To celebrate the start of the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto this week I’ll be reminiscing about my precious time spent with authors over the many years of working in and around publishing.
First up: Ken Kesey at the IFOA in 1992
This was the festival where we had to make everything about baseball or we wouldn’t get media coverage or author participation! That’s because the Toronto Blue Jays had made it to the World Series – in fact they won it on the last night of the festival – and Toronto was in the frenzied grip of baseball fever.
Just like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Ken Kesey, who was at the festival with his book Sailor Song, never wanted to be away from a television if the game was on. Read more
“That’s a lovely skirt. Tell me, is it difficult to iron all those pleats?”
In the green room of the North York Centre for the Performing Arts, I’m keeping Alice Munro company until it’s time for her to step on stage for her rare double-bill appearance with Robertson Davies. I’m not sure who’s minding Mr. Davies, but I definitely got the good gig!
Of course, I want to gush to her about how Friend of My Youth (her 7th and my cherished title) changed my life, about how her writing is such an inspiration and how reading it makes me somehow feel less alone. But she wants to talk about something… anything else, as a way to calm her nerves. I’m happy to oblige her every need. In fact my job as the publicist for the Harbourfront Reading Series which is presenting the evening’s event, depends on seeing to her comfort. So, we talk about the challenges of keeping well-formed pleats in my skirt.
When she’s sufficiently relaxed, I shyly ask her to sign my copy.
That was in 1994. I declared my PR career could end then since I reached the ultimate goal of meeting and chatting with my favourite author.
Fast forward to 1998, Ms. Munro is up for the coveted Giller Prize for The Love of a Good Woman. I’m production coordinating the live-from-the-cocktail party portion of the Giller Prize broadcast on Bravo! where I work as PR director. Of course, the producers and hosts want to talk to her, but knowing as I do about her shyness and reluctance to be in the public eye, I keep telling them she will likely not show up until the absolute last minute. Sure enough, she sneaks by all the cameras into her seat in the Four Seasons ballroom.
Her acceptance speech is a very humble few words about how maybe now the short story will gain acceptance as a legitimate form of writing.
I didn’t speak to her that night, just simply basked in her graceful, winning aura.
In Vancouver in 2005, I get to talk to Alice Munro one more time after she accepts the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award in the atrium of the beautiful Vancouver Public Library main branch. I line up to congratulate her and to my absolute astonishment, she remembers me from those many years ago in the green room at the North York arts centre. I wish I could tell you what we talked about that day at the library. I think I was overwhelmed knowing she could recall ever meeting me! She invited me into the small private gathering inside the library.
What I remember most is her warmth, grace and the generous way she spoke to her fans and colleagues that day.
I’m so pleased she’s won the Nobel. I can’t think of a more deserving or worthy Canadian writer whose first thought, when accepting this honour, was directed to those for whom she’s set the trail.
“I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art, not just something that you played around with until you’d got a novel written.”
Sadly, Alice Munro has announced her retirement from writing. But then again, she’s put so much of her singular talent out into the world, we can only be happy and grateful for it, and for her.
I once heard Doug Coupland refer to book reviews as “homework,” and there is an element of drudgery to them. That is, unless you get assigned a great book that you would read even if you didn’t have to.
Oh, My Darling by Vancouver writer Shaena Lambert is one of those. If you appreciate finely crafted short fiction, this is well worth the read.
Every year for the past six I’ve written a fall books preview for the Ottawa Citizen. It’s labour intensive in the sense that I have to research all the fall offerings from the many large and small publisher catalogues (most are online now, which helps) then write a succinct few sentences on a variety of books ranging from fiction to non-fiction, lifestyle to memoir, biography, food, sports and Young Adult/Kids books. Since I’m writing largely from marketing copy with so few books actually finished or even in the advance reading copy stage, it takes awhile to come up with something new, fresh and lively to say. The task takes me awhile to research and a longer while to write.
Still, I love doing it because a) it introduces me to the new exciting list; b) I get boxes of books, the equivalent of Christmas morning to a book-lover; c) it’s become an annual assignment that I can count on.
Last week I renewed my delight and relief about my local Toronto Public Library branch (High Park) when I found the exact books I needed on the hottest few days of the year. I can’t always afford to buy books, and I certainly can’t afford the luxury of air conditioning, so to kill two birds with one stone was fantastic.
I hadn’t been for almost a year and was surprised to see that there’s a new self-serve check out. Signing out my books, I had a strong impression of working at the checkout at Albion Library when I was 14. Then we used an electric machine called a “recordak” into which we fed a library card, the book index card and a due date card which we then fit into the pocket at the back of the book. No email reminders of due dates back then!
Being back at the library reminded me of my Toronto City Hall deputation in 2011, when Mayor Ford sat, reluctant and restless, listening to “tax payers” speak on proposed cuts to some of the most important and beloved city programs and organizations.
Over 300 of us gathered at City Hall at 9 am on July 28th. So many enthusiastic defenders of public programs that Ford cut our original time of three minutes to only one and announced we’d be there through the night. This meant that many people left City Hall because they had to work or look after their kids, etc. (the media reported a 50% drop out rate – a result of the last minute decision to keep proceeding going through the night, and not because of lack of resolve or passion for the topic!) Those of us who stubbornly stayed through the night bonded in our conviction to see this mini-protest through.
Finally, at around 4 am, I heard my name and I nervously sat down to address our Mayor and the committee. I’ve spoken in public and in front of cameras, but it’s not everyday you come face to face with the Mayor to tell him you think he’s wrong.
Here is my original speech, which I had to edit for time, but I hope not for effect.
Libraries Matter – Toronto City Hall, July 28, 2011
I’m a writer, broadcaster and book critic. I’m not here as part of a “special interest group,” or because of any mythical library union pressure. I’m here as a citizen of Toronto and as a regular user of the Toronto Public Library.
My first-ever job was at Albion Library in Etobicoke where I worked as a “page,” shelving books on the main floor and if I was really lucky I got to organize old magazines in the basement stacks. It was dusty down there, but the reading rewards were worth it. I had shifts on the checkout and sometimes conducted a story-time in the kids section, reading picture books to the littlest library users. I was grateful for the opportunity to pass on to the kids a love of reading, and a fascination with the worlds inside books.
I worked there from the age of 14 to 17 and what started out as earning my keep at the library around the corner in the confusing time after my parents broke up became the spark that lit my career in writing and around books. It’s the same for a lot of my writing colleagues, who sight trips to the library as kids as the very reason they became writers. It’s important to note that many of us are not just “artsy” writers, but make part or all of our living doing corporate writing for various Toronto businesses.
From the first time I stepped into a bookmobile as a kid to my days working at the library, until this very day, the library is not only a vital resource but a place where I feel a necessary sense of community and belonging.
There’s this idea that everyone has computers at home and that the almighty internet can give us every little piece of information we need. But it’s just not true. Many individuals and families don’t have the money and that’s where libraries save them.
At the library everyone has access and therefore everyone is equal. Our most vulnerable citizens rely on libraries; low income individuals and families, new Canadians and seniors, people living by no fault of their own on the margins.
A kid having trouble in school but whose parents cannot afford a tutor can get help with their homework at the library. Kids having trouble reading or struggling with a learning disability can sign up for help. Seniors can brush up on their computer skills; freelance or contract workers who struggle with precarious income can book time with a computer or use the free Wifi.
I’ve interviewed new Canadians who have learned to read by checking out books in English, but can also happily borrow books in their own language among the many foreign language collections available. Seminars that help them learn about settling in Toronto and look for jobs are more than just helpful, they are vital to the success of immigrants in our city. People living on the margins or the many lonely people in our society find connection and community at the library. This is important for the overall health of the city. And isn’t it better to have a place for teens from priority neighborhoods to hang out instead of the street or local malls?
The Toronto Library system is one of the most used in the world. Some branches more than others, but low circulation should not be a factor in potential library closings – esp. the ones in at-risk neighbourhoods. If one person uses the library, that’s reason enough to keep it open. Not everyone can always even afford the bus ride to get to a library out of their district. Libraries help kids stay in school, they help steer our newest citizens in the right direction. They give seniors and other people a place to go, a reason to join in.
The benefit of libraries is long term and never-ending. They not only facilitate and foster learning. They introduce us to people, places and ideas we might not otherwise know about. They give people a vital sense of community and for some, a reason to get up in the morning and continue to strive to be contributing members of society.
For all these reasons and more libraries need to remain open, accessible and free.
It’s a day late, but in honour of St. Paddy’s Day, here’s a little something I’ve imported from my old website, herkind.com. It seems appropriate just now.
“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth our while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.”
I’ve read Angela’s Ashes a handful of times, listened to it twice on tape (read to me by the man himself), I’ve given this book to at least a dozen people as gifts for various occasions, or none at all, and seen the film (only once, generally I dislike books to film). It’s safe to say I’ve done some serious time with Mr. McCourt.
It’s hard to believe I resisted reading this book that makes you cry and then laugh through the tears. I guess I thought it was just too popular so not my kind of read. Hey, I’m a self professed book snob. Published in 1996, I think I finally got to it a couple years later, and of course, didn’t put it down til it was finished. While reading it I found a newspaper photo of McCourt and pinned it to my bulletin board at work. I simply couldn’t believe he had lived through his miserable childhood But live he did, and the literary world was richer for it. Of course, Angela’s Ashes is the ultimate father/son story, a topic which has always been on my radar.
Now, I’ve met quite a few famous people. Just about anyone you can think of – writers, musicians, actors, celebrities. It doesn’t faze me usually. But when wee Frank McCourt came into Bravo! (where I worked at the time) for a news interview, I suddenly felt very shy. Though I was determined to get my book signed I didn’t know what I could possibly say to a man who had lived ten times the life, and hardship that I ever would. Feeling nervous, I waited in the wings while the interview wrapped up and then timidly approached. Lacking the courage to say very much I just asked for a signature. A co-worker who must have known what it would mean to me later, snapped our photo. I shook McCourt’s hand and walked away. Happy.
When I got the photo I tucked it away for safe keeping. Then, when I moved to Vancouver, changing my career to full time writing and journalism, I framed the photo and put it the desk by my computer. Inspiration.
I didn’t know if I’d ever meet him again, but his book, life and this meeting had made enough of an impression.
And yet I did meet him again. A few years later, working as a producer on a TV show in Vancouver I had the opportunity to invite him to the show while he was promoting his book Teacher Man. Now, getting authors on this particular show wasn’t easy, it simply wasn’t the best venue for a considered interview. And, no one there expected to ever have the chance to score this particular author, but there I was one bright, sunny, early morning greeting Mr. McCourt again. This time I had to overcome my shyness to talk to him since I was producing his interview. We chatted in the green room about his teacher anecdotes, deciding which ones he would tell and discussing how the profession has changed since his early days.
He was quite simply a lovely man. And though I didn’t by any means begin to know him, I miss him and his unwritten words.
“I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely.” Jodie Foster ended her memorable 2013 Golden Globe lifetime achievement award speech with these words. At 50, she was honoured for her 47 year film career, among her peers, friends and family. I’m sure it was an incongruous moment for many people. How could someone so successful, so talented, so obviously surrounded by love and support possibly be lonely?
That’s a million dollar question, isn’t it?
I’ve written a lot about loneliness, about my experience with it. I’ve defended it as a part of being human, as something to be worked through, not avoided. I’ve even said learning to deal with it is a kind of right of passage toward adulthood.
That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when it unexpectedly descends upon me.
Lately I’ve been trying to describe what loneliness is like, put actual words to the feeling of it. What I’ve come up with pales in comparison to its reality. Loneliness equals emptiness, a void, a hole, an abyss. It’s a place where no thoughts or words can exist. There’s no sound but it’s not even numbness. It just is.
It’s a big something that could easily swallow you up, but it feels like a whole lot of nothing. I’d say a heart-shaped hole, but I don’t think that’s quite right. After all, the precise difficulty is in being able to feel the lack.
Loneliness is no-one’s fault. Not mine, not yours for not being able to fix it for me. Loneliness is momentary but feels endless. It comes and goes. Sometimes daily. Other times so intermittently that you think it might have gone away for good. Like you might have finally been able to banish it from your life. Somehow.
That’s why I’ve been very surprised by that old familiar feeling for the last few weeks. I’d been thinking, and even saying out loud, that maybe that part of my life, the lonely part, is over. I used to think it was attached to the loss of my mother. Then, I said my final goodbye to her by scattering her ashes last November and I felt only relief and a momentous push forward. On my birthday in early December I sat surrounded by good friends – some I’ve known for years, some newer than that, with an unfamiliar but beautiful feeling of satisfaction, and happiness.. joy even. I entered the new year on an upswing.
I’m not unhappy, but that’s besides the point, because it would seem that lonely has nothing much to do with happy. Jodie Foster can probably attest to that, as she spoke of loneliness while beaming out at her two sons.
I should have remembered that, for me at least, loneliness is attached to sense of belonging, that one persistent demon I have yet to fully conquer in my life. Where do I belong, and to whom, other than myself? Who’s with me in this life? Who’s willing to go that distance?
I can’t pin point the exact moment I felt that old familiar again. I might have been surfing the internet, tweeting, facebooking, tumbling, watching a movie or the news, or reading. Loneliness freezes the moment and I can’t think of anything to think. It’s deep, long and empty. It doesn’t feel attached to anything, anyone or any circumstance. I don’t know where it starts or when it will end. It doesn’t make me sad until after it’s over. I don’t feel like crying, I don’t need to talk to anyone. It no longer feels desperate. I just have to wait it out. It’s only in the aftermath that I can name it. And then the intellectualizing begins. Why now, why me, why can’t it go away forever? What will make it disappear?
It’s just the strangest thing. It’s so incredibly…. lonely. And then it’s over til the next time.