amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

OIWF - Final Day

three brilliant short fiction writers graced the stage on the last night of the fest: Spencer Gordon, Anton Piatigorsky & Barry Webster.

Gordon's "Cosmo" is populated with celebrities. He read from "The Land of Plenty" in which L. Cohen writes e-mail to Gary of the fast food franchise Subway to discuss the health & economic benefits of a Subway diet in response to old age, weight gain & declining finances. the story is fast-paced, amusing, absurd & audacious. with powerful language somewhat reminiscent of Cohen's lyric, Gordon takes us through Cohen's personal history of triumph & tragedy: "Today, I think back to those days of pleasure with a psychological, if not scientific interest. If the brain can release the chemicals that make us happiest, who are we to stand and refuse? To instead weather, golem-like and insane, the groin-jabs of life's cruel, steel-toed boots?"
During the Q&A a member of the audience asked Gordon about  whether or not authenticity was a challenge when writing about celebrities. He pointed out that we don't know the celebritiesin real life, that all we see is their persona & the masks they wear. Since they are characters, he felt free to run with his imagination. In other words, fuck authenticity.  to which I raised an imaginary tankard of beer & toasted him.

Anton Piatigorsky gave a different answer when he spoke about his book, "The Iron Bridge", a series of short stories about dictators when they were young. He read a story about a teenage obsessive compulsive bottle cap collecting Rafael Trujillo who was the dictator of the Dominican Republic for thirty years. Piatigorsky's method was to focus on part of the history of these dictators that was little known by the public & to extrapolate, to exagerate their character flaws. there was something both chilling & absurd about the idea of a dictator collecting bottle caps. Piatigorsky's fine attention to small details makes this work highly compelling. He's also a playwright & you can easily imagine the descriptive passages of his fiction as settings for a play. he came to the festival a few years (??) ago to discuss his play "Eternal Hydra" & it was a fascinating talk. he's also written a libretto for an opera. i adore renaissance men.
Barry Webster read from "The Lava in My Bones," a multi-voiced collection of linked short stories influenced by fairy tales. I was rapt as soon as he began to read from the prologue:  "Sam rifled through his lover's drawer and discovered a dog-eared book called Fairy Tales of the Flesh. He flipped the pages hoping to find evidence of himself.//He read long stories about witches with phalluses for teeth, men with breasts for testicles, huge walking elbows, chins, and disjointed body parts who performed elaborate Maypole dances together yet couldn't synchronize themselves enough to form a functioning human body."

I was immediately enchanted by the writer's unconstrained imagination. his work reminded me somewhat of Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, a book based on the Blue Beard fairytale.
 during the Q&A Webster talked about how realism tends to be a preference in Canadian fiction, but he felt that much truth about a character could come from a more imaginative approach. I'm doing a terrible job of reporting what he said in actuality. yikes.  I apologize for misrepresenting his excellent point. once he started to talk about this idea, I started to think about fairytales & fables told to children & the role of allegory & how allegory has gone out of fashion & how I wanted to write a fairy tale… this is what happens to me at readings…ah…back to the book & the reading.
"The Lava in My Bones" is divided into six sections: rock, air, ice, rock, water, rock. the author is drawn to contradictions. Webster read from two parts: Air & Ice. from Air he told the story of a girl who sweated honey. it was an incredibly imaginative & sensuous tale & I would like to say it was an allegory for coming to terms with one's difference, with not fitting in, but that sounds so trite, I don't want to say it.

you have to read "The Lava in My Bones." I insist on it. he also read from one of the ice sections featuring a dislikeable character named Franz, who is Sam's lover. he said that he found it fun to write this character, but that Franz was not someone you wanted to spend a lot of time with. This is a good reminder of how much a character can become part of both a writer's & a reader's imagination, he becomes very real. I found Franz's persona very enjoyable. he seemed curmudgeonly, persnickety & highly particular. in other words, very realistic. Webster takes joy in writing about contradictions. the language in this book is powerful & poetic, the characters have been drawn with empathy & compassion & the stories are overflowing with fancy.
being told a great story is one of my joys. it takes me back to childhood when I would beg my mother for just one more book please, at bedtime. the festival gave me that opportunity once again. to enjoy such, you must focus (not that i'm always so great at that...see above), you must be an attentive listener. to attend the festival & other literary reading series is to give that gift back to yourself again.

& speaking of which, "Naked Narrative," the Ottawa International Storytelling Festival takes place in November. i won't be there because i am festivaled out til spring, but you should go.

one of the reasons why the Ottawa International Writers Festival is so important to me is because it enables my reading addiction & introduces me to brilliant writing.  "The Lava in My Bones" is a book I'm going to take with me to pubs, notebook by my side, half pint of some unprounceable Belgium wheat beer at my elbow.
I am full of gratitude toward the festival for another exemplary edition of fiction, poetry, music, ideas, whimsy, jubilation & celebration of the imagination. the next edition takes place in the spring at the end of April. be there!


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