Friday, October 21, 2016


So this is my pledge: over the next year, there will be nothing extra beyond the day-job and writing (and the menstruation anthology, of course...).
No organizing, no reviewing, no interviewing. 

I NEED to concentrate on getting this book of essays done. 

My mum was a workaholic and I've inherited some of her habits, though I think she'd think I was a slouch. 

I really get a lot of energy working in/through community, but it sometimes leaves me with next to no ACTUAL WRITING TIME. 

So: I'm going to be withdrawing a little.

Not from social media or this blog, because I'd feel isolated, but from some of extra unpaid work of the writing life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In Conversation: Craig Davidson

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Craig Davidson is a Toronto-based writer.

On the one hand, he’s a successful literary novelist with his third novel, Cataract City, shortlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Prize.

On the other, he also writes suspense and horror novels under the pseudonyms Nick Cutter and Patrick Lestewka, which are regularly blurbed by Stephen King and Clive Barker.

Davidson was in Winnipeg this week, launching a memoir entitled Precious Cargo as a part of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.

Winnipeg Free Press: By the time you sat down to write Precious Cargo — about being a single, unsuccessful writer taking a job as driver of the special-needs bus — you’d married, had a child, and published three more novels as Craig Davidson and several more as horror writers Nick Cutter and Patrick Lestewka. Why did you want to tell this story now? And how did having a child of your own deepen your thinking and feeling on the events you’re recounting?

Craig Davidson: I think it was just a matter of the book coming out of me at this time. I had a vacancy in terms of the next book I wanted to write, and Precious Cargo — or the idea that would become the book — was tugging most insistently. So that was what I wrote. I think for sure having a child sharpens the sense of what the book is about. I was always appreciative and respectful of the parents of the children I drove, but having had a son of my own I can see things a little more clearly through their eyes now.

WFP: What was the most difficult part about writing about children with disabilities?

CD: Oh, there are lots. Primarily, maybe, this sense that I’m an imposter. A lot of books about disabilities are written from first-hand experience: either the author themselves explains what it’s like to live with a specific disability, or the author details what it’s like to be, say, the parent of a child with special needs. Obviously, I didn’t have the same intimacy. So I settled on my perspective as the 98 per cent: that is, the percentage of people in our society who has likely had only token interactions with children (or adults) with special needs. My perspective was, "Hey, I’m reasonably compassionate, I’m willing to learn, I will make mistakes, but I want to be a part of this." And from there, to comment as honestly but also as compassionately and gently and carefully on whatever about those interactions made me happy, worried, elated, what made me laugh and what caused my heart to hurt. All of that. But it was an enormous worry that I’d get it wrong somehow. And I’m sure by some readers’ estimation I did get it wrong. Such is the life of a writer.

WFP: In terms of craft, how was writing a memoir unlike writing literary fiction or horror? Or is all writing, writing?
CD: I think the main thing is the most obvious: one is fiction, the other not. I think there’s a heightened level of responsibility and care in writing non-fiction (although, depending on your fictional universe, if it reflects real life, a writer might feel very responsible in that instance, too), but anyway, the "characters" in Precious Cargo are not. They’re real people. They have a life off the pages of the book I’ve written. They will live on well past the life of the book. So it’s important that everything in the book reflects that.

WFP: Speaking of the life of the writer, how did your son and your pseudonym happen to have the same first name? (And is your son’s middle name Cutter?)

CD: It’s a bit of an honorific to the boy. We’ll see if he feels that way when he’s 13. But by then he’ll likely think everything his old man does or has ever done is lame.

WFP: Tell me about the hubbub after your novel Cataract City (2013) was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Trillium.

CD: Oh, it was nice. It made me wonder how a really big-time writer must feel — y’know, I’m sure all the nominees felt a little tired after all the foofaraw, but it was only a few months. Imagine (J.K.) Rowling or King or whoever. It’s never-ending, and it’s so much bigger! Lines of people down the block, endless meetings, press obligations. When do they ever find a moment to take a pee, let alone write?

WFP: As a writer (in other words, as someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

CD: I’m happy enough to do readings. I am not necessarily the greatest reader — I’ve done readings with writers who are really adept readers (Irish writers are the best; pro tip: never follow an Irish writer at a reading, unless you want to let everyone down), so I know that’s not really my forte. But I get up there, sure. I tend to enjoy the Q&A portion more. Answering questions, rambling on at great length like a doddery old uncle. Surely that’s fun for the audience…

WFP: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

CD: Reading The Count of Monte Christo and The 48 Laws of Power. Research.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Fluid communities

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So I interviewed Winnipeg-based Metis writer Katherena Vermette about her debut novel, The Break, for the fall issue of The Winnipeg Review.

(This is my second conversation with Kate. The first was back in 2012 when her first book, North End Love Songs, was published.)

Since the interview was published, The Break has appeared on the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Award for Fiction shortlists and has been reviewed by the Globe and Mail and the National Post. Congrats to Kate!

Monday, October 03, 2016

Amplifying The Call of the Forest

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So I'm going to be helping to promote the feature-length documentary The Call of the Forest, amplifying the call if you will. The film features scientist and author, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, as she investigates our profound biological and spiritual connection to forests both in Manitoba and world-wide. 

The Call of the Forest will be screening at Winnipeg's Cinematheque October 22-30. There will be a panel discussion after the October 22 screening and an urban forest walk on October 23.

I'm excited and proud to be working on this project and I hope you'll be interested too, having listened to me burble on about trees/forests/urban nature for ages.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Talking trees

You’re on a walk in Assiniboine Forest. After years of noting "that whitish tree" and "that tree with acorns," you’ve brought along a field guide — say, Lone Pine’s Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland — that helps you to identify the trees as trembling aspens and burr oaks, both of which are native to Manitoba.

When you get home, you’re still curious about the trees, so you pull Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s Arboretum Borealis: A Lifeline of the Planet from the shelf.

From one, you get descriptions of leaf shape and bark: data. From the other, you learn aspens manufacture salicylates — the source of Aspirin — and release aerosolized salicylates into the air via their rustling leaves, creating "an antiseptic for the atmosphere."

This is nature writing, a heady mixture of science and literature that not only situates the tree within the forest but also takes a moment to consider its beauty.

The most recent entry in this genre is German forester Peter Wohlleben, whose The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World is an international bestseller. (Vancouver’s Greystone Books, in partnership with the David Suzuki Institute, has just released the English edition with a foreword by Tim Flannery, the Australian environmentalist and climate change activist.)

Before he wrote The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben was a typical forester, assessing the suitability of individual trees and stands of trees for the lumber mill.

One day, he found the remains of an ancient stump, parts of which were still alive. He wondered how that was possible, without leaves or branches or even a trunk. The answer: neighbouring trees were feeding the stump sugars they’d photosynthesized via their connected roots.

Wohlleben was changed in that moment. He started living and working differently, studying the scientific literature on the "wood wide web" and closely observing the trees in his forest.

"When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines," he writes.

While Wohlleben worked as a forester for 20 years and his discussions of forests and trees frequently bring in current research, his use of the expression "tree parents" shows he’s fairly comfortable with anthropomorphism, which is to say he frequently attributes human characteristics such as language and memory formation to non-human organisms (trees).

Do trees talk? Well, no, not as we’ve defined it.

What is clear from the research Wohlleben draws on — including from University of British Columbia’s pioneering professor of forest ecology Dr. Suzanne Simard, who herself could write an astonishing book on trees — is trees communicate, both above and below ground. Individual trees "talk" with trees of the same species and their competitors as well as with the creatures who attempt to burrow under their bark or eat their leaves.

Terminology and analogs aside, what The Hidden Life of Trees does especially well is explain how trees function — from seed to sapling to ancient tree, from root to bark to leaf.

Wohlleben describes how different species co-exist in the forest and how they compete for space and sun and water. What’s more, he explains how trees adapt to catastrophic events such as ice storms and tornados but also to climate change. And he sugar-coats all of these explanations with a great deal of enthusiasm and fondness for his subject.

That mixture of information and storytelling, science and sentiment, is exactly what we need here in tree-loving Winnipeg, with our doomed elm canopy and our expectation the emerald ash borer will show up any minute.

A final thought, in the interest of de-anthropomorphizing this review: if Wohlleben were a tree, he’d be a beech. The forests of central Europe where he lives are dominated by beeches, so he spends a great deal of time describing them.

But don’t let that put you off. As Wohlleben notes, "your trees may not function exactly as my trees do, and your forest might look a little different, but the underlying narrative is the same: forests matter at a more fundamental level than most of us realize."

Ariel Gordon is completing a manuscript of essays about Winnipeg’s urban forest.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

In Conversation: Lisa Moore

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION

Lisa Moore is a writer based in St. John’s, N.L. Her novel February was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and won Canada Reads in 2013. She is a three-time finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, most recently for her novel Caught.

Moore will be launching her young adult novel Flannery — about a girl who manufactures love potions for her entrepreneur class that somehow seem to work — at the Winnipeg International Writers Festival on Tuesday.

She spoke to Ariel Gordon via email.

Winnipeg Free Press: What do you want people to know about Flannery?

Lisa Moore: That it’s funny and set in St. John’s, N.L., and it’s about the intensity of friendship at sixteen. How powerful those friendships are, how they have the capacity to alter us forever, and how they are sometimes ephemeral. How those fast friendships can easily unfasten and cause heartbreak.

WFP: What prompted you to write young adult fiction, after two collections of short stories and three novels for adults? Put another way, what drew you to tell this story this way?

LM: Children and young adults are able to suspend disbelief as fast as a snap of the fingers. When we’re younger, the imagination is very supple and easily set in action; a few paragraphs of a novel and the imagination goes into full-on, massive fibrillation, all aquiver. It’s a beautiful power, to be able to give over to the imagination, because we can inhabit another’s skin. I think, as we get older, that muscle — the imagination — can sometimes be subject to seizing up or even atrophying. So I knew it would be a total blast to write for young adults. I loved reading young adult literature when I was young, and I loved reading it as an adult to my kids. And I wanted to try capture what it means to be sixteen in 2016.

WFP: Were there any young adult novels you looked to when writing this book?

LM: I thought about Anne of Green Gables because I once wrote an introduction to Montgomery’s novel. What I loved about that novel how uncontainable Anne is. How alive with passion and exuberance and temper tantrums. Her melodramatic love of everything. The way she smashes that slate blackboard over Gilbert’s head.

WFP: In the novel, Flannery often feels powerless. And the adults around her are preoccupied with their own problems—they seem as bewildered as she is. What does this novel say about how you build a life? About our ability to make choices?

LM: The novel tries to be honest about the way the world is for people who don’t have a lot of money. It’d be great to be able to say: Don’t worry you’ll have lots of agency if you just try hard. But of course, very often, perhaps most often, for most people, the odds are tilted in the other direction. However, there’s also lots of humour in here. I think many things, when we look them square in the eye, can be hilarious and sad at the same time.

WFP: What function do the love potions play in the book, when everyone seems to be actively looking for love, even when it’s clearly to their detriment with partners who are sometimes manipulative, even abusive. Are we that desperate for love?

LM: The love potions are mostly comedic, a tiny reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the errant, unfettered folly of desire. What dopes we become when we’re besotted. The love potions are just a gag, as Flannery herself admits. In a way, the potions make fun of the idea that love is something that happens instantly — in fact, we must be constantly learning about love, in order to love well. It requires inspiration, yes, but also work. But you’re right; I’ve also explored, in this novel, the nature of abusive or manipulative relationships. How disorienting and damaging those relationships are, how difficult to negotiate and escape — in fact, they are the opposite of love. Despite the dangers of these kinds of relationships, do I think we need to love each other? Do we need that desperately? Yes! It’s the best part of being human.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

In Conversation: Raina Telgemeier

By Ariel Gordon
Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION

Raina Telgemeier is a San Francisco-based graphic novelist. She’s the author of Smile (2010), Drama (2012) and Sisters (2014), all of which have been No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, as well as graphic novel adaptions of Ann M. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series.

This month, Telgemeier will release Ghosts, a story told from the point of view of Cat, a tween whose family moves to northern California. Cat’s little sister Maya has cystic fibrosis, and the family hopes the climate will be better for her. The local celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) figures prominently in the book, which explores mortality and loss.

Winnipeg Free Press: As a comic-book artist (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

Raina Telgemeier: My public events are multifaceted. I like to bring kids up on the stage to read/dramatize scenes from my books with me; then I tell stories and show slides about my process and give the audience as much Q&A time as the venue will allow. Then I sign books and meet everyone! It’s a great way to connect directly with my readers. Every one of them is a unique and interesting person with a story to tell, and I wish I got more time with each of them, but their enthusiasm inspires me to keep writing stories.

WFP: In Ghosts, you’ve set yourself a pretty impressive to-do list: honouring Latin culture and specifically the Day of the Dead, writing about illness and mortality in children and plumbing the sometimes contentious relationship between sisters. What was the hardest part to write for you?

RT: This book gestated in my mind for over a decade and went through many changes over the years. Every part of it was a challenge, and every part of it was rewarding to research and imagine and explore. Stepping away from memoir and realistic fiction was the hardest part. Those are my favourite genres to read and write, so adding fantasy and magic into my work was intimidating. Still, I’m at a point in my career where I want to stretch my wings and try new things — write far outside of my comfort zone. Open lots of doors and peek inside of them. Because the story deals with the idea of profound loss, it was also a place for me to explore losses within my own life through a fictional lens. It was difficult, but deeply gratifying to do so.

WFP: Were you at all worried about accusations of cultural appropriation?

RT: That’s a subject I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about. San Francisco is an amazing melting pot, and my childhood was spent amongst a rainbow of friends from every background and culture and where I was the minority among them. I try to reflect that experience in my stories, whether it’s as a major part of the plot or within the background, and that is going to be different in every story I tell. I consider my own background and cultural identity to be "San Franciscan." How artists represent their culture and other cultures in their work is an interesting discussion, and I’m open to the conversation.

WFP: You’ve said Canadian Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse is an influence of yours. What about it was important to you? That it had a female main character? That it wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects, such as including the first queer character in a daily comic strip?

RT: For Better for For Worse felt like an extension of my own family, my own life. There was a voyeuristic quality to peeking in on the Pattersons’ lives every day, and I couldn’t get enough. They made me feel less alone. They felt like friends. All of the subject matter Lynn tackled, difficult or not, reflected my own life. I sometimes say, "Everything I know in life I learned from reading For Better or For Worse." It had that big of an impact on me.

WFP: It seems like the traditional trajectory for comic book artists (or graphic novelists) has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. The majority of people interested in making comics don’t aim for syndication or even traditional publishing, opting instead for web comics and some combination of Patreon/Kickstarter/comic con support from fans. But, like Jeff Smith (Bone) and Ben Hatke (Zita the Spacegirl), you’ve published your stories as graphic novels and done very well. Do you think there are more opportunities for people who want to make comics these days or less?

RT: Well, Jeff Smith started publishing Bone as a serialized comic book in the early ’90s. Smile got its start on the web in the mid-aughts. Zita the Spacegirl has roots as short web-comic vignettes, too. Most of the popular graphic novels on shelves today previously existed in other formats, whether it was on the web or in self-published books, so creators getting started now have a wealth of options for getting their work to their readers and in front of the eyeballs of editors and art directors. These days, there seems to be more of a demand for comics than ever.

WFP: Have you been to Winnipeg before? What have you heard?

RT: First time in Winnipeg! I’ve heard there are big skies and friendly people. Sounds good to me.

WFP: What are you reading right now?

RT: I’m reading Martha Brockenbrough’s novel The Game of Love and Death and a couple of non-fiction titles. As for writing, I’m working on my next book, which will be another memoir. That’s all I can say about it at the moment.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.