Back at the J-Dutton headquarters, I began Saturday morning bright and early with coffee by Caffé Beano before ‘Gals & Good Times’ featuring Ali Bryan (Roost), Cathy Marie Buchanan (The Painted Girls), Lynn Coady (Hellgoing), Leanne Shirtliffe (Don’t Lick the Minivan and Other Things I Thought I’d Never Say to My Kids) and Cassie Stocks (Dance, Gladys, Dance).
I’m not a morning person. I enjoy sleeping late and spending the first part of my day in bed with my laptop and eleven cups of coffee. When people ask if my workstation is ergonomical I shift my gaze just enough to avoid direct eye contact and say, “Of course.” Lynn Coady, who’s been shortlisted for both the 2013 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and Scotiabank Giller Prize (on the heels of being shortlisted for the Giller for The Antagonist in 2011), has been my writing mentor on two occasions, so I like to think I’ve had the opportunity to get to know her.
Over the years we have discussed many subjects—from character motivation to food sensitivities to the time I found a dead squirrel in a cabin toilet. I was delighted to learn a number of years ago that she doesn’t consider herself a morning person either. I’m not sure if this has changed, but I remember once, when we were in an airport lineup together in 2008 after she’d won an Alberta Literary Award for Mean Boy, and I complained blearily about having had to get up early. “I hate being rushed in the morning,” I said. “I need to stare at the wall and drink coffee before I talk to anyone. This is hell.” She nodded, “We’re like the same person,” she said calmly, and my spirits lifted at the notion that she was a morning hermit too.
All of this to say, I forwent my nonverbal wall-staring and caffeine overdose on Saturday. The event began with readings. All of them poignant and resonant. Author Merilyn Simonds moderated a conversation about why each author chose to narrate their most recent works through a female lens. The idea that a female narrative is more loaded and fraught than a male’s (for both socio-cultural and personal reasons) led to very interesting remarks from all the panelists. The power and role of humour was discussed when Leanne Shirtliffe said, “Humour is a bit of a shield, it allows us to be critical about what is going on without getting overly political.” The panelists unanimously agreed with Coady’s point that humour adds a layer of profundity. Cassie Stocks and Ali Bryan said they know when their writing is going well when they’re amusing themselves in the process. Cathy Marie Buchanan said she doesn’t feel that humour comes easily in her writing, but was quite hilarious as she described the winding road that ultimately led her to creative writing. In university she studied biochemistry, deliberately choosing a degree that did not require a single essay because she was the world’s worst speller. Leanne made a closing remark on the subject of living a creative life that has been rolling around my consciousness like a marble, “Allowing ourselves to be creative means allowing ourselves the time.” Yes.
Immediately following this panel, I scouted a hideaway in the children’s section of the library to (ironically) review the questions I’d prepared to moderate the next session on erotic literature (among other themes). I re-read a few sections of Lisa Gabriele’s erotic novel S.E.C.R.E.T. surrounded by Goodnight Moon and Dr. Seuss. The session featured Ophira Eisenberg (Screw Everyone, Sleeping my Way to Monogamy) and Lisa Gabriele, author of the S.E.C.R.E.T. trilogy. Soon it was time to meet them in the green room where their combined energy, warmth and humour negated any trepidation I had about moderating the intimate discussion ahead: ‘Afternoon Delight.’
The chemical explosion of witty humour and gender-political banter that sparked between these two authors was remarkable. They fed off each other on subjects of sex, politics, shame, humour, ex-boyfriends, writing sex/erotica, making a living as a female writer, the double-standards they’ve both encountered as women working in creative industries. There was no shortage of fodder for discussion as these two amazing women answered questions and offered bold, refreshing and frank replies. They made an incredible pair on stage, a comedic feminist duo that had everyone engrossed and laughing. Someone commented after the event that they should take their show on the road.
Next, it was time to head for the mountains to hear from this year’s Banff Distinguished Author, Joseph Boyden. The Eric Harvie Theatre at the Banff Centre brimmed to capacity. Boyden, who won the Giller for Through Black Spruce in 2008, is currently on the shortlist for the Governor General’s award for his latest release, The Orenda. The event kicked off with dynamic readings from local authors Paul Zits and Deborah Willis, after which a reading and interview between Joseph Boyden and Jeff Horvath ensued. Horvath is a member of the Ojibways of Onegaming in north-western Ontario, currently the Aboriginal Liaison Teacher at Canmore Collegiate High School and coordinator of First Nations education.
Horvath opened the interview portion by commending Boyden for “giving voice” to his people. Boyden emphasized on more than one occasion that he is “one of many voices.” Boyden spoke to questions on how ‘the land’ influences his writing, and how this plays a thematic and metaphorical role in his novels. When the subject of fatherhood was raised, he paused before sharing some personal (and clearly spontaneous) thoughts on what he called his “weird relationship with fathers and fatherhood.” His own father died when he was still a child, and for a long time he had to reconcile mixed feelings of abandonment around this loss. He shared poignant anecdotes involving his now 23-year-old son, Jacob, whom he had to leave for a while when Jacob was two in order to pursue his creative work. The stories he told of moose hunting with his son at sixteen and asking whether or not Jacob harboured feelings of abandonment were undeniably moving.
When asked about writing The Orenda, he said that his female characters always seem to come out more fully realized than the men. The men take more effort and time. He joked about the inner conversations he’d negotiated with a particular male character in The Orenda, “Ah, Christophe, you’re such a dick…” He also spoke to what it was like to write the violent parts of the novel. “The violence was a necessary part of this novel…the elephant in the room that I had to address.” Writing this violence was difficult and he didn’t look forward to it. But something a mentor once told him helped him get through this process, “Never allow the moment that is important to be minimized.” This advice helped him write the difficult parts that he knew needed to be written despite the brutal suffering it portrayed. Ultimately, he had to let the violence “blossom like an ugly flower.”
Jeff held an eagle feather throughout the interview. When the conversation came to a close, he explained that he’d found this particular feather on a canoe trip many years ago. In the Ojibway tradition, an eagle feather is presented to an individual who has done something great. He held the feather out to Joseph as a gesture of honour. Joseph, very humbly, accepted the feather. The event closed shortly after the two men hugged on stage, sending the audience into a detonation of applause.
“We had magic before the crows came. Before the rise of the great villages they so roughly carved on the shores of our inland sea and named with words plucked from our tongues—Chicago, Toronto, Milwaukee, Detroit—we had had our own great villages on these same shores. And we understood our magic. We understood what the orenda implied.” – Joseph Boyden, The Orenda.
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Samantha Warwick is the author of the novel Sage Island (WordFest artist 2008 + 2009). Her nonfiction and poetry have been broadcast on CBC Radio and appeared in various literary and commercial publications including Geist, Event, Room, filling Station, The Globe & Mail and FASHION. Samantha is the Official WordFest Blogger for 2013.