Thursday, October 18, 2007

[ottawa] festival notes: october

Wednesday, October 17;

Why does everything seem smaller now that I'm actually home (including my apartment)? On Tuesday night, getting in actually sometime Wednesday morning, and going straight from the airport to the hospitality suite [see these photos we took at the spring festival, same suite]; nearly 1am with Carmel Purkis, Neil Wilson, Max Middle, Steve Zytveld, Jonathan Garfinkel and Simon Rose, as well as a few others; and jwcurry, who showed up an hour later.

Rob Winger is up for the Governor-General's Award for Poetry for his first collection [see my review of it here; see his "12 or 20" here]; have you seen the rest of the list? Wandering through Ottawa on Wednesday for the first time since August, all these businesses new & some gone; how much has changed? Still, the ottawa international writers festival is a wonder that I wouldn’t have missed for the world; they have managed to build a house that we are all allowed to live in, and created a community of people who are there for all the same reasons: a sheer love of books, stories, reading.

I'm disappointed that I missed a number of the events already, including the Ottawa Book Awards event on Saturday [where Monty Reid made Jennifer and I "award-winning publishers"], readings by John Metcalf, Leon Rooke and Kathleen Winter on Sunday, the John Newlove Award (sponsored by Bywords) on Monday, or Jonathan Garfinkel on Tuesday. It's interesting to watch him now, and see just what he's accomplished (over the years, through articles in Walrus and other places), since meeting him back in 2001, when he, Stephen Brockwell and I read at the IV Lounge in Toronto (or launching his poetry book at Collected Works in Ottawa to a crowd of three people).

At least other blogs have been doing their jobs; Amanda Earl (here, here, here, here), Pearl Pirie (here, here, here, here), Charles Earl (here, here, here, here, here), Marcus McCann (here).

Toronto author David Gilmour (preparing to be writer-in-residence at Massey College in January) read from a new non-fiction work, The Film Club. "When David Gilmour realized that his 15-year-old son was miserable in school and on the verge of dropping out, he decided that his son could leave school on one condition—not that he get a job or pay rent, but that he watch three movies a week with his Dad." I found this particularly interesting, since my 16.5 year old daughter Kate and I have been watching new movies in theatres practically (save for my leaving town for things like Alberta) every single Saturday for more than a decade; what becomes interesting is when she really started engaging with the film, and even recommending other films to me that she's seen, that I otherwise wouldn’t have heard of (she's also since taken a filmmaking workshop at IFCO). I think I might actually have to read this one.

The "WRITING LIFE #2" event featured Quebec author Gil Courtemanche, British author Marina Lewycka and Newfoundland's Michael Winter. Winter was the author I was there for, honestly (father of the newly-minted Leo, born September 1), who introduced his reading with a kind of storytelling list of what stories he borrowed and altered, "I wanted to have ____________; that's in the book." He talked about accidents and safety and childhood friends. He spoke a list that could have easily have been the reading itself in a casual storytelling style. Winter's fiction seems to be about the deeply small and the deeply large and the deeply personal; I am looking forward to this one.

As much as I enjoyed the readings (and I particularly enjoy Winter's fiction), what made this event was the conversation that came afterwards between the three authors, sparked by Courtemanche. Gil Courtemanche seems to enjoy saying deliberately-provocative things in a matter-of-fact way, and then sitting back and witnessing our response, telling us that we can't handle him because he's "too real" (in a more elegant and intellectual "older Bart Simpson when Lisa was President" kind of way). Imagine: this is someone who began his reading by saying "I must say that I hate reading…" During the Q&A at the end of the reading (hosted/moderated by Phil Jenkins), Courtemanche finally said of North American fiction writers (responding to a structural piece of deflection Michael Winter talked about from his own work), "You don’t want to write books, you want to write stories," and told us that the problems with "our" fiction was that we all wanted to be filmmakers. It was no longer about words, he said. It was no longer about anything more than action. We all want to be screenwriters. He went on, of course, saying that he doesn’t bother reading North American fiction anymore, because something always has to "happen" in them, and writers can't just write anymore.

Where is the interiority, he asked. Accused, it seemed.

But perhaps I should go back a bit; Jenkins had asked the three authors a question based on the common elements to all three books, that they included descriptions of dinners. What about the family dinner, Jenkins asked them. I don’t write about dinners, Winter said. If I describe landscape or food, it's after something happens. He gave as his example, one character at the table saying "You should know that I slept with your brother," and then a description of eating fried chicken, and the description of the event, a family birthday to celebrate the father's seventieth birthday, etcetera. One point shifting suddenly into another point, making the single line load what comes next, and making the dinner description not about the dinner at all. This is where Courtemanche began.

Why do some authors have to do that? I'm clever or brave, someone decides, so then react to other authors as though they have some sort of moral or intellectual failing because they aren't as "clever" or "brave," etcetera? It seems a compromised position to begin with; that authority.

It was magnificent, and sparked a great debate between Courtemanche and Winter (with Lewycka in the middle), and one that, although overly-sweeping, I had to say I agreed with. Why does so much fiction have to be about plot? Who can paint a whole literature with such a brush, was Winter's response; who are you reading, he asked, to get to that conclusion? And why were all of Courtemanche's examples American? (Some my fiction models come out of French-Canadian novels in translation, I have to admit; but what about Sheila Watson, or how many others that Courtemanche hasn’t bothered to look up?) And then Winter gave Courtemanche a series of "classic" authors (Faulkner) who wrote scenes with action.

Give me one American stylist, Courtemanche demanded, who sells books.

Don Delillo, Winter answered.

Courtemanche paused, just briefly, before he went on to another point. I don't think he was expecting an answer.

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