Reposted: Interview with Douglas Gibson

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This interview was posted in the Winter term of 2013; however, Gibson regrettably was obliged to re-schedule the event. We repost this interview in light of his forthcoming visit, next Thursday, November 7, 2013, in the Cleghorn Common Room at 5 pm.

MHRSYou’ve worked with some very big names in Canadian Lit. I suspect it’s not as simple as any one thing but in your mind, speaking to your experience, what defines a “Great Canadian Author” and what sort of pressures have you encountered in your partnerships with such iconic voices?

DG – First, what defines a “Great Canadian Author”? This is harder than you might think, since there is some argument about what makes someone “a Canadian Author.” Clearly, someone who writes books and was born and raised in Canada qualifies. But do they still qualify if they move elsewhere and take up citizenship there (and even, in one famous case that may occur to you, actually renounce Canadian citizenship)? This is not merely a rhetorical question since many “Great Canadian authors” were born and raised elsewhere, before coming to Canada and becoming writers, although they may choose to continue to set all of their writing in the country of their birth.  Clearly, we have decided to be expansive in our welcome to writers born elsewhere and in our continuing inclusion of expatriate writers. So the summary definition would seem to be “anyone with links to Canada that causes them to describe themselves as “Canadian.”

As for the “Great,” ask me to write a book about it. Thousands of others have tried to define greatness in a writer, but the question is still open.  What sort of pressures have I encountered in working as an editor with such iconic figures? Surprisingly, no greater than working as an editor on any piece of writing. It’s always a professional job, whereby the editor coolly tries to do his or her best. Ironically, I always found that the truly experienced professional writers – people like Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro – actually welcome the active involvement of an editor…even a young ( possibly bumptious) editor like me, if I was willing to put blood and sweat into making their book as good as it could possibly be

MHRSStories About Storytellers has been adapted into a stage show and you clearly have a love of performance. What, for you, is the value of taking your stories to the stage? What is it like to go from the relatively solitary position of a writer imagining his audience to engaging with one so directly?

DG — The difference between writing for a book and saying the same words on a stage is exactly as you would expect. I find the instant response both fascinating and delightful. Every audience is different, every evening a new experience. I was discussing this with my friend, the great actor R.H. Thompson, and he said, “Yes, you get to where you can hear them thinking!” The book author is so isolated and distant from his or her readers that, in my humble case, a letter or an e-mail from a reader saying, “Hey, I really liked your book!” can set me beaming for hours. So if you’re ever tempted to thank or congratulate an author, by writing to the book’s publisher, do it!

MHRSIf I’ve learned anything, self-editing is an important but difficult and even painful part of being a writer. You are accustomed to the role of publisher, which complicates that process. That said, when you were writing Stories About Storytellers, did you have to take a few steps back from Douglas Gibson, the Publisher in order to freely and fully engage with Douglas Gibson, the Author?

DG — As for your last, very interesting question, I’d agree that a good writer has to become an expert self-editor. I think I have that ability. If it slows up the process of getting words on the page, I firmly believe that it speeds up the over-all process, because the self-edited words that make it through the process don’t have to be totally re-worked.

I think that I was unable to drop my Publisher role even as I wrote. Two examples: I could have called the book something personal like “My Fascinating Career as a Publisher.” The Publisher in me knew that such a title (and such a focus) would have sold only a handful of copies. So I built the book around the interesting part…the authors I encountered in the course of my publishing life. So the essential shape of the book was dictated by me as Publisher.
A second example: When I had finished the book— before I had sent it to a publisher— I approached the brilliant caricaturist Anthony Jenkins of the Globe and Mail. I gave him the list of authors to whom I had devoted a chapter and made a private arrangement with him to buy the right to use his drawings in my book and in promoting my book (I was even at that early stage thinking of doing unusual things on stage with his brilliant portraits). Only then did I approach the publisher saying, “Here’s how the book should look.” I knew, you see, that my written descriptions of these authors made an illustration obviously appropriate. But what kind of illustration? A photograph would be too formal, even dull, and might make my book seem academic. So, with Tony’s lively caricatures I was sending an important message about this book being lively, even, I hope laugh-out-loud funny.

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Erin Mouré, in interview with Linda Morra

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LM: I love the following lines that appear in “Nice Poetry” (Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love):

We have to invent ourselves continually,
some of us use poems.
“Homes” not “poems” he shouted, that’s my
brother, eating more hay
& ruining the line breaks

What if I went out & did that to his fie
ld?

I am intrigued, among other things, by the images related to wheat and hay (which are intermingled with those related to your brother). There is a tradition of such writing in Canada: how do you see yourself working within a Canadian literary tradition? Or, rather, do you see yourself working within such a tradition? Has it been complicated by living in two entirely different provinces?

EM: I guess I just see myself working constantly, in languages and in mixtures of languages, and across borders of languages. I never have tried to analyze how I fit within a Canadian literary tradition…. that’s a diverse thing, and i’m part of the conversation, part of the diversity…

The hay is also hey….

LM: What would you say are your sources of inspiration, including those literary?

EM: Anything inspires me. I work at the interface of visual, pop, literary, language/s, see how language constellates, work with changes in our view of the page and substrate of writing, work with sound as well… and always, with that non-speech that comes before speaking (Agamben). To create or explore (for sometimes, mostly, there is no “me” separate from the world that is creating… there is a “me”ness in the world…) effects, meaning effects, on many levels. … Of course, as a person I am interested in history, genealogy, dispersion, feminism, social justice, race and gender/ing issues, so these enter into the work. And much of my work is done with others: mentoring, encouraging, challenging and being challenged, encouraged, mentored. The work of individuals grows in a community of endeavour and contributes to a conversation…

LM: And what is the conversation about right now, that is, in some of your current work?

EM: My current work seems to be reading other peoples’ work for the moment… just helping other writers who consult with me to move their work forward. There are many fine projects in translation and writing in Edmonton that I’m privileged to see these days as writer in residence at U of A.

On the side burner (not quite back) are a translation of Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno’s Mar Paraguayo, a tricky project for the original is written in Portunhol, a border language that mixes Spanish and Portuguese, with some words in Guaraní, an indigenous language. In some ways, perhaps, it is the quintessential American language…. and I am completing a translation of Chus Pato’s Secession, her biopoetics, and echoing it in a work of my own called Insecession, in which I try to address some of the same issues from the perspective of my own life and practice: memory, nation, poetics, translation, community, history. That book will be out next year from BookThug. I need to get back to doing a final revision of another work that combines poetry and theatre, Kapusta, for 2015 publication, and have another Pato on the horizon for 2016. And I am just starting a new book of poetry…  The conversation is about many things, focussed on the creative act of writing poetry, as a way of working with and in language, and letting language itself teach us more about communication, possibility, social justice, and non-accumulation….

A Brief Interview With Charles Foran

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Before Charles Foran’s visit to Bishop’s this upcoming Thursday, Oct. 17 at Bishop’s, Adam Young spoke with him over the phone to discuss his writing process and the inspiration for a number of his award-winning books.

Adam Young: You’ve been teaching at the University of Toronto for the last little while. Could you tell me about your courses?

Charles Foran: Yes, I’m teaching a course at St. Michaels. The spring course was on contemporary Irish fiction, and the course this fall is on the Irish-Canadian imagination. It’s my  first time teaching it, and it is in a sense exploring indeed if there is  such a thing as “Irish-Canadian sensibility.” So, the idea of the course is to think aloud about how cultural inheritances work when there is almost always a hyphenated quality to a Canadian writer. I thought it would be interesting to explore how this holds up with such an old immigrant group as the Irish.

AY: Where is the Irish in your own roots?

CF: It’s on my father’s side: Ottawa Irish. My mother: French Canadian.

AY: Your Mordecai Richler biography is one of your most-talked about works recently. Could you tell me where the project started from?

CF: That project emerged from a conversation with my agent four or five years ago after the Mordecai Richler’s death. She asked if I was interested, and I knew I was because RIchler was the Canadian writer who meant more to me than any other. I awaited each of his books, and his persona was very embracing and engaging;  a very exemplary and public persona for a writer due to his commitment and engagement with social and political issues. I was living in Montreal during the period of his fairly bare-knuckled takedown of Quebec nationalism, or aspects of it, leading up to the second referendum. For me he had really been an outsized Canadian national writer. So I took a couple of steps to see if a biography would be welcome, if it would be possible. I knew the kind of book I wanted to write would require the cooperation of key people:  his family and his vast network of friends. So before I committed to doing it, I made sure I would get that cooperation, and once I had it, away I went.

AY: Do you remember the first Richler novel you read?

CF: [The Apprenticeship of] Duddy Kravitz in high school. It would have still been in the curriculum then; this was in the early 70s. But the books I fell in love with were the big ones that came later:  St. Urbain’s Horseman, Joshua [Then and Now], Barney’s Version, and the book I think is his greatest work, Soloman Gursky Was Here, parts of which were set down where you are, in the Townships. The book opens in 1858 I think in the Townships. It’s a myriad-minded book with nine plots set over a 200-year period, one of which involves a contemporary Montrealer that lives down pretty close to where Richler had his summer cottage.

AY: You’ve also covered Maurice Richard with the Penguin Series, Extraordinary Canadians, which is a number of biographies of famous Canadians. You’ve covered a lot of famous Quebeckers in a way…

CF: That one came through a series of conversations with the series editor John Ralston Saul. I actually pitched to him Maurice Richard arguing that few athletes, even great ones, merit a biography in this sort of series. Their greatness doesn’t transcend their sport, for lack of a better word, it’s an on-ice greatness, or field greatness. Even someone like Wayne Gretzky wasn’t included. [Richard’s] impact far transcended sport, it became a transformative period in Quebec and his own role in that. It was a man vs. him as an icon. I talked to John about it and he eventually came round and commissioned it. My own personal reason beyond being interested in Quebec and Richard was that my mom’s family, French Canadians from Northern Ontario, were all die-hard Habs fans, so I grew up very much with les Canadiens.

AY: Some of the students at Bishop’s are examining Kitchen Music for an English course. What do you remember about your experiences writing it? It was one of your earliest works, eh?

CF: Yes it was. It was my first published novel and was worked on for -as often the case of first novels-worked on for many years, among other things, including publishing a non-fiction [book] on China. It came out of living and going to graduate school in Ireland in the 80s, and spending the summer in Ireland. Thinking a lot about tradition versus the contemporary and how individuals negotiate their inheritance, not so terribly different from the course I’m teaching at U of T now, many years later.

AY: Do you prefer writing fiction or non-fiction?

CF: I’ve gone back and forth between the two now for so long. I would say that non-fiction is ultimately all about craft, livening things up, getting things right, being a vivid good storyteller. You know, only going where the story can take you because it is based on facts. Fiction summons that slightly more mysterious and deeper thing, the creative side. So at the end of the day, I think of myself as a novelist first and foremost.

Gianna Patriarca – In interview with Linda Morra

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LM: Religion and religious belief is used with great sophistication in your poetry. Might you comment on the many ways it is featured and why?

GP: Religion has been from the beginning of my life part, what has shaped me (good or bad). I suppose it is partly because of the time I was born and the location: the 1950s in Italy after the Second World War, the rebuilding and the renewal of faith and tradition of the people, as children we were immersed in the fanfare of it all.

I was taught by the nuns from age four. My grandmother taught me to pray the rosary and she took me to church every Sunday and all the novenas before Christmas. There was something beautiful about the rituals and the music and the smell of incense and wax and the grand statues. As a child, it was all so mystical. The church, the celebrations, the feast days the dedication to saints and the moral guidelines that young people were fed were completely embraced by us during those years.

When we emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, the immigrant communities were tightly tied to the church and our social lives revolved around occasions that were celebrated in the catholic communities: dances, dinners, weddings and so on. I went to a Catholic high school and then myself taught in a Catholic elementary school. I was a good Catholic girl. But I didn’t like it. I started to ask questions, read between the lines of the priests and their homilies. My world got bigger and there was more to discover and to be challenged by. Of course, being a woman was challenge enough in immigrant communities back then, but one that asked questions and formed opinions….not easy.

I feel that I am a very spiritual person and I do believe in some form of higher energy or the power of love, but I had to struggle with the contradictions of my religion and tried to work them out in my writing. My family is very Catholic. My mother and sister are very traditional and I have learned to allow what gives them the strength to cope and brings them peace, although I often find myself writing about the contradictions and the injustices. I can’t accept many things that my religion preaches, but I choose to celebrate certain aspects of it that I know give me a sense of history and identity.

But I haven’t gone to confession in 40 years; I do that with the poetry.

LM: If poetry is a form of confession, what else do you “confess” to and how do you then position the reader in your mind’s eye in relation to it?

GP: I suppose every writer has some personal confession in their work; I did not ever believe I could or would be a writer for the public. I always wrote for myself; our dreams were much more guided towards practical things when I was choosing a career–secretary, bank teller, hairdresser etc. Writing was for me an act of survival. It wasn’t until university that I was encouraged to pursue it at a different level, and, by then, my voice and my style was pretty much established. I was interested in the lives of women, particularly immigrant women whom I served in various jobs and whose stories touched my heart. I remember working for a psychiatrist as a receptionist in the late 1970s and most of his clients were immigrant Italian women. Before they ever spoke to the doctor, they revealed their lives to me because I spoke their language.

There were no role models for girls like me or for the women in the community. I almost felt a responsibility to write about it but always on a personal level because I would never be arrogant and assume to speak for a whole group of women. I think others find the link to their own experiences in my writing, because it comes from a very real and honest place. I have always tried to stay true to the observations and the experiences and write about them with a certain respect and sensibility–and hopefully with the beauty of language.

LM: You observed that you are interested in the lives of women — and the poems in collections such as Italian Women and Other Tragedies showcase this interest. What about the men?

GP: The Men! They are everywhere!!!!!! And I do mean everywhere, including my work, they are in Italian Women and other Tragedies as much as the women are–in (Dolce-Amaro) College Street, The Old Man, Stories From My Town, Roberto Pisapia, and so on. I have always been interested in the women’s stories, because they have never really been told–unlike the stories of men that are everywhere. Just look at the authors who write about immigrant experiences (Italian): the subject is always the struggle of the “man.” The woman is there but she is peripheral.

I have been called a feminist writer, but, in truth, I am a humanist. I don’t exclude the men and certainly I love them as much as the women in my work because they are in it together. The reasons I write so much about women are that they are closer to the reality of my association with women. I spend much time with them–grandmother, mother, sister, aunts–and do volunteering with senior Italian/Canadian women. Also, I taught elementary school where teachers are primarily female. My concerns also extend to the injustices faced by women around the world. Their lives and their struggles motivate me. Sometimes I wish it was motivated by science fiction and vampires: it might be less painful.