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.

A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine

Literary Tourist on the road in the U.S. 

The destination was Richard Minsky’s place in the Hudson Valley, just south of Albany, NY. Richard was/is the founder of The Center for Book Arts in New York. I’d heard about him some years earlier thanks to a book he’d written called The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930. On the drive back north from a visit to New York City one summer I called him up out-of- the-blue to ask if he’d like to be interviewed for The Biblio File podcast. He gamely agreed, and promptly fixed up a bountiful cheese plate (and drinks) for my wife and her brother, who was travelling with us, out on his patio. The two of us then got down to business inside. He poured me one of the best Negronis I’ve ever thrown back. We then sat down together to talk about the book arts. Listen above. 

 Richard owns cattle

and wildlife can frequently be seen on his property.

Hard not to be taken with his collection of beautifully illustrated

book covers too. 

I visited again not so long afterwards to talk about his impressive career as a bookbinder, and book scholar. Listen to our conversation here  

This time round I was down to interview Barbara Slate, Richard’s better half, about her newly revised book You Can Do a Graphic Novel  (stay tuned for the audio). Here’s a shot of one of her feet along with equipment and other essentials necessary to the conduct of good interviews. 

Not only are there purple cows grazing Richard’s grass, the house is filled with a colourful, eclectic selection of art.

The decor is a charming bohemian/pop/rustic.

Because I planned the trip well in advance, and mailing costs for books from the U.S. to Canada are these days exorbitant, I had a number (okay 6-7) delivered to his place, including a monster package of fine press & related journals acquired from Pradeep Sebastian. My wife decided to avail herself of this opportunity as well, and had a honking great barbeque shipped. It barely fit into the car. Richard patiently withstood the imposition. 

From Minsky’s I drove about a half an hour north-east to interview Laura Claridge about Blanche Knopf. 

The Lady with the Borzoi: Blanche Knopf, Literary Tastemaker Extraordinaire is a racy read, full of detail ‘n dirt. Despite being criticized by a few as fake news, I found the book credible and very entertaining. Alfred, from page one, is made out to look like a Grade A prick, while Blanche’s importance is elevated, as it should be. (Audio to follow).

From here I travelled east

John lives in a bright, spacious, comfortable house on a large, sloping corner lot in a pleasant residential area that reminded me, somewhat surprisingly, of North Vancouver, where my father used to live. John has been training personnel at ESPN on how to conduct interviews since 2004. He only recently ‘retired.’

to Burlington, CT where, the next morning, I met with Canadian interviewing guru John Sawatsky. It was a glorious, sunny day and I was in a good mood having slept the night before at an Airbnb apartment situated right on the water. It was late when I arrived (at the Airbnb) (basically just brushed my teeth and went to bed), and lovely to fall asleep in the dark to the sound outside of the fast running Farmington River.

I knew that following the arc of a life was a good straight-forward way to structure an interview, so I started off by asking about John’s birthplace, Winkler, Manitoba. He talked about his early years on the prairies, his move as a young boy to the West Coast, his education and his subsequent relocation to Ottawa to work as a journalist. Ottawa was heaven for a news junkie like him. He then got into investigative reporting, and started writing a book on Brian Mulroney and teaching journalism at Carleton University. When we started talking about the standardized interviewing approach he’d developed at the time, things veered off the rails.

I got impatient and started pressing for details on what kind of questions elicited that best answers, and how I could best conduct ‘author interviews.’ John’s freely offered story arc, thanks, ironically, to me, crashed into the ditch. I couldn’t seem to get a succinct answer out of him from this point forward. I wasn’t sure if it was my ineptitude or John intentionally playing possum. I did however eventually get some intelligence: that storytelling is key to maintaining audience interest – but no real detail on how to achieve this (in retrospect it seems pretty simple: just shut up).

It was up to Sheila Rogers, who I emailed about John, to tell me that it was all about asking questions that encourage stories to be told (this from notes she’d kept from a workshop of John’s she’d attended years ago). John is currently working on a book about interviewing. I will be among the first to buy it. Stay tuned for our arc-less Biblio File conversation.

Continue reading “A trip to the Hudson Valley, Interview talk in Connecticut & Sandwiches in Maine”

Margaret Atwood, Literary Tourist in Kingston

Literary Tourist in Kingston, Ontario

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 

with its Jordon Special Collections Library, full of Lorne Pierce’s Canadiana,

…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)

…of the Belvedere Hotel

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

…of Pat Grew my best friend, and the best math teacher in the world. Okay don’t take my word for it.

Buenos Aires Biblio File Backstory

Literary Tourist in Buenos Aires, Argentina

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

I’ve called upon Richard often for help with The Biblio File podcast. He’s always come through. And he did again, this time with Ana Maria Cabanellas. He also recommended this restaurant, Los Pinos

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. 

I was greeted at the door of Libreria Helena de Buenos Aires by Renato Garcia.

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. 

The following morning we visited MALBA

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. 

Encountering Emilio Gil and Spanish Book Design in Madrid

Nigel Beale, Literary Tourist in Madrid

In addition to tapas, churros and tinto de verano – a wonderfully refreshing drink of wine mixed with

Tinto

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 Graphic Design 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)

Manolo Prieto

plus Ricard Giralt Miracle, and Daniel Gil (no relation).  I subsequently went out and bought a bunch of Gil covers:

Next time you’re in a Spanish bookshop

Madrid Bookshop

you might want to do the same. 

Madrid cat, bookshop