A Week in Canadian Literature

It’s been a busy week of literary appearances, most of them for my novel,  Underground.

On Thursday, April 27, I was at the North York Public Library in front of a small crowd of twenty or so who peppered me with questions on the research for Underground as well as some of my older books.

At the Toronto Public Library

On Friday, April 29, I was reading for Diaspora Dialgoues at the Central Library. Diaspora Dialogues, run by Helen Walsh and Co, do good work bringing immigrants and immigrant writers into the Canadian literary world. One of the readers that night was Joyce Wayne, a lovely journalism teacher from Sheridan who ran a special program for immigrant journalists. We at Humber took one of her graduates, Myank Bhatt into the correspondence program in creative writing, where he is working with M G Vassanji, and I have high hopes for good literary outcomes there.

On Saturday, April 30, I attended the Random House Open House cocktail party at the Bar Mercurio. All the Random House luminaries were there, from president Martin to Louise Dennys and publicist Randy Chan (delicious hors d’oeuvres included steak tartare) . I talked for a while to Harbourfront director Geoffrey Taylor, who was just back from literary events in Ireland, and then to James Bartleman, former lieutenant governor of Ontario and Humber alumnus. A couple of former Humber publishing students were there as well.

On Monday, May 2, Snaige and I drove to Ottawa for, among other things, tea at the American ambassador’s house. It turns out she is a supporter of literature. There, I met Madeleine Thien for the first time and chatted with Sylvia Tyson and Elizabeth Hay. An embassy official was playing show tunes on the piano, but he took a break as American poet, Robert Pinsky recited some poems by heart.  The residence is a stunning pile up on a hill overlooking the Ottawa River with some decent art on the walls including a Georgia O’Keefe and an Emily Carr. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting.

Tea at the American Ambassador's House

Then it was down into Ottawa to Arc the. Hotel, a hipster-cool black place where I felt as if I should always be speaking in hushed tones. On Tuesday night, May 3, I read and spoke in the Mayfair Theatre along with Humber alumna Suzanne Desrochers (Brides of New France) and Sarita Mandanna (Tiger Hills). The old theatre served popcorn during the talk – a nice break from the habitual literary fare of canapés or cakes.

With Sarita Mandanna (left) and Suzanne Desrochers in Ottawa

Afterward, I hung around the hotel hospitality suite with the excellent Ottawa festival organizers and David Adams Richards. The sesame shrimp were delicious, and after a few glasses of white wine, I was talking wildly about Canadian literature from Wayne Johnston to Michael Crummey, with David filling in a few discreet details. He doesn’t drink, so his restraint was better than mine.

On Wednesday, May 4, the Lithuanian ambassador, Ms Ginte Damusis, invited me to speak to the ambassadors of central European countries over a buffet lunch on the subject of my novel. We had representatives from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and other countries. They were interested in my talk of postwar partisans because many of them come from countries with similar post-war histories. The American ambassador’s wife, Julie Jacobson, was there too and all of them took away copies of Underground. Then it was off to Dinner at the Blue Cactus later that evening.

Left, German Ambassador, me, Lithuanian Ambassador, American Ambassador's wife ( fan of literature)

I should have gone to Humber alumna Sarah Raymond’s book launch at Type Books in Toronto on Thursday, but we were held up on the road in Gananoque, visiting my former Humber student Colette Maitland and Snaige’s art friends, Otis Tamasauskas and Jan, and so I arrived home too late to make it.

What would think literary exhaustion would set in, but I am deep into Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  She’ll be in Toronto in a couple of weeks.

From Newspaper to Library to Bookstore to Newspaper

Inside Buca

It was another busy literary week, starting with a lunch on Tuesday at a King Street restaurant called Buca, to celebrate the culling of over 2,000 story entries for the Toronto Star Short Story Contest. I won’t say much about this because the competition is still unfolding, except this – our bleary-eyed judges were glad to pass on the long list and to settle down for a lunch of “salumi”, as the various cured meats are called in this cooler than cool basement. restaurant.

Lawrence Hill Buys a Book

On Wednesday, I launched my novel, Underground, to a room of about 120 people at Ben McNally’s bookstore on Bay. (There will be a bigger launch/reading on April 13 at Harbourfront).

An overview of the launch at Ben McNally's

Friends and writers at that even included Lawrence Hill, Don Gillmor, Joe Kertes, Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, Anthony de Sa, Wayson Choy, Richard Scrimger, Kim Moritsugu, Erna Paris, Sally Cooper, Michael Helm, Andrew Clark, Catherine Bush, Anne Denoon, Michael Redhill, Eva Stachniak (who wrote a big review in a major Polish newspaper), John Bentley Mays, Margaret Cannon, Marni Jackson, Russell Brown, Donna Bennett, Andrew Westoll, Dawn Promislow, Nathan Whitlock, Leo Kamen, Katherine Ashenburg, Marni Jackson; journalists Mark Medley and Stuart Woods; publishers Lynn Henry, Marc Cote, and Jack David, and probably a few I forgot (so many names to drop – so little time). Friends, the whole Thomas Allen publishing team, and family warmed the room.

Chatting with my publisher, Patrick Crean

We drank lemon vodka frozen into a block of ice, homemade blackcurrant cassis and Lithuanian beer and ate bacon buns and napoleon cakes.

The Dream Team Does the Food
The Dream Team Does the Bar

On Saturday, I was off to London, Ontario, for a Humber School for Writers event in the morning with Joan Barfoot at the London Public Library. We did mini-edits on first pages of writing for about twelve writers and I took 40 pages home for homework, promising to send back my results.

Joan Barfoot Does a Blue Pencil Edit

In the afternoon, I did a signing at Chapters in London, and then it was dinner with friends and a nighttime drive home to Toronto at midnight.

Too revved up from the drive to go to bed, I did a few emails and found a new review of Underground from the Vancouver Sun. It was a fine review and a good companion to the Tanqueray Rangpur gin nightcap I took before retiring to bed.

Back on the wheel of Fortune

Now that my new novel is out, I’ll run a few weeks of commentary about what it is like through the ups and downs of public life after years of seclusion at the writing desk.

Of course, I’m frequently out and about for literary events, but they are not my own and therefore less fraught.  What follows is an emotional literary diary.

Since this is my fourth published book and third novel, I thought I would be immune from the pre-publication jitters, but I found myself up many nights at three AM, looking in the liquor cabinet for something to calm me down, and becoming alarmed at the falling level of Tanqueray Rangpur Gin (a spirit available only in the USA for some odd reason).

An early review in the Quill did nothing to preserve the gin stocks when it said some of the language in my novel was stilted (it also said the novel has “moments of startling power”, but the praise does not stick in the mind as much as the blame). I’d gone to great lengths to get the language as an evocation of foreign language – aiming for clarity with some of the rough directness of the peasant manner of speech of the country where the novel was set. Of course, this effect may not have worked for the reviewer, but it was not through lack of attempt to create a feeling.

On Saturday, the National Post ran a long review by Philip Marchand. I was amused that a half-page sketch of my face was printed on the page as well, captioned “Irresistible. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a page I want to send out to a few girls with whom I didn’t have much luck in high school.

This illustration by Richard Johnston was captioned "irresistible" in the National Post

This was generally a very good review with great little comments like the following:

As the novel proceeds, that term “underground” acquires richer and richer layers of meaning….

Sileika’s novel is a gripping tale…

The review did, however, take me to task for not being funny as I was in Buying on Time, my collection of stories published in 1997. The observation is perfectly correct, but it talks about what I am not doing. I’m not writing science fiction either. Sometimes one writes comedy and sometimes one writes tragedy.

I do admire Marchand, though, because he is thorough and balanced. He’s reviewed all three of my last books.

Blaming a novel for not being something else was an appalling approach I noticed in James Grainger’s review of David Bezmozgis’s new novel, The Free World, in March twenty-seventh’s Toronto Star. Grainger does not like historical novels and he does not like family sagas, yet he reviewed the book and blamed it for being a historical family saga (do the seventies qualify as “historical” already?). This is like blaming gin for not being scotch.

Graingers’ ahistoricism is something I see very much in the Toronto literary community but not much anywhere else. I have addressed this curious provincialism in other posts.

Last night I read from the new novel for the first time at a church basement literary event at St. Peter’ Anglican Church in Mississauga. I was up with nonfiction writer Peter Edwards ( a journalist at the Star)  Maggie Helwig (who told me she would soon be ordained as an Anglican priest) and The Reverend Jennifer E. Reid, the church pastor, who read some very funny unpublished  material (she really should be published).

About seventy people were in the audience in this exquisite stone church in a very fine neighbourhood. I felt beloved as soon as I walked into the room, an unusual feeling for someone more accustomed to the edgier, critical assessments in literary Toronto.

This was a test run of my reading in public. I chose the opening passage of the novel, which involved the murder of five Communist party functionaries and the wounding of two innocents. The scene ends with pools of blood on the floor and splatters on the wall.

I delivered this between the salad and the soup courses.

The audience was attentive and they bought a good number of books, but I think that I’ll choose romantic scenes the next time I read at a dinner. One doesn’t want to think about pools of blood while looking at food on a plate.

This week, I launch at Ben McNally’s bookstore. I imagine other reviews might come, and I’ll talk about them as they appear.

As I was writing this post, I received a call from a journalist in Lithuania and did an interview about the novel for people over there. Everything I write about in this novel, the historical basis, is very well known in Lithuania. They wanted to know what was new about my take on the postwar partisans. I had to say I had nothing new to tell them aside from the fact that any underground war is dirty and human and complicated. What’s new over here, on this side of the Atlantic, is the entirety of the subject matter, quite part form the success or failure of the execution.

And for the next little while, I will cross post in both my Humber and personal blogs as I write not only about the literary scene, but my role in it. This is an odd moment in which I feel both like an actor and a film critic at the same time – it’s like writing in a hall of mirrors.