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.

Harbourfront Reading

It was great to read with Johanna Skibsrud and Suzanne Desrochers at the Harbourfront Reading Series last last Wednesday. It was a packed audience of over 300 people  (the home ice advantage). Suzanne had come to the summer workshop at Humber back in 2006 ,and Johanna had once ben at SLS (Summer Literary Seminars) , with whom I worked in Lithuania a coupe of years ago.

Antanas Harbourfront 1
Johanna Skibsrud
Johanna Skibsrud
Suzanne Desrochers
Suzanne Desrochers

Talks, Blogs, and Reviews

In the new world of book promotion, I’m finding the mass media monolith (alliteration is irresistible) of a short seven years ago when I published my last novel has devolved into a beach of promotional shards.

The Old Book Promotion Monolith
The New World of Book Promotion Shards

I think I might even like this landscape better, but it certainly is different.

Rather than speak to a hundred book salespeople at a mini-conference, I am going from store to store for short morning chats before the doors open. While it’s great to meet the people who might choose to hand sell my novel, I feel like I am speed-dating a hundred individuals this month.

When it comes to a blog tours, I stumbled across a joke I had missed when I was interviewed on Steven Beattie’s That Shakespearean Rag. I asked him how it was possible that the Canada Council could be funding blog tours when there are no expenses involved in that type of promotion. He smiled and reminded me the news item had run in the Quill and Quire on April 1. I realized I had missed the joke.

That interview was quite wonderful, at least partially because we talked intensely for an hour and Steven wrote the profile. Much harder are the new style interviews in which the host blog poses a series of questions the author should reply to. These types of interviews do provide a lot of space for an author, but I find I keep searching for ways to talk about my book in a manner I haven’t used before. I’m writing my own profile again and again, which is somewhat harder than merely talking about it again.

Perhaps it’s good to stretch this way.

Of course, one can’t help but be a little repetitive. Amusingly, I have noticed on my Facebook page that the number of “likes” is very high when I link to early interviews and reviews, and much lower later on.

No complaints. It’s wonderful to be out and noticed for one’s work, but one gets noticed in a different way now.

I’ve been very lucky in my reviews so far, having been covered in the National Post, The Vancouver Sun (with a reprint in the Montreal Gazette) and the Toronto Globe and Mail. That last review by Donna Bailey Nurse was particularly insightful.

Newspaper reviews are, of course, the remainder of the old monolith.  But TV and radio shows about books have fallen on hard times. There are far fewer of them. Lost in the last few years were TVO’s Imprint, Newsworld’s Hot Type, and CBC Radio One’s Talking Books. Thank God for the ones that remain, namely Shelagh Rogers’s The Next Chapter and Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company.

And what of the contact between writers and readers? The late Paul Quarrington told the story of stopping at a strip mall to buy worms for a fishing trip, only to see someone reading one of his novels on the sidewalk. He approached the man and said he was the author of the book. The reader looked up skeptically from the book and said, “No you’re not.”