A Canadian literary picnic in the park: Who do you want on your blanket?

June 21, 2013

No picnic is complete without a good book. Or, in the case of Luminato's marquee literary event happening in Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park this weekend, without 60 of them. Three stages will play host to dozens of readers, each offering their take on the theme of "beginnings." And if that all feels a bit formal, you can make it personal: After their readings, many of the authors will set up their own picnic blankets, inviting the public to join them for one-on-one discussions. To mark the occasion, we asked 10 participants to name the writer they'd most like to sit down with for a post-reading chat.

Shyam Selvadurai, author of The Hungry Ghosts

I would pick Karen Solie, first because she is a great poet and I love her work. For me, poetry is definitely the highest of the literary arts and yet I feel that I don't have a talent for it. Despite knowing this, I am still a bit of a closet poet, though I don't think I will ever publish any poetry. So there is something awe-inspiring about people who practise this literary art. I did have Karen as a poetry teacher once and she was very patient and encouraging with my paltry offerings. I wouldn't mind a few more writing tips, or I might just like to bring along a few poems I love and ask her what makes them work.

Elizabeth Ruth, author of Matadora

Stacey May Fowles and I don't know each other, but I feel as though we ought to. Her writing takes risks stylistically and in terms of content, and that's exciting for Canadian readers, myself included. She seems to understand intuitively that the country is craving new perspectives on storytelling. Her journalistic work is often unapologetically political, especially as it relates to women's issues. To my mind, Stacey May Fowles's work is a good example of the rich and evocative writing coming out of small presses in this country – writing that is helping to build a new Canadian literature.

Jessica Westhead, author of And Also Sharks

I'm still trying to figure out how Heather Birrell built her beautifully intricate stories in Mad Hope. So far no luck, and it's driving me crazy. So I'd like to sit down and grill this woman. The thing about her writing is, there are all these layers of original detail and insight – and then she'll go and blast you with another observation that's so stunningly phrased, it leaves you shaking your head. And yet she manages all that without being overwhelming. Mad Hope is an incredibly entertaining read, which for me is just as important as a smart one.

Katrina Onstad, author of Everybody Has Everything

My one-on-one choice: Sam Sutherland, author of Perfect Youth: The Birth of Canadian Punk. Enough with novelists. I want a non-fiction one-on-one, and anyone who cares enough to lock down the ephemera of Canadian pop history must be a fun person to meet on a picnic blanket. I haven't read the book yet, so I'd badger him for inside stories of the bands I watched from afar growing up among Vancouver preppies (I nursed an unhealthy crush on DOA's Joe Keithley – he had a different last name then). I read that Sutherland unearths tales from places that weren't necessarily punk hotbeds, and I want to hear about the scene in Meat Cove, N.S. Politics, outsiders, music – let's talk, Sam.

Martha Schabas, author of Various Positions

Given the opportunity, I would sit down with Toronto author Kyle Buckley. We'd probably end up pretending that we were Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Call me crazy, but I don't see how this kind of role-playing would really be avoidable. I would ask Kyle about the dialogue between essence and existence in his novella, The Laundromat Essay, and I'm pretty sure he would answer me in French. From there, the conversation would no doubt leap onto Charles de Gaulle, or we'd leap onto a plane at Charles de Gaulle airport, headed into the freedom of a godless world. I see Sartre's writing as the private tears of a public intellectual, and I wonder how much this might apply to Kyle's novel-in-progress, which I hear, through the literary grapevine, pauses late at night at the intersection between critical and creative traffic.

Charles Foran, author of Mordecai: The Life & Times

I'd ask to sit with Don Gillmor and grill him about Mount Pleasant. Specifically, why is Don, a wily veteran of journalistic exposés, still among the quick as a novelist? His book knows too much about ascendency Toronto and the ways and means of Rosedale. It knows too much about how old money shakes down and plays out – and rubs out, if it comes to it. Of course I'd want a chart tracing the novel's roots in the fertilized soil of the eponymous mid-town cemetery. Who are we talking about when we talk about the residents of Mount Pleasant? But Don Gillmor, now a wily veteran of fictional exposés as well, probably wouldn't say. And he'd be right. The novelist's omertà – the only guarantee of living to tell another smart, mischievous tale.

Vincent Lam, author of The Headmaster's Wager

I'd like to sit down with Michael Winter, because his writing is kind of like Alistair MacLeod meets Sheila Heti (if you know Alistair and Sheila, you know this is quite a juxtaposition). So, I'd like to know how Michael pulls that off. Also, Michael once gave me valuable instruction in dialogue, "When someone asks a question, the other person shouldn't answer it. The response should be tangential." Well, I'm not sure if that's precisely what Michael said, but I've put it in quotes in the spirit of him having taught me about dialogue. It was such a good dialogue lesson, I'm hoping for more.

Sarah Elton, author of Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet

On Saturday, I'd like to sit down with three of my fellow authors: Tamara Faith Berger because her book Lie With Me is everything my writing is not. I'd like to ask her how people respond to her work. Edward Keenan because I'd like to hear his opinions of our city that he can't put in his seemingly candid column. And Andrew Kaufman. We've met before and he is extremely funny. Combine Kaufman's humour, Keenan's insight, Faith Berger's lens with current events in Toronto and I suspect it would be a lively picnic.

Stacey May Fowles, author of Infidelity

I once sat at the opposite end to Vincent Lam at a long table in a Montreal Mexican restaurant. Even out of earshot, I could tell, as the margaritas were flowing, that he had the guests around him transfixed with his engaging good humour. I feel like I missed a real opportunity to talk with the reigning nice guy of CanLit, so sharing a picnic blanket in the park for 15 minutes might be a good do-over. Lam is in fierce competition with the lovely, talented Damian Rogers, who beyond being one of our country's greatest poets, has a big, boisterous laugh and a rare, generous way about her. A few years ago she arranged for a fat, grey foster cat to live with me, and it's about time I gave her an update on how our shared furry friend is doing. (Very well, thank you.)

Andrew Kaufman, author of Born Weird

I don't think there's a writer in the country braver than Jowita Bydlowska. Her new memoir, Drunk Mom, admits to being just that – a mom with a drinking problem. Say what you want about the current state of gender expectations – all redefinitions are off when it comes to motherhood. Women are still expected to be all-saint once they're mothers. Bydlowska fights this unrealistic preconception with insight and honesty. I can't wait to talk to her. Maybe some of her bravery will rub off on me.

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