Archive for March, 2009

Reading at Toronto’s oldest library branch

Friday, March 27th, 2009


This past week I gave a talk and reading at the oldest library branch in the city of Toronto.  The Yorkville branch opened in 1907 and she carries her age well.  It’s been beautifully restored.  Stepping in through the main doors at the front is like stepping back in time.

The head librarian, Tiziano Vanola, is passionate about his important role and he did a great job organizing the event.  The folks who came asked wonderful questions and we have a very enjoyable evening.  Thanks for making it happen Tiziano.  I look forward to coming back soon.


(Tiziano also took some photos at the event including this one of me hawking my wares!)

One year ago…

Thursday, March 26th, 2009


On March 27th, 2008, I was in Montreal on business doing a few presentations for one of our clients.  I’d remembered that morning that it was also the day that the shortlist was being announced for the 2008 Leacock Award for Humour.  I was sitting in a boardroom after my first presentation and had about half an hour before my next one was to start.  So I did a Google News search and discovered one lonely story from the Orillia Packet & Times.  There was a photograph in the story.  The photo showed a display board where the book covers and  author head shots of the five finalists for the 2008 Leacock Medal had been mounted .  My eyes were immediately drawn to the TBLP cover and my ugly head shot in the bottom left hand corner of the board.  Then I very nearly passed out.  You can see the photo above and read my reaction in the blog post I wrote later that night.    Trying not to be too melodramatic, it was a day that changed my life.

One year on, I give thanks every day for my good fortune and for all that has happened in my life as writer in the wake my Leacock shock.

How I write: Humour

Friday, March 20th, 2009


I have no idea where I’m going with this post so I thought I’d just start and see where it takes me.  I have always loved reading and collecting funny novels.  I think good novels that are also funny are hard to find.  I also feel strongly that when wielded skillfully, humour can a very powerful and trenchant instrument.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve read hundreds of novels that claim on their cover blurbs to be “sidesplitting,” “hilarious,” and my favourite, “laugh out loud.”  Many of them never even come close.  But if I do find an author that has me thinking on one page, chortling on another, and shooting milk through my nose on yet another, I’m in my element (although the milk part can be a little uncomfortable).  I think that’s why I wanted to attempt a humourous novel.

Humour is a very personal thing.  Some readers love slapstick and sophomoric humour, while others hate such lowbrow laughs.  Some love funny wordplay or comedic set pieces.  Still others enjoy the simplicity, even purity of unadulterated sarcasm.  I’m a fan of it all, and like to think that whatever your preferred laugh generator, there’s something for everyone in TBLP (well, almost everyone).

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  Looking back on TBLP from a distance, I think I was trying too hard in the first half of the book to get the laughs.  I’m straining for the funny line, building certain scenes around something that was intended to be funny but not necessarily drive the story forward.  I think in the early going I just didn’t yet have the confidence that the characters and the story could stand on their own, that I didn’t need to find a punchline in every paragraph.  In the second half, I think the humour is less the obnoxious and loud tag along and more the quiet but still welcome companion.

In general, I’m not a fan of humour that embarrasses or humiliates, unless the victim really has it coming.  I’ve always enjoyed self-deprecating humour.  I think it humanizes a character and makes them more authentic.  I also appreciate humour that is fully integrated into the fabric of the story rather than being showy, gratuitous, and disconnected from what’s really happening.  Ideally, I want the humour to feel natural and balanced so that it contributes texture, context, and depth to the story, without distracting the reader.

I’m just making all of this stuff up on the fly but it seems to make sense to me as I read it back.

Oh, one more thing.  When you’re trying to write comedy or satire, it helps to have a sense of humour.

TBLP designer Scott Richardson interviewed

Monday, March 9th, 2009

In my daily travels online I stumbled upon a very interesting three part video vignette on book design by Scott Richardson.  He’s the awarding novelist and designer who is responsible for the way the eye-catching McClelland & Stewart edition of TBLP looks, inside and out.  (In case you’re wondering, Random House owns a chunk of M&S and that’s why Scott designed TBLP.) I learned more about book design by watching these three clips than I’ve ever known about this complex and creative field. Admittedly, I was not very far up the learning curve to begin with!

In the first clip, Scott Richardson discusses the evolution of book design from 1100s  to the present.  Fascinating.

In the second clip, Scott talks about the interior design of the book including typeface and the all-important “grid” that dictates how the pages are used.

Finally, in the third clip, Scott explores the myths and considerations the govern cover design.

If you’re passionate about books, I can’t imagine watching these video clips and not finding it all illuminating and interesting. I’ll now be looking at books through a slightly more informed set of eyes. Thank you Scott for your wonderful design for TBLP and for your insights on creating a memorable look for books.

Writers I revere: Robertson Davies

Saturday, March 7th, 2009


I was a late convert to Robertson Davies.  Unlike most Canadian teenagers, I never encountered Davies in my high school English classes.  So I was well into my twenties when I read my first RD novel.  Like many, I started with the Deptford Trilogy, comprising Fifth Business, The Manitcore, and World of Wonders.  I was hooked.  I proceeded to read every one of Davies’ eleven novels.  That still didn’t quench my thirst for his wonderful prose so I read his book of ghost stories called High Spirits. Then his volumes of humourous diary entries written in the voice of his alter ego Samuel Marchbanks.

Why was I captivated by Robertson Davies?  I’m not certain I can explain the attraction particularly clearly. As usual, it’s a combination of factors.  His writing is of another time.  I’ve often thought he was born a century too late.  His novels tend to unfold in the present even though the carefully crafted sentences bear all the marks of an earlier age.  In a word, he writes beautifully.  His sentences don’t just tell a compelling story, they reflect the joy he clearly felt in writing them.  As well, his characters are rendered so clearly, so deeply, yet so effortlessly,  that you all of sudden realize as you read that you know these characters and care enough about them to love them or despise them.  You hardly feel it happening.  Such is the power of his pen.  I believe he wrote his novels in long hand with a fountain pen.

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, my wife Nancy and I attended a public memorial service to mark the passing of Robertson Davies in December 1995 .  I’ll never forget it.  All of the CanLit heavyweights were there including my own editor and publisher, Douglas Gibson.  To close out the service, the crowd rose to its feet and belted out Adeste Fideles, which is O Come All Ye Faithful in Latin.

That Robertson Davies and I have both won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Award for Humour will always be one of the great and humbling joys of my life.  If you’ve not dipped into Robertson Davies, do yourself a favour and lose yourself in a great Canadian master.

The Authors Show interview airs March 3rd

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

Several weeks back I did a phone interview about TBLP with The Authors Show, a popular web-radio site.  It airs officially on March 3rd (tomorrow), and should be available to listen to for at least a few weeks thereafter.  The site seems to provide opportunities for authors to help promote their books.  I don’t know much about the website beyond that but I was happy to be interviewed.  Every little bit helps…