themselves and those around them, as a first step toward conservation. He described the incredible opportunities we have for exploring in Canada, paradoxically stating, “We still have the frontier with us.” (http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/magazine/jf11/conserving_darkwoods.asp)

Liz Snell is the editor of Campus Confidential:  A UVic Modern Love Anthology.

Novel probes Afghanistan aftermath

Katrin Horowitz is a Victoria writer whose second novel, The Best Soldier’s Wife (Quadra Books, 184 pages, $21.95,) was a finalist in Mother Tongue Publishing’s second Great B.C. Novel Contest.   Horowitz’s protagonist Amy Malcolm, whose husband volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, writes a series of letters to the wife of the Chief of Defence Staff, as she struggles to understand what happened to her husband in the conflict.  Horowitz’s first novel, Power Failures, was a murder mystery published in 2007 after she had been a volunteer in Sri Lanka.  Horowitz will be launching her new book in conjunction with Remembrance Day events at Vancouver Island libraries:  in Duncan and Ladysmith on Nov. 14; Nanaimo on Nov. 15 and on Gabriola Island on Nov. 16.  Horowitz recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s e-mail questions about her new novel.

 Katrin, I really enjoyed the conversation – or is it a monologue? – that you created via Amy Malcolm’s “letters” to Mrs. Harker, the wife of Ian Malcolm’s chief commander in the Canadian Forces.   Can you explain how you came up with this technique for your novel, and what you hoped to achieve?

I knew as soon as Amy arrived in my imagination that she was obsessed with how Mrs. Harker had managed to become the ideal military wife.  If the story is a conversation, then Mrs. Harker is the antagonist to Amy’s protagonist.  And if it’s a monologue, Mrs. Harker is Amy’s alter ego.  But it took me a while to find the most compelling way to tell their story.  Then I happened to read White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, and recognized that I what I needed was a twist on the epistolary novel.  The letters allow Amy to say what she needs to say to one particular person, a person with whom she invents a relationship – but also someone who is on one level “you,” the reader, thereby strengthening the connection between writer and reader.

I find it interesting that Ian Malcolm is a reservist helicopter pilot who volunteers to serve in Afghanistan without first consulting his wife or teenage son.  Why this detail, why not just a novel about a regular enlisted man’s family?

Amy and Ian have a long history together.  And like many middle-aged couples, they know how the other is going to respond to certain issues.  Ian doesn’t tell Amy about his decision ahead of time because he knows that she will try to talk him out of it, and he doesn’t want to be talked out of it.  His strategy works, because he effectively shuts Amy up, and the rest of the story happens because he shuts Amy up. Ian retired from the full-time military because Amy insisted, she’s good with words and can talk him into anything, and although he’s still flying, which he loves, it’s not the kind of flying he did in the military.  Commercial flying is all about keeping it safe, about staying firmly in the centre of the envelope.  As their son Ethan points out to Amy with devastating accuracy later in the story, Ian was bored with his life and was looking for a new adventure.

Ian volunteers in 2009, and serves for nine months, but three years pass before Amy actually writes her letters to Mrs. Harker.  Why the lapse in time?

Amy first thinks of writing to Mrs. Harker the same day that Ian tells her he has volunteered.  But she is held back by her own reticence, so she limits herself to what she calls ‘head letters,’ letters she imagines writing but never commits to paper, because a good soldier’s wife doesn’t complain.  Even three years later she is worried that her letters are presumptuous, although by this point her obsession with Mrs. Harker has grown until it is impossible for her not to write. She feels she must tell her story to the wife of the general who she holds responsible for what happened to Ian.  How we communicate – the who, what, when, where and why of sharing our thoughts – is a thread running through the book.  Is the best soldier’s wife the one who keeps her thoughts to herself?  Or as Amy asks near the end of the book, “If I tell the truth and nobody hears, is it still the truth?”

As I read the novel, I kept thinking that you must have family in the military, because the details felt so accurate.  But in your Acknowledgements you thank Mary and Steve Lawson because they “made this book possible.”  Can you talk a little about your position on or your connection to Canadian Forces?

Thank you!  My father fought in the Second World War before I was born, but my only real connection to the military is through my very good friend, Mary.  She not only shared stories of life as military wife with me and introduced me to other military wives, but also enlisted her husband’s help with the details of his life at KAF.  The scene in the book where Ian puts together a slide show of all his pictures of ramp ceremonies for dead soldiers was inspired by some of Steve’s photos.

The daily newspapers provided incidents from the real war in Afghanistan, from horrific IED attacks to the ridiculous ‘Love in a LAV’ scandal.  Reading military memoirs, including former Chief of Defense Staff Rick Hillier’s A Soldier First, provided additional background.  The names of the dead soldiers that end each of Amy’s letters came from the Department of National Defense website. And finally, as I was writing about Ian’s PTSD, I realized I was also writing about how my father had been damaged by his war experiences.

Quadra Books may not be a known publisher to many readers.  Can you tell me why you chose the house to showcase your second novel?

Quadra is a Victoria literary publisher committed to publishing “good books for thoughtful readers,” which for me is an excellent starting point.  That it was willing and able to include The Best Soldier’s Wife in their Fall list and bring it out in time for Remembrance Day was a big plus.


“Everything” worth writing about, poet says

By Liz Snell

Emily McGiffin’s bright-eyed, earnest face contained no pretension. She spoke her poems with confident resonance, but also vulnerability, as if they were letters written to a close friend, not intended for everyone else in the room. She seems like the kind of person you’d meet in a small town or on a farm; when she speaks, you feel she’s not just wasting words to impress you, but is sharing a homespun and heartfelt wisdom.

Her poetry is full of solitude’s topography: one person leading the blind speaker through a fog, someone living in a car and playing solitaire. Wild mountain landscapes butt against domestic acts like woodcutting and carding wool. Her writing, both on the page and spoken aloud, conveys a tension between closeness and distance.

Victoria poet Carla Funk, who conducted the evening’s Q & A at the Open Space event, asked McGiffin which three dead poets she’d invite to dinner. McGiffin bowed out of the question, saying she knows little of classic poetry, and instead cited her favourite “dead poet” poems: “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, “Ode to Autumn” by John Keats, and “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. These poems encapsulate both the joy in and loss of an Eden-like, harmonious world, a theme close to McGiffin’s own writing. One gets the sense that she’s attempting to write her way into the feeling of home, struggling to trust in a tenuous place: “And when, walking through the enormous and solitary land,/you grow hungry for company, you will find it underfoot…”

McGiffin began “fiddling with lines” of poetry in high school. She took writing courses at UVic as a side to her focus on geography and biology. Of studying writing she says, “It might have had an impact in that I never really did anything with my biology degree.”

Now pursuing a PhD in environmental studies at York University, McGiffin seems to still be searching for ways to explore the relationship between her scientific studies and her poetry. “I’d like to find a way that they can talk to each other a bit more.”

McGiffin initially struggled to see her creative writing as a worthwhile pursuit: “Poetry’s kind of a marginalized art form… It took a long time to feel it wasn’t something I was just doing on the side.”

To an audience member who asked, “How do you know what’s worth writing about?” McGiffin replied,  “Once I decided anything was worth writing about, it became less of a question of what was worth writing about – everything is.”

McGiffin recently moved to Toronto from Smithers, B.C., where her writing was often influenced by the Skeena River, which has been threatened by coal mining. She spoke of her concerns about conservation, and how we view the world in terms of “resource management.” In response to such environmental destruction, does McGiffin’s writing take a stance of hope, or despair? She’s not sure. “The question is, is there hope for humans? I don’t know.”

Liz Snell is a Victoria writer

Alec Dempster explores roots via images and words

Ontario artist Alec Dempster was born in Mexico but moved to Canada with his family when he was five years old. He recently came out with a unique two-fold expression of his heritage with the book Lotería Jarocha: Linoleum Prints, published by The Porcupine’s Quill, and with the CD, Nuevos Caminos A Santiago (New Roads to Santiago), produced by Anona Music. Lynne Van Luven talked to Dempster via email, after listening obsessively to the CD and reading his book.

Alec, I’m a bit confused about the “birth order” here: which did you do first, the book or the CD, and how did one give rise to each other?

First, in 1999-2000, I did the prints which appear in the book. Then Kali and I released our first CD in 2006. We released our second CD, Nuevos Caminos a Santiago, in May 2012. Around that time, I had already started writing the texts for the book. Composing, arranging and recording was very absorbing. I wasn’t able to think about anything else. The same occurred with the writing of the texts. I didn’t stop playing, but I was not creating much new music–although we were working on eight new compositions in the same period with support from a Popular Music Grant from the Ontario Arts Council. We were a bit late submitting our grant report because I was so involved with the book project and then promoting the launch.

I have been to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and to Xalapa as well, so I did know a little bit about “son jarocho,” but I was totally ignorant about the role Lotería plays in Mexican and Latin American social life. Can you explain it a bit more for this gringa? It seems to have a vital cultural importance.

I was attracted to lotería because the graphics are so engrained in Mexican popular culture, even though most of the images aren’t very “Mexican.” The loterías I have created have more Mexican iconography than the traditional lotería. It does raise the question of what and who is Mexican. I am like that in a sense: born in Mexico but not brought up with lotería by parents who are not Mexican. However, I was exposed to a broad range of Latin American and Spanish culture, mostly through my father’s friends. The cultural importance of lotería has to do with the fact that most people in Mexico played lotería with their parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters and cousins. I have seen people really enjoy the playing of the lotería but I think the pleasure lies as much in the fact that the family is doing it together as in the playing of the game itself. I have also seen it in more public social events such as church fundraisers in outdoor venues. There are certainly places where more importance is given to the lotería as a past-time like Cosamalopan in Southern Veracruz. I have heard that Campeche has a unique version of the lotería. I am not sure about Northern Mexico. In order to do my loterías, I  did not do a lot of research into the game itself. I did some but my focus was on the themes I had chosen for my loterías.

As you just mentioned, you have a fascinating background: you were born in Mexico City, came to Canada as a young boy, and then were raised in Toronto. How old were you when you returned to Mexico to live, how long were you there, and what were you looking for?

I must have been about 20 when I returned to Mexico for the first time, and my Spanish was quite basic. I went to see the film Danzón which takes place in Veracruz, and enjoyed it but didn’t understand much of the dialogue. I knew enough to get around and stay out of trouble — it seems I was there on two occasions for a month each. The second time I think my grandfather had given me some money to take driving lessons but I spent it on a plane ticket, and I still don’t know how to drive.  The first trip I had no expectations but planned to visit a small town in the hills called Quetzalan, because I had a vague recollection of the place . . . there where some striking photographs my parents took when we went there and I must have been about three. Other than that, I spent time in Mexico City visiting museums, markets and also Tepoztlán, where I eventually lived for a year. Although I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I was extremely happy being in Mexico. It helped that my hosts where my padrino and his wife, two of the most generous people you could imagine and extremely connected with diverse aspects of Mexican culture. Good cooks as well. I ended up very taken by Mexican artists such as the muralists, and Tamayo as well as Toledo but Mexico City is also a place where you are likely to see exhibitions of contemporary art of all kinds from all over the world.

The linocuts in Loteria Jarocha are beautiful, and the descriptions you have created of them teach a reader a great deal about this aspect of Mexican culture. Are these stories and images in danger of being lost as the great wheel of Americanismo grinds away at your birth-country’s traditions?

The word “Americanismo” has a different connotation for me. I  know you mean USA which is definitely imposing itself on Mexico as it does all over. Canada also is exploiting Mexico’s mineral resources. A Canadian project to do open air silver mining close to the Port of Veracruz has been put on hold due to grass-roots resistance. Stories are always in danger of disappearing without the pervasive influence of foreign cultural domination. However, stories and traditions also have the ability to resist, as well as absorb new elements. Good things have also come from the US, such as the remarkable interest in son jarocho from people living in California to name just one state. The result has been culural exchange, economic growth for instrument makers, and musicians who are constantly travelling to the USA. to teach and perform. This year, three different groups that use son jarocho as an important part of their music were nominated for awards. That said,  there are languages disappearing, ceremonies being forgotten and many stories  are no longer passed on from one generation to the next.

You sing with your wife, Kali Nino, on Nuevos Caminos a Santiago. Is your musical group Café Con Pan something new, and how does it tie in with your artistic self?

Our musical collaboration goes back quite a few years, but Café Con Pan became something quite different and more ambitious since we moved to Toronto in 2009. We had performed here before that but it is only recently that we have made such an effort to forge our own identity within the framework of son jarocho. We continue to play the traditional repertoire but are also playing our own songs which we want to be recognized for. I feel like two different people, the musician and the visual artist, but they complement each other because my visual art often adorns our CDs, posters and even clothes that we wear on stage. I fell fortunate to be able to jump from one art form to another while I also realize that sometimes one discipline will require complete attention. It is not always possible to juggle the two.

Journalist launches debut novel

Journalist Cathi Bond divides her time between the streets of Toronto and the fields of rural Ontario.  With her lively focus on contemporary culture and the Internet, Bond was a columnist on Definitely Not The Opera (DNTO) with Nora Young, and is a regular contributor to Spark, both on CBC Radio. She also does movie podcasts for Rabble and, with Nora Young, has created The Sniffer, a podcast on “New Directions in Trends and Tech.” Bond’s latest project is her first novel, Night Town, published by Iguana Press. The unstoppable Bond is now writing its sequel.  She recently answered questions from Lynne Van Luven.

Cathi, most listeners and viewers know you as a journalist, from TV and especially from CBC Radio. What precipitated your move from cultural reporting into novel writing?

I haven’t completely moved from cultural writing or broadcasting. As you’d know, the number of print jobs in Canada has diminished significantly in the last decade. And landing a steady gig as a cultural columnist at any of the big papers is nearly a miracle. In fact, many columnists who had that security have lost it and now have to get in the pit and compete for every column they write. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to work part time at Spark and have the privilege to write about shifts in technology that truly excite me.

In part, this new employment reality steered me towards taking a shot at fiction, but Night Town was a story that had been percolating inside of me for years. So I saved some cash, decided to live relatively poor and took the time to write it. I guess you could say that Night Town was always close to number one on my bucket list, and now it’s completed and I’m very happy with the result.

Night Town has been optioned by Back Alley Films. Do you think being a media personality helped the process at all?

Absolutely. It’s really unfair, but I think it’s true. Having any kind of name recognition, any kind of brand makes you instantly more attractive. It makes the project easier to sell to the funding bodies that hand out the money.

That said, having a feature film credit makes you worth more. That credit proves that you can do the work. I was very lucky that Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, the story editor behind Back Alley’s award winning series Durham County, edited my novel. Yet another brand, or seal of approval, attached to the project.

Maddy Barnes is a captivating and credible character. I know this is a work of fiction, but I cannot help feeling there is a little spark of personal experience at the heart of this novel. True?

Good instincts. I think most writers, whether they admit it or not, do create from personal experience. Especially on a first novel. When I was very young, an absolutely horrible thing happened to me and my family. It was “the moment” that defined my life. So I took that moment and fictionalized it. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag if I tell your readers that the novel takes place, in large part, at the corner of Yonge and Dundas on the mean streets of Toronto during the early 1970s.

I wanted to write about that period in Toronto’s history. Toronto is one of the biggest cities in the world and, other than in  Ondattje’s “The Skin of the Lion” and by Atwood (a wee bit in her early work), it has never been mythologized in any significant way. I tried to change that by making Toronto a character. In fact, Night Town is the first in a trilogy of novels that follows Toronto and a single family from the dawn of the Great Depression, through to the arrival of the new millennium.

People call you a “podcast pioneer” and now you have a blog, so I wonder if it’s not a bit “retrograde” for you to become a novelist who’s now working on a sequel to her first book. What about all those “books-are-dead” prognostications?

I thought about this a lot, but I refuse to believe that reading is dead. The telling of stories is built into our DNA. It’s how we carry our history; it’s how we instruct; it’s how we delight. But is the book as we know it dead? I think we’re right in the middle of a big technological/business transition as to how our stories will be told. Personally, I think that eReaders are still clunky and not where they need to be, but they’re getting closer.  [Given] the speed at which technology is moving, I think the next device is right around the corner. That’s why I took the chance and went with a digital house. I wanted Night Town to be ready.

Can you talk a little bit about The Sniffer, the audio podcast you and Nora Young started? 

Nora and I started  The Sniffer in the summer of 2005, the summer when the word “podcast” had just appeared on computer screens . . . We do it primarily for fun, and as a way to sniff out sometimes wacky and really interesting new trends in technology. We’re both wool-gathering geeks and most folks don’t get all revved up talking about the stuff we do. But early subscribers heard about trends like Facebook, Second Life and YouTube first. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s something we do for ourselves and for you.

Mormon wives “speak” through poems

Poet Marita Dachsel is the author of the new collection Glossolalia, and of the previous collection All Things Said & Done. Glossolalia is a re-imagining of the lives and voices of the 34 wives of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Julian Gunn interviewed Daschel at the end of April for the Coastal Spectator. See the poet’s blog at maritadachsel.blogspot.ca.

Glossolalia is a long-term project. What was its genesis?

I’ve always been interested in fringe religions, and in 2006 the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints in Bountiful was in the news again. BC has long been home to strange sects and cults, and for the most part they are left alone. I thought that if the FLDS would just give up polygamy, then they could live in peace. I wondered why they practised it, and soon learned that it was a vital part of their faith that had been introduced by Joseph Smith back in the 1840s.

Did you always see Glossolalia as a book about all of Smith’s wives? (Or some version of all, since you mention that the exact count is unknown.)

I could understand why modern women born into Mormon Fundamentalism would choose polygamy—it’s their culture, it’s all they know—but I wondered about those women who agreed, who started it all. I read biographies on Joseph’s wives and began to write poems inspired by their lives. It was perfect timing, as I had finished my first collection, All Things Said & Done, and wasn’t sure what I’d do next with my poetry. I soon knew that I wanted to a whole book on them. At the time, I had no idea it would take six years, but I quickly fell into the rabbit hole of research and obsession.

Often, you have only one poem with which to evoke some aspect of each woman. How did you know what would do justice to each one?

Some were definitely easier [to capture] than others. Some came immediately. I’d “hear” their voice in my head and I knew what they’d disclose. Others took a long time of trial and error—the voice, the form, the story all had to click. “Emma Hale Smith,” for example, was the very first poem I wrote for this series, but it wasn’t right. It was really important to me to do her justice and consequently, it took six years of writing her to finally get her poem work the way I wanted it to.

Despite all the research that I did on the women and early Mormonism, not all the poems are based on biography. In the early years of the project, I was a little too tied to the truth, but learned to let that go. I’m not a historian; I’m a poet. My main goal was to write engaging poetry. Sometimes that meant skimming from the women’s lives; sometimes it meant making things up completely.

You use many different formal techniques in the collection. Was there a process by which you decided what techniques you would use, or was it done by intuition and experimentation?

My process was pretty loose. I’d start by reading about the woman, noting ideas or phrases as I went. I’d write a rough draft or two to see if I could get her voice right. If could, great! Then I’d work on the content and form—one usually informing the other. If I couldn’t get her voice right, then I’d either read some more about her, or move on to another wife. Repeat as necessary.

Like “Emma,” “Lucy Walker” is another [voice] that took a lot of trial and error. A few wives had told their own stories during their lives and I was particularly struck with hers—so full of heartache, confusion, and manipulation. I tried to capture it, but the poem always fell flat. Finally, I realized that I didn’t have to do what she already had done, that I could use her words. I played with her text a lot, but nothing was satisfying. Then I came across Jen Bervin’s amazing Nets and it was like a revelation to me. (She ‘erased’ many of Shakespeare’s sonnets into beautifully spare poems.) What I loved about her take on erasure was that we could still see the original poems, just in lighter text. For Lucy, I wanted her real story to still be available to the reader, but I liked the idea of it being deliberately crossed out, as if she were editing her own story. The private truth versus the public record.

How do you find blogging as a medium, as compared to poetry and conventional essays?

I really enjoy reading other people’s blogs, but I’m a terrible blogger. I don’t make the time to do it properly, so lately my blog has become not much more than a place for shameless self-promotion. A few years ago, I did an interview series with writing mothers that I really enjoyed and it still brings the most readers to the blog. I think that when I find time, I’ll revisit that form—return to interviews and discussions. When done well, blogging is an immediate conversation. It’s topical, yet focused. It creates community. I think I write too slowly and have too many interruptions to do the form justice right now, but I am so thankful that others do.