Friday, November 28, 2008

Question Time!

Curious about the inner workings of a small but prestigious Canadian press? Wondering how words get from inside an author's head to the nightstand beside your bed? Perplexed about the publishing process?

Well, have we got news for you!

Now's your chance to find out all you ever wanted to know about us, Cormorant Books - what we do, how we do it, and why.

Send in your questions by either commenting on this post, or sending us an email at, and at some point in the future, we'll round them all up and answer them, right here! Who knows, this might become a regular thing ...

So get your curiousity caps on and fire away!

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part VI

Today we present the sixth installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave talks about the editorial process, from the perspective of a novelist AND playwright.

The Implied Author Part VI:
Editing and Dramaturgy: How Many Cooks?

This time of year, university teachers are all abuzz about nurturing “academic integrity.” By this, most of them seem to mean wiping out plagiarism. The notion of “intellectual property” gets harder and harder to convey as technology makes virtually everything virtually available. I used to get up in arms about all this too; and I still hate the idea that somebody thinks they’re putting something over on me. But as for “ownership” of a piece of writing, it’s become less cut and dried for me.

Once upon a time, I had a view of the writer’s life as solitary, self-sufficient. I put a lot of stock in the intimate etymological connexion between “author” and “authority.” I would write my work all by myself, and readers would read what I had made. Work with editors, dramaturges, and actors, has shown me (thankfully) it’s not that simple.

I don’t imagine anyone comes away from a session with an editor without feeling a little righteous indignation. You slave away for months on something, and in an hour somebody who might even be a stranger deftly shows you where all the holes are. The level of indignation is probably directly proportional to how right they are. You know it, but it’s hard to admit. The byzantine structure you erected for your novel is diagnosed too complicated for a reader to follow, too dry an academic exercise to interest anyone but a dead French critic. It smarts, but from the wreckage you save what really matters and you weave a story that might actually attract readers — as distinct from literary critics. You learn quickly to trust the editor’s instincts. She or he becomes your ideal reader. After all, you are writing to be read. As long as the relationship does not become a folie à deux, there will be more readers like her out there, and the book will find favour, and sell. Statisticians wouldn’t bet on it, but it seems to work. Of course, it’s not entirely your book any more: the editor is a partner, though usually a silent one. They must expect their reward on some other plane.

Writing for the theatre, which is from beginning to end a collaborative art, further erodes any delusions about sole authorship. My earliest plays, it’s true, I wrote, directed, and even performed in. The cast was presented with a script and we rehearsed it and put it in front of the public. Mostly, people came, and liked what they saw. The cast and designers and crew were co-authors of the production, but I was still the lone playwright, the master of the script. This was before I discovered “dramaturgy,” which sounds like some kind of nineteen-thirties spiritual movement, but isn’t. Well, kind of.

A full-bore dramaturgical process involves a dramaturge (variously-spelled; my sons used to say it “dramaturd,” without malice) and a group of actors. Because of the actors, the first reading is like going into that first editorial meeting, times infinity. It’s one thing to put your novel into the hands of an editor who is no doubt literary and highly experienced. It’s quite another to give your work over to a disparate group of people whose specialty is not (usually) writing. Sayings about camels being horses designed by committees, and about cooks and broths, play insistently through your head. Every now and again, the actors try to tell you how you should have written the play (ie. how they would have written it), but the dramaturge always nips that in the bud. The things that puzzled them, the things they wondered about, of course, are tremendously useful guides for redrafting. It becomes like a little writer’s circle, and is helpful as those groups can be.

Actors being actors, though, they tend to ask questions about their characters, to become advocates for the roles they have been temporarily given. With We Happy Few, a play set in a World War One convalescent hospital, dramaturged (there must be a better verb) by Sarah Stanley, one actor’s interpretation of and questions about a nurse who I had conceived as a dried-up old authoritarian bitch resulted in a complete rethinking of the character, and what turned out to be a very moving end to the first act. The two groups of actors (one in Sackville and one in Cow Head, Newfoundland) who have worked with me and dramaturge Jenny Munday on King have also shown me things about individual characters by tirelessly and reliably fighting for their assigned role’s interests. Everything from conveying an Acadian accent to too-abrupt-alliances to how many scenes they are in has all been on the table; and every bit of it has led to revisions. The process gives you the rare opportunity to hear back from your characters. Once you get over the shock that they are claiming an existence at arm’s length from you, you begin to realize the value of the gift.

While the dramaturge is the key player in story-editing, paralleling quite closely the fiction editor, the actors often have contributions to make there too. They will notice that the stakes are not there in the first scene, or that the ending is too obvious, or that there’s a scene missing in the development of an idea. All of those areas were fed by the actors working on King this past summer. They couldn’t help me find a better title (yet). Their reactions to the play’s resonances with King Lear varied. The consensus, though, was to fly freer of Shakespeare, which the play now does. I suppose that’s an assertion of the play as my own, untroubled by Big Bill’s shadow. But it also means that the finished script (if it’s ever entirely finished…) will be as much theirs as mine.

It may not be a full-blown religion, but dramaturgy has actually helped me to some kind of minor epiphany: that being an author may actually have less to do with “authority” and more with “authorizing.”

Next: “Live White Male: Meeting the Fiction Class”

Friday, November 21, 2008

2008 Molson Prize

Huge congratulations to Sheila Fischman, one of the recipients of this year's Molson Prize. Sheila is one of Cormorant's longest contributors, having translated many of our French-language novels including The Perfect Circle, Volkswagen Blues, and most recently Aegean Tales.

The jury had this to say about her: “With more than 125 translations of works by Quebec authors to her credit, Sheila Fischman has introduced Canada’s French-language literature to countless English-language readers both at home and abroad. Her phenomenal body of work has made a significant contribution to Canadian heritage by giving expression to a wide range of voices and building bridges between the two cultures. Literary translation is an under-recognized art form, an act of creation in which the creator is often anonymous. Ms. Fischman has perfected this art form and deserves to be applauded by all Canadians.”

Here are some photos from the ceremony, which took place last night in Montreal:

Spotlight: Lives of the Saints

Congratulations are in order for Nino Ricci, who was recently awarded the 2008 Governor General's Award for Fiction for his novel The Origin of Species. In celebration of Nino's win, we've decided to spotlight Lives of the Saints, his first published book recently released in a new edition by Cormorant Books.

When young Vittorio Innocente’s mother, Cristina, is bitten by a snake during an encounter with a blue-eyed stranger in the family barn, the superstitions and prejudices rampant in their small Italian town immediately roil to the surface. But the worst is yet to come for the independent-minded Cristina. Eight months pregnant and unable to abide her treatment in the village any longer, Cristina books a passage to Canada for herself and Vittorio, although it will not be to join her irascible husband Mario, who sailed there when Vittorio was an infant.

A national bestseller for seventy-five weeks, Lives of the Saints won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Bressani Prize, and was adapted into a CBC miniseries starring Sophia Loren. It is the first novel in the Vittorio Innocente Trilogy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part V

Today we present the fifth installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave talks about the art of the reading.

The Implied Author Part V:
Readings: Rapt and Unrapt

I used to love reading to my children. It was one of the greatest joys of having them. There were other joys, of course, but I remember them more dimly. I did accents and voices, and the boys always seemed utterly enrapt. It was only later, when, as teenagers, they would pick up Stanley Bagshaw or some other classic and start snidely mimicking my performances, that I wondered whether they listened so intently just so they wouldn’t have to go to bed. When the first (and best) of the Harry Potters came out, we passed it around the circle as a family, taking turns reading aloud, even though by then we were all too old for bedtime stories. With the children grown and gone (for now), I find I have to restrain myself from reading huge pieces of books aloud to my classes, terrified to be judged as one of those people who is in love with the sound of his own voice (In fact, I hate the sound of it, but I’m afraid I might love making sounds with it.) With the publication of Silver Salts, I once again have a legitimate excuse to read aloud. I leap at every chance. It’s more challenging, though, than those six-thirty post-bath sessions on the edge of a tiny bed.

First, there can be distracting people: family who have heard it all before but come along gamely to swell the numbers, which is nice but I feel so sorry for them; way-back acquaintances whose faces I recognize but have no name to put with them (how will I address them afterwards?); other writers, waiting to read from their work (will they read better?).

Then, there are the distracting places. I totally get why it’s important to have readers reading in public places. In theory. I understand the argument that if people wandering casually through a public space can see that literacy is not something to be ashamed of, that reading is actually a socially-acceptable public act, more people will read. But you don’t see people taking baths in public places to encourage more people to wash. The very first reading I did of Silver Salts was in a public library. It was going to be a wonderful kind of karmic space (or something) because it was the very library in which I had done lots of the early research for the novel. Tucked away under the open stairs, reading to a dozen seated people, most related to me by blood, while patrons returned and borrowed at the adjacent circulation desk, and reference librarians were paged over the P.A., it was harder to believe in the absolute value of the exercise. How could I compete? Months later, at an outdoor literary festival that has been held indoors for the last several years, I read to the accompaniment of tribal drumming two booths over, and I was tempted to reach under the drapes and burst the balloons that were being inflated six feet from where I stood rhapsodizing. But that’s not that different from teaching, now that I think about it.

There have been quieter, more concentrated readings, too: the ones where the listeners are there absolutely on purpose (or maybe they just don’t want to go to bed.) Reading to the crowd who came out so supportively to the Gladstone in Toronto, to the hometown crowd in Sackville, and to the other hometown crowd (way over a hundred of them) who listened in Saint John was magic. If pins dropped, I was having too much fun to hear them.

Whether the reading is one of the rapt or the un-rapt variety, choosing material is always tough. What’s the audience’s threshold—which is partly to ask will they be standing around with drinks or sitting in the dark? (Marc Côté wisely got me to trim my plans for a group that was doing the former, and Anne Compton was clear on the attention span of a group doing the latter.) Is one long piece better than three shorts? (Not, usually.) Are there things that might make a particular group, or me, in their presence, uncomfortable? (I was lucky enough to be invited to talk to a class that had studied the novel, and they had sent an e-mail request that I read a section where my heroine throws herself down the stairs to abort a pregnancy. I didn’t. We had a good talk anyway.) Can I find pieces that won’t need endless explanations about their references to other bits of the book? (Sometimes.)

And the reading must go on as advertised, no matter what. Inevitably I have a sinus flare-up and an asthma attack just before every reading. I used to hate the sound of my voice. Now I loathe it. But, oddly enough, I never cough till after the question period.

The one challenge about giving public readings from Silver Salts that I didn’t anticipate has to do with channeling the narrator. While Lillie, for reasons that have to do with her feelings about events, tells some of the novel as “she-Lillie,” most of the story is told by Lillie as a character-narrator (“I-Lillie.”) It didn’t occur to me that having my voice read Lillie’s aloud might strike some audiences as strange. But at a recent reading, the question came up. I tried to answer it with something about how all fiction-writing involves appropriation (which I firmly believe). I didn’t get into a discussion about essentialist and cultural constructions of gender because I am by nature a chicken. Besides, what was really bothering the questioner, I think, was the presence of the historical author (me), and the implied author (the book’s shape, my intentions for it), and the narrator (Lillie) all in one room, and all speaking out of one set of pipes. Unfortunately, it’s not one of those questions that can be just shrugged off with a curt “time for lights out now.”

Coming Soon: “Editing and Dramaturgy: How Many Cooks?”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Spotlight: Born With A Tooth

Big congratulations to Joseph Boyden, who earlier this week was awarded the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Through Black Spruce. Good on you! In celebration of Joseph's win, we've decided to spotlight Born With a Tooth, his first published book recently re-released by Cormorant Books.

Until the second half of the twentieth century, one of the worst problems with the way First Nations peoples were depicted in literature was their portrayal as “First Nations” first and “people” second. It is perhaps one of the legacies of the old school of anthropology — a field of study that once represented, more than any other, a confluence of scientific rationalism and
colonial ideology. In any case, by turning flesh-and-blood human beings into mere concepts, concepts that can be classified and organized and filed away and forgotten, words alone have proven more than enough to dehumanize and alienate entire cultures.

Joseph Boyden’s Born With A Tooth is different. Although its collected stories are very much about First Nations peoples and the issues they have to face, as much emphasis is placed on who they are and not just what they are. The characters we meet are not just Cree or Ojibwa. They are not just our preconceptions and categorizations and stereotypes. They are single mothers who make ends meet by working at a bingo hall. They are middle-aged punk rock princesses burning up the stage one last time. They are little boys who dream of becoming professional wrestlers. They are men who believe they can become whatever they dream. They are people who talk too loud or not enough, who drink too much or not at all, who fall in and out of love, who grieve for what has been lost even as they gaze with hope at what is to come. Maintaining a careful balance of humour, warmth, indignation, and dignity, Boyden succeeds brilliantly in presenting the inhabitants of his Northern Ontario reserve not just as “a people,” but as people.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Mark Blagrave: The Implied Author Part IV

Today we present the fourth installment in Mark Blagrave's (Silver Salts) ongoing series of posts. Here, Professor Blagrave addresses his first experience doing author signings.

The Implied Author Part IV:
Signings: The Agony and the Ecstasy
In my (admittedly limited) experience, book signings come in two basic temperatures: Hot and Cold. The Hot are usually associated with readings; the Cold, with random appearances in bookstores. Signees at the hot ones are there on purpose. They know something of the book, even if it’s only what you have just read to them five minutes ago. Signees at the cold ones are more likely to be there by accident. For them, the book is often nothing more than the object of a simple buying decision.

Hot signings fall into three sizes, like sweaters: small, medium, and large. XXL almost never happens. We’re talking about books. They are generally supportive, reaffirming, and almost always seeded with people you already know. (The exception is the signing you do after a reading with other better-known authors, where you get to watch their pens flying while you fiddle with yours, pretending there’s something wrong with it and you couldn’t be signing anyway, even if asked.)

Cold signings are more infinitely various, more challenging, and therefore potentially more interesting. In the first place, signing in a bookstore has meant, for me so far, signing in a shopping mall. These are places most of us walk through from time to time, which is clearly their preferred and natural mode of consumption. Sitting still in a shopping mall is not something anyone should do. Well, maybe a sociologist. If you do multiple signings in various shopping malls in a small urban centre and start to think that everyone looks the same, it’s probably because they are. It can become awkward: who is stalking whom?

My bookstore signings to date have been of three types. They are by no means mutually exclusive. Any combination seems possible, in fact.

The first (and every writer I have talked to has had one or more of these) is the oh-was-that-today? variety. Interestingly, there may be an inverse proportion between the store’s busy-ness and the staff’s ability to remember you are coming: the less general traffic, the easier it must be to forget what day it is.

The second is what I am calling the three-ring-circus signing, which seems to be designed on the premise that, if one author in a store is good, two are better. Once, I showed up on a Saturday afternoon only to find that the table I had been promised, near the front door, had been given to an early-bird travel writer. Like it was a flea market. From my nook in the back of the store amid the yoga books, I could hear him hawking his wares: “buy a trivel bk, signed by the awtha!” I admired his New Zealand accent and his third-personing of himself (literally ec-static), but I found I didn’t envy him.

Then there’s the most common type: the living curiosity signing. In the abstract, it sounds terrible: sitting at a table like some kind of circus freak in captivity. In practice (so far) I have found it the most fun. I might even be accused of being complicit in the inherent exhibitionism of it all, having made a slide show that I trot around with me on my lap-top, and smiling like an idiot (I deny whore) at total strangers as they walk by. Of course, you meet the broadest range of people at this kind of signing. Most happen by by accident, but it usually doesn’t take long to discover your six degrees of separation. Some come because they remember you from a dim shared past, and that is (almost) always warming. Others come because they write too, and they want to meet someone who has been lucky enough to find a publisher. They pick your brains for tips. Finally, there are those I call the reality check. Sitting in a mall in Saint John this summer, I watched a couple who had obviously seen better days wander back and forth past the Coles. (They couldn’t have been there for the air conditioning; it was Saint John.) Finally, they sidled up to the table, and asked what this was all about. I told them a bit about the book, trying to appeal to their pride as ‘Johners.’ Then they asked how much it cost. The answer brought a Jeez and a snort and they ambled away. What I had seen in them was the descendents of a couple of characters from Silver Salts. What they had seen in me was some kind of huckster who thought a book might be worth almost as much as a case of beer.

The Hot signing and the Cold signing have a number of things in common, of course. Interesting conversations are possible at both, though they tend to be shorter at the Hot. Both bristle with orthographical anxiety. “It’s Dutch,” they say after making a sound that I hear only as an articulated cough; or “Megan the usual way,” which is never the way I guess. My signature has become more and more of a squiggle as these encounters make me forget how to spell my own name too. And what to put as an inscription? Is “fond memories,” if you know the person, potentially incriminating? Is there an actual nuanced difference between “best wishes” and “all best wishes”? Should you wish a fellow writer well with her own writing? (What if it works and she outshines you?) My favourite was the ten year old who asked me to write “Happy Birthday Mom.” I got him to sign that one with me.

The first time I signed (at the Hottest of all Hot signings: the hometown launch), I kept joking to people: “you know you can’t return it once I’ve written in it?” On a later occasion, I was told that somebody’s wife didn’t read (because she didn’t value) books that hadn’t been signed. I felt (briefly) sorry for Dickens. A bookstore manager told me, as she got me to do a generic job on a stack of fifteen, how books sell better when they are signed. “People think they’re getting value added,” she said. And that’s what my signings have been — each in its own way: value added, for me at least.

Coming Soon - Readings: Wrapt and Unwrapt

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Kathlyn Bradshaw!

Kathlyn Bradshaw (The Frankenstein Murders) was recently interviewed on CBC Radio Ottawa's All In A Day. Listen to the podcast here.

Kathlyn was also a guest at the Vancouver International Writers' Festival. She took plenty of photos of her trip, and was kind enough to let us post some here:

Near the marvelous Granville Island Marketplace

The lineup for the Sunday Brunch (Kathlyn's event)

Signing books and chatting after Brunch

At the book signing table with CC Humphreys

Kathlyn and her husband at an Inukshuk on English Bay Beach

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Charles Pachter recites 'Further Arrivals'

And here it is, the long-awaited premiere video from Cormorant Films*!

Charles Pachter, celebrated Canadian artist and author of M is for Moose, recites Further Arrivals, a poem from the classic collection The Journals of Susanna Moodie, written by his old friend Margaret Atwood and illustrated by Charles himself:


*There is no such thing as Cormorant Films. Yet.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Linda Rogers @ Open Book Toronto

Hop on over to our friends at Open Book Toronto and check out the profile for Linda Rogers, author of The Empress Letters and its upcoming sequel The Third Day Book.

There's a Q & A, a bio, and blog posts by Miss Rogers. You should go, if only to get an idea of the kind of person she is. We love Linda here at the office - she's truly a character.

So what're you waiting for?