And what an end it is? Or is it the beginning of something else?
On June 19, K.R. Wilson joins us for our final event of the season. It’s going to be epic!
From Guernica Editions, Call Me Stan is a Tragedy told in Three Millennia, that is also very very funny!
“When King Priam’s pregnant daughter was fleeing the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there–one cross over. Stan has been a Hittite warrior, a Roman legionnaire, a mercenary for the caravans of the Silk Road and a Great War German grunt. He’s been a toymaker in a time of plague, a reluctant rebel in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, and an information peddler in the cabarets of post-war Berlin. Stan doesn’t die, and he doesn’t know why. And now he’s being investigated for a horrific crime. As Stan tells his story, from his origins as an Anatolian sheep farmer to his custody in a Toronto police interview room, he brings a wry, anachronistic perspective to three thousand years of Eurasian history. Call Me Stan is the story of a man endlessly struggling to adjust as the world keeps changing around him. It is a Biblical epic from the bleachers, a gender fluid operatic love quadrangle, and a touching exploration of what it is to outlive everyone you love. Or almost everyone.”
K. R. Wilson grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he obtained a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Calgary. In 2018 his debut novel, An Idea About My Dead Uncle, won the inaugural Guernica Prize for unpublished literary fiction, and was published by Guernica Editions in 2019. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada with his wife and daughter. Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia is his second novel.
It’s always sad when Junction Reads comes to an end, but it is especially meaningful this year, as we are saying goodbye to two years of our bi-weekly virtual events. It was wonderful to be able to speak to authors from across Canada and it this experience that has made us see how important it is to maintain these online and accessible readings. Stay tuned for more information about next season. We hope to return to the Anansi Book Shop once a month, which we hope to livestream, and we will continue our online events welcoming authors and audiences from all over the world.
The World of After is about three men and a tragedy that binds them together while also tearing them apart. It is a journey to freedom and of self-discovery in a post-Cold War world.
The relationships in The World of After are complicated. Sometimes, it feels like their friendships exist out of obligation rather than mutual love and at one point in the book, it is said that Canadians living in Oxford are just expected to be friends. How do you see the friendships at the heart of the novel? What did you hope a reader might feel?
This novel falls into what I would call the “trans-Atlantic” category. The characters’ behaviour, including their friendships is conditioned by the fact that they are overseas. It’s a situation where the Canadians feel they should be friends with each other even though they often don’t have much in common and are probably people who wouldn’t spend time together at home. At the same time, the emotional stakes in the central friendship triangle, between Kevin, Alex and Leon, are rendered more intense by the three young men’s intellectual competition, their arguments over poetry and Russia’s direction under Boris Yeltsin. And it’s more complicated, of course, because Leon isn’t Canadian. His identity as an East London Jew from a traditionally Communist family prompts strong but complicated responses in both Kevin, the Montrealer, and Alex from Toronto.
I don’t think directly about reader response. I work to make the characters as true as they can be, and hope that their humanity will draw the reader in, whether I’m writing about people with few opportunities in life or about intellectuals who are receiving a privileged graduate education, as is the case in this novel.
I tried to craft a novel about the 1990s as a “long decade,” beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and concluding only in 2001 or 2003—a decade of uncertainty and unleashed energy but also of a kind of freedom to explore the world with fresh eyes.
Zed, states toward the end, as a historian, “small decisions do change large destines”. This reflects on Kevin’s and Leon’s misstep in the novel, but also speaks to the great historical themes in the book. Can you talk about that?
One of the conundrums with which the novel presents the reader is that Zed, a conservative, traditional historian, sees the morality of an individual’s acts as a decisive factor in shaping capital-h History, while Leon, the radical analyst of social class, downplays the role of the individual. In light of the novel’s events, the reader has to ask: is Leon taking this position out of intellectual conviction, or out of discomfort with confronting his role in the tragedy that breaks up their triangular friendship and dispatches the three young men on their journeys through the Europe of the 1990s?
At the same time, as your question suggests, Zed’s statement has resonances for the rest of the novel. To what extent is the war in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s the result of the actions of a particular individual, Slobodan Milosevic, and to what extent is it a product of a historical watershed: the end of the Cold War and the rise of ethno-nationalism? (Likewise today: would any Russian president have invaded a fast-Westernizing Ukraine, or is the war the product of Vladimir Putin’s particular personality and decisions?)
There’s an ongoing debate about these questions throughout the novel. Zed gets the last word, which in some ways is close to my heart, though I’m still not absolutely certain that he’s right.
At one point Leon says: “You know what I say? I say don’t worry, new divisions will come along and you’re not going to like them one bit. The West will be gripped by some new oppressive ideology that’s even more repellent than anti-communism.” Feels like a premonition. What are your thoughts given the current situation in Ukraine?
It’s funny, throughout the novel the characters follow, and argue about, the disastrous government of Boris Yeltsin, which ushered Russia into Western capitalism in a position of almost supine weakness—a negative experience that opened the door to a “strong leader” like Putin who would withdraw Russia from the Western system or use it to his own advantage. Until Russia invaded Ukraine in February, I had actually forgotten how much there was in the novel about the Yeltsin government –the long-distance cause of the present catastrophe.
When Leon says that, I actually think more about the idea of the 1990s as the ambiguous borderland between the Cold War, which wound down between 1989 and 1991, and the West’s anti-Islamic fervour, which began to crank up after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. When the Berlin Wall fell, there was a hope, in Europe at least, of a rebirth of the cultural diversity of Central and Eastern Europe—that all those ethnic minorities living alongside each other would emerge and remind us of the value of linguistic and cultural multiplicity. Also, for people brought up in the 1970s and 1980s, the old binary, us-or-them ways of perceiving the world, travelling in the world, interacting with people from different places, became new and uncertain.
Here I was playing, in my own mind at least, with the British historian Eric Hobsbawm’s idea that the 19th century was a “long century” in that it began with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended only with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. In a similar vein, I tried to craft a novel about the 1990s as a “long decade,” beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and concluding only in 2001 or 2003—a decade of uncertainty and unleashed energy but also of a kind of freedom to explore the world with fresh eyes. I would read Leon’s warning about future oppressive ideologies as referring to Islamophobia and the War on Terror, though perhaps, in light of the invasion of Ukraine, one could read it in other ways as well.
I love how all the characters are so fixated on each other’s political leanings. Is that an accurate portrayal of life at Oxford at the time? Or perhaps even now?
I’m not sure. My impression from talking to people who are still there is that Oxford became much less politicized after the year 2000 or so. The ferment of the 1990s waned. In the novel, part of the fixation comes from the central characters belonging to a small graduate community where people inevitably peel off into groups that caricature each other’s views, in one of the minority of Oxford colleges known for liberal or leftist politics.
Kevin reflects that he had no desire to return to Montreal and an easier life, and that he longs for a “post-war condition whose Central European heart seemed to offer a kind of hope.” I can’t help but think about all the people immersed in academia at the time. Where do you think Kevin would be right now? Or Leon? Alex?
Kevin isn’t much of an academic, as his struggles at Oxford demonstrate. Part of the attraction of a potentially revived Mitteleuropa –a Central Europe that might bring back the cultural diversity of, say, the Austro-Hungarian Empire– is that it provides him with a destiny that can be defined in vague, rather misty, terms that don’t require the sort of precise, even pedantic, definitions of which academia is so fond.
Where would they be today? Leon would be a highly successful academic, Kevin would continue to grind along as a rather mediocre Cégep teacher in Montreal. And Alex? Well, we see where he ends up at the end of the book….. He might be involved in laundering money for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or, given that he betrays very powerful people near the novel’s conclusion, he might no longer be alive.
Each time I finished a new, shorter draft, I let it sit for a year or two until I was able to return to it and see it clearly enough, I hoped, to notice which bits of each sentence stuck out awkwardly.
Let’s talk about the length of this novel. The World of After was originally over 800 pages. Knowing, The Path of the Jaguar and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives was a quarter that length and your short stories display your mastery of telling great stories with fewer pages. What was different about this story? And how did you manage to cut so much?
To reduce the 800-page manuscript to the current 450 pages, I eliminated some slightly preposterous subplots; but mostly I focused –very consciously so—on the skills I’ve tried to develop in writing short stories and columns for Geist magazine: making every word count, cutting unnecessary words out of each sentence, trying to convey more than explain. It was very much a chopping and compressing process that I undertook paragraph by paragraph. That’s why it took me eight or nine years. Each time I finished a new, shorter draft, I let it sit for a year or two until I was able to return to it and see it clearly enough, I hoped, to notice which bits of each sentence stuck out awkwardly.
This isn’t the first long or longish novel I’ve written: my first novel, Other Americas (1990) and my third one, The Streets of Winter (2004), are both over 300 pages. I think The Path of the Jaguar and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives were shorter because I was, quite conspicuously, writing about protagonists who were from cultural backgrounds very different from mine. It’s not that I had less to say about their humanity, but rather that I had to vet each word or reaction to make sure it sounded plausible. Writing in the first-person as Kevin I was able to let myself go in a way that I wasn’t quite able to do when I was writing in the first person as Mr. R. U. Singh.
Kevin is quite different from me: he’s a lifelong Montrealer, a fifth- or sixth-generation Canadian while I’m an immigrant who grew up mainly in the Ottawa Valley but moved around a lot, too. Kevin is less middle-class than I am, and he has never been to England prior to his arrival in Oxford as a graduate student. By contrast, I had already lived about four years of my life in the U.K. when I went to study there, and had grown up with a British mother and stepfather. There were things about British society which I understood intuitively that Kevin has to learn. Still, the mere fact that he’s a straight white male with an Irish surname who belongs to the same generation as I do probably emboldened me to assume I could guess his reactions to most situations which, in the end, made for a more expansive story.
It would be impossible to not talk about the women in the novel. Kevin is quite the Lothario: a bit judgmental of all the women, sexually, and yet pursuant, regardless. At times, I felt sorry for him because it was clear and I think he even admits to this, that he could not connect emotionally with many of them. Who do you think, of all the women, he loved most?
Definitely Catherine. She’s the would-be soulmate with whom his ultimate incompatibility is most painful. At the same time, I’m not sure I’d accept the Lothario designation. The novel covers twelve years of Kevin’s life, from the ages, roughly, of 32 to 44. Would we designate a single man who, between 32 and 44, has three serious relationships (I’m counting Camille, Kumiko and Catherine) and three or four other affairs a “Lothario”? I think the compressed space of the novel may make Kevin appear more assiduous in this regard than we might consider him to be if he were one of our friends. Yet, at the same time, you’re not wrong: there IS a kind of post-fall-of-the-Berlin-Wall release of energy at an emotional and sexual level that runs parallel to his intellectual and political discovery of the world of 1990s Europe and which, I hope, enriches and illuminates his wayward quest.
The women in the novel are all pretty independent; most of them resemble Kevin in not being particularly monogamous. Each embodies a different reaction to the cultural shifts of the time: Camille’s support of Québécois nationalism, Kumiko’s quest for a shared expatriate bond—until she realizes she will have to return to Japan and “become Japanese again” in order to work in her field; Leonie’s dedication to being a single female academic while pursuing her passion for working-class men and her refusal to take seriously anyone from North America; and most significantly to the novel’s themes, Catherine’s “Ostalgie”—her nostalgic longing for the communal and traditionalist elements of Cold War Eastern Europe—which frames the whole book.
A question from our audience: I’m so impressed with you being able to work on 5 different projects at once! How do you manage all those stories in your head? Are they all very different stories so that you can keep them straight?
Please don’t be impressed! I really don’t keep them all in my head. In fact, that’s the benefit of having lots of unfinished manuscripts on your desk. By the time I return to the one that’s too long and too thin or just not working in some way I can’t put my finger on, so much time has passed –often two or three years—that rereading it is like reading the work of a stranger. And that makes it easier to edit it and, eventually—after many more drafts, alas—make it better (at least that’s what I keep hoping).
Are you ever surprised to suddenly understand something a character does?
I think this works the other way around: I’m often surprised by what my characters do. I have a plot nicely organized, I know what’s supposed to come next, then they just go off in a different direction and I no longer have a plot but a mess. As part of that mess, I sometimes start to understand why the characters have refused to act as I wished them to. And that may lead to greater comprehension of my characters—if I’m lucky.
What are you working on now?
I’m never not writing short stories so inevitably there are a couple of mangled short story drafts on my desk. I have a book of essays that’s two or three essays away from completion and a second draft of a John le Carré-like novel set in Egypt during the build-up to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. My pandemic project has been to try to finally finish a long academic/ non-fiction book on the relationship between history and literature in Angola. I’ve been writing little snippets of this book since 2005. In March 2020 I started working on it full-tilt. I’ll finish it in the next few months if I’m lucky—and if I’m not distracted by something else!
Stephen Henighan is the author of five novels, four collections of short stories, and four books of essays. His work has been published in Ploughshares, The Globe and Mail, Geist Magazine, and The Walrus — to name a few. He has translated novels into English from Portuguese and Romanian and is the General Editor, Biblioasis International Translation Series. He is currently a professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies at the University of Guelph. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenhenighan
The month of May is the pleasant time; its face is beautiful; the blackbird sings his full song, the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there is a welcome before the brightness of the summer.
– Lady Gregory
It feels like the closer we get to summer, the more these months become my favourite. I love May because it feels like it is the period at the end of a long run-on, unpunctuated winter sentence. I love May because I start to pull together my summer reading list and look at our schedule for next year. May is exciting!
This month, we welcome two more authors to share their work.
In Reversing Time, one boy’s quest to change history “the odds are definitely against Simon, racing home from school every day a step ahead of the school bullies–until he finds the talisman. Even as the talisman begins to destroy his family, Simon discovers that he belongs to a tribe of people with the power to travel along the length and breadth of their own life lines. Simon is shocked to learn that they expect him to help halt humanity’s destiny: extinction. A fast-paced fantasy YA novel, Reversing Time tackles vital themes in today’s society–such as climate change and the environment–within the context of an exciting page-turner.”
“Charlotte Mendel was born in Nova Scotia and spent three years travelling around the world, working in France, England, Turkey, Israel and India. She is the author of Turn Us Again (Roseway/Fernwood, 2013), which won the H.R. Percy Novel Prize, the Beacon Award for Social Justice, and the Atlantic Book Award in the Margaret and John Savage First Book category. Her second novel, A Hero (Inanna Publications, 2015) was shortlisted for the 2016 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and was a Finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards in the General Fiction category. Charlotte currently lives in Enfield with twenty chickens, four goats, three sheep, two cats, two children, one husband and thousands of bees.”
“The basic damsel-in-distress gig sounds perfect to private investigator Ashley Smeeton, who’s got her own personal and professional struggles in Montreal. Against the backdrop of the winter Carnaval, the job first takes her to Paris where she’s drawn into an unsettling world of mirages and masks, not to mention the murderous Bortnik brothers. When she returns to Montreal, a city rife with its own unreasonable facsimiles, the case incomprehensibly picks up again. Convinced she’s being played, Ashley embarks on an even more dangerous journey into duplicity. In a world of masks behind masks, it’s hard to say where the truth lies.”
“Anna Dowdall was born in Montreal and recently moved back there, which surprised no one but her. She’s been a reporter, a college lecturer and a horticultural advisor, as well as other things best forgotten. Her well-received domestic mysteries, After the Winter and The Au Pair, feature evocative settings and uninhibited female revenge, with a seasoning of moral ambiguity and noir. She reads obscure fiction in English and French and thinks Quebec is an underrecognized mise en scène for mystery and domestic suspense.”
Only four more readings of the season. Why not join our mailing list? We’ll send monthly invites and news about our new upcoming in-person events and our continued online events. Are you an author looking for a place to share your work? Contact us today for more information. email@example.com
“Spring is made of solid, fourteen-karat gratitude, the reward for the long wait. Every religious tradition from the northern hemisphere honors some form of April hallelujah, for this is the season of exquisite redemption, a slam-bang return to joy after a season of cold second thoughts.”
Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral
It has been said that April is the cruelest month, but I do not, I cannot, have faith in such a statement. It’s kicked off with laughter (if your foolish joke lands) and it ends with a very real promise of warm sun on your face (not like the now you see it, now you don’t sunshine of March).
April at Junction Reads is going to be great. We’ve got Cary Fagan joining us for #TheFirstThirty with GREAT ADVENTURES FOR THE FAINT OF HEART (follow us on Instagram for more details). Stephen Henighan returns on Sunday April 10 with THE WORLD OF AFTER and Edith Blais joins us with her incredible memoir, THE WEIGHT OF SAND.
This month, we’ve got two very different books to talk about and we cannot wait.
On April 10, Stephen Henighan returns to Junction Reads with his latest novel, THE WORLD OF AFTER. It might make you think about an April Fool’s joke that went horribly wrong and it might make you think about those important friendships you once had, but that ended or fizzled out.
Stephen has published several novels, short stories, and non-fiction titles. “For his fiction Stephen has won the Potter Short Story Prize and a McNally-Robinson Fiction Prize. For his non-fiction he has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Canada Prize in the Humanities, a National Magazine Award and a Western Magazine Award.”
From Cormorant Books: “When Kevin, an Irish Montrealer, attends graduate school at Oxford University in the early 1990s he meets Leon, a London Jew from a Communist family, and Alex, a Soviet defector’s son raised in Toronto. As the trio begins to form a complex and conflicted friendship, Alex pulls away and spends more of his time tutoring a charming, yet troubled, upper-class undergraduate and less of it with Kevin and Leon. In a fit of jealousy, Kevin and Leon play a prank on Alex and the undergrad, a prank with dire consequences.
Ultimately, the three young men go their separate ways, but what happened that night binds them together and helps lead them to freedom and self-discovery in a post-Cold War world.”
This reading is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and The Writer’s Union of Canada Public Readings Program.
On April 24, we will meet Edith Blais, who will share a reading from her incredible memoir about her kidnapping and 450 days of captivity and her incredible escape in March 2020. In The Weight of Sand, “Edith Blais describes her harrowing hostage experience for the first time—and reveals that writing poetry in secret helped save her life.
Edith recounts the prolonged terror of her months as a hostage, enduring violent sandstorms, constant relocations, grueling hunger strikes, extreme isolation, and the unpredictability of her captors. She also shares the luminous poems she wrote in secret with a borrowed pen, which became a lifeline of creativity and one of the few possessions she smuggled out in her escape, strapped to her leg under her clothes.”
From Greystone Books: “Edith Blais is a chef and self-taught writer and artist who chooses to lead a simple life. In 2019, she and her traveling companion, Luca Tacchetto, were taken hostage by an Islamic militant group in the Sahel region of Africa. Her writings during her fifteen months of captivity became the basis for her first book. Edith escaped her captors in March 2020 and currently lives in Sherbrooke, Quebec.”
“Our life is March weather, savage and serene in one hour. We go forth austere, dedicated, believing in the iron links of Destiny, and will not turn on our heel to save our life: but a book, or a bust, or only the sound of a name, shoots a spark through the nerves, and we suddenly believe in will.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson
March is a month full of promise. Nature is changing. The sun shining through a window might actually mean it’s warm outside. It’s when I start thinking about my summer reading list. Here are two more books you might consider adding to your TBR pile.
March 6 at 5:00pm EST.
Home of the Floating Lilyfrom Silmy Abdullah is “set in both Canada and Bangladesh, the eight stories in Home of the Floating Lily follow the lives of everyday people as they navigate the complexities of migration, displacement, love, friendship, and familial conflict. A young woman moves to Toronto after getting married but soon discovers her husband is not who she believes him to be. A mother reconciles her heartbreak when her sons defy her expectations and choose their own paths in life. A lonely international student returns to Bangladesh and forms an unexpected bond with her domestic helper. A working-class woman, caught between her love for Bangladesh and her determination to raise her daughter in Canada, makes a life-altering decision after a dark secret from the past is revealed. In each of the stories, characters embark on difficult journeys in search of love, dignity, and a sense of belonging.” From Dundurn Press.
The Marriage of Rose Camilleri by Robert Hough. “When Rose Camilleri and Scotty Larkin meet, neither expects to spend a lifetime together, navigating a sometimes turbulent marriage and scraping through the process of raising a family. When he first enters the bakery where she works, she is a new arrival from the tiny island nation of Malta, fond of rabbit stew and Hollywood cinema. He is a thoughtful printer’s assistant recently released from juvenile detention after stealing and swiftly totalling a stranger’s car. Even after years of marriage and two children together, Rose struggles to shake the idea that perhaps she should have held out for someone as voluble and optimistic as herself. But while some marriages are weakened by trauma, Rose and Scotty’s union is strengthened by the act of survival, and they find their own kind of happiness along the way.” From Douglas & McIntyre
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On February 6, I sat down Lindsay Zier-Vogel to talk about her debut novel, Letters to Amelia. Published by Book*hug Press, it is part epistolary, part historical and all love! We talked about letter-writing, motherhood, and Amelia Earhart. What I felt so deeply in our conversation was love. Lindsay’s passion for letter-writing; her love of history, and her experiences as a mother are all bound up in this gorgeous novel and I hope you will all get a chance to read it.
The novel opens in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. You also have your own handbound books there and I urge people to go and see them. Can you talk about your experiences with the TFRBL and how it influenced the writing of Letters to Amelia?
I just love that library! I spent quite a bit of time there while I was doing my Masters and before I knew who the characters were in Letters to Amelia, or what the plot was, I knew I wanted it set there. I’m so grateful to John Shoesmith, the outreach librarian at the Fisher, who took me on tours of the backend of the library (deeeeeep into the sub-basement!) and answered all of my very practical questions about the realities of working in a library.
The letters between Amelia Earhart and Gene Vidal feel so real and authentic I had to look up whether they were in fact fictional. There must have been a lot of research that went into writing these letters. What inspired them? Were there other writers or biographers who were particularly influential?
I looked at a lot of Amelia’s archived and digitized letters that are housed at Purdue University to get a sense of her handwriting and the physicality of the letters. I originally hoped Amelia’s books and many articles would provide an entry into her written voice, but I found them to be quite formal and highly edited, lacking the personal quality I was looking for. Eventually, I found a collection of letters she wrote to her mother from when she was four years old until her disappearance—Letters From Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart by Jean L. Backus—and reading these letters unlocked her voice for me.
The heartbeat of the story for me is love, particularly motherlove. Amelia Earhart is this fearless, grounded, big dreamer and Grace is so afraid she won’t be able to raise a fearless dreamer. How did your experience as a mother affect/influence the story?
The story really took shape when I was very pregnant with my second child, and though I had taken many running starts, I began writing the book as it currently exists when she was a newborn. It was so helpful to be just on the other side of pregnancy to be able to write about the experience, something I couldn’t have done when I was deep inside the reality of it with my first child.
“I found a collection of letters (Amelia) wrote to her mother from when she was four years old until her disappearance…reading these letters unlocked her voice for me.”
I love when I read a novel and am introduced to characters so vivid, they could have their own novel, or short story: Patrick (a priest for 30 years); Jenna and Eric and their pregnancy dreams; Pat and Mike in Newfoundland. Do you create sketches or profiles for tertiary characters?
Patrick and Pat and Mike came very clearly, very quickly in early drafts, but it took a few passes before I really figured out Jenna and Eric’s stories. My writing group is in love with Patrick and they are petitioning for fan fiction about Patrick. I ended up cutting a lot of Patrick scenes and they’re still in mourning about it.
Grace takes an Internet dive into all the theories/conspiracies behind Amelia’s disappearance. Do you have your own theory? What are your thoughts on this obsession?
I, like Grace, prefer to focus on Amelia’s deep, rich life, rather than focusing on her disappearance. She was such a remarkable human and is so much more than her death. It’s pretty rare that someone truly disappears, which I think it what fuels the obsession with finding out THE TRUTH (all caps!), and I also think the impossibility of ever finding out what happened also fuels that often-obsessive search. My theories vacillate depending on the day. Some days I think she crashed into the ocean, some days I think she and Fred landed on Nikumaroro, though thinking of her agony is often too much for me to bear.
“People often say putting a book out into the world is like birthing a human, but for me it feels more like sending a kid out in the world—it’s so exciting and a little terrifying, but mostly just so wonderful.”
Have you written any more letters to Amelia since completing the novel?
I have! One! I wrote it the day the novel came out—on September 7, 2021. I took a picnic and the book to the lake, and sat on the edge of the water, where Amelia fell in love with flying and wrote her another letter.
At the heart of the novel is love and reading Letters to Amelia it’s all I felt. Love and a strong connection to you as its author. How did it feel putting the final touches on LTA and then seeing it in print?
Holding this book in my hands is truly a dream come true. Seeing the words (my words!) in print is surreal and still just so thrilling. As soon as it had a spine, and those beautiful end papers, it stopped being just mine, and now exists out in the world. People often say putting a book out into the world is like birthing a human, but for me it feels more like sending a kid out in the world—it’s so exciting and a little terrifying, but mostly just so wonderful.
Lindsay Zier-Vogel is a Toronto-based writer, arts educator and the creator of the internationally-acclaimed Love Lettering Project. After studying contemporary dance, she received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Her writing has been widely published in Canada and the U.K. Since 2001, she has been teaching creative writing workshops in schools and communities. Her hand-bound books are housed in the permanent collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. As the creator of the Love Lettering Project, Lindsay has asked people all over the world to write love letters to their communities and hide them for strangers to find, spreading place-based love. Lindsay also writes children’s books. Because of The Love Lettering Project, CBC Radio has deemed Lindsay a “national treasure.” Letters to Amelia is her first book.
Vagabond: Venice Beach, Slab City and Points In Between
Ceilidh Michelle’s memoir of her experience living on the streets in California is a moving story about poverty, homelessness and community. We sat down on January 23 to chat about her experiences and how they were translated into this beautiful book published by Douglas & McIntyre.
Vagabond takes place over a 3–4-month period. It’s not a long time, and yet we meet so many characters. Are there any people you keep in touch with? Any moments or people that left a strong impression or that you still carry with you?
CM: I think as writers and storytellers you’re always going to carry elements of your experiences with you. I carry everything I’ve ever lived with me all the time and some of that will come out over the years in different incarnations. Because of social media we’re able to have these pseudo connections with people and so I’ve been able to connect with some after all this happened. One of the people in the book reached out to me recently because they saw that I wrote this book. My first reaction was, shit, you’re going to read this, oh and you’re in it by the way. But it’s hard. I live in Canada and most of the people I met live in America and our lives at the time were so transient that even if I wanted to reach out to them, it would be very difficult. For our own safety, many people change their names and so, I wouldn’t know where to start.
How did you record your experiences at the time and how much of Vagabond is memory and how much is from journals or conversations after that time?
CM: I carried a notebook with me everywhere I went and I anything interesting I wrote down. Even to this day, I love writing down interesting dialogue and words that I overhear out of context. I was writing down everything sort of like a travel journal. There were so many weird things I couldn’t not write down and I’m so grateful to my younger self that I had the wherewithal to take notes because now I have this record. I was also traveling with many artistic people. There is one instance where we go on this escapade into Compton. We all had our notebooks and we passed them back and forth, so there were a lot of perspectives I was able to get from other people, which was cool.
“We all had our notebooks and we passed them back and forth.”
Vagabond is not a linear story. It’s not like a journal with dates and times stamped on each page. This leaves these absences or disconnections in the voice. It feels like a real experience reading.
CM: It’s kind of like now. You’re in these situations of emergency and survival. Days fall off and go past. I find a lot of weird parallels living right now and living then. I don’t really believe in the linearity of time. It doesn’t feel that way sometimes. Your life can transform in the same span of time where a week before, nothing happened.
Poverty is an important part of Vagabond. There is a sense that many cannot escape the cycle of homelessness, hunger, and addiction. At one point in the novel, you say that needing charity was a constant shame. How has that changed for you or how has your perspective changed since living your experiences in Vagabond?
CM: I think back then I felt that there was less of a cost. Homelessness for me was circumstantial and I believed I could bounce back easily. I was twenty and I had no sense of consequence. I bounced from place to place and crashed on people’s couches, and it was fine. As I get older, I’ve gotten angrier. I had to control myself when I was writing Vagabond to not make it a rant about housing being a human right. I can’t even wrap my mind around the fact that some people in this world believe that other people don’t deserve water or shelter. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to marry this sense of defeat with the injustice, like what can we do? I hate the sterility of corporate gentrification and I’m watching cities fall so it’s really and it’s just totally disheartening. But I don’t want to be defeated by that, so I focus on thinking about what I can do, as an individual.
I think you did that beautifully here. Vagabond isn’t political. It’s a genuine sharing of experience and thought. The people you met got to speak for themselves in the issues of homelessness and there were so many diverse experiences and opinions.
CM: I hope they feel that they got to speak for themselves because so much of their experiences was not my own ideology. There is a lot of like weird ageism with homelessness, like it’s something you’re just expected to outgrow. Like, homelessness is fine for young people, you know to be bohemian, to embrace poverty and this #wanderlust or whatever. I think the elderly are out on the streets and we don’t protect them. I met a real mixed bag of characters down there and they were all on the streets for different reasons.
There are many moments in Vagabond where you were vulnerable to some scary people or situations. In one section, a character says, it’s best to be invisible, being a woman is a dangerous trade. What was the scariest moment for you?
CM: I think the scariest moment for me was when I got home. The ending of the book was also scary. I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read it, but the ending was very sobering for me. To realize that some people would make it and some people wouldn’t and I don’t think that any of it really caught up with me until later. I think I was quite foolish, but I was just so young that when I was out on the street it never really occurred to me to feel fear necessarily. There was one night when I was sleeping alone, and I had a switchblade with me. A group of men walked past, and I was terrified they were going to spot me. I realized that all of these true crime stories and things that you hear are real stories, they are real women, sisters and daughters who go missing all the time. As a young person I didn’t really know what that meant, but it caught up with me later, like PTSD. I can’t believe I did that.
Are there any experiences or moments you wish you could go back to?
CM: That is a complex question. I don’t know. Circumstantially, I don’t think I could really go back. I couldn’t do it physically. Looking back, I think maybe I wouldn’t have always tried to find a boy or a man to protect me. I was raised in a very overbearing evangelical environment. You needed to either be subservient to a man or you needed to find a man to protect you so even in this most vulnerable and independent living situation that I found myself in my first motivation was to find a male to protect me. That so often backfires on young women because men are dangerous a lot of the time. You have to be careful around them especially ones that you don’t know. If I could go back – and what I’ve learned from most situations – I’d seek out more women. Especially if I’m in a vulnerable situation. I’ve gotten a lot of good mentors that way.
“The elderly are out on the streets and we don’t protect them. I met a real mixed bag of characters down there and they were all on the streets for different reasons.“
You embarked on this journey to find a Yogi in California and that doesn’t end up happening. I’m curious if you still practise if it is still an important part of your life.
CM: I do practice yoga, but I find a person’s spiritual journey kind of hard to talk about. I think it’s kind of private but I also I think it’s such a blundering track. Two steps forward, one step back and I think that was really reflected in my experiences in Vagabond. There’s so much subculture built up around spirituality now. It’s expensive and it’s inaccessible and you have to pay a premium or wear the right clothes. I think spirituality functions better when it’s quiet and done in private.
What are your thoughts about the ability of literature and writing to make social change? Do you feel it is still as powerful a tool today than yesterday or less so or do you think that our stories merely exist for our own personal feelings?
CM: I hope that writing has an impact when it comes to social justice. I know there are a lot of gatekeepers and I know that it’s hard for writers to survive financially. You have to hope writers have the time, which is the ultimate gift. I’m seeing a lot of people getting the ability to speak now in a way that we never have before, especially in Canada. I’m proud of what people are doing in publishing right now. They’re working hard to make sure that there’s justice and equality in publishing. I’m very grateful to everyone in Canada who’s doing that right now. Ultimately, writing should be about your personal feelings. There are so many fictional books I love to just sink into like a warm bath and I’m so grateful for the escapism so please more fantasy and fiction and all kinds of stuff.
Ceilidh Michelle is the author of the novel Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, which was shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Award for Fiction. Michelle has had work published in Entropy, Longreads, The Void, Broken Pencil, Matrix Magazine, McGill University’s Scrivener Creative Review, Cactus Press and Lantern Magazine. Ceilidh holds an MSc in Creative Writing from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Creative Writing from Concordia. Ceilidh calls Montreal, QC, home. You can find her on Instagram @ceilidh_michelle.
We’re at the worst of winter. Shorter days, mean longer nights, it’s cold where I am, and it’s about to get colder. Every morning, when I see the sun shining through the window, I imagine, maybe it’s not that cold. I dream of warm spring rain falling and carrying it away. When I flick on the stove, I think about sitting by a roaring fire in a big cottage somewhere. I go online and search beach vacation and I just look at the stock photos of people running in the sand, frolicking in the water.
What is her point, you might be asking? Well, my point is that winter is for dreaming. Winter is for sitting in your favourite chair and imaging another world. I’ve said it before (maybe even in my last post), winter is for reading! And because winter is for flying and traveling around the world, we’ve got two PERFECT books to talk about this month.
“Grace Porter is reeling from grief after her partner of seven years unexpectedly leaves. Amidst her heartache, the 30-year-old library tech is tasked with reading newly discovered letters that Amelia Earhart wrote to her lover, Gene Vidal. She becomes captivated by the famous pilot who disappeared in 1937. Letter by letter, she understands more about the aviation hero while piecing her own life back together. When Grace discovers she is pregnant, her life becomes more intertwined with the mysterious pilot and Grace begins to write her own letters to Amelia. While navigating her third trimester, amidst new conspiracy theories about Amelia’s disappearance, the search for her remains, and the impending publication of her private letters, Grace goes on a pilgrimage of her own.”
On February 20, we welcome Cheuk Kwan with his collection of essays, HAVE YOU EATEN YET? In this collection, Kwan takes us on his documented journey to Chinese restaurants around the world. Published by Douglas & McIntyre. Register at EventBrite. PWYC. Tickets are $0-$20. All proceeds go to the author.
“From Haifa, Israel, to Cape Town, South Africa, Chinese entrepreneurs and restaurateurs have brought delicious Chinese food across the globe. Unravelling a complex history of cultural migration and world politics, Cheuk Kwan narrates a fascinating story of culture and place, ultimately revealing how an excellent meal always tells an even better story. Dotting even the most remote landscapes, family-run Chinese restaurants are global icons of immigration, community and delicious food. The cultural outposts of far-flung settlers, bringers of dim sum, Peking duck and creative culinary hybrids like the Madagascar classic soupe chinoise, Chinese restaurants are a microcosm of greater social forces—an insight into time, history and place. From Africa to South America, the Jade Gardens and Golden Dragons reveal an intricate tangle of social schisms and political movements, offering insight into global changes and diasporic histories, as the world has moved into the 21st century.”
As we start a new year, you may have your to-be-read list in front of you and you might be thinking about all the books you want and need to add to that list. Have you set yourself a challenge? Will you read 50 books this year? Will you read over 200? Or, like, me, do you set a time per day or week that you dedicate to reading?
However, you choose the words you’ll read, Junction Reads is a source for recommended books. There are short story collections, memoirs, novels, personal essays and not only do we have a vault of past readers (with videos and interviews) to choose from, we have upcoming authors with newly, or yet to be, released books that you will definitely want to add to your TBR list.
On January 9, we kick off the new year with Nic Brewer and her powerful debut novel, SUTURE. It is innovative story-telling with provocative prose and great characters. From Book*hug Press: “Suture shares three interweaving stories of artists tearing themselves open to make art. Each artist baffles their family, or harms their loved ones, with their necessary sacrifices. Eva’s wife worries about her mental health; Finn’s teenager follows in her footsteps, using forearm bones for drumsticks; Grace’s network constantly worries about the prolific writer’s penchant for self-harm, and the over-use of her vitals for art. The result is a hyper-real exploration of the cruelties we commit and forgive in ourselves and others. Brewer brings a unique perspective to mental illness while exploring how support systems in relationships—spousal, parental, familial—can be both helpful and damaging. This exciting debut novel is a highly original meditation on the fractures within us, and the importance of empathy as medicine and glue.”
Register now and pay what you can. All registered attendees have a chance to win their very own copy from Book*hug.
On January 23, Ceilidh Michelle joins us with her humorous and lyrical memoir, VAGABOND, Venice Beach, Slab City and Points In Between. From Douglas & McIntyre: “At twenty-one, Ceilidh Michelle was homeless, drifting through countercultural communities along California’s coast, from Venice Beach to Slab City to Big Sur. This restless and turbulent time began when she was sleeping on her sister’s couch in Vancouver and decided to become a yoga disciple in California. Denied entry at the US border in Washington state, and stuck overnight in the Greyhound station, her already shaky pilgrimage began to take another direction, away from the inward sanctuary of an ashram and toward the sea and light and noise of Venice Beach, and eventually up Highway 1 to the desert.” Register now and pay what you can. All registered attendees have a chance to win their very own copy from D & M.
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