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Conceptual writing in the spotlight at Toronto’s Power Plant art gallery

Fiona Banner’s “1066,” 2010/2012. Indian ink on wall. Courtesy the artist (photo: Toni Hafkenscheid)

If you’re in Toronto, this weekend is your last chance to check out Post Script: Writing After Conceptual Art, a literary-minded exhibition at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery.

A survey show of more than 50 artists from the 1960s to the present, Post Script is the first exhibition to examine the history of the Conceptual writing and text-based art movement that took hold in the 1960s. Artists include Andy Warhol, Kenneth Goldsmith, Dan Graham, derek beaulieu, and Sol LeWitt. The media are diverse – painting, drawings, prints, film and video, photographs, sculpture, sound installations, and iPad applications – but all in some way connect back to textual communication.

Many pieces in the show appropriate or reconsider older works, such as “1066,” in which U.K. artist Fiona Banner takes over a wall to narrate the Battle of Hastings as depicted on the 70-metre-long Bayeux Tapestry. New York’s Jen Bervin hand-embroidered “The Composite Marks of Fascicle (28 & 40)” to remove the words from Emily Dickinson’s original handwritten poetry manuscripts. Bervin restores the author’s use of crosses (+) to identify variant words, which over the years have vanished from most editions. U.K. artist Nick Thurston’s triptych, “He Wore, He Might Find, & He Moved,” takes as source material the experimental syntax found in Samuel Beckett’s last novel, Watt.

Exhibition co-curator Andrea Andersson, from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, says she and and co-curator Nora Burnett Abrams also purposely included work from writers who don’t identify as artists, including Mexican poet and translator Monica de la Torre and Calgary sound poet Christian Bök. For “Protein 13,” Bök transformed a poem into a DNA sequence, the sculptural manifestation of which appears in the gallery.

“We hoped to demonstrate that many contemporary  artists and writers, though often segregated by discipline, are not only employing similar strategies for artistic generation, but also yielding works that are largely formally indistinguishable,” says Andersson. “In certain ways, these new ways of working are reflective of our cultural shift from print to digital culture. Artists and writers are using common tools of new technology. But a closer look also suggests that many of these artists and writers are looking back to the same historical precedents.”

Post Script closes Sept. 2. Admission is free.

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The Beguiling, Little Island affected by Mirvish Village sale

On Monday, when developer David Mirvish announced the sale of the iconic Honest Ed’s discount store in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, speculation began immediately over its future owners and usage.

Yesterday, the Toronto Star reported that the deal will mean an even bigger change for the neighbourhood, as the sale also includes Mirvish Village, an eclectic enclave of independent shops and restaurants that surrounds Honest Ed’s.

Among the stores affected is The Beguiling, a comics retailer that has been a mecca for graphica lovers since 1987, and its companion shop, Little Island Comics, dedicated to younger readers. Owner Peter Birkemoe told the Star: “I always felt that development of this area was inevitable, but I held out hope that it would be the Mirvishes undertaking it.”

Originally a residential area, Mirvish Village has a long history with Toronto book lovers. In 1967, “Captain” George Henderson opened Memory Lane, considered to be Canada’s first comics bookstore, at 594 Markham St. In 2008, architectural book retailer Ballenford Books closed its doors after 29 years in business, and from 1974 to 2009, David Mirvish had his own eponymously named bookstore, which specialized in visual arts titles.

Mirvish, who says he’s focusing on developing properties elsewhere in the city, says the affected businesses will have three years to find new locations.

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George Elliott Clarke appointed Toronto’s fourth poet laureate

Given all the political hoopla happening in Hogtown, it would have been easy to miss news that poet, playwright, activist, and critic George Elliott Clarke has been appointed Toronto’s fourth poet laureate. He takes over from Dionne Brand, who has held the position since 2009.

Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia, Clarke’s East Coast roots are a driver for much of his work around black identity. Clarke, who refers to his African-Canadian and Mi’qmak heritage as “Africadian,” is recognized as one of the top scholars of black-Canadian literature.

Clarke moved to Toronto in 1999, and in 2003 was named the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. He brings a shelf full of prizes to the position, including the 2001 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for Execution Poems (Gaspereau Press). In 2008 he received Toronto’s William P. Hubbard Award for Race Relations and was made an officer of the Order of Canada.

 

 

 

 

 

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Q&A: The Monkey’s Paw introduces the Biblio-mat book-vending machine

For nearly seven years, Stephen Fowler has owned The Monkey’s Paw, the curious antiquarian bookstore on Toronto’s Dundas Street West, offering bibliophiles a diverse selection of printed artifacts.

Self-dubbed “Toronto’s most idiosyncratic second-hand bookshop,” the store is more than a place to buy books: it is also an art stunt, with a collection of insect taxonomies on display and crafted window presentations aimed to startle unassuming pedestrians. For his latest venture, Fowler has revealed the Biblio-mat, a vending machine that dispenses random books for two dollars apiece.

Quillblog spoke with Fowler about his invention.

What is the story behind the Biblio-mat? I went fishing this past summer with Craig Small, co-founder of The Juggernaut, an animation studio in Toronto. I had this idea that I would love to have a vending machine that gave out random books. I pictured it as a painted refrigerator box with one of my assistants inside; people would put in a coin and he would drop a book out. But Craig is more pragmatic and visionary then I am. He said, “You need to have an actual mechanical vending machine.” That was beyond my wildest imaginings, but not Craig’s, so he just built it for me.

What did you envision for the machine’s appearance? We were very careful with the style of the thing. We are attentive to the whole presentation of the shop, its look and vibe, and we wanted something that would go with it. It is a new device but has a very intentionally vintage look. The cabinet is actually an old metal locker; the front of the locker is in the back.

What books are stocked in the Biblio-mat? The books in the machine are two dollars each – that’s not enough to make any profit, but the nature of the second-hand book business is that I end up with a lot of books that are interesting and worth keeping and disseminating, but have no practical retail value. Historically in the used books trade there has always been the dollar cart in front of the store. This is just a spin on that.

What has been the response from customers? The machine is still in the beta stage, so it doesn’t always work perfectly. The response is sometimes based on that. Of the people who have used the thing so far, almost every person has been pleasantly surprised and completely amused. I can think of two people who were dissatisfied with the book they got, but I can only assume they were people lacking in imagination and enthusiasm. In fact, this is something I’ve observed in the used-book trade: people are always looking for meaning. They’ll get a book and feel as though it was psychically selected for them.

How do you acquire your books? I buy estates, or from people who are moving or downsizing. I buy books over the counter, at library sales, and from charities. I travel all around and buy books every kind of way you can imagine. Except I don’t buy books online, nor do I sell books online.

This really isn’t a store for readers. The traditional purpose of a bookstore is as a place to buy a piece of printed culture. We sell printed artifacts that contain text – not that you can’t read these books – but people don’t come here to buy books to read, they come here to buy books to own.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

 

 

 

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Harrowsmith’s Truly Canadian Almanac returns under new publisher

Harrowsmith’s Truly Canadian Almanac has returned under the direction of a new publisher, Toronto-based Moongate Publishing.

Moongate, a communications company that specializes in custom content, branding, and strategic communication, was formed by former Harrowsmith employees Yolanda Thornton and James Morris.

Before succumbing to financial collapse last year, Harrowsmith published six annual issues and the 300-page Canadian Almanac. Tom Cruikshank, Harrowsmith Country Life‘s veteran editor has returned to edit the almanac:

In an email to Masthead Thorton said:

We have great plans for the Harrowsmith Almanac brand…

There is an appetite in the market to revive the [Harrowsmith Country Life] magazine and it’s something we are exploring.

Harrowsmith launched a new Facebook page and website for the almanac this past summer. The 2013 edition is now available at newsstands across Canada, with 92,000 copies in circulation. The first ever spring edition is planned for April.

 

 

 

 

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Shelagh Rogers’ multimedia Northwords project brings city-dwelling authors out of their comfort zone

Led by CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers, five urban Canadian authors spent a week writing and observing life in Northern Labrador. Northwords, a documentary that captures their experiences, is screening at IFOA, Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. The film will make its television debut Oct. 25, 10 p.m. ET on CBC’s documentary channel, and the radio documentary is available here.

This article appears in the November issue of Q&Q.

Rabindranath Maharaj (Photo: Joel McConvey)

Many authors find the familiarity of daily rituals a necessary part of their practice. Take away the comforts of home, and the writing process can become even more of a challenge.

“I think that writers can be quite obsessive about their routines,” says Toronto’s Alissa York, author of three novels including 2010’s Fauna (Random House Canada). “Sometimes [with] travel that you don’t necessarily plan for, or that’s outside of what you normally do, you think, ‘How am I going to fit that with my life?’”

York posed herself that question when she was approached to participate in Northwords, a multimedia project instigated by CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers, host of The Next Chapter.

In August 2011, Rogers invited five writers – York, Sarah Leavitt, Noah Richler, Joseph Boyden, and Rabindranath Maharaj – to join her on an expedition to Torngat Mountains National Park in Northern Labrador. For one week, the authors traded the coziness of their homes and offices for tents and vast, rugged landscapes lashed by inclement weather. They participated in helicopter rides, interacted with Inuit elders, and witnessed caribou hunts and polar bears.

Adding to the sense of disruption was the fact that Rogers brought along a film crew, which captured the writers’ reactions to their unfamiliar surroundings. The resulting Northwords documentary, which airs Oct. 25 on CBC TV and had its premiere screening at the Eden Mills Literary Festival, won the best documentary prize at the Banff International Pilots Competition. Accompanying the film is an interactive website, an ebook published by House of Anansi Press, and an episode of The Next Chapter.

Noah Richler (Photo: Joel McConvey)

For York, the Northwords project changed the way she looks at Canada’s North.

“I’m looking at it as wilderness, and right beside me there’s someone looking at it thinking, ‘I grew up here,’” says York, referring to an Inuit elder who guided the writers through an ancestral village from which her people had been forcibly evacuated. “It’s just a question of shifting away from where we’re told the centre of life is and understanding that there [are] as many centres as there are lives.”

Maharaj, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Ajax, Ontario, was likewise moved by his Northern experience. The Trinidad-born author of the Trillium Book Award–winning novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (Knopf Canada) recalls studying the geography of Northern Canada in his youth and being motivated to visit a place he’d only encountered in books.

“There was that kind of romantic idea of seeing things that I’d heard about or read about in the distant past,” says Maharaj. “There are some places that are so different from your own experience in every single way that it takes a while to process that, and sometimes the true significance and importance [comes] gradually, rather than some grand moment of clarity while you’re at the place.”

Leavitt, an artist and author of the graphic novel Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me (Freehand Books), felt a sense of reverence not just for the landscape and its people, but for the seasoned, well-known writers whose company she kept.

“I had one book and some shorter publications, but those guys all have multiple books and they have much higher profiles than I do,” says Leavitt, who credits the experience with boosting her confidence as a writer. “It was intimidating, but they’re all just really, really nice people. Just meeting people who are so dedicated to their writing and working on their craft was inspiring.”

While in Torngat, the five authors were required to write original stories and read them out loud to the group. Leavitt produced a series of illustrated, one-page vignettes. Maharaj’s short story followed his Absorbing Boy protagonist on a new adventure, while  York’s story was spurred by thoughts of her brother. Richler riffed on the daunting waiver the writers were asked to sign before embarking on the trip, and Boyden wrote from the point of view of a polar bear.

Saglek Bay inukshuk (Photo: Joel McConvey)

The stories are included in the Northwords ebook, the first publication produced by Anansi’s new digital division. According to president and publisher Sarah Mac­Lachlan, the stories, available as a collection or as digital singles, put an exclamation point on the project.

“I think if you go to the interactive [website] or you watch the movie, you get an idea of each of these writers and their response to the North, but the fun is in reading what they actually wrote all the way through,” she says.

Though he thinks the stories are all unique, Maharaj identifies a common element throughout his fellow travellers’ work. “What we wrote reflected that sense of uncertainty,” he says. “That sense of awe, that sense … of being in a place that may possess secrets or answers.”

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Alternative markets: why publishers are turning to zine fairs to woo new readers

Canzine, the country’s largest festival dedicated to zines and independent culture, happens this Sunday in Toronto (the Vancouver edition is scheduled for Nov. 17). Following the success of last year’s event, writer Jason Spencer spoke to several independent publishers about the importance of zine fairs to building readership. This article appeared in the Jan./Feb. issue of Q&Q.

(Photo: Jackie Spencer)

Last October, publisher Beth Follett decided to try a new method of connecting with readers: she signed up her company, Pedlar Press, as a vendor at Canzine Toronto, a daylong celebration of indie culture presented by Broken Pencil magazine. Not knowing what to expect, Follett carefully arranged a selection of Pedlar titles on her display table just inside the front doors of the 918 Bathurst Centre, including ReLit Award winners Sweet by Dani Couture and Blood Relatives by Craig Francis Power. As hundreds of misfits, hipsters, and readers began crossing the threshold, she realized she had come to the right place.

“It’s very difficult these days to find an audience and reach new customers,” says Follett, who understands the need to build new alliances as more independent bookstores close down. “It’s very important for me to be here and not in some ivory tower, where only a slice of the populace knows about Canadian literature.”

With nearly 200 vendors, 2010’s Canzine was one of the biggest in its 15-year-plus history. Likewise, thousands of people showed up at Montreal’s Expozine, a two-day event held in November that celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011. “What does this mean for small presses? It’s a motivation to keep publishing,” says organizer Louis Rastelli. He adds that attending alternative gatherings can be eye-opening for people in the established book industry. “If the industry doesn’t get involved in what the new generation is doing, similar to the music [business], they [will] have some catching up to do.”

ChiZine’s Brett Savory (Photo: Jackie Spencer)

For some small presses, zine fairs perform a similar function to book launches. “You can do direct sales, so it’s a little cash boost, especially around the holidays when the [printer’s] bills are coming in,” says Nic Boshart, co-publisher of Invisible Publishing, which has had a presence at recent gatherings in Toronto, Halifax, and Montreal. But for many, such events are not so much about sales as they are about building relationships with new readers. Brett Savory, co-publisher of ChiZine Publications, says he attended Canzine Toronto in the hopes of accumulating social-media followers and promoting the press’s monthly Chiaroscuro reading series. Boshart adds that zine fairs are a good place to scout talent and network with presses one wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Not only do zine fairs bring scores of cultural artifacts to the public, they also provide a venue for interesting side events. In an effort to trump the previous year’s Puppet Slam, Canzine organized the Typewriter Orchestra Room, a cacophonous installation featuring a dozen poets attempting to channel Shakespeare. Canzine also hosted more conventional readings from authors such as Jonah Campbell, who read from his essay collection Food and Trembling (Invisible), and Expozine welcomed author Jonathan Goldstein, host of CBC Radio’s WireTap.

Such inventive programming can be an opportunity for authors who don’t fit in elsewhere. “If you can’t get a reading, make your own show,” says first-time Canzine Toronto vendor and seasoned attendee Liz Worth, author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond (Bongo Beat/ECW Press) and the poetry collection Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions). “You really have to get creative and you have to push really hard.”

Invisible’s Nic Boshart (Photo: Jackie Spencer)

Still, publishers who want to succeed at zine fairs need to adapt in order to stand out. Given the number of exhibitors at Expo­zine  – more than 270 – Rastelli recommends that publishers avoid selling titles at list price. “A lot of customers would like a bit of everything instead of spending all their money at one table, so we encourage people to have inexpensive books,” he says. “Even a publisher of perfect-bound books can produce a small zine worth $2, and at least if someone doesn’t buy a $20 book, they can go home with a sampler.” For her part, Follett, who plans to attend Canzine Toronto again in 2012, says she doesn’t advertise prices, in order to encourage discussion with interested readers.

Follett suggests potential vendors should think twice before dismissing zine fairs as lowbrow. “[T]here is a lot of ignorance, some of it willful, about who is producing art in Canada,” she says. “This is the ground where seeds are being planted for future excellence.”

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IFOA’s International Visitors Programme: the schmooze factor

The 2011 cohort at Niagara Falls (Photo: IFOA)

Less than 24 hours into a September business trip to New York City, three people had already asked Iris Tupholme the same question: how could they land an invitation to the International Visitors (IV) Programme? In truth, the guest list is chosen collectively by a committee, which Tupholme chairs, but that fact didn’t stop her peers from trying to wrangle a spot in what has become one of the industry’s most coveted networking events.

Launched in 2008, the five-day IV Programme runs in conjunction with the International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, which kicked off its 2012 edition on Oct. 18. Participants arrive on the first Sunday of the festival and spend the following week attending publisher-hosted breakfast and lunch meetings, touring bookstores and literary agencies, taking in festival readings, participating in pitch meetings, and attending presentations. It’s a fast-paced symposium that immerses visitors in the Canadian publishing industry and, ideally, sends them home with a list of promising Canadian authors and attractive foreign-rights opportunities.

“Five years ago, we started it with the goal of bringing a small group of editors and publishers and an occasional agent or literary scout to Toronto for a series of meetings with colleagues, and attending readings by our Canadian authors and others,” says Tupholme, the vice-president, publisher, and editor-in-chief at Harper­Collins Canada. “It has blossomed from there.”

Tupholme first approached IFOA director Geoffrey Taylor about creating the IV Programme in 2005, after attending the Visiting International Publishers program in Sydney, Australia. Creating an IFOA-related networking event was already in the festival “job jar,” says Taylor, so the pair began developing a program designed for publishing professionals in mid-career who might not be able to attend major international book fairs in Frankfurt or London.

But right from the beginning, says Taylor, “everyone wanted to be a part of it at a much more senior level.” The program also fills the annual networking gap created when Reed Exhibitions announced the permanent cancellation of BookExpo Canada in 2009.

Sales pitches at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (Photo: IFOA)

Funding for the IV Programme comes primarily from the Ontario Media Development Corporation, with the balance covered by the Department of Canadian Heritage, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, individual publishers (who might sponsor a party or event), and foreign arts councils or funding bodies affiliated with program participants. The program pays for airfare, accommodation, meals, and ground transportation for all “fellows,” while “distinguished guests” (such as agents) cover their own travel costs.

“The exact mechanics vary from year to year,” says Taylor, who emphasizes that the distinction is purely financial. All invited guests participate equally in the week’s events.

While organizers can’t quantify the number of deals and foreign-­rights sales that have resulted directly from the program, most alumni confirm that they have, indeed, discovered Canadian talent in Toronto.

Ziv Lewis, foreign-rights manager for Israel’s Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing, learned about Deborah Willis’s Vanishing and Other Stories (Penguin Canada) during the 2010 IV Programme and recently published a Hebrew translation. Lewis also met Andrew Kaufman in Toronto, and Kinneret will release an Israeli edition of Kaufman’s second novel, The Waterproof Bible (Random House Canada), in early 2013.

Likewise, London-based literary scout Rosalind Ramsay learned about Katrina Onstad’s novel Everybody Has Everything (McClelland & Stewart) during a 2011 visit to Westwood Creative Artists, and has since encouraged Netherlands publisher Artemis/Ambo Anthos to secure Dutch rights.

The cultural exchange can also happen in reverse. During the 2010 program, former Picador editor Sam Humphreys (now publisher at Penguin U.K. imprint Michael Joseph) introduced Coach House Books editorial director Alana Wilcox to Eye Lake, a novel by U.K.-based Canadian writer Tristan Hughes. After connecting with Humphreys in Toronto, Coach House bought Canadian rights and published the novel in October 2011.

Schmoozing at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (Photo: IFOA)

Agent Gray Tan, president of the Grayhawk Agency in Taipei, sold The Man with the Compound Eyes by Taiwanese author Ming-Yi Wu to his fellow 2011 IV participant Lexy Bloom, a senior editor at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group in the U.S. Tan and Bloom became friends during the program, and two months later, Bloom bought Wu’s novel for the Vintage and Anchor imprints.

Perhaps most importantly, representatives from independent Canadian presses have a chance to rub shoulders with influential visitors during the IV Programme. Alumnus Aram Fox, a New York City literary scout, introduced Coach House’s Wilcox to more than a dozen publishers at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair after the pair connected in Toronto. “Scouts aren’t that excited to see smaller presses,” says Wilcox, “but [Fox] was open, has the greatest contacts, and arranged the meetings.”

Many alumni agree that running IV during the festival gives the event a cozy atmosphere often lacking on a trade-show floor. The intensive schedule also encourages long-lasting bonds. “It’s something completely different from meetings at book fairs,” says Tan, who represents The Cooke Agency, Random House of Canada, McClelland & Stewart, and the Beverley Slopen Literary Agency in the Chinese market. “Sure, we would still love to do business with each other, but the priority is simply to make friends and exchange ideas and experiences.”

“A huge amount of trust and goodwill is generated, and I imagine that many Canadian authors have benefited indirectly as a result of that goodwill,” says Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In addition to Barley, directors from some of the world’s leading authors’ festivals – including the Melbourne Writers Festival, Beijing’s Bookworm International Literary Festival, and the International Literature Festival Berlin – have participated in the IV Programme, and in 2010, the five festivals formed a unique partnership known as the Word Alliance.

Organizers say they don’t plan to expand the number of fellowships available in future years. The current group size of roughly 20 participants – including both fellows and distinguished guests – ensures each visitor has a meaningful experience, says Taylor. The 2012 IV Programme, however, saw the addition of a Canadian editorial fellowship (awarded to Trena White, publisher of Douglas & Mc­Intyre) and a new industry prize known as the Ivy Award. The committee also hopes to create events for the growing list of program alumni and institute a juried IV application form to replace what’s currently a more subjective selection process.

Alumni suggestions for improving the program are strikingly minimal. “I hope the ‘speed date’ part of quick meetings with Canadian publishers and agents can be modified according to the needs of each IV [participant],” says Tan. “Otherwise 10 minutes is just too short.” Barley says the focus on meetings and socializing comes somewhat at the expense of attending literary events, but he adds, “This is a very minor quibble. The organization of the IV Programme is 99 per cent right.”

Overall, past participants have nothing but praise for the event – including the annual field trip to Niagara Falls. Many souvenir photos are snapped while these literary VIPs sport the requisite yellow ponchos. Visiting the landmark site is also one of the most relaxed moments in an otherwise demanding week. “You make people get up really early in the morning, you pour them onto a bus when they’re barely awake, they suddenly arrive somewhere and they get soaking wet,” says Taylor. “What’s not to love about that?”

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Just a Larger Family receives Heritage Toronto Award of Excellence

Wilfrid Laurier University Press has received a Heritage Toronto Award of Excellence for Just a Larger Family: Letters of Marie Williamson from the Canadian Home Front, 1940–1944.

The book was edited by Marie’s Williamson’s daughter, Mary F. Williamson, and Tom Sharp, who, as a young British boy, was taken in by the family during the Second World War.

Awards of Merit were presented to two Dundurn Press titles: Mark Osbaldeston’s Unbuilt Toronto 2: More of the City that Might Have Been and Aldona Sendzikas’s Stanley Barracks: Toronto’s Military Legacy.

Reshaping Toronto’s Waterfront (University of Toronto Press), edited by Gene Desfor and Jennefer Laidley, received an honorable mention.

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Q&A: Lisa Moore on writing February for the stage

Lisa Moore’s novel February (House of Anansi Press) was a critical success when it came out in 2009, landing on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Three years later, the time-shifting story, about a widow who must raise four children after her husband is killed in the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig, is heading to the stage. Directed by Michelle Alexander, the production premieres Sept. 21 at Alumnae Theatre in Toronto, and runs until Oct. 6.

Moore was originally commissioned to write a theatre adaptation by Newfoundland’s Winterset in Summer Literary Festival in celebration of its 10th anniversary. In August, Winterset hosted a reading of the work-in-progress attended by an Alumnae board member, who subsequently invited Moore to submit her script to the company.

Before Moore arrived in Toronto for the premiere, she took a few minutes to talk to Quillblog about her first experience as a playwright.

Did you have any theatre experience before beginning this project?
When I was 16, I acted and went to a theatre summer school here in Stephenville, Newfoundland. I’ve taught theatre to children on a volunteer basis over the last few years. I think that helped in some ways, but there really is so much to learn, even in the steps between those hours and hours of writing and the first read-through. That’s when you realize, “Oh, the timing. No one can say that mouthful, or this point is belaboured, or I need more there because what I imagined was evident in a sentence has gone by so quickly no one could have gotten it.”

Did you work with anyone during the writing process?
I worked with Rising Tide Theatre’s Charlie Tomlinson and Donna Butt here in Newfoundland through early drafts of the script. I learned some important things from them about the restrictions of theatre. Coming to theatre as a novelist I think that’s one of the first great shocks: everything is limited by the physical. But that’s also what’s thrilling about it – there’s so much you don’t have to write because the actors bring so much flesh and blood to it. This sounds obvious, but it’s an amazing thing to learn what you have to write and what you don’t have to write.

The script is like the roadmap and the actors and director live the adventure of it. There’s something thrilling about giving up control and allowing other people to create something that you started.

Was the book challenging to adapt for the stage?
Many of the people who auditioned hadn’t read the book, but they had read the script and got the time shifts. The theatre hired a technician (Megan Benjafield), who was excited about creating an atmosphere through sound and lighting.

In part, it’s left up to the director. She didn’t think of it as a challenge – she felt those shifts were obvious in the script, but I think the lighting and sound will alert the audience, as well as the content.

If someone has died in one scene and in another scene that person walks on stage, it’s either a ghost or you’ve had a shift in time. I like that ambiguity, because I think it provides a layer of meaning and brings up the question “What is death?” and “What remains after?”

What was it like watching actors perform your characters?
I went up to Toronto for the first read-through with the actors. They were great, sometimes reading the script in ways I hadn’t imagined, and sometimes in ways I had, which was also exciting.

The actor who’s playing Helen (Lavetta Griffin) is from Newfoundland, and when I heard her read the part – she hadn’t read the book – I was altered completely in my relationship to the novel because mow and forevermore this woman will be the Helen in my novel. She was so very much exactly as I imagined – or rather she is now what I imagine. She brought Helen to life.

Did you enjoy writing for the stage enough to do it again?
Yes! A stage is a small space when you compare it to a novel, but the notion of creating something that lasts for an hour and is surrounded by an audience – it’s just such a carrot to put in front of a horse.

I feel ridiculous wandering into that arena blindfolded, not knowing what I’m doing at all, but people work with you and tell you what they want. A novel is a collaboration, too, but not to this extent. Of course, you’re still alone when you write it, but the fact that someone takes over at a certain point is a complete thrill.

What was the most helpful advice you received?
The advice I got most about writing a play was “Don’t have a herd of camels running across the stage.” Someone else said, “Write the play and let the director worry about whether or not you can have camels.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

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Eva Stachniak talks to the audience about the best and worst of Catherine the Great's favourites

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Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Lesley Strutt, Dean Steadman, Amanda Earl, Alastair Larwill and Frances Boyle

Frances Boyle, Dean Steadman, Lesley Strutt and Alastair Larwill

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Jewel of the Thames launch

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