September 27, 2012

Afternoon Book Chat: Carrie Snyder and Cordelia Strube

By Colin Ward

Charlene Diehl was the MC for Tuesday's Afternoon Book Chat, featuring authors Cordelia Strube and Carrie Snyder. We began with introductions and very brief readings from Milosz and The Juliet Stories. Charlene followed this with a conversation about writing methods and approachs.
This was a study in contrasts. Cordelia was assertive and confident and her reading from Milosz focused on dialogue. It was a performance, including various voices, accents, and gestures. Her writing was inspired by advice from a politician to get a 16-year-old autistic son arrested, that being the only way he could get the care he needed due to recent government cuts.
Carrie was more reserved. Her parents had been "sandalistas" (peace activists, originally from the United States) in Nicaragua during the Contra terrorist attacks. The Juliet Stories is a fictionalized account of the daughter--Juliet--of such a couple.
The floor was opened to questions, the first being the most obvious:  how autobiographic were these novels? Cordelia replied that she was "too boring" to be the subject of a novel. Carrie joked about her father teasing her about the "morally relativistic" father-figure in The Juliet Stories.
Another question focused on the role that metaphors and similes played in their writing. Both authors downplayed their importance, saying that their straightforward approach precluded the need for such explanatory parallels.
Thanks to the these fascinating writers and to all of the Thin Air organizers that made this discussion possible! 

Under a Prairie Sky

By Tannis Sprott

The atmosphere was electric, the show was essentially sold out, the applause was thunderous as Winnipeg gave a rousing welcome to Richard Ford and David Bergen on the Main Stage Tuesday evening. They were reading from their new novels, Ford's Canada and Bergen's The Age of Hope, both of which are set on the Canadian prairie. The large crowd listened with an intensity that was palpable in the room, soaking up every word as the authors discussed the journeys of their main characters.

We accompany Bergen's Hope Koop through five decades of her life living in the small Mennonite town of Eden as she struggles to define and accept who she is. Ford introduces us to Dell Parsons, a 15 year old American boy who is abandoned after his parents are arrested for bank robbery. In order to avoid his becoming a ward of the state, Dell is smuggled across the border into Saskatchewan to live with Arthur Remlinger, another ex-American with a mysterious past. He ends up living in an isolated shack in the dying town of Partreau, doing odd jobs for Remlinger.

There was a third character present in the room that night that was woven through the lives and stories of both Dell and Hope, the prairie, in all its wonder and beauty and sparseness and isolation. The prairie acts as a mirror, reflecting an emptiness within each of the main characters. Even though Hope was born and raised in the prairie, she never feels like she belongs in that little town. She senses that she is different from those around her, and struggles with that difference her entire life. Dell, as the son of an Air Force captain moving from base to base, also has never felt he belonged anywhere. His isolation becomes even more potent when he is abandoned in a foreign country. He pushes aside his fear and worry by focusing on the work he is assigned, but at night, as he sits outside his shack alone in the great openness under the prairie sky that offers nowhere to hide, all that uncertainty comes flooding back. His soul is empty, he can never go back to being the person he was before but has no idea how to move forward either. And all of this punctuated by a back drop of stunning photography by Mike Grandmaison, pictures of such beauty as to stop your breath.

Then, the audience has the immense privilege to eavesdrop on the conversation between Ford and Bergen, as they compared notes on the process of writing, on describing the arc of a person's life and honouring the empty spaces in that life as well as the action. They were both adamant that you could write about something that you had not personally experienced. After all, the words "woman", "housewife" and "mother" don't appear anywhere on David Bergen's resume, and although Richard Ford was once a 15 year old boy, his parents never robbed a bank or abandoned him. It is the incredible gift of imagination and a healthy dose of daring that allows authors to tell other people's stories. The wonder of a novel is that it asks the reader to pay attention, to be drawn in and to honour those stories. We were certainly held in rapt attention that night.

An Unforgettable Afternoon

By Tannis Sprott

Thin Air is always a surprise. Surprisingly profound. Profoundly moving. I snuck into the school stage program on Monday afternoon to catch Karen Levine talking about her non-fiction book Hana's Suitcase with Grade 5 and 6 students from Gray Academy of Jewish Education. It is the story of Hana Brady, born in Czechoslovakia in 1931, and murdered in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 13. I left an hour later moved to tears by the story of Hana, and filled with admiration for those kids, their courage in tackling a difficult subject, the depth of their curiosity, their struggle to relate Hana's life to their own.

It all began with a young Japanese educator, Fumiko Ishioka, who ran the Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Centre, and was searching for a way to engage young people in learning about the holocaust. She visited Auschwitz and requested the loan of any artifacts that would have belonged to children, and was given Hana's suitcase. It elicited such a strong response from her young students that she began a year long quest to discover who Hana was. She eventually tracked down Hana's older brother George, now living in Toronto, who had survived the concentration camp, and helped piece together the fragments of Hana's life. Karen Levine read about Hana's suitcase in the Canadian Jewish News, and was inspired to turn it into a CBC documentary, and later, a book.

As the author spoke about Hana and her brother, she tracked the dissolution of their family life as one thing after another was stripped from them, and revealed how they ended up in the concentration camp. It was Dr. Joseph Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death",  who decided their fates. George, older and stronger, was sent off to be a labourer. Hana, being younger and smaller, was sentenced to the gas chamber mere hours after arriving at Auschwitz. I found myself weeping as the author told their story to a backdrop of family pictures featuring two happy, smiling kids, cross country skiing, skating, dressed in costume for a play. They could have been anybody's kids, and therein lies the power of the story.

The children in the audience were spellbound, and when it came time to ask questions, so many hands shot up that it looked like a forest of tree limbs reaching for the sky, quivering in the breeze. Many of their questions were unbelievably poignant. "Why didn't the Jews fight back?" "How did George survive?" "What did they do with the bodies when they came out of the gas chamber?" "Did they ever catch Dr. Mengele?" "Were the Jews happy when Hitler died?" "Why didn't the rest of the world help them?"

There is such a temptation to shield and protect our children from bad stories. Levine refuses to do that. She honours Hana's short life by respectfully relating every detail they discovered, by answering every question that is asked, by pointing out that it is important to learn from Hana's experiences because genocide is still with us today. She also encouraged them to explore many of the larger issues with their history teachers. Thanks to that suitcase, children all over the world have been catapulted into her world, ensuring that Hana's story, and that of the holocaust, is never forgotten. Hana's life may have been short, but her reach is long. It was a powerful afternoon, and I will long remember Hana and those Winnipeg school kids.

September 26, 2012

In Case you missed it…Again: Monday Mainstage

By Jeannette Bodnar

So, it’s day four of the festival and I’m still not sure what to expect. Each venue has proven to be both great and yet different from the one before. It’s the first night of the Mainstage series so I know it will be strong. The theme is "Life Lessons" and although I don’t recognize all the writers, I trust that the evening will deliver.

 I arrive at the Shaw Performing Arts Centre early and find a seat close to the front. The organizers have done an exceptional job of creating the perfect balance of cozy and sophisticated. The chic EQ3 furniture that decorates the stage is framed by a bookstore table on the left and wine and cheese bar on the right. As I watch little micro communities form around the room, I curse myself for forgetting my camera, again. 

It’s a handsome crowd. Maybe it’s the energy that makes them this way. There is definitely a feeling of community in the air. 
“Hey, how are you?”—“I haven’t seen you for ages.”—“This is so and so.”—“Come. Sit with us.”  
You get the picture.

 So often when you think about writers, the image is narrowed to the lone author in front of her computer, cold coffee and cat beside her. It’s easy to forget that there is a whole community, and communities within the community, that are the lifeblood of the writing world. 

As Charlene Diehl gets ready to take the stage, conversations are wrapped up, wine is replenished, and seats are taken. Charlene welcomes everyone and thanks the sponsors, then draws attention to the empty chair that occupies the front right corner of the stage. The chair is for PEN Canada, a reminder to advocate for the rights of silenced writers. 

“It takes courage to tell people’s difficult stories”, she tells the crowd. 

The first to take the stage is Richard Van Camp, an author I have not yet read. He reads from his new book Godless but Loyal to Heaven. The beauty of this reading is that it feels quite like a dream. When Van Camp finishes I awake to the applause of the audience. It irritates me that I have never read him before. There are writers and there are storytellers. I feel he is storyteller and that writing is just a convenient tool that he uses for those who don’t have the privilege of hearing him speak. 

Next up is Stella Leventoyannis Harvey. She reads from her book Nicolai’s Daughters. The story takes place in both Canada and Greece and deals with family relationships from the perspective of Nicolai and his daughter Alexia. Even though I’m not Greek, the passages that Harvey reads are relatable on multiple levels. The themes are both universal and yet very Canadian at the same time. Family secrets, multigenerational conflict, and the struggle to understand a culture you’ve never had the opportunity to be part of, make this book a must read for so many people.

Carrie Snyder is the final author in the first half of the evening. The Juliet Stories takes place in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Snyder’s reading makes me think that there is an emergence of a new kind of historical fiction happening. For many of us, the 80s isn’t that long ago. However it seems as though there are more books coming out that are set during this era. Snyder’s book, from the perspective of 10 year old Juliet, comes across as heartfelt and convincing. As she reads about Juliet and her mother, I can feel the sticky heat of Nicaragua. Snyder successfully gives her reader the world through Juliet, a definite warm-me-up book to read during the cold winter months.

During the intermission, I grab a refill on water and sit down to reflect on the readings. Those who aren’t grabbing refills at the bar are swarmed around the bookstore table. The authors are frantically signing books whilst simultaneously engaged in conversation with eager readers. Richard Van Camp grabs a seat in front of me before the second half and I must say I’m a little star-struck.

The second half begins.

Meira Cook takes the stage. I’ve heard Cook read before, and admit she was one of the reasons I was drawn to Monday night’s venue. I was first introduced to her poetry last year and was immediately hooked. She reads from her new novel The House on Sugarbush Road. The passage is about love story between two of the characters and the ways in which the words are weaved reflect her strengths as a poet. The story, which takes place in Johannesburg in the 90s, is enticing enough, but it's Cook's skill at placing just the right sounds together that make each sentence seem in harmony with the last. Even though The House on Sugarbush Road is a novel, it feels as though it should be read aloud.

Following Cook is Cordelia Strube, another name that drew me in. She immediately changes the tone in the room from serious to humorous; first by admitting she’s been hiding backstage, then by chastising Charlene for making her communicate a “life lesson” in 12 minutes. Strube introduces us to seven of the ten central characters of her new novel Milosz. She delivers her story with bang-on accents and treats us to a performance akin to a well done one woman play. Her playwriting experience shines through in her writing. The dialogue is sharp and funny and pulls the audience into the room with her characters. In a span of 12 minutes, I know the people she is writing about, I can see them, I can feel their history. Her reading is outstanding.

Last up for the evening is Jess Walter. I believe he was supposed to be reading from Beautiful Ruins. However, Walter has a different agenda, which includes a tutorial on how to learn an Irish accent off YouTube, a recount of a book signing at Costco where he cut up his novel and handed out sample sentences, and a poem about mom’s underwear.—My kids will never be allowed to help with laundry again.—When he finally decides to talk about his book he refers to a Harper’s review that called it “his most romantic book yet,” to which he responds is “the equivalent of McDonald’s most gourmet meal yet.” In the end he reads a sentence from the book and despite not really hearing anything about Beautiful Ruins, Walter’s humor has hooked my curiosity.

All in all, it was another fantastic event at Thin Air. I know this post was long, but I feel as though each writer deserves to be highlighted because the talent that is showcased at this festival is exceptional. If you didn’t make it out on Monday, there are still plenty of events to attend. Thin Air is for writers and readers and lovers of words and I can’t wait to fill you in on the week ahead.

September 25, 2012

One Great City (I Told You So)

By Steve Locke

In 2007, I left Winnipeg for Vancouver for what would be a five-year mission to pursue a miseducation in the writing craft. With me came many personal artifacts including a vintage Jets jersey that was bought at a garage sale, and a collection of CDs by local musicians such as Sixty Stories, The New Meanies, and The Transistor Sound & Lighting Co. If these names are unfamiliar, or ring some distant muffled bell, it’s because they haven’t been bands for years. Most had released one or two seminal albums that garnered attention on MuchMusic, back when the cable TV station actually supported homegrown artists. Hearing news of their disbanding or departure only reinforced that “oh well” mentality that Winnipeggers learn to adopt when their football team consistently loses, or their close friend moves away, or when winter hits. 

Sunday evening, attendees of Thin Air’s “Voices from Oodena” were given a pick-me-up while sitting on the cold concrete steps of the Oodena Celebration Circle at the Forks. The outdoor event glowed with the presence of local talents under a setting sun, writers who uncovered myths and ephemera to enchant and reward Winnpeggers simply for choosing to stick around town, and even those who have chosen to return, such as myself.

Like one of the event’s sponsors articulated, I once believed that books were written by someone else - about somewhere else. In Vancouver, or “Terminal City,” where nothing is nailed down in all the fog and movement, I held onto my music as one of the few things that kept me real. And after being somewhere else for a while, that night I felt like I finally landed in a blossom of home and self, both made so immaculately real…and surreal.

Chadwick Ginther proved that Manitoba can be used as a fantasy setting in the same vein as Middle Earth. When you consider the local appreciation for Norse mythology in the names of places like Gimli and the municipality of Bifrost, having the mischievous god Loki as a character in his novel, “Thunder Road,” seems all too fitting. Where pop culture places Loki in grand New York City as a villain in “The Avengers,” it’s a beautiful and refreshing thing to put our fair province on the map as only a Manitoban can do.

All five senses were tantalized in the vivid poetry of both Sarah Klassen and Rhea Tregebov. I have a particular fondness for Rhea, being a former student of hers at UBC and in our bonding as ex-pat Winnipeggers. I engaged with her descriptions of the familiar scents of home cooked pickerel and wild rice with mushrooms, and the benevolence of warm days in September. Klassen, who is no stranger to the classroom herself, drew her imagery from the rivers and bridges that permeate the city, ever educating her audience as I finally learned the meaning of the words “Slaw Rebchuk.” Her description of “bone deep cold” invoked a plethora of sense memories that I am all too proud to have experienced.

In the mystery of the gigantic, looming edifice of the yet incomplete Human Rights Museum, France Adams offered a take on its forthcoming impact. While we continue to wonder at what the building will look like on the inside, Adams revealed both the frailty potential in human communion, cleverly questioning as well as reinforcing the idea of us being a “Friendly Manitoba” for future generations. 

Well after sunset, yet warmed by each other’s company and fine literary works, Niigaan Sinclair ended the evening by answering a question that had been on my mind: What is this place? In seamless Anishinabeg storytelling tradition, Sinclair unraveled the mystery of the place I had come to visit since I was a teenager. During what seemed like a completely improvised “reading,” I was a six-year old boy, enamoured with the stories and meanings of words like “Manitou” and “Oodena.”

In case you didn’t know, Oodena refers to the centre or heart, in this case, of the city, where life, music and stories emanate from. What a better place for citizens of Winnipeg to rediscover the centre within themselves, to identify and be identified as of this place where two rivers meet. Especially is the case for one who has recently returned from afar, whose centre is beating ever so clearly now, so real.

September 24, 2012

Performance, Poetry, and Seventeen Syllables

By Colin Ward

At the Free Press Cafe on Saturday night the Thin Air Writers Festival held "Forewords," a night of performance, poetry, literature and, above all, humour. Normally, crowd control isn't a problem at readings. This one was filled beyond capacity.
Dylan Mowatt rapped an ode to the indigent:  "Give change to the homeless man and ask him what change means."
Next up were the soft romantic musings of Faisa.  The first was a recent effort read off a cell phone.  All of the other poems were performed.
Third came J-La, whose fast paced verse was as graphic as it was autobiographic.
The fourth slam team member was the master, Aaron Simm.  He related a narrative of a boxer ignoring bloodthirsty fans, taking it easy on a beaten opponent.  "Love is not a knockout," he sighed.  "It's in letting the other person walk away."
#1 slammer Steve Currie [w]rapped up the poetry performances with a prison tale, speaking of "...poor custody of dreams." 
"We prefer to stay lost, like Pluto," he intoned, going on to reference "Jovian Jehovian might."
After a break, "Husk" author Corey Redekop gave new meaning to the expression "toilet humour" with his story of gay zombie actor Sheldon Funk.
Capping off a fun evening was the Haiku Death Match:  4 poets telling 17-syllable jokes.  One excerpt mentioned:  "I wrote a telegram to Stephen Harper:  Stop."  U.S. politicians escaped unscathed.  (To wit, no one went with:  "Hoople:  defined as 'rootless', 'disorganized', 'twit'.  Thus, 'Mitt the Hoople'.")
Thanks to the venue workers, participants and organizers, especially Director Charlene Diehl and Master of Ceremonies Bruce Symaka, for a fun evening!

…When Your Mother’s in the Audience

THIN AIR2012's ForeWords Event

by Steve Locke

Saturday night, the Winnipeg International Writer’s Festival kicked off with a sold-out, raucous event that busted a few stitches, and surprisingly enough for some of the performers (myself included), did not result in any audience member’s indignation at our very low-brow humour. Judging by the fits of laughter, Winnipeg, your mind is in the gutter.

THIN AIR2012's ForeWords event filled up faster than an N*Sync album signing, where ticket holders were locked in to enjoy performances by Winnipeg’s Poetry Slam Team, a reading by ex-Pegger Corey Redekop from his zombie novel, “Husk,” as well as the festival’s inaugural Haiku Death Match. With the doors shut and a SOLD OUT sign Jiffy marker’d and taped to the window, this meant that unfortunate stragglers had to be turned away. But given the Cheshire grin worn by festival director Charlene Diehl throughout the evening, this will not be the only event of its kind.

Perhaps on part due to the affable hosting talents of Bruce Symaka, the largely “mature” audience was on board from the get-go. More intense and animated than your traditional poetry reading, none held back, unleashing bad puns, cuss words, and sometimes violent imagery to an unshaken crowd, which, to their credit, prepared them for what was to come.

This meant that local slam team, Steve Currie, Aaron, J-La, Faiza, and Dylan Mowatt and could take a break from their competition-style poetry to flex their performance muscles on home turf. On their first go as a team, these unassuming pedestrians have risen above the curb to distill our city’s ongoing story into five distinct voices, each one confident and eager to represent Winnipeg next month at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Saskatoon.

After a snack provided by the Free Press Café staff, another unassuming pedestrian, Corey Redekop took to the stage with a reading of his unorthodox and impeccably vulgar zombie novel. Taking a step away from the traditional zombie forms employed in modern films, we follow a struggling Toronto actor as he undergoes an unsettling life and death transition while determined to make an impression at his next audition. When you consider that death results in the complete loss of human dignity, Redekop provides unparalleled descriptions of bodily functions in the most awkward and disarming situations, including a failed attempt to use a lavatory on a moving bus, where the speaker became “the astronaut of the loo.” Use your imagination, folks.

 What a better set-up for the festival’s first Haiku Death Match, where beyond the application of a seventeen-syllable structure, the deeply philosophical poetic style was utterly butchered with the best intentions in mind. Here, four competitors including Aaron Simm of the slam team, two drunken louts (again, myself included) and Corey Redekop himself, went head-to-head in rapid-fire succession. Each round of short form tomfoolery progressed with the audience employing paper plates to vote on their favourite “haiku”. Congratulations go to Death Match Champion, the ineffable Matthew Moskal.

I can say that the personal highlights of the death match include the banter of my fellow performers, watching Corey Redekop double over in laughter onstage, and his perfuse apologies to his mother who was largely un-phased by the nasty offerings (which says a lot about that family). Oh, and how can I forget that certain haiku involving a rooster and a vacuum cleaner?

Again folks, use your imaginations. And keep your minds in the gutter, eh?

In case you couldn’t make it

THIN AIR 2012 - Forewords: Saturday, September 22, Free Press News Café
by Jeannette Bodnar

I arrived at the Free Press News Café just in time for my husband and I to grab the second last table. Although the building was packed, it felt comfortable. Like a family dinner but without the resentment and the cousin that’s not allowed to play with matches. Even though it’s autumn, the energy in the building felt like spring, like youth, like beginnings; the perfect opening weekend energy. 
Charlene Diehl and Bruce Symaka took the stage and wasted no time getting the night started. First on the ticket, slam poetry. 
Now I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve seen spoken word, but never live, and never from Winnipeg artists (not for lack of want). In fact, for the past few years my husband and I have spent many a Friday night sharing $10 bottles of wine and YouTubing old DefJam footage. More ritual than “social life” per se, but you’ll take what you can get when you have two kids and mounting student debt. Still, I’m uncertain how Manitoba’s finest can compare.
Judging by the audience reaction, I was not the only one blown away. I can’t summarize how amazing this group is. In fact, I feel like a jackass using the word amazing because I know if they were writing this blog they would never use a conventional word like amazing. Not because they would feel it was beneath them, just because it is. 
After they finished, Corey Redekop compared them to the Rolling Stones and I laughed because two people allegedly snuck into the sold out venue. I now suspect they were groupies, although, no lingerie was thrown on stage so maybe not.
After a brief intermission, Corey read from his book Husk. As you would expect from a Zombie novel the passages were quite grotesque and insanely funny. Just ask the woman behind me who, judging by the intensity of her laughter, I’m pretty sure peed just a little bit in her pants. I’m not sure how long Corey was on stage I just know it should have been longer.
During the final intermission he signed my copy of Husk and I signed his. I realized that I should probably never be published for the simple fact that I inevitably sign everything the same way I signed my grade eight year book. “Never change Corey—your BFF”.
After a final intermission Corey and three of Winnipeg’s finest poets took to the stage for a Haiku Death Match. I didn’t think things could get funnier than a reading about a Zombie who eats his boyfriend. In retrospect, I hope the woman behind me took advantage of the intermission for a bathroom break. I’m not exaggerating when I say that people were laughing so hard that there were tears and snorts. A particular highlight was after Aaron Simm’s poem about peeling potatoes without pants on. During which time the most perfect pause in the laughter and chatter happened, so that audience was treated to woman admitting that she just pictured Aaron naked. You know who are lady, and so do we (wink). I loved this part of the night so much that I’ve decided I’m going to push for Thin Air haiku fortune cookies for next year’s festival.
Anyway that was my night. It was an amazing opening weekend and I can’t wait for the week ahead. 
Never change people—your BFF.    

September 20, 2012

Looking Back: THIN AIR 2011

By Nan Forler

This time of year, as nights become cooler and pumpkin lattes start brewing in neighbourhood coffee shops, I find myself being drawn to local bookstores, eagerly anticipating the new fall releases. But this year, I am feeling a bit homesick for my new favourite autumn reading event: The Winnipeg THIN AIR Festival.  

Last September, I was very fortunate to have been invited to THIN AIR as a featured author in the Writers to the Schools program. I had taken part in writer’s festivals before, but this was the first time I was actually flown in, complete with a hotel room and hospitality suite. I am certain all future events will pale in comparison!

THIN AIR is led by Charlene Diehl, a fiercely passionate advocate of Canadian books, described by one of the authors as the kind of person who makes a party come alive. She very intentionally sets a social tone, encouraging interaction between writers and readers, and creating a celebration of books with lively discussion. 

Immediately upon meeting Charlene, she encouraged me to hop in the back of her car with Elizabeth Hay for an afternoon book chat at McNally Robinson. The evening readings carried on this atmosphere. They were held on a party-esque stage set, where audience members were invited onto the stage during intermission to mingle with the authors, or enjoy a drink on the comfy couch.

For me, the highlight of the week was my road trip to Winkler, Manitoba. Charlene and her fabulous team arranged school visits to this area, matching my new book, Winterberries and Apple Blossoms: Reflections and Flavors of a Mennonite Life, with the children of rural Manitoba, many of whom had a Mennonite background.  

I travelled with a fun and adventurous entourage, including Eva, a festival volunteer, her sister, Tina, and Charlene’s mom, Anna Grace. We braved relentless rain and 100 km/hour winds as we travelled from school to school, stopping in Roland, Manitoba, to have a blustery photo taken in front of “The World’s Largest Pumpkin.”

In the midst of this season of book releases and reviews, it was the children in the schools I visited who provided the true reminder that books are a living, breathing entity that come to life in their active imaginations.  

When sharing the message of the bystander in Bird Child, the children were anxious to relate their personal experiences to me about responding to bullying situations in the schoolyard. As I introduced Winterberries and Apple Blossoms, I was able to witness their animated reactions, as they recognized their own lives in the paintings and poems depicting coming-of-age in a Mennonite community.

From the rural kids in Winkler, many of whom were Mexican Mennonites, who filed in silently, then sat, arms crossed, listening attentively, hanging on every word, to the multicultural classes in Winnipeg the following day, who bounded in, uninhibited and curious, their arms around me afterwards to be first to ask a question, I was witness to the incredible joy children experience in being read to.

Sitting in the darkened theatre for the THIN AIR events that evening, being read to by the likes of Guy Vanderhaeghe and Lynn Coady, I was struck once again by the human connection that comes from this solitary act of writing.  
I felt so honoured to have been a part of this book-affirming week in Winnipeg and I wish all the best to you lucky souls who will be enjoying THIN AIR this month.

Happy Reading!

September 16, 2012

Film and Poetry: Hitchcock, Lynch, Tarkovsky, and the Politics of Knives

by Jonathan Ball

My recent book, The Politics of Knives features nine long poems with interlinking elements. One common thread is the influence of film on my poetry, specifically the work of three filmmakers: Hitchcock, Lynch, and Tarkovsky.

Hitchcock’s film Psycho is the most obvious of these influences, given that one of the book’s nine poems is called “Psycho” and describes the film poetically, with a perverse focus on the story’s protagonist, Marion Crane. Unconventionally, Crane is murdered partway through Hitchcock’s film, which then has to seek a new protagonist (after her death, the camera seems lost, but it soon settles on Bates, the “psycho” of the title). 

Many of Hitchcock’s films attempt to trouble the act of the audience watching the film, by turning audience interest into the subject of the film itself. We watch Crane just as Norman watches her, through a hole in the wall that simulates the eye of the camera (in a shot where, unsettlingly, we share the killer’s point of view). Most strikingly, after she’s stabbed, Marion reaches up for help — reaching out towards us, as if she knows we’re watching. And enjoying the movie. We don’t help her.

Lynch’s mastery comes from dramatic shifts in tone, his ability to move in an instant from a banal to a nightmarish realm. He continually sacrifices sense for tone, and in the course of this shift he creates strange, poetic worlds that we move through emotionally but which make little logical sense, although there is a poetic logic that underlies and gives order to Lynch’s worlds. 

I try to use language in a similar manner throughout the book, which has a sort of grammatical slipperiness. A sentence will begin as if describing a scene (“The mist dissolved…”) but then switch the grammar to describe an event (“The mist dissolved what it did not need”) with an alien actor (here, the mist becomes a sort of living force). 

Tarkovsky’s poetic approach to filmmaking, and his occasional use of genre material (horror and science fiction plots) have inspired me, but especially influential are his occasional, striking long takes.  The book’s final poem, 
“That Most Terrible of Dogs,” is structured like a long film take — like a slow movement across a cultural wasteland, toward some inevitable terror.  

Jonathan Ball joins Lorna Crozier, Sue Goyette, Patrick Lane, and JonArno Lawson for THIN AIR 2012's Poetry Bash, Friday, September 28th, 8:00pm on the Mainstage, MTYP at the Forks. Tickets are $12/$10 students and seniors.

Ball also helps kicks off the festival on opening night as an advocate for Manitoba Reads. He's be promoting Automatic World by Stuan Sinclair in a celebration of the province's rich writing culture. Friday, September 21st, 8:00pm at CCFM/Centre culturel franco-manitobain. Tickets $5.
Visit him online at or @jonathanballcom.

David Bergen: A Fan's Appreciation

by Tannis Sprott

I haven't lived in Manitoba for 29 years, and my feelings about my childhood, and memories of living there, tend to be greatly influenced by what's going on in my life at any given moment. When I'm stuck on the 401 heading into Toronto in rush hour, I desperately miss being able to walk from one side of town to the other in 15 minutes (20 if you dawdled, and really, why wouldn't you?). Then there are the times when I want to try cooking something exotic for dinner , much easier to do in the city.

In general, my memories are centred around nostalgic visions of glorious sunsets, starry skies on crystal clear nights, the sound of snow crunching under foot instead of shplopping, the (incessant) wind in my hair, etc., etc. 

Imagine my surprise, then, when I had what can only be described as a visceral experience when reading David Bergen's "The Age of Hope", a story which follows the life of Hope, who grows up in Eden, Manitoba, gives up nursing school to marry Roy Koop, bears four children, and spends a lifetime struggling with who she is, where she is, and how she seems to dance on the periphery of the life she imagines she wants.

Bergen so profoundly caught the essence of small town life - Hope's sense of being constrained by the smallness of her world; her desire to broaden her experiences, but never quite sure how to go about it; her sense of isolation that continues, even though her life is actually a tremendously full one. I learned to love her through the course of the book, living her life right along side her for five decades.

And I have David Bergen to thank for cleaning the dust off my rear view mirror, allowing a whole cascade of memories to come flooding back. It's interesting how belonging to a small community, where everyone knows everyone else, can be both incredibly supportive, and tremendously isolating. I'm looking forward to Tuesday night with great anticipation, as literary stars David Bergen (with "The Age of Hope") and Richard Ford (with "Canada") compare fictional notes on all things prairie. With any luck, it will be a clear Manitoba night, and I can get reacquainted with those other stars after the show. What a wondrous homecoming that would be!

Tannis Sprott currently lives in Guelph, Ontario but will soon be "home" temporarily.
Look for more posts by Tannis throughout THIN AIR 2012.

In defense of the short story

By Carrie Snyder

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the short story form. The jacket copy on my book, The Juliet Stories, categorizes it as a “novel-in-stories.” That seems as accurate to me; but the funny thing is that not everyone agrees. 

Photo by Nancy Forde
“These are not stories, this is a novel,” I’ve been told by more than one reader.

Fair enough. Reading is an individual experience. And I suppose I could see it as a bit of a compliment: everyone wants to write a novel, right? Maybe I’m just being touchy on the subject.

Truth is, when I started writing The Juliet Stories, it was a novel. And it didn’t work. I wrote and re-wrote the damn thing, but nothing about it wanted to be a novel. Eventually I gave up, but the material wouldn’t quit my consciousness, so I wrote a story. And another. And a few more, until—to skip over a whole lot of angst and gritty, dull work—I had a book. A “novel-in-stories.”

Is this a confession of failure? That the material I tried to shape into a novel refused my entreaties to fit to form? I’m not sure. It could be that I’m not a novelist. Or it could be that a tale knows how it wants to be told. 

A short story is, by definition, shorter than a novel. It might be longer than a poem, but then again, it might not be. A short story is, often, just about exactly the length of a chapter. 

So why not call them chapters, when strung together to make a coherent whole?

Each chapter in The Juliet Stories was written as a short story; if removed from context, it’s meant to stand on its own. I never thought of any as being a chapter leading to another chapter. That said, these stories belong together. They serve a larger whole. They are placed chronologically, and the characters remain themselves throughout the book, changing as characters do, and don’t, according to their development. The book has an overarching plot, unifying themes. 

I know all of that. But I think these remain stories, at heart.

Each curves back on itself at the end, so you see its beginning in a new way. Much happens, but plot is not the focal point. Mood is, and sensation, and attention to detail. There is something fragile about stories, something open-ended, something that points to mystery.

It isn’t that I don’t want you to read The Juliet Stories as a novel. Of course you may. But don’t make it be a novel. Don’t make it end, like novels end, at The End. Let it be, maybe, a meditation on the things we can’t say, we only understand, or believe, or feel; or, let it be like a memory, something you’ll think about and wonder about, but never pin down in absolute terms.

Because I’m pretty sure that’s what a short story is. And that’s why I write them. 

Carrie Snyder joins Meira Cook, Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, Cordelia Strube, Richard Van Camp, and Jess Walter on Mainstage, "Life Lessons" on Monday, September 24th, 8pm, at MTYP The Forks.

The next day, Tuesday, September, 25th, she joins Cordeila Strube for Afternoon Book Chat, with Festival Director Charlene Director, at McNally Robinson, 2:30-3:30pm.

Visit Carrie Snyder at

Thin Air in Two Cities

Méira Cook on the inspiration for her new novel...
and why THIN AIR always surprises her

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I lived for twenty-five years before immigrating to Canada. When I was growing up in the seventies it was customary for white middle class families to employ a nanny to look after their children. The nanny was, of course, black although she could have been of Zulu or Xhosa or Sotho or Tswana descent but these important distinctions were not considered by the affluent and largely oblivious white society of the time. Since the nanny had to live with the white family — invariably in the servant’s quarters behind the kitchen — she was separated from her own family because in those days of Apartheid black folks couldn’t live in “white neighbourhoods.” Her own children were sent to live with relatives in the townships if they were lucky, in the homelands if they were not.
I’ve always found the relationship between what South Africans once called “maids and madams” to be a source of great curiosity, vast exasperation, some shame, and in the end — because all that turmoil of emotion has to find its outlet — creativity. My novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, tells the story of two families, two “houses.” Beauty Mapule has worked for a prominent Afrikaner family for more than thirty years, her reign has spanned successive du Plessis generations. What I loved exploring was the idea that the relationship between domestic servant and employer is not necessarily submissive, or even particularly domesticated. There is enormous potential for subversion and unruliness, for surprise and even for tenderness between people who are not family, not friends, not compatriots, and yet who’ve lived together for many years.
That’s sort of how I feel about reading at Thin Air too. I mean the part about unruliness and surprise. Charlene and her crew run a splendid event but the part I love best is the element of quirkiness and, yes, subversion that always creeps into the proceedings. Think, for example, of the festival’s name which is a masterful stroke of creative misdirection. Thin Air always seems to me to evoke a rarified atmosphere of highbrow, pointy-headed Bookistes who ply their craft in a menacing, slightly precarious city largely populated by consumptives. Au very contraire!
The Winnipeg Writers’ Festival is famous for its rollicking good humour, its throngs of word-greedy readers, its crowds of page-turning omnivores hungry for the gloriously eclectic selections that are offered up. You have to love the eccentricity of it, the exuberance and joy, and the way a kind of prestidigitation seems to be at work. A wave of the hand and it could all vanish into . . . 

Méira Cook joins Stella Leventoyannis Harvey and Festival Director Charlene Diehl for Afternoon Book Chat, Monday, September 24th, 2:30-3:30pm at McNally Robinson. Admission is free.
That evening, at 8:00pm, Cook and Leventoyannis Harvey, along with Carrie Snyder, Cordelia Strube, Richard Van Camp, and Jess Walter, feature on the Mainstage for "Life Lessons" at MTYP at the Forks. $12/$10 students and seniors.

September 13, 2012

JonArno Lawson on Coming Back to Winnipeg

When I came to read at Thin Air in Winnipeg the first time, in 2008, it was already a city where I felt at home. My brother had lived in Winnipeg for ten years as part of the Primus theatre company, and I'd made several trips out during the 1990s to see his shows. Back then, it had never occurred to me that I might be on a stage in Winnipeg myself someday. . . 

The warm, down-to-earth reception of my work (and of myself!) are dearly treasured memories. I still use my souvenir Thin Air coffee cup for my morning tea because it's a reminder of the happy days I spent at the festival, and it reminds me that there might actually be people out there who are interested in what I'm doing.

I'd always hoped to be invited back (what a complicated task for Charlene! Canada is overflowing with talented, prolific writers, and everyone deserves a hearing, don't you think?), but never expected it - so when the summons came I was overjoyed.

I'm very much looking forward to meeting the students at Oak Bluff Community School, and at the Collegiate of the University of Winnipeg. Also to sharing the stage with Jonathan Ball, Lorna Crozier, Sue Goyette, and Patrick Lane - what a line-up - I hope I'm not last up. . .!

JonArno Lawson joins Jonathan Ball, Lorna Crozier, Sue Goyette, and Patrick Lane for  the Poetry Bash on the Mainstage at MTYP, The Forks, on Friday, September 28th at 8:00pm. He'll also be put and about as part of the THIN AIR 2012 School Program.

September 11, 2012

Pasha Malla: The Man Who Knew Too Little

by John Barber

When young literary lion Pasha Malla won Ontario’s $20,000 Trillium Book Award for his debut collection of short stories, he devoted his entire acceptance speech to a gushing, fan-boy endorsement of the whimsical Disney-Pixar film Up – thus thoroughly confusing an audience expecting a bracing whiff of the avant-garde.

Three years later, Malla’s first novel, People Park, squares the circle. Built frankly atop an edifice previously constructed by a who’s who of prestigiously obscure masters – Robert Coover, Cesar Aires, Ferenc Karinthy, Mikhail Bulgakov – People Park is despite that a loose and friendly shaggy dog of a novel, often challenging but ever ingratiating. Much like the author, a serious-minded young man who learned early not to take himself too seriously.

Pausing in the shade to discuss his novel in the midst of a household move – down one floor in the Riverdale semi where he and his partner rent a flat – Malla actively resists the role of cultural sage, constantly censoring any incipient punditry. “What do I know?” he asks, genuinely bewildered – and also, he adds, “embarrassed” when fellow young lions pretend they do know.

“One of the reasons I write fiction is that fiction is a great space for equivocation,” he says. Questions breed questions; answers are elusive.

“Have you ever heard an author on stage at a festival say, ‘I don’t know?’ ” Malla asks. “Wouldn’t that be nice? I can’t wait till somebody asks me a question I don’t know the answer to, so I can admit I don’t know.”

Such questions might well include the most obvious: What is your book about?

The easy answer is that People Park is about the crisis experienced in an imaginary city over the course of a four-day visit by a sinister magician. It is about an enormously various number of things that happen to an exhaustingly large cast of characters. But the real answer to the basic question, Malla insists, is up to the reader.

“I’m a controlling person by nature, so I made a kind of challenge to myself to let go a little bit, to force myself to allow room for different interpretations,” he explains. Already readers are peppering the author with novel readings he never explicitly intended, entering the sprawling space of People Park by means of gates deliberately left open and threads hanging.

“To me those are the spaces in the book I love that really excite me the most,” he says, “when it’s up to the reader on their own to figure out what might have happened.

“And that’s when books continue to live with you – when you’ve felt some kind of agency through reading it.”

In People Park, “agency” moves in channels of play and magic. “There’s this real joy in giving yourself over to that kind of entertainment,” Malla says. “It’s a leap of faith that you take with the author, one of the few things adults do that still feels like playing. There’s something innocent in it, something liberating.”

But by no means all sweet and sunlit. Malla’s imaginary city grows from “a palpable sense that things are headed in a wrong direction” in the real world, he says. Although careful not to contradict readers who might think otherwise, he adds that he included “a number of very quiet clues in the book that it’s set in 1984.”

Malla personally felt the anxiety that underlies the friendly exterior of People Park when he was overwhelmed by the intensely diverse yet ultimately dissatisfying experience of Toronto’s Nuit Blanche cultural festival. “It felt like being inside the Internet,” he says. The whole city rushing from one amusement to another, its interest exhausted a moment after being aroused, worried there is always somewhere better to be.

Such is the atmosphere of People Park. “I wanted to capture, in a kind of sideways fashion, the way that living makes me feel,” Malla says. And to explore how “a mass cultural hysterical Internet culture” undermines the life of the individual.

Once again, punditry raises its ugly head. And once again, personable Pasha beats it down – volunteering that among the classics he plundered for the themes and settings of People Park were the works of Stephen King. The stuff he read as a thoughtless teenager embedded in the ordered reality of his home and native Middlemarch.

King left him cold the second time around, Malla admits. His tastes have evolved to embrace the most challenging forms of contemporary fiction. But there is nothing deceptive about the modest goals of his ambitious and sprawling first effort at the long-form game.

“Novels certainly can’t save us,” he says, characteristically lowering expectations. “But they can provide spaces where true introspection happens.” And People Park is nothing if not ample in such spaces.

(The Globe and Mail, Tuesday, July 10 2012)

Pasha Malla joins Mike Barnes in conversation with Festival Director Charlene Diehl at the Afternoon Book Chat, Wednesday, September 26th, 2:30-3:30pm at McNally Robinson.

That evening, Malla and Barnes, along with Rawi Hage, Esme Claire Keith, and Sean Virgo, appear on Mainstage: Fables For Our Times, 8:00pm, MTYP at The Forks.

September 10, 2012

Corey Redekop: On the Subject of Zombies

I’m not sure where the fully-formed idea for Husk came from. I have always loved zombies and knew that I wanted to somehow incorporate my favourite monster into a story. Ever since I caught the original  Night of the Living Dead on late-night television (eyes clenched shut, bowels constricted in terror), I don’t think there’s been a monster that has affected me on such a primal level.( I don’t include the shark from Jaws here, as that beast is more or less real, and in a league all its own.)
(Not, however, the sharks of the sequels, though; as the series ambled on, they lost any semblance of reality and became pretty much just painted logs with fins menacing less and less talented actors. Oh, Sir Michael Caine, I dearly hope you enjoy that house Jaws: The Revenge helped paid for; it’s not every day an actor of your undeniable stature is upstaged by asoggy  papier-mâché fish and the little-remembered teen hero of The Last Starfighter.)
Back to zombies: this was a monster I had never encountered before. Humans beyond death, but as far from vampires as you could get. Creatures devoid of motive, unable to be reasoned with. Just appetite. As the grainy black and white members of the undead lumbered incessantly forward, overwhelming the humans through sheer numbers, I found myself unprepared for my visceral reaction. Part of this was from setting; alone, after midnight, watching a scratchy copy on a flickering television in the dark. There is something lost, I believe, in the rush to ‘clean’ up films for DVDs and BluRays. I appreciate a clean image, but movies such as these cry out for dirt and smudged cells and poor transfers. Something this terrifying should never be clean.
From that point on, I was hooked. I forced myself to peek through my fingers at the remarkable terror that is Dawn of the Dead, and sat through the disappointing social commentary of  Day of the Dead. I forced myself to watch the unnerving and nauseating works of  Lucio Fulci. I goggled in disbelief as the undead actually sprinted in the"Dawn remake, and threw up my arms as they bounced on trampolines in Steve Miner’s misbegotten rethinking of Day. I discovered the immense low-fi pleasures of  The Evil Dead (and Bruce Campbell, of course). I laughed myself silly as a girl I knew in high school did her best to survive being trapped in  Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead, one of my top contenders for funniest unintentional comedy ever made, even funnier than Shaun of the Dead or  Fido (as well as being a remarkably awful film). I even paid good money to witness the witless Joe Piscopo battle zombie criminals in Dead Heat.
There’s something pure and unspoiled in the classic Hollywood zombie. They’re horrifying and yet they subtly gain our sympathy because, on some level, they are still us. You battle a zombie, you battle yourself; just look at NOTLD, the humans battling each other with as much ferocity as the zombies outside. They’re the perfect villain on both a physical gut-wrenching horror level and a sub-textual level. Zombies are such empty vessels that they can be made avatars for literally anything. They can represent consumerism, or mob mentality, or political ideology, or sexual repression. A good zombie film will scare and disgust you; a great one will make you think afterward. Sadly, there aren’t many great ones about, with even Romero himself visiting the well a few times too often — Land of the Dead has some great moments, but  Diary of and Survival of are pretty poor (Diary especially).
Yet the inherent problem with the zombie from a character standpoint is that they’re ultimately, well, rather boring. There’s no development possible in a brain-dead skin sack that eats anything in its path. They’re great as mass unthinking evil, not so great as riveting character studies. At best, they are shadows of their former selves, locked in routine. There is a marked lack of personality, something that can only be achieved through maintaining some form of inner monologue.
Now, in regards to your less well-known ‘thinking zombie,’ your cinematic pickings are slim at best: there was Bub in Day of the Dead, he has glimmerings of intelligence, and could manipulate a walkman; Big Daddy in Land of the Dead gradually led an undead revolution; and Fido in Fido becomes a beloved family pet. But even in those instances, it’s still all groans and moans and shuffling and appetite. There is some actual discussion on the morality of the undead in Return of the Living Dead, where two men become infected, die, and still walk about conversing and wondering what the hell is happening to them. But even with this new step in undead evolution (SPOILERS), the full zombie effect soon hits one (resulting in drooling attacks of the cannibalistic nature), and the other cremates himself before he can lose all control.
So if you want to make a zombie your protagonist, particularly in book form, you’re by necessity going to have to make a few concessions to classic monster theory and actually bequeath unto your ghoul a marked increase in personality. You’ll need to tweak the myth at points, bend it at others, and break it completely apart when need be. Otherwise, the book will be nothing but groaning and lurching and eating and more groaning and more lurching. Horrifying for ten minutes. Deadly dull for the rest.
No, if you desire a zombie as a main character, with motivations and personal issues and qualms and questions of morality versus the need for living brunch, you’re going to have to: write a book, because you need the expansiveness of paper to fully delve into psychological ramblings, and do some serious rejiggering on the mythology.
Or at least I did, and I’m hardly the first; check out the spectacular anthology The Living Dead for a cornucopia of talented authors pushing the limits of what zombie literature can be. David Wellington threw some curveballs in his Monster trilogy, Robin Becker kept an innate intelligence functioning behind the decaying brain of her hero in Brains: A Zombie Memoir, and although I haven’t gotten to read it yet, I’ve heard very interesting things about S.G. Browne’s Breathers.
For my own take on it, I wanted to make sure that Sheldon Funk (my zombitagonist, if you will) retained the basic elements of the classic undead; he had to eat people. He could feel conflicted, he could debate the morality, but in the end he needed to feast on the sweet sweet tang of human flesh, or rot away to nothing. A little wish-wash namby-pambiness was fine, but I needed Sheldon to be a monster, albeit a monster you can relate to. Darn it, I wanted the guy to be nice. Without that, there would be no reason to follow his adventures.
So I kept far more aspects of humanity intact after Sheldon’s resurrection, and made him out to be my ‘patient zero,’ my Typhoid Mary of the boneyard. He would wield those certain character traits that any objective observer might classify as ‘ghoulish’ (the biting, the rotting, the possibility of infection, the pesky lack of a heartbeat), but he would still retain the capacity for rational thought and intelligent speech (although the second is far harder than you’d think when your lungs don’t function). People can then react to him either as a man or a demon, as he contains aspects of both.
This is what I call ‘tweaking,’ and what others may call ‘distortion’ or ‘outright wrong.’ But I feel that if a certain bestselling author (fine, Stephanie Meyer) can create a cult around vampires who twinkle in the daytime and werewolves with allergies to shirts, I should be allowed a great deal of latitude with how a reanimated corpse might behave. Personally, rather than admit any ancestry to Twilight’s horribly bland shampires, I feel Sheldon is far more a cousin to Steven Sherril’s sad and lonely Greek monster in the wonderful The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, slaving away through eternity as a short-order cook.
If you do have a problem with my taking of zombie liberties, I can only suggest that, rather than complain, you write your own book on the subject.
That’ll show me.