Reviews, interviews, and the Magic 8

The amazing, incredible, hard-working team at McCelland & Stewart.

I'm home after four days on the road promoting my book! Eight interviews, three days, two cities. Here are a few of the highlights:

My favourite interview of the week was the one we recorded for The Sunday Edition. Michael Enright, in addition to being a thoughtful and incisive interviewer, is an old friend of my in-laws so we'd met a couple of times before. As a result, I was totally at ease in the recording studio and I think that comes through in the interview.

Live television interviews are daunting, particularly if they are first thing in the morning and you've tossed and turned more than you've slept the night before. But the team at CTV's Your Morning are such pros they made my interview with Lindsey Deluce easy, like chatting with a new friend.

Sue Carter wrote a really nice piece for The Toronto Star and Metro on the book. And author Marissa Stapley gave the novel a glowing review in Saturday's Globe & Mail. It's behind a paywall but here are a couple of lines from the review that I appreciate: "Bala has vividly conjured worlds, both on Canadian soil and back in Sri Lanka, that show the dualities of living in any country – and that show how powerful the need for safety, the need for home, is in all of us...The characters Bala brings together in The Boat People are different and the same. What we also get from a novel like this is a new way of seeing." YES! This is exactly what I want people to take away from the book. There is no "other." At heart we are all want the same things even if our skin colours and accents are different.

This is my job now: defacing books.

There is little I love more than a good literary quiz. The CBC asked me to complete the Magic 8 Q&A. You can read more about my hatred of jargon and my love of podcasts.

This past Tuesday was also publication day in the US. I was in Toronto and celebrated in my very favourite way - dinner and champagne at home with a group of my oldest friends.

Mari Carlson wrote a very favourable review in BookPage. My favourite line was the last one: "The Boat People reminds us of the fragile nature of truth." The truth, and its imprecise nature, is something I was consciously working through as I wrote and I'm glad that resonated.

And here's an essay I penned for Signature over the holidays on writing about dark subjects.

But it wasn't all interviews and media appearances last week, I also spent some time signing books. If you are in Toronto and would like a signed copy, I scribbled my name in the books at the Indigo at Bay and Bloor and the flagship store in the Eaton's Centre.

Book promotion is a thrilling and exhausting (I didn't sleep for three days straight) and as fortunate as I felt to have such an amazing publicity team who scored the book all kinds of coverage (I've only scratched the surface in this post), I was absolutely overjoyed to flop into my own bed on Friday night. I've spent the weekend sleeping in and reading (Mira T. Lee's "Everything here is beautiful" - which is just as advertised in the title) and going to yoga and spending time with friends. Bliss!

More interviews next week and on Thursday we're having a launch. It's free and open to the public so please join us at the Eastern Edge Gallery from 7:30-9:00pm. There will be food and drinks and live music and books for sale and a short reading too.

 

Sredni Vashtar

I read a few short stories this week - mainly from Carmen Maria Machado's enthralling collection. But the one that I loved the most was Sredni Vashtar by Saki. I first heard it while grocery shopping. The podcast I was listening to ended and my player skipped directly to the latest episode of the Guardian Books podcast where Susie Grimshaw read the story. I was trying to track down olives and frozen spinach and knew I wasn't giving the story my full attention but still it captured me. I wanted to savour each and every individual word. I ended up listening to it again on the walk home and then again a third time at home, giving the prose my undivided attention. It's a fantastically hilarious story and each word is a gem but, perhaps because the protagonist is a small boy, there is something fairytale like about it, something that seems to come alive when it's read out loud. And maybe that is part of why it resonated with me. I wonder if the connection would have been as strong if I'd read it on the page.

In any case, have a listen. It's a deliciously wicked tale.

Lists

The Globe & Mail loves these books!

The Globe & Mail loves these books!

There is nothing I love more than a good list. To do lists. Grocery lists. List stories. The other day while putting books on hold at the library, the librarian asked where I got my reading list. "Is this from Goodreads or a prize longlist?" she asked. I explained that it was DIY, a curated set of titles that are coming soon or very recently out.

But at the moment my favourite kind of lists are the ones that mention The Boat People. My book is first on the Globe & Mail's list of most anticipated reads. (The list is probably ordered by publication date) Travelling Book Junkie included my novel in their round up of January reads. I'm in excellent company on Signature's Best Books of January list. And Amazon.com named The Boat People one of their Best Books of the month.

Bonus content!

Good news for fans of The Boat People: the Newfoundland Quarterly online has published some exclusive bonus content, a scene called "More Folly Than Sense" that is not in the book. It's accompanied by a brilliant illustration by Megan McNeill who is a talented artist as well as my friend and neighbour.

This is a flashback that takes place 22 years before the novel begins. I love this scene and it was one I wrote for the very first draft. But it's set so far in the past that it really didn't have a place in the novel. I'm glad it's available though because it shows a side of northern Sri Lanka that you don't get to see in the book - the carefree, idyllic days that people of a certain age still remember. And I think it's important to think about this, in the context of Sri Lanka and Syria and Libya and every single other place that's been ripped apart by war. Once upon a time there was peace.

 

Birthday

The big day is HERE. The Boat People is on shelves and e-readers and nightstands across Canada TODAY.

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For the past couple of weeks I've been getting notes from friends who pre-ordered online and received their books early and it's been such a thrill to see photos of them holding their very own copies. I am so excited about sightings of my book IN THE WILD.

It's been such a thrill too to randomly stumble on mentions of the book in articles. Last week I was reading Jen Sookfong Lee's year in review article on Open Book and was pleasantly surprised to find my name in the same paragraph as the words "new Canlit." Y'all...I'm a card carrying member of CANLIT now.

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On Boxing Day my friend Erin texted me the photo on the right. There she was, minding her own business, catching up on the new Toronto Life and BAM...there's my book in its own red column.

Four and a half years ago, The Boat People was a vague idea I had for a novel. Twenty two months ago it was a publication deal. Last April it was a final manuscript. In July, there was an Advance Reader Copy. And today it's a real book on shelves.

The Boat People isn't mine anymore. Not really. When a book is released it becomes its own entity, a thing in the world, something that belongs as much to the readers as to the writer. I hope you love it.

Resolutions

Happy new year! It's January 1st and as good a time as any for resolutions. Every year my list of goals include a few that are work-related. For 2018 I plan to:

Sleep more
Sleep is important for health and sanity of course but it's also crucial to the creative process. If you don't believe me, just listen to this recent episode of Hidden Brain and pay attention to the anecdote about how Keith Richards wrote the song "Satisfaction."

Read one short story a week
Short stories are highly underrated which is really too bad because I think they have the power to teach us more about craft than any other form. I have a bad habit of reading collections I love fast, just gobbling them up, story after story without pause.

It wasn't always like this. When I was first learning to write, I'd read a story slowly then again and again. I'd think about all the different elements - character and plot and pace and ponder the ending, why it worked or didn't, and whether I would have written it differently. Slow, methodical reading can be so satisfying, like putting a single square of dark chocolate on the tongue and allowing it to dissolve. I want to do this more. And also, I want to read short stories more consistently. So I'm aiming for one a week and when I find one that really speaks to me, I plan to read it over and over and think about it slowly. Today I read Carmen Maria Machado's "The Husband Stitch," which is the first story in her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties. I've read the story before and it has that fantastic depth and texture that the very best stories contain. There's so much going on beneath the surface of the story. It demands re-reading. It demands slow and thoughtful consumption. This week, I plan to give it both.

Read more current books
As a reader, I'm always behind the times, getting round to books two or even three years after they are published. But being a professional writer means being asked to recommend and talk about new reads. Last year by total fluke I happened to read a bunch of the newest books (Son of a Trickster, The End of Music, Brother, All Is Beauty Now, Bellevue Square....to name just a handful) which came in handy. This year I plan to be more purposeful. So far my list includes: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Neel Mukherjee's latest A State of Freedom, Mary Beard's Women & Power, Machado's debut mentioned above, Zadie Smith's new essay collection, Feel Free, Kim Fu's The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, and That Time I Loved You by Carrieanne Leung. That's for starters.

In praise of agents

...or maybe just mine.

Soon after I'd signed with my agent Stephanie, an acquaintance said (appalled): "but why would you want to work with an agent? they take 25%!" Well, first off, my agent is not taking a quarter of my royalties. Secondly, there would be no royalties without her.

Look, I think it's like real estate agents. Sure you could buy direct from the owner and negotiate a three per cent price reduction or whatever the realtor going rate is these days. But a good agent will save you from a lemon, point out the water damage, the cracks in the foundation, have advance knowledge of a gem before it hits the market. Of course a useless agent will do squat all and give the entire profession a bad name. So in all things the advice is: find a good professional.

Agents have knowledge of, and relationships with, editors. They don't just send your manuscript to a house, they target specific editors who would be a good fit for you and your book. Second, they know how to play the game. I only have the murkiest sense of what this game is to be honest but it involves a clever balance of hype and reticence, careful timing, and the intervention of benevolent deities called scouts. Stephanie has tried to explain it all to me but it's like when my husband Tom starts talking about string theory (or whatever it is that he does). My eyes gloss over and all I hear are cats

International sales are a completely different beast. Agents go to the big book fairs where they champion your book. They have contacts with overseas editors and subagents. They know how to time submissions. In short, agents get you the best deal possible and as many deals as possible.

And then once a deal is made, they negotiate the finer points of the contract. Even after you're working with a publishing house, the agent stays close, to make sure you're getting good editorial support, the right sales and marketing treatment. If things go pear shaped, they intervene. It's not just the business side of things either. Agents can help with interview prep and presentation skills. They check in to make sure you're not hiding under the bed hyperventilating into a paper bag. Sometimes Stephanie really feels like my personal cheerleader, therapist, and coach, all rolled into one. But most importantly, she takes care of a whole ton of stuff behind the scenes (and there is A LOT going on back there) leaving me free to WRITE.

Politics and the prize

There's been a lot of talk about literary prizes and prize culture of late, including this thought-provoking article in Maclean's about the intersection between awards and political literature. In it, Brian Bethune gives an interesting take on the difference between the Giller and the Writers' Trust Awards: "The Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize is the most sensitive to change of Canada’s three major literary awards, and its juries are more likely to be staffed by writers still early in their careers. It’s always been the most predictive in the sense that authors are more likely to win the WT and then go on to the Giller than the reverse."

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The Boat People gets a passing mention as one to watch for in 2018, with Bethune wondering how, in the tumultuous present moment, readers and authors will respond to new fiction that is politically charged. The truth is that I never set out to write about politics. To me, The Boat People is about a man who is trying, against all odds, to survive, to secure salvation for his son. At its heart, I think every novel is like this - a coming-of-age tale, a survival narrative, a love story. We are all writing variations on Hamlet and Cinderella and the Odyssey. The politics is incidental.

The end of music

Gander, Newfoundland, the self-styled "Crossroads of the world," has been enjoying a very long moment. No one had ever heard of Gander (population: 11,000) before but on 9/11, after 40 diverted planes landed at its tiny airport and the town cheerfully hosted some 7,000 unexpected guests, the place was in the international spotlight. And now the town is famous once again, thanks to a splashy Broadway musical. (All of this amuses me to no end. My husband is from Gander so I've been visiting since long before it was on trend.)

But Gander was really in its glory more than half a century ago, in the heady, epicurean days just after the war, when air travel was new and still dangerous and the airport was the main re-feuling station for Transatlantic flights. Everyone came to Gander then: movie stars and world leaders and refugees. Even Fidel Castro! This is the setting of Jamie Fitzpatrick's second novel The End of Music.

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It's 1952 and Joyce, 18 and motherless, a nice Catholic girl from a tiny outport community that has neither electricity nor running water, runs off to godless Gander. She spends her days working at the airport and her nights signing lead in a band. Gander is in its salad days, smoky and drunk on its own youthful hedonism. The median age hovers at 25 and every night there's another party. There's a provisionary air about the town where the only permanent structure is the bustling airport and Joyce and her friends all live in dormitories, shivering under the covers and sharing cigarettes between the single beds.

But there's nothing nostalgic here. Gander in the 50s (what in the hands of a less expert writer might dissolve into a overwrought ode to the "good old days") is depicted with unflinching honesty. There is fun and games, yes. But there is also rampant misogyny, domestic violence, ugly double standards, and plenty of "Jovial Newfoundlanders" with unwanted wandering hands. We experience all of this through Joyce who seems to jump off the page and speak for herself. A perfectly realized character, she's both self possessed and inexperienced, at once strong and vulnerable.

Life in 1950s Gander is fast and ever changing and the cast is vast, forming a witty Greek chorus. And like true Newfoundlanders, they never shut up. Fortunately, Jamie has an ear for dialogue, one of very few writers who can carry off long conversational passages without a single misstep.

The novel intercuts Joyce's story - set mainly in mid-century while she is young and single - with that of her son in present day Ontario. Herb Carter is middle aged and calcifying, doing his best to dodge his domestic and familial obligations. In addition to his mother, whose health is failing several provinces away, he has an ex-wife who is dying, a child with a heart condition, and a wife whose patience, you get the feeling, might just be wearing thin. Lest you be tempted to feel bad for poor Carter, Jamie has given him nuance. Carter is not quite the good guy he likes to think he is. Memory and thwarted ambition are the key themes here, along with a midlife crisis that makes him yearn for the lost opportunities of youth and in particular an indie rock band he formed in his 20s.

Full disclosure: Jamie is in my writing group and I've been reading this book, in its various incarnations, for the past several years. I knew it was going to be good but reading the final version - and this really is a feat - I was still surprised and delighted, both by the characters and plot twists.

The End of Music is a novel that contains multitudes - dozens and dozens of characters, all of whom you sense have complicated back stories, and intersecting plots that Jamie has slyly intertwined. Keep your eye on everyone and everything, is my advice. Because as much as I enjoyed reading each page, the masterstroke comes right at the end, like a punch in the gut you didn't expect but then realize, in hindsight, was coming all along. It's the perfect end to the perfect book.

One World, One Book

Chuffed to announce that The Boat People will be available around the world in March thanks to Penguin Random House whose international sales team have chosen the book as next year's "One World, One Book" pick. One World, One Book is a premium marketing and sales program that promotes key titles with international relevance around the world. I still can't quite believe they chose The Boat People for this incredible opportunity so PLEASE, no one pinch me!

 

 

Tolstoy is not a mail-order bride

On Tuesday I spoke at the Status of the Artist legislation announcement. I did so somewhat reluctantly and only because I thought I could use two of my allotted five minutes to say something in defence of literacy, libraries, and the fantastic cultural institutions that are under threat from the provincial government’s make-believe commitment to the arts.

Yesterday, I woke up to find this article in The Telegram riddled with inaccuracies, the worst of which were the misquotes. Let's get something straight. I am NOT a cheerleader for the Status of the Artist legislation. I am NOT a cheerleader for the provincial government. When I was asked to give a reading at the announcement, I very nearly said no.

To his credit, the reporter was mortified when I pointed out all his mistakes and we worked together on the correction that appeared in today’s paper. But it made me decide that it was time to say something more pointed and specific.

There is nothing wrong with legislation that commits to treating artists fairly and professionally. But I am skeptical of a government that lauds culture with empty words while chipping away at it with its actions. A government that supports culture doesn't try to sneakily drop it from the ministry's name. A government that supports culture doesn't attack literacy by closing more than half the province's libraries and slapping a tax on books. And a Minister who is committed to culture doesn't say at a press conference, as Mitchelmore did on Tuesday, that books by mail are just as good as a bricks and mortar library. (No they are not. NO. NO. NO.) The government can crow all they like about the importance of culture but unless they create an environment where books and visual art and theatre are valued and supported, it's just hot air.

This province is running headlong into a capital D Depression. We have massive debts we can't pay back. We are bleeding young working-age people. We are saddled with a boondoggle called Muskrat Falls that will cripple us. Austerity is inevitable. I get it. I know. But I also know it's bullshit to slap a tax on books with one hand and give Ed Martin a $1.4 million dollar parting gift with the other. It's bullshit to threaten to close more than half the libraries, citing lack of funds, and then turn around and pay a private company to write a report on the future and viability of said libraries. If there's money to pay private industry for make-work reports, if there's money to build a massive hydro-electric dam so mining companies can get cut-rate electricity, then there’s money for a library in every town and outport. Private industry, oil and gas, Muskrat Falls, Ed Martin’s retirement, they are not the only ones that rely on government subsidies. The arts need resources too.

 

Status of the Artist

This morning the provincial government announced their new Status of the Artist legislation in a press conference at the Arts & Culture Centre. I was pleased to be asked to give a reading at the event. To be offered a podium and a microphone is to be given a position of privilege. So I used that privilege to say a few words before my reading. Here they are:

"I grew up in a home with very few books. My parents are not big readers and back when I was a kid there wasn’t a lot of money for extras. But my town had a great library so there was always a tower of paperbacks on the floor by my bed. Without those books, I would never have discovered the joy of reading. And without the vibrant cultural institutions in this province, I would never have become a writer. The Writers' Alliance, ArtsNL, the Arts & Letters Awards, the classes at MUN and their writers-in-residence - these were the crucial resources that made my career possible.

As writers, we have been very concerned about the impact of austerity, not just on our livelihoods but on the options available for tomorrow’s writers and artists. I hope that in enacting this Status of the Artist legislation the government is signalling a renewed commitment to the arts. We stand, just steps away from a public library, my public library, and I hope this too has meaning, that it indicates a commitment to literacy and the government-funded resources that make literacy possible."

 

Feast for the eyes

BIG NEWS! My novel - The Boat People - is now available for pre-order. The American edition is available in hard cover and e-book. The Canadian edition is available in soft cover and e-book. On shelves January 9th...less than two months away. And check out these gorgeous covers! I'm calling them the fraternal twins.


The Canadian cover was designed by Andrew Roberts. To me this image, of a boat cresting those monumental waves, can be read in one of two ways. Either you see that tiny ship and worry about its welfare or you view that ship coming your way as a threat. Andrew's cover nails the two sides of the debate that plays out through the novel: are the people on board vulnerable or dangerous?

When I got my hands on the advance reader copy, I spent a long time marvelling at the splotches of colour on the waves, amazed at how Andrew managed to get a two-dimensional image to look so textured. The secret is a lamp post! He used a photo of a lamp post to get that subtle, gorgeous effect. Designers are magicians.

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Canadian edition - available in soft cover and e-book


For the American cover, Doubleday hired Italian illustrator Emiliano Ponzi. I must admit I got a bit teary when I saw his design. This sums up the heart of the novel: Mahindan and Sellian looking toward the future. The tiny details really make this cover sing - the contrasting shades of orange and blue, the rippled reflection, that slim font. And like Andrew's cover, Emiliano's can be read in one of two ways. Father and son are either standing on the beach in Sri Lanka about to leave or they are standing on the shores of Canada, about to enter. Arrivals and departures. 

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American edition - available in hard cover and e-book

 

Buzz

T-minus TWO MONTHS until The Boat People hits real and electronic shelves. JANUARY 9, ya'll, that's the BIG DAY. To be honest, I've been feeling a bit jittery since the late summer. Speaking to other writers, it seems this is par for the course. We work on our books in a protective bubble of support, with feedback from our editors and writing groups and friends, all people who love us and our work. And then we launch our books - these precious vessels into which we've poured our best words, anxieties, tiny pieces of our soul - out into the wide, cruel world. Into the hands of total strangers who may hate the book, literally and figuratively rip it apart, throw it against a wall, set it on fire. It's enough to make me want to hide under the bed on January 9th.

Happily, I've been buoyed by a couple of glowing reviews and some very generous advance praise. It began early in the summer when my editors began forwarding me emails from other writers who had read and loved The Boat People. In July it made 49th Shelf's Most Anticipated list. Mentions began popping up on reader blogs. More recently, the book received good reviews at Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and glowing praise in the winter issue of Atlantic Books Today.

Of course nothing happens spontaneously. In the summer Doubleday and M&S printed advance reader copies (they're called "galleys" State-side) and sent them out to other writers, reviewers, book stores, influencers on GoodReads etc. etc. In July I spoke at an Indie Bookseller event in Halifax. Lots of other stuff about which I'm only dimly aware has been happening behind the scenes on both sides of the border, hours and hours of hard work by publicity and marketing and sales. And also my editors. Because guess what? An editor's work isn't done when the book is finished. An editor's work is NEVER done, I'm learning.

We writers work mostly in isolation. But now, in these last months of gestation, the book is out of my hands and the publishing house machinery has kicked into gear, so many people working hard to ready The Boat People for launch. It feels utterly surreal. And I could not be more grateful.

 

So Much Love

Earlier this year, during a visit to M&S, my editor Anita told me about one of her other authors, Rebecca Rosenblum. She's a bit like you, Anita said. She knows everything about her characters, even the minor ones, and they like to show up in multiple stories.

A writer after my own readerly heart, I thought. Rebecca's debut novel was about to come out and Anita gave me a copy. Last week, I cracked it open. So Much Love is incredible, utterly devastating. Quiet, meditative, and simultaneously a compulsive read. In the last fifty pages, I couldn't put it down. Even when it was time to call my husband who I hadn't seen in a week, still I couldn't set the book aside.

At its heart is an abduction - a young woman is snatched from a parking lot after dark. For months no one knows where Catherine Reindeer has gone or if she's alive. Then the mystery is solved and everyone in her life must cope with the consequences.

Catherine lives in a small town and her disappearance affects everyone in it - her husband, her mother, co-workers, an English professor, a highschool girl she never met. Their stories are relayed in first person and third, giving us glimpses into these other lives while sketching a picture of the missing woman. The kidnapper has his say in second person, a point of view cannily chosen to make the reader complicit. In a lesser author's hands the device might have been coy but Rosenblum pulls it off with a dexterity that would make Nabokov proud.

Woven through Catherine's narrative is the story of her favourite poet, Juliana Ohlin, who died twenty years earlier, murdered, everyone believes by her boyfriend. The menace of men - strangers, intimates - looms large over the book but it is never suffocating. Because there are other themes here too: resilience, bravery, hope. The question of who a person becomes when pushed to the brink, how far you would go to survive, the value of rage when there is no one to rage at.

There's nothing lurid here, no cringeworthy gore. Instead, the prose is precise and emotion is at the fore. Every word, every nuanced thought, feels familiar and correct. 

Neither novel nor story collection, So Much Love evades neat categorization -  and is stronger for that defiance. Rosenblum wields the subtle pen of the short story writer, revealing through her interconnected stories just the tip of the iceberg. Always there is sense that there's more to tell about these characters, other details and anecdotes that didn't make the cut. As a reader I want to rummage through her recycling bin. As a writer I envy her restraint.