Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Sonia Tilson, Andrew Steinmetz Shortlisted for Ottawa Book Awards

Wonderful news from our friends at the Ottawa Citizen:
This year’s list of finalists for the Ottawa Book Awards includes an first-time novelist at age 80, a Citizen journalist, a former prime minister, a political pundit, a rising young writer and a popular Canadian historian.
Can you spot the Biblioasis authors? We're very proud to announce that both Sonia Tilson (The Monkey Puzzle Tree) and Andrew Steinmetz (This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla) have been shortlisted for Ottawa Book Awards, in the fiction and non-fiction category respectively.

In fiction the other condtendors are Henry Beissel (Fugitive Horizons, Guernica Editions Inc), Rita Donovan (Maura Quell, Buschek Books), Barbara Fradkin (The Whisper of Legends, Dundurn Press), and David O’Meara (A Pretty Sight, Coach House Books). In non-fiction the awards highlight new books from Joe Clark (How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change, Penguin Random House of Canada), Charlotte Gray (The Massey Murder, HarperCollins), Robert Sibley (The Way of the 88 Temples, University of Virginia Press), and Paul Wells (The Longer I’m Prime Minister: Stephen Harper and Canada, Penguin Random House of Canada). 
The awards will be presented on Oct. 22, at 8 p.m at the Shenkman Arts Centre in Orleans. For more information please see: https://ottawa.ca/en/liveculture/ottawa-book-awards-finalists. Our heartfelt congratulations to Sonia and Andrew!

Friday, September 26, 2014

What a Great Indie Can Do

Biblioasis has never been shy about the faith we have in what devoted indie booksellers can do. That's why we were so delighted with Jess Marquardt, bookseller at Greenlight Books in Brooklyn, who came up to me this weekend at #BKBF to say she couldn't WAIT to start handselling Kathy Page's Alphabet. At the fair itself she sold ten (TEN!) copies. And when I got home from Brooklyn there was a message waiting for me to say that she'd posted a review on the Greenlight Tumblr:
Alphabet is an awesome portrayal of someone trying to figure himself out, who seeks to be a better person while sometimes failing. When you’re finished, you’ll wonder about Kathy Page’s power to get so close to Simon, so I’ll leave you with this interview…
Pretty amazing, when you think about HOW MUCH EFFING WORK that book festival is, that she took the time. So thanks, Jess, and to all you awesomesauce kids at Greenlight (yes that's you Jarrod, and yes that's you Sam). You made our weekend!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

From the Vault: KD Miller in Publishers Weekly

As a little tip-of-the-hat to KD Miller, who will be appearing at Biblioasis Anniversary events this week in Toronto, Waterloo (TODAY!), and Windsor (Tomorrow!), I thought I'd post the review of All Saints that ran in Publishers Weekly in July. If you're still on the fence about coming to see her, I say (with all due politesse): hop the hell off! She's one of SIX amazing readers—and seriously, she's really really good—who will be appearing at the Jazz Club and at the Capitol Theatre. Come on out! 
In this collection of linked short stories, Miller (Brown Dwarf) writes about the lives of the parishioners and affiliates of All Saints Anglican Church in Toronto. Each story focuses on a different character. Simon, the church's rector, appears in many of the stories and is the focus of one that explores his relationship with his suicidal wife and his feelings for someone new. Other standout characters include Emily, a writer; Owen, an outsider who first appears as a background character and later as the main one; and Garth, equal parts real (in the fictional world of the book) and imagined (in Emily's literary imagination). Miller, who has previously published collections of essays, short stories and a novel, has an ease of style that produces elegant turns of phrase. Describing one church member's hesitations towards religious modernization Miller writes, "She prefers her religion distant and monumental." The overlapping narratives weave the stories and recurring themes together. Love, faith, marriage, sex, death, aging, mental illness and the meaning of community are all explored with dignity.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Brooklyn

Sometimes certain things are too good to pass up. This is a Twitter exchange from this weekend at the Brooklyn Book Festival between Eben Shapiro, general arts editor at The Wall Street Journal, and Terry Teachout, WSJ drama critic and general man-about-town. And, um, obviously, us.

(Parental advisory: content may not be suitable for children.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Biblioasis highlighted in Publishers Weekly

In the Canadian Supplement of Publishers Weekly, which appears as centrefold in copies of the latest issue and will be distributed as a freestanding item at swanky places like the Frankfurt International Book Fair, Canadian correspondent Leigh Anne Williams included a couple of paragraphs on Biblioasis in her survey of the Canadian trade ("Moving Forward: Canadian Publishing 2014"). Check it out! Call it an insider's glimpse into what Biblioasis is doing to get your books into the right hands.

Happy Birthday, Bibbi—From the 49th Shelf

Today in anticipation of our IFOA Anniversary Bash—happening TONIGHT, btw, at Harbourfront, #hiphip #PSyoushouldGO—Kerry Clare of the 49th Shelf has listed her ten favourite Biblioasis titles of all time. It's a great survey of titles both new and old, poetry and prose, fiction and non. Many thanks to Kerry for her birthday wishes and support over the years. We couldn't ask for a better present!!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Happy 10th: Douglas Glover on Adderson, Barnes, Blaise, Flood, Helwig, Jernigan, Rooke, Smith and ... well ... Biblioasis

Below in the first of a series of appreciations that have begun to come in from readers as part of Biblioasis's 10th anniversary highlighting the important writers and books from Biblioasis's past.  More will follow, at 2-3 per week, over the next several months.

Biblioasis is a life boat, rescuing passengers from the sinking (always) ship of a culture steering headlong towards the tsunami of our murky future (the new). Some of the passengers rescued mean a lot to me as a writer, person and thinker. John Metcalf's hilarious early fiction, anything by the astonishing Leon Rooke, David Helwig (poetry, fiction, and that amazing Chekhov translation), Clark Blaise -- to tell the truth, not much of the new stands up to these giants. Of the newer variety, Caroline Adderson and Cynthia Flood will be read long after the deluge. I deeply admire the elegance and wit of Russell Smith and, of course, there is the often overlooked Mike Barnes, a Canadian original, a world original. And the holy poetry of Amanda Jernigan. These are my companions in the night. --Douglas Glover

Further appreciations can be sent to Dan Wells at dwells@biblioasis.com, and will be published on Thirsty and elsewhere in due course.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cross-Publisher Celebration: Kathleen Winter Nominated for Weston Prize

We're excited to announce -- to any who have not yet heard the news -- that Kathleen Winter was shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.  No, this is not a Biblioasis book; it was published by the excellent House of Anansi.  But neither does that matter: we still take great pleasure in Kathleen's success, and wish her all the best with this wonderful book, one which most certainly a book should be on all Thirsty readers reading lists.

For more information on the Weston Prize shortlist, please go here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Effing Awesome: Kathy Page Makes Giller Longlist for Paradise & Elsewhere

It is with real pleasure and tremendous excitement that we can announce to Thirsty readers that the fabulous Kathy Page has made the Giller longlist for her equally fabulous short story collection Paradise & Elsewhere.  

Jurors Francine Prose, Justin Cartwright and Shauna Singh Baldwin read through 161 books to select a longlist of 12 titles. "We’re celebrating writers brave enough to change public discourse, generous with their empathy, offering deeply immersive experiences," they announce in the official Giller Prize press release.  "Some delve into the sack of memory and retrieve the wisdom we need for our times, others turn the unfamiliar beloved. All are literary achievements we feel will touch and even transform you."  

That bit about retrieving the wisdom we need for our times, or turning the unfamiliar beloved, of achievements which both touch and transform … I don’t know a better description for Paradise & Elsewhere.  Congrats to Kathy: it’s richly deserved.
The longlist for the 21st Scotiabank Giller Prize is:
The Giller shortlist will be announced on Monday, October 6th, with the winner announced Monday November 10th.  The winner will receive $100,000, with each shortlisted book receiving 10,000 each.  For the full press release, please go here.  

Kirkus Loves Alphabet

Giving Kathy Page's Alphabet a coveted starred review, Kirkus Reviews had the following to say:

A moving novel about knowledge, self-awareness and the power of words, set in the purgatory of prison. This young man's life demands our attention and refuses to let go.
Simon Austen is serving life imprisonment for the murder of his girlfriend in a fit of uncontrollable rage. It's Margaret Thatcher's 1980s England, but he is lost in time, attending sessions with institutional psychiatrists who might be able to help him gain parole. He learns to read with the aid of a prison volunteer and writes letters for his fellow inmates to lawyers, mothers and lovers, considering it his job. He also writes his version of his life story, tattooing his body with the words others have called him in spite and hate: “ARROGANT,” “WEIRDO,” “BASTARD,” “COLD,” “MURDERER.” Then “COURAGEOUS,” inspired by Bernadette "Bernie" Nightingale, a counselor he fantasizes about and works with to enter an experimental program that may move his parole forward. Page writes fiercely, drawing a fine portrait of a man who lives daily, routinely, fragilely in an environment that can erupt in violence at any time. It does, in a powerful scene where Simon is gang-beaten, has bleach poured down his throat, and is sent to a hospital, where all we've learned about him is dramatically, but tenderly, unsettled. Vic is his roommate in the prison hospital and an unforgettable character as he transforms into Charlotte, disrupting Simon’s view of life's predictability and moving him to a greater understanding. Charlotte is freed, figuratively and literally, but writes letters and visits Simon, giving him strength and a vision of life outside the cement and steel of incarceration and the confinement of his own history. The words that are inked over Simon’s body are simply prologue to the next chapter of his life.
Page doesn't sentimentalize the cruelty of life in a prison system but manages to transcend it through Simon, who writes his own story in tattoo ink and letters. This powerful novel is simply an epiphany.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Favour on the Approach of Our Tenth Anniversary

Dear Thirsty Readers and Biblioasis-o-philes,

As many or most of you know, we’re quickly approaching our tenth anniversary at Biblioasis, with events kicking off this Sunday in Eden Mills.  It’s a time to take stock, to both celebrate and rethink things a bit.  I’m quite proud of the tremendous range of books we’ve published over the last ten years, and I feel quite lucky and honoured to have been able to work with so many wonderfully talented writers and artists, both within and outside of the press.  I’m also grateful for the reception we’ve received, the support which bookstores and newspapers and bloggers and editors and readers and teachers and other publishers and authors – among many others – have provided.  Looking back, there are some things I’d do differently now, but the last ten years have been the best in my life, and I’m quite thankful for all of it.

One of the things about this industry, however, which has always bothered me, is the continual focus on what is new to the exclusion of almost everything else.  We’re trying to re-dress this a bit this year with our soon-to-be-re-launched reprint series, but it’s an uphill battle, and this does nothing for the wonderful books already on our list.  The shelf life of a book can be sadly measured in weeks or months, when the best books might reasonably take years to find their proper audience.  So it’s important to me that we take advantage of this anniversary to shine a spotlight on some of our essential and excellent backlist, and it is with this that I’m hoping you’ll lend a hand.

Quite simply, I’m hoping that many of you will take a few moments to tell us about a Biblioasis book (or three!) published over the last decade and why it means something to you still.  It can take any form or be any length: from a few words to a paragraph or an essay; from a tweet to a poem or a video.  It can be straight text or include a photograph. We’re also open to suggestions.  We’ll gather what comes in and publish them here on Thirsty over the coming months and selectively in our monthly newsletter, building a real-time anthology of reader responses and appreciations which will give some great if perhaps overlooked books some well-deserved love.

If you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to contact me.  There's no pressure, of course, at all: I just thought that it might be fun, and might get a few more important books into a few more hands.  If you care to submit something to this, please just send it to my attention at dwells@biblioasis.com.  Thank-you for your continued interest and support, and I look forward to seeing many of you over the course of the Fall season.

Warm regards,

Dan Wells
Publisher - Biblioasis

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Publishers Weekly Loves Freedom in American Songs

Publishers Weekly follows up their rave review of Kathy Page's Alphabet with another of Kathleen Winter's soon to be release The Freedom in American Songs.

As in her often-brilliant novel Annabel, Winter's new collection offers empathetic examinations of people who don't quite fit within the narrow confines of society. ... The common thread among Winter's characters is a yearning for freedom Besides her depth of sympathy, Winter breathes remarkable life into her settings. Late in the book, a character thinks, "I know how to love a place. I know how to listen to the voice of a brook and I know how to eat the kind of eels whose flesh in Pencil Cove is white and sweet when eaten with toast." Winter, too, knows how to love a place, and it shows.

For the entire review, please go here.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Honouring the Writer's Imagination: The Malahat Converses With Cynthia Flood

Over at the Malahat, Cody Klippenstein has conducted a wonderful interview with Cynthia Flood about reading, literary influences, the power of a good short story and much else besides.

In one of your past interviews about your latest story collection, Red Girl, Rat Boy, you mentioned that your ideal reader prefers to work themselves between the lines rather than being handed the literary equivalent of a grocery list. I like that. As a reader, then, what do you look for in a great piece of fiction? What makes a story sing for you?
For me, reading good fiction combines pleasure in character, incident, imagery, dialogue with simultaneous pleasure in seeing how these work together. A story = a design.
Suppose that in the early paragraphs fig-tree and spoil and gave the alarm turn up. When bloom rotting deafened appear, later on, patterns start to form, like those in a piece of weaving on the loom. Some readers will now stay alert for related words and phrases, to enjoy how they amplify the pattern, but even readers who don’t consciously pick up on such elements can experience something of the design’s quality.
Surprise always delights me. I love it when I haven’t foreseen what’s going to occur in a story. Happily I page back in search of clues, and often discover that I saw but didn’t notice. A second reading of the story can be even more satisfying, because the plot’s known and all the pleasure can rest in seeing how the writer made it.
Generally I prefer reading about people unlike me (gender era nationality class age ethnicity, etc.), because unfamiliar experience is likely to interest me more. (There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away.) But I’m drawn too by stories and novels about elderly people who have contorted emotional lives and sometimes irrational opinions. There’s lots of such fiction around, in literature written in English!

For the rest of this fabulous interview, please go here.

Friday, September 12, 2014

From the Back of the Bookshop: Alphabet, from point A to Z

I'm beginning to find that, in the world of book design (as in life, I suppose), the least likely prospects often end up being the most promising. I'm talking about the way that an initially "great" idea for a cover ends up looking the worst, and the concept you knock off in a hasty half an hour can end up leading to a successful book design.

With Alphabet by Kathy Page, I came into the design process for the U.S. edition of the cover (the Canadian edition is part of the Biblioasis re-print series, designed by Gord Robertson), with more tangible, physical, edgy, striking imagery than I've ever had to work with before. Simon Austen is serving life in prison for murdering his girlfriend. Importantly, from a design standpoint as well as to the plot of the novel, Simon also has the names people have called him tattooed all over his body: things like "waste of space," "bastard," "cunt," "murderer." All I could think while reading the book for design inspiration, is that it's a veritable goldmine of cover imagery. The tattoo angle alone had me moving in a variety of directions, all of which seemed promising. Or so I thought.

Publishers Weekly Praises Kathy Page's Alphabet

Kathy Page's Alphabet, one of our new reprint titles (though a first publication south of the 49th) comes in for some praise -  and our second starred review for the book in the US -- from Publisher's Weekly

Page’s gritty and illuminating sixth novel, originally published in 2004, and shortlisted for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards in 2005, follows Simon Austen, a convicted murderer, through a series of inner triumphs and small victories as he makes his way through the British penal system. Fascinating from the first page, readers watch Austen as he learns how to read, becomes a letter writer for his fellow inmates, and “gets into education, big time,” eventually earning all his high school credits. He decides to address the issue of his inability to relate to women, on his own at first, by corresponding with various women. His description, in one of those letters, of the events that lead him to strangle his girlfriend sends him into a tailspin as he begins to face the underlying reasons behind the impulsive violent act that has defined his life. He is sent to an intensive therapeutic program that forces him to face many of his most serious issues. The journey Austen makes is primarily an inner one, a slow peeling back of the layers of protection he uses to shut everyone out, including himself. As he starts to let people in, in a series of increasingly authentic interactions, we bear witness to his slow and inspiring transformation.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Windsor Star Celebrates Biblioasis's 10th Anniversary

The 10th anniversary of a certain publishing house was celebrated in The Windsor Star today. In the article, reporter Ted Shaw and Biblioasis owner/publisher/man-of-many-hats Dan Wells discuss the humble origins and gestation of the press, the curatorial and back-of-the-bookshop mentality that have guided us through the last decade of radical change in the industry, and how Biblioasis has gone on to become "a major international player in independent publishing in Canada." For the full article, click here. There are also some great photos. And hey, those folks below look vaguely familiar.

Astonishingly, everyone managed to smile at once here. And what's with the shih tzu on the kids books? Have we no respect for hygiene?! Scandalous. Photo Credit to Jason Kryk/The Windsor Star
ACTION SHOT. Kate uses her pen to control the computer; Chris flexes his guns; Dan delivers his commendation on a book of local postcards; Tara powers-up the office lamp with her shirt; Jesse stares at the chalkboard. #justanotherdayattheoffice. Photo credit to Jason Kryk/The Windsor Star.

And for those of you who haven't had the pleasure of visiting it yet, this is the lovely used and new bookstore that we have the pleasure of passing through daily on our way to the back offices. Come visit us soon! Photo Credit to Kate Hargreaves.

Ray Robertson and Kathleen Winter win some Local Accolades

Ray Robertson and Kathleen Winter have received some nice local love from local Windsor monthly rags The Urbanite and The Independent.

In The Independent, Vanessa Shields, author of the recently released poetry collection I Am That Women (which we carry in the bookshop shop), praised Robertson's I Was There The Night He Died. Here's a taste:
Reading a Ray Robertson novel is an education - in stellar creative writing, in human emotion at its raw and honest best, in the underbelly of music, the part that connects us, and in holding up mirrors - between the best and worst parts of the characters as we journey with them because we want to...Therein lies the power of Robertson's writing abilities. His characters know themselves well-enough that readers can latch on, even if the knowing is that the character is a lost, heart-broken soul himself latching onto whatever he can in order to get up and face another day. It takes balls to write with such grace and honesty. 
The full review can be found in the September issue of the Independent, as can a wonderful piece titled "Bookshop Blossoms" about our 10th anniversary, eloquently written by local maverick and underground scene kingpin Bob Smith.

Meanwhile, in the September 10th-23rd issue of The Urbanite, Loren Mastracci showed some love to Kathleen Winter's The Freedom in American Songs, giving the new collection by the award-winning author of Annabel 4 out of 5 stars. She says:

The stories are densely packed with effective fictional anecdotes in the form of improbable dialogues or interesting encounters. They recount the bizarre yet cunning stories of several average individuals, who live their everyday life under Winter's unabridged lenses. 

 Thanks to Loren and Vanessa!

Kirkus Reviews praises Diane Schoemperlen's By the Book

Though I would have thought this book almost impossible to review without having the final version in hand, Kirkus Reviews has nevertheless given two thumbs up to Diane Schoemperlen's latest collection of collage fictions and pictures, By the Book, suggesting:

A new collection by Schoemperlen (At a Loss for Words, 2008, etc.) offers stories that revel in unconventional forms and odd details, each one mining texts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in an exploration of collage and fragmentation.
Only one piece in this strangely appealing collection, “By the Book Or: Alessandro in the New World,” engages with the traditional expectations of narrative.  ... Schoemperlen builds her own story around the old words, focusing attention on how texts might shape life and our perception of it. This exploration continues in pieces that are less and less like traditional stories. “A Body Like a Little Nut” rearranges phrases from a botany textbook in alphabetical order, creating a sequence of images and sounds that works almost musically to encourage imaginative association ... urging the reader to make unusual connections with the personal baggage of their own imaginations. Collages, also created by Schoemperlen, illustrate each story.
An extremely clever and often graceful collection that rewards the curious reader but should not be approached with the expectation of traditional story.
For the full review please go here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Season of Serious Reading

In the Toronto Star's list of the most anticipated Fall books of the season, Emily Donaldson gave a shout-out to our very own Freedom in American Songs, by Kathleen Winter, saying:

I’m also excited about Kathleen Winter’s new story collection The Freedom in American Songs, whose tales her publisher Biblioasis describes as being about “modern loneliness, small-town gay teens, catastrophic love, and the holiness of ordinary life”; in other words, everything.

For the full list of the Star's anticipated Fall titles, which also included a Kathleen's other book this season, Boundless (Anansi), please go here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

An Interview with Kathy Page about Writing on Prisons and Transgender Issues

One of the aspects of our Fall 2014 list we're most excited about here is our relaunched Biblioasis Reprint Series.  (For which we have not yet settled on a name: if you have any suggestions please let us know!)  Designed in a uniform fashion by Gord Robertson, the first installment includes titles by Kathy Page, Clark Blaise, Ray Smith, John Metcalf, Ray Robertson and Terry Griggs; Spring 2015 will include work by Caroline Adderson, Hugh Hood, Norman Levine and others.  The series means a lot to us at the Biblioamanse: it's a way to pay homage to the past ten years and those writers who originally inspired us to start on this strange and wonderful journey, while helping to ensure that their books -- many of which we believe rank as among the most important published in this country -- survive and remain, to borrow a line from a certain provincial license plate, yours to discover.

That is really, in the end, what this series is about: Discovery.  And not just for you, gentle reader, but for us as well, which is what I wanted to write about today.  One of the most important discoveries I've made over the last two years is the work of Kathy Page: we've signed four books with Kathy, including three collections of short stories -- the first of which, Paradise and Elsewhere, a wonderfully compelling selection of Carter-esque fictions, we released this past Spring -- and one of her earlier out-of-print novels, Alphabet.  Alphabet is without a doubt one of the best books we've been part of here at the press, a taut, compellingly fierce psychological thriller which explores how much a person can really change.  Though part of the reprint series, it is also being released under a separate cover and ISBN as a original first edition trade back original in the US, where it is already generating a wonderful amount of buzz (there will be more on that in future posts) and looks set to be one of our lead titles of the season.

We sat down with Kathy to talk about Alphabet, resulting in an interview which ran in its entirety last month in Publishing Perspectives, and which we reprint below in its entirety.

You once commented that it felt like you “spent the three years it took to complete Alphabet co-habiting with a dangerous man,” and over the course of the novel it becomes clear that you have both extraordinary sympathy and affection for him, as well as a (perhaps personal?) understanding of why the other characters in his life keep him at arm’s length. Were you ever tempted to walk away?
Simon’s ability to set alarm bells ringing and evoke profound sympathy at the same time – that combination of vulnerability, charm and dangerousness – is where the book began. It was the thread I followed all through the story, and the experience of ambivalence, of attraction and wariness or even revulsion, is what I hope to create for the reader. The book arose from a year I spent as Writer in Residence in a men’s penitentiary in the UK. The men I worked with were serious, violent offenders, and many of them were themselves the victims of child abuse, neglect and so on. One young man serving a life sentence told me that the that the penitentiary was actually the best place he had ever lived in. Since I was in a supportive role, providing an activity that helped the time to pass, those I worked with were often appreciative of my efforts with them. I could feel very sympathetic. But I had access to the records, too, and I chose to look at them (many of my colleagues in the education department preferred not to), so I could also be utterly horrified by the actions of that very same person I felt so sorry for. So it was not a matter of either or, but of both. I knew that already, in an intellectual way, but in the penitentiary, and in writing Alphabet, it was a matter of experiencing it, and in his case, of wanting him to come through, but knowing he might not. Now to answer your question simply, yes. I began the book not too long after my experience in the penitentiary, and I wrote the early material in the first person. This made me inhabit in a very intense way the more dangerous side of the character; it or he was too much for me, and that was one of the reasons I put the book aside. When I returned to it later I used a close third person which gives me and the reader a little more distance.
One of the key conflicts in Alphabet derives from Simon’s longing to connect with someone, and the ways in which that longing is misunderstood, mistrusted, deemed inappropriate, or outright rejected by the people in his life. To what degree is this conflict a universal one? What makes Simon’s case unique?
Well, the drive to connect does seem pretty much universal. But as the reader gradually learns, Simon has committed a horrific crime and it is quite possible that he could do the same again. He may have been unfairly rejected, but he’s also very manipulative. He may want to connect, yet he has much to learn. One section of the novel takes place in a therapeutic prison for sex offenders where the authorities blunderingly attempt to fix him.
It’s only been recently that the needs of trans persons, trans children, and particularly transgendered inmates have received attention—some good, some bad—within policy and health care debates. Some of this is attributable to the popularity of trans actor Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and some from the controversy when, in January of 2014, a Massachusetts federal court of appeal mandated the reassignment surgery of convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek. Could you comment on the character of Charlotte (formerly Vic)? Where did she come from? Why was it important for the person who helps Simon through his intimacy issues to be transgendered?
I didn’t know, when I began the book, how it would end, though I sensed it would not be a walk in the sunset with everything tidily resolved. At one point I thought he would end up working in a laundromat. Charlotte came along when I was more than halfway through writing the third person version of the book. I came upon a newspaper report about someone in transition who was marooned in the hospital in a men’s penitentiary “for his own protection” while fighting a legal battle to be incarcerated with women. It seemed such an extraordinary thing, and a situation that demanded extreme courage and openness. I don’t want to romanticize trans people, but in my imagination at least there can seem to be an almost mythical quality to those who, with tremendous effort, cross gender boundaries and move from one life to another. Change, whether it’s possible at all, and if so, how much we can transform ourselves, has always fascinated me. So I was very curious as to what would happen when Simon woke up in his hospital bed with Victor in the process of becoming Charlotte in the bed opposite. It’s one of those encounters that comes at the right moment. Simon has struggled and suffered considerably by the time the two meet; he feels a connection with Charlotte because of what she is going through. She is open-minded, brutally honest and kind, at the same time, very fierce: that’s key. She would never be afraid of him. I felt and thought about it mostly in terms of character as I wrote, but in retrospect, I can see that perhaps what Charlotte does is allow him to reinvent his relationship with the “opposite” sex. Since it is not longer exactly or simply opposite, and it can be seen as a made thing, there is freedom for them to begin again, and make it their own.
The concept of change and transformation is important to this novel, yet often it seems as if both Simon and Charlotte, rather than changing in an essential way, instead alter the learned behaviors and/or physical traits that previously have inhibited their self-realization. How deep do their changes go? By the end ofAlphabet, do you see Simon and Charlotte as new people, or rather as people more free to be themselves? And if the latter, how does that complicate the way we think about prison, rehabilitation, and therapy?
This is a very interesting set of questions. I see both characters, but especially Simon, as just beginning to become what they might be. Nothing is certain. He might still regress or lapse; he could continue inching forwards and become an ordinary decent person who will always struggle with a terrible past, or even someone who does something extraordinary, a hero of some kind. In the end, I’m somewhat optimistic about him because the one quality that seems fundamental him is his desire to connect. I intend to write about him (and Charlotte) again. I was struck, when I worked in the penitentiary, by the sheer scale of the stated task: to take dangerous offenders in at one end of the system, and have them emerge decades later not worse, but better, and ready for reintegration into society. In practical terms this means dealing with traumatic childhood experiences, gaining an education of sorts, at the same time as unpicking and unlearning whole ways of being and thinking, and learning how to have relationships—all of this in an environment that’s both physically and psychically very challenging, actively hostile, even, to the kind of openness and trust required. So living up to the mission statement is very, very difficult. I wondered whether it was even possible and what it would be like to go through so much change. I wrote the book to imaginatively explore those questions. During my time “inside” I decided to give up smoking, something I had been meaning to do for a long time. I found it very difficult indeed. So I have great respect for those in prison systems, staff and inmates, who do try to bring about positive change.
You’ve spent time in a high-security men’s penitentiary, and spent considerable time thinking about Simon’s experience of incarceration. What does prison reveal about people that other settings and conditions may not? Do you think the way we think about incarceration has changed much since the late eighties, and if so, how?
What do we do with those who hurt us and why? The answers depend on where you live: Turkey or Sweden, for example. Even within the UK or USA institutions and regimes vary a great deal. Even in its milder forms, however, incarceration is something that will test a person’s resources to the utmost. In that sense it makes great drama. An inmate has to fight for survival and will discover how able (or not) she or he is to make something of what little is there. The senses are starved, relationships are limited and involuntary, it’s brutal, dangerous, depressing and tedious. Incarceration, while it keeps the offender off the street, tends also to be very destructive. For some, like Simon, it may sometimes also present an opportunity in terms of new learning. Simon is illiterate when he enters the system, and learning to read does open many doors for him: though again, given who he is, that’s a double-edged sword. On the whole people think very little about incarceration: it’s a matter of out of sight, out of mind. But when populations rise, or when there are clear inequalities in the way people end up behind bars, the issues and choices become harder to ignore. Given the enormous costs, human and economic, of locking people up, it’s clearly important to consider what we are trying to do with it, and how successful it is.
In a piece for Storyville you comment that, when you wrote a story called “The Kissing Disease” (Paradise & Elsewhere, 2014), you were thinking of HIV/AIDS. “That pandemic surfaced during my twenties,” you commented. “Everyone lost someone. There was a before, and an ongoing after. It was terrible time, but there were eventually some positive consequences: increased honesty and more open public discourse about sex, for example.” How does the AIDS crisis of the 80s figure in Alphabet? What is it about that period you find so compelling?
Well this was a time of great struggle, ideological, political and religious too; the way we responded emotionally and in terms of public health to HIV AIDS was caught up in all that. In the UK, Thatcherism was in the ascendant. In many ways it felt like the end of civilization as we had known it. There were riots on the streets and in the prisons, too. At a time when we needed to act together, we were being told there was “no such thing as society,” but fortunately the department of Health and Social Security in the UK did not take up the mantra and the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign with TV ads and posters reached pretty much everyone, including inmates in penitentiaries. AIDS is a huge issue behind bars, though it’s not a major theme of Alphabet; you get a sense of it as part of the eighties though, through the bits of news, posters and so on that make their way “inside.”
2014 will mark the first American publication of a prison novel that appeared in Canada and the UK in 2004, was written between 2001-2004, and draws on direct experience from the time you spent with inmates ten years prior to that. Do you think readers are more willing to approach this story in 2014 than they would have been in twenty years ago? If you were to approach Simon Austen’s story today, how do you think it would be different?
I think that people are more open thinking about the issues and questions at the heart of Alphabet than they used to be. On the other hand, I don’t think Simon’s story would be much different now, though Charlotte’s would be.
If you could choose one thing for your reader to take away fromAlphabet, what would it be?
A rich sense of complexity and possibility. One of the things that drove me wild when I worked with inmates was the way they used phrase “end of story.” It would be used to suggest what was to follow and its inevitability: a man caught his wife in bed with someone else, and so, “end of story,” beat her to a pulp. Or he opened the door to the arresting officer, fought, was overpowered and ended up inside, where nothing more would happen until he was released. I hated the phrase because it seemed to me that a) something else could have happened, and b) the story was never over. Even inside the penitentiary, a new story could begin, which is what Alphabet is about.

Monday, September 08, 2014

What She Has: An Interview with K.D. Miller

Over at The Story Prize blog, K.D. Miller has answered a few questions about her approach to writing:

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
What I would like to be (whether or not I could manage it) is either an actor or a down-and-dirty blues singer. I don’t sing at all, but I do have an acting/theatre background. In fact, it was very much a road not taken.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Theatre. Good acting excites me as much as good writing does, and the two are remarkably alike in terms of the muscles they use. I don’t regret a minute of my acting and directing training. I use it every day at my desk.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I get up at 4 a.m. and am usually at my desk by 4:30. Yes, really. I write before I set out for my day job, which pays the rent. If a story is on the home stretch, I might write in the evening. But usually, it’s the hour and a half first thing in the morning that gets it done.

Where do you do most of your work?
I compose by hand at an antique “secretary” desk—one with a drop-down writing surface and pigeon holes. For computer work, I have a computer desk that supports my laptop and printer. Both are in the sunroom of my apartment.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I go to my desk at the usual time and just read. You have to breathe in sometimes.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write. Stop talking about it, thinking about it, claiming you have no time for it. Just do it. Every day. Ten minutes a day is better than nothing. And it will grow.

For the full interview, please go here.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Words Without Borders praises Ondjaki's Granma Nineteen

Over at the online world literature magazine Words Without Borders Amanda Calderon has fallen in love with Ondjaki's charming and graceful Granma Nineteen and the Soviet's Secret:

It is no surprise that this energetic and endearing novel is the work of a writer of such stunning accomplishment as Ondjaki. He is incredibly prolific—the author of twenty books, and winner of over a dozen Portuguese-language literary prizes, including the prestigious José Saramago Prize for Literature in 2013. He is only thirty-six.
Just as the dust whipped up by the Luanda Bay breeze drifts across the neighborhood in a wave, settling on front steps and in chicken coops, getting into everything through windows and eyes, the world of Granma Nineteen is in constant motion. We have only to read the first lines to know this: “The explosion woke up even the birds asleep in the trees and the dozy fish in the sea. Colours came out that had never been seen before: yellow mixed with red pretending to be orange in a bluish green, flares that mimicked the strength of the stars reclining in the sky and a warlike rumbling of the kind made by MiG planes.” Ondjaki is at his best when he is writing the frenetic wonderment of children, even as they contend with the deadly realities of war and political power. The result is ebullient, cinematic, and downright magical.

Read more: http://wordswithoutborders.org/book-review/ondjakis-granma-nineteen-and-the-soviets-secret#ixzz3CXlB04s9

Starred Quill & Quire Review for Kathleen Winter's Freedom in American Songs

It's with great pleasure that we welcome Kathleen Winter back to Biblioasis with her wonderful new collection of short fiction, The Freedom in American Songs.  It's, in our opinion, her best book to date, and we're pleased to see that Quill and Quire seems as impressed with it as we are, giving it a starred review in the September issue.  Reviewer Robert Weirsma says, in part:

Winter’s language is more complex, more complicated than it initially appears: sentences linger and bloom in the reader’s mind paragraphs later. That approach, writ large, is the modus operandi for the collection as a whole. These stories, seemingly light and quirky, build to their full effect. And when they do, it is wonderful indeed.

For the full review, please go here.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

By the Book, by the Box

It's that time of year around the Bibliomanse: t'is the season for wheeled carts and cartons by the skid, for surly delivery men and back-breaking trips down rickety back stairs, for dangerously high piles of boxes teetering on the verge of collapse (and thank God Chris got out of the way in time).  Over the next week as many as half a dozen titles will be arriving, with more following thereafter (complicated, this year, by the fact that the street in front of our shop has been ripped up and deliveries now have to come through the back alley), and we await each one with a mixture of joy and dread and Robaxacet.

Yesterday's delivery, however, was a very special one, and something I believe we all were awaiting with even a touch more joy and dread (should something have gone wrong at the printer) than usual.  This is because Diane Schoemperlen's new collection, By the Book: Stories and Pictures, is quite unlike any book Biblioasis has been part of, and likely unlike anything else published in Canada, ever. It is sui generis, standing quite alone, and without a single doubt the most uniquely curious book you will see this year (and for many years after).  Taking her cue from Octavio Paz and Charles Simic, who have argued that the fragment and collage represent the 20th century's greatest cultural innovation and artistic contribution, what Diane has done in By the Book is approach the story as a form of collage and appropriation, using forgotten late nineteenth century and early twentieth century texts and rearranging them to conjure new meaning and associations.  Her authorship is one less of language -- at least in the sense of her putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, as is usually the case -- than of an imposing sensibility, adding structure and shape and humour and vitality to what were essentially dead texts.  The stories which make up By the Book vary in form and intent and effect: they move from something approaching a traditional narrative in the title story to others which abandon traditional narrative forms, working by careful association and accretion to, at their best, perform real magic. I have been reminded in stories such as 'A Nervous Race: 222 Brief Notes on the Study of Nature, Human and Otherwise" of the work of David Markson, the American writer I greatly admire, but few if any others come to mind. The reader has a much more active role in assembling meaning and making connections, and the pleasures to be gained from this can be quite wonderful.  It is a teasing book of encyclopedic erudition which, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, makes a good deal of fun of the very same thing.  It is a strange marvel, which pushes the bounds of form.  It is, as a literary judge said to me of another book we published last year, a book which makes other books possible.

If that was all that this book did, it would be quite the thing.  But it is much more than this.  As with Forms of Devotion, to which this tome is a rather unexpectedly strange sequel, and as the subtitle of By the Book suggests, this is also a book of pictures, an object d'art, with more than 60 full colour full-page collages throughout.  These work in interesting ways with the stories, and make By the Book, as a package, absolutely stunning to behold.  It's a work of art, and I know I speak for all of us at the Bibliomanse when I say that we're all grateful to have been able to be a part of it.

French Doors

Later this month we will be launching, first in Brooklyn and then in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and many places thereafter, Kathleen Winter's new collection of short stories, The Freedom in American Songs.  But as readers of Thirsty and friends and fans of Biblioasis know, this is not the first book of Kathleen's we've published.  Kathleen's first collection, boYs, came out with us seven years ago next week, launching at Eden Mills.  What I remember most about that occasion, the first time I'd met her, was that she'd come to the festival having crocheted a range of bookmarks, which she gave away to anyone who bought a book (and likely quite a few who did not).  It was a small thing, but a telling one, which shows I think the care she has for her readers and her work, and helps to explain why so many people, here in Canada and elsewhere, have responded so warmly to her work.  We're thrilled, really, that we've been given the chance to work with her again at Biblioasis, and look forward to sharing her wonderful new book with you in a matter of weeks.  But being in a rather nostalgic frame of mind this morning, it got me thinking about her first book, which I love deeply.

Over at The New Quarterly website, a magazine Biblioasis has a certain strong affinity for, they have just published a short story from boYs that they originally published many, many years ago, back in issue 104.  'French Doors' is a fine story, and one of suite from that earlier collection which introduced Kathleen's literary alter-ego Marianne to readers.  Marianne makes a return in three new stories in Freedom, so I thought it might be nice to reintroduce Thirsty readers to her in anticipation of that book's launch.

French Doors:

The taste of partridgeberry jam has bogs and marshes in it behind the sharp taste of fruit. It has the same taste as Newfoundland air that has collected scents from its travels; caribou moss, red blueberry leaves,
black ponds, trout and peat moss. Moose and ducks, boulders and juniper. You get that taste in the fall.
There were meadows and thick trees near the shore in Aspel Harbour, but close behind the trees lay the wild barren land where sticks cracked underfoot and fireweed petals lay fallen in the rock crevices, their perfume smelled by no one. Marianne had to wear her red lumbershirt if she wanted to walk to Spur Cove Pond, because all the men were in the woods hunting partridge and moose. The decaying leaves smelled sweet and thick, and the red maple leaves battled the blue sky, the scarlet and yellow-blue grating against each other. Marianne loved the wild smell of the woods and marshes, but she hated it as well, especially the marshes. Once the trees thinned you were in an unfriendly place. You had to know how to be at home there, and Marianne did not. A desire in her soul rebelled against the barrens. She could understand the desert better than this. Here the dry, grey sticks scraped her ankles. White scrapes with blood showing through some of them. The sky blared down a merciless blue with smug puffballs of white cloud in it, and the Indian tea plant with its clothy white blooms and its evil orange furze on the leaves’ pointy undersides gave off a sharp, medicinal odour that shrouded every pond.
Women didn’t go in the barrens, except to pick a few berries. Mrs. Halloran had told her that at one time the women would be in to the ponds every evening with their bamboos for trout. She said all one summer she had gone in with Mary and Martha and they’d been pregnant, and Mrs. Halloran had had to keep climbing up in the trees to untangle their hooks. But the women of Marianne’s generation did not go outdoors. They stayed in, looking after their babies and watching the soap operas, or some of them got in their cars and went to work in the Fox Cove drugstore, the fish plant, or the new communications centre that took signals from aircraft and big vessels far offshore.
Only men went in the wild places now, and they were no company for Marianne. They had no interest in a woman from town who walked in the woods, looking at reflections in the ponds and picking bunches of leaves. They went in with their guns and rabbit dogs, their packs of Export A, and their half-dozens of Dominion. They never directed the slightest sexual energy at her either, so she figured they thought she was good for nothing, or crazy. Marianne thought something had dulled their fire. They should have been full of that fire you could taste in the partridgeberries because they came from the same earth. But they weren’t. She didn’t know why, unless it was the beer, and the cigarettes, the ten months of unemployment insurance every year, and the fish getting smaller and scarcer the other two months as the years passed. Then there was Three’s Company and The Price is Right, and the soaps. She knew that big unmarried men watched the soaps in their mothers’ houses. TV was always on in every saltbox house, eroding the big soul in each inhabitant of the shore. All the days long the big wild soul of the earth called out through the voices of the trees speaking in the hills, while the peat-and-needles-scented breath of the earth stole through the woods. The sea, with the islands in it and the stars over it in the night, was more of the big soul that the people had lost. Everyone was timid under the majesty of creation here, Marianne thought. It was as if they had been created by a wizened, meaner god than the god of whom the psalmist had proclaimed, “in his hand are all the corners of the earth: and the strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands prepared the dry land.”

To read the entire story, why not head over to the TNQ website.