other book stuff

Recently, Finnish journalist Verna Kuutti contacted me to ask a few questions for a story she’s doing on “contemporary Canadian literature and the generational shift that seemed to take place this fall.” Her story will appear in Finland’s largest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat. Verna wrote, “Canadian literature, and especially the more recent writers & works are still quite unknown in Scandinavia, so it would be great if you could help me spreading the word by answering a couple of questions.”

Because some of these questions have arisen here in Canada, too, I thought I’d post my answers for you here, and maybe they could open up discussion. While I touch on it in my answers to Verna’s questions, I’d also like to further address that ridiculous question going around, which especially came to light after the Giller Prize, about whether or not Canadian literature is Canadian enough.

1. This year most of the nominees for important literary prizes were relatively fresh names. Do you think a generation shift is happening in Canadian literature? Or is it something that the media invented?

This is a hard question to answer because I myself have made a shift to reading mostly younger contemporary writers. But I think too that yes, there is an influx of them making the spotlight lately, not only in Canada (think of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife win of the 2011 Orange Prize) and not just this year. Last year, for example, Alexander MacLeod and Sarah Selecky both made the Giller shortlist, and Johanna Skibsrud took the prize. While the authors were certainly deserving, their placement could (but perhaps not) be due partly to the fact that our canon writers, our older writers, aren’t producing very often anymore. For example, Alice Munro’s last, Too Much Happiness, was two years ago, Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood was also two years ago. Michael Ondaatje’s last novel before The Cat’s Table was in 2007 and Guy Vanderhaeghe’s A Good Man this year was his first novel in eight years. (Three of those books just now were published by McClelland & Stewart, incidentally, and I want to point out that not only are lesser-known, young authors getting the spotlight now, but often smaller presses, too, like Gaspereau Press and Biblioasis, etc.)

I think in general we’re seeing more young authors being published in Canada but also in the States, and while the media is certainly making waves in this respect (Random House’s treatment of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is a fine example), I’d say many of these young authors are great at promoting themselves, especially through social media, and are very deserving of the attention they’re getting. I also think the attention is important in revitalizing or even abolishing the perceived stigma or stereotype of what CanLit is—serious, gloomy, self-conscious, and limited.

2. Do you think the right book won the Giller prize?

Absolutely. They were all deserving, but I feel Esi Edugyan’s writing was undoubtedly strongest. Half-Blood Blues was my favourite of the five, and Esi’s ability to so convincingly create wartime Paris and Berlin as well as her way of writing music and her style in general deserves high praise. If you’d like, you can read my review.

3. Could you name five of the most interesting writers that have published their first book after 2000?

Only five?? Assuming you mean Canadian authors, for me, Sarah Selecky, Jessica Grant, Alexander MacLeod, Carolyn Black, and Katrina Best. Incidentally, these are all short story writers, except for Jessica, who also produced the excellent Come, Thou Tortoise, and there’s also Alison Pick, whose Far to Go has been internationally published and was longlisted for the Booker. That’s six now, and I could go on.

4. Is there a common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers? What are the strengths of contemporary Canadian literature compared to literature coming from other countries?

I think the common factor that would describe the newest generation of Canadian writers is that they write what they want. There’s a current argument going on right now that Canadian fiction isn’t Canadian enough. I disagree, and have many questions for that statement, but I’d say what seems to define the newest generation of Canadian authors right now is their ability to let go of convention, whether in form or subject or style, and simply write. What results are stories that are first and foremost honest, piercing glimpses into the intricacies of everyday life. And then, as with Esi Edugyan, Alison Pick, and David Bezmozgis, say, we get historical novels that approach common themes of WWII and immigration from completely fresh perspectives, and with impressive skill that seems beyond their years. Or, as with Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, recently winner of both the Writers’ Trust Award and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, we get cool spins on genre fiction. Canada is huge for genre fiction, and yet it doesn’t really receive any attention. Patrick is blurring those lines between genre and literary fiction and, like his counterparts, is helping change how we define CanLit.

I’m not certain of the strengths of CanLit over literature coming from other countries. A good writer is a good writer, regardless of where they’re from. In my view, what defines CanLit is not landscape or topic necessarily, since these things can feature internationally, but rather our sensibilities in our approach to storytelling. That is, we come from a place that’s a mixture of all countries, a small world in a large nation. Instead of focusing on national subjects or places, though those do feature in our books, what’s being treated is what it means to be human in this world, what our everyday experiences are, how we feel, remember, think. Esi’s Half-Blood Blues, for example, was not about WWII or Berlin or Paris, it was a confessional, about one man’s relationship with music, but mainly other people he was close to, particularly a friend he considered a brother.

CanLit has always examined these things, the minutiae, the ordinary—the extraordinary being not exemplified by plot as much as character. Carol Shields was a great example of this. I don’t believe CanLit needs to mention our cities or government or particular Canadian issues to be Canadian. It needs only to be written by Canadians who understand and experience Canada. That will all just automatically come out in their writing. And it’s this writing that is more genuine than the writing that has purposely been injected with Canadianisms or -ness in order to come across as “more Canadian.”

5. Canadian indie music is quite well-known around the world—do you think Canadian literature could become an international brand, a guarantee of quality and a certain freshness? Or is it artificial to try to group young writers by labeling them “Canadian literature”?

I think CanLit can become as popular as our indie music providing we look outside the canon, providing we’re willing to expand our definition of literature, and Canadian literature in particular, to include short stories with novels, small and indie presses among the Big 5, and younger authors among the tried and true. I think this is what the Giller is trying to do, what Canada Reads is trying to do, with their inviting the public to submit their favourite Canadian books. In this way we become more exposed to more writers, we begin to read outside the literary greats who’ve ruled the roost for so long. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, but we do need to make so much more room for the incredible new talent we too often overlook.

6. Do you think there is a favorable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talents? Does the wider public read contemporary writers?

Good question. Yes, I think there is a favourable and supportive climate in Canada for the emergence of new talent. In fact, in typically labelling CanLit as depressing or overly serious, many Canadians have expressed a readiness for exciting new talent. The hard part is in getting that new talent known, and this is where bloggers and reviewers and enthusiastic readers and booksellers come in. The publishers help this greatly by sending out advance reading copies. The difficulty for small and indie presses is that their budgets are also small. It’s up to the authors, often, in that case, to spread the word about their book so that advocates will pick it up and spread it further. Again, Canada Reads in particular comes in handy here, since the voting process involves suggesting a title and explaining why you want it to be onsidered. The Top 40 is a great list for anyone who wants to expand their CanLit reading.

7. If somebody abroad wants to follow what happens in the Canadian literary world, what sources (blogs/websites) should they follow?

There are so many great Canadian blogs and sites out there! To know what’s going on around me in the lit scene I follow many Canadian publishers (their staff of publicits, too), big and small, as well as publications like the Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail Book section, the Literary Review of Canada, the National Post‘s Afterword section, CBC Books section, and a ton of authors. I also follow literary organizations, like the Giller and Canadian Bookshelf, for example, and bookstores on Twitter, and other book bloggers. You can also take a look at my blogroll.

So, a lot covered here. Any thoughts? These topics are really interesting to me, and your comments are always welcome! Thank you to all who read all the way through!

UPDATE: For more answers to these particular questions, visit John Mutford’s blog, The Book Mine Set, where he’s been blogging about Canadian literature since 2005.

book-related events

The CBC invited me to participate in the Giller chat this evening from 7–10 and it was my pleasure, even more fun than I had anticipated. Discussion was mostly focused and everyone remained cool (I’ve seen some heated awards talks!).

The shortlisted books on the menu tonight were:

While I have read only two and a half books on the shortlist so far, I still felt confident enough, after sampling the others in order to prepare for this chat, to predict that Esi’s soulful and rich Half-Blood Blues would win. In my heart that’s also what I wanted. I did think David Bezmozgis’s book The Free World could win, too—it seemed a little more Giller, if you know what I mean—though I didn’t prefer his writing to Esi’s. To be fair, I haven’t yet finished his book, and I am enjoying it very much, but it’s not giving me the same thrill Esi’s did. To know what I’m talking about, you can read my review of Half-Blood Blues.

Among authors and readers, bloggers and professional book industry peeps, many interesting points were brought up in the chat leading up to the event, concerning whether or not other awards affect long- and shortlisted books of the Giller, the discussion of content and form, advantages and/or disadvantages of short stories in relation to novels, whether previous nominations would affect deWitt and Edugyan, and whether awards actually matter (going off on the ridiculous initial point made elsewhere that of all the awards only the Giller mattered). We also went off on tangents about dust jackets and The Price is Right, but that was part of the fun. If you’re interested, you can read the Giller chat on the CBC website. It’s rather exciting, too, because we start getting nervous as the time to announce the winner draws near!

Also interesting were the different moods in the introductions to the authors and their books. Ron MacLean‘s intro to Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist was particularly genuine and the most natural; he sounded like a bookseller, not an awards presenter, and I loved him for that. Those intros as well as the author profiles, during which all the authors were quite endearing, were very effective, and one could almost feel themselves being swayed and waffling back and forth in their choice of book to win. I had to remind myself, think of the books, the books! and then, too, I suddenly felt the prize could go to anyone: for how, really, can you pit books against each other? We keep doing it, in contests like Canada Reads and for awards, but when watching the proceedings, it becomes difficult to compare the books, which, this year especially, all offered something so different from their counterparts.

Esi Edugyan wins 2011 Giller Prize for her stellar Half-Blood Blues. Photo by Chris Young for the Canadian Press. Source, CTV News. Click image for further credit.

But then it came time to announce the winner and I remembered what I wanted to happen, and I hadn’t realized how nervous I was, how I was holding my breath, until I actually cheered out loud, sitting alone at my kitchen table, when they announced that had Esi won. Who says literature isn’t exciting?

My warmest, heartfelt congratulations to Thomas Allen, Patrick Crean (Esi’s editor), and to the very talented Esi Edugyan, who at only 33 has shown her quality as a writer. I also applaud the Giller jury for transcending stereotype and choosing a diverse mix of books this year, for recognizing greatness even in the presence of tried and true skill like that of Michael Ondaatje, and for thus freshening up the award image.

For more details, you can read the official Giller announcement. Edugyan will join CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi (who also hosted the Giller gala) on Q tomorrow (Wed.) morning, and CBC Books will make the livestream broadcast available online tomorrow, too.

They say that this winning can bump up a book’s sales by 500%, 100,000 copies in a month. Since Esi’s book is the bestselling of the six shortlisted books at the shop where I work, I’m curious to see what happens, particularly during the Christmas season. I did already have a customer call this afternoon to ask me to put aside whoever won for her to pick up in the morning. She didn’t care who it was, she just wanted the winner.

I have mixed feelings about the awards themselves, I think, and yet I do find them exciting, in spite of myself. In the end, it’s about rewarding hardworking artists who’ve honed their craft to such an extent that they deservedly stand out among the rest; it’s about celebrating great literature, by Canadians no less. And that, above all else, makes me pretty happy.


The weekday after a long weekend is always extra hard for me, and I imagine it is for others, too. So let’s start off with some amazing news!

1. The Governor General Literary Award nominees were just announced today, and the fiction nominees are: Patrick DeWitt, for The Sisters Brothers, Esi Edugyan, for Half-Blood Blues, David Bezmozgis, for The Free World, Marina Endicott for Little Shadows, and Alexi Zentner, for Touch. This is only the second time ever that two authors have been nominated for all three major Canadian literary awards. All this overlap makes it pretty easy for those who want to read all the nominees of the various awards, eh? My hearty congratulations to all the publishers, authors, and staff who made these books the best they could be! UPDATE: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was up for consideration, but the author respectively requested that his publisher not submit the book, as he feels he’s won the award a fair number of times already (that is, five times). The Cat’s Table does remain on the Giller shortlist.

2. Some of you may be interested in the Guess the Giller contest going on now till Nov. 8. You may be pretty excited about potentially winning a copy of each of the shortlisted titles, for instance: that is, Esi Eduygan’s Half-Blood Blues, Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, Lynn Cody’s The Antagonist, and Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Doesn’t tempt you enough? How about a Kobo Touch e-reader and a $50 gift certificate from Chapters/Indigo? Still not enough incentive? Okay: how about the grand prize for guessing the winner:

• A visit from the 2011 Scotiabank Giller prize-winning author to contest winner’s home town, courtesy of Scotiabank. The hometown or residence of  the contest winner must be in Canada
• A restaurant meal for the contest winner and four (4) guests with the 2011 prize-winning author (maximum value: $500 CDN ), courtesy of  Scotiabank. The restaurant will be selected in the sole discretion of the sponsor and all decisions made by the sponsor are final.
•A set of the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted books
•A Kobo eReader, courtesy of Kobo, with a $50 CDN gift certificate to Chapters Indigo, courtesy of Scotiabank
Approximate value of the prize is $5,000.00

Off to enter!

3. Since I was a teen, I’ve counted Raymond Carver among my favourite short story writers. Last week the hubby and I enjoyed a movie called Everything Must Go, based on Carver’s very short and quite different story titled, “Why Don’t You Dance?” Read the story (link will take you there) and watch the movie—the trailer is below.

4. I couldn’t help but spend quite a bit of time scrolling through this site: Awesome People Reading. What is it, exactly, about seeing someone read that makes other readers so happy? I’m always dying to ask people what they’re reading if I can’t already tell, and when I’m looking at magazines or pictures, I always try to discern what the title is in the subject’s hand. The other day there was a kid in the shop totally sprawled out in one of the leather chairs, reading a dinosaur book.  My first thought was, I need a camera!

5. Emily Gould and Ruth Curry have begun Emily Books, an indie bookstore that, according to them, is more like a club, and they sell only ebooks. They’re just getting started, but here is their campaign. They can also be found on Twitter. Will we see more of these ebook stores in the future?

6. I want this book. I love this book. This is an example of a beautiful book, and I’m thinking Jen Knoch would love it, too. It’s called Farm Anatomy: Curious Parts and Pieces of Country Life, by Julia Rothman. It took her almost a year to create!

7. “This Cake is for the Party,” the prequel, “The Lightest One I Could Make”: a new story by Sarah Selecky in the Walrus, November 2011 issue. I’m sorry if I’m coming across as a major fan girl. It’s embarrassing, but I can’t help it. It’s a good story!

8. Jessica Westhead‘s short story “Community,” from her collection called And Also Sharks, has been dramatized for radio! My computer is having problems right now, which is VERY ANNOYING (everything I do is delayed, whether it’s typing letters or clicking on another site, or whatever), so I’m not getting to listen to this without it constantly skipping. I hope it doesn’t do that for you. Maybe it just needs some time to download and buffer or whatever. I hope you can listen!

9. Watch how a book is made, from the Middle Ages (love those illuminated manuscripts!) to the present—actually, even now, the process is evolving. I personally find this history fascinating. Has anyone read Geraldine Brooks’s People of the Book? That novel will increase your appreciation for the dear ones on your shelves, too! (Thank you to For the Love of Bookshops for “making books” links!)

10. For you children’s book lovers: Have you read Plain Kate by Erin Bow? It just won the $25,000 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. I was quite happy when I read this news; the book is magical, well worth your time. In fact, I’d say it’s an autumn read, so here’s my review of it, to get you motivated!

11. I’m sure that by now you all have heard of The Night Circus? In the last LitBits I posted an article about the marketing aspect of it. This week, something interesting is happening: Thursday, October 13th marks the date that Erin Morgenstern’s “circus of dreams” was born. On October 13, 1886, at the stroke of midnight in London, the first circus doors opened to the public. This upcoming Thursday marks the 125th anniversary of this event. I have to admit, okay, that in general, I’m not cool with circuses, at least not animal or freak ones. Cirque du Soleil is different, and I’d love to see that some day. Anyway, I approach circus books with a degree of caution. This book, like Water for Elephants, has met with rave reviews for the most part, though one recent article in the New York Times had a different stance. Nevertheless, you can be sure that Random House has some neat stuff planned for this anniversary, like this free game, for instance. I haven’t yet read the book, but I plan to—because the story idea intrigues me. Erin is also coming to my area, for anyone interested. She’ll be reading as part of the International Festival of Authors in Picton, at Books and Company on October 28, 7pm. Tickets are $10.

12. Any Poe fans here? I love Poe, though studying him in university burst my bubble a little. By now, though, I’ve forgotten the underlying meanings and can just enjoy his stories as the wonderful gothic creations they also are. And now, one of my favourite male actors, John Cusack, is playing the author himself in a thriller of a movie called The Raven, to be released in 2012. I’m excited about it! Watch the trailer.

13. While you’re in Poe mode, there’s also this movie coming out called Twixt, about a hack horror writer visiting a small town in which he ends up investigating the murder of a young girl. Poe appears in the movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who said this: the story is “inspired by the eerie writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe” and came to him in a vivid dream he had while on a trip to Istanbul. The trailer for Twixt is spooky!

14. Switching gears here, the CBC is celebrating 75 years of featuring CanLit, from interviews to reviews to stimulating discussion. I have always loved browsing the CBC archives for old stuff with Atwood and for Halloween files (that I posted last year), and they’re taking a look back in the celebrating, too. They’ve started with Alice Munro, who’s got about 20 collections of stories to date but at the time of her interview had only three. Whoa. Have a listen to Alice Munro and Don Harrow on Morningside in 1978.

15. You’ve read writer’s blogs, but have you ever read a character‘s blog? Always Under Revision is the blog of Kate, a character in Leona Theis’s novel in progress. In her posts, Kate details what it’s like being written, as well as chats about her author’s progress and daily happenings. I thought it an interesting, creative spin on the typical author’s blog. I’d say it’s a good (but potentially dangerous when I think about it, if you’re in any way unstable!) method of getting inside a character’s head, let alone a writer’s!

16. I was reading the Saturday Toronto Star this weekend and to my surprise saw a few book covers I recognized on the front page of the Entertainment section. I always read that section but don’t see much on books. This time, there was an entire page and a bit, an interesting article called “Shortchanging the Short Story,” mainly but not solely about Zsuzsi Gartner’s recent collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives making the Giller shortlist, and what she has to say about that and short stories. What do you think after reading it? Are short story collections shortchanged? Should there be no distinction between novels and short stories—should we just have, as Gartner wishes, books? I’ve written about short stories here before, and I’d love to know what you guys think about this article.

17. Want to win a copy of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table? Go to Random House’s BookClubs page! They have a biweekly contest to win books, so while you’re there, sign up for the newsletter. It really is possible to win: I’ve done so twice!

18. I’m looking at Margaret Atwood’s newest book, called In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, published by McClelland & Stewart, and you know how books often list the author’s other publications? In this book, Ms Atwood’s previous books take up TWO pages. There are 21 books of fiction, 14 books of poetry, 9 non-fiction books, and 6 kids books. And that’s just books. Kind of makes my “I can’t write” whinging really pathetic!

19. Check this out, this is so cool! Trevor Cole’s award-winning Practical Jean…in photos:

20. I’ve waxed poetic about my artist sister, Thérèse Neelands before (by the way, she’s joined Twitter), and Oliver Jeffers as well, who also happens to be one of my sister’s sources of inspiration. So what do you get when you combine the two? A Christmas ornament that T made and forgot to give me last year and instead presented me this Thanksgiving weekend: I give you Boy, of Oliver Jeffers’s Lost and Found (the short film of which I posted for you in LitBits 19), Up and Down, How to Catch A Star, and The Way Back Home:

Boy, from Oliver Jeffers's The Way Back Home (also featured in How to Catch a Star, Lost and Found, and Up and Down. Ornament by Thérèse Neelands.

Believe me, you have to see this dude in real life (and we have to do something about that little bit between his legs, which is, of course, where the twine comes through. It’s too hilariously placed). Seriously, though, in real life, this little guy is amazing. My photos are shite. Also, she made Penguin, and my other sister got him. I demand him next Christmas. Also, I want the Martian from The Way Back Home. I hope you’re reading this, T. Oi, Oliver, if you’re reading this: thank you!! Also, you and my sis should get together and do something artsy.

Anything you want posted in LitBits? Contact me or send me a tweet!