Saturday, December 31, 2011

Fond Farewell to Fiction Writers

Today my 2011 blogging challenge is complete. I've posted every day of the year, as I set out to do on January 1st.

It's been a wonderful ride. Among other things, I've learned more about Turkish archaeological sites, unusual buildings, prehistoric cave art, various types of volcanoes, ancient and modern libraries, historic Canadian forts and the historic CPR hotels that were built along with the railroad.

I also spent time recalling and collecting childhood skipping songs and learning more about some interesting bridges.

I've especially enjoyed these last months of researching and blogging about Canadian authors. At first I planned to limit myself to those whose works I'd read, but in the end, I felt compelled to include many whose work is new to me. I've learned a lot and grown my reading list for next year as a result.

Hats off too, to the many Canadian authors I didn't include: poets, most non-fiction writers and many writers of fiction as well. What can I say? The year ended, and so does my list.

Next year, I'll be back to blogging a couple of times a week. My plan is to continue with observations and comments on a variety of topics.

I also plan to review some of the books I read in the New Year.

Happy New Year and Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Ivan E. Coyote

Photo: St Mary's Story Telling Festival
Born and raised in the Yukon, Ivan E. Coyote is an accomplished author, poet and story teller. I first heard her several years ago on CBC and was immediately captivated by the her unique narrative voice.

In 2006, Ivan's first novel Bow Grip came out. It won the Relit fiction award and was named a Stonewall honor book by the American Library Association. Her recent collection of short stories, The Slow Fix (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008), is reviewed by Judith Fitzgerald in The Globe and Mail. This volume was shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award.

Hearing her speak recently, I took her professional recommendations to heart. Some of her tips I would never have thought of, and the nuts and bolts advice was a great help as I embarked on my year of focused writing at The Writers' Studio at SFU. Giving public readings is a requirement for writers in the program.

At a recent Surrey International Writers' Conference, Ivan Coyote also discussed the writerly problem of getting down to work, offering some excellent strategies to help combat the tendency to procrastinate. I'd been thinking of doing Nanowrimo, and when she told us that she'd managed to finish a novel that way, I signed up for the experience. As Ivan had promised, the discipline of assigning oneself a daily word count proved valuable.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Will Ferguson

Photo from Will Ferguson's official blog

Though the idea is now taking off with e-books, Will Ferguson is perhaps the first person to have a soundtrack to go with his novel. It all started with a conversation in a bar in Toronto. The honky tonk country band of Tom Phillips was playing and Will told his publisher friend that was the sound he wanted for his book.

Why not? They could see no reason, and they went ahead and approached the band. When Ferguson launched Spanish Fly (Penguin 2007), the original CD was ready to go, with a sound track that includes lyrics by Ferguson as well as Phillips. The novel's plot line follows the "grifters and drifters" through the dust bowl era as they con their way towards the bright lights of Silver City, USA.

Ferguson told this story at the Sechelt Writers' festival in 2009. He was backed up by the sad-sounding lyrics of the emaciated Tom Phillips, who couldn't have fit more absolutely the title of his band, the Men of Constant Sorrow.

Spanish Fly made the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award longlist and earned its author his fourth Leacock Medal for Humour.

Indeed, Will Ferguson is well-known as a humourist. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw (2004) won the Leacock Medal in 2005. Bastards and Boneheads (1999) is a listing of Canadian Prime Ministers, classified each as either the one or the other. There is no third category.

With his brother Ian, Ferguson also won the Libris Booksellers Non-fiction Book of the Year (How to be a Canadian, 2002). Among other honours, he won he won the CAA Award for History (Canadian History for Dummies 2001) and the Pierre Berton Award for History (2005).

In 2009, he published a travel memoir called Beyond Belfast.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Zsuzsi Gartner


Writer-editor Zsuszi Gartner was born in Winnipeg and grew up a Calgarian.

Her new short story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, was a 2011 Giller nominee.

Reviewing this book in the National Post, Jeet Heer summarizes the context of Alice Munro and then describes Gartner as the Anti-Munro.

That is, rather than the "green and hardy physical world" inhabited my Munro's characters, those of Gartner are "immersed in a completely technological environment."

Gartner is interested in speculative fiction, and she edited Darwin's Bastards, a short story collection (D & M 2010). Globe and Mail reviewer Micah Toub places Gartner and this book, along with Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland and William Gibson in "an important [futuristic] counter-tradition" that stands in opposition to CanLit's dominant historic fiction.

Other works by Zsuszi Gartner include All the Anxious Girls on Earth (Key Porter 1999) and various works in the Walrus and other magazines. Gartner was once the senior editor of Saturday Night and in 2007 she won a National Magazine Award for Fiction. A long-time reviewer for the Globe and Mail, she has also appeared on the CBC program Canada Reads.

In September 2011 she was interviewed by Michael Bryson in The Danforth Review.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Michael Crummey

Picture: Canadian Books and Authors

Poet and fiction writer Michael Crummey was born in a small town in Newfoundland. He was originally educated at Memorial University and got his Master's from Queens. A young poet and short story writer in 1994, he won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers.

In 1998 Crummey's story was selected for the Journey Prize Anthology, and he published the short story collection Flesh and Blood. In 2004 he co-authored a non-fiction book about Newfoundland with photo-journalist Greg Locke.

His first novel, River Thieves (2001) features the conflict between the colonizers and the Beothuk, a native group driven to extinction by the arrival of the European settlers. A national bestseller, this novel was nominated for the Giller Prize. In 2005, The Wreckage (Random House) came out to great acclaim. A national bestseller, it was selected as one of the Globe and Mail top 100 books and nominated for the Rogers Writers's Trust Fiction Prize.

Crummey's most recent novel, Galore (Random House 2010), is his attempt to portray the "cultural DNA" that is rooted in the fabled world of Newfoundland's rural, isolated and "medieval" oral culture, which still lies just below the surface. This book was nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and four other prestigious awards. It also won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Canada and the Caribbean as well as the Canadian Authors' Association. It's a fantastic read.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Daniel Kalla


The renowned poet William Carlos Williams was a doctor. The renowned Afghani-American novelist Khaled Hosseini was a doctor, as he says, "until my patients wanted to talk about my books more than their illnesses." Prize-winning Canadian novelist Vincent Lam, author of The Headmaster's Wager, still works as an Emergency Room physician in Toronto.

Another medical author, Daniel Kalla, who got his MD from UBC, now works in a Vancouver ER. Since 2005, when his first novel Pandemic came out, he's produced the thrillers Resistance (2006), Rage Therapy (2006), Blood Lies (2007), Cold Plague (2008) and Of Flesh and Blood (2010). Kalla is now an internationally best-selling author whose seventh novel, a work of historic fiction, came out this year.

According to his website, The Far Side of the Sky "focuses on a short but extraordinary period of Chinese, Japanese and Jewish history when cultures converged and heroic everyday sacrifices were part of the everyday quest for survival." It's reviewed here in the National Post.

I heard him speak about this book in a recent CBC interview. Even though I missed some part of the conversation when I had to drive through the Massey Tunnel, I knew immediately that I had to read this book. Thank you, Santa Claus.

Even better news: this is just the first volume of an astonishing love story set in Shanghai during WWII ends in 1942. Kalla is planning a sequel before returning to thrillerdom.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saying Merry Christmas with flowers

For me, an important Christmas ritual is filling the house with seasonal flora: first a real tree from our neighbour's farm, then poinsettias.

Christmas cactus looks great if it blooms at the right time. My pink one has a mind of its own but usually shows some seasonal bloom. The amaryllis bulbs I forced indoors are finished, as are the first pots of white narcissus. New pots of those are rooting in the dark, nearly ready to come upstairs and grow their flower shoots. They'll add their fragrance to to post-Christmas winter months.

More organized than usual, I have hyacinths coming indoors too -- the bulbs are already showing green and the fragrant flowers will be blue.

This year brought a bonus: the kaffir lily that stands just inside the front door produced these gorgeous blooms just days ago.

Enjoy your Christmas, with flowers I hope. Back tomorrow with more CanLit authors.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Brian Payton

Picture from Simon Fraser University Continuing Studies

Brian Payton is currently the Non-Fiction Mentor for the Writers' Studio at SFU. For the past year, I've had the privilege of being one of his Nonfictionistas, and though the bonds we forged in Brian's class means we will forge on without him, I'll certainly miss his advice and encouragement.

Brian's well-researched story about the fate of the Investigator and crew, in search of the Franklin expedition and the Northwest Passage, has a mythical quality. The Ice Passage (Doubleday 2009) was shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-fiction prize and the National Award for Canadian Non-fiction.

Shadow of the Bear: Travels in Vanishing Wilderness (Viking 2006) is another achievement. The author's quest begins with a dream. This eventually takes him to Cambodia in search of the Sun Bear, to Peru, to China, and to the Apennines in Italy to learn about the few remaining wild bears.

In France, he nearly manages to talk the guardian of the paleolithic cave paintings into letting him see inside where the images are preserved along with the bear skulls placed by early humans. This book is a fascinating meditation on the politics, economics and culture that surround the world's eight bear species, all endangered for a variety of reasons.

Brian Payton also writes fiction. Hail Mary Corner (Dundurn 2001) is a novel set in a remote Vancouver Island seminary where he studied. Its final lines haunted me long after I put it down.

Brian Payton was born in the US and lived in Alaska as a child. His writing career began when, as a graduate of the University of Victoria, he went to Ireland to surf, wrote about it, and sold the story to the New York Times. He has also published in Canadian Geographic, Walrus, The Boston Globe and the LA Times.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Shaena Lambert

Photo: Canadian Books and Authors

Shaena Lambert is a Vancouver writer who has spent time in New York and Toronto and has taught creative writing at the Humber School for Writers.

Her novel Radiance (Virago 2007), concerns the post-war "Hiroshima Maiden" Keiko, an eighteen-year old atomic bomb survivor who is brought to the US for plastic surgery, and Daisy, her childless home stay "mother" whose life is forever changed by the puzzling young woman whose scars refuse to heal.

The author told John Burns of the Georgia Straight how the novel began to take root when in 1986, as an organizer of the Vancouver Centennial Peace Festival, she was asked to display some objects that had belonged to the dead of Hiroshima.

Radiance was selected as "Best Book of the Year," by the Globe and Mail, Quill and Quire and two New Zealand newspapers, and got great reviews in the UK and elsewhere. It was a finalist for the Rogers/Writer's Trust Fiction Prize, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and Ontario's Evergreen Award.

In 2009, when Shaena was a guest at the Vancouver Branch of the Canadian Authors Association, I was fascinated to hear her read the scene of Keiko's arrival and talk about the process of generating beginnings and endings for fiction.

Shaena is passionate about story making. Writing, she says, is a melding of craft and mystery, and she's a great encourager of other writers. She is currently the Fiction Mentor at the Writers' Studio, Simon Fraser University. Meeting her there last year, I was delighted to learn she was a fellow fan of the brilliant British novelist Ford Madox Ford.

A short story collection, The Falling Woman (2002) was published in Canada and the UK, and also in Germany as Die Fallende Frau. It was a finalist for the Danuta Gleed Award. Other Lambert short stories have appeared in Zoetrope, The Vancouver Review, Ploughshares, The Journey Prize Anthology and Best Canadian Short Stories 2011.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Denise Chong

Photo: Asia Canada

In the 1980s, Denise Chong, was an economic adviser to Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. In 1987, in China with her husband, a journalist, and her mother, that she began to uncover the lost history of her family's past. Her well-known book, The Concubine's Children (Penguin 1996), began as a cover story for Saturday Night in 1988.

The article generated so many questions that
Chong was inspired to find out and tell more of the story. She embarked upon the memoir that took years to research and write and reads like a novel. Chong reconstructed her family's history from pictures and from stories gleaned from her mother and from her grandfather's original family whom she rediscovered in China.

Chan Sam, her grandfather, came to Canada first as a sojourner in 1913, to seek his fortune in "Gold Mountain," and brought a concubine to keep him company in the new world. That concubine's daughter was Chong's mother.

The history of this family reveals the historic backdrop of the twentieth century. Her grandfather left his Chinese village long before the revolution, and arrived in Canada at a time when Canadian institutions were racially biased against Chinese, who had few rights. Part of the story plays out in the Vancouver Chinatown of the mid-sixties, a very different place from the multicultural city that has evolved since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into effect in 1982.

The Concubine's Children won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-fiction, the City of Vancouver Book Award and the Vancity Book Prize. It was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award and spent more than a year and a half on the Globe and Mail bestseller list. It has also been translated into several languages.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

M.G. Vassanji

Photo from CBC

M.G. Vassanji was born in Kenya, raised in Tanzania and educated at MIT and The University of Pennsylvania. He came to Canada in 1978 as a postdoctoral fellow at the Atomic Energy Commission, then moved to the University of Toronto, where he worked as a research associate.

In Toronto he developed a strong interest in literature and co-founded a literary magazine known as The Toronto Review of Contemporary Writing Abroad.

He published his first novel, The Gunny Sack, in 1989, and won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. He then went on to produce five more novels as well as two collections of short stories and a biography of Mordecai Richler.

Mr. Vassanji is a two-time winner of the Giller. In 1994, he was awarded the first Giller to be given out for The Book of Secrets, and then won the prize again in 2003 for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. In 2007, his novel The Assassin's Song (2007) was nominated for the Giller prize once again.

Winner of the Harbourfront Prize and the shortlisted for the Crossword Book Prize in India, Vassanji has been widely translated, as well as being awarded a number of honorary doctorates. He was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2005.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke photo from Bukowski Agency

The Polished Hoe
(Amistad 2002) was a towering achievement of a novel. It garnered a bouquet of international prizes and honours including the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Prize and was co-winner of the Trillium Award.

The book also sold more than 30,000 copies in Canada alone and spent many weeks on the bestseller list. Internationally, it got rave reviews from The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, The Sydney Herald, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and more.

The story takes place over one night on a fictitious Caribbean Island called Bimshire, as a woman takes her time to confess to a murder, as she slowly reveals what led up to it. The gripping story, brought out to a large degree through the dialogue between the two main characters, portrays the history of slavery in the West Indies, along with some of its most devastating effects.

Interviewed in Quill and Quire in 2003 after becoming a Giller and Commonwealth Prize celeberity, Clarke revealed to Donna Bailey Nurse that after 40 years of writing, he was looking forward to getting a decent advance, and had no plans for retiring. He is now in his mid-seventies.

Clarke has written nine novels to date, along with six short story collections and a culinary memoir of Barbados, called Love and Sweet Food.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Vincent Lam

Photo: CBC News

Dr. Vincent Lam was born in Ottawa in 1974. He is an emergency room physician and a lecturer with the U of T's Department of Family and Community Medicine.

He is also the winner of the 2006 Giller Prize for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, his collection of connected short stories about Med students studying at the U of T and doctors practicing in Toronto hospitals around the time of the SARS epidemic. The book has been adapted and produced as a TV series.

Speaking of epidemics, Lam has also co-authored with Dr. Colin Lee, a book on Pandemics, entitled The Flu Pandemic and You.

Recently, he has written a novel called The Headmaster's Wager, slated for publication by Doubleday. He has also published, as part of the Extraordinary Canadians series, a biography of Tommy Douglas. In 2011, he appeared at the Kingston Writers' Fest.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Joseph Boyden

Picture: University of New Orleans English Faculty

In 2005, Joseph Boyden published a novel called Three Day Road (Penguin). "You must read this," said Pat, my old friend and fellow English major from UBC. Her tone brooked no argument. That first novel created a lot of buzz. Since Pat put that volume into my hand, the work has been translated into 15 languages and published in over 50 countries. It's reviewed by Bronwyn Drainie in Quill and Quire here.

I read the book while we were on holiday in Mexico. Even in the relaxed atmosphere of sunshine, sea and palm trees, it haunted me.

Loosely based on the experience of a real native sniper who served in World War I, the story portrays the experience of the young Cree veteran Xavier, who returns to the bush at Moose Factory without the buddy who helped him get through the war, and with a severe drug addiction.

In 2008, this young novelist (born 1966) won the Giller Prize for Through Black Spruce, a novel that travels surefootedly between Moosonee, New York and Toronto. This book was also reviewed in Quill and Quire, by Mark McCallanan. See the Washington Post review (2009) here.

Joseph Boyden has been the recipient of various awards for his remarkable work. For Three Day Road, he won the Rogers/Writers' Trust Award and the CAA Book of the Year Award, the in Canada First Novel Award and the French Prix Literaire. The book was also shortlisted for the Governor General's.

As well as the Giller Prize, Through Black Spruce earned its author the Libris Book of the Year and Author of the Year Awards. It was also nominated for the International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award and published in a dozen languages.

Boyden is a true Canadian, if there really is such a thing: his roots are Irish, Scottish and Metis (French and Cree). He has published short stories as well as novels as well as contributing to Walrus, Zoomer, Macleans, and The Globe and Mail.

He was educated at York University in Toronto and in New Orleans and now divides his time between Louisiana and Northern Ontario.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Patrick Taylor

Photo: CAA Canwrite! 2010, photo by Jean Kay.

Patrick Taylor is the author of the Irish Country series of popular novels featuring Dr. Barry Laverty: An Irish Country Doctor (2007), An Irish Country Village (2008), An Irish Country Courtship (2010), an Irish Country Christmas (2008). His latest work, A Dublin Student Doctor (2011), goes back to the student days in Dublin of Dr Fingal O'Reilly, mentor to Dr. Laverty.

Born in Bangor, Northern Ireland, and trained as a physician in Ulster and Dublin, Patrick came to Canada in the early 1990s. He draws on his own experience of rural medical practice. His books regularly make the bestseller lists.

During a distinguished medical career as an obstetrician-gynecologist and later a researcher and teacher in the field of infertility, Patrick was the recipient of the Lifetime Award of Excellence of the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society, as well as other lifetime achievement awards.

While still practicing medicine, he exercised his writing muscles and his funny bone. He produced six medical textbooks and scores of scientific papers. In 1991, he began writing medical humour columns, and was later appointed to the task of reviewing Stitches, a Journal of Medical Humour, once published in Canada, the US, the UK and Australia, and also published as a book (2005).

Along with novels, columns, texts and scientific papers, Patrick has written a collection of short stories, Only Wounded: Ulster Stories, reviewed by Scott Inniss, 1997.

A member of the Vancouver Branch of the Canadian Authors' Association, Patrick is generous in sharing his time and expertise with aspiring authors. At Canwrite! 2010 in Victoria he gave a series of one-hour workshops to writers with manuscripts. Patrick continues to give periodical talks and readings at local writing events.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Annabel Lyon

Photo by Rene Johnson, Toronto Star

When Annabel Lyon published her first novel, Marsha Lederman called her "CanLit's newest golden girl" in the Globe and Mail.

The Golden Mean (Random House 2009) is a fictionalized biography of a well-researched and powerfully imagined Aristotle, who happens to be bipolar. The novel portrays his relationship with famous ancients, in particular a teenaged Alexander the Great, whom he tutored.

This book was nominated for The Giller Prize, the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award and the Canadian Authors' Association award for fiction. It won the Rogers Writers' Trust fiction award and was published in several languages. It was praised by Hilary Mantel, winner of the 2009 Man Booker (Wolf Hall).

Lyon, who lives in New Westminster and teaches Creative Writing courses, had previously published novellas (The Best Thing for you 2004) and short stories (Oxygen 2000).

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Robertson Davies

Photo from Northwest Passages

Robertson Davies (1913 - 1995) was an editor, essayist and novelist who was also interested in the stage. Davies was originally educated at Upper Canada College in Toronto, and then Queens. His degree in literature came from Balliol College in Oxford. On completing this degree, he worked as an actor in London.

Upon returning to Canada in 1940, he worked as editor first of Saturday Night and later of The Peterborough Examiner. Meanwhile he wrote plays, as well as humorous essays published under a pseudonym, Samuel Marchbanks.

The Salterton Trilogy came out in the early fifties. The second of these novels, Leaven of Malice, won the Stephen Leacock Medal. In the fifties Robertson Davies was also involved in launching the Stratford Festival.

In 1960, Davies went to the U of T, eventually becoming the Master of the new Massey College. He taught there for many years, publishing literary essays and winning numerous honorary degrees and awards.

His famous novel, Fifth Business, came out in 1970 and was nominated for the Booker Prize. This first of The Deptford Trilogy was followed by The Manticore (1972) and World of Wonders (1974).

"Happiness," said Robertson Davies, "is always a by-product," and "is not something that can be demanded from life." He advised that we "stop worrying about it and see what treasures you can pluck from your own brand of unhappiness." (Quotations page.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Anne Michaels

Photo from The Guardian

Anne Michaels published her first novel in 1997 to rave reviews.  

Fugitive Pieces spent two years on the bestseller list here and was translated into over twenty languages. It also received the Orange Prize and the Guardian Fiction Prize.

Reading that novel when it came out, I remember being transfixed by the juxtaposition of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Poland and the astonishing rescue of a thin child, a sole survivor of his Jewish family. The small boy was literally worn inside the overcoat of his rescuer while they passed the barrier. Years later in Toronto, the man this boy has become is still haunted by his past.

Her second novel, The Winter Vault (2009) is written in the same lush and lyrical prose. It ranges across Egypt in the days of building the Aswan High Dam, then across Montreal, Toronto and rural Ontario, then returns to scenes of war in Warsaw.

Interviewed by Sarah Crown in The Guardian when the second book came out, Michaels said she felt a profound and inescapable sense of responsibility to her historical material. At the same time, she wished to step back from personal identification with the specifics of the shared history carried by the post-war generation.

On publication of The Winter Vault, Gerald Hannon reported on the author in Quill and Quire. Michaels was born and educated in Toronto, where she took an honours BA in English at the U of T. Before writing her novels, Anne Michaels published three collections of poetry.

The Weight of Oranges
came out in 1986, and won the Commonwealth Prize for the Americas. In 1991 Miner's Pond won the CAA Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Governor General's and the Trilliuim Award. Skin Divers appeared in 1999.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gabrielle Roy

Photo from Gabrielle Roy: du manuscrit virtuel

Gabrielle Roy was born in St. Boniface (across the Red River from Winnipeg) in 1909. She had ten siblings, all older.

After high school, she attended the Winnipeg Normal Institute and began to teach school.

Later, she took up acting, joining the Cercle Moliere, a theatre troupe, and went to Europe, where she briefly studied acting. After spending time in France and the UK, she returned to Canada, settled in Montreal and began publishing her writing in various journals.

1945 was the year of her debut novel, Bonheur d'occasion. Published in 1946 in English as The Tin Flute, it won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. The same year, 700,000 copies of the book were sold and Universal Studios in Hollywood bought the film rights.

This novel, a major departure from the typical novels of the time, realistically portrayed the harsh life of a poor Montreal family, and was popular in both English and French. It was republished as part of the New Canadian Library in 1989. A Surrey elementary school has been named for her.

Other well-known works (English titles) include Where Nests the Water Hen (1950), Street of Riches (1956), and The Road Past Altamount (1966). Windflower (1970) is the story of a child with a dual heritage: his father is an American GI and his mother is an Inuit. Phyllis Webb describes it here. Gabrielle Roy died in 1983.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Madeleine Thien

Photo from Parry Sound Books

Born in Vancouver with a family heritage that traces back to Indonesia, novelist and short story writer Madeleine Thien attended Simon Fraser University as a student of dance before switching to UBC to take up Creative Writing studies.

Later, she moved to Montreal. She is currently serving as a member of the International Faculty in the Master of Arts in Creative Writing Program at the University of Hong Kong.

A short story collection, Simple Recipes (2002) won the Ethel Wilson fiction prize and the City of Vancouver Book Award, as well as being a regional finalist for a Commonwealth Prize.

Her debut novel, Certainty, came out in 2005. Thien is interviewed here by Laura Atkins in

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lewis deSoto

Photo from Bookperk

Past editor of The Literary Review of Canada, Lewis deSoto was born in Blomfontein, South Africa and now lives in Toronto and Normandy.

His novel A Blade of Grass is a profoundly moving example of the written art.

Awards include Books in Canada and the Writer's Union Short Prose Award.

DeSoto has also written a biography of B.C. painter Emily Carr.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Saying Farewell to The Writers Studio SFU

It began on Friday, when this year's graduates shared a farewell dinner, and it continued today, as we officially bid our adieux to Betsy Warland, mentor and writing colleague to all of us. It was Betsy who was responsible for creating The Writer's Studio ten years ago.

This evening Betsy talked about her history with the Studio. Katherine McManus, the Program Director of Writing and Publishing at Harbour Centre Campus, praised this program as unique.

Betsy is moving on; this was her last year as Director. The good news is, she'll have more time for her writing. The bad news is that she will be sorely missed, and her shoes will be hard to fill.

Other good news is that the three mentors from this year will be staying on. As one of the Nonfictionistas, as we came to be called, I had the privilege of working with Brian Payton.

Brian is the author of the exciting true story The Ice Passage. It describes the adventures of a ship called the Investigator, which traveled into the fabled Northwest Passage in 1850 to try to determine the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

Brian's skillfully weaves in his original research from the Royal Naval records at Greenwich: the ship's log, as well as the journals of the ship's doctor and a Moravian missionary who was asked to accompany the group since was able to speak to the Inuit in their own language.

Shaena Lambert continues as the fiction mentor. I'll miss Shaena for her sage advice. "Why not open with it?" asked Shaena of a scene I loved but didn't know how to use. Besides, she shares my fondness for Ford Madox Ford. And who else would have seen a parallel between Ford's work and that of Alexander McCall Smith, a more contemporary favourite writer?

For Shaena's salon, co-hosted by Tony Levi, we wrote in the second person -- a constraint I would never have put on myself. Yet it produced some amazing results; we surprised ourselves and our fellows by the work we produced on the topic of the Stanley Cup Riot.

The award-winning poet and Rhodes Scholar Jen Currin continues too, as the mentor for poetry. Her Salon packed quite a wallop, as Jen unveiled for us new levels of meaning in Tim O'Brien's gut-wrenching story "The Things They Carried." Her writing exercise was memorable too -- both transgressive and pragmatic. The current version of my novel manuscript contains some material I generated that evening.

I'll miss the quiet support of Andrew Chesham too. Can still read his blog, though, The Shadow of Chez.

I'm pleased and proud to have been a part of the Writer's Studio at SFU. Fortunately, membership in this great community of kindred spirits -- well, people with the same compulsions, anyway -- does not end with completing our work at the Studio.

We Nonfictionistas will carry on regular meetings, even though we'll now have to do without Brian, our favourite mentor. The fiction writers will also continue to meet in another form.

And of course, the community readings and writing skills courses will carry on. Next year, TWS is starting a new summer program south of the Fraser: Southbank in Surrey.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wayne Johnston

Photo Welland Tribune

At the age of 27, the young Newfoundlander Wayne Johnston won The WH Smith/Books in Canada award for the Story of Bobby O'Malley. He penned The Divine Ryans first as a novel and later as a screenplay. The movie was made in 1999.

In 2000, Johnston won the Charles Taylor Prize creative non-fiction prize for his memoir of Ferryland, an archeological site on the south shore of the Avalon Peninsula in his home province of Newfoundland.

This book, Baltimore's Mansion was a bestseller in Germany and the Netherlands as well as in Canada, where the National Post called it a "non-fiction novel."

Johnston's most recent novel is A World Elsewhere. Published in August 2011, it is already a national bestseller, a Globe and Mail Best Book. It has also been nominated for the Giller Prize.
Other well-known works include The Colony of Unrequited Dreams (1999) and The Navigator of New York (2003), which was also nominated for the Giller. Both were bestsellers.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

David Adams Richards

Photo from Extraordinary Canadians

David Adams Richards has received wide acclaim for his large body of work. As part of the series, Extraordinary Canadians, he wrote a book about Lord Beaverbrook, the New Brunswick newspaper magnate who became a British Lord as well as a friend and adviser to Sir Winston Churchill.

Richards has been writer in residence at Mount Allison University, the University of New Brunswick, the University of Alberta and the University of Ottawa. Originally a New Brunswicker, he has lived in Toronto for the past few years.

He first became well-known for his Miramichi Trilogy. Nights Below Station Street (1988) won the Governor General's Literary Award and Evening Snow Will Bring Such Peace (1990) won the CAA Award, and For Those Who Hunt the Wounded Down (1993) won the Alden Knowlan Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts and the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Literary Award.
In 1992 Richards won the Canada-Australia Literary prize for his body of work. In 1998 this author won the Governor General's Award for non-fiction and in 2000, his novel Mercy Among the Children won the Giller. The year this novel was published, Ray Robinson interviewed Richards for Quill and Quire.

David Adams Richards is also known as a writer of screenplays, for which he has also won two Gemini awards. Truly an all-round writer, he has published two books of poetry as well.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Eden Robinson

Photo from Thin Air Winnipeg International Writers Festival

Eden Robinson is a Haisla from Kitamaat, northern B.C. In 1998, her first short story collection, Traplines, won Britain's Winnifred Holtby prize. It was also a New York Times Editor's Choice and Notable Book of the Year. The book was picked up by publishers in Estonia, and half a dozen other countries.

In 2000, her first novel, Monkey Beach, appeared under the Random House's New Faces of Fiction. The book was Editor's Choice for the Globe and Mail and was also nominated for the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction.

This novel takes place in Kitimat, a small town where I lived and worked. Though I graduated from high school in nearby Terrace a year before Robinson was born, I found it chilling at times to see what the local school looked like through her aboriginal eyes.

According to Nicholas Dinka, Robinson writes "disturbing fiction" about "characters who make Tony Soprano seem well-adjusted" (Quill & Quire Author Profile December 2005). Stephen King, says Robinson, was a formative influence.

Speaking of Blood Sports (2005), she told Dinka she found the structure "unnerving." She also mentioned that though she did have outlines for the book, her characters refused to comply with her plans for them. The book was reviewed by Nathan Whitlock.

Robinson studied creative writing at UVic, where she failed the introductory fiction technique seminar -- an ordeal which she feels helped her later when she had to struggle through the harder parts of getting her pieces of writing finished.

Later, with a solid grounding from UVic, she entered the graduate Creative Writing program at UBC and finished a draft of Monkey Beach there while earning her Master's Degree.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Signed photo from WikipediaLucy Maud Mongomery, the creator of the firebrand orphan Anne, was born in Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island, in 1874, when the nation itself was only seven years old.

She published her first novel, Anne of Green Gables, in 1908, and the title character, Anne, became an immediate sensation.

With several Anne novels to her credit, L.M. Montgomery acquired an international following, which she retains to this day.

The official PEI website shows the long list of her publications. Czech, Polish, Finnish, Norwegian, French, Dutch and Japanese are some of the languages into which the books have been translated. Her Anne books have also been widely produced on stage and screen and made into audio books.

One of her old homes has been declared a national heritage site. Another former home, the Lucy Maud Mongomery Museum, was listed for sale by her descendant, Robert Mongomery, the current curator, who is about to retire.
In Kensington, PEI, there is an Anne of Green Gables Society that interested people can join: the website offers various perks of membership. There is also a Lucy Maud Montgomery Society in Ontario, where the author wrote about half her books. Established in 1911, this organization is currently celebrating its hundredth birthday.

The Japan-Prince Edward Island Society in Yokohama, Japan, is a non-profit society recognized by the Canadian Embassy. It's purpose is to provide travel information to Japanese Anne fans, of whom there are many.

L.M. Montgomery died in 1942, twenty-five years before the Order of Canada was created. But she did receive an OBE, Order of the British Empire, in 1936. The tenth L.M. Montgomery Institute Conference will be held at the University of Prince Edward Island in June 2012.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Timothy Taylor

Photo: Tim Fraser for National Post

Timothy Taylor is a Vancouver novelist who recently completed The Blue Light Project (2011), a novel about a has-been journalist who gets called to a bizarre hostage-taking. His first novel was Stanley Park (2001), and his second Story House (2006).

Three down, four to go. In Quill & Quire interview in 2006, he told Cheri Hanson that the novel was favourite form, and that he'd have confidence calling himself a novelist (as opposed to merely a writer) when he'd written seven.

Taylor has an interesting history. He was born in Venezuela (but came here very young) and he has a degree in Economics from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and an MBA from Queens. After four years in the world of finance, he decided he really wanted to be a writer, so he applied all those business skills to a building a writing career.

At first he kept up a consulting business to pay the bills; now he works as a writer of novels, as well as non-fiction for magazines. He also does some film work.

In 2000, Taylor won the Journey Prize; indeed, he was the first writer to have three stories in the same edition of the Journey Prize Anthology. In 2002 his short story collection Silent Cruise came out.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Mavis Gallant

Photo by Alison Harris, from Canadian Books and Authors

Listening to the interview on CBC, I sat in the car. After tuning in partway through the program, I was trying to guess who she was. The writer was discussing her relationships with publishers, in particular The New Yorker, which placed more than a hundred of her stories.

I had a hunch that I was listening to the voice of Mavis Gallant. When she began to talk about her life in Paris, I was sure, and smiled to myself, recalling a character in one of her stories saying to his guests, "My wife is a North American," as if that explained everything.

Gallant has led an unusual life. As a child in Montreal, she went to 17 different schools, a mixture of public, boarding and convent schools, then studied in the U.S. She began her writing career in Canada, publishing for Preview beginning at age 22. Her work also appeared in Standard Magazine and Northern Review.

At age 28, determined to write fiction full-time, she moved to Paris. There, she produced a steady output of short stories and novellas, including The Other Paris (1956), My Heart is Broken (1964), The Pegnitz Junction (1973) and Stories from the Fifteenth District (1979). Two novels, Green Water, Green Sky (1959) and A Fairly Good Time (1970), appeared during the same period.

In 1981, Mavis Gallant won the Governor General's Award for Home Truths: Selected Canadian Stories. In 1983-4 she returned to Canada to serve as Writer-in-Residence at the University of Toronto. She was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1981, a Companion in 1993 and received the Canada-Australia Literary Prize in 1984. She was awarded the Matt Cohen Prize and the Blue Metropolis International Grand Prix.

Gallant is also a respected essayist, who has written extensively on French culture and society, as well as penning eye-witness observations on the student riots of 1968. Her essays have been collected in Paris Notebooks: Essays and Reviews (1986). Her Selected Stories (1996) was also very well received.

Age 86 in 2009, she gave an interview to Paula Todd for the Globe and Mail. For the interview, the author chose the Village Voice Bookshop in St-Germain-des-Pres, ascending the spiral staircase in spite of the osteoporosis that has bent her frame. Telling the interviewer that she came to Paris to see if she could make her living as a fiction writer, she said she didn't expect to be so successful.

As for biographers, Gallant says they'll have to wait till she's dead. They probe into the private life, rather than seeing the part where the writing comes from, another part of your brain, your system.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Guy Vanderhaeghe

Author photo: Liam Richards, Globe and Mail.

Saskatoon novelist Guy Vanderhaeghe has just published another novel, A Good Man, the third in his "literary western" trilogy. The first was The Englishman's Boy, (1997) portrays 1920s Hollywood and the infamous Cypress Hills massacre.

In Pechorin's Journal, Max Cairnduff calls it "a book of history, myth and the role of both in shaping nations." This book was Saskatchewan Book of the Year and was short-listed for the Giller and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

The second of the trilogy, The Last Crossing, was reviewed in The Observer by Salley Vickers in 2004. She says that Vanderhaeghe's description of it as a literary western "sells the book short," and that the author "is adroit at hitting just the right psychological note." The praise goes on, including terms like "emotionally intelligent," and "a treat to read." It won the Saskatoon Book Award and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

In the Globe and Mail in September 2011, Andrew Pyper, himself a novelist, calls Vanderhaeghe "the best all-round novelist at work in Canada today." The book, he says, is a "towering achievement."

This author began his literary career with a Governor General's Award for fiction, for his initial collection of short stories, Man Descending (1982). His first novel, My Present Age, was published in 2004, and was a finalist for the Booker. Homesick (1989) won the City of Toronto Book Award.

He has also written a play and contributed to many journals. In 2010, he gave the Trudeau Lecture at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. The title was "Apprehending the Past: History versus the Historical Novel."

Vanderhaeghe has been honoured with many awards, including the Saskatchewan Order of Merit, the Order of Canada, and has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He has also won the Harbourfront Literary Prize and the Timothy Findley Award (Writers' Trust of Canada.) He was a Trudeau Fellow in 2008.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Pierre Berton

Photo from CBC Life and Times

Although Pierre Berton is not a writer of fiction, he is definitely a literary icon in Canada. A journalist, broadcaster and historian, he worked for CBC, Macleans, and The Toronto Star.

Pierre Berton was born in 1920 and died in 2004. He was raised in the Yukon and worked in mining camps during his university years. He began his career as a journalist in Vancouver, where at age 21, he became the youngest city editor of a Canadian daily paper. He also served in the armed forces and taught at the Royal Military College in Kingston.

He wrote fifty books, many on Canadian history topics. The National Dream concerns the plans begun in 1871 to tie the new nation of Canada together with a transcontinental railroad. Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush (2001), describes the rush of miners to the Yukon and the consequent opening of the west. This book won the Governor General's Award for Non-fiction.

Berton's contribution to Canadian history and non-fiction was enormous and in recognition of this he received numerous honorary degrees, a place in the Newsman's Hall of Fame. In recognition of a lifetime of outstanding achievement, he was also made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

As a service to professional colleagues, this author also initiated the Berton House Writers Residence Retreat in 1996. Today the program is owned and operated by the Writers' Trust of Canada, Yukon, with support from the Klondike Visitors' Association and the Dawson City Community Library Board. Writers stay in Berton's old family home.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

W.D. Valgardson

Photo: Winnipeg International Writers' Festival

My favourite W.D. Valgardson short story is "A Matter of Balance." The plot is seen through the eyes of a flawed narrator, traumatized by the violent death of his wife and strongly motivated to protect his children.

Balance works on many levels in this short work. For no apparent reason, nasty bikers threaten Harold in an isolated mountainside in a park (I imagine it as Lighthouse Park, in West Vancouver.) The toughs have neither the skill nor the experience that Harold has. As they pursue him along the steep, slippery trail, they soon begin to lose their balance.

When they turn in panic and ask for his help, how should Harold make his crucial decision? He must weigh the possible consequences with care. If he saves them, they could once more become a threat when the balance of power shifts again.

But is Harold's own mind unbalanced? And where is the balance in a society that produces such people, such dilemmas? After considering his options, Harold makes a decision. Will the reader agree with his choice? The story raises a lot of questions, and the plot, language and symbolism are beautifully handled.

Born in 1939 in an Icelandic Canadian village, W.D. Valgardson was interested in the effects of isolation. Many of his stories deal with this theme. Along with some excellent short stories, Valgardson wrote a novel. The Girl with the Botticelli Face (D & M 1993) takes place in Victoria, where the author was working as a Creative Writing professor at UVic. It was written in the early hours, said Valgardson, when it flowed out easily, day after day.

When he was profiled by John Burns in Quill and Quire in 1997, Valgardson had completed "Garbage Creek" and other children's stories. Like the novel mentioned above, Thor, another children's book, flowed into his mind easily and quickly.

His interest in writing for children, his own grand kids in particular, appears to have balanced the darker aspects of some of his earlier prose.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Anne Marie Macdonald

Photo from Random House New Faces of Fiction

When Fall on Your Knees was published in 1996, Toronto actor and playwright Anne-Marie Macdonald became an instant sensation. Though the plot of this debut novel is horrifying at times, the tale is told with such evident truthfulness that the reader has no choice but to willingly suspend disbelief and follow the story from Syria to Cape Breton to New York and back.

Fall on Your Knees was selected for Canada Reads in 2010. In 1997, it was short-listed for the Giller, the Trillium Prize, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Orange Prize (UK) and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The book won the CAA Harlequin Literary Award, the Dartmouth Book Award and the Commonwealth Prize for First Fiction.

Her second book, The Way the Crow Flies, also received high praise. In this story, a child protagonist is threatened by both local misdeeds and global politics. This was also nominated for the Giller Prize, and is reviewed here in the Guardian.

Macdonald appeared at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts in Sechelt a few years back to read. When asked where she got her ideas, this poised young woman said they simply came to her. The darkness of her stories, she assured the audience, had nothing to do with her childhood, which was normal and pleasant.

Anne Marie Macdonald's play, Good Night Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet (Vintage 1998) won the Governor General's Award for Drama and the Chalmers Award for Outstanding Play. The play Belle Moral, was produced in 2008 at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-theLake. Macdonald has also written opera librettos.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

David Suzuki

Photo from David Suzuki Foundation

My original idea for this series was to stick to fiction writers. But I feel it would be absolutely wrong to leave out one of Canada's most famous native sons.

Born in 1936 in Vancouver, David Suzuki is a third generation Canadian who was just six years old when Canada declared war on Japan during WWII. With many others of Japanese ethnic origin, his father was detained and dispossessed. The family later settled in London, Ontario.

Suzuki got his BA from Amherst College in 1958 and earned his PhD in Zoology from the University of Chicago in 1961. Later he went to Berkeley to further his education. In the late sixties, he was a geneticist teaching at UBC, where I studied The Philosophy of Science with him.

Scientist, activist and broadcaster, as well as a prolific author, Suzuki has been called by CBC "Canada's foremost environmental conscience." A couple of days ago, he weighed in on the D-word -- disposable, in his blog on the David Suzuki Foundation site. "Solutions are in our nature," says the sub-head.

His most recent book, The Legacy: An Elder's Vision for our Sustainable Future (D & M 2010) begins with a Foreword by Margaret Atwood, herself a conservationist.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Barry Broadfoot

Book cover photo from Armstrong Stamps

Instead of describing his characters, Barry Broadfoot used dialogue to reveal them directly. But his work was non-fiction and his characters were real people. His metier was like oral story telling, except that the stories he collected were written down.

Arguably his most famous work is Ten Lost Years: Stories of Canadians who Survived the Depression (1973). This collection of individual stories of struggle and hope showed the Hungry Thirties directly through the eyes of those who experienced that era directly.

By the time Broadfoot died at age 77 in Nanaimo in 2004, this book had sold 200,000 copies in multiple editions. The play based on it ran for months in Toronto and elsewhere, and then toured Europe and made a hit at the Edinburgh Festival. CBC adapted it for television.

Another well-known work is Six War Years, 1939-1945: Memories of Canadians at Home and Abroad (1976). Broadfoot produced other books in the same genre: The Pioneer Years, The Veterans' Years, Next Year Country, and The Immigrant Years. In 1977 he published Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame, a book about the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II. This was before Joy Kogawa's Obasan, which came out in 1981.

Born and raised in Winnipeg, Barry Broadfoot attended the University of Manitoba and began his career as a journalist at the Winnipeg Tribune. He worked for nearly two decades at The Vancouver Sun.

One day he quit his job and went on the road, collecting stories. He produced seventeen books in all, and was published by Douglas Gibson, who published many famous authors and has recently published a book himself. For his opus, he was awarded The Order of Canada, as well as a B.C. Lifetime Achievement Award and an Honorary degree from the University of Manitoba.

He died February 1, 2004 and was remembered in The Star by Judy Stoffman on March 1.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Stuart McLean's philosophy also involves patience and faith

Photo: My Reading Tree

Today I picked up a book my daughter gave me last year. I was still waiting for a suitable time to savour it when I realized that another Christmas was almost upon us. The Vinyl Cafe Diaries (Penguin 2010) was still sitting by my bed, and I picked it up with pleasant anticipation.

Unlike the others in The Vinyl Cafe series, this book is not filled with funny stories about Morley and Dave, their kids, Sam and Stephanie, and their pets, Arthur the dog (who eats ice cream) and Galway the cat (who knows how to flush the toilet). Say "Dave Cooks the Turkey" almost anywhere in Canada and you'll be greeted by hoots of laughter.

Instead, the reader gets a glimpse of a more serious, contemplative side of this much-loved broadcaster, storyteller and writer. Still, as soon as I opened it, I was in Stuart McLean land, that magically pleasant, funny, happy place his fans love so much.

Born in Montreal, Stuart McLean moved to Toronto to work on CBC radio, where he created the fictitious family of Vinyl Cafe fame. For many years, McLean has travelled across this wide country, knitting it together by telling his tales -- hilarious with an undertone of optimism that flirts with naivete. After many years of good intentions, last year we finally made it to his concert at the Centre for the Arts.

This year's concert tour brought him last night to Hamilton. Tomorrow he plays the McPherson in Victoria. The first week of December, he works his way across the prairies, hitting Calgary, Banff, Edmonton, Regina, and Saskatoon before going back to Toronto. Then back out west to Vancouver and Seattle, and east once more to Montreal and Ontario destinations before Christmas. His concerts also feature wonderful musicians.

In an essay called "Salt of the Earth," McLean meditates on salt. Now used by the ton on winter roads, he tells us, salt has been revered since ancient times as a ritual substance that can still remind us that "we are here for each each other for there is salt between us." (87)

In this book of essays, McLean writes about weather and seasonal chores, about neighbours and neighbourhoods, about what holds communities together, about pets and mementoes and clothes we hang onto long after we stop wearing them. In other words, the themes are the same ones he uses in his stories.

One essay that strikes a poignant note is his meditation on newspapers. If newspapers like the Montreal Gazette, founded in 1785, should go down, he says, the big loss would be the shared experience they have given us. "I love newspapers," says McLean and in this he is certain to touch a nerve with many readers who feel the same, for as McLean says, "our newspapers are more than the sum of their parts." (40)

I'll close on the essay about a tropical plant McLean bought on the advice of a real estate agent. After first resisting the idea, he saw a potted palm and succumbed to a whim. Lo and behold, the house sold.

I snuggled down more comfortably in my chair when I read that McLean kept his palm alive after he moved. His comment on this small victory so well expresses my own view of life: "the important lessons...[are] patience and faith." (14)