My first literary discovery of the 2015 was the novel The Orphan Sky published by Sourcebooks. This beautiful novel filled with music and folk tales tells the story of a young piano prodigy stuck in the realities of Soviet country.
What does it mean to live in one of the Soviet Republics, being torn between official propaganda and traditional believes? How does that feel to be raised as a devoted young pioneer not having access to the world outside of regime? Where does the freedom live—inside or outside the human soul?
An exceptionally talented musician, singer and composer Ella Leya is trying to find the answers to these and many other difficult questions in her debut novel. This partially autobiographical book is about passion and love, truth and lies, about loss and pain.
Ella Leya kindly agreed to answer my questions about her book, music and her childhood in the remote Azerbaijan.
Dear Ella, congratulations on your first published book and fantastic literary debut. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.
You are a professional musician—singer, composer and performer. You have released more than ten highly successful CDs. How did you come to writing a book? What moved you, what inspired you to write a novel?
The pain of loss. At first, I escaped into music and poetry, completing, arranging, and recording the songs my son and I had written during those endless nights in the hospitals. But the music process is illusive and impulsive. I needed a stronger drug—something more cerebral—that would get me away from my reality and force me to relive my past, again and again, amending it, searching for answers.
"Music seemed to flow out of the painting. Piano arpeggios in scarlet layers. Violin pizzicatos in gold and silver brushstrokes. A dark D minor progression of chords sweeping by, trailed by a velvety soft harmony in white. Flutes spilling nostalgic blues and violets into the ever-changing palette of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto no 3."—this is a quote from the first chapter of your novel The Orphan Sky. When I started reading the book, this incredibly poetic language, these wonderful metaphors immediately caught my attention. It seemed to me you were able to see people, their feelings—all the world around you through music. Is this true?
I caught a bug of poetic metaphors from my beloved Russian poets from the beginning of the twentieth century—Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilev, Osip Mandelstam. Their poetry of passions and senses, expressed through the imagery of nature, has taught me to see and hear the world through Renoir’s palette of harmony and Caravaggio’s orderly dissonance, through Chopin’s nostalgia and Rachmaninoff’s fatalism, through a contagious pulse of Azerbaijani mugham and a bewitching spontaneity of Lady Day.
How long did it take you to write the novel? Did you have to rewrite the whole pages before moving on? Can you please describe the process of working on the novel?
Three and a half years. I had to write and rewrite down to every word before moving on, then go back and do it over and over again. I was writing the book on one breath. Knowing how capricious and fickle a muse can be, I was afraid to let her slip away. Hours reserved for work turned into days and months. For me, the creative process is like my favourite chocolate. I can’t stop eating it until it’s all finished.
How did you come up with the title?
The Orphan Sky title is a brainchild of my publisher. My own—original title— was 'Maiden Tower.'
The novel takes place in your home city Baku. There are fantastic descriptions of the city—the reader envisions the old narrow cobblestone streets, beautiful mosaic walls, feels the magic atmosphere of Isheri Sheher—Old Town and smells the odours of "hot and creamy" air. The central role in the book plays the real medieval tower called Maiden Tower and old legends about a princess and her love drown in the Caspian Sea. You also mention Gargoyle Castle, Villa Annelise, Gevharaga Mosque, Taza Bazaar. Are these all real historical places in Baku?
All these places are intimately linked with the history of Baku, but some of them are real only in my imagination. Villa Annelise is a symbol of Baku’s ‘golden age’—the oil boom at the beginning of the twentieth century—when nouveau riche oil barons turned provincial Baku into a Paris of the East. They built magnificent palaces throughout the city in many architectural styles—classical, baroque, Venetian Gothic, French Rococo, Italian Renaissance. I designed Villa Annelise out of the architectural, artistic, and historical motifs of those palaces. After the revolution, Villa Annelise turns into a Gargoyle Castle, symbolizing the period of communism and oppression. Gevharaga Mosque is the reimagined image of the Blue Mosque that stood next to my childhood home. Taza Bazaar is a replica of Nasimi Bazaar where my mom took me with her on Sundays.
I guess, the name of your leading character, Ella Badalbeili is not just a random name either? Does this name have a story behind?
As a child, my sister had a friend—Badalbeili. The sound of her name seemed so melodious and theatrical. Later on, I learned that the name Badalbeili belonged to the dynasty that had given Azerbaijan many wonderful musicians, among them Afrasiyab Badalbeili. He wrote the first Azerbaijani national ballet 'Maiden Tower.' So the choice of name for my leading character was natural.
The life of your heroine Leila is turned upside down at the moment when she enters the green door and hears the voice of Liza Minnelli, a “voice of dark velvet”. Was there a “green door” in your life, a person or event that had the greatest impact on your future?
My mother, Jane Golik, had the greatest impact on my life choices. A free-spirited artist—a quality she had been hiding all her life behind a strict, uncompromising exterior—she challenged me to strive for the skies and never give up. My mother took me to my first classical piano concert at the Baku Philharmonic Hall, making me fall in love with Chopin. That was my green door to the world of classical music. The “green door” event described in the book is autobiographical. There was a small music shop with the green door that opened across the street from my school. The rumour had it that the owner was a drug dealer, or a sorcerer, or an American spy. Despite the warnings, or maybe because of them, I went into the shop. The charismatic shop owner, a poster of glamorous Liza Minnelli, her voice dripping with my mother’s hidden nostalgia for places faraway and unknown… Well, I was hooked.
I am fascinated by the female characters in the novel. The stories of Leila, Leila’s mother, Aunt Zeinab, Almaz, Professor Sultan-Zade are incredibly powerful. You describe their world as "the kingdom of crooked mirrors". Why are none of these women happy?
How can these extraordinary women be happy in the male-dominated, communist-subjugated society of lies and censorship? They try. Leila’s mother and professor Sultan-zade realize their ambitions by breaking the stigma of the patriarchal culture and becoming successful career women; Aunty Zeinab is a craftswoman who continues a tradition of the ancient Azerbaijani theater; Leila’s best friend Almaz—and her replica Almaz-the-Doll—is a symbol of Azerbaijani female beauty; Leila is a national musical treasure. But they all have to pay for their successes, dreams, ambitions, originality with their broken hearts and tragic destinies.
Although the story is set in late 70s, the realistic main plot magically intertwines with fairy tales and legends of the old Azerbaijan. This makes the novel deep, sophisticated, multidimensional. The characters, their feeling and emotions become almost palpable. How did the traditional Azeri epos influence your soul? Do you think the new millennia kids need to learn these ancient tales?
Of course. And not only kids. The adults would benefit from visiting the world of the ancient tales as well. After all, the literary folklore possesses the same magical powers as music—to penetrate the barriers of cultures, times and accumulated cynicism, and to reach those remote corners of our souls we had lost the connection with. Every legend, myth, fairy tale, proverb is a small treasure chest with the numerous hidden messages of emotional wisdom and humanity. As a child, I always kept a book of fairy tales from around the world under my pillow. In some ways, I continue seeing the reality through the simple but multi-layered truths of the traditional folklore of the East. So I had woven my favorite legends, tales and sayings into the fabric of my book, letting them mirror the storylines of my characters and expand their emotional presence.
The realities of Soviet era—Pioneer and Komsomol organizations, red flags and Lenin monuments everywhere, the ban on religious practices—were deeply rooted in everyday activities and affected people’s life style. How did these two different images of Azerbaijan co-exist in the young mind of your heroine and in your mind?
Both images have become the integral halves of my personality. The exotic, fairy-like soul of ancient Baku turned me into an eternal romantic—musician and poet. The Soviet ideology (a form of the religious extremism) and a subsequent escape and liberation left me with a deep mark of cynicism. Both my heroine Leila and I are destined to live with this dual inheritance, having to choose between the voice of the heart and the need for survival.
Not too many people in the world have heard anything about Azerbaijan. Thank to your novel, from the little spot on the world map, in the middle of nowhere it stands up as a real country, where people live and die, love and suffer. Your novel finds a perfect place on a book shelf along with the best works of writers-immigrants, whose unique background and experience offer the American reader a valuable insightful glimpse into what life is like outside of America. What makes talented people like you, Alexandar Hemon, Khaled Hosseini, Jumpa Lahiri, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Kseniya Melnik to mentally go back in time and space and write about their native land?
Nostalgia for the long gone places, times and people has always been a powerful source of inspiration for the artists. And the gene of nostalgia is quite resilient in us, immigrants, until the second generation. As soon as I arrived in America, I, like a lizard, dropped my past in exchange for new language, culture, and lifestyle so I could adopt and adjust to my new home country as soon as possible. A few years later, I successfully merged into the mainstream, speaking and even thinking in English, being able to communicate my feeling and views. And then I realized how much my American friends and my artistic collaborators were captivated and inspired by my Russian/Azeri humor, music, and culture—something that had never ceased to exist inside me. The immigrants bring their unknown worlds to America. This is their contribution to the society. And we, the artists, are endowed and blessed with the task to introduce our native lands through out art.
You were born and raised in Azerbaijan and immigrated as an adult. How did you like it in US? Was it easy for you to adjust? How do you perceive yourself within American culture now? Is there anything you don’t like and will never be able to accept?
I had begun adjusting to American culture long before I came to the US, learning English language from jazz recording, playing and singing with the Western jazz musicians, entertaining American ambassador in Moscow. So the process of tuning up to America went quickly and smoothly. Less than two months upon our arrival in Virginia, I toured with my own jazz orchestra Selah and taught voice at the university. America is where I belong. America is where I can be myself. Is she perfect? Of course not, but it is still much better than the rest of the world. Well, except for Canada, maybe. One thing I could never get used to in America—deserted streets, no pedestrians, passing cars.
After all these years, are you more American or Azerbaijani ? Is there anything in your Azerbaijani character that you value the most?
I am American now, more so since I’ve been living in London for the last couple of years. But I continue to appreciate the emotional aesthetics of the East. As for my 'Azerbaijani' character, I value the closeness of my family and the sense of loyalty the most.
Do you ever feel nostalgic about your childhood in Soviet Azerbaijan? Did you ever go back there after the Soviet Union fell apart and the ancient country returned on its own historical path?
Working on this book, I had satisfied to some extend the nostalgia for the times and the places of my childhood. I would love to visit my homeland. But as it usually happens with a favorite treat, I’ve been travelling around the world, leaving a visit to Azerbaijan for dessert.
If I ask you to describe your native Azerbaijan in only one sentence, what would that be?
The land of sun and fire at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, East and West, surrounded by the austere Caucasus Mountains and washed by the warm Caspian Sea—an Azeri fairytale of my childhood.
There is some autobiographical detail in the novel, but it’s still a work of fiction. Did you ever think of writing a memoir?
I had finished my memoir before I started working on The Orphan Sky. Will I ever publish it? Time will tell.
I know that this novel was not your first writing experience and that you used to write short stories before. What are they about? Do you plan to publish your stories?
Some of my short stories had found their way into the narrative of The Orphan Sky; others have metamorphosed into the lyrics of my songs. The songs’ titles—‘Irresistible Lies,’ ‘I Don’t Know Why,’ ‘Femme Fatale,’ ‘Touch’n Go Game’—pretty much reveal the themes of those short stories.
Your novel is devoted to your son Sergey. Because of leukaemia, this little soul passed away in the age of nine. "Sergey - your dreams continue... ", says the epigraph. What did your son dream about? Which of his dreams do you still have to accomplish?
My son Sergey dreamed of being alive and being creative. The Orphan Sky, all our music, the future books—it is all Sergey; I only push the keys.
I wouldn't have had the pleasure to meet you if not your book. And still, first of all you are a musician. It wouldn't be right if I wouldn't ask you about music. What is music for you?
My profession and leisure. Language of communication with interesting creative people. Music is a divine gift that takes me beyond human understanding and allows me to be alone with myself without being lonely.
Your music is a magical blend, an intoxicating cocktail of melodies of your Azerbaijani soul, European classical music and American jazz. It's a very unique combination. Do you think your music is niche, elitist or you believe everyone is able to appreciate it? What is your audience?
Once upon a time in my youth I prided myself with the fact that my music was complicated, intellectual and appealed to an elite, niche audience. Now I think differently. Good, sincere music has the capability to bypass any intellect and strike into the heart of a listener. So my goal in creating music is to stay true to my own instincts rather than to tailor it to the taste of the audience.
What’s your favourite piece of music of all time? Which musical composition astounded you, shocked you, and had the greatest impact on you? What kind of music do you listen to when you are upset? When you are happy?
Sad or happy, I don’t listen to music. I play it. And sing. Billie Holiday’s 'Body and Soul,' Nina Simon’s 'Strange Fruit,' Ballade #1 by Chopin, Sonata Pathetique by Beethoven, Piano Concerto #20 by Mozart, Piano Concerto # 3 by Rachmaninoff. This is the soundtrack of my book. These are the pieces that continue to amaze, shock and inspire me.
How do you spend your time when you’re not writing books or composing music?
I walk the streets of London for hours; hang out at my favourite Wallace Collection surrounded by art; attend ballet performances; go to the movies; visit Paris on Wednesdays; cook for my family… do all those normal things that all normal people do.
Ella, I appreciate this opportunity to talk to you. Thank you for your time. I wish lots of success for you and for your book.
I want to provide perspective to kids and to the whole world that if I can choose to forgive Adam, then you can certainly look into your own life and choose to forgive.
On December 14, 2012, Scarlett Lewis lost her six year old son Jesse at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Following Jesse's death, Scarlett went on an unexpected journey, inspired by a simple three-word message her son had scrawled on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before he died: ‘Norurting Helin Love’ (Nurturing Healing Love).
Even in her unimaginable grief, Scarlett drew courage from Jesse’s words and came to understand the power of forgiveness, even for Adam Lanza, the man who killed her son. Scarlett founded the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to develop programs to teach children about the power each of us has to change our thoughts and choose a life without fear and hate. She also now works with the Seeds of Empathy program, which is well known in Canadian schools.
On the day of the massacre, everyone had the same two questions: How could something like this happen? What can we do to keep it from happening again?
In an extended interview last week by telephone, Scarlett answered these essential questions and more.
It's been incredibly difficult nearing the anniversary, but being able to talk to people because they actually care—I've seen and felt the compassion from day one—is an amazing gift.
Jamie: First of all, I just wanted to say all of our hearts and prayers go out to you and to the other families of Sandy Hook. The events of last year are still so vivid in our minds. I wanted to offer our condolences.
Scarlett: Thank you. I very much appreciate that.
Jamie: I was wondering if this attention around the anniversary causes you more pain, or do you actually find solace in the fact that the world will be focusing on it?
Scarlett: December 14th was the third worst mass shooting in America's history, but it was actually the greatest day of compassion that the world has ever seen, in my eyes. And that's true authentic compassion, which is when someone feels someone's pain, empathizes with someone. The world came together to support us, and I can say that because I was the recipient of that compassion. I started the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation to keep that momentum going.
It's been incredibly difficult nearing the anniversary, but being able to talk to people because they actually care—I've seen and felt the compassion from day one—is an amazing gift and I want to spread Jesse's message of nurturing, healing, love, so I appreciate any opportunity that I get.
Jamie: I think one of the most powerful moments in book is actually your description about survivors of the genocide in Rwanda reaching out to you.
Scarlett: It was a profoundly life changing experience to have someone from another country, another culture, reach out to express their condolences. Their message was so incredibly powerful because we weren't in touch personally with anyone who really understood what we were going through, except for the other families, and early on we weren't really in touch with them. For someone who had suffered something similar, actually even greater, to take the time and effort to reach out to us was a huge gift, and it was life changing. I mean, that really started our healing process.
Jamie: I was thinking about your own faith and something that Dr. Laura Asher writes in the book: "Grieving is a sacred act, you must respect it and treat it as such." Are there ways to deepen the sacred aspect of grieving as a culture? Are there things that you've learned that you could pass on to our readers?
Scarlett: Well first of all, we don't acknowledge death and dying in our culture. I mean it happens, but we don’t talk about it unless it happens. We don’t teach anything about it in school; we don't prepare ourselves in any way for death and dying. And of course everyone is going to die and it's a natural part of life. There's so much shrouded mystery around it, and it's really not a mysterious thing. I really think that it would be helpful if we talked about it. But it's difficult. Loss of any kind is difficult.
I do believe that grieving is sacred. It's a time when personally I felt very close to Jesse. Of course I wanted his physical body here with me, but I did feel very close spiritually to him. I had to work on my trauma before I could actually grieve. And even the fact that Dr. Laura framed it like that to me—you know, “grieving is a sacred act”—her just setting out that intention, and me being open minded, just being bewildered and not having any expectation of what it would be like, I accepted what she said and it became a sacred act for me. And of course when you don't think that there is an end to your spirit and you believe that your spirit goes on—that you will be reunited at one point with your loved one—that is definitely a comforting feeling.
I feel so connected with the world because I know that they are grieving with me. I know that because countless people have told me in the most beautiful ways. They're mourning with me.
Jamie: One of the things that touched me was how generous you were with family pictures in the book—the image of Jesse in the bathtub will speak to the heart of anyone who has a six-year-old boy. Like when you talk about his scent and keeping his clothes close to you, the photos allow us to enter a little bit into your grieving process.
Scarlett: Well you know, I feel so connected with the world because I know that they are grieving with me. I know that because countless people have told me in the most beautiful ways. They're mourning with me. They're supporting, they're sending their love and they've created these beautiful handmade gifts.
I wanted to give them insight into his life—to offer them a glimpse of this beautiful, precious young boy… to offer a glimpse into his life. I wanted them to know him, because they're grieving him but they never had the pleasure of knowing him. I wanted to give the reader that as well.
Jamie: You’ve said you ask yourself the same two questions that everyone asked that day: "How could something like this have happened?" And "what can I do to keep it from happening again?"
Scarlett: Some parents thought that it was guns. I personally saw the situation and thought that the whole tragedy started at some point with an angry thought in Adam Lanza's head. I pictured him as a young boy with an angry thought at some point, and I pictured him kind of stewing in this anger because he didn't have the tools nor the nurturing environment to be able to handle this emotion—which is totally normal when you have the tools to deal with it, but he didn't. And so at some point he tried to get relief from this horrible feeling of anger by blaming someone else. He blamed his parents, he blamed his classmates, he blamed his brother, he blamed someone. And when he did that, he became a victim. When he blamed somebody else for what he was feeling, he gave away all of his personal power—he's a victim and powerless to change his situation. Prolonged victimization leads to rage, and rage creates these acts of violence.
On December 14th the world came together in the greatest show of compassion in my mind that mankind has ever known.
I've gone in recently and talked to schools about forgiveness, and kids raise their hands and say, "What is forgiveness?" Well that's a great question. You know, we don't talk about all the aspects of forgiveness. "How long does forgiveness take?" What a great question, you know?
I think what I'm trying to do also is provide perspective—like the Rwandans provided perspective to me. If I can choose to forgive Adam, then you can look into your own life and choose to forgive—whatever's holding you back, whatever person or thing has caused you pain and is leaching your personal power from you.
We are all on planet Earth together, and our reason for being here and the way that we are going to survive is if we help each other. We're all in this together; we're all one. There is no separateness and we just need to realize that. On December 14th the world came together in the greatest show of compassion in my mind that mankind has ever known. I want to keep that momentum moving forward with the foundation.
Jamie: You mentioned in the book how proud you are of Jesse. I just want to end here by saying he must be extremely proud of you.
Scarlett: I feel so blessed to carry on the torch that Jesse has passed to me and to be able to teach through his example of bravery. A lot of his actions in his final moments saved his friends’ lives—nine of them. I use that example because it takes bravery to make the right choices. Choosing gratitude, choosing forgiveness, choosing compassion—it takes bravery to do that. It's not always the easiest thing to do. Sometimes it takes bravery to be kind to someone. Sometimes it takes bravery to be truthful and honest. If a six-year-old can stand up to a mentally deranged shooter at the other end of a semi-automatic weapon and choose that moment to save his friends’ lives, then we can make the right choices in our lives. We can choose truth and honesty. We can choose gratitude, forgiveness, and compassion. And we can all have a role in making this a better world.
Jamie: Thank you.
Scarlett: Thank you very much Jamie. I appreciate the opportunity.
Jamie: It’s been a great honour.
“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.
In 2011, Canadian writer Hilary Davidson won the Anthony Award for her debut novel The Damage Done. The book also earned a Crimespree Award and was a finalist for the Arthur Ellis and Macavity awards.
I met Hilary a year later when she came to back Toronto to promote her second novel The Next One to Fall. I was positively taken aback that someone quite so charming and successful spent so much time thinking about how to dramatically kill people! Appearances can be deceptive, apparently...
Now a resident of New York, Hilary is a travel journalist and the author of 18 nonfiction books and countless short stories. You can also find her all over the web, including on Facebook, Goodreads, Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.
With the release of her Evil In All Its Disguises tomorrow, Hilary (being so nice and all) kindly agreed to answer a few questions for the Raincoast blog about her writing, travel, social media and more. Just remember, however lovely Hilary seems while you're reading this, she is out there secretly plotting something dastardly. Take my word for it...
Do you remember when you first became interested in becoming a writer?
If you ask anyone who knows me, they’ll say it’s a lifelong obsession. When I was in elementary school, I won a short-story writing contest in Crackers Magazine. It was called “Ameteafear’s Tomb,” and I blame it for putting me on this dark and twisted path. That, and Nancy Drew books, or course. They’re the gateway drug to crime novels.
What was your first writing job?
Paid or unpaid? I started early, founding a newspaper at my elementary school when I was in Grade Five. In high school, I worked on the student newspaper, which was rather appropriately called The Cuspidor. At the University of Toronto, I worked on a couple of newspapers and interned at the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, writing for its newsletter. But it wasn’t until I started freelancing while I was on staff at Canadian Living magazine that I made money from writing. The first cheque I earned was for writing a travel piece about New Orleans’ cemeteries for the travel section of The Globe & Mail.
What was the appeal of travel writing?
I’ve always learned so much when I travel, and I want to share that when I come home. I remember visiting Pompeii and being amazed by the brothels there. They have some very vivid murals on their walls! That was a kind of delightful surprise, and it turned into another travel story for The Globe & Mail. A few years ago, I spent three weeks in Peru, and that gave me a tremendous amount of inspiration, both for fiction and nonfiction. I’m obsessed with Inca history and culture, and my second novel, The Next One to Fall, let me explore that in great detail. Killing a (fictional) tourist at Machu Picchu was an unusual way to show my appreciation, but I was struck by both the grandeur of the site and the danger there when I visited.
Where are you going next?
My upcoming travels are all related to my tour for Evil in All Its Disguises. I start at the Tucson Festival of Books, then hit Scottsdale, Los Angeles, Pasadena, Denver, Colorado Springs, Austin, Houston, Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Toronto. After that, who knows? Last year, I did a weeklong tour of BC with Ian Hamilton, Robin Spano, and Deryn Collier, three of my favourite crime writers, and we’ve been talking about doing something similar this year, possibly in Ontario. Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Israel and Argentina. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go anytime soon, but I’m dying to visit Cambodia.
How has your journalism informed your fiction?
Being a journalist teaches how to grab your audience’s interest quickly, and it makes you shameless about asking questions to figure out how things work. Even though I’m writing fiction, my books are set in the real world, and I like to get the details right. That’s made me do things like go to a gun range to shoot targets, because I wanted to feel the weight of a gun in my hand before writing about it.
What else inspires your crime writing?
Sometimes things that have happened to me or someone I know have a way of getting into my work. Evil in All Its Disguises is the third book featuring Lily Moore, but it’s a standalone mystery about the disappearance of a journalist in Acapulco. It’s the first time that the scenario for one of my books was directly inspired by real-life events — in this case, the disappearance of a Frommer’s Travel Guides editor who vanished while on a press trip to Jamaica in 2000. The book is a work of fiction, but the circumstances around her disappearance have always haunted me, and I wanted to explore that.
Who are some of your favourite crime writers?
It’s such a long list! Some classic favourites: Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith, Dorothy L. Hughes, and Donald Westlake. For contemporary crime fiction, it includes Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, Megan Abbott, Ken Bruen, Linda Fairstein, Kate Atkinson, Chris F. Holm, Dennis Tafoya, Jennifer Hillier, Louise Penny, Denise Mina, and Dennis Lehane.
What is your next book about?
It's the story of a wealthy, adulterous couple who go away together for a weekend and are abducted. The strange behaviour of their kidnappers makes one of the victims wonder who they’re really working for. After the couple’s bodies are found—apparently killed in an accident—it's up to the dead woman’s brother and one of the kidnappers to figure out what really happened that weekend.
When can we expect Lily to return? Readers are going to miss her!
I definitely have more plans for Lily! She will be back. My first three books — The Damage Done, The Next One to Fall, and Evil in All Its Disguises — follow her through a short space of time. They’re set just a few months apart. When readers see her again, more time will have elapsed.
Are you still writing short stories?
Absolutely. Short stories let me explore all kinds of characters and voices and scenarios that I wouldn’t necessarily want to follow throughout a book. I also love writing short fiction because it’s helped me reach audiences who wouldn’t necessarily have picked up my books otherwise. I’m up for a Derringer Award right now for a story about a couple whose relationship is falling apart because one of them wants to visit a dominatrix. I’ve got stories coming up in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and in a new publication from Macmillan called the Malfeasance Occasional.
When did you become interested in vintage fashion?
When I was fourteen, I started shopping in Toronto’s Kensington Market, so I got hooked on vintage early. My mom and grandmother were always very stylish dressers, so they inspired me. I love the idea of wearing clothes that have a history — it’s like they have their own stories to tell.
Who are some of your fashion icons?
A few years ago, I saw an exhibit about Elsa Schiaparelli, and I instantly fell in love. Her approach to fashion was just so irreverent and playful. For instance, she designed a pair of glamorous, elbow-length black evening gloves with pointed gold talons attached. They look like bear claws! To me, that’s the ultimate in chic.
You’re very engaged with social media. As a writer do you find being online a help or a hindrance?
The best thing about social media is that it introduces you to a lot of interesting people. The worst thing is that some people mistake it for a megaphone, and they think it’s just a means to publicize their own books. For me, it’s all about the social — I get into a lot of interesting conversations with people, and I was invited to the first-ever QuebeCrime conference thanks to Twitter. It’s definitely a help, but I have to limit myself, because otherwise I’d be online chatting with people all day instead of getting any work done!
When we’ve finished reading Evil In All Its Disguises, what should we read next?
I’m looking forward to reading Brad Parks’ latest, The Good Cop, and Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, which I’ve heard wonderful things about. My TBR (To Be Read) pile just keeps growing and growing. That’s true for everyone who loves books, isn’t it?
As we mentioned last week, superstar author Joanne "Jo" Rowling (AKA J.K. Rowling) sat down with Oprah at a hotel in Edinburgh (the same hotel where she finished writing the Harry Potter series!) to talk about her life and, of course, you know who.
The interviewed aired on Friday, and inevitably, the question on everyone's lips was "would she ever write another Harry Potter book?"
Well, here's your answer (sort of):
Jo: [The characters] are all still in my head. I mean, I could write. I could definitely write an eight, ninth, 10th. I could, easily.
Oprah: You could. Will you?
Jo: I'm not going to say I won't. I don't think I will. I loved writing those books. I loved writing it. So I feel I am done, but you never know.
I guess "you never know" is better than just "never", right?
I got my copy of ReadyMade magazine in the mail yesterday, and was happy to see an interview with Kate Bingaman-Burt for their column (with quite likely the best name for a column ever), "How Did You Get That F*&%ing Awesome Job?"
Kate Bingaman-Burt is the creator of the blog, Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today? where (since 2002!) she's been drawing the items she buys -- as well as her credit card statements until she'd paid for those purchases.
Her drawing have collected into a book — also called Obsessive Consumption — recently published by Princeton Architectural Press. You can see more spreads from the book in Kate's flickr set. I cannot imagine having the patience to draw all these purchases myself, but the result is totally fascinating (not to metion lovely to look at) and really makes you think about what — and how much — we all buy.
Bibliographic: 100 Classic Graphic Design Books (published by London's Laurence King) was one of my favourite books last year. It's an incredible cross-section of design books that would be a beautiful addition to any design enthusiast's shelf.
But Bibliographic is not – as the author Jason Godfrey points out in his introduction – a history of graphic design or even a definitive list of 100 books on the subject.
So I wanted to know how the selections were made.
Fortunately, I was able to speak to Jason and ask him a few questions about Bibliographic and what it took to be included in the of 100 classic graphic design books...
Dan Wagstaff: What was the inspiration for Bibliographic?
Jason Godfrey: There was a need for a illustrated resource of graphic design publishing. Many books and articles contained very good reading lists but I had always found them rather detached without the visual reference. The best graphic design books are important artefacts in the history of graphic design and many of the books are becoming difficult to find and access.
DW: What criteria did you use to select the books?
JG: The only rule that was applied throughout was that the books had to be visually interesting, there seemed little point in photographing books that would not look appealing on the page. That the books were designed by some of the cream of graphic design this turned out not to be a big problem but it did mean that some important critical analyses had to be put to one side.
DW: Did you ask other designers for their recommendations?
JG: Whilst mentioning to other designers that I was working on Biblographic I found that they were very keen to promote their own favourite titles and it did help extend the list and also confirm the importance of books that had already been chosen. As part of the book I asked about 20 designers to give me a list of 10 books from their own library, this was an idea borrowed from the designer Tony Brook at Spin who had earlier published a newspaper Spin 2 with reading lists from 50 designers.
DW: Was it difficult to decide which recent books to include?
JG: To gauge which newly published titles will come to be seen part of the canon of graphic design books is not the easiest of tasks. Looking back from a distance helps to establish the relevant trends and lends more perspective to any choices. Regardless the best books all seem to be those that can tell a good story. One recent book, Mark Holt and Hamish Muir's 8vo: On the Outside (Lars Müller Publishers, 2005) did just this, exploring the process of the studio's work and the effect of technological on this process and output in a thoroughly engaging book .
DW: There are photographs of every book included in Bibliographic. Were any of the books difficult to locate?
JG: A number of the books are from my own collection others I borrowed from friends and colleagues. Some were so precious I had to send the photographer Nick Turner over to where the their owner could keep them in sight at all times. A handful of books I could only locate at the St Bride Printing Library who were kind enough to facilitate their shooting.
DW: Were there any books you wanted to include but couldn’t access?
JG: Early in the process of compiling my list of 100 books I decided that many of the early examples of early 20th Century graphic design books particularly those of the typographic revolutions of the 1920s and 1930s would be too difficult to access as they are now the preserve of museums. It would all have taken me too far from my premise that Bibliographic could be representative of a working studio library.
DW: Which books came close to being in the 100, but didn’t quite make the final cut?
JG: Tough choices had to made particularly where an author or series of books were successful. Alan Fletcher is very well represented in the book and I couldn't justify putting in the excellent Identity Kits: A Pictorial Survey of Visual Signals (Studio Vista, 1971) a book he co-authored with Germano Facetti the then art director at Penguin Books. Another book that came very close was Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographical Style (Hartley & Marks, 1992) which I felt lacked the visual punch necessary for Bibliographic.
DW: Of the books you don’t own in Bibliographic, is there one that you particularly covet?
JG: The 1926 Deberny & Peignot, Specimen Général would be a welcome addition to my library. There was copy in a studio I worked for and I was forever using it as a point of reference or just to admire the elegant section dividers designed by Maximilien Vox.
LOVE & BLOOD: At The World Cup With The Footballers, Fans, and Freaks is the new book by Jamie Trecker, senior soccer writer for Fox Sports.
In 2006 Jamie, based in Chicago, Illinois, travelled with fans, footballers, journalists for the world's biggest spectacle: The FIFA World Cup. With the kind of tragedy that can only be found in soccer and Shakespeare, LOVE & BLOOD is an irreverent and intensely readable account of the finals in Germany, examining the passion, politics, controversies and economics of the beautiful game. And drinking a lot of beer...
Dan W: What surprised you most at the 2006 World Cup?
Jamie Trecker: The overall quality of play in the first phase of the Cup was poor and the hard corporate sell that surrounded the Cup was at an all-time high . Both were a bit off-putting and detracted from what is the greatest spectacle in all sport. The former showed just how overworked the players really are in today's hyper-competitive global soccer market and the latter showed why the global soccer is so hyper-competitive.
DW: Who was your player of the tournament?
JT: Fabio Cannavaro of Italy. Zinedine Zidane was a close second.
DW: At the 2002 World Cup, the US reached the quarterfinals. Why did a seemingly better-prepared US team under-perform in 4 years later?
JT: Well, they weren't better prepared - as it happened, they were pretty poorly prepared. The difference is that the USA was sold as "being better" and that just wasn't true. In 2002 the USA benefited from being a) an under-rated "unknown" and b) playing on neutral ground. They were well-known by the time 2006 rolled around and the USA have historically struggled on European soil. Fact is, getting that single point against the champs was a major achievement, but because of all the overblown hype, it felt to many fans like a failure. But the team is not able to handle true tactical football, and that's a failure of development and the American training system.
DW: Can you see the day that a North American team will win the World Cup?
JT: Yes, but it may not be in my lifetime. Certainly both the USA and Mexico have the population bases and interest to produce top-level athletes, but whether either of them can is an open question. I think Canada, with the emphasis on hockey and its smaller population, is far less likely to be competitive outside of the CONCACAF region.
DW: Soccer is a popular sport for young kids in North America, but this hasn't apparently translated into a successful adult game in the US or Canada. Why do you think this is?
JT: I think soccer is successful in both countries, actually; it's just not a "major" sport. North America is such an inflated market because of the huge revenues from baseball, basketball, NASCAR and the NFL, so it's easy to overlook the fact that getting 15-20,000 a night is pretty good for any sport.
Why is it not a major sport? For the same reasons boxing, horse racing and tennis aren't--you didn't have a league for a number of years and that took it out of the public eye. Boxing and racing were the two big sports at the turn of the 20th century, but they faded--the same thing might well happen to any one of the top sports today.
One thing that has contributed to it is that soccer has been thought of more as a pastime for kids than an actual "sport." That's slow to change.
DW: England recently played Russia on a controversial artificial turf instead of grass. The surface has been approved by FIFA and many MLS teams (including Toronto FC) use it, despite widespread disapproval within the game and fears over injuries. Should FieldTurf be used for soccer matches?
JT: I don't like it, personally. Having said that, there is a need for some surface for very cold and very arid climates. FieldTurf seems to be the best of a bad bunch right now, and soccer players are going to have to get used to it.
DW: What is holding the MLS back from reaching mainstream success?
JT: Bluntly, the quality of play. Americans demand the best in sport, and it's pretty obvious that just about anyone that cares to can see top-quality soccer--for free or the cost of a cable connection--virtually every day of the week thanks to networks like Fox, TSN, ESPN, Rogers et al.
MLS has done a good job building up its infrastructure, but a poor job actually building up the player base. Salaries are paltry, rosters are thin, and good young players from Latin, South and Central America are not being tempted to come and play here as a result. It's very disappointing.
DW: Has the arrival of David Beckham at the LA Galaxy been a good thing for the MLS?
JT: It was illuminating, but no, I think it proved to be a public relations disaster. MLS rushed him out too early, on an injured ankle, and the folks in LA were woefully unprepared to deal with the pressure and attention they got as a result. It's interesting that as soon as the hub-bub died down in LA that the Galaxy started to win again, isn't it?
DW: How would you evaluate Toronto FC's first season in the MLS?
JT: I think it went as well as one can expect, honestly. Anyone who has followed MLS knows that it's very difficult to assemble a team via a dispersal draft, and it became very clear that many of the Canadian internationals were not ready for this level of play. But TFC's fans have stuck with the team, and the stadium has the best atmosphere in the entire league by my reckoning so I think that they've laid down a real solid base for next season.
DW: Would the MLS benefit from more Canadian teams?
JT: Absolutely. I'd love to see a team in Montreal, myself and I think Vancouver could be a good addition. Canada has been a great host for pro soccer at every level, and I can't see why that wouldn't continue.
DW: Thanks Jamie! I can almost forgive you for being a gooner....
In the final part of my conversation with Tom McCarthy, we talk about the future. (Read the previous installment here).
WARNING!: This conversation contains adults themes and references to German literary Professors!
DW: So, can you tell me about your new novel 'C'?
TM: It's advancing slowly, is the main thing I can tell you - not least because I find myself constantly doing interviews about Remainder and Men in Space (which don't get me wrong, I love doing, especially with you Dan). I'm about a third of the way into the first draft. In a word, it's a novel about mourning. In more words, it's a novel about the relationship between mourning, communication technologies and family structures. It's set around the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries, when radio was emerging and acquiring a quasi-mystical dimension: whereas spiritualists, for example, used to wait for their departed relatives to communicate with them by rapping on tables, now they'd trawl through the white noise, scanning the aether for hidden signals. I've been reading this brilliant book by a professor named Laurence Rickels called Aberrations of Mourning: Writing on German Crypts. He says that in this period, technology itself becomes the crypt in which the dead are mourned - and, further, that German literature in particular is one big death cult. I love that. If Remainder was, as 3:AM Magazine claimed, essentially a French novel written in English, C will be my German one.
DW: Any final thoughts?
TM: Yes: big love to all my friends at Raincoast - and in Toronto, Canada and www-land.
DW: Thanks Tom. I hope you'll be back in Canada soon!
Today is the fourth installment of my conversation with British novelist Tom McCarthy. When we met in Toronto last year, we talked a lot about music and movies between events, and I was keen to pick up where we left off when we corresponded by email...
(Read the previous installment here)
WARNING!: This conversation contains adult themes and references to avant-garde New York rock bands!
TM: Funnily enough (and without giving away too much of the book's ending), the last word in Men in Space is 'soon', the title of the final song on My Bloody Valentine's Loveless. It's not an accident. I'm of a generation that grew up on music, and it's shaped our whole sensibility in a really intimate way. Also, formally and thematically the best musicians are way ahead of the game: think of techniques like sampling, or the rapid-fire subcultural allusiveness of, say, Sonic Youth. It's hard to say exactly how music's influenced my work, but it's surely as inextricable from my life and work as for most people of my age.
DW: Who are listening to at the moment?
TM: Just now, Nirvana.
DW: REMAINDER - a book about repetition - was published in 2005, 2006 and again in 2007. Do you ever feel like life is imitating art?
TM: When someone hijacks an aeroplane and flies it in a figure-of-eight until it runs out of fuel, then I'll know that Remainder's found the one Quixotic reader every book potentially has, its Mark Chapman.
DW: After the struggle to get REMAINDER published, how did it feel to see your debut novel on the cover story of the New York Times Book Review?
TM: It felt nice.
DW: When you were visiting Toronto last year for the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) you met with Canadian filmmaker Vincenzo Natali. He's directing the film version of J. G. Ballard's HIGH-RISE, which has similarities with REMAINDER. Don't you live in a 60's high-rise? After reading Ballard, I think I would find using the lift either incredibly stimulating or completely debilitating!
TM: It was great meeting Vincenzo, and I can't wait to see his take on Ballard. I do live in a 60s high-rise. It's fantastic. Bizarrely (since you're talking of movies and directors), the producer who's putting together the film adaptation of Remainder came to visit me here recently - and got stuck in the lift on his way down. He got freed eventually and the project's still on. I should have bargained for a bigger percentage before phoning the fire brigade.
DW: Are you interested in film as medium? The protagonist in REMAINDER actively avoids it, and yet it seems tailor made for you...
TM: Although the hero of Remainder doesn't allow cameras at his re-enactments (effectively turning them into film sets without a film), he's obsessed with DeNiro in Mean Streets, and with heroes in movies generally. Whereas the rest of us are continually comparing ourselves to characters in movies and falling short, he reasons, characters in movies aren't comparing themselves and their actions to anyone or anything: they're 'just being' - and are therefore more authentic. His logic's skewed, but I'd say it's shared by virtually everyone who's ever seen a movie.
DW: What are your favourite movies?
Orphée by Jean Cocteau: best film ever made, all about transmission, death, love, poetry and time. The INS radio project was a direct appropriation of the scenes in that film where the dead poet C�geste sends radio messages on illicit frequencies to Orph�e, who copies and repeats them. I like Tarkovsky's work, and was thinking of it when I wrote Remainder: all the slowness, the absorption in surface and texture. Another film I hadn't seen then but have since and think is brilliant is Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, in which a Peruvian townsfolk continually 'film' movies with wicker cameras and sound-booms after they've seen an American movie crew do it for real, making stylised events repeat ad infinitum. Lynch's latest film Inland Empire is stunning too: completely literary, labyrinthine, regressive. It's the best piece of art in any medium I've come across for years.
Photo credit: David Boulogne