Monday, February 12, 2007

talking (as I am want to do) at algonquin college: fiction recommendations

On Friday I did a reading and short talk in Nadine McInnis' writing class at Algonquin College, talking a bit about writing, publishing, sending work to magazines, how/why I started with poems, and all the other things that seem to make up a considerable part of my daily routine, and read a few pieces from my upcoming The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere, 2007) as well as name , an errant (2006). Apparently she's had a number of folk come through her class so far, including local fiction author Alan Cumyn, for this first year of teaching in the writing program there. Apparently another of her classes there have been going through historical fiction lately, so I recommended the new book of interviews Herb Wyile put out, Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction (Waterloo ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007).

I've done a number of these classroom Q&A bits over the years, at Concordia in Montreal (for David McGimpsey), at University of Manitoba (through Alison Calder and then Dennis Cooley), at the University of Northern British Columbia (for Rob Budde), at the University of Alberta (for Andy Weaver), at York University (for Priscila Uppal), and at the College of New Caledonia (for Barry McKinnon), just to name a few. I always have fun doing these things, and the Q&A segment always makes me respond in ways that force me to think about what it is I'm actually doing here and there, far more appealing to me than trying to figure out a presentation of any sort (I never know what anyone actually wants to know from me…). Still, every time I get asked who I would recommend as contemporary authors whether in poetry or fiction or both and I always draw a blank; why do I always draw a blank?

Nadine asked me who I would recommend to them as contemporary fiction, so I've been thinking about that over the weekend; here's a bit of what I would recommend (I'll try to stick to Canadian fiction, and over the past decade or so, works that have really stuck out…):

Nicole Markotic, yellow pages (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1995); a novel about Alexander Graham Bell; I just can't say enough good about her magnificent novel about silence. Since she's so slow to publish (a few poetry collections have happened as well, that I'd easily recommend), I think more folk should know about her one little novel. Will there be a second?
Aritha van Herk, Restlessness (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1998); really, I would recommend just about anything by Aritha van Herk, but this, her most recent novel, might be a good place to start; is this a good place to start? About a woman who hires a man to kill her, because she is simply tired of existing; the novel is actually the conversation between the two of them meeting moving up to the act itself. She works a powerful flowing prose. When will she have another book of fiction?
Elizabeth Hay, Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (Vancouver BC: New Star Books, 1993); published before she got noticed by readers and newspaper editors across the country for further books with The Porcupines' Quill, Inc. and McClelland & Stewart, Inc., there is something captivating (pun intended) and extremely compelling about this book that weaves wonderfully between novel, memoir and near-essay, working herself as a character researching the stories she ends up telling in this magnificent little novel; an under-considered gem by Ottawa author Elizabeth Hay, who is also possibly the nicest fiction writer in the city.
André Alexis, Despair, And Other Stories of Ottawa (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1994; since reissued by M&S); the book that got him noticed, the story goes that he was doing a reading in Toronto and was picked up by Coach House Press simply on the strength of what he was reading; a strange, twisted book of stories, it's lovely to see someone write so well, as well as be willing and so able to work against the grain of Ottawa stereotype. Yes, there might be despair, but in Alexis' hands, it was never so twisted. I reviewed the book for the Ottawa X-Press when it came out, so those words on the back cover of the newer edition are mine, which feel pretty strange…
Sarah Dearing, Courage My Love (Toronto ON: Stoddart, 2001); one of my favourite novels of the past few years, Dearing's second novel is probably the only book I've actually picked extra copies up of to give to friends. With Stoddart publishing gone, I'm not even sure if this title still exists, which is really unfortunate; hopefully someone will pick up her third book when she finishes it, and be willing to reprint this book about recreating one's own life in Toronto's Cabbagetown.
Dany Laferriere, Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex? (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1994); when I met writer Dany Laferriere at the ottawa international writers festival in 1998, he was my favourite Canadian fiction writer, author of such previous books such as Eroshima, An Aroma of Coffee and the infamous first novel, How to Make Love to a Negro (without getting tired) (if you ever see the film version of such, try to see if you can spot Laferriere in one of the scenes…). Probably his finest novel, written in much the same way as Elizabeth Hay's New York book mix of fiction/memoir (adding in reams of social commentary), it talks about how he didn’t have to write his first novel at all, but for the title, since most people who knew of the book hadn’t actually read it anyway. What made him so very interesting, and I think so successful, was in the way he wrote from the perspective of a black man from Haiti living in Montreal, writing from the privilege of the outsider (who can usually tell what's going on far better than insiders), not realizing (perhaps) that almost everyone in Quebec, whether language, religion or colour, has an argument for outsider status.
Suzette Mayr, Venous Hum (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004); I've read a few of her books since reading this one, and this one has to be read to be believed. High school reunions, cannibalism and a lesbian woman having an affair with her best friend's husband? Part of a group of writers that Vancouver writer George Bowering once referred to as the "Calgary Renaissance."
Sheila Heti, The Middle Stories (Toronto ON: House of Anansi Press, 2001); yes, there was a lot of hype for her and this book when it came out (because she'd published one of the stories in McSweeney's), but the book more than lived up to it. The first of Toronto author Heti's two books of fiction, I loved the fable aspects of her stories and the way that they moved. She turned real life into near-myth.
Jaspreet Singh, 17 Tomatoes (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 2004); another author of the near-myth, this collection of linked short stories works their fables through the realities of an East Indian army camp. One of the loveliest books I've read in a long time.
Madeleine Thien, Certainty (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 2006); I've talked before about how great this novel is (see if you can find where...); you should just believe me by now.

Read anything by Gatineau author John Lavery, the mad fiction genius of the Ottawa-Hull area. Two books of fiction through Toronto publisher ECW Press Very Good Butter (2000) and You, Kwaznievski, You Piss Me Off (2004) — he manages to twist and manipulate language like the master he is, and has been compared (favourably) to authors such as Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. Apart from Leon Rooke, easily the best reader of fiction I have ever heard.

Michael Ondaatje; read everything before The English Patient (1992) if you haven’t already. Especially Coming Through Slaughter (1976) or Running in the Family (1982). You won't be disappointed. Margaret Atwood's Surfacing (1972) is my favourite of her works so far (I have yet to read the myth novel), and Timothy Findley's Stones (1988) is the only short story collection I pick up every few years to re-read (okay, that's a bit before my ten-year mark). Vancouver writer Anne Stone (finally) has a third novel happening with Insomniac Press in the spring; Tim Conley (who reads with Clare Latremouille at Collected Works at 2pm on Sunday, February 18th) also has a great book of short stories from the same publisher, edited by Stephen Cain. What else can I tell you?

There, my little list of highlights (selected). Better late than never, I suppose.

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