Insights from authors

Highlights from the Vancouver Writer’s Festival.

By Tristan Johnston
[staff writer]

For its 27th year, the Vancouver Writers Festival returned to Granville Island for a six-day festival. Over one hundred writers, authors, spoken word performers and poets, mostly from Canada, but also many from around the world, stopped by to discuss aspects of their literature.

While in the past the festival has sported such gargantuan literary names as J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie, this year’s festival featured William Gibson, Charles Foran and Michael Cho, amongst others.

All of the events were unique and largely worthwhile, however The Runner has chosen to highlight two in particular: My Way and Probables and Impossibles.

My Way

Charles Foran, Karl Ove Knausgård of Norway and Eimear McBride of the UK got on stage to discuss their work and how they were described as “unconventional.”

Foran’s new book Planet Lolita contains many pages of “netspeak.” During his short reading of his text, he managed to create realistic dialogue between two young women talking over Skype. He explained that he wanted to figure out what kind of world his daughter would be growing up in, a world where someone in Toronto could Skype their sister in Hong Kong in real time.

Knausgård read a passage from Boyhood Island, the third part in a six part series of novels known as My Struggle. A deeply personal passage was read in which a boy is offered a Liverpool football shirt by his father, but not one belonging to his favourite team, and then somehow cannot open it until his birthday.

McBride read from her work A Girl is a Half-formed Thing, which tells the story of a woman with a very difficult family and abusive social life. The prose is very unusual, reading much like an avant-garde poem filled with short sentence fragments. It might be for this reason that it took nine years before she could find a publisher, despite having written the book in a quick, six-month period.

Like McBride, the other authors also stated that they had to take a big risk in writing something very unusual. Knausgård’s partially autobiographical story touches on some difficult aspects of his childhood, and he wound up writing 2400 pages of work, though he eventually found a publisher who’d divide his work into several separate volumes.

Probables and Impossibles

Sebastien de Castell, A.M. Dellamonica and William Gibson gathered to read from their newest novels and discussed the nature of world-building in science-fiction and fantasy.

Dellamonica’s new book, Child of the Hidden Sea, is about a girl from San Francisco who suddenly finds herself flung into a pirate world full of several different islands, each with their own cultures and economies.

Castell’s new book, Traitors Blade, has critics comparing it to Alexander Dumas’s Three Musketeers. The book follows a dishonored swordsman who tries to redeem himself by protecting a girl caught in a conspiracy.

Gibson’s new book, The Peripheral, is set in two futures, unusual for Gibson, as he hasn’t written about the far future since before 2000. One is a “realistic” future closer to today’s world, while the other is much further off. The story features the protagonist and her brother finding themselves caught in a security job that might be connected to a murder.

During the Q&A, the authors explained their respective world-building techniques. Gibson stated that he starts with characters and “small objects” first, then builds a world that fits the characters. Castell, for his first novel, also writes the characters first, then asks himself “is society wrong, or just me?” Dellamonica said she wanted to “combine a bunch of happy things and somehow have it make sense” for her new book. All of the authors attempt to create something they call “naturalistic.”

On the relatively new fiction trope of “anti-heros” and “grimdark” atmosphere, the authors had different theories. Dellamonica believes that world-building and character archetypes are shaped by recent historical events, citing the film The Wizard of Oz as having its tone influence by the Great Depression, and C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe being influenced by World War II. Castell contended that anti-heroes and self-interested characters like House (of House, M.D.), have an immunity to anxiety which makes them appealing. Gibson mentioned that he found it odd that critics described his novel Neuromancer as “bleak and dystopian,” as he wrote the story during the Cold War, and that a future that didn’t face a nuclear war was very optimistic.

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