Friday, January 31, 2014

David Foenkinos, Tom Hart Dyke at Hay Festival

Today I had the chance to see French writer David Foenkinos on-stage.

The space was gorgeous: in this old chapel now part of the Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel. The awkward part had
Foenkinos' latest novel
to do with language: the interviewer spoke in Spanish while her questions were translated into French for Foenkinos who answered in French which was then translated back into Spanish for the crowd. Exhausting. After a few starts and stops (for a while he kept listening as the translator translated his words which was terribly distracting for him and for the audience), things finally clicked and the event managed to clip along.

Foenkinos is one of France's best young writers. Author of La Délicatesse (which was made into a movie), his work gets better and better. His last book, Je vais mieux, got excellent reviews and he has a new work coming out in the coming weeks, as well.

He talked about how he's one of these writers who's always working: that he writes even when he's traveling or on a plane or vacationing. Funny how some writers are like that (Joyce Carol Oates comes to mind, a writer who sat in a noisy lobby during the 2012 Festival, hunched over her laptop, typing away, an open New York Review of Books that she glanced at surreptitiously now and then) while some writers have to have complete quiet and no distractions and won't answers emails or take phone calls for months on end while they're working. (Barbara Kingsolver has told me she works this way.)

I wasn't terribly enamoured with the questions that were asked of Foenkinos though he kept his good humour and was perfectly charming.

Tom Hart Dyke
Also on the docket today was British horticulturist Tom Hart Dyke. Dyke shot to fame in 2000 when he and a friend were kidnapped by FARC while researching orchids in the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. Held for 9 months with no contact with the outside, Dyke was suddenly released one afternoon with no fanfare or explanation. What struck me most about the event today was how he managed to make a terrifying and life-changing event humorous. Not that he made light of it or was flip, but he managed to turn the story around into something entertaining and he seems very invested in this idea of how the FARC rebels reacted to his very British approach to crisis. His book The Cloud Garden (co-written by his fellow detainee, Paul Winder) recounts the tale.

One more day! But several more events are jumping out at me.

Also, the way they organize the schedule is something I'm noting. They only do events at 10:30, 12:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 and all events are one hour. That means there is at least a one hour break in between every event which leaves time for strolling, eating, cavorting, chatting, etc. Not sure this would work for our audience or not but it's something to consider...

Juan Campanella at Hay Festival

A few years back, Argentine director, Juan Campanella, won an Oscar for his Spanish-language film El secretro de sus ojos. The film is an interesting one: it's both a thriller and a story of history, that of the use and abuse of power before, during, and just after the Dirty War in Argentina. But it's most importantly a love story.

On stage yesterday, the director talked about this film and his career and what it meant for him to come back to Argentina (after directing some very popular TV shows in the USA like House and Law & Order), about how he managed to finance the film, about his earlier work, about film school in Argentina, about the film industry of Latin America and many other related topics.

The bit that had the entire 500+ member audience (in an amazing old colonial-era theatre, Teatro Adolfo Mejia) on the edge of their seats was his blow by blow analysis of a very famous shot from the film El secreto de sus ojos (written about here) that is over five minutes in a continuous panning shot that is quite remarkable in its conception and production. The director walked through each section of the shot, talking about the shooting, the mixing, the visual effects, the use of extras. Man, you could have heard a pin drop in that theatre, people were so riveted.

I love literary Festivals that don't stick only to "literature" and there are so many interesting conversations to
Teatro Adolfo Mejia de Cartagena
be had which only relate indirectly to literature. And I love this about our Montreal public: that they are willing to go with the flow often when we try our hand at non-literary themed events.

Stay tuned to 2014 to see a few events that aren't directly related to literature...

Though we're at the Hotel 10 again this year, I like the idea of branching out and using a neighborhood as our venue: Old Montreal, for example, or St-Henri. Seeing events in big theatres like I've been doing here has a totally different kind of energy to them. We like our model of presenting events now, but we're always thinking of ways to make it more interesting. Who knows what the future holds...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hay Festival: Gael Garcia Bernal, John Boyne & David Foenkinos

Haven't actually seen any events yet since they only start this afternoon but a few days of literary adventure have been on my agenda since I arrived on Tuesday.

First, the location: what an amazing little town. Well, at least the central part (a UNESCO world heritage site for all of its colonial architecture) is little. Full of so much life, too: cars racing by narrow cobblestoned streets, horses pulling carriages, colorful Cuban women in floral skirts and hair wraps selling fruit on the street.

It's hot. Very hot. But when I see pictures of images of snow falling in the North, I want to jump for joy for
Bernal talks about his career
getting a brief respite from it all.

Today I am seeing American writer John Boyne (Irish author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) as well as an event this evening with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal.

So far, it's been lunches, meetings and sipping Corona outside in stone courtyards with a sea breeze blowing in. The nights here are extraordinary: the city almost complete shuts down so the streets are empty except for an occasional bar spilling out onto the sidewalk or a strolling band serenading tourists with quiet music.

Foenkinos talks about his latest novel
I ran into French writer David Foenkinos last night walking down a quiet street and said hello briefly. He's doing several events here along with French writers Emmanuel Carrère and Virginie Despentes. Also looking forward to hearing Irvine Walsh being interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel (who, naturally, will be at Blue Met in the spring, as usual).

I'd really like to see Alfonso Zapico, the graphic novelist/cartoonist and author of a graphic treatment of James Joyce's Dublin. Unfortunately, my Spanish is only so-so still so not sure how much of it I will miss (and there are two other events on at the same time I want to see: always the problem with good festivals!).

And lots more still! To think, the events haven't even officially started yet...

Monday, January 27, 2014

January escape: Colombia

One of the best things about my job is being able to travel the world and see literary events. I do this to see as many writers and as many different kinds of events that I can (even writers I don't particularly like: what is it about them that's engaging, I ask myself when I am in the midst of one of their events...) but it's also a great opportunity for me to meet other Festival directors to discuss future collaborations, promoting Quebec literature in other countries, meeting publishing and literary professionals from around the world.

I almost never leave at this time because it's an extremely busy time of year, but due to the success of our Premio Metropolis Azul for Spanish-language writing, I decided I really needed to visit the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia. In its 9th year, the Festival lineup this year looks incredible: from David Foenkinos and Virginie Despentes to Cees Noteboom from Ricardo Piglia and Gael Garcia Bernal to Irvine Welsh. It's going to be such a great week! And a great opportunity to meeting movers and shakers in the Latin world: Argentine film festival directors, Chilean writers, Mexican bookfair organizers, etc.

On the way, I'm making a stopover in New York to see a show at the 92nd Street Y (whenever I visit NYC, I have to see something here or at Symphony Space). And one of my favorite noodle shops in Hells Kitchen.

The hardest part is knowing how to pack for a trip like this: minus 11 in Montreal, 2 in NYC and 32 in Cartagena. I need casual, dressy, cold weather, hot weather, winter boots and nice shoes.

I'll be updating when I can (one can never predict internet access or reliability in certain regions of Latin America)...

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

US Publishing and East Coast stories

I've been thinking about the baggage we bring to books we read and how that baggage affects the way we react to them. I'm about halfway through Claire Messud's novel The Woman Upstairs and I had this odd reaction when I first started the book: a sense that I am sick to death of novels set on the East Coast about rich white people. For a couple of days, I forced myself to read it, despite the fact that it was the third or fourth book I'd read in a row about rich white people from the East Coast (including Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch which I liked and wrote about, despite what I'm about to say below).

Not every American story is a Manhattan story
It turns out that my feelings (my baggage) were not fair: the book really isn't about rich white people from the East Coast. East Coast, yes, but these are run-of-the-mill people. I have other issues with the book though my initial reaction has really made me think about the way I encounter things I'm reading, particularly since I almost gave up reading it due to my reaction at first.

Since our Festival is an international festival, I read a good deal of international writers from all over the world. True, I read a good deal from Canadian writers, too, but when I delve into an American novel it's somewhat of a rare treat and I approach American novels as both an insider (I was born and raised in the USA and all my family still lives there) but also as a  foreigner (I live in Canada and haven't lived in the US since I was in my early 20s).

Why are Americans so fascinated with stories about rich upper-class east-coasters? I suppose a big part of it is the fact that the US publishing industry is so based in the east (read: New York City) and editors are culled from the upper classes and Ivy League schools. To me, growing up in the west, the east was always far away, hard to imagine, exotic, dangerous, crowded, full of overdone ladies in fur coats and hard-edged men in $5000 suits.

Perhaps even all these years later, despite having lived outside the west since around 1995, I still hold certain prejudices and assumptions about easterners. And it's not like there aren't plenty of writers who write about Western lives (Sam Shepard, who I've written about recently, Jim Harrison, many others).

All of this leads me back to Claire Messud's book. Again, it's set in the east but it's not at all conforming to my preconceived ideas about books from the East Coast. Still, I find it a puzzling work. I'll write about it another day since that's a slightly different topic and I should finish the book before passing judgement.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Chekhov, Chekhov, Chekhov

I can't escape Chekhov recently, which is a good thing. First, it was a trip to Asia and hanging out with a writer who's somewhat of a Chekhov "expert" (translator of his work into Chinese, producer of plays, critic). We had about 10 conversations about him and this expert had the uncanny ability to connect just about any literary topic to some play or short story by Chekhov.

Chekhov: he could be a Mile End hipster
And this article from The Millions about how reading Chekhov can make one more empathetic. They, in fact, issue a challenge to read Chekhov for a more empathetic 2014. The writers do caution, however, "that Chekhov doesn't provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There's no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies."

Still, if I do make any resolution (and I rarely do), it's related to books I will read. I haven't read Chekhov in many years and so he is on my list for 2014 (as is re-reading William Styron's Sophie's Choice and Thoreau).

Idea:  a great way to start the  year: see Chekhov on stage:

The Segal Centre is producing a new version of The Seagull by Peter Hinton but you only have two weeks to catch it as it runs February 02 to 16, 2014. Buy tickets here.

The tag line is "In the Winter, don't you wish Summer would go on forever?" and MAN can I relate to that right now (January, cold, blustery, grey).

The Millions writer suggests that Chekhov "doesn't make us better people by restoring our faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity or by charming us with the bright hope of a happy ending." And to me this is what a "good" writer does: create characters that somehow straddle our pat views of good vs evil or happiness vs unhappiness.

After the Segal's performance on the 10th, there will be a post-show opportunity to interact with the artists bringing the play to life.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Gary Shteyngart disses Canadian writers and tears are shed

This kerfuffle going on with Gary Shteyngart and Canadian writing has me mildly bemused this morning. Apparently, in an interview, the author of Super Sad True Love Story (who was, in fact, just interviewed on Fresh Air the other day), said that while moderating a Canadian prize jury, we was struck with how many submissions there were (he said "millions") and how only 4-5 were any good.

This, he suggests, could be the result of so many Canadian writers getting grants, the implication being that writers are reluctant to challenge grant bodies or do anything experimental.

I must say that I tend to agree with him in part. I've said before that I'm often struck with how staid Canadian writing often is. That's not to say that there isn't good stuff being done, there certainly is. And "challenging" writing is only one aspect of writing that he seems to be talking about. Challenging form is no ticket to originality nor does it necessarily equal "good" writing. But to me it's not an issue involving Canadian writers per se. It's an issue with the Canadian media who tend to laud, award prizes to, and buzz about books that are rather fair to middling. Canadian readers or those supposedly "in the know" seem to not like books that challenge form or that step outside of the safe world we often live in. I'm speaking in very general terms here, of course.

I can think of many Canadian writers who do fascinating work that rocks the boat somewhat, that takes chances, that doesn't just regurgitate the same story over and over. But these writers tend to get ignored by the literary establishment in Canada. These works aren't nominated for prizes, aren't written up in the journals or magazines for review, aren't selected as Canada Reads finalists.

Again, not to denigrate any of the organizations or prizes or systems because the final point that I'd like to make is that while I agree with Shteyngart on his assessment of Canadian writing, I don't agree with him on the overriding suggestion that grants equal "middling" writing. Everything that I've said above I'd say equally about American writing. Or British writing. Perhaps even much of the writing from France. The fact is that most writers do decent work but it takes a very special kind of writer to do something extraordinary, no matter what country he or she is writing in. And one of the best things about granting bodies is that while it's true that they do look for a certain "kind" of writer, there is no editorial interference whatsoever (either before, during, or after the project is done).

Writing is hard. Writing well is hard. Writing consistently solid work is very hard. So it's no surprise that most writers hit the middle in terms of quality. Very few can rise to the top (I'm not referring to anything like book sales, bestseller lists, etc. here, though perhaps the same paradigm could be applied to that as well).

What amuses me about this whole episode is the reaction of some Canadians. Geez, people, get thicker skin. Holding up Alice Munro has some example that there are, indeed, "good" Canadian writers just seem childish and petty. Who cares what Americans think of Canadian writing anyway? Who CARES?!