Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Emil Sher

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Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage. Recent productions: a fall 2009 UK tour of Beneath the Banyan Tree, which was also remounted by Theatre Direct Canada. Upcoming: a spring 2010 staging of Hana’s Suitcase (Toronto and Israel) and Mourning Dove (Edmonton and San Antonio). Emil is currently developing a screenplay (Chekhov’s Gun) with Richard Roy, who directed Emil’s first feature, Café Olé (WGC Screenwriting Award, 2002). Other works-in-progress include a commissioned play about wrongful convictions for Studio 180, a commissioned work for Seattle Children’s Theatre and a portrait of a conflicted psychiatrist for Workman Arts.

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Ten Questions with Emil Sher

Open Book: Toronto:

What was your first publication and where was it published?

Emil Sher:

Making Waves, a collection of three radio plays first broadcast on the CBC, was published by Dundurn Press in 1998. While it’s true that scripts — be they for the stage or screen — are meant to be performed and not necessarily published, there is much that can be mined in a narrative that is essentially told only through dialogue.


Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

Hana’s Suitcase on Stage

By Karen Levine and play by Emil Sher

Hana’s Suitcase is the story of the search for Hana Brady, a little girl who wanted to become a teacher but who’s life was ended in the Holocaust. Since its publication in 2002 Hana’s story has captured the hearts and minds of schoolchildren and adults around the world. Since its 2006 world stage premiere in Toronto, Hana’s story has become even more alive. Hana’s Suitcase On Stage is a unique volume that combines the story and images of the original book with the complete script of the award-winning writer Emil Sher’s theatrical adaptation.

Recent Writer In Residence Posts

A Loss for Words

Sometimes, a passing comment sticks like a burr. Recently, I bumped into Ralph and his dog as I was walking mine. Ralph’s son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter had visited from out of town. It was the first visit since Ralph had lost his young grandson, one of those one-in-a-million long shots where a child succumbs to a virus that turns deadly. For the family that is the one in the one-in-a-million statistics dissolve in the face of unspeakable sorrow. Ralph noted that there is no word for a parent who loses a child. We speak of widows and orphans but do certain losses elude the grasp of language?

Kickstarting an Idea

The ideas in “The 9th Annual Year in Ideas” from the New York Times Magazine range from the inspiring (“The Advertisement that Watches You” decrying domestic violence) to the practical (“The Kitchen Sink That Puts Out Fires”). For the unpublished, the unproduced, the unsung, one idea is a happy blend of both. Kickstarter is a website that is inspiring because it is so practical.

“At Kickstarter,” author Clive Thompson writes, “creative types post a description of a project they want to do, how much money they need for it and a deadline. If enough people pledge money that the artists reach (or surpass) their financial goals, then everyone is billed, paying in advance as you would for a magazine subscription. For goals that aren’t reached, nobody is charged.

Holden Caulfield Pays Tribute to J.D. Salinger

Given the opportunity, I would have written a heartfelt homage to J.D. Salinger, as others have. But then I received the following and immediately thought, "This is how it should be done." This is a writer (I couldn't find the source) who responded to the call of duty with the best tool at our disposal: our imagination.

Bunch Of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

January 28, 2010

Child's Play

In the course of one week this month I delivered the third draft of a play about wrongful convictions and the first draft of a handful of poems for children. The play, Conviction, is for Studio 180, a company that has gained a reputation for staging dynamic works that probe political and social issues. The poems — all about ocean-faring vessels — are for Chirp, the “See and Do, Laugh and Learn” magazine recommended for children ages 3 – 6. And so it is that, on any given morning, I might find myself in the company of a beleaguered man accused of sexually assaulting his 4-year old niece and with a droopy-eyed tugboat by the afternoon.

Cutting Paul Quarrington Down to Size

It is said that Phil Spector, the infamous producer of over 25 Top-Forty hits during the 1960s, found the title for one of his best-selling songs (No.1 in 1958) on his father’s gravestone: To Know Him is To Love Him. Like many in the arts community, I mourned the loss of Paul Quarrington, who was as versatile a writer as they come: novelist, screenwriter, playwright, author, songwriter (and musician, to boot). I didn’t know Paul well but knew him well enough to offer a spin on Spector’s song title: to edit him is to know him.

Windows within Windows

Our daily routine begins between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. and lasts about half an hour. We take a familiar route through empty neighbourhood streets, the comforting silence part of the early-morning rhythm. Despite the incessant tugging at his leash — there is precious little in our dog’s life that doesn’t warrant a sniff — there is something meditative about walking a dog, even when the walk includes a boulevard as busy as Danforth Avenue. Our stretch of the Danforth includes two bookstores, and to gaze into a bookstore window is to remove oneself, however fleetingly, from the here-and-now, to ponder an alternative world, time or place.

The Book of Ruth

Earlier this month, Ruth McBride Jordan passed away at her home in Ewing, New Jersey at the age of 88. It is tempting to say the unconventional path she tread is the stuff of fiction but, in truth, it is the backbone of an acclaimed work of non-fiction. Although she is not an author, Jordan can lay claim to half of the narrative that is The Color of Water, James McBride’s tribute to his white mother.


There is a scene in Julie & Julia (based on the book of the same name) where Julia Child is considering variations of a title for what would become a seminal cookbook. Her editor, Judith Jones, takes the task very seriously. Child, at least as she’s portrayed by Meryl Streep, doesn’t seem terribly concerned, as if to say, “It’s only a title.” Jones knew better, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking would grace the cover of Childs’s classic through countless printings.

How Does it End?

Years ago, an author (I believe it was Russell Banks) recounted a conversation he had had with another author (it might have been Joyce Carol Oates). When Joyce heard Russell had begun to write a new novel, she asked: “Have you written the ending yet?” Apparently, Ms. Oates knows how a book will end while she’s still crafting the beginning. The gist of the story isn’t about specific authors (I may be wrong on both counts)as it is about a specific truth: many a storyteller weaves a story’s end while the threads of the story lay in a tangled heap at her feet.

The Ugly Side of Haiti

The images are apocalyptic, the destruction almost too great to fathom. It is telling that our immediate terms of reference are often Hollywood films. “It’s just like a movie,” we say in the wake of the hell that is Haiti. The before-and-after photographs of the collapsed Presidential Palace — the second floor a missing wedding-cake tier — conjure up images of computer-generated special effects: now you see it, now you don’t.

Piano Lessons

Create a catalogue of life-changing experiences and it is unlikely piano lessons at fifty would receive much ink. Forsaking one’s worldly goods to side with the dispossessed. The choice to have a child at an age when you risk being mistaken for a grandparent. Reshaping one’s daily routines according to religious codes. All would warrant a two-page spread in the catalogue. Learning to play the piano at fifty?

And yet.

Any kind of change — whether writ large or small — can have profound and long-lasting consequences. To create music, to play Amazing Grace — haltingly, choppily, at a start-stop-start-again pace — is to transform silence into sound.

To be Continued

It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears' house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead.

Letter Perfect

A Saturday-morning conversation still lingers on a Monday morning, a steady hum in the background that doesn’t seek my immediate attention but says, with a quiet insistence, “Take note.” Take note of Joel’s story. The one about the letters.

A Convict's Cloak

Bill Mullins Johnson spent twelve years in prison for a murder he did not commit. It was ultimately determined that no one killed Johnson’s four-year old niece, Valin, and that she died of natural causes. But thanks to damning court testimony, Johnson was convicted of the crime that wasn’t a crime. He is thoughtful and funny and would never claim to be a poet. But in the course of a conversation, Bill Mullins Johnson offers turns of phrases that are unconsciously poetic but resonate with the force and weight of a crafted stanza.

Framing a Story

A Chanukah party held on January 2, weeks after the last night of Chanukah, after the flames of eight candles on a menorah have danced their last dance. It’s the kind of telling detail that would speak volumes about the hosts if they appeared in a play or a book: here is a couple that bucks convention and tradition, that does not bend to prevailing winds. Only Lisa and Howard are not fictitious hosts but neighbours who open their doors to the neighbourhood each year, offering food and a delicious excuse to resist the temptation to hibernate.

The Third Page

Of the countless memories of elementary school that surface and punctuate my life as an adult, one remains crystal clear: the first, crisp page of an unused exercise book, the promise of starting anew. I can picture the wooden desks, a picture that dates itself because of one particular detail: the small hole in the desk corner that was a vacant home to an inkwell. Inkwells were no longer in fashion by the time I took my seat at Coronation School in Montreal in the1960s and early 70s. But I have no doubt the pleasures and potential of a new notebook were a constant.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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