September 19, 2011

Looking for Trouble? Now you've found it...

I don’t often go looking for trouble – I’m so clumsy, I wouldn’t need to look far. Simply crossing the street on my way to school ended in a broken leg not long ago. But tonight, trouble’s exactly what I’m looking for – it’s the first Mainstage talk at Thin Air, and I’m excited.

Now, let me draw your attention to the empty stool at the far end of the stage at Manitoba Theatre for Young People’s Cargill Hall. This stool represents a brave woman who is not here tonight, and is not, in fact, free to be anywhere tonight. Nasrin Sotoudeh, human rights lawyer, journalist, and Iranian citizen, has been in prison for one year of her 11-year sentence. For speaking out, for interviewing people about things her government would rather keep silent, she has been jailed. This stool is for her – and the petition, just outside the doors, is for her freedom.

The Empty Chair for Nasrin Soutoudeh - and the seating from EQ3.

There are a lot of signatures on that petition: the Hall is nearly full. Only the seats in the very back  are vacant. The evening is being filmed for a podcast, so that anyone who couldn’t attend in person can still catch some of the magic. Charlene Diehl takes the stage to welcome us and share some family wisdom about Trouble, the title and theme of the evening. Her mother’s grandmother counselled relatives with the line “Don’t borrow trouble,” which I think meant that everyone had their own troubles and there was no reason to take on other folks’ into the bargain. Diehl’s paternal grandfather was slightly more of an optimist, reminding her at age 11 that “The things you worry about the most are the least likely to happen.”

So what is trouble, anyway? What is being broken? What is being fixed? Diehl gives us these questions to guide us, and then the evening’s guests set us loose on the path to trouble.

Wayne Tefs is introduced as a writer of ‘docu-fiction’, the blending of real events with a writer’s own embellishment. Bandit, Tefs’ book about salesman Ken Leishman, is an ode to a ‘Troublesome Hero.’ Tefs knows where to have his audience, his quiet leathery voice saying “Ken’s trouble was, he was too pretty. Some of you may’ve had that problem – I never did, so I had to use my writer’s imagination.” He has just stepped out of a western, in his checked shirt, vest, jeans, and that soothing weathered voice. “Don’t shake the reins of a running horse, as the man says,” is one of the character's sayings, and I think that shaking those reins certainly sounds like trouble! But Tefs’ hero has enough trouble already: he's good-looking, charismatic and ambitious – qualities that attract jealousy, causing the other crabs to pull you back into the bucket.

Margaret Macpherson reads next. She hails from Edmonton but grew up in Yellowknife, where she heard the harrowing story of a stranded bush pilot, and the hard choices he made to survive, at a very young age. The story stayed with her and eventually inspired Body Trade, her newest book and the tale of two young women and the difficult choices they make to survive what was meant to be a vacation. Despite the grim plot, the two women have compelling personalities as we hear the story from first one, then another point of view. “Tanya’s obsessed with showering,” complains the more laid-back Rosie. Tanya has complaints of her own about her friend’s naiveté: “She’s like a friggin’ sheep in a lion den or whatever the hell.” Tanya is a bit more of a partier than her quiet friend, and the more she imbibes, the funnier her thoughts.

When Robert J. Sawyer takes the stand, he begins with a joke. The difference between a professional, full-time writer and a large pepperoni pizza? The pizza can feed a family of four. The joke gets some “aww” noises from the crowd, but it’s clear to all of us that Sawyer, with many awards under his belt, could probably best several pizzas in that department. He’s to be admired as much for the ideas in his books as for the prose in them. For example, the excerpt from his newest book, Wonder, introduces a sentient computer mind’s thoughts on faith. “It takes humans time to digest things – literally and figuratively,” observes Webmind. “I was curious what a human might have to say to his god. Prayer was a channel I could not monitor.” “Knowing was not the same as understanding.” What would a sentient computer mind use as a signature to its emails? “Having a good conversation is like having riches.” – Kenyan Proverb.

Break and conversation time!

After the end of Act 1, Sawyer seems only too happy to be confronted with a worn copy of Illegal Alien, a previous novel, for signing. “Don’t get caught!” he writes inside the jacket, cheerfully affirming that he will sign any and all of his works that I may have stowed within my bag. Two books later, I turn grinning to talk to Wayne Tefs, who explains his use of his own father’s voice to capture the voice of Leishman’s generation, getting tiny mannerisms so correctly that I could hear Leishman in my head, though I’d never met the man or read the book. And though Margaret Macpherson is seeing this edition of Body Trade for only the second time – the first time was only a week ago! – she says she’s at home with the characters, having spent four years with them! I sneak a fabulous piece of chocolate cake with mocha icing, a very fitting birthday cake for Thin Air’s 15th.

Act 2 begins with Lynn Coady – yes, the brilliant columnist. She’s reading from her book The Antagonist, and in a fitting twist the title refers to her protagonist Gordon Rankin, commonly known as ‘Rank.’ Rank wants to run from his past, only to find that a former college classmate has published a book exposing said past. Angry and wounded, Rank sends a series of emails to the friend, Adam, and the emails form Coady’s book. In them, Rank appears to be desperate for redemption, trying to set the record straight with Adam, but what he’s really searching for is god, or God. From the witty excerpt read by Coady, who nails Rank’s voice perfectly, we learn that Rank may indeed find Who he’s looking for, but probably not what he expected at all.

Elizabeth Hay introduces her mother before introducing her book. At age 91, and suffering from Alzheimer’s, she nonetheless remembers quite clearly her high school principal, and these remembrances took root to form the principal in Hay’s new novel, Alone in the Classroom. The book begins at a slow, comforting pace, with a young schoolteacher’s wry appreciation for a French textbook edited by “Ferguson and McKellar, those two great Frenchmen,” and surprise at an older colleague who “scratched her scalp with a pencil so often that there were scribbles.” But things take a chilling turn when Principal Burns, nicknamed Parley for his grasp of French, takes particular notice of a young student and keeps her back, alone, after school…Here, we’re left hanging over the cliff as Hay thanks us and returns to her place on one of the sofas.

Long after the event has been officially concluded, people are still lingering, chatting over wine, cheese, and alphabet-shaped pretzels. “Having a conversation is like having riches” is the spirit of Thin AIR, and I can’t wait for more.

n  Danielle Conolly


  1. This was my first time attending a Thin Air event and it was amazing and exactly as Danielle described it. I hung on every word as each author read an exerpt from his or her book. How wonderful to hear it in the author's own voice. It prooves to be a fabulous week and I look forward to attending more events. Kudos to the Thin Air staff and volunteers for their hard work.

  2. We have so many talented Canadian authors - it's great to have the opportunity to hear them read from their works.

  3. I have to say I was a little stunned or was that surprised to see Robert J Sawyer reading his excerpt from a hand held device. Wow! Technology in action! But I guess that goes hand in hand with the topic of his book "Wonder."