The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

2019 Year in Books

It’s time for my annual blog post about what I read in the past year!

Buoyed up by having read 67 books in 2018—more, in fact, because I realized later there were a few that I had forgotten to count–in 2019, I joined the #95books challenge. I was way ahead for the first part of the year, but I got behind in the fall when teaching started up again, and just barely made it over the break to 95 books on Dec. 31. According to Goodreads, I read about 22,000 pages, or about 230 pages per book on average.

My original plan to concentrate on translated books in 2019 totally went out the window. Only about a quarter of the books I read were for what I’d deem “pleasure,” as in, I chose them kind of on a whim. The rest I read for work, for a specific research purpose, or for my daughter, or because I was reviewing the book.

As others have observed, doing big book challenges makes one less apt to abandon books, and I found this hard. I read more books that I didn’t like or find useful than I would have liked this year, especially towards the end when I was racing to meet my goal. I had to decide really fast, like in the first 50 pages, if the book was worth using more precious reading time on. I think the solution is to let myself “count” a book toward my goal so long as I’ve read past those 50 pages.

Here are the books I found the most memorable this year. It just so happens I picked one fiction, one non-fiction, one poetry, and one drama, but I didn’t plan it that way:


Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Though I was impressed with Normal People, I’m wondering now how much I was influenced by all the hype around that book, because months later, I think find myself thinking much more about her earlier book, Conversations with Friends, which I also read this year.

chooses you

Miranda July, It Chooses You. This is a delightfully odd non-fiction book by the incomparable July, in which she interviews random people in LA chosen through their classified ads selling used goods. I most remember the boy who created frog habitats in his back yard, and the man who wrote dirty birthday cards for his wife. It’s about people and what you can learn if you just talk to them.


Karen Solie, The Caiplie Caves. Probably my favourite of the books I read this year. I reviewed this book in the The Globe and Mail, and I could have gone on and on about it. It’s a sideways take about what poets are to do during this time of existential crisis—only set in a medieval hermit’s cave. Solie’s work is a poetry benchmark. Unsurprisingly, the book has been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize.


Cliff Cardinal, Huff & Stitch, which were published together, but it’s Huff that had the big effect on me. Regret not seeing this play when it was produced here. Huff is an in-your-face whirlwind of tragedy, about intergenerational trauma and the relentless loss faced by Indigenous communities and, in particular, Indigenous youth.

In 2020, I expect to keep reading for research, work, reviewing, and my child, but my project for those “extra” books I get to choose for whatever reason? I’m going to read books I already own and are sitting on my shelves taking up space. Then I’m going to give them away unless I can justify keeping them under one of the following categories:

  • favourite books I am likely to read again
  • books useful for reference
  • books by people I know
  • small press books (overlaps greatly with the previous on)
  • books I’m attached to for strong sentimental reasons (note to self: high bar required)

I just don’t have that much space, and the library exists, right? I use the library all the time. I’m not too optimistic about the number of books I’ll actually be able to give away using this method, but time will tell. See you this time next year.

2018 Reading Challenge: Part 3

For my “favourite” books of 2018, I can’t just pick one thing from each genre – that seems a bit too artificial for how haphazard my reading was last year. Instead, I’ve just highlighted the books that I’m still thinking about the most, even months after reading them. Call them my most memorable books of 2018 (most of which didn’t come out in 2018).

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)I can’t not mention the third installment of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, The Stone Sky. While I was the most blown away by the first installment, the rest of the trilogy didn’t fail to deliver. It’s tremendously inventive and intricately drawn far-future science fiction by a Black woman. She has won umpteen major awards for this trilogy, and she doesn’t really need a recommendation from me. But here it is anyway.

This One SummerI’m still thinking about Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s YA graphic novel This One Summer. It’s a haunting coming-of-age tale that takes place at the lake, “this one summer.” Girls and women of different ages each change in different ways, and the pubescent protagonist learns—with resistance, even dread—what she’s up against becoming a woman. Definitely YA, not kids’.

Gothic Tales of Haunted LoveI read a few Hope Nicholson/Bedside Press comics anthologies this year, and the one that stood out for me was Gothic Tales of Haunted Love, which is just what it sounds like – spooky, gory, supernatural doomed romances, by a variety of artists and authors in a variety of styles. The stories featured many LGBTT* and BIPOC characters, breathing life into a genre that could otherwise come across as old-fashioned and stale. My daughter was so taken by the presence of this book in my house that I had to write a guide for her telling her which stories she could read and which were not age appropriate. (My daughter is obsessed with comics and I have to watch every one that I bring home.)

In cross-genre poetry/memoir/essay, I finally got around to reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I recognized it as poetry, myself, and only realized that some people categorize it as essays upon reading some reviews. I’ve never believed in genre myself, so its cross-genre quality just makes me love it more. A book about a colour is a beautiful idea, and blue is the best colour, right? (Weirdly, I also read Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red this year, which isn’t about a colour, only it sort of is….)

Wide Sargasso SeaOne of the literary classics I picked up this year was Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. I have to say that what stays with me is more an impression than a specific element of craft or thematic takeaway, though I know it has many; for me, this book was an immersive experience that I can still kind of sink into in my mind.

Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing by and about Indigenous PeoplesThe most important book I read this year was Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style. If you are a writer or communicator in this country, you should read this book. It gives practical and clearly explained, organized, and argued advice for best practices when writing about Indigenous subjects or working with Indigenous writers.

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest GenerationI adored Daisy Hay’s book The Young Romantics, and it’s probably what gave me the biography bug. I’ve read that it was her PhD thesis in another form, which surprised me because the prose is so lively and the story so riveting (not something one can usually say about a dissertation). In it, she argues that the archetype of the lone, individualistic, tortured writer—an image invented by the Romantics—was never really true, certainly not by the second generation (the “young” Romantics), and probably not even for the first. She interweaves the stories of Leigh Hunt, Byron, the Shelleys, Keats, and a number of peripheral figures in order to show how they all interacted with and even depended on each other for inspiration, debate, intellectual stimulation, camaraderie, and support. (She also illustrates handily how the women of the circle paid the higher price for their nonconforming ways.) I am officially obsessed with the Romantics again, and if anyone can recommend which is the best biography of Byron, I’m gonna put it high on my list for 2019.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)Last, probably my favourite book of 2018 was another one that needs no recommendation from me: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It won the Booker, it was made into a miniseries, blah blah blah. These are historical characters I never would have predicted I’d have gotten so attached to. Thomas Cromwell, of course. And Henry VIII! I really missed him when I finished this book. This was one of the behemoths (about 600 pages) that I read this year, but it was worth every page. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to commit to reading the next two installments in 2019… maybe just part 2, Bring Up the Bodies. And, oh, maybe I’ll get the miniseries from the library, too.

Onward to 2019, my friends, and happy reading!


2018 Reading Challenge: Part 2

My method of choosing books to read in 2018 looked systematic (I like systems) but had a whole lot of serendipity embedded in it. When I heard about, or remembered, or researched, or otherwise discovered, a book I wanted to read, I looked it up in the public library, and if it was there, I added it to a list in my account. My lists are divided up by subject and genre, to keep them organized. Sometimes, when a book wasn’t in the library but I really, really wanted to read it, I’d put in a purchase request, or else order it from interlibrary loan.

Screen Shot 2018-12-31 at 10.29.31 PM.png

I kept my holds list full, with the holds mostly suspended, and when I took a book out and a hold spot opened up, I’d go to my lists and, rotating through the different subjects and genres, I’d place a new hold on something that took my fancy at the time. I tried to have one longer book and several shorter books checked out at all times.

And how did I find out about these books? Several ways:

  • Social media. Even though I am not on it that often any more, the majority of my friends and followees are writerly types who talk about books rather a lot. A lot, but not all, of the books I learn about this way are Canadian books, because that is the world I friend in.
  • Goodreads—the platform I have not blocked. Not that many of my friends are on it, but the feed is 100% about books.
  • Personal recommendations from friends, colleagues and students IRL.
  • Library research on subjects of interest to me, often for writing-related reasons.
  • Podcasts. I listen to a number of book-related podcasts to hear about what’s new, and what I’ve previously missed, in the book world. Some of my favourite book shows this year:
    • LeVar Burton Reads. He reads contemporary short stories and has really good taste. Also, he’s LeVar Burton.
    • The New Yorker Fiction Podcast and The Writer’s Voice (respectively, older and newer stories from The New Yorker).
    • Literature and History. This is a podcast about the history of English literature and everything that influenced it. It’s been going on for years and he hasn’t even got to the English language yet. It’s all about totally canonical stuff, but I haven’t read all of that (and it’s been a while since I read what I read). He also recommends scholarly works.
    • Professional Book Nerds (from OverDrive), and Bookworm (from KCRW, with Michael Silverblatt). For book “round-up and interview” shows, those two are my current favourites, though I am also known to listen to the BBC’s, The Guardian’s and the TLS’s book podcasts for British book news, plus a whole slew of other American ones. (And the CBC, too!)

So, how did my semi-managed reading turn out by the numbers in 2018? Here are some percentages; keep in mind they are approximate, since I haven’t thoroughly researched the bio of every author and might not be privy to how they identify. Also, some of my genre attributions are probably debatable.

  • About 68% of the creators (usually authors, sometimes illustrators, editors, or translators) were women or non-binary people.
  • About 46% were Canadian.
  • About 14% were LGBTT*.
  • About 25% were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour).
  • About 8% of the books were translated from another language into English.

I gravitate towards books by women, plus the methods by which I get book information—due to the makeup of my friends circle—is going to emphasize books by women and books by Canadians. I need to put more attention towards choosing books by BIPOC, LGBTT*, and non-English-writing creators. My plan is to focus on the third in 2019, since it came in at a measly 8%. I’d love to practice actually reading in French (I used to in university), but I’m afraid that would slow me down a lot on my quest for 95 books. I’m looking at Asymptote for recommendations on new translated books. (Alas, their book club no longer ships to Canada!)

As for genre, here are the significant ones:

  • About 35% of the books I read were novels (my first love).
  • About 33% were SFF (science fiction and fantasy, though I’ve defined that broadly).
  • About 21% were children’s and YA (young adult).
  • About 21% were poetry.
  • About 20% were in graphic forms (comics).
  • About 14% were some form of narrative non-fiction.
  • About 14% were based on myth or traditional stories (either presented straight-ahead as non-fiction or retold as fiction).
  • About 11% were biography, autobiography or memoir.

For research purposes, I was actually trying to read significant amounts of mythology, YA, and SFF work this year. Those trends will probably continue, though I kind of got the bug for reading biography, what little of it I did.

I probably should have counted the living versus dead authors – but I can tell you the number of dead authors would be small. I also read a tiny bit of mystery, short stories, and informative non-fiction.

Next time: highlights of the year.

2018 Reading Challenge: Part 1

What is this? An actual blog post? Yes, it is, only two years since the last one. The thesis novel I last updated you about is back up to 92,000 words and officially in draft 5 (but who’s counting); yes, I did get my degree, but that doesn’t mean the book is finished. I just compiled that draft 5 MS today, December 31, so I felt it was a good milestone to mention.

But on to other, better books than my unfinished behemoth. Dismayed at my declining reading over the years and feeling distinctly like the internet has been making me lose my ability to read in depth, in 2018 I decided it was time to take on a reading challenge and publicly track my reading, which I did over on Goodreads – DAMN ITS EASE OF USE, AMAZON IS EVIL.


Alas, I have not established a new tracking system for 2019.

Though I was most aware of Jonathan Ball’s #95books challenge, I decided to go for the more modest 52 books, a commonly declared challenge on Goodreads. I’m aware that these reading challenge numbers are all relative: to some people (let’s say, most of the students I teach), 52 books in a year might seem like a lofty goal, but to many of my writer and academic friends, not to mention friends who are voracious genre readers, it probably seems laughably small.

While there were times during the year that I fell behind, in the end I made 52 books quite comfortably, with about a month to spare, and then had a very productive December (vacation, air travel), getting my final total to 66. (Actually, it was 67, but there was one book I read early in the year that I wanted to forget and decided to delete from my list in a fit of pique.)

Screen Shot 2018-12-31 at 9.48.16 PMBuoyed by this success, I’m going to try for #95books in 2019. Things I need to keep in mind, given my experience in 2018:

  • Read on the bus. I’m lucky that I don’t get motion sick. That’s at least 40 minutes per day reading right there, so long as I don’t get seduced by the news apps.
  • Read before bed. Working or going on-line before bed does not help me sleep. Reading is better.
  • Stay off social media. My reading time this year shot up when I installed a social blocker which I’ve set so I’m only allowed on social media during limited periods of the day. As a result, no one likes my Facebook posts any more (I’m guessing they are not even seeing them), but who cares, really? I found pretty fast that once I blocked myself, I no longer wanted to go online, and got into the habit of reading instead.
  • Less Netflix. It’s so easy to start watching something and binge through a bunch of episodes for hours on the couch. I’ve tried to limit Netflix to two hours per week, and—just like with the social media—I found that after a while I no longer really wanted to go there, to the point that I had to schedule in my two hours so I didn’t completely ignore that form of storytelling.
  • Use the library. Not only does the public library offer good tools for organizing lists of books you want to read, the due dates create a deadline and a sense of urgency that I just never have when reading books I own (and believe me, I own a lot). But yes, I actually buy the books by people I know.
  • “Book” does not only refer to 600-page epics or weighty literary masterpieces (though those are also good). Only three of the books I read this year were upwards of 500 pages. Au contraire, lots of the books I read were poetry books, children’s books, and comics. I counted the books I read to my daughter for bedtime (five YA novels over the course of the year). I counted the ones she insisted on reading to me (three YA graphic novels which I had to look at over her shoulder). Books are books.

Parts 2 and 3 of this post will break my reading habits down a bit, and then highlight a few of my favourites from 2018.

Taking the Scissors

I got a lot of use out the delete button over the past month while working on my thesis novel.

So far, the thesis process has gone down more or less like this:

  1. Draft one: 60,000 words. Written over two summers, including all the outlining and such.
  2. Draft two: 89,000 words. Included considerable cutting, so I added well over 30,000 words on the second draft, mainly for plot and character development. Written over one summer—one month, really.
  3. Draft three: 66,000 words. I did a few thousand words of cutting at the end of the summer, but mainly this was done over the Christmas break. Included three or four new scenes, but basically it was a cull.

And how sweet the cull is.

I did not cut any chapters. Maybe one or two small scenes went. This was good, old-fashioned dross excision. Big chunks of exposition got the turf, excessive adverbs and adjectives, saying the same thing three ways in case the reader didn’t get it the first time, wordy constructions, all that jazz. It’s by no means perfect – I expect many more drafts to come – but on my way to getting this good enough for thesis submission, I’m pleased with the operation.

I always knew it was theoretically possible to edit away a quarter (at least) of one’s shitty draft without losing anything. I can now vouch that this is true. Same story, three-quarters of the words.

Of course, I’ve still got those words somewhere. O, all those archived files of words we decide not to use! Not to mention all the half-written and abandoned Facebook posts. (Apparently, Facebook keeps them all. Somewhere.)

Before we had a computer at home, we had an electric typewriter with eraser tape. You could backspace and delete letters. This was exciting. When the roll of eraser tape was done, you could unroll it and examine all the letters that had been erased. My sister used to keep all the old rolls. She called it her collection of mistakes.



Gender Representation in Student Screenplays

In my intro screenwriting class, we do table reads of the students’ short scripts before workshopping them. This year I started to notice that men seemed to be cast more than women.

There’s lot of research out there about unequal representation of gender in a variety of media. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a good starting place–it specializes in research on gender representation in family films. It also has a good list of links to other research, including info on the dearth of female writers and directors.

The Playwrights Guild of Canada’s Equity in Theatre project exists to “remedy existing gender and related inequities in the theatre industry.” In the literary world, Canadian CWILA and U.S. VIDA keep track of whose books are being reviewed and by whom. And here’s an article about research on gender representation in children’s literature.

Many of these groups and research projects either take or are working towards an approach which tracks many varieties of inequity — by gender identity, race, sexual orientation, disability, and more.

So, I decided to see if the funny feeling I was getting in class played out by the numbers. I’d like to emphasize these are quite preliminary, rough numbers, using only the cast lists provided by the authors. “Lead” roles are determined only by the cast list and my gut feeling. I’d like to re-do this someday actually counting lines and perhaps taking other notes on the nature of the roles.

Narrators reading the scene directions were not counted. I counted speaking parts only, with the exception of silent films, where I counted all the parts. My sample size is relatively small, though bigger than many creative writing courses. Fifty-seven scripts were analyzed. I’ve analyzed only for gender.


One part was written for a trans man, about 48% parts for women, and 51% parts for men. So far, so good. Men and women both tended to write slightly more parts for their own gender, an effect slightly more pronounced with male authors, but which worked out into roughly equal numbers of parts since the class makeup is over 60% women.

That’s for overall parts. Things look at bit different when we look at leading roles, a difference which is probably the source of the funny feeling I was getting in class:


That would be about twice as many male leads as female leads. Here it is broken down by gender of author:

Male authors wrote male leads about three-quarters of the time — which I don’t find surprising. The most interesting number in all of this for me: women authors wrote leading roles for women only 39% of the time.

As an instructor, what can I do about this? Some ideas:

  • keep tracking numbers
  • include issue in curriculum before embarking on script writing  (e.g. readings from the links I posted at the top)
  • source and use more examples in class that feature women in leading roles (I admit I haven’t done this at all, and usually use commonly referenced or easily available examples)

Any other ideas?





Sometimes A Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Happy New Year! It must be time for me to post on my blog.

What I Did with My Winter Holidays

First, why do I hardly ever post? It’s not just “time,” because, let’s face it, we make the time for the things that we want to make the time for. I was telling folks in class today, I had “Watch Netflix” on my to-do list over the break, and as a result, I didn’t even, because putting it on a to-do list made it into work. (Hey Matt, the one thing I did watch was In Bruges, though! Thanks for the tip.)

Instead, I played video games and read books. I mostly only play one game. Final Fantasy VII. I played it when it came out in 1997, and I am too old to learn anything new, and I don’t really play games enough to justify buying anything else anyway. Plus, though I do have the original game and console somewhere in my basement, there’s an iPad port, and I always have the ol’ iPad with me.

There was absolutely no good reason for me to spend my precious leisure time playing Final Fantasy. This was just absolutely classic procrastination, with a strong hint of dopamine. I mean, sometimes it seems you are just SO CLOSE to earning a W-Summon in the Battle Arena, but then it takes another five hours for some reason. But to compensate for this phenomenal waste of time while pretending to be a little cartoon dude wielding a sword bigger than he is, I also spent some time reading a Very Serious Book which has itself been influential on storytelling in, among other things, games: Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The Hero’s Journey

Oh, yes. I have been trying to read this book on and off for years, as I find it a bit of a slog. I’ve made better progress this time around, but I’m still only maybe a third of the way through, and man, I sort of want to punch him, except that he is dead and also may have been a nice man.

You can’t study screenwriting (or novel writing or game writing or comic writing or whatever) without hearing about The Hero’s Journey, ever since Christopher Vogler’s influential book on the subject in 1998. Vogler, who was a story editor at Disney, based his book on Campbell’s theory, applying it to story structure for screenwriting.

Campbell basically says that stories from around the world follow the same patterns, and then elaborates on those patterns. Which I’m willing to go with him on, because saying that you should recognize pattern in storytelling is kind of another way of saying that you should read a lot and learn from what’s successful in what you read (or consume in other media, too, but no matter what medium you want to write for, if you want to write, you need to read).

Vogler acknowledges the problem of the inherent maleness of the “hero” in the narrative journey, and the model he presents is flexible enough that the gendered nature of the journey didn’t seem like a big stumbling block to me when I read him. Not ideal, but it was something you could take and mess about with.

But now I’m reading Campbell, the legendary man himself. I’m paraphrasing here, but he says stuff like the hero needs to get past competing with the father in order to become “master of the world,” but that, if the character in the story is a woman, she has to similarly get past competing with the mother to become “the world that is mastered.” If I’m reading that right, he’s saying that the woman is the prize. People who defend this kind of thing will go all “you’re not meant to take it literally,” but if you’ve been paying attention you should know by now that language and symbols and stories matter and change the way that we see ourselves. (See Rebecca Solnit’s as-usual-excellent recent essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” )

The best part of the Campbell book for me, so far, is all the examples of stories from around the world, which he cites at length– the comparative mythology part. But he pulls the whole comparison through the filter of psychoanalysis (the book is from 1949), relying heavily on the traditional family as the be-all and end-all of human existence and leaving no room for anything other than a straight, male, cisgender hero.

Much more can, and has been, said about this, not by me. In Vogler’s nod to the topic alone, he cites a number of feminist takes on the hero’s journey. But my frustration with Campbell so far has just been one of those moments for me, you know, when you go WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE, IF THIS IS WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN CONSCIOUSLY BASING HOLLYWOOD MOVIES ON THEN NO WONDER!!!!!!!!!!!!! DIDN’T YOU NOTICE?????? DON’T YOU CARE????

Sometimes a Light Sabre is Just a Light Sabre

Which naturally brings me to Star Wars. George Lucas famously used Campbell in crafting the original series. A good article in the New Statesman the other day cited Campbell in a less than flattering way while discussing the seeming rise in female heroes lately (Rey, Furiosa, Jessica Jones). Let’s hope this rise is not a blip, because we’ve been here before. Thelma and Louise (1991) was supposed to usher in a whole new era. Did it? And that’s just at the edge of my adult memory – I’m suspecting there were moments like it before.

I’m a Buffy gal from way back. Reading Campbell has given me a new tingle of appreciation for a certain last-season episode in which Buffy gets transported back in time, to a mythic time, to meet the men who created the first Slayer, so they can basically give her a power boost for the final battle against evil. Thing is, it turns out that what they did to create the Slayer, and what they want to do to her again, is kidnap her, chain her to a rock, and force a demon on her to imbue her with demonic essence. Buffy says, no way, old dudes, I’ll find some other way to fight evil, and kicks their asses.

At the end of the series, of course, Buffy figures out how to fight evil by sharing her superpowers with others—she rejects the whole lone hero thing. My point? This mythic structure stuff can totally be messed with in a satisfying way. Buffy’s heroism still follows the pattern – descent to the underworld, fighting both inner and outer demons, encountering shape shifters, guidance from a wise mentor, death and resurrection, using her powers to change the “regular” world, check, check, check, check! Even her sharing of her superpowers fits the “return with the elixir” stage of the journey – the elixir being, in this case, heroism itself, which is the real twist on the structure.

Anyhoo. Enough Buffy talk. A casual glance at current Star Wars fan chatter does reveal some people commenting on how the essence of the Kylo/Rey conflict is potentially very gendered – not just, hey, a female hero! But, hey, a different manner of heroism! I’m not totally getting that yet, since there’s an awful lot of emphasis on daddies and light sabres. There was some interesting sexual subtext in the mind reading scene, though. (I’ll be murdered for likely misquoting, but is the line something like, “You know I can take from you anything I want?”)

It’s Late and I’m Tired Now

I also wanted to talk about Outlander and Game of Thrones. See, now I have something for next time. All part of the plan.

Back full circle: why I don’t much like blogging, and don’t do it often. Clearly, one reason is that I haven’t mastered the form. I’ve now been noodling about this topic for three hours (nearly four hours after a couple quick read-overs) and am at about 1400 words.

Also: I really put off making known my circuitous thoughts, because I feel like there’s no point in saying anything unless I’ve done a cartload of academic research to back up what I am talking about. Or at least, you know, finish the darn book before I shoot my mouth off about it. I’ve just committed all sorts of sins, not only in potentially misquoting Star Wars, but in, say, making sweeping generalizations about psychoanalysis without ever having studied it.

I’m basically reluctant to commit my informal noodlings to publication. I think I just have to get over this, because, heck, at least I’ve written something, and maybe someday with time and motivation aplenty, and after having finally achieved that W-Summon in the Battle Arena, I’ll take up Buffy scholarship and feminist comparative mythology and write an awesome paper.

But not today, and not on a blog.


Well, I didn’t get as much writing done this summer as I would have liked, though I did finish a shitty first draft of a novel, which is something. I’m just about finished re-reading it, and boy, does it have holes (though I knew this as I was writing!). Now I just need to find the time to transcribe my notes into a legible form before I forget what I was talking about.

I did, however, get some reading done this summer, which is energizing. After, eventually, finishing Book 3 of the Knausgaard oeuvre, I decided to wait on Book 4 and move on to some other reading projects in the meantime. Among other things, I read two Canadian fantasy trilogies I’d long meant to read – Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and Thomas Wharton’s The Perilous Realm. I didn’t know much about the storylines of either of these series, but knew that Kay’s work was a classic, the thing that made him famous. One of Wharton’s novels for adults, Salamander, is a personal favourite, so I was interested in his YA fantasy trilogy–YA fantasy being a subject of interest to me right now—and a recommendation this spring reminded me to pick it up.

I enjoyed both series tremendously, though I was blown away by Kay’s masterwork. Its classic status is deserved, not to mention that, intended for adults, it spoke to me more directly than Wharton’s book for young readers. (This isn’t always a true distinction, though – I’ve also been re-reading Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy with my daughter, and although those books are ostensibly for young readers, their ambition, scope, complexity and artistry put much of writing, for adults or children, to shame.)

The weird thing about reading these two trilogies in succession: both feature a world where stories come from. Or, as my daughter has said: “Storyland… the place where all the characters in my books are real.” Fionavar is the place myths originate, and The Perilous Realm has much more of a fairy-tale flavour, but both lands are basically that: Storyland.

So, did Wharton use Kay as a source here? Well, who knows and who cares, really—dude’s an incredible writer and has a Ph.D., so I’d be surprised if he hadn’t read everything remotely related to the story he was working on. My daughter and I have been telling tales of our own Storyland to each other for years, ever since I needed something to keep her attention focused while walking to daycare. The idea is public domain (not to mention the myths and fairy tales—not so much my daughter’s fan fiction material), and even a quick glance in Coles revealed another book with the same premise.

There are only so many stories. The question is: why is your version the version only you can tell?

Monsters Drawing Near

I’ve been a doodler for a long time, and this past winter gained a bit of doodling confidence when I took a grad course in making comics with the wonderful Sarah Leavitt. Here’s a link to some of the comics that we created in that class and in some of Sarah’s other classes.

There’s a poem sequence in my new book, Exquisite Monsters, that called out to me to draw. The sequences is made of head, body, and legs poems that make up a variety of “monsters.” You read the poems straight through, or mix them up into different complete monsters.

Now, my doodles are not in the book, but this is how it works. Only, with poems.








(You’ll have to buy the book to read the poem.)

The book is designed with blank pages, so you can draw in your own book. I don’t hold books as sacred objects, and really hope that readers will take me up on this invitation. Even if they can’t draw. Especially if they can’t draw! The great Lynda Barry points out that we all start out as artists and as writers, but we end up developing only what we are told we are good at. Obviously, if you don’t continue to study and practice an art, your skills won’t develop. But that doesn’t mean you should stop.

If you come to my book launch on Thursday night at McNally Robinson, not only will I make you draw, but you’ll get to watch an actual real artist draw: CreComm grad and amazing artist, writer, and human being Jason Booth will be live-drawing to my poetry reading.

In the meantime, here’s a “legs” poem from the book. If you go out and draw it, I’d love to see what you come up with.

A single papier mâché flipper, wrinkled like clay, dried
like a mud flat, like a new desert,
white and powdery like a hard new surface
made by hard new powers
and phenomena.
No water.
Just endless dive.

Notes on AWP 2015 from a Canadian first-timer

In no particular order…

1. America: the service really is better, notwithstanding the grumpy man at the New York Times booth (Picture not available).

2. But all the medical ads are unsettling. Also, did you know the art gallery doesn’t allow guns on the premises? Now you do.


At the Walker Art Center, where there are no guns.


3. Okay: AWP. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the biggest writers’ conference in North America, with more than 500 sessions, 700 trade show exhibitors, and about 12,000 delegates; this year’s event was in Minneapolis, which is why I decided to go (it’s possible to drive down from Winnipeg). First thing that became obvious: the book fair (trade show) really is where it’s at. I mean, there were good sessions, and I wish I’d seen more of them, but there were really more opportunities to meet people and gather information in the book fair.

Random book fair picture


4. Do I need to declare free swag at the border?


Mostly free

5. At Canadian writing gatherings, I find people struggle to talk about poetry. It’s often not presented well; people make jokes about it; poets are a bit sheepish and self-deprecating and apologetic. Basically, poetry gets relegated to second-class. Not so here. There were featured poetry readings, poetry presses by the score, poets collaborating with museums and art galleries and film makers, and just a general attitude of respect for poetry that I don’t normally feel when writers get together. Or maybe I’m just totally insecure and imagining that.




6. And about collaboration: I saw so much of it! Maybe it’s just that the sheer size of the community offers so many more opportunities, but it was really inspiring. It makes me want to write proposals.


The Walker commissioned a collaborative novella about this Hopper painting, and published it on its website.


7. Memorable panel moment: to paraphrase panelist Roxane Gay, nothing “substantial” can be accomplished in a 600-700 word article whether on-line or elsewhere, and if you can’t read long articles, you should go “have a conversation with your God.”


Most of these contain more than 700 words.


8. Things I’d do differently if I came again: plan ahead and get a hotel near the conference centre so I can attend more events, and go to some of the social events to meet more people.


I did a relatively small amount of socializing.


9. I’ll be interested to hear how much business the Canadian presses did at the book fair. There were so few there! Is it always thus? Is it just not enough business to be worth the expense?


I may be biased because I’m a UBC student, but — Best. Canadian. Booth.


10. Last, there were a lot of regionally themed sessions at the event, but hardly anyone from Manitoba came down. It seemed a shame–there were sessions about North Dakota literature, so why not something about Canadian Prairie writers? Ah, well, that moment has passed, and the next conference is in L.A.


Ariel womanning the Brick Books table. Note the books by Winnipeg authors.


So, those are my ten disjointed thoughts about AWP. I’d like to go again some day–but probably not next year.