I Hate Goodbyes – May 29, 2014

However, the time has come.  From my first day to my last, my WIR tenure has been a joy, filled with supportive colleagues; committed emerging writers, rewarding community events and some very exciting special projects.

Warren James and I had a great time working together.  Under Warren’s gentle supervision, I visited many branch libraries.  Without exception I was impressed with how creatively and effectively each of these very different libraries meets the needs of its community.  From the time, I could barely see over the desk of the librarian at Earlscourt Public Library to the present, I’ve always known librarians are very special people., and my visits to the branches proved how right I’ve been to hold librarians in such esteem.

And there were community events. I did two afternoon sessions with the Lifelong Learning writers’ groups.  So much interest and so much fun.  The Lifelong Learning Centre is a great advertisement for the benefits of stretching mental muscles and meeting the possibilities of every day with excitement.  Many of the attendees at my LLC sessions came to see me later for one-on-one meetings about their work, and I was struck by their talent and their determination to write well.

Together, Warren and I planned and executed (with panache) three very different events at Central Library.  The first on the very frosty, blizzardy Wednesday night before Valentine’s Day was called either Hot Reads For a Cold Night or 50 Shades of Erotica (depending upon who you talked to).  Before the evening, we had an online list of questions about erotic literature and readers were invited to comment (if they wanted to) on the first piece of literature that made their loins twitch.  That was a lot of fun, and the evening when we gathered to discuss Erotica was lively. And – huzzah–there were prizes from Love Plus for those who were still contemplating the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for their beloved.

The Banned Books Café engendered some lively conversation with the larger community. I did an hour long radio appearance on Community Radio talking about the subject and then Stefani Langenegger and I did an open-line show on CBC where we asked the question “Is there ever justification for banning a book.”  Stef and I were both impressed by the thoughtfulness of the responses we got from callers.  Overwhelmingly, the conclusion was that, with the exception of hate literature which is banned by law, books should not be banned.

We had celebrity readers for our Banned Books Café:  Stefani Langenegger from CBC Radio read from Alice Munro, Kelly Handerek of U. of R. theatre Department read Walt Whitman, Jennifer Campeau MLA, read a banned childrens’ book and Dean Mike Sinclair of St. Paul’s Cathedral read from Huckleberry Finn.  We had a good crowd and again the conversation was lively and respectful.

The Readers Summit in April was the RPL’s first Readers Summit, but it will be not be the last.   We started the weekend Thursday night with Dr. James Daschuk reading from his critically acclaimed book Clearing the Plains.  Friday night Yann Martel delivered the keynote – a smart and provocative discussion of politicians and reading that centred on his book Letter To a Prime Minister.  Saturday morning Dianne Warren talked about the sources she drew from for her G-G award winning novel, Cool Water.  Her talk was very informal and a great deal of fun.  Alice Kuipers, wearing a gorgeous pair of hand-tooled western boots, sat on the desk and talked about how she handled massive rejections from publishers before hitting her stride with her very successful YA and children’s books.  She truly was an inspiration to all writers who’ve experienced the stomach punch of a rejection letter from a publisher.  To finish the afternoon Yann Martel talked about the difficulties of finding a fresh way to discuss the Holocaust, a task he undertook in his novel Beatrice and Virgil.

On Sunday, Annette Bower read from her romance novel A Woman of Substance and gave a very frank and helpful talk about how to get published.  I finished off the Summit by reading a scene about betrayal from my upcoming novel 12 Rose Street, and having a very moving Q&A with the audience about the theme of betrayal and forgiveness.  All in all it was a great weekend.

When I was interviewed for the WIR job, I said that I believed my most significant task as WIR would be to talk to emerging writers about their work.  I’ve been a WIR at two other libraries. In both the rule was that each writer could have only one interview. The RPL allows writers to come as often as the WIR has free time, so in addition to having some great one time only interviews with writers, I’ve had the privilege of watching writers bring along their writing by using some of the suggestions we’ve arrived at jointly. I have learned a great deal from the people who’ve come through my door and I am grateful beyond measure for the chance to get to know them.

And now – finally—my thanks to you all for making me feel so welcome and so much a part of the library.  Thank you, Andree for being there.  Thank you, IT guys for putting up with me. Phil, thank you for making sure I was safe every Wednesday night.  Tammy, thank you for always having a smile when I came to pick up my manuscripts.  Josie, Ivy and Alice, thank you for being the best neighbours any WIR could wish for.  Thank you, Navee for always finding time for a quick but warm chat.

I will miss you all, but I’m hanging onto that old Dr. Seuss line:  Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Kickoff to Summer – May 15, 2014

Whatever your views on the monarchy, the 24th of May long weekend is always a cause for celebration.  It’s been a lot of years now, but I can still remember that endless Friday afternoon before the long weekend, and how when we were finally freed from school, we raced home from school chanting, “The 24th of May is the Queen’s Birthday/If we don’t get a holiday, we’ll all run away.”

Then, as now, the 24th of May signaled the beginning of summer.  The end of school was in sight.  Our winter boots and jackets were long gone. Our parents were musing over their perennial beds and planting their gardens. People who were lucky enough to have cottages were driving north to open them up.  The cottage-less stayed in the city, but every house in the neighbourhood had fireworks to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria is a shadowy figure to most Canadians now.  The last time Ted and I were in Winnipeg we were walking through the legislative grounds and we noticed that some wag had planted a cigarette between the lips of the statue of the Queen. School kids no longer mark the May long weekend with the chant about the Queen’s birthday, but they still race home from school on the May afternoon that kicks off Canadian summer.  Whatever the weather, we’re all wearing sandals and shorts. People with cottages are still opening their cottages on the ‘May Long’ as my students call it.  Fireworks are no longer set off in our backyards.  We’re more cautious now.  Our fireworks are now set off communally under very strict and sensible rules about public safety.  Most of us have a very tenuous relationship with our agrarian past, but this weekend, like our forebears, we will be digging and planting and hoping. And like our ancestors, we still hedge our bets. Only the foolhardy plant their gardens before the Queen’s birthday.   Our country’s memories of Victoria may have faded but she is and always will be our fertility goddess.

Happy Beginning of Summer!!!!!!

Books for Summer Reader – April 30, 2014

Ever the keen-er and determined not to let this week’s fresh dump of snow dampen my lust for summer, I’ve already started my summer reading.  My first choice was Angie Anjou’s The Canterbury Trails about men and women who live (and sometimes die) on the slopes.  Angie has a special insight into joys and privations of the lives of athletes.  Her first book The Bone Cage centred on a swimmer and a wrestler preparing for the Olympics. I found it absolutely riveting and The Canterbury Trails is even better.

My second choice was Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.  If you’re keen on reading 39,000 words climaxing in a premature ejaculation, this is the book for you.  If not, you might prefer something less steamy, not to mention, less messy.

My daughter has been nagging at me for years to read Donna Tartt.  Bandwagon Jumper that I am, when The Goldfinch won this year’s Pulitzer, I started the novel.  It’s a bildungsroman – a big, fat page-turner, and it’s absolutely wonderful.  Donna Tartt writes one novel a decade. She has a devoted cult of fans and she deserves every accolade.  The Goldfinch is perfect summer reading –involving, insightful and impeccably written.  We’ve already ordered Tartt’s first two books, The Secret History and The Little Friend and I can close my eyes and hear the loons when I think about how wonderful it will be to read these brilliant books on the beach at Anglin Lake.

My friend Jeffrey Round’s new mystery Pumpkin Eater arrived in my mail today.  The blurb on the front cover is from Luba Goy.  She says Jeffrey Round is ‘the gay Margaret Atwood’.  Recommendation enough, in my opinion.

The death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on April 17th made me aware of an inexplicable gap in my reading. I had never read a single word by this brilliant, kind and funny man. This summer will be a good time to remedy that sin of omission, and Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude are already stacked neatly in the pile beside our beach towels.

Among the many wise words attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one particular observation caught my eye.  “What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember and how you remember it.”  Saskatoon writer, Suzanne North’s new novel Flying Time is a sensitive and probing exploration of how memory shapes our lives.

The narrator is a woman in her late 80’s and her account of her life in Calgary in 1939 is funny and wise and heartbreaking.  Kay Jeynes is a 19 year old typist.  Her family is decidedly working class and their life together is an extraordinarily close and happy one.  In 1939 prejudices against the Japanese were already a spoor on Canadian history.  Kay is the only member of her typing pool to volunteer to work as an assistant to a wealthy Japanese businessman, and her association with him and with his gentle wife changes her life.  I guarantee that you will love Flying Time.

Now will someone please pass the sunblock.

Curling up for Summer Reading – April 23, 2014

This past week, we had a day that was warm with the promise of summer.  Of late, we’ve been short of green and golden days in Saskatchewan, so I wasn’t about to waste this one.  I made myself a cup of Earl Grey; picked up the book I was reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – more about it in next week’s blog) and found a place to curl up in on our back deck.

Reading is always a joy, but that afternoon as I felt the sun on my face, smelled the warming earth and heard the birds chirp, I realized how much I’ve always loved reading outdoors and how sharply etched the memories of many of my summer reading places are.

I grew up in the west end of Toronto – a distinctly working class neighbourhood– but one where families took immense pride in their gardens, especially in their roses.  For me, the scent of summer roses will always evoke memories of dragging a kitchen chair out to our back porch on a warm June day and reading the latest novel in the Cherry Ames series.  Ultimately there were 27 novels devoted to this job-hopping, mystery-solving nurse with the bouncing black curls and the cherry red cheeks, and even when I was far too old for Cherry Ames, I read and re-read every one of them.  Our family had a cottage at Cameron Lake and we spent the entire summer there.   My reading place there was the dock. I loved to lie on my stomach reading the complete works of Sir Walter Scott because that’s what the Fenelon Falls library had to offer and looking through the slats of the dock breathing the weedy fishy air of the lake and dreaming dreams of Scottish history.

As a student at University of Toronto, summer were for binge reading: fat Russian novels, slim books of poetry and battered paperbacks filled with sex.  I distinctly remember walking from my rooming house on Charles Street East to my summer job on Jarvis street, smoking a Rothmans and reading Dostoevsky or John O’Hara. Toronto air in summer always smells faintly of garbage and hot dogs, but I knew I was cool.

As a writer, I’m often at writing festivals during the summer and I’ve had some glorious experiences.  Last summer we were at a Festival on the east coast of Newfoundland. Our hosts had rented a beautiful cottage for us in a place called Happy Adventures.  I remember sitting on our deck, smelling the ocean, reading Kevin Majors’ Hold Fast, a stunning Newfoundland novel about a 14 year old boy’s coming of age and looking up to see my landlord offering me ‘a nice bit of cod’ for our dinner.

Ted and I have been in at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts many times. The motel where we stay is oceanfront – a three minute walk to the beach, and I remember taking Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers out to a bench overlooking the ocean, listening to the ocean pound and then glancing over and seeing Jane, who was also reading at the festival, walking along the beach.  Magic!

This summer the festivals are at Elephant Mountain in B.C. and closer to home in Moose Jaw. We’ll be at the cottage in Anglin Lake for a couple of weeks and at home in Regina.  Wherever we are, I know I’ll find a perfect spot to read.

Next week, I’m going to blog about some books that I think you might want to throw in your tote bag along with the beach towel, the slaps and the sun block.

The RPL Readers Summit – some thoughts – April 10, 2014

First, by any criteria the event was a success. The weather was gorgeous –warm, sunny and still, and over the four days, 239 patrons participated in events. The RPL wanted to celebrate our community’s love of reading and writing, and the enthusiastic involvement of the participants made it clear that the summit had reached its goal.  My event was the last one, and when it was over,  one writer/reader said that what she loved about the Summit was that there was something there for everyone and that she had learned something different and valuable from every session. 

        I attended all the events and I’d read all the books our presenters were going to talk about.  I, too, learned something different and valuable from every session, but I have a few memories that I’d like to share.

      Thursday night, Dr. Jim Daschuk (who used to toss a Frisbee with our son,  Nathaniel) discussed his critically acclaimed book, Clearing the Plains.  The subject of Dr. Daschuk’s disseration was the decimation of the Aboriginal people when the prairies were settled, and his reading was both sobering and enlightening. I was very pleased to see that there were a number of First Nations people in the audience.  They brought questions and insights to the discussion and Dr. Daschuk’s discussion was enriched by their presence. 

        Friday night Yann Martel discussed his book What is Stephen Harper Reading,  and his talk and the response it engendered was wide-ranging and brain-stretching.  Martel’s theory that you can tell a great deal about a person by what that person does (or does not) read is a provocative one, and when the theory is applied to the leaders who decide what we as a nation, a province or a city will be, it can be both provocative and more than a little frightening.  Again, audience participation was lively and we all had a chance afterwards to have a drink, enjoy some of the excellent appetizers and talk to Yann Martel, a man who is as approachable as he is thoughtful.

          Our first Saturday morning session was led by Dianne Warren, my around-the-corner neighbour and the winner of the 2010 Governor-General’s award for fiction for her novel Cool Water—somehow I suspect she mind find the GG a tad more thrilling than the proximity to me.  Dianne’s novel is a gentle, absorbing and humane novel about how contemporary life in Juliet Saskatchewan feels to some of its (barely over 1,000) residents.

         It’s a lovely book, and Dianne was open about sharing some of the sources behind this extraordinary novel.  Among other influences, Dianne cited her father’s collection of Zane Grey novels and her father’s treasured recording of the Sons of the Pioneers’ Cool Water, a classic about his man and his mule.   Dianne’s  lesson about how writers spin many strands into story was one of the most sensible explanations of the relationship between sources and the creative process that I’ve heard.

         Alice Kuipers made an indelible impression on us all as she sat cross-legged on the table, wearing the most beautiful pair of hand-tooled western boots I’ve ever seen, talking about her determination to become a writer despite a daunting onslaught of rejections.  Her account of how she finally found the literary form that best suited what she wanted to say was riveting.  April 5th (the day Ali spoke) was my grand-daughter, Madeleine’s 16th birthday and Alice wrote a lovely whimsical inscription on the copy of 40 Things I Want to Tell you that I’d bought for Madeleine (having first read and enjoyed it myself, of course.) Ali’s partner Yann Martel brought their three very young children to the reading to see their mother in action.  All are under the age of five, blonde, handsome and very well behaved.  It was good for us all to see two very successful partners balancing work and family.

           Our son Nathaniel came with us to hear Yann Martel talk about his novel, Beatrice and Virgil.    Nat is a great fan of Life of Pi, but he hadn’t read Beatrice and Virgil. As Yann talked about the difficulties of writing about the holocaust from a fresh perspective, the audience was rapt.  Nat had taken a class in the literature of the holocaust, so during the Q and A, he and Yann had a lively interchange about the subject at hand, during which Nathaniel mentioned a book about the holocaust that had flown beneath Yann’s radar.  That evening Nat and Yann had a very nice email exchange.  You can imagine how pleased Nat was that Yann Martel took the time to write. I’ve already ordered Beatrice and Virgil for our younger son.  

          On Sunday, Annette Bower talked about writing her romance novel  Woman of Substance, a book that in addition to packing a very nice narrative punch explores the question of how body image affects how others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. To support her Masters thesis that society treats large women treated differently because of their weight, the protagonist, Robbie Smith assumes the disguise of a very large woman.  Annette examined studies that had been done about body image and about the role advertising plays in making women believe that to be happy they must conform to a certain ideal body weight.  As a bonus, Annette took us inside the world of publishing romance novels. In all, it was a fascinating hour, and a very well-attended one.

       My presentation on the mystery was the last.  I read from my 15th Joanne Kilbourn novel, 12 Rose Street that will be published next year.  Among other subjects the novel deals with betrayal and forgiveness, and the discussion after the reading was thoughtful and often, very moving.

        Warren James says that next year’s Readers’ Summit will be even bigger and better than the 2014 event.  I can see the 2015 Summit being bigger but thanks to the writers and readers who participated in this year’s summit the bar for success has been set very high.    


Time to get thinking about the weekend.  The RPL Readers Summit will be taking place from Thursday, April 3rd to Sunday, April 6th.  Ted and I have read all the books that will be discussed and you won’t want to miss any of them.


       On Thursday, April 3rd,  Dr. James Daschuk will be discussing his critically acclaimed book, Clearing the Plains.   His account of how the First Peoples were decimated by disease, the politics of starvation and the loss of Aboriginal rights is a harrowing read, but it’s a book that tells us truths that will help us shape future policies that are fair and just. 

 2nd Level Mezzanine RPL 7:00-8:30. Registration required.


On Friday, April 4,  7:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. (doors open at 7:00 p.m.)Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil opens the Summit with an excerpt from his book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? Yann will also share a preview of his new novel, The High Mountains of Portugal and discuss the writing process. 

2nd Level Mezzanine RPL Registration not required.  Seating is limited and will be awarded on a first come, first serve basis.  Cash bar; must be 19 or older to attend.  ID may be requested 


On Saturday, April 5th, 11:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. Dianne Warren discusses her 2010 Governor General’s award winning novel Cool Water.  The language in Warren’s stories about the overlapping lives of the people of Juliet Saskatchewan (pop. 1,001) is as pellucid and evocative as the book’s title. Dianne will also give us a preview of her new book.

For teens and adults: Public Meeting Room 1 – Seating limited, registration required


On Saturday April 5th, 3:00-4:00 p.m. Yann Martel discusses his novel Beatrice and Virgil, an allegorical tale about representations of the Holocaust.  The story centres on Henry, a novelist who receives the manuscript of a play in a letter from a reader.  Intrigued, Henry traces the letter to a taxidermist who introduces him to the play’s protagonists, two taxidermy animals:  Beatrice, a donkey and Virgil a monkey. This thought provoking novel underscores the truth of Levi Strauss’s observation “Animals are good to think with.”

– for teens and adults – Public Meeting Room 1 – Seating limited.  Registration required.


On Sunday, April 6th,  1:00-2:00 p.m.  Annette Bower will read from her romance Woman of Substance, a page-turning novel about Robbie Smith, a young grad student who supports her thesis, the Fat-Like-Me project, by donning a fat suit to measure people’s reactions to the new her.  Her love affair with Professor Jake Proctor is rife with misunderstandings and miscommunications, but as the novel ends, the reader, like Robbie and Jake, has come to define the term ‘woman of substance’ in a wholly different way.

For teens and adults, Public Meeting Room 1 – Seating Limited, Registration Required.


On Sunday, April 6th, 3:00-4:00 p.m. RPL Writer in Residence, Gail Bowen will discuss her 14th Joanne Kilbourn Novel, The Gifted.  The Gifted has been long listed for the 2014 Libris award in fiction

The Libris Awards recognize the extraordinary professionals who deliver great books to Canadian readers. They are nominated and voted on by members of the Canadian bookselling community. The Libris Awards honour the outstanding achievements made by authors and editors, sales reps and distributors, booksellers and publishers.

For teens and adults – Public Meeting Room 1 – Seating limited.  Registration Required.


It’s going to be a great weekend!  See you there!