If you’re a writer, you’re going to want to read Nicholas Herring’s debut novel, SOME HELLISH!
You know that I always write my reviews from a writerly perspective, so when I say you MUST read this book, I’m usually talking to my writer friends, but today, it’s going to be different. If you’ve ever struggled with mental health, addiction, love, grief and all those human emotions that make us question what it is to be alive, then you need to read SOME HELLISH.
In Nicholas Herring’s literary debut, he offers us a fictitious Herring, who has sawed a hole in the floor of his home – his wife’s grandfather’s home – for no apparent reason. He and his best buddy Gerry string along, from drink to drink (shine to shine), smoking pot and hash, popping pills and acid, and thinking about nothing more than the lobsters, the boat, the upcoming season, and the relationships they’ve lost and want. As they prepare for the season, we meet dozens of characters, some important, some who simply exist. They are as much the setting in the novel as the trees, the houses, the rigs, and signposts. They are ARE this novel. The reader knows from the opening pages, the hole in the floor isn’t the only shitty thing that’s going to happen in this novel. When Herring falls overboard and disappears, both he and Gerry are faced with the big questions, and this time they cannot drown them out with shine or more pills.
SOME HELLISH is not just a novel that asks what it means to think, to live, to be human, but it demands we look at those who are struggling with empathy and love. To live a daily grind in the storm and crises of human existence, like grief, divorce, lovelessness, fruitless labour, is a difficult life and to do it with addiction and mental illness is near impossible. In this novel, Nicholas Herring offers us two men, whose friendship is a potent reminder that in this life, we only need to love, and be loved by, one other human being to understand its true meaning.
For my writer friends. Holy smokes. If you want to be impressed by the beauty of Herring’s tone and voice, and the torrential lyricism and figurative language, you must read this novel. I have got sticky notes in dozens of places, and I’ve even circled in pen (argh) some of the most moving passages!
SOME HELLISH was winner of the 2022 Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Award. “Nicholas Herring is a carpenter and writer whose work has appeared in The Ex-Puritan and The Fiddlehead. He graduated from St. Jerome’s University with an honours degree in English Literature and attended the University of Toronto where he completed an MA in Creative Writing. Herring lives in Murray Harbour, PEI.”
January is named for the Roman god Janus, who presides over the doorways of time. With two faces, he looks both forward and back. It is a month of beginnings and endings, both a time to imagine a new year and reflect on what we’ve left behind. I can’t see anyone hoping for a worse year, so as we all conceive our resolutions to make 2023 better, or at least as good as the last, let’s talk about how books always make things better.
On January 1st, I logged on to my public library account and put five books on hold because just the anticipation of reading a new book makes me feel good, even if I am hold #1000 with only 30 copies across the entire library system. I was also gifted four new books and I can’t tell you how exciting it is to know that underneath the paper existed more characters to meet and more worlds to explore. I also wrapped two books for my husband knowing I will get to read them, too. If only Janus was able to expand time, I’d be able to read ALL the books. For now, the anticipation is good enough to make January a month where I will be looking forward.
January at Junction Reads and The First Thirty will certainly help.
Because of Nothing At All is an engrossing tense, evocative novel about capitalism and power. It is a necessary read in our current world.
“Near the Kenya-Sudan border, a team of international health program evaluators are abducted and force marched under a desert moon. Their pasts and presents — and those of their abductors — unravel before them. An orphan named Money is one of 66 too hungry to sleep. A rich public health doctor is gradually losing his points of attachment. A driver tastes the river of wealth through the vehicles he’s provided. Some escape; others are recaptured; a few are held at ransom. All are lured into schemes that often lead to unexpected results.”
On Thursday January 19 at 7:00pm EST, grab your phone and join me for a quick and fun chat on Instagram Live with Nicholas Herring. The First Thirty is our new series where I sit with authors and reflect on their latest work through a writerly lens. How does one craft those first thirty pages or the first thirty words and compel a reader to keep going?
Some Hellish is Herring’s debut novel and it’s getting some attention.
About the novel: “Herring is a hapless lobster fisher lost in an unexceptional life, bored of thinking the same old thoughts. One December day, following a hunch, he cuts a hole in the living room floor and installs a hoist, altering the course of everything in his life. His wife Euna leaves with their children. He buries the family dog in a frozen grave on Christmas Eve. He and his friend Gerry crash his truck into a field, only to be rescued by a passing group of Tibetan monks.
During the spring lobster season, Herring and Gerry find themselves caught in a storm front. Herring falls overboard miles from the harbour, is lost at sea for days, and assumed to be drowned. And then, he is found, miraculously, alive. Having come so near to death, he is forced to confront the things he fears the most: love, friendship, belief, and himself.
Some Hellish is a story about anguish and salvation, the quiet grace and patience of transformation, the powers of addiction and fear, the plausibility of forgiveness, and the immense capacity of friendship and of love.”
On January 29, Dan K Woo joins us at Junction Reads for a conversation about, and reading from, his collection of short stories, Taobao from Wolsak and Wynn.
“In twelve spare, fable-like short stories Dan K. Woo introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters from different regions of China. From rural villages to bustling cities, Woo deftly charts the paths of young people searching for love, meaning and happiness in a country that is often misunderstood in North America. Whether they are participating in a marriage market to appease their mother, working as a delivery boy in Beijing or dealing with trauma in a hospital in Shanghai, we see these young people push against both tradition and the lightning-fast economy to try and make their way in often difficult situations. Woo brings remarkable empathy to these dreamlike stories and their twists and turns, which will linger long in readers’ minds. Through it all, the spectre of Taobao – China’s online retail giant – hovers, providing everything the characters might need or want, while also acting as a thread that ties together a captivating and complex collection of stories set in a captivating and complex country.”
Some of you may be wondering, when the heck is Junction Reads returning to in-person events? It’s been busy for all of us, with new jobs, new promotions and new stories needing our attention. We have been in talks with an event space (a fabulous bookstore), and have every hope of getting back in the Spring. We believe Covid is still a risk to many in our community and that accessibility means our events need to be safe and welcoming to all. When we get back, we will require masks at all our events.
I was at the Guernica Editions launch for Ivan Baidak’s novel, (In)visible, on September 18, and was so moved by his introduction to the reading. He talked about the almost 2 million Ukrainians who live with disabilities and that the majority of them live indoors, away from the public’s gaze. They live in fear of being seen, being mocked and feel safer indoors.
As the mother of a kid with a facial difference, this was hard to hear. There have been many times in his life that I felt we shouldn’t go outside, especially when he was very young and had spots all over his face from laser surgery. But we went anyway; we went shopping at IKEA where he played with other kids in the ball area; we went to the park where kids could see him and he went to school. We did this for no other reason than he deserves to live like everyone else. I didn’t think about the other side of it until years later when my very young niece told her best friend (who was staring at her cousin’s port-wine-stained face), “Don’t worry, after a while you won’t even notice.” She was right. The more people hang out with him, the more they see he’s loving, caring, empathetic and funny as hell. The more they see him, the less they see the birthmark because he is more than his face. My kid needs to be seen; people with disabilities, both visible and invisible, need to be seen.
In the first section of Baidak’s novel, the characters, who are members of a support group for individuals with visible differences talk about their reactions to people staring and inquiring. Anna, a character with a large hemangioma on her cheek says, “I wish they didn’t notice us at all…or rather ignored us.” Eva says, “I usually joke about it. Whenever someone asks me about patches on my skin, I pretend I have no idea what they’re talking about. Patches? What Patches?” The conversation turns when the group’s facilitator says, “Don’t be hard on others. They might just need a bit more time to get used to you.” This upsets Eva, who is angry she can’t ever hope to make a good first impression and that no one will ever fall in love with her at first sight.
This is the heart of the story, for me. We live in a world where our physical bodies, our faces, our hair and how we move in the world, are judged at first sight. Unless my son decides to hide inside, the images he shares on social media will be commented on by those who will see his birthmark first, and then, hopefully notice his beauty. This world is exponentially more difficult for him and for people with visible disabilities because the first impression will always include their differences. What I like about Baidak’s novel is, his characters are allowed to speak their own experiences and share their own opinions about what they should be doing and what the general population should be doing.
This novel explores the experiences of four characters with visible differences. From Tourette’s to alopecia to a facial hemangioma and vitiligo, Adam, Marta, Anna and Eva confront their own fears and trepidations as they move toward a new place in their lives. They are each courageous and confident as they learn “patience and resilience” on their journeys of self-discovery.
In the final chapter, Adam says: “Each of us is fighting our own battle…Whenever I meet someone for the first time, I feel like I’m opening a new book. I am not familiar with this person’s story…but I know…they might be struggling with something…So, I try to be kind to them.” We need more books like (In)visible in the world. We need more people to see others as they hope to be seen. We are all struggling. We come “in many different shapes and forms” and it is only when we look beyond the book cover – beyond the faces and bodies – that we will understand each other. I cannot say enough how important it is for people with differences to live inside the books we read. At the reading, before Ivan stopped talking, my son said, “I need his book.” He wanted – he needed – a book that spoke to his own experiences. Ivan dedicated the book to Duncan with the words: “Hope you have a wonderful life.” Isn’t this what we should want for everyone?
I hope you will join us on October 2, but in the mean time, please read Ivan’s book. Find resources and follow groups and individuals on social media.
Suggestions: AboutFace Canada an excellent group for individuals and families living with facial difference. Face Equality International, an organisation of many fighting for face equality as a human rights issue. Tourette Canada, a fundraising and support organisation raising awareness. The Canadian Skin Patient Alliance, “a national non-profit organization that improves the health and wellbeing of people across Canada affected by skin, hair, and nail conditions through collaboration, advocacy, and education.”
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.”
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.
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.”