“I always hoped that Canadians would take it as a kind of delicious literary revenge on the US.”
We have just passed the 50th, terrible, anniversary of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, and images of Camelot our fresh in our minds. We are perennially fascinated with the personalities and images of the age: as the American Century morphs from the conventions of the Cold War into New Frontier and then beyond. It has me thinking of beguiling new novel that paints the period an entirely new way.
What if there has been an innocuous Canadian spy at the heart of the great events who was covertly titling the balance of history? What would his story look like? The American writer and publisher, Peter Warner, answers that question in his new novel; The Mole: The Cold War Memoir of Winston Bates.
Peter kindly consented to an email exchange over the last few months. Here are some highlights.
JAMIE: I loved The Mole. One of the smartest books I have read in a long time. The texture of Washington seeps through every page and the dyspeptic and very funny pace at how great events unfold struck me as entirely believable. Winston Bates is the classic anti-hero. He’s sad, but not really—Forest Gump meets George Orwell meets The Hundred Year Old Man Who Fell Out of the Window. Is this a sly joke about Canada?
PETER: I really never envisioned Canada as the butt of the joke. One of the jokes is surely about a kind of American negligence, in which Canada is taken so for granted, not really thought of as a foreign country, that it could never be imagined Canada would spy on the US or that Winston is a Canadian mole. But I didn't see this as a joke about Canada. A Canadian mole at the heart of the US manages to turn the so-called American Century into a series of mishaps. I always hoped that Canadians would take it as a kind of delicious literary revenge on the US.
In light of the NSA scandal, could you have imagined the Canadian government bugging the President’s telephone, or would that be too wild even for fiction?
Peter: Yes, I can imagine Canada listening on the US president's phone calls. My guess is that it would be opportunistic rather than a large scale project like the NSA, especially since Canada, as part of the Five Eyes, seems a little implicated the NSA's large scale surveillance, if not the direct spying on world leaders. And I think it would be done with great trepidation, but if opportunity and necessity collided, yes. As for the idea that it is far-fetched to think of close allies spying on each other I have a two word reply: Jonathan Pollard. He’s the American intelligence analyst, who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987.
The Suez Crisis and the Cold War are distant memory for many people, were you concerned that readers wouldn’t relate to the events in the book?
I take your point about Suez being a distant memory for some people but I don't think this is too different from any historical novel about distant events. My job is to make it plausible and give it a believable context. Also I am frequently and happily surprised at how much the Cold War is still part of the conversation, what with Russian moles living in the suburbs of New Jersey and Snowden reviving Russian/US tensions and even movies like Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy getting wide acclaim.
Have you read Charles Ritchie’s diaries? I kept thinking about his account of being Canadian ambassador during the days of JFK’s Camelot. In his first volume, he says that Canadians love to feel quietly superior to our American cousins (so brash, vulgar and successful!), yet we become very protective of our American cousins whenever any other country mocks the United States. I think his observation goes some way to explaining the dynamic of the Canada and the US, and your book sits on the fault line.
I did read in the Ritchie diaries, as well as several other memoirs by distinguished members of External Affairs. (And then there was that memoir by Sondra Gotlieb, Wife of…,the sort of thing novelists love because it makes diplomacy seem so personal.)
A ‘real life’ Winston Bates—a Canadian who infiltrated the US government—doesn't immediately come to mind. Was there a reason the mole is from Canada?
I came up with the idea partly because I was thinking about the kind of person who could hide in plain sight. And that leads to one of the essential themes of the book, which is identity. Winston is someone whose major rubrics of identity are all a little compromised: he is half Jewish, half-Canadian (or half-American), his sexual identity is also ambiguous (at least to other people).
Also, I am of that generation of American men for whom Canada was a potential refuge from the draft during the Vietnam War. I have occasionally reflected on the fact that if I hadn't belatedly lucked out on the draft, I might be a Canadian. My own personal experience in Canada is not extensive, just 25 years of going a couple of times a year to sales conferences. But I always found the Canadian sense of irony attractive, both about Canada's own identity but also about Canada's relationship with the large, often oblivious, always impending entity to the south.
What are you working on now? Will you be returning to this fictional territory in the future?
I have been doing some research about the amazing collection of cultural figures, mostly refugees from the war, who gathered in Los Angeles in the 1940s—Thomas Mann, Stravinsky, Brecht, Jean Renoir, Bunuel, Dali among many others. I am thinking of some sort of comic but noirish fiction about their awkward encounters with their strange New World. But a couple of readers of The Mole have asked if I have a sequel in mind. I didn’t when I finished writing the book, yet the way it ends does seem to suggest that Winston could go on to wreck havoc in the 80s and 90s….
Thank You, Peter.
PICTURING TRANSFORMATION: NEXW-ÁYANTSUT
Nancy Bleck, Katherine Dodds and Chief Bill Williams
Thursday November 21, 2013 at 5:00pm
Charles H. Scott Gallery
Emily Carr University of Art + Design
1399 Johnston Street
Please join us in a traditional Coast Salish Utsám’ Witness ceremony and for the launch of Picturing Transformation: Nexw-áyantsut at READ Books. Cultural speakers, honourary guests and authors will be present.
Picturing Transformation: Nexw-áyantsut tells the remarkable story of how a First Nations chief, an artist and a mountaineer evolved a new form of environmental and cultural activism, and saved 50,000 hectares of forest in the process.
Utsám’ Witness, was a series of camping weekends held in Nexw-áyantsut (meaning place of transformation in the Squamish language) that brought together Coast Salish peoples and settlers to walk, sleep, eat, make art, have conversations and participate in ceremonies on this disputed territory. Combining the haunting words of Utsám’ Witness participants with exquisite photographs of the land and those who have visited it through the past two decades, this book pays homage to the powerful role that people with strong vision and a common purpose can play in honouring tradition, safeguarding land and changing policy. It’s both a visual testament to the power of collaboration and a lesson in the possibilities for resolving conflict peacefully, now and in the future.
Picturing Transformation: Nexw-áyantsut is published by Figure 1 Publishing
For more information please contact READ at readbooks [@] ecuad.ca
On Friday October 25, author Aleksandar Hemon will be reading along side authors Kelly Braffet, Sam Lipsyte and Grażyna Plebanek in the Brigantine Room. The event begins at 8pm. Tickets are $18.
Then, on Saturday October 26 at 1pm, Hemon will be discussing his accalimed memoir The Book of My Lives with CBC Radio Writers and Company host Eleanor Wachtel in the Fleck Dance Theatre. Tickets are $18.
And on Saturday October 26, Lipsyte will be joining authors Janet E. Cameron, Lewis DeSoto, and Nicole Lundrigan for a reading at the Station on the Green in Creemore, Ontario. The event, a partnership with Curiosity House Books & Gallery, starts 7pm.
Lipsyte will be back in Toronto on Saturday afternoon for a round table with authors Nadeem Aslam, Jami Attenberg, and Peter Bagge in the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront. The discussion, hosted and moderated by Siri Agrell, begins at 12pm. Tickets are $18.
Immediately after Saturday's round table with Sam Lipsyte, Harvey Award-winning author and illustrator Peter Bagge will be in conversation with fellow cartoonist Seth and CBC radio's Brent Bambury at 2pm in the Studio Dance Theatre. Tickets are $18.
Bagge will be discussing his new book Woman Rebel, his biography of trailblazing activist Margaret Sanger, recently published by Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly.
Last, but not least, author and literary editor Amy Grace Loyd will be discussing her acclaimed debut novel The Affairs of Others with Margaret Atwood in the Studio Theatre on Wednesday October 30th at 8pm.
Latest year, Loyd interviewed Atwood in New York for PEN America'a Dialogue Series. You can watch a video of that conversation here.
Tickets to next week's event at Harbourfront are $18.
The Vancouver Writers Fest starts today and Raincoast has FOUR authors attending this year.
Annie Barrows, beloved author of the fabulously successful Ivy + Bean books, will be introducing the latest installment in the series, Ivy + Bean Take the Case, on Thursday October 24 at Performance Works, between 10am and 11am.
Tickets for the event, suitable for grades 1-4, are $17 or $8.50 for school groups.
For one night only, author and New Yorker staff writer George Packer will be talking about his critically acclaimed new book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.
Described by the New York Times as "something close to a nonfiction masterpiece," The Unwinding is surely one of the 'must-read' books of 2013. Packer's sole Canadian appearance this year is not to be missed.
The event starts at 8pm on Thursday October 24th at the Frederic Wood Theatre, UBC. Tickets are $19.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet Paul Muldoon—whose most recent collection of poem is called The Word on the Street—is involved in a number of events during the festival.
On Friday, October 25, he will be taking part in Found in Translation, a panel with translator Susanna Basso and author/translator Wayne Grady in Studio 1398. The event starts at 1:00pm, and tickets are $17.
On Saturday October 26, Paul will be in conversation with John Freeman in the Waterfront Theatre. The event starts at 2pm, and tickets are $17.
Later on that evening, Muldoon will be joining Anne Carson, Brad Cran, Michael Crummey, Mathew Henderson, and Anne Michaels for the sold-out Poetry Bash, starting at 8pm at Performance Works.
In addition to his conversation with Paul Muldoon on Saturday, writer and critic John Freeman will be discussing his illuminating new book, How to Read a Novelist, with festival director Hal Wake on Sunday, October 27 at the Improv Centre.
The one-time president of the National Book Critics Circle, and the former editor of Granta, Freeman has reviewed thousands of books and interviewed scores of writers. In How to Read a Novelist, he pulls together his best profiles, and shares what he's learned.
The event begins at 2:00pm, and tickets are $17.
One of favourite new books of the last 12 months, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time by Jeff Speck, is out in paperback next month.
In the book, Speck, who is a designer and an urban planner, discusses not only why walking is good for us, but how we can make changes to cities so that we can walk more and live better. Although the book is ostensibly about American cities (it's right there in the subtitle!) and Canadian cities like Vancouver come out of the book looking pretty good by comparison — there are still lots of lessons for us north of the border, not least here in Toronto.
The paperback edition of Walkable City is published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and is on sale November 12.
Paul Pope's long-awaited graphic novel Battling Boy is finally released next week, and the award-winning American comic book artist will be in Toronto to launch the book with The Beguiling on the evening October 15th!
"A straight-up, kick-butt superhero book for kids and grown-ups alike," Battling Boy is the story of an untested hero charged with defending a city infested with monsters. The first of two hotly anticipated volumes, it's already the subject of much excitement in the comics world.
Starting at 7:00pm at the Revival Night Club, Pope — whose previous work includes the acclaimed 100%, Heavy Liquid, and Batman Year 100 — will be on stage to talk about his new work, before taking questions from the audience and signing copies of the book.
Join us if you can!
BATTLING BOY BOOK LAUNCH
Featuring author Paul Pope
@ Revival, 783 College Street, Toronto
Tuesday, October 15th, 2013
Doors at 7PM. Event starts at 7:30pm
I may have told you this before, but I first met Louise Penny in an elevator. It was in a hotel during the author's festival, and she graciously held the door for me as I was rushing to meet one of Raincoast's authors.
It was, I'm sure, my first year here and she didn't know me from Adam. It didn't stop her, however, from introducing herself and her husband Michael, and chattingly merrily all the way down to the lobby.
That chance meeting proved fortuitous the following year when I needed an endorsement for a book Raincoast was publishing. The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale was the true story of a Victorian murder investigation, and even though I'd only met her the once, Louise seemed a perfect reader. Politely pretending to remember who I was, she kindly obliged and blurbed the hell out of it.
It felt like strange serendipity then, when I found out a couple of years ago that Raincoast was going to be Louise's Canadian distributor, and I was going to be assigned to her and the seventh Chief Inspector Gamache novel A Trick of the Light.
We all felt a certain weight of responsibility when the book came out I'm sure—we all wanted it to do so well for Louise who had been so patient for success—but I think I felt it particularly keenly. I was pretty sure I owed her.
Fortunately the book was a great success, although it was a nail-biting few weeks. And the next book, The Beautiful Mystery, did even better.
Now, two years later, I'm no longer Louise's publicist but it still fills me great pleasure to see her new book, How the Light Gets In, debut at #1 this week on the New York Times Hardcover Fiction bestseller list and #1 on the Bookmanager Hardcover Fiction list. With a sell-out event at the Toronto Public Library on September 17th, I couldn't be happier for her. And only MaddAddam has kept Louise off the #1 spot on Globe and Mail Fiction list this week, and I can't begrudge Margaret Atwood that too much—she used buy books from my store, and kindly tell me what to read. I don't suppose she remembers though...
“Places are marked by what happened there. Sometimes they are cursed by bad luck, sometimes they become sacred, but either way they are marked.”—The Forgetting Tree
When Claire Nagy marries Forster Baumsarg, heir to a prominent Southern Californian citrus ranch, she leaves behind her urban, intellectual lifestyle for one fraught with hard work and uncertainty. Slowly, and at first reluctantly, she develops a bond with the land that is to become her home, embracing it as an undeniable part of her existence.
When Claire's young son is kidnapped and murdered, her family is torn apart. Forster and her daughters flee, yet Claire finds herself all the more rooted to the land.
Fifteen years pass, and Claire is diagnosed with breast cancer. She is forced to either sell the ranch or accept the help of a stranger; Minna, a moody and enigmatic Caribbean woman, becomes her caretaker. At first, Minna is empathetic, tender, and plays an integral role in Claire’s healing, but her care is fickle, at times borders on abusive, and is tied to the ‘voudou’ of her native land. Despite her family’s warnings and her own apprehension, Claire upholds her faith in Minna in the hope that she holds the key to Claire's survival – of both cancer and the death of her son.
The Forgetting Tree explores not only the unique and intricate intimacies built between individuals of different cultural backgrounds, but also the inextricable connection of land and place to memory, healing, and ultimately the decision to forgive and let go. It is elegantly written, rich in imagery and meaning, and impossible to read without sharing.
Read an Excerpt
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When the badly beaten body of a young journalist is found in the canal, Dublin pathologist Quirke and his sometime partner Inspector Hackett find the investigation into his death obstructed Roman Catholic priest and a notorious, tight-lipped 'tinker' called Packie Joyce.
As with all the Quirke novels, the joy of Holy Orders, is not in the plot (the whodunit is almost beside the point), but in the stylish prose and vivid characterization of the gloomy, slowly disintegrating Quirke and his world—the rainy streets, smoky pubs, and dark apartments of Dublin in the 1950s.
There is an appropriately noirish tone to all Black's writing (the pen name is surely not a coincidence). The Dublin of the novel is secretive and claustrophobic, and the loneliness, fear, and impending violence that haunt Holy Orders comes to head an uncompromising, but satisfying ending that will leave readers anxious for the next book.
Crime fiction fans should be delighted that Black has penned a new Philip Marlowe story, The Black-Eyed Blonde, to be published in 2014.
Robert Charles Wilson (The Chronoliths, Darwinia, Spin, Vortex) and Karl Schroeder (the Virga series) will be in conversation at 5:30pm, Thursday August 22nd, at the Direct Energy Centre in Toronto as part of IFOA at the EX.
The two acclaimed Canadian authors will be discussing “Science and Fiction: The Craft of Creating Other Worlds” with moderator Bert Archer. More details and ticket information are available on the Authors at Harbourfront website.