Friday, 22 May 2015

Paula Johanson talks about Tower in the Crooked Wood

Five Rivers Publishing is happy to announce the release of Paula Johanson's Tower in the Crooked Wood June 1, 2015. We asked Paula to share with us the journey in creating the world of her story.
ISBN 9781927400913 $12.99
eISBN 9781927400920 $4.99

JC: What inspired Tower in the Crooked Wood?

PJ: I've been reading fantasy novels since finding a copy of The Lord of The Rings in my school library at age 9. That's a lot of novels! The inspiration for Tower in the Crooked Wood was learning that a publisher of gaming cards was looking to release novels compatible with their gaming system. It was a reason to try another novel manuscript with a goal in mind. I find publisher's needs to be very inspiring!

That publishing program folded, but Bundoran Press acquired my novel. When Bundoran retired their fantasy backlist, Five Rivers Publishing acquired a revised edition of Tower in the Crooked Wood.

 The inspiration for Tower in the Crooked Wood was learning that a publisher of gaming cards was looking to release novels compatible with their gaming system. It was a reason to try another novel manuscript with a goal in mind.

JC: What would you say is the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction?

PJ: Near as I can tell, there's a big difference in that readers are looking for content in non-fiction, and for style and tone in fiction. There are more similarities than differences. Non-fiction is so much more successful when it has narrative and overt tone and style choices. Fiction has heaps of content but slides past it, which can lead to cultural assumptions.

JC: Did writing Tower in the Crooked Wood involve research?

PJ: The new research was learning about the gaming system for the gaming cards and saying to myself, "Holy smokes! These cards are a good substitute for writing scenes and characters and settings." Suddenly I had settings and motivations, and soon I had scenes and characters. It was quite a different experience for me, as usually I begin with dialogue and characters then build from there.

Gravel pit in Villanueva Alberta
Gravel pit in Villanueva Alberta, one of the inspiration for the setting of Tower in the Crooked Wood
JC: Can you give us an insight to the world-building involved in the writing of Tower in the Crooked Wood? Is the setting based on anywhere in reality?
PJ: Building this world involved incorporating real-life experiences from my visits to construction sites, a gravel yard near Villeneuve, Alberta, a limestone quarry in Stonewall, Manitoba, and islands on the west coast, all of which had happened years before. Every setting shown or mentioned in Tower is based on real locations, which correspond in latitude and longitude to where the places would be in Jenia's world of two moons. Copper Island is a composite of several landscapes in traditional First Nations territory.

Limestone Quary in Stonewall, Manitoba, one of the inspiration for the setting of Tower in the Crooked Woods

JC: Can you tell us more about Tower in the Crooked Wood? Would you say it has a character-driven or an action-driven plot?

PJ: Using the gaming cards to start got me thinking about real places which were good matches for the cards. Putting cards together according to rules for the game made narrative sense, and told me what could be happening. From there I realized that it wasn't essential to write the novel from the point of view of the person who knows everything and is doing the biggest actions.

The plot is driven by the places in the story, and the actions of the characters are secondary. The thoughts and feelings of the characters might seem extremely important to the characters themselves, yet these elements are not first or second but a distant third in determining what happens. Here's a quote from the book:

It was not the sort of story Jenia was used to hearing, of one hero's adventure or one traveller's journey. When armies assemble and do battle, there ought to be a story for every pair of feet marching.

This is the story of one person moving in a very big world.

JC: Which came first, the story or Jenia, the character?

PJ: While I knew the settings and the actions first, it wasn't a narrative until I had a voice to follow through the events. That voice was Jenia's.

Non-fiction is so much more successful when it has narrative and overt tone and style choices. Fiction has heaps of content but elides past it, which can lead to cultural assumptions.

JC: How was the editing process?

PJ: The editing process for the first edition was different from this revised edition. For Bundoran Press I added a couple of scenes which really improved the novel and made it more complete. For Five Rivers Publishing I have restored some elements which have made the story stronger, and expanded some scenes. I'm really happy to have this new edition released!

JC: How long did it take to write this book? Are there moments you had to deal with writer’s block? How did you push through them?

PJ: The first draft was outlined quickly and didn't take long to write. It was revised for Bundoran, and again for Five Rivers.

Writer's block is something that writers deal with in different ways. Usually for me it helps to work on a different kind of writing project, such as poetry instead of non-fiction, or a short story instead of a novel, or a non-fiction book on science instead of a book about magic. I try not to force writing. There's always so many things that need to be done around the house. And some things, like laundry, can be abandoned half-finished when writing begins to work.

For Five Rivers Publishing, I have restored some elements which have made the story stronger, and expanded some scenes.

JC: Can you describe your writing process?

PJ: Usually it's very different from writing Tower! I have written a lot of short non-fiction books on science or health or literature for educational publishers. For those books, the editor tells me the topic and asks me to propose a book in the style of their series. By the time I've written a table of contents and book proposal, that kind of book is already outlined in detail.

For both non-fiction and fiction, the process of writing for me involves finding how to tell someone about the matter at hand. Facts aren't dull when you know how they affect people, and characterization isn't fluff when it connects people and events.

JC: Can you share your writing influences in terms of fiction?

PJ: While I admire and have read many classic works of science fiction and fantasy, I'm most strongly influenced by Ursula K. Le Guin and by The Curve of Time, which was the lone book written by M. Wylie Blanchet.

JC: Are there any writing projects on your table right now? What can we expect from you in the future?

PJ: Currently I'm writing a couple of biographies of Canadian prime ministers for a series from Five Rivers Publishing. This month I'm presenting a couple of papers at a conference on digital humanities, which in about a year I hope to make the core of an academic book for teachers on bringing a student's real-life experiences to a better understanding of historical and literary works. One educational publisher I write for has acquired the other, and I'm waiting to hear back about a couple of ideas.

In writing Tower, I was not trying to write a history or a grand, over-arching narrative.

JC: What can readers expect from Tower in the Crooked Wood?

PJ: I have grown tired of epic fantasy novels with repeated and endless combat scenes; I'm not sure whether it's worse when the author has some experience in martial arts or soldiering or when the author has none and skates past important factors. In writing Tower, I was not trying to write a history or a grand, over-arching narrative. This is one story, as seen by one person, learning about her world.

As Alice Meynell wrote: "Art has rightly nothing to do with the history of war, it should be concerned only with its anecdotes. Art should go into the byways of battle. It must love the soldier and love him individually, not in battalions."

Tower in the Crooked Wood is available June 1, 2015 in both print and eBook formats directly from Five Rivers, or through your favourite online bookseller.


Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Omnibus version of Dave Duncan's Runner Series releases June 1, 2015

Five Rivers is pleased to announce the release, June 1, 2015, of the omnibus version of Dave Duncan's YA fantasy trilogy of novellas, entitled The Adventures of Ivor.

ISBN 9781927400890, 6 x 9 trade paperback, 310 pgs. $24.99
eISBN 9781927400906, $9.99

In the preface, Dave Duncan writes:
For this edition I have added a brief epilogue and taken out a few short repetitions. (How often do you need to be told that Ivor has nine older brothers?) 
The setting is Alba in the year 906. Alba is still the Gaelic name for Scotland, but it was a much smaller country in those days. Ivor, living on the West Coast, probably spoke Irish Gaelic, while King Constantine, farther east, may have spoken Pictish, which has completely died out now, so that nobody knows what sort of language it was. 
The people were poor and quarrelsome, because it was easier (and more interesting!) to steal whatever your neighbours had than to make a living by honest toil. Most of the people were Christian, but old Celtic and Scandinavian gods still lingered in the hills and islands.

So Alba was a real place, and King Constantine was a real person—he ruled for 43 years and then retired to become a monk. Even so, very little is known about the people he ruled, so I felt free to invent all the other characters and place names. And the magic too! 
If you think I have made Ivor a superhuman runner, you haven’t heard about the race called the Spartathlon, which is run every year in Greece. The route covers 246 kilometers (153 miles) from Athens to Sparta, through mountainous terrain. The record time is 20 hours, 25 minutes. Do not try this at home!
 The Adventures of Ivor includes:
The Runner and the Wizard
The Runner and the Saint
The Runner and the Kelpie

The cover, as one might expect, is another fabulous creation by Jeff Minkevics.

The Adventures of Ivor will be available in trade paperback and eBook editions, available through Five Rivers and online retailers worldwide. We are pleased to accept pre-orders now.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Interview with Colin Scheyen, author of Beyond Media Literacy

Colin Scheyen
Late 2014 Robert Runté, Five Rivers' Senior Editor, finalized a contract with Colin Scheyen, one of his former grad students, for a book which had its genesis as Scheyen's Masters project at Athabasca University. 

ISBN 9781927400876, 6 x 9 Trade Paperback, $12.99
eISBN 9781927400883 $4.99

Beyond Media Literacy: New Paradigms in Media Education, is a fabulous little teaching guide for educators from middle school to university, even adult education. It's a refreshing, accessible, completely relevant window into what can be an overwhelming and confusing sphere, that of media literacy.

Who is Colin Scheyen, and why is he qualified to write this teaching guide? 

Colin Scheyen is an award-winning filmmaker and educator. Much of his work focuses on issues of media literacy and social justice. As an educator, he has worked in both the public and private education systems in Canada and the United States to provide learning opportunities for some of North America’s most under-served communities. He received a B.Ed from the University of Alberta, a B.A. in English from the University of Calgary, and a M.A. in Educational and Cultural Studies from Athabasca University.

Colin’s work as a filmmaker is an extension of his work as an educator. Nuclear Hope (2015), a film that discusses Canada’s nuclear waste issues, won the Rising Star Award at the Canada International Film Festival. More Than a Rhyme (2013), which explores youth identity through hip hop music, received many accolades and has been screened throughout Ontario.

Colin is currently the coordinator of the Studio2 program at East Metro Youth Services in Toronto, Ontario. This innovative program provides opportunities for youth to explore their own creative voice through film, photography, graphic design, and recording arts.

Colin was part of developing curriculum that has been used by the Government of Alberta and multiple colleges throughout New York City, including an online curriculum that empowered international engineers and accountants with the skills necessary to succeed in the Canadian workforce.

The Interview

5R: Why write this book? What prompted you to create such a detailed book about teaching media literacy in the classroom?

CS: Being a teacher is hard work. Not only are you expected to educate overcrowded classrooms for six to eight hours a day, but you are expected to be a disciplinarian, a counselor, a supervisor, and an entertainer. On top of all of this you also have to be an expert in just about anything. There is an enormous amount of pressure on educators to be everything to everyone, and I don't think it has to be this way.

I felt this pressure when I worked in the school system and I wanted to show teachers that it doesn't have to be this way. There are in fact more meaningful ways of educating and working with young people that doesn't require us to wear all of these hats. In fact the only hat we need to wear is our own.

5R: How do you get from documentary filmmaker to teaching media literacy?

CS: It's actually the other way around. I went from an education background to documentary filmmaker because I see so many parallels between the two. Documentary films, at least the good ones, are rooted in reality and explore issues in the real world. Pedagogy is the same thing.

5R: How do you respond to people who refuse to embrace modern technology and media?

CS: We are very fortunate to live in an era where basic literacy like reading and writing is free for everyone. However, our society has also evolved into a new era where these tools are not enough. We need to treat media literacy as the new fundamental building blocks of how we communicate with one another.

But I should also add that this is not enough. Just because you keep up with all of the latest gadgets from Apple and Samsung does not make you media literate either. Literacy means READING and WRITING. We read media messages all the time, but how many times do we write media on a daily basis? How many times do we create and explore our own voices? The answer for young people and adults is the same: not as much as we need to.

5R: How important do you feel it is to be literate in media technologies, and beyond that, in social media?

CS: Being media literate today is as important as being able to read and write 50 years ago. This extends far beyond social media or another other digital platforms. But it's also important to note that none of these technologies will ever completely change the world. People change the world, not technology and we need to engage young people to be active participants in their own communities. Digital media is a great way to do this because it helps us connect to one another and tell our own stories, but we always need to remember that it is people who steer the ship, not technology.

5R: What impact do you see modern media having upon society?

CS: I think Marshall McLuhan said it best when he said that "we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." There has become a very elegant relationship between the directions our society has taken and our relationship to the tools that have helped us to get there. But make no mistake, these tools only reflect the best and worst in all of us. If we foster a culture of consumption and self-interest, our tools will reflect those interests. If we foster a society of comradery, compassion, and solidarity, then I can assure you that our tools will be there too to help us do that.

So the answer to your question is not found in the multimedia platforms that we have created. They are found in the ways that all of us engage with one another on a daily basis. Educators who are interested in diving deep into this digital world need to be careful that they don't get distracted from what is really important: conversations, stories, honest dialogue and kinship. These are what will make the world a better place.

Beyond Media Literacy: New Paradigms in Media Education, is now available in print and eBook formats directly from Five Rivers, and through online booksellers worldwide.

Five Rivers is pleased to receive inquiries from educators. Please email us for more information.


Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The PM Series Interviews: Paula Johanson

We asked the same five questions of the authors of the Prime Minister of Canada series.

5R: There are those who persist in saying Canadian history is boring. Having undertaken to write part of that history, how would you respond to that assertion?

PJ: Good grief, Canadian history boring? Whenever I get a chance to learn some history from anything but a school textbook, our history is anything but boring. I've always enjoyed travelling on roads that follow the old routes used by First Nations long before European setters, but the only one I ever read about in school was the Yellowhead Highway. I was fifty years old before I learned about British gunboats firing on the west coast in Canadian history, and I had to learn about the cannon shots from novels and from church records. For anyone who thinks the only way to write about history is boring, there are plenty of other ways to write it. Follow the money, and a striking trend shows all through the Colonial time. Follow the tech, and there are fascinating stories about Cree women being essential members of any group travelling anywhere in Rupert's Land because travellers need clothes and shoes and mittens. Why do jackknives still have an awl? Well, one reason is so you can make your own snowshoes and sled. But follow the people through your story of history, and you end up with a story that matters to people.

5R: Five Rivers’ senior editor, Robert Runté makes the statement: ‘Publishers have sometimes tried to protect school children and sensitive adults from any hint of controversy or scandal, and to pretend that our story is an unblemished example of rationality and progress.’ Do you feel that’s an accurate summation, and why?

PJ: Runté is putting it mildly -- and 'it' is not merely the effort to spare children from controversy and scandal but ranges from wishful thinking to rank propaganda. We do our children and students no favours when we pretend through our history books that our Canadian past was free from controversy and scandal. One example is the War of the Pig. It's a fascinating tale of homesteading and empire-building that gets very little attention.

5R: What does it mean for you, as a writer, to undertake writing about the prime ministers you’ve chosen?

PJ: To write about these prime ministers is to take on not only the facts that have been presented before in tedious fashion but to find ways to present these people as we would talk about them in conversation. There are few new facts for me to discover about Sir Charles Tupper or Sir Robert Borden, but I want to tell the facts the way I would tell stories, and in particular the way I would tell these stories when talking with people I know.

5R: Were there surprises for you during your research?

PJ: You bet there are surprises, when I'm doing research! I hadn't known about Trudeau's fascist beliefs as a youth. Or that Borden visited a hospital in Scotland caring for shell-shocked war poets. Or that after Tupper made much of his money investing in railway shares, he missed out on a chance to make $200,000 because he'd gone to England without leaving anyone the power of attorney to sell his shares.

5R: Your most memorable anecdote from the PMs?

PJ: So far the most memorable anecdote I've found tells of how as a young medical student and a Baptist, Tupper spent one dark night digging secretly in a Catholic graveyard -- but not as a body-snatcher! He'd been given an amputated leg so that he could study anatomy, and the family of the patient explained that their religious beliefs required that body parts be buried in holy ground so that the man would be whole in the afterlife. Tupper wasn't grave-robbing, he was keeping a promise to that First Nations family.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The PM Series Interviews: Gordon Gibb

We asked the same five questions of the authors of the Prime Minister of Canada series.

5R: There are those who persist in saying Canadian history is boring. Having undertaken to write part of that history, how would you respond to that assertion?

GG: If history can be summarized as boring – regardless of the nature, and ownership of the history we are talking about – then it is to suggest that history has to be sensational, to be meaningful. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have faced different issues in Canada than our neighbors in the US, and we have not endured the assassination of a Canadian Prime Minister as America has endured with the loss of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and others, such as Martin Luther King.  To that end, Canadians are known as a peace-loving people.

That said, anyone who might suggest our nation’s history is boring need only remember the October Crisis of 1970, the rise of the FLQ, the kidnapping of James Cross and the murder of Pierre Laporte, an act of cowardice that prompted Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to mobilize the National Guard.

On Lester Pearson’s watch, the adoption of the new Canadian flag was met with fierce opposition and protest that, in many respects, divided the country for a time. And who could forget, in 1967 and at the height of Canada’s hosting of the World’s Fair (Expo 67), in comes French President Charles de Gaulle from France, who ignores Ottawa and fans the flames of separation in Quebec with his infamous “Vive Montreal, Vive le Quebec…” (long live Montreal, long live Quebec) followed by “Vive le Quebec Libre” (long live free Quebec). Separatists were cheered, but federalists and Anglophones were appalled – as was the Canadian government. Prime Minister Lester Pearson, in the waning months of his time in office went on the defensive to suggest that de Gaulle’s comments were not only misguided, but inaccurate in that Quebec, like all of Canada, is and always has been free. In more recent times the flames of separatist fire have waned somewhat, but not without some nervousness during various referendums that have threatened to split the Dominion of Canada. How would the US fare were, say, New York State or the District of Columbia to threaten disenfranchisement from the United States of America? Such an issue, as unthinkable as it is, would succeed in consuming and distracting an entire nation. For Canadians, that threat has been, at times, a reality of our history.
All history is unique, as ours’ is to us. And we can remain proud, respectful and mindful of our unique history. Perhaps a bit shy of sensational, but certainly not boring…

5R: Five Rivers’ senior editor, Robert Runté makes the statement: ‘Publishers have sometimes tried to protect school children and sensitive adults from any hint of controversy or scandal, and to pretend that our story is an unblemished example of rationality and progress.’ Do you feel that’s an accurate summation, and why?

GG: Depending upon the views of the publisher, or the particular audience involved, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to have the positive, feel-good aspects of history expanded and the sorrier, scandalous and embarrassing events minimized. Be that as it may, a true historical snapshot should include all aspects of history without sensationalism, embellishment or contraction. True, an audience too young to understand the bigger picture or without the depth to grasp salient points pro or con, could be spared the starkest description. Beyond that, history has no value unless it is told in its purest form, including the good with the bad. As a nation, we can’t fully appreciate our strengths without knowing our struggles. As individuals, we all have our dark corners and Prime Ministers are no different. For Lester Pearson, there were aspects of his personality and his leadership that were lacking, or less-then-stellar. But he made up for those shortfalls through the unique strengths and skill sets he brought to the PMO. Without knowing his struggles, we could never appreciate his strengths and his overall accomplishments.
Without knowing the darker aspects of our history, we can’t appreciate the whole. A feel-good treatment of history is shallow; we can’t appreciate, or savour our victories without knowing the struggles along the way….

5R: What does it mean for you, as a writer, to undertake writing about the prime ministers you’ve chosen?

GG: For me, Lester Pearson was the first Prime Minister about whom I was aware as a youngster. While I was too young to appreciate the controversy, the thrust and parry that went into the flag debate, I distinctly remember the Maple Leaf flag arriving with great flourish into my Grade 5 classroom in 1965. I also remember, as a ten-year-old and an attendee at Expo ’67, Prime Minister Pearson’s profile in association with the event.

Later in life, settling in Peterborough, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Lester Pearson had spent part of his youth in this city. Thus, when the opportunity arose to write about a Prime Minister and Pearson was available, I naturally chose him as a subject.

5R: Were there surprises for you during your research?

There were many surprises about Pearson. First, for someone who was a bit, shall we say, ‘nerdy’ with his preference for bow ties, his high voice and his lisp – and indeed, he was a lifelong academic – I was surprised to learn just how athletic he was. He inherited a love for sports from his father and paternal grandfather – a love that he used to his advantage as a young man in the ability to offset any notion that all Pearson was about, was academia. Thus, sports served as good balance, and he did it all – baseball, hockey, lacrosse, rugby and football. He would remain a lifelong sports fan and one of the first things he did when he arrived in Ottawa was to have a television installed in his office so he could follow the scores.
Pearson was also a man with great pride in his work and his country, but was devoid of ego in any other sense. He also hated politics. Serving his government was an honor, but what he disliked was the thrust and parry of politicking. He disliked it, and had no patience for it. On more than one occasion he thought of getting out, but carried on by virtue of the Oxford credo of public government service as a gentleman’s highest calling. And so, while he loathed campaigning, he campaigned hard – often twice in one year, when elections were close together. The Liberals leaned on him heavily.

It is interesting to note that Pearson gained his most satisfaction from the work, and his most satisfying pursuits were those as a high official in External Affairs (rising to the highest position in External), together with his work as a diplomat and ambassador on the international stage. He carried no ambition to be either opposition leader, party leader or for that matter, Prime Minister. Rather, he was asked by others to serve – considered his potions carefully and in the end moved forward, albeit uncomfortably.

It is also interesting to note that his Liberal government achieved a sizeable portfolio of important legislation, including the introduction of the Canada Pension Plan, universal Medicare, the student loan program, the official adoption of ‘O Canada’ as our national anthem, the creation and introduction of the new Canadian flag (his proudest achievement), and shepherding Expo ’67 into reality.

And yet he did all that, with two successive minority governments.

Lester Pearson was a statement in contrasts. He was known and respected the world over as an international leader, yet he didn’t see himself as one. Pearson was an everyman, devoid of flash. His performance on television, a medium he disliked and didn’t understand, paled to that of skilled performers such as John Diefenbaker. He and his wife Maryon were also very frugal, preferring a rented farmhouse on Augusta Street to the tonier accommodations of Rockcliffe in Ottawa, where his colleagues lived. He only moved out of necessity when he became Opposition leader and later, Prime Minister. The houses came with the job, but his heart remained with more frugal surroundings.

Pearson was a man who flew thousands of miles per year and yet didn’t fly well. He performed his best work behind the scenes and thus, was not nearly as well-known at home as he was on the world stage. He was the proverbial guy next door – down to earth, humble, honest and truthful to a fault and expected others to be straight with him. Pearson was likeable and well-liked – not for his stature, or his accomplishments, but rather for whom he was: a truly nice fellow, who was selfless, knew the value of hard work and worked harder than men half his age.

5R: Your most memorable anecdote from the PMs?

GG: Pearson was not above taking advantage of a situation, so long as it made sense and didn’t inconvenience anyone else. To that end, as a young enlisted man sailing to Salonica, the stiff cots in the sleeping quarters were hardly comfortable. In scouting around for an alternative, he noted the ship’s barber’s chair, padded and quite comfortable, that stood empty in the dark at night. Pearson made arrangements with the ship’s barber to allow him to recline in the barber’s chair overnight, when it wasn’t being used.
Another favourite anecdote is demonstrative of Pearson’s focus on the task at hand, rather than his own image. Beyond his preference for bow ties and, of course, carrying himself appropriately and respectful of the office, he held himself with little importance. Perhaps this is why, when he stood to face a raucous gathering of Legion members in Winnipeg in an attempt to sell the idea of a new Canadian flag to replace the Red Ensign, he faced his audience and the nation with an inspired speech, and the biggest cowlick emerging from the back of his head one has ever seen. Perhaps he was oblivious to it. Or perhaps he just didn’t care. Perhaps other men would have ensured, once the fedora had been dispatched, that running the hand across, and down the crown of one’s head would ensure there was sufficient hair cream in place to hold everything together. As it was, the other men at the dais and seated in the audience had nary a hair out of place. And yet the Prime Minister of Canada was unable, or unaware of a cowlick that really needed to be tamed.

A similar incident occurred in Oslo when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Dressed in a tie, topcoat and tails, the first Canadian to be awarded the prestigious honour stood facing the world with a shock of just beginning to hang perilously across his right temple.

In no way, however, did this take anything away from his achievements, or the high regard in which he was held. If anything, the hair fails made him all that more endearing...

Friday, 17 April 2015

Nowick Gray discusses literature and cultural clash at WarpWorld

Nowick Gray, author of the quintessentially Northern mystery, Hunter's Daughter, discusses literature and cultural clash at WarpWorld. Full article below:

Most stories, fiction or non-fiction, contain some kind of conflict–cultural or otherwise–but what about the actual medium itself? Author Nowick Gray considers the culture clash between corporate media and literature and what that means to society.

Book With KeyHunter's Daughter by Nowick GrayIn my recently published novel of the Arctic, Hunter’s Daughter (Five Rivers, 2015) the very basis of the plot, themes and character development is the clash of cultures. The era depicted (1964) is one of Inuit transition from traditional life on the land into settlements; and the story’s tension is driven by pressure from the bureaucracy of the South to conclude justice on its terms. While the clash of cultures is at the forefront in such a story, I want to delve further here into a more radical perspective of cultural confrontation between literature and mainstream society.
As editor of the online Alternative Culture Magazine, I once argued that literature, in a way, by definition is “alternative.” That is, it is designed to get the reader to think and/or feel deeply, to access unconscious associations and versions of reality, different species of truth. If not in direct contradiction to the stories peddled to us as fact by the mainstream news, at least creative narratives offer alternative perspectives.
In an age where, by virtue of the so-called alternative news channels on the Internet, we come to know, for a fact, that major news outlets are owned by a half-dozen corporate entities, and that for decades now these newspapers, magazines, networks and movie studios have been infiltrated and imposed upon to offer versions of important stories that are vetted or created by the CIA (in the US, at least) to conform to the operative script for so-called national security. Such collusion is also well documented in the case of the BBC. Even such supposedly liberal papers as The New York Times or the Guardian have to satisfy their megacorporate advertisers. (I haven’t done my homework on Canadian media control and influence but it surely plays in the same league, if not in the same ballpark.) The point here is that there are two cultures warring for control of our minds: mass media programming, and the one-on-one experience of the writer and reader.
In the shallow world of popular commercial media (call it fiction), the plots are linear, horizontal, ephemeral, chaotic. Contrast the world of the literate novel or creative nonfiction, where the effect is more of depth psychology, of archetypes and synchronicities, of resonance and innuendo. Where there is nothing claimed outright in bald, bold terms (like advertising or the latest headlines of violence), there is no point in counter-claim and disputation; the work stands alone, interpenetrating the felt (and thus uncontested) experience of the reader. Evidence accumulates through the texted encounter; and unlike at a court proceeding, the verdict here need not be unanimous, nor handed down by any judge, nor by a committee of one’s peers, nor even conclusive to a single simple outcome. The experience gestates as a whole, generating further truths percolating through the reader’s consciousness over time. The associations are not tied to chains of corroboration; they link as our brains discover. Meanings surface not as polls of policy debate, but as the weight of a breath, the knowing of action at the next opportunity.
This largely hidden clash of cultures surfaces when the worldly empire of ideas feels so threatened by the revolution of experienced truth, that it feels it must burn books, or censor them, imprison its writers and threaten their publishers. Otherwise, in a freer society where at least we can choose our sources of information and entertainment, it is our own choice and responsibility, which culture to be a part of. Will we parrot the news and opinions piped into the ears of millions wholesale by CBC or CBS, eat and regurgitate like fast food, empty calories—or browse selectively, read thoughtfully, question the authority and agenda of the writer and producer, and digest in harmony with our own internal ecosystem of moral enzymes; trusting our own sensors of taste, reserving our own judgment of quality?
The foregoing polemic notwithstanding, it’s a tricky business to confront the dominant culture head on, even at the height of one’s creative powers. Satire, of course, is an effective weapon/tool (witness Jonathan Swift, Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe, Don DeLillo, Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, to name a few). Or, one can back away from the fray in a more ironic, purportedly self-effacing fashion: I’m thinking of the latest novel by British writer Tom McCarthy, Satin Island:
It’s not my intention, here, to write about the Koob-Sassen Project: to give an exegesis, overview, or whatever, of it. There are legal reasons for this:…stipulations protecting commercial, governmental and the level that comes one above that confidentiality; interdictions on virtually all types of disclosure. And anyhow, even if there weren’t, would you actually want to hear about it? It is, it strikes me, in the general scale of things, a pretty boring subject. Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important. It will have had direct effects on you; in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it was secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring. And complex….Perhaps all projects nowadays are like that—equally boring, equally inscrutable….would this, in any way, illuminate the Whole? I doubt it. (2.1)
Yet here is the genius of art—that by skirting an issue which invariably is boring or disempowering when tackled head on, and couching it just so—in the sensibility of a real or fictional narrator, a human guide with a heart we can feel close to our own—it becomes appreciated, integrated, understood. In the reading experience we make that transition from the culture described, to the culture of the describer, the witness. And the larger truth we thus perceive sets us free.
author Nowick GrayNowick Gray has published a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction, most recently the mystery novel Hunter’s Daughter(Five Rivers, 2015). Much of Nowick’s writing draws from his two decades homesteading in the interior mountains of British Columbia. Other adventures include teaching for three years in Quebec Inuit villages, and indulging a lasting passion for West African drumming. Nowick currently works as a freelance copy editor and makes his home in Victoria, BC, with winter travels in warmer locations. Connect with Nowick via his website,, or via Twitter or Facebook.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The PM Series Interviews: Dorothy Pedersen

We asked the same five questions of the authors of the Prime Minister of Canada series.

Here's what Dorothy Pedersen had to say.

5R: There are those who persist in saying Canadian history is boring. Having undertaken to write part of that history, how would you respond to that assertion?

DP: Canadian history, as it was delivered in the school system, WAS boring. We never learned about life as it was then, the stories behind the stories, or what made our leaders tick. Travelling through the evolution of significant events brings those events to life and makes them much more understandable and memorable. Recognizing the different thought processes of the time, and what influenced those thoughts from early childhood, adds colour to a drab picture. And then, when we can feel the hardships and pleasures of our early people, it gives us a sense of unity with our history. Boring? Not at all.

5R: Five Rivers’ senior editor, Robert Runté makes the statement: ‘Publishers have sometimes tried to protect school children and sensitive adults from any hint of controversy or scandal, and to pretend that our story is an unblemished example of rationality and progress.’ Do you feel that’s an accurate summation, and why?

DP: I agree with Runté. However, I believe that publishers have done this with in collaboration with the government. How incredibly boring – and untrue – is the story of a nation without controversy or scandal. We've had our share of unscrupulous and disgusting leaders. To paint them as honourable is downright dishonest. Our “unblemished image” is pure propaganda, and needs to be seen as such. Canada has plenty to be ashamed of and part of being patriotic is acknowledging our mistakes, our scoundrels, and our shame, and being able to reconcile those with decisions that are made today and the people we chose to make them.

Some of the best progress Canada has made has been in the face of controversy. Look at how the national identity, and our international identity, was affected by the controversies that took place during WWI. During boardroom battles with the leaders of other nations, those leaders were forced to show respect to Canadian soldiers – respect that they were, until those battles took place – willing to forego. And who fought those battles on behalf of Canadian soldiers? Well, that's what history is all about, isn't it? You've got to learn your history to know the answers. How exciting is THAT?

5R: What does it mean for you, as a writer, to undertake writing about the prime ministers you’ve chosen?

DP: It started out as an undertaking in curiosity. It has become an honour to write about them. But the more I research and write, the greater the honour, the more humble I become, and the more important it seems to let readers know about little known facts, to give them as complete a picture as I can create, and to help them derive the understanding that I've developed as a result of the research. It is frustrating when there is little information on PM's. There seems to be such an incredible void in these instances that the challenge to convey pertinent information is overwhelming at times. Overall, I've been developing a deep appreciation for our history, one that I never had before. I want, very much, to convey my enthusiasm to the reader, in hopes that it will be infectious.

5R: Were there surprises for you during your research?

DP: Oh yes! The underhanded dealings, the people who were willing to exploit the nation for personal gain, the character flaws in men of power. They're all in there, contrary to what we learned in school. We missed so much.

5R: Your most memorable anecdote from the PMs?

DP: I suspect that the answer to this question is yet to come. (Pedersen has not yet finished writing all the books assigned to her.)

5R: Of course, anything else you should wish to add is welcome.

DP: As I learn more, I want to learn more still. But alas, so little time, and sometimes, so little information other than the same small details repeated over and over. Know this: Our former PM's still have a great deal to share with us, and their stories are better than 80% of the content that appears on television today, and unlike computer games, their stories are real. These historical stories are filled with emotion, drama, and intrigue. They're well worth reading about.

Dorothy Pedersen is writing about:

Arthur Meighen
Robert Borden
John Abbott
Mackenzie Bowell
John Turner
Brian Mulroney
Louis St. Laurent