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Q&A: talking swimming and the Olympics with author Leanne Shapton

As a youth, Toronto-born author and illustrator Leanne Shapton was a dedicated competitive swimmer, at one time ranking eighth in Canada. She competed in two Olympic trials (1988, 1992), but narrowly missed qualifying. In her new book, Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press/Penguin Canada), Shapton meditates on her life in the pool through essays, photos, and watercolour paintings.

Shapton is an accomplished artist who began her career at the National Post before moving into art director positions at Saturday Night magazine and The New York Times. She is the author of five illustrated books.

Quillblog caught up with Shapton in New York City, where she’s resided since 2003.

How did Swimming Studies come to be?
When I’d talk about swimming, [former Saturday Night editor and Rogers Publishing president] Ken Whyte, who started his career as a sports writer, encouraged me to write things down. So I took some writing courses and tried to organize the material.

In 2007, when I had about a quarter of the book written, I sent it to my agent and then told them to throw it away. It wasn’t the right time.

Why is this the right time?
I made a two-book deal with Blue Rider Press, but after the auction catalogue (Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry), I didn’t want to do another picture-heavy book. It was really important to do something weirder and less like what I’ve done before.

For a while I had a column in The New York Times Magazine. It was a revelation to work with an editor. The book then became a huge experiment in whether I could write anything longer than a caption or small capsule.

A series of paintings from Swimming Studies (Photo: Leanne Shapton)

Did you set out to write a non-traditional memoir?
I think it’s a funny book – there are a lot of different levels and layers. This is how I described it to my editor as I was working through the manuscript: I wanted it to be a book of landscapes – either interior or literal. I see these landscapes and because I don’t have a photograph of them and I don’t want to paint them, all I have is this language that I’m trying to learn as I go.

Did you keep diaries as a kid?
When I was training at 14 or 15, I mostly kept photo albums. When I was training with the University of Toronto team for my second Olympic trials in 1992, I kept them. It wasn’t until around 2006 that I started writing the other things down.

Shapton's Speedo “paper suit,” worn during the 1992 Canadian Olympic swimming trials (Photo: Leanne Shapton)

One of the most striking chapters in the book is “Size,” which includes photos of your personal collection of bathing suits. Why did you choose to include these?
That’s only half of them. I tried to get a sense of going from competitive to non-competitive to getting my first two-piece at 27 or 28. I really resisted getting one.

That chapter is called “Size” because there’s so much body stuff going on in terms of eating and shape and insecurities. There’s so much around bathing suits in particular – it’s all twisted and tangled, the idea of body size and image.

The book contains many references to time. Was that intentional?
One thing that came with training is that I know what five seconds feels like in the same way that a well plumber knows what five feet looks like from a different angle than the erst of us might. It’s a temporal understanding of things. It’s like how a minute feels when you’re late for a train.

How would you describe your relationship to water now?
I still swim, but I still don’t like swimming in open water. I will do it because I always feel like jumping into water, but I’m not entirely comfortable.

It makes me feel good to be in water – it’s like wearing a favourite sweater. It’s something that I know really, really well. I know my body so much more in water. I’m clumsier outside of it.

What about your relationship to the sport?
I’m not competitive at all. I joined a team to see if I had any spirit left, and I didn’t. It’s not a challenging thing for me anymore and I have no jock mindset for it.

Although watching the Olympics makes me cry. I love watching swimming. When I watch it on TV and they turn, I do it in my head, too.

Would you say you’ve replaced swimming with art?
For years I wanted the same focus that I had as a swimmer because I knew I was moving toward a perfection or a time goal. So now I’ll do 20 sketches or paintings. I’ll work the sport’s discipline into how I work, whether it’s an assignment or a series of paintings.

Since retiring from swimming I’ve tried to find that dumb blind zone you go into as an athlete. I’ve found it now with drawing and painting, which is so nice.

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Book links roundup: The Lorax loves SUVs, Slate introduces book review section, and more

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Book links roundup: Transgender children’s books, famous gay writers, and more

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Book links roundup: Police sketches of literary characters, Bookninja’s send-off, and more

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Book links roundup: a guide to literary Tumblrs, unemployment literature, and more

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What Toronto budget cuts could mean for libraries

As Toronto’s city council enters final debates on the 2012 budget, here’s a look at what could be ahead for the Toronto Public Library.

TPL has been asked to meet a 10 per cent reduction target (cutting about $7 million from its annual budget) despite having the busiest year on record in 2011, with more than 19 million visitors borrowing over 33 million items.

A few motions on the table at city council argue for reversing budget reductions. One motion asks TPL to meet its 10 per cent target without cutting back on hours, instead saving money by buying fewer movies and magazines. Chief librarian Jane Pyper estimates that cutting 19,444 hours at 59 branches could save TPL $5.4 million, but this would likely affect all branches.

Another motion proposes that the $7 million in library cuts be scaled back to $4 million, using new revenue from property tax assessment growth to make up the remainder.

Toronto’s literary community has unleashed protests against proposed cuts, too. More than 100 well-known literary figures signed an open letter to Mayor Rob Ford and city council, and the Toronto Public Library Workers Union placed an ad in the Toronto Star this week.

Meanwhile, TPL continues to search for ways to bring in more money. The National Post reported on one new membership program designed to attract the bookish under-40 set to exclusive library events for a roughly $300 annual fee.

Just this morning, the TPL Foundation announced a $1.5 million donation from Toronto philanthropists Marilyn and Charles Baillie to support the Toronto Reference Library’s revitalization, an ongoing program with a $34 million price tag. The Baillies’ donation will go towards the Special Collections Centre, a new reading room set to open in 2013 that will display items related to Canadiana, performance, and documentary art.

Library cuts are on the agenda for debate this afternoon. Check out the liveblog at Torontoist for the latest updates, and keep following Quillblog for more information.

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U.S. literary journals thrive with low overhead and dedicated audiences

A couple of weeks ago poet Michael Lista got the attention of the publishing Twitterverse with his National Post essay “Why literary magazines should fold.”

Now, we don’t need another American TV sitcom to point out the differences between our two cultures, but here’s an interesting article about the financial health of U.S. West Coast literary journals. Turns out, boutique publishers like The Threepenny Review, Zoetrope, and McSweeney’s Quarterly are doing just fine these days, but not for the reasons you might think. According to The New York Times:

If literary journals “are poised to do well,” as Laura Cogan, editor of San Francisco-based ZYZZYVA, said, it may be because they share qualities with many successful online ventures: skeletal staffs, low overhead and specialized audiences.

The article suggests journals associated with academic institutions have financially suffered the most over the last couple of years. Not that the successful print publishers are sitting around counting their money bags — they’ve been investing in the online side of their businesses by overhauling websites and promoting online subscriptions. McSweeney’s even hired a digital media director.

But, as the article concludes — and here’s where Canadians can nod in agreement — if these publishers are doing well, it is relative to their notions of success:

“No one has ever been able to make a good living writing or publishing literary fiction,” Stephen Elliott, a writer and founder of The Rumpus, said. “It doesn’t matter that there are exceptions. The rule stands.”

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Bibliomania and the not-so-light side of book hoarding

Last week, the National Post‘s Mark Medley wrote a piece about his ever-expanding book collection and the difficulty he has lightening his load by even a single volume. “I am a book hoarder,” he says. “Help me, please.”

The same day the article was published, CBC Radio’s Metro Morning picked up the story and host Matt Galloway spent the rest of the week discussing the impulse on air, and over Twitter and Facebook. He even brought in Shelagh Rogers to talk about her own book-collecting habits. By the end of the weekend, the term “book hoarder” came up in national media a lot.

The piece caught the eye of one Jessie Sholl, author of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother’s Compulsive Hoarding. In her view, the conversation around book hoarding overlooked an important fact: hoarding is more than a mild eccentricity, it’s an illness. (To be fair, Rogers avoided the word “hoarder” throughout her interview with Metro Morning, opting instead to call herself a “book lover.”) Sholl responded to Medley’s article on her blog at Psychology Today.

In her post, “You Are Not a Book Hoarder,” she attempts to set the record straight on bibliomania:

Just because you have a lot of books, that doesn’t mean you’re a bibliomaniac. Can you walk through the room in which your books are stored? Have you depleted any of your life savings on these books? Do you hide when the doorbell rings or not allow a plumber into your home when your sink is clogged?

[C]arelessly tossing the label of hoarder around, as the National Post essay does, is disrespectful to hoarders and those affected by the disorder…. [N]o one’s arguing that the term hoarding is off limits. Or that you can’t joke about hoarding, ever…. Maybe the line between harmless humor and disrespectful minimization of a mental illness is similar to what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography — you know it when you see it. Or maybe it’s simply keeping in mind that common expression: Language matters.

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Book biz round-up: the latest links

Sundry links from around the Web:

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Peter Robinson wins $10,000 Harbourfront prize

The International Festival of Authors announced today that mystery author Peter Robinson is this year’s recipient of the $10,000 Harbourfront Festival Prize, “based on the merits of his own published work and the time he has invested in nurturing the next generation of literary talent.”

Robinson was selected by a jury comprising John van Driel, vice-president of programming operations at Classical 96.3 FM, National Post reporter Mark Medley, and IFOA director Geoffrey E. Taylor. Previous winners include Wayson Choy, Helen Humphreys, Paul Quarrington, and Jane Urquhart. The prize will be presented on Oct. 30, the closing night of the IFOA.

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