Ryerson, Canadian Book Publishing, Libido and Plucked Chickens

Literary Tourist in Toronto

Let’s just say $120 a night doesn’t get you much in the way of a hotel room in downtown Toronto these days. Crack-houses – that’s what the customer comments make them sound like. So I dialed up Airbnb to find a place – near Ryerson University – and got a lovely one-bedroom apartment for the same money. Clean, quiet, central, just what I needed. Turns out it was less than a block away from the old Maple Leaf Gardens

where my eldest daughter was scheduled to cross the stage the next day, a graduate of this program. This is why I was here; but naturally I’d lined up a few Biblio File interviews to wile away the spare time.

The first was at the home of award-winning investigative journalist Elaine Dewar. We talked about her book The Handover (Biblioasis, 2017).

It concerns the increasing concentration in and foreign ownership of Canadian book publishing and how this has choked off writers’ options and advances, and readers’ choices. More precisely it explores in detail the convoluted and disingenuous sale by Avi Bennett of McClelland & Stewart to Penguin Random House via the University of Toronto, and how millions in government grants and tax credits were purloined along the way. Reads like a detective story and reveals much about how the Canadian establishment works.

Listen here to our conversation:

After the interview, and a quick perusal of Elaine’s artwork, I jumped in a taxi and headed for Le Paradis

where author David Gilmour and I were to dine that evening. It’s weird. I was in the taxi, and although I didn’t know exactly where I was, at one point the street suddenly seemed familiar. Contact Editions bookshop is located along here somewhere I said to myself. And damned if we didn’t pass it about 10 seconds later (on Davenport). Here, some years past, I’d bought a first edition of the first book ever published by Coach House Press, Man in a Window by Wayne Clifford.

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David is famous among Biblio File listeners for being the only guest ever to have told this podcast’s august host to Fuck Off on air. His blast was delivered after bridling at my nervy criticism of several of his well-turned similes. It happened during one of the early episodes of the program. Listen to the fireworks here if you like

We ate outdoors. The evening was warm and pleasant. Save for water, we didn’t drink anything. The pepper-steaks arrived as the subject of concentrated ownership surfaced again. More and more award-winning authors, I remarked, are resorting, out of necessity it seems, to working with smaller independent publishers, pretty well all of whom have shallow pockets. Despite caring deeply about giving voice to Canadian told stories, the advances they can muster are pretty pathetic. This isn’t to say however that Canadian authors can’t make money with them. It’s just that it’s not as easy and upfront as it once was with the big boys.

Talk turned to literature. I raved about the class of young students I’ve encountered at Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College where sitting in on some Great Books courses (stay tuned for Biblio File interviews with the Profs). They, the students, are filled not only with enthusiasm, but also smart questions and answers. It’s clear they’ve actually done the readings. Close readings. I mentioned how lucky I felt to be able to participate (thanks to Director Mark Russell). Then I remembered that David does me one better. He gets paid to teach this stuff every week at the U of T.

After some discussion of Plato’s contention that it’s a blessing not to be cursed with a ravenous libido in older age, we turned-in early, two Autumn chickens. Plucked alouettes.

Actually, it’s Sophocles who’s credited with the libido remarks in Plato’s Republic via Cephalus, who in turn tells Socrates. When asked about love, and if he was still capable of it, Sophocles replies, ‘Hush! if you please: to my great delight I have escaped from it, and it feel as if I have escaped from a frantic and savage master.’ This has also been translated as ‘like escaping from bondage to a raging madman;’ and my favourite, ‘like being unchained from a lunatic,’also from ‘an idiot,’ ‘a demon.’

To be continued…

Literary Agents and Emma Bovary in Le Perche, France

Literary Tourist in France

Le Perche is known for the Percheron horse

Horse, Percheron

and, at least in my world, the literary agent. We were looking for Pierre Astier’s house, and knew that it was located next to a cemetery in Moutiers-au-Perche, 80 kms east of Le Mans (two hours’ train ride south of Paris). Countryside villages don’t come much prettier than this, with its charming tile-roofed cottages

Le Perche, France

and blazing red, potted flowers

(Franco-American director Sophie Barthes agrees, she shot parts of her film Madame Bovary here).

We’d found an old church, with it’s extruding drainpipe-tongued gargoyles,

Gargoyles, Le Perche, France

and yes, there was a cemetery attached to it. Two choices: up the hill toward a forest (where Emma kills herself), or around the side of the church. We chose the road more travelled, and found the house down a ways, first thing on the right.

le perche, france, house

I was here to interview Pierre and his partner Laure about their literary & film agency for my Biblio File podcast. They invited me into the garden and poured me an espresso. The terrain was a bit wild. The two of them had spent the previous afternoon together trying to tame it. While doing so Pierre had been bitten by a tick. He had to go to the hospital (not wise to play around with these things), but was kind enough to engage in conversation with me for about 20 minutes before leaving Laure

Laure Pecher

to fend off the rest of my questions. You can listen here to our discussion:

Among other things we talked about french publishers’ resistance to literary agents, the differences between pitching book publishers and film producers; translation, author/agent relations and Andrew Wylie.

After the interview, Caroline and I headed for Mortagne-au-Perche where we had lunch, here

mortagne au perche

Sitting beside us was a man with a Quebec accent. We soon learned (biblio-coincidence alert) that he,

Louis Duhamel

Louis Duhamel, had spent his entire working life as a librarian at the Ottawa Public Library, and that his father had been Queen’s Printer under prime minister John Diefenbaker, appointed in the late 50s, and unceremoniously dismissed from this supposed (according to Louis) lifetime position, by Pierre Trudeau.

Louis was touring the region researching his ancestors. Many from here are known to have emigrated to Quebec in the 17th century. And another thing: Louis’s father collected The Pleiade, a uniform series of world classics put out by Gallimard, starting in the 1930s. As it happened, several weeks later I was in Bordeaux where I visited the oldest independent bookstore in France, Mollat, and they just happened to have what looked like a full run of the series for sale:

but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Literary Interviews in New York

Literary Tourist in New York 

It was interview day! First up was John Galassi, president and publisher of FSG, one of the great American literary publishing houses.

I’d read a good part of Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, selected a quote from Stanley Unwin’s The Truth about Publishing to start things off, and primed myself with a battery of questions. The office is located at 175 Varick Street, between Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village. While the facade of the building isn’t so impressive, unlike this one in the background

NYC building

its foyer has a cool art deco decor. I especially liked the lights.

Listen here to my conversation with Jonathan

After the interview I made my way up to The Met (remembering this time that one has to be aware that subway trains travelling uptown are caught on one side of the street, and those travelling down are caught on the other – it took me several days to figure out that you can’t cross  Continue reading “Literary Interviews in New York”

Audio: Jo Furber on Dylan Thomas and why you should visit Wales


View from the Dylan Thomas Walk, Laugharne

Literary Tourist in Wales

Yes, the background voices are distracting, but what do you expect, we’re in a Welsh pub for crying out loud! Well, actually we’re upstairs at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea at a bar surrounded by revellers who have just attended a hilarious poetry vs burlesque mashup (featuring an appearance by Queen Victoria

quite an appearance,

there were even balloons)

down the hallway in the Centre’s theatre. So everyone is pretty frisky. The performance kicked off the annual Dylan Thomas Festival.

Dylan Thomas expert Jo Furber is Swansea Council Literature Officer and curator of the Dylan Thomas Exhibition. She also sits on the board of the prestigious New Welsh Review, the country’s foremost literary magazine in English.

Listen as she fields every question I hurl at her, with racing car driver reflexes and dexterity. Here is everything you need to know about Thomas and how and why to visit Wales. If you happen to love his literature and poetry, even if you don’t, you’re sure to get caught up in the enthusiasm (be sure to listen for one of the revelers offering to buy me a drink, about mid-way through the conversation).

For good measure, later on that evening, I also interviewed the then National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke. Things have died down a bit, but they’re still fairly rowdy. Listen here if you’re so inclined, as we talk about what’s unique about Welsh poetry, the oldest living language in Europe, memorability, truth, Lear’s Cordelia, Dylan Thomas’s truth and exaggeration, the Welsh accent, Carol Ann Duffy, and the importance of imagination, creativity and music in education.

Find more information on the Dylan Thomas Centre here, and on visiting Wales, here.

Audio: Novelist Edward Rutherfurd on Paris and Literary Tourism


One of 250 Bouquinistes by the Seine in Paris

Edward Rutherfurd was born in England, in the cathedral city of Salisbury. Educated locally, and at the universities of Cambridge and Stanford, he subsequently worked in political research, book-selling and publishing. Abandoning this career in the book trade in 1983, he returned to his childhood home to write Sarum, a historical novel with a ten-thousand year story-line, set in the area around Stonehenge. It was an instant international bestseller remaining on the New York Times Bestseller List for 23 weeks. Since then he has written (at least) six more bestsellers: Russka, a novel of Russia, London, The Forest, set in England’s New Forest which lies near Sarum, and two novels which cover the story of Ireland from the time just before Saint Patrick to the twentieth century. In 2009 New York was published, and in 2013, Paris.

Rutherfurd is the quintessential Literary Tourist. He ‘walks’ the cities he writes about, researches them, imagines them, and arrives at a personal understanding of them. We talk here about this process, about the importance of learning about the ordinary lives of people from the past, of ‘active learning’ and writing short stories about the places you visit, about James Michener and the fascination of historical and cultural roots,  about history as reconnaissance, as “finding out what happened to the last army that went there”, about the campfire and stories of the hunt, the Musee Carnavalet and Le Procope restaurant. Listen here


Photo of Edward Rutherfurd looking like a Parisian