Blue Met Montreal, Blocked Bridges Ottawa, and Black People talking to White

Literary Tourist in Montreal and Ottawa

I think it’s fair to say that, at least for me, Montreal’s Blue Met Literary Festival saw its heyday in the late noughties. Back then every venue was swarming with well known authors from around the globe, and workshops  on pretty well every ‘writing’ topic you can imagine were crammed with eager ecrevain(e)s. For a stretch of 3-4 years I used to drive up from Ottawa each Spring, book rooms in what was then The Delta Hotel, and get down to the serious, bushy-tailed business of interrogating authors. Notable ‘trophies’ included Derek Walcott

John Burnside, Robin Robertson, Tim Parks, Margaret MacMillan and Andrew O’Hagan. Much of this success was due to Chris DiRaddo

Chris Diraddo with Derek Walcott

who in fact is still today involved with the Festival, organizing and promoting its LGBT program. The Blue Met understandably suffered after its founding director Linda Leith left to form a publishing firm. It has only in the past few years regained its footing. Now it’s a lean, vibrant operation, held annually at Hotel 10

Last year Adam Gopnik and Daniel Mendelsohn were on stage ( and yes, I interviewed both of them off stage for The Biblio File podcast). This year, thanks again in large part to Shelley Pomerance

Shelley Pomerance

I roped Alberto Manguel, Claudia Piñeiro, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Ricardo Cayuolo into talking with me. Alberto’s contribution was especially noteworthy because half way through our convo he breaks into this passionate attack on Canada’s former Attorney General Jody Wilson- Raybould and – in his opinion – her short sighted, naive, if principled stand against Justin Trudeau. Playing the idealist, I felt I had to defend her. The interview went ‘live’ several weeks ago, providing literate voters plenty of time to listen to it in advance of Canada’s federal election scheduled for October, 21, 2019. Here’s your chance:

After my brawl with Alberto, I sped down the all-too-familiar stretch of highway between Montreal and Ottawa to interview science-fiction author and internet activist Cory Doctorow about books and copyright. It’s a complicated topic and Cory talks fast; I kept trying to slow things down and to keep our discussion on books. He’s of the opinion that the big five publishing conglomerates (soon to be four he insists) are not benevolent allies of their authors, nor certainly of their readers. They make up a powerful cartel that needs to be strictly regulated.

Truth be told we actually met the next morning. I was late because every frickin’ bridge that spans the mighty Ottawa save for one, was closed. I’d stayed the night before at my friend Tony Martins’s place in Alymer a small town down the line from Ottawa on the Quebec side.  Back in the day I wrote a fair number of features for Tony’s extraordinary, beautiful (kudos to Paul Cavanaugh) cultural magazine, Guerilla, and we’ve stayed close ever since. One of my favourite assignments was writing a profile of my ‘Rock ‘n Roll‘ barber Patrick Shanks

(you might have noticed that I’ve cropped Remi’s photo and used it on my Twitter profile @nigelbeale). Tony and Paul’s work is exceptional. Guerilla constitutes a valuable, rich record of Ottawa’s cultural scene at the turn of the 21st century. It documents the first decade with style and intelligence. 

Thanks to the bridge blockages I had to wend my way through the Byward Market in order to get to Cory. I was at least half an hour late. We’d agreed to meet at Christ Church on Sparks Street where Sean and Neil Wilson hold many of their very successful Ottawa Writers Festival events each Spring and Fall. I really don’t think Ottawans realize just how lucky they are to have these two heroes championing literature in their city.

Cory was gracious, and soon we were engaged in a high-speed exchange in front of the microphone. After about an hour I noticed that that self-same microphone wasn’t working. We had to start all over again. Cory stayed cool. His plane to Berlin didn’t leave for another couple of hours.  

We completed the interview without any further glitches. Listen here:

I complimented him on his formula-one brain and then hit the highway from hell again, back to Montreal and Reni Eddo-Lodge with whom I subsequently engaged, at normal speed, in an important discussion about systematic racism, defying the title of her book 

Montreal is an edgy, contradictory city. I remember about ten years ago I decided to try to capture some of this by making my way up Rue Ste.-Catherine taking photographs of strip clubs and cathedrals. There were plenty of both.

Contradictory as I say. There’s a tension here, many tensions in fact, that fill the city with life and energy. Always have. You can hear it in Michel Tremblay’s voice. His anger at the church, and the English. Sheila Fischman who has translated more than 200 Quebecois novels into English, recently told me that in her opinion Michel is the greatest writer in Quebec, probably in Canada, and undoubtedly one of the greatest in the world. Listen to my conversation with him here: 

(and stay tuned for my discussion with her). Off mic Michel told me an interesting story. Thirty-odd years ago he decided to sell his archive (or at least part of it) to the Bibliothèque Nationale du Quebec. They insulted him with a paltry offer so he went down that road to Ottawa, and the National Library ironically, and surprisingly ( I say this because in the last 25 years they’ve spent fuck-all on Canadian authors’s archives) came up with acceptable coin and bought his priceless papers.

There’s much more to say about Literary Montreal, and I’ll say it in the next post, so please, stay tuned.

Open Air Bookfairs, Gay Archives, National Libraries & Michel Tremblay

Literary Tourist in Montreal

I don’t like identity politics. And I especially don’t like it when it intrudes on literature. I don’t care what colour or gender or sexual orientation or shape or size an author is, so long as his/her/their writing is good. That said, I think everybody should have the opportunity to tell their story, and that there should be plenty of places available for these stories to be told, read, discovered. Finally, while I think that readers and publishers should look all over the place for the best writing they can find, quality – a loaded term I realize – should be at the root of all decisions about what to read or who to publish – more so than content, or who or what the author is or isn’t. If the content or story is about the gay or trans or African-American or ‘dis’abled experience, and it’s well told – namely that it impels me to keep reading and helps me to better understand that experience – I’m good.

With this in mind, I went to the LGBT Open Air Bookfair recently on St. Catherine Street in Montreal. What a happy time it was. I chatted with these folks at

at FIERTE, learned that there’s a gay archive in Montreal

which is home to hundreds of photographs and posters and community newsletters that document the history and struggles of homosexuals in the city, and I saw these books, produced by a gay publishing house

The army was here.

Everyone seemed to be in a grand mood. Some were in really good shape,

others strutted

their stuff.

These guys really got dressed up for the occasion.

But, despite being billed as a ‘book fair,’ there weren’t, to be honest, that many books on display at the event. I wanted to see more. So, after a slow stroll up and down the booth-line boulevard, I decided, since it was only a block or two away, to drop in on the Bibliothèque Nationale du Quebec.

I asked one of the librarians to name me some of Quebec’s best known authors and publishers. Michel Tremblay of course, and Dany Laferrière. I’d heard of them. Nicholas Dickner? No. But his novel Nikolski did ring a bell. It won the 2008 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English translation, and the 2010 edition of Canada Reads. I’d seen the cover before quite often.

,

There was Roland Giguere, the poet/publisher of Erta Books. The librarian also named Boreal, L’homme and Lémeac as some of the better known Quebec book publishers. So plenty of potential Biblio File interview topics and candidates here in Montreal (in fact, I’ve already interviewed Michel Tremblay, so please stay tuned).

Not that I haven’t already done some groundwork. Several years ago I interviewed Simon Dardick about his venerable Montreal-based English language Vehicule Press. You can listen here

and more recently, Ashley Obscura, co-founder of the nascent Metatron Press. She’d just moved into new office space when I met her.

Now that we’re on the topic of Montreal and libraries, I should mention the McGill Rare Books Library where I’ve been spending some pleasant hours recently, reading Robert Reid’s five volume memoir.

Robert Reid Memoir

I always feel good after spending time with Robert, so full of life he is. Still printing in his nineties out in Vancouver. And yes, I interviewed him once too. Listen here

Another draw of the McGill Library is that each week several doors down the folks working on the annual McGill Book Fair, put out several boxes of old books that they figure aren’t good enough to sell. You’d be surprised at what you can pick up here…for free.