On the Road for Books

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All right, this picture was taken in the main square of Saint-Chinian, a wine-growing district in the Languedoc, southern France, but the atmosphere is right: we write wherever we go (credit: Marie-Louise Gay). Last week, I took a break from the Library consultation room hidden away, past the kids books and toys, to attend the Windsor Book Festival in Windsor, Ontario. The hotel where the writers are billeted stands on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, so from their windows, the guests can contemplate the Motor City peacefully rusting away, and recall the rum-runners who used armadas of speed boats to satisfy the American thirst during Prohibition – think of the Purple Gang. The Volstead Act, which brought in Prohibition, helped create so many great fortunes on both sides of the border.

Another Windsor fact: the nerve-wracking Ambassador Bridge that links our side with Detroit is a piece of private property, and not a publicly owned structure. I encountered privately owned toll bridges in Bosnia, where businessmen stepped in and substituted for a non-existent government, but I didn’t know we had one of those here. My naivety!

At the Festival, I was eager to hear Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealand writer who just won the Man Booker Prize with her 800+-page novel The Luminaries. Some Canadians want to claim her because she was born in London, Ontario while her father was getting a Ph.D. at Western, but as soon as she opens her mouth, there’s no mistaking that accent. (Of course, only other people have accents, never us…) It was refreshing to see a young face on the podium for once. The excerpt she read was a flawless re-enactment of a mid-19th century British novel with the heavy omniscient narrator, the witty repartee, the foreshadowing – and it was delightful to listen to. Oddly enough, what I heard made me think of Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, another historical re-creation, this time of a Western novel, though I doubt that Catton’s book has the same kind of violence as deWitt’s, even if there is a murder in it. Most people who have followed the coverage of the Man Booker Prize know by now that Catton relied on the movement of the planets through the houses of the zodiac to structure her work. I’m not a system guy myself, I prefer chance to astrology, but whatever works is okay… But she and I are not far off in other areas. She spoke of identity as something we perform every day, as opposed to a fixed way of being, and I certainly agree with her there.

On the other end of the age spectrum was Margaret Atwood’s reading from MaddAddam, the third book in her science-fiction trilogy based on environmental catastrophe. Atwood is a local favorite; she has a house on Point Pelee and she’s worked on the preservation of songbird habitat in that most unusual place, Canada’s southernmost point. The last question of the evening put to her was this: a gentleman stood up and inquired whether she could help him write his life story. The hall was rather shocked at the gentleman’s impertinence, but Ms Atwood handled it well, like the professional she is. And who knows – maybe the guy’s life story is fascinating, but chances are we’ll never find out.

As we know from the Pointe Claire residency, first  with Mark Abley, then with me, if you want to get a good story written, you have to write it yourself.

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