Monday, March 29th, 2010
Last year, I had the privilege of reading with Eric Siblin at the Prince Edward County Authors’ Festival. A few months later I found myself on a Quebec Writers’ Federation jury; his book, The Cello Suites, was nominated for the McAuslan First Book Prize and the Mavis Gallant Prize for Nonfiction – and won both. It was also shortlisted for a Governor General’s Award, the BC Award for Canadian Nonfiction, and a Writers’ Trust Prize. Not bad for an inaugural effort.
In The Cello Suites, Eric sets out to solve the simple riddle of a missing manuscript. Instead, he finds himself pondering the deeper enigma of how a piece of music penned by a royalist, conservative composer could, in the twentieth century, become the signature and rallying cry of a liberal, humanist musician, and how that same piece of music could continue to speak so powerfully to musicians and music-lovers of so many persuasions today. Part biography, part music history and part music appreciation, The Cello Suites is an ambitious, carefully researched, and inventively constructed book written with clarity and verve.
Photo: Marcie Richstone
Q: The structure of The Cello Suites, with three interwoven narratives broken into sections much like movements in music, echoes the Suites themselves. I loved this device; it added texture and tension to each story. How did you come up with the idea to compose the book this way?
A: Thanks, Susan. The idea to structure the book according to the music came to me early on. On a superficial level I just liked the sound of putting musical titles like sarabande, courante, and gigue on the page. But I very much wanted the book to mirror the music so it seemed like an obvious thing to do. The idea of the book quickly became a sort of mosaic encompassing suites one through six with each suite broken down into those six lyrical movements. Each suite had a persona of its own in musical terms and each suite (or so I imagined) seemed to link up in a greater narrative whole. I also benefited from the structure because the music itself provided narrative signposts for a writer searching for a storyline.
Q: In writing this book you conducted research of every conceivable type. You travelled, interviewed people both face-to-face and by email, searched the archives, studied scores. You immersed yourself in the Bach community and learned to play the cello (at least a little). Did you know what you were in for when you began the project? What research tips can you offer other writers of creative nonfiction?
A: I had no idea what I was in for at the start. I began in a pretty naïve and idealistic way and mostly just followed by nose trying to piece together the story. In retrospect I was lucky – it added up to a story. But if we make our own luck as nonfiction writers it is with the heavy lifting of research. I think that by researching as much as possible you open up avenues that give your writing maximum flexibility and mobility, allowing you to pick and choose the most promising raw materials, map out trajectories and get around dead ends.
I would urge first-time nonfiction authors to pick up the phone, call experts and pick their brains. I should have done more of this at the outset – next time I will be less shy. The Internet is of course a fabulous tool, but I wouldn’t abandon the library. Many discoveries take place in the stacks.
Q: There’s a real warmth in your approach to Bach and Casals; I got the impression that you came to care about both men, and you’d be sorry to leave them. It made me sorry to leave them, too. Thoughts?
© Perren Barberini, Zermatt
A: I think I became attached more to the story than to the characters of Bach or Casals. I was sorry to see Bach go because he left with so many unanswered questions for future biographers. But he was born in 1685 so I couldn’t expect him to hang around forever. Casals lived to the respectable age of ninety-six. And the end of both their lives came in Suite No. 6 of the book, the last suite, the suite that has everything to do with transcendence, so it made perfect sense to say my goodbyes at that point. Besides, I wanted to get on to other projects.
Q: This is a first book. Who or what were your models or inspirations? Who are some of your favourite nonfiction writers?
A: One of the things that motivated me to write this book is that I wasn’t aware of any particular model and was under the impression, true or not, that this sort of thing hadn’t been done before in quite the same way. So the absence of models spurred me on. As for nonfiction writers, I always have time for Simon Winchester, Alex Ross, Christopher Hitchens, and A. J. Liebling.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in completing the book?
A: My biggest challenge was probably keeping the musical structure of the book intact while keeping the narrative ball moving in a good way. I shuffled the constituent parts around a bit, trying to figure out where best to place the Bach, Casals and first-person strands. For a long time I was overambitious, trying for example to make every sarabande, which is the saddest sounding dance movement of every suite, correspond with a sad part of the story. Trying to tailor the narrative to the musical structure in every respect turned out to be overly rigid and ultimately untenable. So I relaxed the structural grip, tried to let the narrative breathe more freely, and things seemed to improve.
Q: What was the biggest reward?
A: Actually getting published.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I just finished Doctor Olaf Van Schuler’s Brain by Kirsten Menger-Anderson, a very intriguing multi-generational sequence of fictional stories centering on a family of physicians from the 17th century to the present day. And I thoroughly enjoyed a slim book by John McPhee, Levels of the Game, about a 1968 tennis match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner. Now I’m on to The Anthologist, a quirky musing about poetry by Nicholson Baker.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I’m trying to write two things, fiction and nonfiction, but it’s early days.
Eric Siblin is a Montreal-based journalist and documentary filmmaker. He studied at Concordia University in Montreal, receiving an M.A. in History, before coming of age journalistically at The Glengarry News in Alexandria, Ont., and the Standard Freeholder, in Cornwall, Ont. He then worked as a reporter/editor at the Montreal bureau of The Canadian Press (CP) from 1989 to 1996 when he joined The Montreal Gazette as a staff reporter, including a stint as the newspaper’s pop music critic. He made the transition to television in 2002 with the documentary Word Slingers, which explores the curious subculture of competitive Scrabble tournaments. The film was broadcast in Canada and the U.S., and won a Jury Award at the Yorkton Short Film & Video Festival. He also co-directed the documentaryIn Search of Sleep, and has written for a wide variety of magazines. The Cello Suites is his first book. Here is his website.
Thursday, March 18th, 2010
Mary Soderstrom’s The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond asks what makes a city “walkable” – and hence, liveable – and in an attempt to solve this riddle, takes the contrasting theories of two of the modern world’s greatest thinkers on the city and puts them to the practical test. An original idea, gracefully executed, The Walkable City compels us to think harder about our own neighbourhoods and what we expect and hope from them. I talked with Mary by email about this book and her latest projects.
Q: I loved the central conceit of The Walkable City: The great urban reconstructor, Baron Haussmann, and the independent urban thinker, Jane Jacobs, joined in a sort of ambulatory conversation with author and readers about what makes a city walkable – and, by extension, liveable. How did you hit on this idea?
A: Well, I guess I like mixed-media. What I mean by that is I write non-fiction using narrative techniques, and fiction with a strong dose of concrete observation. My two other non-fiction books (Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens and Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, both from Véhicule Press) use the device of taking the reader various places to consider aspects of the places in order to talk about history, science, philosophy, urban affairs and so on.
But been-there-done that: this time I didn’t want to do the same thing, and when I discovered that Haussmann had written extensive memoirs and that Jane Jacobs from early childhood held imaginary conversations with figures of the past, I began to wonder if I could take their own words and imagine what they might say to each other.
I’m glad you liked the idea, because I do too. But of all the aspects of the book, it is the one that has prompted the most criticism. Apparently you either love the conceit or you loathe it.
Q: The trope of the walk is a common one in the personal essay – as is the imaginary conversation with a respected (or despised) figure from the past. In that sense, The Walkable City is an extended essay, or an essayistic book. Thoughts?
A: That kind of categorizing doesn’t really interest me. The book is what I consider simply creative non-fiction. And that’s a very useful concept.
Q: The Walkable City is also an unusual sort of travel book, showing us sides of glamorous destinations, such as Paris, that we might not have known, and illuminating corners of our own front and back yards. How many kilometres do you think you walked, in researching the book?
A: Lots. I know that on my last trip to Paris where my cousin Cathy Retterer joined my husband and me for two weeks, one morning she said: “Okay, that’s enough. Do you think we could not walk four hours today?”
Q: How does this book build on or expand from your previous work?
A: The book is the direct outgrowth of my previous work. A lot of the traveling was undertaken for my other books. I went to Singapore and Paris originally for Recreating Eden, to East Africa for my novel The Violets of Usambara (Cormorant Book, 2008) and São Paulo, Brazil for Green City. Each of these projects led me deeper into reflection about the relation between humans and their surroundings, both natural and constructed. The Walkable City was the next step in trying to make sense of how we live, and how we ought to live.
Q: What was your biggest challenge in writing the book?
A: I think coming up with a narrative device that would carry the weight of my reflection. This is a book (like all my books) that is designed to entertain an intelligent reader while encouraging him or her to consider some pretty tough questions. A lot of research lies behind it, but I wanted to make it fun to read, so that ordinary folk—not just urban planning wonks – would find it interesting.
Q: What was the biggest joy?
A: Oh dear, oh dear! There were so many! Probably the realization that what I’d been living in Montreal and liking about some other cities all my life had a cause: their organization on a human scale based on what is called these days “active transportation.”
Q: What are you reading now?
A: La Traversée de la ville by Michel Tremblay (part three of his trilogy about his mother), The Mystery of Samba by Hermano Vianna (see below) and The Best American Short Stories of 2009 (not the best year, to my mind, which reflects more on the choice of the editor than the stories available for selection. Alice Sebold is the editor this time around, and her taste is not mine.)
Q: What’s your next project?
A: Well, there are two. One is a novel I’ve just sent to a possible publisher. It’s called River Music, and is about three generations of women: the grandmother is a pianist, the daughter is an engineer and the granddaughter is a harpsichordist. The time runs from 1935 to Dec. 6, 2009, and I hope in addition to a good story, the novel says something about North American women over the last 75 years.
The second, called Making Waves: The Portuguese Adventure, is a direct outgrowth of my three non-fiction projects, although it doesn’t seem so at first glance. During the travel I did for them and for Violets, I kept running into the footprints they left—in Brazil, of course, but also in East Africa, the West coast of India, and Singapore as well as other places. Then I began thinking about the Portuguese kids I grew up with in San Diego, whose families had come from the Azores and Madeira to fish tuna off California, the Portuguese sailing ship we saw in 1972 in St. John’s Newfoundland (one of the last of white fleet cod fishers) and the 40,000 people of Portuguese descent in Montreal. In short, I was bowled over by the worldwide legacy of this small nation on the edge of Europe.
A great deal of research and some more travel followed, and I’m now revising a manuscript for Véhicule Press which is scheduled to publish the book next fall. Although I picked up enough Portuguese on my own to be able to read newspapers, magazine articles and history, I ran into a wall, trying to speak it, so this winter I’ve been taking an intensive course at the Université de Montréal. So I’ll sign off, and get back to the oral presentation on Brazilian singer/songwriter/novelist/dissident Chico Buarque that’s due for Monday.
Mary Soderstrom is a Montreal-based writer of fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of three works of non-fiction, two short story collections, five novels and one children’s book. In addition over the years she has done a wide variety of reporting on science, urbanism, politics and writing.
Her most recent non-fiction book The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Streets and Beyond is a follow-up to Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places (both from Véhicule Press) which was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best 100 Books of 2007. Her most recent novel, The Violets of Usambara, which takes place in Burundi and Montreal, was published in Spring 2008 by Cormorant Books. Here’s her blog.
Thursday, March 11th, 2010
I’ll be presenting at the Creative Nonfiction Collective’s Annual Conference
Banff, Alberta. Banff Centre for the Arts. Saturday, April 24th, 1:30 - 2:45 pm.
(Open to the public and supported by The Writers’ Union of Canada.)
The personal essay is often identified by its loose and meandering shape and its tolerance, or even requirement, for explicit thought and self-reflection. In contrast, the lyric essay foregrounds structure, with devices such as braided narratives, collage, and juxtaposition; typically, it limits summary reflection. Are these forms really as opposed as they may seem? And why might a writer choose one over the other in the attempt to think on the page? In this workshop we will look at traditional and more experimental essays to discover their distinct and overlapping pleasures and virtues — for writers and for readers.