Friday, October 31, 2008

DAY NINE: Call me Evil Lee

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to suddenly be transported into the body of a feted novelist? Have you ever thought, Gee, I wish there was a lever somewhere that I could yank and instantly become Colm Toibin, or Junot Diaz, or Nino Ricci, or Ethan Hawke?

Well, last night at the epic, shoulder-to-shoulder Walrus party (held, as usual, in the good ship Hospitality), someone yanked on said lever - for me, anyway. One minute, I was chatting with Joseph Boyden while simultaneously ogling Hari Kunzru's incredibly tailored suit. The next minute, I was being introduced to a glittering gaggle of influential publishing professionals as none other than, well... you'll see. I will change some names here, as I occasionally receive payment for "journalistic services rendered" that are signed by a few of these very people (which makes this even more unreal). But I will recount the scene for you in amateur, screenplay format:

Don (his hand on my shoulder) - Gerry, meet one of the brightest young stars of CanLit.
Me - Don, that's sweet of you, but please...
Don - No, really, I mean it. I've read your book.
Me - You... have?
Don - It's incredible! Virtuoso!
Me (quietly) - But it was only published two days -
Don - Gerry! You said you wanted to meet him. Here he is.
Gerry (poking me in the chest playfully) - YOU got me in S#!T with Sheila Heti!
Me - Ummm...
Gerry (still poking) - Five years ago.
Me - Yeah, you know what? I've never met -
Don - You drew those drawings?
Me - Drawings?
Don - The wrestling.
Gerry - She told me your stories were so good! I said, they can't be THAT good!
Me (inside my head) - Holy smokes, they think I'm Lee Henderson.
Don (laughing and slapping Gerry on the shoulder) - He doesn't want to admit he drew 'em.
Me (inside my head) - There's no way out. You'll just embarrass everyone.
Gerry - No kidding.
Me (inside my head) - Act! For the love of God, act!
Me (rather loudly, so that Kunzru could hear me) - Yep! Drew 'em myself.
Don - Great stuff.
Gerry - I shoulda listened to Sheila.
Kunzru (inside his head) - Yep?
Gerry (motioning to the woman next to him) - This is my friend, Janice. She's a budding fiction writer. I'm sure she's got some questions for you.
Janice (covering her mouth) - Oh, Gerry...
Me - No, no. I'd love to talk about fiction. I love fiction. It's what I write. Fiction.
Don (nodding) - ...
Gerry - Well, listen. Congratulations. I've got my eye on you.
Me (inside my head) - Of course you do. Everyone's got their eye on me. I'm Lee Henderson.
Me (outside my head) - Gerry, that's sweet of you.
Janice - Can you ever have two protagonists?
Don (backing away) - We mean it.
Me (quietly, while looking over my shoulder) - Janice, do I have a story for you.


Quote of the Day:
"You're Evil Lee."
- Lee Henderson

Thursday, October 30, 2008

DAY EIGHT: Five deserving writers walk into a reading...

The Writers' Trust of Canada has got itself a heck of a fiction contest this year. Last night, the five finalists read from their nominated works, and each one stole the show in their own way. Rivka Galchen was very endearing with her short reading, and funny, and allowed the brilliance of her first novel's concept to emerge organically. Rawi Hage was quite expectedly quiet, and intense, dark, and superb. Lee Henderson, whom I have seen read many, many times in Vancouver, wowed with his inventive, pithy language ("the burial mound was zitted with purple potatoes," and "the dog snouted for treats"). Patrick Lane floored me with a pitch-perfect account of a boy trying to commit suicide in a river, an account that could have ended with any of his fifteen finishing sentences and been brilliant. And Miriam Toews gave a virtuoso reading from the Troutmans, speeding through the jokes that by the time the audience laughed, we were gulping our chuckles back in the face of perfect pathos.

I'd love it if Lee won. But I seriously don't have a clue as to who's gonna take it.


I've got a sweet little piece of inside information for all you loyal readers out there. Actually, two sweet little pieces:
1. This Saturday at noon, Daniel Baird of Walrus fame will be hosting a round table in the Brigantine Room that is sure to knock your socks off. It's called the Eavesdrop Salon and I suggest you book your tickets now. Baird, Boyden, Quarrington, Rich and Whitlock - conversing on whichever topic their blinding intellects wish to pursue. It's no holds barred, people. Anything could happen.
2. Later on, at 4pm, my own personal editor at the Walrus, Jeremy Keehn (OK, he works with other writers, too) leads a fascinating conversation on "narrative and the passage of time" with some of Canada's most gifted, insightful and award-winning authors, David Bergen, Christopher Dewdney and Bill Gaston. Make this your pre-dinner stop on the last day of the festival. I'll see you there.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

DAY SEVEN: A stolen moment with the author of Stolen Continents

Traveler, historian and novelist Ronald Wright has had a massive influence on me. I consider him a member of the same hallowed realm as Eduardo Galeano (who, generous soul that he is, agreed to blurb my book). Both Wright and Galeano have spent much of their respective careers revealing untold truths of New World history, telling real (and fantastically fictional) stories of the Americas and rethinking the tropes we've been fed since we were school-children about our origins on this side of the Atlantic. The careers of these two writers... oh wait, add in Peter Matthiessen... the careers of these three writers have shaped how I think about my own budding life as a writer, what kind of topics I am drawn to and what sort of stories I feel prepared (permitted? obligated?) to tell. I think of these three every time I stumble upon a new book idea, or a new concept for a magazine piece.

So, needless to say, I was there last night when Ronald Wright took the stage with Richard Price, Meg Wolitzer and Peter Robinson for a round-table discussion of the writing life. I listened as Wright told the story of how he only started writing when he got unexpectedly sick in South America, how he sold Cut Stones and Crossroads for something like four grand and didn't think twice about the money, how the gold the Inca Atahualpa spent on buying his freedom from Pizarro eventually ended up in Silicon Valley. This idea lies at the core of what Wright and Galeano have written, the idea that riches have consequences - "mankind's poverty as a consequence of the wealth of the land," to quote EG. I was so thrilled to hear Wright speaking the very essence of what fascinates me. It was an inspiring night.

So inspiring, in fact, that after the event I rushed over to Ben McNally's bookstore outside the Brigantine Room, stole a copy of my own book (sorry, Ben), inscribed a wee note to Ronald on the title page, and joined the autograph lineup. When my turn came, I shook Wright's hand, thanked him for his books, and gave him mine (on the very day it was published: October 28th) as a gift.

"This is my Cut Stones," I said, perhaps presumptiously, but reverently as well.

Wright seemed a bit confused at first, but when he turned the book over and saw Galeano's name, he smiled and nodded.

"That's a wonderful blurb," he said. And then he thanked me and wished me luck.


Quotes of Day Seven:
"It's amazing what you can do when you don't know anything."
- Richard Price
"The world will chip away at you. A mother shouldn't."
- Meg Wolitzer
"I'd rather be a K."
- Meg Wolitzer, on the discrimination book stores seem to have for author's with last names that start with W.
"It's alphabetism."
- Ronald Wright, on the same topic.
"Holy crap. My last name starts with W, too!"
- me, inside my head.
"I feel that fiction is the great, refreshing antidote to, well, everything else."
- Meg Wolitzer
"When you're twenty-four, you're an idiot. But you're a happy idiot."
- take a guess

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

DAY SIX: Bad blogger. Bad, bad blogger.

So there I was yesterday afternoon, still recovering from my reading (and the massive Random House party on Sunday night, which left dock at Jamie Kennedy's at the Gardiner Museum, tore through Avenue at the Four Seasons and eventually smashed up onto the rocks of the Hospitality Suite), when I suddenly realized there was another festival party about to start at Harbourfront.

"Ugh," I thought, as I crawled from my bed to the couch. "How can there be another party? It can't possibly be as big as last night. I'll just show up a bit late."

Turns out I missed the biggest party of this year's IFOA.

The IFOA/Hello! Magazine Opening Party went down in the Enwave Theatre last night, and it was a veritable who's who of who matters in publishing. I am a bad, bad blogger for missing it. When I showed up at about 7pm (yes, 7pm, people... this blowout started at 530 in the afternoon), the room was packed and wildly overheated. Speeches were over (I heard from a number of people that Geoffrey Taylor gave a great one), 150 people had already left and Hello! had already taken down their photo booth (get this: you could have your photo taken, and then through some whiz-bang printing they'd give you a personalized Hello! cover. I rue the moment on Sunday night when I switched from wine to scotch. Rue it, I tell you.)

Anyway, because the inimitable Becky Toyne decided not to rip my head off for being late (though it was well within her right to do so) and instead recently handed me a CD filled with photos from the party, forthwith, I will pretend I was there.

Actually, better to start with Hello! Magazine's party diary.
Ok, onwards!

Team IFOA. Finally, their turn in the limelight. Well deserved!

Guest curator, feted novelist and all-round lovely bloke, Colm Toibin (right) with artist Micah Lexier.

Globe Book Review editor Martin Levin stumping Booker-winner Anne Enright with some arcane piece of trivia.

Two members of the IFOA Royal Family: Ben McNally and his son Rupert (pretending not to be admiring Kim McArthur's passing ponytail).

Bad blogger, arriving late. That is a look of contrition on my face (accompanied by a frisson of indigestion and a soupcon of a migraine).

Hey Shinan Govani... write your own blog!

I'm thinking of applying for a job as the Scene columnist at the National Post.

Wait a minute, I already am the Scene columnist at the National Post.

Check this out. Go to Shinan Govani's latest post. Scroll down to the part about Anita Shreve and Francine Prose. Now, check out my post on Anita and Francine, describing the exact same dinner.

See any similarities?

For the record, I much prefer "beloved-by-Oprah" than "Oprah-blessed." Contrary to popular belief, she ain't no deity (so far as "we've" heard).

Shinan, I'm OK with you ripping me off. But the least you could do is mention my blog!

PS. We should have dinner sometime this week, perhaps at one of the authors' dinners. Then we could have a blog-off. Drop me a line, and I'll hook it up.

DAY FIVE: Reading The Riverbones (and meeting Dervla Murphy)

The Green Room above the Studio Theatre at the Harbourfront Centre is, well, an "intimate" sort of space (ie. small and very hot). This is where Julie Angus and I met Dervla Murphy - Irish travel writer extraordinnaire, the First Lady of Far-Flung Adventure - with whom we were about to share a stage. Dervla was hard at work, scribbling notes for her talk. She looked up as we arrived and gave us a smile I will never forget. Through the heat, and the confusion ("I don't even know what a PowerPoint Presentation is!"), Dervla seemed almost happier to meet us than we were to meet her. I laughed when she asked me what my book is about. My book? What does it matter? You're Dervla Murphy!

We sat and chatted for a good while, as if Julie and I weren't nervous at all (we were). I almost sweated through my suit jacket. Julie was wearing wool. Dervla signed a book for Julie's mother-in-law, while telling us her next trip was to Gaza. The Gaza Strip. Dervla was going there straight from Toronto next week.

In case you weren't aware, Dervla Murphy is in her late-seventies.

We walked downstairs to the backstage area. Dervla came last, a bit slowly down the steps, and Julie went onstage to a roar of applause. Dervla and I walked around to grab a seat at the back of the theatre, where we watched Julie describe her row across the Atlantic to a rapt audience. I couldn't help thinking I was witnessing some kind of ceremony, a passing of the torch from one generation of courageous women travelers to the next. Julie, though she may not have known it, was absolutely riveting as a guide across the ocean; Dervla kept looking over at me, her eyes wide, smiling in awe.

Then it was my turn on stage. I think we had some fun. I taught the crowd how to speak Sranantongo (Efu yu no go leri, yu lasi), and then I read a chapter from The Riverbones called The Red Road. Efu yu no go leri, yu lasi means, roughly, "If you don't learn about something, you will lose it." It was only when I was preparing for IFOA that I realized this is actually the point of my book. Suriname is one of the world's Last Edens. It is the middle of nowhere, but it is also the middle of everywhere.

Dervla came last. She offered some very kind words to myself and Julie (see below). And then the audience pummeled her with a million questions. A little later, as I signed a few books for a few lovely strangers, Julie and I marveled at the length of the line-up for Dervla's autograph.

"Someday," we thought to ourselves. "Someday."


Quote of Day Five:
(sorry, but I gotta do this)
"I have had a number of depressing conversations lately about the future of travel writing. But having shared the stage with Julie and Andrew today, I am relieved to find travel writing is in very good hands."
- Dervla Murphy

Monday, October 27, 2008

Say what you will about blogs... Colm Toibin's reading mine.

Hi Colm. Hi Anne. Hi Dermot.

I learned something strange and a bit unnerving last night: a few of the Irish writers at this year's festival are actually reading this blog. Last night in the Hospitality Suite (oooh, I promised my superiors at Harbourfront I'd never start a sentence with "last night in the Hospitality Suite." I can almost feel the hairs going up on the back of Geoffrey Taylor's neck. You see, the Hospitality Suite is the Vegas of IFOA. It's strictly off-the-record - no media, no hassles. Just writers "relaxing" and "being themselves" in a well-appointed suite at the Westin Harbour Castle. To blog about the goings-on in there could be the single fastest way to "destroy" a young man's writing "career." Or so I've been told.)

Anyway, last night in the Hospitality Suite, Colm Toibin quoted from this blog, Dermot Bolger accused me (in a very friendly manner) of stealing his "best stuff," and Anne Enright introduced me not as an author but as the official blogger (it's OK, Anne... I know I'm already terribly overexposed in this capacity and sadly underexposed as a writer).

This led to the classic conversation about blogs themselves, and how many of us feel they are simply useless, or self-congratulatory, or both (Colm came up with a very good euphemism for blogs versus books, actually, but I'll not share it here for reasons of propriety already discussed above).

But this makes me wonder: what would make this blog better? What would pull it up and out of the mongrel blogosphere? And I think I know the answer. A pure-bred, world-famous, prize-winning, Irish-accented Guest Blogger!

So come on, Colm. Have at you, Dermot. Let's see it, Anne. Which one of you will rise to the occasion and offer to write IFOA's first guest-blog?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sniff, sniff...

OK, I admit it: I missed all of last night's events. I missed Junot Diaz and David Benioff. I missed Anne Enright and Nam Le. I missed Jeffery Deaver and Ildefonso Falcones. I missed it all.

Why would I do this? Why would I miss some of the biggest draws of this year's festival? What could possibly have been more important?

It's simple. I am getting sick.

My throat is sore, my nose is becoming stuffed, and my legs are aching. I have been going all out for four days and four nights and the pace has, well, killed me. AND... I have my reading today.

I am reminded of the sage words of Geoffrey Taylor, IFOA's director, on Day One: "Andrew, the festival is not eleven days long. It is, instead, one long day."

So, it was a hard decision, but after dinner last night at Le Select Bistro (cock's crowns, lamb's neck, lemon tart), I decided to go home to bed. I am now preparing for my talk (4pm, Studio Theatre), and drinking hot drinks. I will be fine. Do not pity me. I just wanted to explain why I went AWOL last night.


Quote of Day Four:
"It was a Great White, and it went right under our boat."
- Julie Angus
"Would you like some of my chicken heads?"
- partner-in-crime, Samantha Francis.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

DAY FOUR: Hilarious and Irish!

"I'm Irish and Canadian," said Emma Donoghue.
"I'm Irish and German," said Hugo Hamilton.
"I'm Irish and bald," said Dermot Bolger.

I'm sitting in the Hospitality Suite as I write this (more on this to come), having just attended my first "It's Irish!" event at this year's IFOA. "It's Irish!" involves 16 authors from the Emerald Isle, and the events are curated by prize-winning novelist Colm Toibin.

This particular event, a conversation between Bolger, Hamilton, Donoghue and David Park (mediated by Bert Archer), was very informative. For instance, I learned that David Park accidentally plagiarized James Joyce in one of his novels, that Hugo Hamilton grew up wearing lederhosen and aran sweaters, and that Bolger's main problem when he was young was not procuring condoms (in a strictly Catholic atmosphere), but finding a way to use them. All in all, hilarious.

DAY THREE: Francine, Ildefonso and Me

So, I arrived at the author's dinner last night (there are free dinners for the authors every night, by the way... last night was at Il Fornello... I know, I know... a hard life) only to find one open seat at the long main table. I immediately knew why no one is sitting in it. In the next seat over sat Ildefonso Falcones, the bestselling Spanish novelist who, uncomfortably, knows very little English. He was perched on the end of the table and no one was talking to him.

I have seen him a number of times over the last few days, and he has always been alone and seemingly lonely. So I sat down next to him. He smiled and shook my hand. Then we proceeded to speak not a word for the next hour or so.

The reason Ildefonso and I spoke not a word is because the next person to introduce herself was Francine Prose. I almost burst out laughing when she said her name. Back when I was anxiously waiting to hear back from publishers about my first book, I worked at a small bookstore called Another Story in west Toronto. Every time a wanna-be author came into the store (and this was Roncesvalles, so there were at least three a day), I would force them to buy Prose's gorgeous little book Reading Like a Writer. I must have sold 50 copies the first month it came out (this was a small indie bookstore, so 50 sales is a lot). And when no one was in the store (again, this happened on occasion), I would pick the book up and reverently leaf through it.

I am a massive fan of Prose's non-fiction, a lot of which appears regularly in Harper's, and the fact that I was about to have dinner with her and talk, perhaps, of politics and writing and life, was thrilling to me. Local author Nathan Whitlock was directly across from me, and I could tell he was thrilled as well (keep in mind, Francine was sitting next to beloved-by-Oprah Anita Shreve, and on my other side sat Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Russo... the company was, well, very good).

So we talked. Francine spoke of ridiculous American high-school reading lists, her gynocologist's son who is a budding novelist, visiting the White House two weeks ago and confronting Laura Bush. And the whole time, Ildefonso sat there silently beside me - my subconscious Catalan, fomenting rebellion at the edge of the table - as I struggled to hold up my end of the conversation. The more wine I drank, the more relaxed I became. But then I made the mistake of actually turning to look at Ildefonso. He smiled at me wisely, deeply, a Barcelonan gargoyle, ridiculing me with his silent gaze, cursing me for thinking I could ever speak the same language as Francine Prose.

I became tongue-tied. I watched Francine pick the pepperoni off her pizza while Whitlock spoke elegantly about activism, young readers, old books. Dessert arrived and I picked around the edges. I ordered a cappucino. I refilled my wine glass. And then Francine, Anita, Richard and Nathan were whisked off to their event, and the table was empty except for me and Ildefonso.

I turned to him and tried to smile. And surprise of surprises, he laughed, clapped me on the back, and pointed to the gorgeous blonde-haired waitress who was circling the room.

"Now there is a half-finished novel," he said quietly.

We spent the next half-hour talking about everything from fine wine to Barcelona F.C., and the real reasons Ronaldinho lost his edge on the pitch ("too much money, of course... too much money will ruin anyone"). Ildefonso Falcones is one of the friendliest souls I've met so far at IFOA. I am now off to buy his book.


A fantastic moment, following closely by a terrible one:
Saw my book in the festival bookstore! First time I've ever seen it on the shelf! And then some mere citizen picked up the book beside it, rested this lesser book atop mine, and begin reading! Ugh. A knife to the chest. A kick to the *@#%. I'm staying away from the bookstore from now on.

Quotes of Day Three:
"I had a Laura Bush moment two weeks ago."
- Francine Prose
"I'm so happy to see you care so much for America's children. If only you cared as much for the children of Iraq."
- what Francine Prose said to Laura Bush two weeks ago at the White House.
"He's my gynocologist's son. Isn't that a conflict of interest?"
- yup, you guessed it.

Friday, October 24, 2008

DAY TWO: The young man from Swansea

On the illustrated cover of Welshman Joe Dunthorne's hilarious debut novel, Submarine, there is a rendering of a naked woman from the waist up (find it here, down in the bottom-right corner). Or should I say, on the UK/Canada cover there is a rendering of a naked woman from the waist up. Incredibly, or perhaps predictably, the American cover for Dunthorne's book is identical except for one small detail. Find it here, and see if you can spot the difference.

This is the story Joe Dunthorne opened with last night, as he took the stage with an accomplished, world-renowned list of authors in the Fleck. Before him came Hermenegilde Chiasson (the Acadian Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick and GG-shortlisted poet) and Nadeem Aslam (IMPAC-Dublin shortlisted novelist). After him came the ever-casual, hand-in-pocket, glasses-on-string, sermonesque David Adams Richards (Giller winner, two-time GG winner). And I gotta say, Dunthorne stole the show. His protagonist, Oliver Tate, is hysterically funny as he seeks to unravel the secrets of his parents' hidden lives. He is also poignantly, sadly real. When Oliver purposely vomits on the hood of his pansexual neighbour's yellow Lotus, the audience - already overcome by the sheer power of Chiasson and the whisper-howl of Aslam's haunting voice - let it all out. We laughed, and boy it felt good.

I must admit, as a fellow debut author at the festival, I was terribly impressed by Dunthorne's self-possession on stage. I couldn't help thinking about my own upcoming event, and whether or not I would be able to banish my nerves in quite the fashion Joe did.

Anyway, enough about me. Later on over drinks in the Hospitality Suite, Nadeem Aslam seemed to loosen up a bit and told me a hilarious story of his own (the man is much funnier in person than his intense fiction might suggest). When he first visited Toronto from the UK, Nadeem - a massive Ondaatje fan - breathlessly asked a cab driver to take him straight to the Bloor Street Viaduct.

You can imagine the cabbie's response.


Quote of Day One (from Wednesday): cell conversation, overheard in Il Fornello bathroom:
"Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Your team's name is Journeyman's Elf!"
(thank you Dinah)

Quote of Day Two: over dinner at the Pearl:
"And therefore, I am one of the few people who can say he's been in bed with two Booker Prize winners. And both at the same time!"
- Dermot Bolger, author of The Journey Home. (There is a completely legitimate explanation for this quote. Ask Dermot about it if you run into him. Or try to figure it out for yourself here.)


Here's just a sample of the media frenzy going on around IFOA right now:, Toronto Star, The Ampersand

TONIGHT: Three events to choose from. Rohinton and Sheers, anybody? Barfoot and Prose, people? A fascinating round-table? See you there...

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Don and Roddy

IFOA officially opened last night with the PEN Canada 25th Anniversary Gala, the showcase of which was an on-stage interview between Roddy Doyle and Don McKellar. I have been to a number of these staged conversations over the years, and I've always wondered how the participants manage to overcome the undeniably odd set-up: two interesting people talk to each other as if they are alone, as if they aren't on stage at the biggest literary festival in North America, as if 250 other people aren't also in the room. McKellar tipped his hat to the hilariousness of their situation right off.

"We're supposed to have a spirited conversation," he told Doyle. And then this: "I'm worried you're not going to live up to my expectations."

And away they went.

The two were lovely together, especially considering they'd only just met for the first time at the reception beforehand. To his credit, McKellar let Doyle do the majority of the talking, and the audience was taken on a fascinating trip through 1980s and modern-day Ireland, the writing life and Doyle's new book, The Deportees.

"The problem with being Irish," said Doyle, "is it's like having Riverdance on your back." He quickly followed up to make it clear that he does not consider himself an emissary, or a cultural envoy, from the Land of Green. "I'm me, not Ireland," he said.

What I noticed most in Doyle, and what surprised me the most, was how much he reminded me, suddenly but surely, of David Foster Wallace. Though on the surface the two have little in common, Doyle has a a broad measure of the self-deprecating humility that we all so loved about DFW, both as a celebrity and a writer. Doyle took great pains to make it clear that his opinions were his - he was not speaking for Ireland as a whole - and every time he used the word "we" he stopped and apologized. For someone so intelligent (he weighed in on everything from immigration to texting in Gaelic), and so damn funny (again, he could be Dublin's DFW), Doyle is remarkably "street," confident but modest and far from snooty. Or at least that's how he was last night.

McKellar, for his part, had a good lot to add, and a few probing questions I really liked. Sadly, I was so drunk from the reception that I forgot to write them down (see below).

The last word goes to Roddy:
"Who says the art of conversation is dead? I say the art of getting people to shut-up has died."

TONIGHT: A big reading, with such headliners as David Adams Richards and Nadeem Aslam. Don't miss it!

Playing squash with M.G. Vassanji

Upon arriving last night for the PEN Canada 25th Anniversary Gala reception, I found myself surrounded by faces I recognized but didn't know why. There were the two tall, elegantly dressed women who clearly knew everyone in the room (editors Ellen Seligman from M&S and Louise Dennys from Knopf). There was the small man of South Asian heritage with a perfectly trimmed beard and a cozy sweater on (M.G. Vassanji). There was the slim Sri Lankan man wearing a gorgeous baby blue tunic (Shyam Selvadurai). There was the equally slim but twice-as-tall guy who seemed always to be smiling (OK, I knew this was Evan Solomon right away).

Il Fornello was jammed with a who's who of Can Lit, and I knew nearly nobody. And then my lovely editor, Dinah Forbes from M&S, showed up out of the blue with a certain small, bearded, besweatered man on her arm.

"Andrew, this is Moyez."
Moyez? I thought to myself. The "M" actually stands for something? Of course it does. I wonder what the "G" stands for.
"Hi Moyez," I said calmly.

Dinah was very gracious with her introduction. The problem was, her intro was so good that she'd left nothing for us to say. We stood in silence. My mind flicked back an hour or two, when I'd made the terrifying discovery that most of my dressy clothes were now too small for my slowly expanding waistline. Writing this book has added at least two inches of flab to my gut.

"So Moyez," I said, "How do you stay in such good shape while writing?"
Moyez, by the way, seems like a terribly healthy man.
"Squash," he said. "Once, maybe twice a week. And when it's nice out, tennis."
I immediately pictured M.G. Vassanji rushing the net and placing an effortless drop-shot just inside the forecourt lines, while I lay breathless on my back in the rearcourt, having tripped over my ridiculously long legs. I'm willing to bet M.G. can run like the Dickens (and not because he writes like one).
"I play squash, too," I said, telling the first of many half-truths for the evening. "I have played squash" is what I should have said. In fact, "I have heard of people playing squash" would have been most accurate.

Don't worry, people. I did not ask Moyez Gulamhussein Vassanji for a game of squash. Give me a little credit....

Anyway, here's a few other things I learned last night:
a) Martin Levin knows more about monkeys than I do.
b) If confused as to which gourmet buffet item to choose from, follow Antanas Sileika around the room. The man knows his food. And his sausage. And his condiments.
c) You can eat more hamburger than you ever thought possible if said hamburger is served in mini-hamburger form.
d) Martin Levin knows more about birds than anyone I know.
e) PEN Canada deserves everyone's attention, donations, and praise.
f) One of the bartenders at Il Fornello must really like his boss, because that's what he calls every man who orders a drink from him. "Sure, boss." "Right on, boss."
g) Martin Levin is like that friend of ours (we've all got one) who kicks our asses at Trivial Pursuit. He actually knew that Suriname used to be called Dutch Guiana. Who is this guy?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

DAY ONE: Signing in

Today, in a sun-drenched suite on the 34th floor of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel, I did something I've been dreaming of doing for probably twenty years. I autographed my first book. As a part of the registration process, all authors have to sign a bunch of their books, which then become a part of the Harboufront Centre's permanent literature archive. But the first book in the pile is for one person in particular, Geoffrey Taylor, IFOA's director and basically the guy we have to thank for being invited in the first place (OK, some of us have Ben McNally to thank as well, and others owe Colm Toibin, the guest curator this year, a pint or three. But without Geoff, nada.). So, the first signed copy of The Riverbones goes to Mr. Taylor's personal library. Maybe someday I'll visit said library and see all the other signed works. Or maybe Geoff keeps them in a secret vault somewhere under the York Quay Centre.

Anyway, I had no idea I'd be signing any books. Nobody had told me. And as my pen hovered over the first book, opened to the title page, I realized I had no idea what to do. I've probably practiced my signature 10,000 times in preparation for this very moment, and now I couldn't remember which siggie I'd settled on. Was it my full name? Was it just my first initial and full last? Was it just two initials, which together make something of an ebony mountain range with a slash struck through it?

Or perhaps I should do something more beguiling. Perhaps I should draw something, a smirking happy face, an androgynous stick figure pleading with the heavens, or a farm animal, a different one in each book, maybe, the fecund farmyard of my mind spread across all the title pages of all the books I sign from now until I die.

I eventually settled on the mountain range, much to the relief of the woman who was holding the book open to the proper page the entire time I was sweating the decision. Things have got off to a strange, exciting, perspirational start. I am officially signed in.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The perfect lead-up: GG shortlists announced

For those of you who thought the Giller shortlist was "too young" or "too who?", the Canada Council has thrown you an intriguing bone today. The finalists for the Governor General's Literary Awards in Fiction, Non-fiction, and Poetry were announced, and the fiction list is surely a much more diverse (in terms of age, career trajectory and experience) group. Congratulations to Rivka Galchen, Rawi Hage, Nino Ricci, David Adams Richards and Fred Stenson, all of whom will be appearing at IFOA on Monday, October 27th for a special shortlist reading. Catch these and plenty more award-winning and nominated authors at events throughout the festival.

How about Hage, huh? Finalist in all three major fiction prizes? And Galchen in two?

I was speaking with a trusted authority on Canadian fiction last night (at the launch for Giles Blunt's highly praised new book, No Such Creature), and he assured me that after reading Nino Ricci's The Origin of Species he became convinced Ricci is a bona fide, real-life, all-jokes-aside literary genius. As devoted readers of this blog might already have guessed, Ricci's No. 1 in my GG pool.

PS. if there are any devoted readers out there, please let me know by commenting! If nothing else, it will make me feel a bit better about myself...

PPS: IFOA starts tomorrow!

Gracious Props and Festival Plans from the Wallie

Jared Bland over at The Shelf (part of the big, fun, unruly herd of Walrus Blogs) has previewed the festival and given yours truly an uncalled for number of horn toots. Jared, you are a scholar and a gentleman. I thank you.

Seriously, though, his picks for the fest are just about the same as mine. Follow him around Harbourfront, beginning Thursday, and you can't go wrong. The only thing I'd make sure to add is the Farley Mowat interview/reading on Saturday, November 1, which Jared is actually hosting. Otherwise will be Farley's last book. This is sure to be an emotional, hilarious couple of hours.

On that note, I half-remember a story Andreas Shroeder once told me and my fellow writer-nerds in his creative non-fiction class at UBC (the best class on any subject I have ever attended, bar none). It was a long, convoluted tale about drinking ridiculous amounts of something or other with a bunch of friends/writers back in the seventies, and it ended with Farley stealing Andreas' umbrella. At least I think that's how it went. Maybe I got it completely wrong. Maybe it wasn't even raining. Maybe the two have never even met.

Wow, there's such freedom in writing memoir.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The T.I.F.F. of Books

In this weekend's Globe and Mail, James Adams previews the festival and suggests a new era is dawning at IFOA.

"Toronto's International Festival of Authors, which marks its 29th anniversary next week, used to be a pretty predictable affair – or at least its public face was.... [But this year's incarnation is] a much broader, deeper and – dare one say it? – more glamorous festival. Indeed, this year's event... is perhaps the biggest and most ambitious since IFOA's 1980 inauguration, with more than 135 writers from 15 countries – 30 per cent more than last year...."

The buzz around the festival this year is building to a fair roar. As IFOA director Geoffrey Taylor told the Globe, “Almost everyone we asked to come this year said yes. It's become an embarrassment of riches.” Looks like the headline writer got it right, calling it "Toronto's other festival."

It's official: IFOA is the TIFF of Books.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Toronto Gets Dropped (book-dropped, that is)

We woke at 5am. The city smelt like wet leaves and mulch. We assembled at the darkened gates of Trinity Bellwoods Park and tried not to think about rain, coffee, whiskey, or our slumbering partners back home. We had a van. It was filled with one thousand books. We had a leader. Her name was Becky. We filled our bags to the brim, slung them over our shoulders, and wished each other luck.

The media had heard about us. The Toronto Star, National Post, the Torontoist, Quill and Quire - all of 'em had covered yesterday's strange press release. Free books? Words on the street, literally? Who were these sleepless volunteers, and what did they hope to accomplish?

The first annual IFOA "Random Gift of Reading" Book Drop began on camera. The Global TV Morning News camera, to be precise. A big, lovable video technician - clearly used to waking before the sun - turned Becky into an ape before our eyes.

"Now put the book in the bag," he said. "No. Go slowly. So I can see the cover. Yes. The light? There isn't any light. Oh, this light? I need this light. Yes. No. Good. Good! That's good. Look natural."

We fanned out along Queen Street West in the dark. We left Anita Shreve on a bike rack. We left Dennis Lehane on a fire hydrant. Just as I was hoisting Josef Skvorecky's Engineer of Human Souls up into the branch-fork of a tree, a man emerged from Clafouti, carrying a large pastry box. We eyed each other as he slid his box onto the seat of his car.

"What's this?" he asked.
"Free books."
"Do you have one my daughter might like?"

I gave him a copy of Andrew Miller's The Optimists. I left Skvorecky in his tree. The man drove away, but two minutes later he returned, swerving in reverse through the gloom.

"Do you want a croissant?"
"A Clafouti croissant?"

I chose fig. I took two more for the girls. The random gift had been returned and the sun wasn't even up yet.

The next hour passed like a hallucination. We left Donna Morrissey at a tattoo parlour, an old-school Penguin in a streetcar booth, Cornelia Funke in line outside the Reverb (for once, there was no one else there). A frightened man on the corner of Bathurst took a copy of Ken Babstock's Airstream and immediately started reading. His fear seemed to dissipate slightly, as if a remarkable voice had spoken (it had).

Store windows, mailboxes and door handles were dotted with Peter Robinson and Junot Diaz. We book-dropped the old site of Duke's Cycle, that sad, scorched swath of land still piled high with blackened junk. We left our mark on Shanghai Cowgirl (even though we find the new sign a bit twee) and at the gates of Brown's (because even short men gotta read) Christopher Dewdney became Aquainted with the morning as the sun began its slow climb.

Soon we crossed Spadina into the downtown core. It was nearing 7am, and the commuters had begun to appear. They were hesitant at first, but as a line of speed-walking businessmen overtook us - our random gifts already under their arms - more and more people seemed willing to take a chance. Meanwhile, American Apparel got booked. So did the front doors of French Connection ("fcuk reading, man... just fcuk it").

The CHUM building was buzzing, glorious morning-types flitting here and there amid the fluorescence of breakfast and television. An eTalk producer left out in the cold got a copy of Three Day Road. She quickly slipped it under her bum as if it were alive with a soothing heat. A Pepsi truck with its flashers on got totally booked - right there on its windshield - while its driver looked the other way. People with headphones on stopped and removed their headphones. People with cellphones to their ears dropped the cellphones from their ears. Something was happening here. Free books, yes, but something more. A literary love-in on the streets of Toronto, as one woman gave me a hug, and another one gave me a kiss.

"Come to the festival," I said. They assured me they would.

We retired to King and Bay, 500 gifts of reading hidden in plain sight, another 500 or so ready for the hand-to-hand. By this time, Geoffrey Taylor's interview on CBC Radio had been heard by hundreds of thousands, and the populace were prepared. A scrum formed around the boxes of books as we handed over millions of hard-won words.

"Is this crime?" asked one old man. "Because I hate crime."
"Can I get four extras?" asked a sweet young lady. "For my co-workers?
One woman had been sent all the way from St.Clair and Avenue Road. "My boss likes to read," she said. "I didn't know my boss could read."

The news stations had Becky on their morning shows, one after the other. Global even interviewed me, as a debut author. And finally, by about 745 am, one thousand books had found good homes, the sun was warming and the networks had left us alone. Our minds slid forward to next Wednesday, when IFOA begins.

And then a lone cameraman from the CBC appeared.

"We saw you guys on Global," he said. "It looked like fun, so they sent me down."

We laughed and gave the guy a program.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Architecture, art, and something what I wrote

As IFOA starts in a little over a week, and everyone is rushing around buying tickets and planning their eleven-day-literary-smorgasbord, I thought you should know this: not everything worth seeing at Harbourfront this fall is gonna cost ya. Around every corner of the York Quay Centre you'll find remarkable art installations, from eerie videos of dancing teenagers to re-purposed exhibits from the Ontario Science Centre to a stunning display of bookbinding and book art, all a part of Visual Arts at Harbourfront's exciting fall season. Admission is free.

Though clearly biased, I definitely have a favourite exhibit. It's the latest in the architecture series, in which three contemporary architects and one writer are given a theme on which to base an installation. Disclosure: the architects are Donald Chong Studio, lateral architecture and NIP paysage. Full disclosure: the writer is me.

This season the theme is Personal Space, and I gotta say, the architects have had a ton of fun with the theme. Pop into the architecture gallery to swing as if you're six again, verify your own existence by customizing your own personal limits, and wander into the mirrored mind-blow of (Y)ourspace. Sound intriguing? A bit like an urban Burning Man? It is. I could have stayed in there for hours (until a couple children began strumming the elastic boundaries of my privacy like guitar strings... wha?).

In case you haven't heard...

Julie Wilson over at Seen Reading has come up with another cool idea: record the voices of book-lovers as they read from some of their favourite books. She calls it... wait for it... Readers Reading, and for the next few weeks the project is IFOA-themed. Catch Harbourfront employees reading from books by authors who are coming to this year's festival. Listen, or read along, or transcribe what you hear word-for-word and try to pass it off as your own at your local Writer's Circle.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Giller Shortlist: In With The New

In a clear triumph for a fresh new breed of Canadian fiction writing, the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist was announced this morning. The five finalists - Joseph Boyden, Marina Endicott, Rawi Hage, Mary Swan and Anthony De Sa - are all relative newcomers to the CanLit scene, and a number of massive names have been left off the list, including David Adams Richards, Nino Ricci and David Bergen. The five nominees will appear together at IFOA on the last night of the festival, November 1st. The jury was comprised of Margaret Atwood, Liberal MP Bob Rae and IFOA's guest-curator Colm Toibin (it's pronounced "toe-bean," you philistines).

I'm no Giller historian, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say this is the first time the entire shortlist has been made up of first or second books. I find this extremely exciting (being a debut writer myself). I also find it incredible, almost too incredible. (Almost. I said almost. I said nothing about Atwood's proven track-record of backing the young/undiscovered. I will continue to say nothing about this. I find such conjecture cheap and nasty.)

Personally, I'm disappointed for Nino Ricci, who is a member of the Toronto Writers' Centre (TWC), where I also toil. I'll never forget my first day at the TWC... I stole Nino's long-held seat in the quiet room. For those of you who don't know, stealing someone's seat at the TWC is the equivalent of stealing a man's fourth wife. It's like robbing a man of his last vestige of hope. And although I'm sure it must have riled Nino to no end, he was remarkably cool about it.

I'm also a bit bummed for Steven Galloway, who was my MFA thesis supervisor at UBC Creative Writing in 2004. I remember sitting with him at the infamous Helen's Grill on Main Street in Vancouver for a thesis meeting. He made me swear on my mother's grave I wouldn't tell anyone about his fantastic new book idea. Sadly, Steven's got too many books under his belt for this year's prize; the Cellist is his (egads!) third.

One last note: my money (like the money of most, I'm sure) is on Boyden or Hage. Both of their first books did massively well and received worldwide acclaim, but were shut out of the GG's and the Giller. If anyone holds an IOU from a humbled CanLit community, it's these two.

IFOA kicks off in two weeks!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Finally! The first short-list of the season.

What better way to kick off the 2008 IFOA blog than by announcing the first award short-list of the Canadian book season. Let the debate and glass-throwing begin.

Early this morning (OK, it was 10am, but it felt way earlier to this guy), over tea and coffee at Ben McNally Books in downtown Toronto, the Writers' Trust of Canada revealed three high-profile short-lists: The Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, The Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize and The Writers' Trust of Canada/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize. The lists of lucky finalists can be found here, here and here, respectively. Winners will be announced on November 17 at a (gala) event at the Isabel Bader Theatre. 

And by the way... there was only one Stephen-Harper-gala-related joke told during the entire announcement, and it was a pretty good one by Jan Wong. 

What does this mean for IFOA, you ask? Well, for the first time, the finalists for the Rogers Fiction Prize will be reading together at the festival on October 29. Get your tickets early, because this promises to be an electrifying evening. Rawi Hage v. Patrick Lane? Rivka Galchen v. Miriam Toews? With Lee Henderson tagging in? Are you kidding?

Woops. Sorry. I've been reading The Man Game. It's pretty engrossing. (Go Lee!)


PS. Only three weeks until IFOA begins!