Alone with Elizabeth Hay

The Muskoka Literary Festival this fall offered a number of delights — vast vistas of trees at their colour peak, the comfy accommodations of the Deerhurst Resort, the charm of a young festival and its enthusiastic organizers. But for me, maybe the chief pleasure was getting to meet and talk, however briefly, with Elizabeth Hay.

I may have said this before (and hell, I may say it again) but the Canadian literary community is, in general, a collegial one. We know in our hearts that most of us are here for love, not money, and so we’re mostly a friendly, supportive group of folks. Elizabeth Hay struck me immediately as the best example of that — truly warm and accommodating, despite her Giller success, willing to engage in deep and genuine conversation. I also happened to love her reading voice. Hay spent a decade as a broadcaster in the Northwest Territories, and it shows in her calm comfort in front of a microphone.

I stole her away from a lavish breakfast one morning and together we found a quiet corner in one of the forgotten public spaces of Deerhurst’s sprawling main building. There Hay gave a lovely reading from her latest novel, Alone in the Classroom, and provided a wonderful insight. That insight, by the way, contains in its closing seconds a revelation that may surprise some readers, but one to which all novelists will relate.

I encourage you to find a quiet few moments in your day and spend them with Elizabeth Hay, here.


Voices of Nova Scotia: Dale Estey

You get the sense that Dale Estey doesn’t take himself too seriously. He has no airs, greets a guest casually, and talks happily about his work without any hint of angst or foreboding. He gives the impression of being a writer who quite enjoys writing, and that isn’t as common as you’d think. The book from which he’s contributed a reading for AuthorsAloud — The Elephant Talks to God — is similarly good natured and unpretentious. Estey has created a simple framework — dialogues between an inquisitive elephant and a certain cloud-based intelligence — on which to hang short stories that are part fable, part philosophy. Poet George Elliot Clark has called them “witty and whimsical.” And that’s a fitting result from a writing process that started for Estey by simply looking around his apartment for inspiration one day and letting his eye fall on a little elephant figurine. Estey explains all that, and more, and gives a lovely reading from The Elephant Talks to God, on his AuthorsAloud page here. I encourage you to give it a listen.

Voices of Nova Scotia: Alexander MacLeod

It was a treat to meet Alexander MacLeod. Although we’d met before, when he visited Hamilton for a reading, this time we actually got to chat for a while, over a glass of wine. I’ll admit that in many conversations with writers I respect, have a tendency to try to soak up as much of their experience as I can. To compare it with my own. To see if they’ve managed to avoid certain potholes in the writing life, and figure out just how exactly they managed to do that.

Alex seems to have a great perspective on the writer’s experience. Maybe this is one of the benefits of being the son of another great writer, Alistair MacLeod. He appears to have avoided the hyper need to produce, produce, produce that afflicts many writers. He’s content to take his time with his work, and trust — that’s an important, elusive quality for writers — that the world will happily receive what he has to offer when it’s ready. When I asked him how — with three children and a teaching job at Saint Mary’s University — he manages to find time to write, he shrugged and said simply, “I don’t.”

The wonderful thing was that he didn’t seem troubled by that. He knows, based on his father’s experience, that a literary reputation doesn’t require volumes of work. Before his father’s huge success with his first novel, Alex points out, he already had an international reputation based on just 14 published short stories. This is why, he said, he doesn’t worry about “wasted time.” He lives his life. He writes when he can.

It’s a great, and refreshing, attitude. But as a fan of his work and his voice, let me say I hope he gets around to the next collection sooner rather than later.

Go have a listen to Alex’s terrific reading here.

Voices of Nova Scotia: Scott Fotheringham

Scott Fotheringham is one of those writers whose lived life seems the stuff of fiction. Just look at two prominent features of his CV: PhD in molecular genetics from Cornell; lived in Manhattan. It’s these suggestions of a connection to another world of experience that seem so rich with material, compared to the circumscribed rectangle of the writing desk that greets many writers. The great news is that Scott has done something memorable with the material he’s had to work with. His first novel, The Rest is Silence, ventures into the world of apocalyptic science, and it’s getting rave reviews. He lives in Kars, Ontario now, but it’s fair to include his contribution to AuthorsAloud in the “Voices of Nova Scotia” series because, as Scott says, he “lived in Nova Scotia for eight years, until last fall. The book was written there and takes place mostly there (and in NYC).” I’m quite sure Scott didn’t add that last aside to spark my own latent Manhattan-lust. He’s too nice a guy for that.
You’ll find Scott’s reading and insight, here. Enjoy.

Voices of Nova Scotia: Carol Bruneau

The traces of the Halifax explosion still remain visible, nearly 100 years after the event, for those who know what to look for. There are pieces of the exploded ship, the Mont Blanc, featured in monuments around the city. People who grew up in Halifax can enter a house in one of the older sections of town, examine its details, and know instantly whether it was one of the buildings spared by the blast. In 1917 the explosion killed around 2,000 people, many of them instantly vaporized, their bodies never found. “You can kind of compare the numbers to 9/11,” says Carol Bruneau. A number of authors have used the Halifax explosion in their novels — Hugh MacLennan (Barometer Rising) John Irving (Until I Find You) and Ami McKay (The Birth House) among them. In 2007, Carol Bruneau added her name to that list, publishing the exquisitely detailed Glass Voices.

In an interview with CBC Radio, Carol says she grew up obsessed with the explosion, having lived in a section of town close to where the Mont Blanc’s anchor landed. Now, Carol gives us a wonderful reading from one of the climactic scenes of Glass Voices, and a thoughtful insight into the challenges of writing a novel about an event so many of her friends and neighbours feel they know well. You’ll find both the reading and the insight here. Enjoy.

It's all in the planning

Anne Fleming’s reading was a long time coming. Some years ago, after Anne’s novel Anomaly came out, she and I discussed the possibility of her contributing a reading for AuthorsAloud. But, what with one thing and another, it never came to pass. Then, recently, Anne and I encountered each other in a completely unrelated situation, as two ukulele players being expertly drowned out by guitars (and the voices of Michael Ondaatje, Alison Pick, Catherine Bush, Linda Spalding and others) at a literary music night. Perhaps we bonded over that experience. Whatever the reason, AuthorsAloud now has a spanking new Anne Fleming reading to share with you. It’s the title story from Anne’s collection Gay Dwarves of America, a little window on the world of two bored urban planners, and a very entertaining listen. Anne’s accompanying Insight recording gives us a glimpse into the genesis of that story, and the collection as a whole. You’ll find them both here. Enjoy.

Are you experienced?

Despite my adding a couple of new readings to the AuthorsAloud collection recently, it’s been a while since I posted in this space. My reason, or excuse, is that I was looking for a theme, something that linked our new authors together. I think I’ve found it.
The commonality shared by the three newest contributors to AuthorsAloud — Farzana Doctor, Jessica Hiemstra and Shari Lapeña — is the breadth of life
experience that they bring to their work. Not to say these are women who’ve lived a long time; they’re all quite young. But they’ve lived working lives beyond the keyboard or the pen, which isn’t something every writer can say.
Farzana Doctor, who gives us a reading from her newest novel, Six Metres of Pavement, has another existence as a psychotherapist, working with clients across a broad range of issues, from trauma to drug addiction to gender identity. She sees the stuff of authorial exploration every day, up close.

Jessica Hiemstra is a poet (reading here) who brings to her writing an eye developed by her own successful career as a visual artist, not to mention the years she has spent in lands most of us would consider exotic, including Sierra Leone and Melbourne, Australia.
And Shari Lapeña, the author of the novel Happiness Economics (reading here) has brought the experiences gained as a teacher and a lawyer to the fictional lives she creates.
Each of these writers has given us something true and real in their written work, and in the readings they’ve contributed here. I’m not going to say that it’s their life experience that makes the difference — there are no absolutes in art — but it’s at least as good as an MFA.

Far from home

Ava Homa has been through a lot. A Kurdish-Canadian living in exile, she has seen her father’s suffering in the aftermath of torture by Iranian officials, and she been forced to make a new life 12,000 kilometres from her homeland. In response, she has called on her artistic resources to produce a collection of stories about life in Iran, Echoes from the Other Land, which she says is the story of “relationships, of human desires, resistance and passion.” We’re happy to be able to give Ava a place here, at AuthorsAloud. Listen to her reading, and her Insight, here.

That voice

I first came to know Dawn Promislow through another facet of both our lives with words — that being magazine journalism. Dawn was a researcher often assigned to confirm the facts of my stories, and I came to both dread and rely upon her demanding precision. It was only recently that I became aware of Dawn as a writer of fiction, and what a delightful discovery that was. The same exactitude she brought to her magazine work now gives her prose a rare kind of clarity. Her debut collection, Jewels and Other Stories, has been getting rave reviews. But there’s another reason why I was excited to be able to bring Dawn’s work to AuthorsAloud. She has the most entrancing voice, ornamented with a soft, South African accent. Though as a writer I used to grumble about being held to account by Dawn on the less-concrete facts in my stories, I loved listening to the voice on the other end of the phone line. The reading Dawn gives us will let you have a taste of that voice, which is so perfectly suited to the clear, rich prose it renders. Enjoy.

Talent in threes

This week AuthorsAloud adds a trio of talented women to its lineup. Alison Pick, who’s novel Far to Go has become an international bestseller, visited Hamilton recently for the Gritlit festival and, on behalf of AuthorsAloud fans I took advantage of that opportunity to get Alison to do a private reading. The reading turned out just fine; the preamble to it didn’t go nearly as smoothly (Alison described the experience as something “out of a sitcom”). She’d just done a public reading at The Worker’s Arts and Heritage Centre, a great old building in the northwest corner of Hamilton, and we looked for a quiet room in which to record. But on that Sunday the Centre was more than its usual bustling self and after several interruptions we had to decamp and find a new location. We ended up in my tiny blue Toyota, parked against the curb. Again, not an ideal recording studio: It was one of this spring’s few sunny and warm April days and the interior of the car was baking. Listen closely and you’ll also hear the occasional passing car. But AuthorsAloud is all about capturing the private voices of our best authors and this reading certainly fits. On the same page Alison also gives us a short insight into the foundations of Far to Go.

In addition to Alison, we have readings from two other fine writers. Lea Harper is a multi-disciplinary writer whose work spans fiction, poetry and songwriting. Harper is very connected to the music industry, having written editorials for The Music Scene and Billboard Magazine and winning awards for her songwriting. She has recorded her poetry professionally using soundscapes in the background, and AuthorsAloud has an example of that here. And Anne Sorbie is a Calgary writer who has published fiction and poetry, and whose moving first novel, Memoir of a Good Death, came out last fall. She reads an excerpt from Memoir here.

The Warmth of Winter

Every once in a while you meet someone unusually warm and generous, someone who feels immediately like a friend. And when good fortune lights upon that person you can’t help but applaud. That’s how I feel about all the good things that have happened for Kathleen Winter since the publication of her debut novel, Annabel. Kathleen is an immensely talented writer, deserving of all the accolades she’s received. But somehow it’s her qualities as a person that strike me as even more rare. It was a delight to get to know Kathleen a little last fall, during the various author festivals that one gets invited to when one has a new book. My only regret is that she lives with her family in Montreal and can’t just pop over for coffee whenever the mood hits (which I’m quite certain her husband wouldn’t mind).
But enough about my Kathleen Winter crush. We’re here to celebrate Kathleen’s contribution to AuthorsAloud. She’s provided us with a wonderful reading of an early pivotal scene in Annabel, and in addition to that, a lovely and intimate Insight into the process of writing the book, which will give you a sense, I think, of her unique charm. You can listen to both of Kathleen’s contributions here.

Lyon's Golden

With her novel The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon has achieved the kind of success most Canadian authors can only dream about in the deepest REM stage of sleep. These days her time is rarely her own. I was witness to this about a year ago when she and I were two thirds of a Canada Council jury in Ottawa. She’s a mother and a celebrity, and consequently someone is always asking for more of her. So I was thrilled — and it says a lot about Annabel — that when I asked her to contribute to AuthorsAloud, she accepted quickly and followed through. This is the kind of gift that makes AuthorsAloud special, in my view: a successful, busy author takes time in a quiet room to record something just for the visitors to this site. As an extra bonus, Annabel has also given us an Insight recording. I saw her speak to a university audience in Ottawa, and the short Insight is a nice distillation of that speech and well worth listening to. Annabel’s reading and Insight can be found here.

Fictions of the Poet

With twelve titles to her credit, Peterborough, Ontario’s Betsy Struthers is an accomplished veteran of the Canadian literary scene. Three of her books are novels, but I think it’s fair to say that after eight collections of poetry and the 2004 Pat Lowther Memorial Award for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman, she’s most identifiable as a poet. Her latest, then — Relay: Short Fictions — counts as something of a departure. An exploration by the poet of moments of joy and melancholy and presented in the form of what Struthers calls “micro stories.” For AuthorsAloud she reads several of these, and as someone who once said she became a poet because she liked the “sound of words working together,” she’s found a natural home here.

Canada Listens

Congratulations are in order to two AuthorsAloud novelists and it’s about time I got around to it. When the Canada Reads top ten list came out it was no surprise to see Lawrence Hill featured in it. He’s a huge Canada Reads success story for his novel The Book of Negroes (although I think the CBC takes a bit too much credit for Hill’s success with that book). But what a delightful surprise to see Angie Abdou on the list for her first novel, The Bone Cage. Both of these authors have had a place here at AuthorsAloud for a couple of years, and it’s lovely to have an opportunity to feature them prominently again. You can find Abdou’s reading here, and listen to Hill reading from The Book of Negroes here.
And by the by, I’ll take this opportunity to let you know that I’ve posted a reading from my own new novel, Practical Jean, which was recently shortlisted for the Writer’s Trust Award for Fiction. Cheers.

New Readings

It’s been a while since I updated you on the goings on at AuthorsAloud, so let me assure you that we’re alive and well. When you’re on a book tour, appearing at festivals, you meet lots of other authors. It’s a wonderful chance to hear them read and see how they interact with an audience. Everyone has his or her own style, but I have to say our audiences are well-served. There are a lot of great readers out there. And I’m happy to say a few of them will be showing up here, at AuthorsAloud. In the coming weeks you’re going to be treated to the work of some significant names. So stay tuned.

AuthorsAloud is also a place for emerging authors to show off their stuff, and in that vein we’re proud to share the work of Lee Kvern. An Albertan, Lee is an established short-story writer whose work has appeared in a number of major Canadian journals. She’s also a winner of the CBC Literary Awards. For AuthorsAloud, she reads a memorable scene, with a rather explosive ending, from her new novel The Matter of Sylvie. Check it out here.


Exceptional proves the rule

It was my privilege earlier this year to act as a judge in the Bronwen Wallace Awards. The idea of poet Carolyn Smart of Queens University, the prize was established sixteen years ago to honor Bronwen Wallace, a Kingston-born writer who died too young. Every year the prize, under the umbrella of The Writer’s Trust, goes to either a poet or fiction writer under the age of 35 who has not yet published a book. The 132 submissions I read as one of three judges set a remarkably high standard, which made for hard judging toil, and the stories from the three finalists — Kilby Smith-McGregor, Shashi S. Bhat and Claire Tacon — were all memorable works of art.

As most visitors to AuthorsAloud know, one of the requirements for inclusion here is to have published a book of poetry or literary fiction. That’s a firm rule and I stand by it. But what good is a rule if you can’t hold its head under water once in a while? So for the first time, AuthorsAloud now features a reading from a writer whose first book is still to come: the winner of the 2009 Bronwen Wallace Award, Kilby Smith-McGregor. She reads an excerpt from her astonishingly assured winning story, “The Bird in Hand,” here. And I’m proud to welcome Kilby as the 100th author on AuthorsAloud.

Paul Quarrington

The news couldn’t be sadder for the people who loved Paul the man, Paul the writer and Paul the performer. He was a personal idol of mine, someone I regarded as both a friend and an exemplar. His GG-winning book Whale Music, its voice, its great empathy and its gentle humour, inspired me more than any book ever has.

For visitors to AuthorsAloud, it’s worth remembering that Paul did a reading for us a couple of years ago, from his Giller-shortlisted book Galveston. If you’d like to spend a few minutes listening to Paul’s voice and remembering what he contributed to our lives, visit here.


A tart slice of Strube

The latest contribution to AuthorsAloud is one of the best. Cordelia Strube has been writing acerbic satire for years — fifteen, as she explains in her reading — and her newest novel, the appropriately titled Lemon, is hitting some nerves. It features a smart, sardonic sixteen-year-old with a particularly bleak view of the world (a view that by now we should be calling "Strubian"). Strube has been touring with it across the country, getting some nice reviews, and in its December issue, Chatelaine magazine called it the "sleeper Can-lit hit."

But what's great for AuthorsAloud visitors is that Strube sat down with her voice recorder in a quiet room and really nailed the reading. She's a trained actress and it shows. Then she equaled that with an intimate and off-the-cuff Insight (I always encourage authors doing Insights to wing it, not script it, and Strube shows how well this can work) in which she talks eloquently about writing with humor and writing in general. It's terrific stuff and well worth a listen. Go there now.


Don't let your infant hear this

The newest reading at the revamped AuthorsAloud comes from Julie Paul, who seems to have had an on and off affair with Ontario that now appears on again. Ontario’s happy to have her. For AuthorsAloud she reads from her collection The Jealousy Bone, and the story she chooses — “Boring Baby” — hits me the right way. It involves a somewhat unlikeable character, and I have a fondness for writers who show the courage to take on an unlikeable voice and not flinch. Click on Julie’s face in the featured authors gallery, or, what the heck, here.
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