Friday, December 13, 2013

Writing Nonfiction: Everything you wanted to know . . . available online!

He's back! The Dr. Jekyll in me is gearing up to teach an online course through University of Toronto. It's called The Art of Fact: An Introduction to Writing Nonfiction. We launch January 20. And the
particulars look like this: "The hallmarks of Creative, Literary or Narrative Nonfiction are truth and personal presence. The genre includes subjective and objective streams, and encompasses memoir, autobiography, biography, history, adventure, travel, and true crime. The writer of nonfiction employs memory, imagination, analysis, and research, and adapts literary techniques from fiction, journalism, and the essay. This craft-oriented course aims to enhance your ability to tell true stories." You can find out more at the link above. Also:

Textbook: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda. (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-84630-6). 
Wherever you are, come on down.

Friday, December 6, 2013

In defence of Celine Dion (thanks for asking)


Re: 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. I very much appreciate the spirited review that turned up in today’s National Post. Vit Wagner makes some good points (see here). He’s right to mention Lester B. Pearson. I’m a great admirer of Pearson, and I was sorely tempted to include him even though he was born three years before 1900, my admittedly self-imposed cut-off date. But the idea was to paint a portrait of cutting-edge Canada, and to celebrate 20th-century Canadians who are shaping the 21st century. I stand by my decision. On the other hand, I fear I was wrong to omit Mordecai Richler, my all-time favorite Canadian novelist. I have apologized for that here. The one extenuating circumstance I neglected to mention is that, as an ex-Montrealer, I was feeling guilty about the preponderance of Montrealers. If you count them, you will see what I mean. As for Northrop Frye and Robert Lepage, they turn up in my epilogue, which presents a starter-list for Another 50 Canadians Who Changed the World.  Neil Young? The Performers category in 50 Canadians, which encompasses actors, musicians, and athletes, is already the largest in the book. Next time, sure. Oh, but I do stand by the inclusion of Celine Dion, quite apart from album-sales numbers. After quoting  music critic Carl Wilson, who wrote an entire book about his distaste for Dion, and inviting her detractors to please go here, I added: “In my view, Celine Dion changed the world not only by demonstrating the range of the human voice in the context of pop music, but above all by introducing the spirit of French Canada to those who have never known it.” For the rest, I would refer you to the book.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Legendary Different Drummer plays host to 50 Canadians

This morning took us out to Burlington to talk about 50 Canadians in the Different Drummer Book & Author Series. Would you believe that this series has been running since 1975? It may well be the oldest bookstore-based reading-talking-and-seriously-buying series in Canada. The only contender I can think of
is the Books-and-Breakfast series operated by Paragraphe Books in Montreal. This morning, my fellow authors were David Macfarlane and Rachel Joyce, and a fine trio we made. The tables were piled high with our books. We must have addressed an audience of nigh unto 300. What happens is that people subscribe to the literary series in advance, the way they might to a theatre
 season. Today's event was the last in the autumn run, which included three mornings and  nine authors. Afterwards, Cogeco television interviewed each of the authors. Gotta love that community involvement. A Different Drummer is legendary among Canadian independents, and this morning, we could see why.


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gotta love how The Morning Show goes beyond the conventional



Wow!  So that was different . . . and especially fun.
Hats off to the folks at Global TV Toronto who put together The Morning Show.
In the past month, thanks to VIA-Rail and HarperCollins Canada, I’ve done half a dozen morning shows across the country.  And this one, I can tell you, was unique in a number of ways -- all positive. You can see for yourself by clicking here.
First, we were five people sitting around the table, me and four dynamite hosts: Kris Reyes, Liza Fromer, Rosey Edeh,
and Antony Robart. So we could have a conversation rather than a conventional, straight-up interview.
Second, did you see that collage someone put together, using photos of Our Hero and the cover of 50 Canadians? Fabulous!  And did you notice the creative camera work, the variety of different angles? It didn’t hurt, either, that we went for more than seven minutes -- an eternity in TV time, and much
appreciated. The studio set-up is also unique: open concept to the point where you can see traffic rumbling past on Bloor Street. From where I sit, the whole segment worked. Thanks!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

New Zealander's G-G shows why we should focus on books, not authors

By winning the governor-general's award for fiction, novelist Eleanor Catton reopened an old debate. Catton was born in Canada but left with her parents while still a child. Is she a Canadian novelist? Is she not? One academic called her victory a scandal. Others defended the decision to give her the prize. The sound and the fury brought me back a few years, to August 2009, when I published a piece in the Globe and Mail arguing that when we think about Canadian literature, we should analyze books, not authors. To me, it seems relevant . . . and convincing. 
  
By Ken McGoogan
The literary mavens are at it again: demanding to know how we define “a Canadian author.” This time, the inspiration is the just-released long list for the Man Booker Prize – a list apparently devoid of Canadians.
Or no, wait: turns out Ed O’Loughlin, the Dublin-based, 42-year-old author of Not Untrue and Not Unkind, was born in Toronto. O’Loughlin spent his first six years in Edmonton, and his next thirty-six in other countries, mostly Ireland. No matter: one writer calls him Canada’s “torchbearer,” while a headline declares him “the only Canadian long-listed” for the prestigious Man Booker.
At that point, the literati begin to agonize – and not for the first time. What makes an author Canadian? Place of birth? Current residence? When does an immigrant author become a Canadian? What happens when a Canadian-born writer turns American? Confusion, angst, disgruntlement: this is what comes of investigating authors instead of books.
A couple of years ago, here in the Globe and Mail, I reviewed an historical novel that recreated the harrowing true story of the final expedition of Sir John Franklin. As most readers know, Franklin disappeared into the Arctic in 1845 with two ships and 128 men, leaving behind a welter of questions.
Because the Franklin tragedy stands at the heart of Canadian history, it has attracted the attention of authors as diverse as Pierre Berton, Margaret Atwood, John Geiger, Rudy Wiebe, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Mordecai Richler.
The novel I reviewed, The Terror, transformed the Franklin saga into a supernatural, hell-bent narrative. I declared the book a tour de force and added: “The author's nationality notwithstanding, this novel is far more deserving of specifically Canadian attention than the majority of the books that, come autumn, we will see short-listed for this country's most prestigious literary prizes.”
This prediction was a no-brainer. Despite its manifest relevance to Canadian readers, The Terror was not even eligible for most of this country’s literary awards. Why not? Well, because it was written by Dan Simmons -- an American.
At that point, I began to wonder. When we talk about a work of Canadian literature, wouldn’t we be wiser to look at the book and not at the nationality of its author? Wouldn’t it be wiser to ask: Does a given work speak specifically to Canadians as distinct from Albanians, Bolivians, Belgians or Americans? If it does, then isn’t that enough to make it a Canadian work?
Take a novel written by a native Canadian and set in Canada. Obviously, it’s Canadian. But of course a work can be Canadian without being set here. If a novel is written by someone who came of age in this country, and so was psychologically shaped by this place, his or her creations can only be Canadian. Attitude and sensibility inform a literary work no matter what the setting, which is why Mavis Gallant will forever speak to Canadians.
English literature offers an illustration: Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein. That trilogy is set not in England but in Middle Earth – yet it remains as jolly-old-English as a pint of bitter. If anyone disputed this, I believe I could demonstrate the Englishness of that epic.
Giving priority to the work over the author is no revolutionary idea. When scholars hunt the first Canadian novel, they invariably turn up The History of Emily Montague. Set in eighteenth-century Quebec, it was written by Frances Brooke, an Englishwoman who spent a year in the colonial wilds. She wrote numerous other books that have nothing to do with Canada, and scholars rightly claim none of them for this country.
Consider Malcolm Lowry, also born and raised in England. He is best-known for Under the Volcano, a modernist masterpiece set in Mexico. He wrote much of it in British Columbia, but the book shows no evidence of that. And I don’t see that we can claim it for Canadian literature. Lowry’s October Ferry to Gabriola, however, is set in the Gulf Islands. Clearly it belongs to Canadian literature, as well as to British. It illustrates the point that a work can belong to two or more national literatures.
The same is true of certain works of Brian Moore. His novel Judith Hearne, set in his native Ireland, can not be considered Canadian. But his Luck of Ginger Coffey is set in Montreal, speaks directly to Canadians, and so belongs to the literature of this country, as well as to that of Ireland.
In 2010, Richard Ford, the celebrated American author, will publish “a novel of revenge and violent retribution set on the Saskatchewan prairie.” This work, entitled Canada, will rightly be recognized as an American novel. Because of its subject matter, however, it will speak specifically to Canadians. So, yes, it will also belong to Canadian literature. It will have dual nationality.
What about The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny? That mystery is set in Canada in the 1860s. The author is a Scot who never visited this country – but clearly, that is irrelevant. Thanks to geography and history, the novel speaks specifically to Canadians. It belongs to Canadian literature. And the same is true of certain works by American Howard Norman and Scotland’s Margaret Elphinstone.
So much for books produced by foreign writers. Situating works by Canadian immigrant authors is equally entertaining. But here I would observe that if we accept to look at literature through the prism of nationality, rather than through genre, for example, then the words “Canadian literature” have to mean something.
To my mind, Canadian literature is variously bilingual, multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, post-colonial, post-modern, and even multi-national. But it is not post-national. At this final fork in our argument, then, we take the nationalist path identified by Rudyard Griffiths (Who We Are: A Citizen’s Manifesto) rather than the internationalist one highlighted by Pico Iyer, who has suggested that Canada has a post-national literature.
I would say no, it does not. Canadians contribute to international literature, certainly. But this country, Canada, has a Canadian literature. And immigrant authors -- among them Austin Clark, Michael Ondaatje, Dionne Brand, Neil Bissoondath, Nalo Hopkinson, and Rawi Hage – are producing some of its most exciting works.
Immigrant Canadian authors face extra choices. They can speak to Canadians, to readers of a native land, to a particular diaspora, or they can go international and address Americans and Belgians as directly as Canadians. This last is the Pico Iyer option, and both M.G. Vassanji and Rohinton Mistry have chosen it.
A Fine Balance, set in India, shows what can result. Critics have argued that Mistry could not have written this shining novel while living in India, and probably they are correct. But the novel reflects nothing of Canada, speaks equally to Canadians and Norwegians, and could have been written in England, Ireland, France, the United States, or you name it.
Whenever he chooses, Mistry can write a Canadian novel -- and probably a towering one. To call A Fine Balance a Canadian work, however, is like laying claim to Under The Volcano. It’s wishful thinking.
And that leaves only Ed O’Loughlin and his Man Booker contender, Not Untrue and Not Unkind. The product of a sensibility shaped elsewhere, the novel focuses on an Irish foreign correspondent who shuttles between Dublin and Africa. To see it claimed as Canadian is embarrassing.
Toronto author Ken McGoogan spent two decades as a book reviewer and literary columnist.





Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why CTV's Canada AM is this country’s top-rated breakfast show



They did their homework. That was the first thing I noticed. When we chatted in the Green Room, before entering the broadcast studio, I could tell that producer Katie Johnson had read the book. Same with host  Beverly Thomson, who, a few minutes later, interviewed me on air: she had a welter of yellow stickies poking out of her copy of 50 Canadians Who Changed the World.  And the questions she asked? She, too, had spent time with the book -- for a TV host, not always the case.
As I drove home from the CTV studio, my four minutes of fame at an end, I was saying to myself, well, now you know why Canada AM is the top-rated breakfast show in Canada: these folks are consummate professionals.
Then, when I got home and checked this link -- it arrived before I did -- I discovered the clincher.  When you’re being interviewed, you don’t see what TV viewers see. You see your immediate surroundings, period.  So I did not know that “my” brief segment included the iconic shot of Our Hero wading into the Atlantic Ocean, umbrella in hand, to symbolize the completion of the VIA-Rail, Cross-Canada, Ocean-to-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza. That shot heads the post beneath this one. Somebody, probably Katie Johnson, had to notice and then pluck that off this blog. Now that is REALLY doing your homework. Hats off, eh?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

VIA-Rail, ocean-to-ocean, 50 Canadians: this really happened!

One month ago, we boarded a train called The Canadian in Toronto.
We were bent on celebrating 50 Canadians Who Changed the World – the majority of whom are alive and thriving -- by following in the footsteps of those who created this nation by running steel rails across it. We called this endeavor The VIA-Rail, Cross-Canada, Ocean-to-Ocean, Book-Tour Extravaganza.
Faithful readers of this blog (hi, mom!) will know that Our Hero made stops in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Canmore, Banff, and Jasper. After enduring many hardships and overcoming countless obstacles, he reached Vancouver, made his way to English Bay and, carrying a copy of his new book (which paints a vivid portrait of cutting-edge Canada, if I do say so myself), waded into the Pacific Ocean.
Then came the second leg of the train journey, traveling on VIA-Rail’s “Ocean”: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax. This afternoon, acting on the advice of locals, and assisted by a trio of volunteers, Our Hero made his way to Point Pleasant Park. There, despite a steady rain and a rocky shoreline that would have deterred a less intrepid author, he waded into the Atlantic Ocean, thus accomplishing his declared objective: ocean-to-ocean.  He was tempted to build a cairn.
This evening: Alderney Gate Public Library, 7 p.m. Tomorrow, Wednesday: return to the Centre of the Universe. Thursday: Canada A.M., 8:40 in the morning.  As always, photos by Sheena Fraser McGoogan. For the rest, check out www.50Canadians.ca. Somebody is going to win a copy of 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. Oh, and someone else will take home a $5,000 VIA-Rail travel voucher. Bon voyage!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Three reasons why I hate Montreal

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Some might say that Montreal is over-represented in 50 Canadians.
And, yes, within its pages we do find Leonard Cohen, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Guy Laliberte, Louise Arbour, Oscar Peterson, Jacques Plante, Michaelle Jean, Romeo Dallaire, and Celine Dion. But I only included them because they made me do so.
Fact is, much as I hate Calgary and Vancouver, I hate Montreal more. I hate it, first, because of Old Montreal. Last night, again, we made our way down the hill and wandered along the narrow brick streets to Creperie Suzette on Rue Saint-Paul, where I trotted out my rusty French and we had a splendiferous meal while, outside the window, a light snow began falling. Oh, how I hated that.
I hate Montreal, secondly, because it has Paragraphe Bookstore, one of Canada’s greatest independents.  Paragraphe hosts this outstanding reading series called Books and Breakfast, which boasts a huge following of discerning readers. They came to the Sheraton this morning and welcomed Don Newman, Mark Abley, and me so warmly that I began to hate Paragraphe because it is not everywhere in Canada, and especially because it is not, as it once was, walking distance from my home.
That brings me to the third reason I hate Montreal, and this is the clincher: for me, the city overflows with fond memory – oh, and more than that, because not only was I born here and raised nearby (yo, Lake of Two Mountains High!), but my father grew up downtown, and he planted in me all of his memories, dating back to the 1930s and the Great Depression.  So his memories come back to me as well. And then there was coming and going to Deux Montagnes from Central Station, and working at Sun Life, and slipping out to Place Ville Marie during Trudeaumania, to catch Pierre Elliott Trudeau among the hordes that came out when first he ran for election. In Montreal, every street corner does something like that to me. And that, as you can imagine, I really, really hate.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Rob Ford turned me into a private eye


Rob Ford followed me to Ottawa. I thought I would escape him by coming here to do a book signing at Books on Beechwood. En route, I read about him in two newspapers, the Star and the Globe. Then I read about him in the latest issue of MacLean’s.
That might have been the end of it, but the VIA-Rail train from Toronto offers wi-fi. Soon I was online. One faraway Facebook friend, alluding to the title of my latest opus, 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, and knowing that I live in the Centre of the Universe, asked facetiously, “Hey, is Rob Ford one of the fifty?”
Another one posted a link to a Toronto Sun article. And this is where Ford turned me into a private eye. You know how, in the latest video, the mayor rants that he wants to murder someone? And everyone wonders, who is he raging about?

Well, in this Sun article, a judge tells a hearing that a former common-law spouse of Ford’s sister, Kathy, “was viciously attacked and severely beaten” in jail because he was “being a bother to Ford.” Apparently, this convicted drug dealer had threatened Ford and approached him screaming, “You owe me money and your sister owes me money,” and later threatened the mayor. But here: draw your own conclusions. The mystery is, why haven’t people picked up on this? For the record, Ford is NOT one of the 50. Yes, I signed a few piles of books. And Sheena shot the pix.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Ocean-to-Ocean Book Tour Extravaganza Heads East



Part Two of the journey begins in Toronto next Thursday (Nov. 7). Yes, we’re talking The VIA-Rail, 50 Canadians, Ocean-to-Ocean Book Tour Extravaganza. We’re promoting 50 Canadians Who Changed the World by train. So far, we have whistle-stopped through Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Calgary, Canmore, Banff, Jasper, and Vancouver. Now, we travel east: Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Halifax. If you are reading this, can I hope to see you one of these events?
-- Toronto, Nov. 7: Dora Keogh / Fine Print / Ben McNally Books (see above).
-- Ottawa: Nov. 8: Books on Beechwood (7-9 p.m.).
-- Montreal: Nov. 10: Paragraphe Books & Breakfast. Our Hero appears with Don Newman and Mark Abley. Host Anne Lagace-Dowson (10 a.m.) See here.
 
-- Halifax (Dartmouth): Nov. 12: Alderney Gate Library (7 p.m.)
While in Halifax, we complement the gesture captured on the left. We will visit Point Pleasant Park and, carrying a copy of 50 Canadians, wade into the Atlantic, thereby drawing the Extravaganza to a fitting close. For the rest, the big contest -- sponsored by HarperCollins Canada and VIA-Rail -- is attracting lots of interest. No wonder: first prize is a copy of my new book. Second prize, a $5,000 travel voucher from VIA-Rail. Or wait: maybe that is the other way round? Read all about it by clicking here.