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.
I arrived at Rod and Joanne’s place in Welland, Ontario just in time for supper (there’s a name for people who do this: smellfeasts); and a delicious one it was at that.
Rod (Morris) and I worked together very successfully throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s in the feature news distribution and magazine contract publishing business(es). As Sir Stanley Unwin put it in his book, The Truth About Publishing, “Publishing is an unusually difficult occupation. It is at once an art, a craft, and a business, for which a curious and unusual combination of qualifications is desirable.” This holds as true for magazines as it does for books.
Early on I knew that Rod possessed the right qualifications. He is a great magazine publisher, and I’m lucky to call him a friend.
I love Rod as much as anything, for his fluffy french-toast – a substantial helping of which I consumed the next morning. Then it was out the door, into downtown Welland, and over to the home of one of Canada’s most knowledgeable, respected antiquarian book dealers.
Now here’s the thing – because they appear later on in the Dance to the Music of Time series – after it had become popular – my volumes aren’t as scarce as the ones preceding them. Not that they aren’t worth anything; they are: $50 – $75 each. Problem is, Steven and most other dealers, will only give me 20-25% of this amount (in Steve’s case, paid out in cash). In other words, about $15 each – which is roughly what I paid for them in the first place. While there might be a little profit here, it’s hardly worth all the effort.
I resolved to hold on to them – to play custodian for a while – and try my luck elsewhere, perhaps in the States where I’ll benefit from the exchange rate and the fact that they don’t see British editions down there all that often.
With this business out of the way, Steven and I got to rapping about his passion for finding and identifying lost Canadian literature – books that few others know about. It’s a fascinating project. You can learn more about it by listening to our conversation here:
The adventure began in my book-filled storage cave in Ottawa. This picture was taken after twelve boxes full were removed and crammed into my car. A local bookseller, Bill Cameron, had told me about Attic Books several years ago.
I’d already carted a van-load of books down Highway 401 to London, Ontario, where Attic is located, and gotten what I thought was a reasonable deal for them ( I always go with trade). Owner Marvin Post likes to move books – buys and sells lots of them – turnover is good for business he says. What I love is that he doesn’t just cock his nose, sniff at your offerings and deign only to take a handful. No. Marvin – depending upon what you bring him of course – will take a whole whack: ten boxes worth this time round. Now granted, my books were pretty good, but most booksellers just wont do what Marvin does.
I arrived late. It’d taken two hours just to get from one frikin end of Toronto to the other on the clogged highway. Luckily I’d downloaded a bunch of book-centric podcasts – including some episodes of Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Co, (she’s one top-drawer interviewer). Of the many I listened to that afternoon, perhaps the best was with Diana Athill. Absolutely delightful. Listen here. She talks of Andre Deutsch, and of her experience publishing books over many decades. So glad I bought a signed copy of her Life Class a few years ago (from Dan Mozersky) (she died recently at the age of 101)
If you have to drive for five hours in a row, there are worse routes to be stuck on than the #89 from Montreal to Brattleboro, Vermont
especially in the Fall (okay, this isn’t the actual highway, it’s an image from Vermont Tourism, but you get the idea).
I was heading down to the Brattleboro Literary Festival. We’d attended last year. Caught readings by Richard Russo and Claire Messud, among others. Very pleasant little town. Plenty of granola and veggie burgers on offer, plus a very good used bookstore.
Ions ago, when in my late-twenties, I came across Clifton Fadiman’s A Lifetime Reading Plan.
I’d always wanted to read the great works – had studied politics in college, not literature. Clifton’s guide changed my life. Not only did I read all of its concise, well-crafted summaries – a hundred in total – over the years I’ve actually read many of the books on the list, taking great pleasure ticking off titles as I finish reading them. Clifton’s daughter Anne has written a memoir about her relationship with her father, The Wine Lover’s Daughter. I couldn’t wait to tell her what an impact he’d had on my life, and to learn more about the grand old man himself. Just listen to her. Energy level is off the charts, just as I imagine Clifton’s was:
Among other things Will in the World suggests that Shakespeare may have been a Catholic. It also details the bone-breaking cruelty that religion brings out in human beings. Heads chopped off, stuck on spikes, displayed on London’s bridges. Fascinating book, and yet considering how little can be proved about The Bard’s life, rife with conjecture. It took a lot of chutzpah to write this book, ergo, I wanted to meet its author. Stephen Greenblatt was appearing at the Festival promoting his latest book, Tyrant, about MacBeth, Richard lll, and Edmund of King Lear fame. A wicked Shakespearean cabal. None bare any resemblance to Trump of course.
Listen here as we debate this
I took this photograph of Stephen by lining myself up beside Beowulf (yes, his real name) Sheehan – using the same angle he used.
Why? Because Beowulf is one of the most talented author photographers in the world. He hit it big with a shot of Donna Tartt. It graces the back cover of The Goldfinch, and the front cover of Beowulf’s beautiful new book of photographs, Author,
Listen to Beowulf discuss photographing some of the world’s top literary stars, here
One thing I couldn’t understand as I stood in front of its closed, locked doors: why wasn’t this great used bookstore open?
It wasn’t, the whole time I was here. You’d think, what with the Festival on and all, that this would be the time for them to make maximum hay. Perhaps they were busy helping the organizers? Perhaps they were the organizers. Perhaps making money wasn’t the most important thing.