A Biblio File podcast interview, in which: I talk, in rather rushed fashion, to great Canadian author and “bad” feminist Margaret Atwood about literary tourism: ‘place’ and her novel MaddAddam, Harvard and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Kingston Penitentiary and Alias Grace, also about: the real and the imaginary, the unreliability of eye witnesses, following the research, Samuel Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, food and underclothing, bodies, space and smell, plus the importance of plumbing – all of which took place at the Kingston Writers Festival
several years ago, a wonderful literary celebration that occurs every September in the city of wind turbines
…of my (and now my youngest daughter’s) alma mater, Queen’s University
…of Berry and Peterson’s bookshop, where I regularly visit John and Richard to get the latest and hottest antiquarian book gossip
and learn stuff about books etc., like for example that important early editions of Canadian Forum magazine are worth diddly-squat.
…of Morrison’s where I used to go 30-odd years ago for hungover breakfasts (now I hear from famed Canadian book designer Laurie Lewis [ listen to our conversation about her time at the University of Toronto Press with Allan Fleming here]
that it’s not the ‘go to’ place anymore, Peter’s on Princess is, but still this is a pretty damned good photo so I’m leaving it in anyway)
where I once met my hero, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee who signed about 25 of my/his first editions and after my yammering on for about 10 of the signatures I suddenly shut up, realizing that I don’t know J.M from Adam, and what the fuck am I trying to do here anyway? Convince myself that there is some sort of relationship when in fact there’s nothing? And why am I so obsessed with signed firsts editions anyway…
…of Chez Piggy where I’ve spent some stellar evenings shooting the breeze with friends about airy concepts out on the back patio, and
Buenos Aires was on sale. It was such a great deal, we couldn’t afford not to go.
So who was I going to interview? I called on my go-to-guy in matters publishing and international, Richard Charkin. Richard has held many important positions during his long, distinguished career in publishing, including, quite recently, President of the International Publishers Association. He was bound to know some interesting book-types in BA.
I met Richard through an entertaining blog he used to write about 10 years ago. I’ve interviewed him twice since. Once about ‘great’ publishers, here, once about mother elephants and cod.
where the waiters illustrate every day why Argentinians are so good at pouring wine.
They’d be fired if they did this here.
The trip got off to a good start when I found a huge bottle of Martini Rosso for $15 at the duty-free. After a relatively bump-free flight we settled into an Airbnb in the Palermo district – barrio – of Buenos Aires. Very leafy; filled with coffee shops, bars and tiny fruit and veggie shops (holes in the wall really) in front of which people line up 24-7 it seemed. And no wonder. A big bag of oranges went for peanuts, so we enjoyed fresh juice, squeezed by me, by-hand, every morning.
I had one interview lined up, and needed more. So I tried a long-shot. I’d interviewed Margaret Atwood at the Kingston Writers Festival several years back about Literary Tourism in Ontario (and Boston). Listen here. Alberto Manguel was also at the event, on the marquis. For sure they knew each-other. And for sure he knew Buenos Aires. One thing led to another, and thanks to Alberto I landed interviews with famed short story writer Lilliana Heker – Shakespearean in her ability to render veiled critiques of repressive regimes – and detective novelist Guillermo Martinez. Thanks to Alberto I also met the publisher Adriana Hidalgo. She was a little too shy (or smart) to be taped or photographed, but what a lovely woman. And what a lovely children’s catalogue
First thing on the second day’s to-do list was to get bus/subway cards. They were on sale at the tourism office, located next to a busy, pedestrian un-friendly roundabout, between a planetarium and this
I joked with our decidedly friendly tourism ambassador
that it must be difficult to stare at a horse’s ass all day long.
From here we made our way across town to Guillermo Martinez’s place. He’s best known for his 2003 novel, The Oxford Murders. It won the Planeta Prize and was adapted into a film in 2008 starring John Hurt and Elija Wood. Guillermo knew about Oxford because after getting his PhD he worked there for two years on a post-doc at the Mathematical Institute. Listen here to our conversation:
After the interview I headed up to the main drag. On it, along the way to the subway station, I encountered these
The design, or cake or something, must have significance here in Argentina because I saw them all over the place. Still, I held off stuffing any in my mouth, because not ten steps from our apartment building,
there was this ice-cream shop. Plus I was dying to sit in that chair.
The next day I ventured downtown, past this overworked city employee, to visit Alberto Casares Antiquarian & Modern Books at Suipacha 521. Borges used to browse and buy and hang-out here. Here’s a shelf of his first editions.
Upstairs there was another full shelf, this one containing a complete run of Victoria Ocampo’s Sur (pronounced ‘sore’) magazine. Here’s numero-uno
Victoria lived in a beautiful villa that you can visit on the outskirts of BA, about 30 Km from downtown. It’s now owned by UNESCO
After Casares I strolled over a few streets to Poema 20. The place smelled strongly of mildew but the books seemed to be in decent enough condition. I spotted a first edition of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. It was marked “450” which I initially thought represented pesos. The clerk quickly set me straight. I asked if they had any Grete Stern photography books, but we couldn’t find any, so I ventured across the street, to a surprisingly warm reception.
As is my wont, I asked him about well-known book designers. We went back into his office and he showed me this book,
singling out master printer Francisco Colombo (who printed that first issue of Sur seen above), and master typographer Raúl Mario Rosarivo. He also brought out an early edition of Don Segundo Sombre, an important Argentinian novel by Ricardo Güiraldes. The protagonist is a gaucho, just as he is in José Hernández’s famed poem ‘Martín Fierro’.
Then this dude showed up, intent on obscuring my entire scope of vision,
He looked like he wouldn’t go down without a scrap, so I withdrew gracefully, thanking Renato for his hospitality. Next stop was Grupo Claridad‘s offices in Belgrano to talk to Ana Maria Cabanellas one of the “50 most influential people in publishing in the Spanish Language.”
Listen to our conversation about book publishing in Argentina here:
Next morning – a brilliant, sunny one – we jumped on the bus to El Caminito, a little quartier filled with colourfully painted buildings (okay, shacks ). Before I knew it I was being summonsed
Who wouldn’t obey? Innocently, I thought she wanted me to participate in some sort of tango demonstration. Suddenly her co-conspirator whipped out the camera…they wanted money of course. It had nothing to do with my looks, or dancing prowess. Crest-fallen, I made my way over to the nearest beer/tavern to take the edge off. Here I was shown how it’s really done.
Early that afternoon, following some excellent street meat, I taxied over to El Ateneo – the theatre of books – where I tried unsuccessfully to artfully Instagram this Margaret Atwood book.
After some number of attempts, I gave up in frustration, dousing it (the frustration) with an espresso at the cafe on centre stage. Next it was over to Liliana Heker’s place. She is a very brave woman who, unlike many authors, stayed in Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ to combat its repressive regime. It was a privilege to interview her. Just listen to the power of her voice.
Outside her apartment I encountered this pig
I guess this is more of a mural, but Buenos Aires is celebrated for its graffiti. Here, for example is Mafalda, a tribute to the hugely popular comic book character created here in 1964 by Quino.
Highlight for me was Grete Stern‘s psyched-out photographs, and this caption line on the wall: “Books of photographs were the maximum expression of Buenos Aires [in the fifties] as the great city of South America.”
Which is not to say that this dude in his underwear wasn’t pretty appealing too
What really struck home with this museum though is how influential modern European art was around the world. Many of the works here were blatant knock-offs, but always with a slight difference – assuming the local character.
We walked a ways, out of the museum, and over to the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. Looked all over for her, but could only find Victoria, which really was just fine
Then it was off to Falena Bookstore and Wine Bar near another cemetery, and Kit Maude, who provides a must-listen-to guide for the Literary Tourist intent on visiting Buenos Aires, here:
Toward the end of the afternoon I taxied over to the National Library.
to see the exhibition. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let me in. One day strike. Just today. Borges thought it (the building) was a monstrosity.
In addition to tapas, churros and tinto de verano – a wonderfully refreshing drink of wine mixed with
Sprite that goes down particularly well after a rough day trolling Spanish bookshops – I also found Emilio Gil in Madrid, an award-winning graphic designer, author of Pioneers of Spanish GraphicDesign and founder of Tau Design.
I wanted to know more about Spanish book design so that I could slake my thirst for buying something – anything – at Madrid’s used bookstores. Emilio was the man. Turns out he studied under Milton Glaser.
We sat down together in his offices, with my Spanish-speaking wife, and had this conversation
During our discussion Emilio mentioned the prolific Manolo Prieto (1912 – 1991), who I’d encountered the day before at Javiar’s bookstall (#28)
plus Ricard Giralt Miracle, and Daniel Gil (no relation). I subsequently went out and bought a bunch of Gil covers:
Gotta love an airport that has one of these out front of it
Parked ourselves at the AC Hotel Carlton Madrid, Paseo de las Delicias, 26. A good choice. Close to the train station: we were able to walk from it to the hotel, pulling our luggage, in about 10 minutes. It’s right downtown, a similar ten minute stroll to the Prado, where, across the street, you’ll find loads of good tapas restaurants. Not far off there’s Cervantes’s
burial place, and around the corner from it, a museum located in the house where Lope de Vega lived. Back to the hotel: the breakfast buffet is unbelievably good.
Making our way past the train station toward the Prado we came to the bottom of Calle de Claudio Moyano, off Paseo del Prado (one of the most beautiful streets in Madrid). The former is lined with vending stalls, most of which sell
Literary Tourist on the road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York State
If you take the northern route between ground-zero (in this case Montreal) and Minneapolis through Algonquin Park, crossing over at Sault Ste. Marie and then along past Green Bay, there’s pretty well nothing of literary interest to see. Nothing unless you count this
in, yes, rural Wisconsin. One consolation: we came upon a coffee drive-thru that had a pretty good name.
As usual, once my wife, Caroline, had thoroughly planned out our dates and destinations, I tapped the Rolodex to solicit suggestions of bookish people on-site who might give-up engaging interviews. This time round I asked John Randle, proprietor of The Whittington Press for his thoughts. I’d interviewed John years ago at his sheep-surrounded studio near the cathedral city of Hereford (with its famed chained-library), not too far from Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh booktown.
John publishes beautiful fine press books, and Matrix: A Review for Printers & Bibliophiles, a gorgeously printed annual. #31 had just dropped. I dug deep and bought a copy, first to commemorate my visit and our conversation (Listen here):
Second, because it contained an article by David Godine and one on Rocky Stinehour, both of whom I’d interviewed for the Biblio File podcast. The Whittington Press archive also happens to be at the University of Minnesota’s rare book library, along with an important collection of African-American literature and one of the world’s great Sherlock Holmes collections. Curator Tim Johnson is definitely on my interview hit-list.
John recommended I interview Phil Gallo, a well regarded printer, and visual/concrete poet. Phil and I teed up a meeting at his apartment in St. Paul. We met for a chat early one afternoon several days before Christmas. The first thing I noticed – after Phil poured me a stiff shot of bourbon – was several shelves full of books on typography. A lot of them are type specimen books.
Phil is the proprietor of the Hermetic Press, which kicked off in the mid-1960s. He purposefully doesn’t do much promotion.
It had only recently opened. I didn’t find anything – most of the stock was geared, naturally, toward readers. I did have a good gab with the young owner however, and wished him well.
Then it was back to home-base, in Eagan, a bedroom community near Minneapolis. Our dear friends Jeff and Laura Spartz live here. We’ve visited them often over the years, mostly at Christmas time. Jeff runs a food-bank for the local crow population (you can see how successful this is)
Laura knows everything that is humanly possible to know about Jane Austen and the Regency period. The two are the nicest, most welcoming, well-travelled, smartest, politically-engaged people you can imagine – exactly the kind who give Americans (most of them, anyway) a good name. We’re lucky to be able to call them, and their families, friends.