Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Glenn Patterson on Writing and Toronto

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Glenn Patterson

Writing is often a solitary experience. The author sits or stands at a desk and types or scribbles for hours, not leaving or stopping unless absolutely necessary (Marcel Proust, for example, was allegedly found in his apartment dead from pneumonia with a set of half-edited proofs still in his hands). While not all authors — like Dickinson or Salinger or Pynchon — retreat into complete exclusion (some, like Truman Capote, become gifted socialites) very few kinds of writers’ work leaves opportunity for travel.

One of the paradoxes of literary success is that acclaim tends to swallow more time than it provides. Success brings many sources of distraction: book signings, freelance work and teaching jobs all compete with writing for the time of even a moderately successful writer, but they also bring chances to experience the world from somewhere other than a computer chair — and sometimes a short teaching job can drag you across an ocean, which is what is about to happen to Northern Irish writer Glenn Patterson, who will be taking time off from his position at Queen's University Belfast to serve as a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto in 2013.

“I met Professor David Wilson in Toronto a number of years ago,” said Patterson — referring to the University of Toronto’s professor of Modern Irish History. “[We had] a mutual friend in Belfast, Dr. Liam Kennedy, and earlier this year I bumped into David with Liam on the street outside Queen’s University, where I lecture. He asked me if I would be interested in coming to Toronto some time, and I didn’t have to think.”

The artist-in-residence has been a steady position in universities since the start of the 20th century, beginning in a larval state at the New York-based artists’ colony Yaddo, which provided studio space to artists as a form of patronage — a practice which eventually spread to similar groups in Europe and elsewhere in North America. One of the earliest universities to create such a position is the University of Leeds, which opened itself to artists in 1951 as a way to counterbalance its heavily tech-based curriculum. Similar positions have since branched not only to other universities, but also online, with many literary websites taking on writers to offer advice by email, chat or Skype. For Open Book: Toronto, that position is filled for the month of August by David Tucker.

The writer-in-residence works as a mix of teacher and consultant. The kind of work can vary between institutions, but generally involves the artist giving classes, presenting recent work and acting as a mentor for young artists who need intelligent feedback. Patterson said that his residency looks to be typical of what he has done at similar jobs in the past — a few lectures and talks, readings to interested students and an open office to whichever students poses talent enough to get words on a page and courage enough to show them to another writer.

“One of the best pieces of student writing I ever read,” said Patterson, “was from a first-year student who just turned up at my door when I was writer-in-residence at Queen’s in the early 1990s . . . that student, Colin Carberry, became a good friend. He and I recently co-wrote a film, Good Vibrations [Revolution Films], which gets its UK and Irish release later this year.”

Patterson’s work tends to be rooted deeply in both time and place. His most famous novel, The International (Anchor), takes place over the course of a single night (give-or-take a few flashbacks) in the eponymous hotel and describes, from the perspective of a bartender, the first meeting of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, a group which would play a major role in pushing Northern Ireland to the long period of violence and civil unrest now known as The Troubles. Patterson’s most recent book, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young (Faber and Faber), is similarly rooted — beginning on Christmas Day 1897 and following its protagonist through an almost Joycean tour of 19th century Belfast. This rootedness to Belfast and Northern Ireland’s history has not, said Patterson, posed any additional difficulties for teaching Canadian students.

“I grew up,” said Patterson, “reading literature that was deeply rooted in times and places totally unknown to me — Russia in the Napoleonic Wars, the USA in the aftermath of the First World War. I went to Alexandria, Paris, Berlin, in my reading . . . I hoped when I started writing that Belfast was as fit a place for fiction as any of those places. I was very pleased when McClelland and Stewart published a Canadian edition of The International in 2011.”

But a sharp-eyed Toronto student reading Patterson’s work would not lack completely of anything familiar. A passage from Patterson’s second novel, Fat Lad (Minerva), was drawn from Patterson’s experiences during a trip to Toronto he took when he was ten. In fact, he and his family, “in common with many Belfast people,” have many Canadian connections. His parents and grandparents, as well as two cousins an aunt and an uncle, have all lived in Canada at one point or another.

“There is far more that unites than divides,” he said.

When he arrives in Toronto in a few months, Patterson will bring not only has experience as a novelist and teacher, but also his memories of being a student. Patterson earned an MA in Creative writing at The University of East Anglia in 1986, having studied under the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter. It was here that he learned to hone his own writing skills — building up the habits and skills that any successful artist must possess, as well as putting in the hours of practice and study that it takes to be good at anything.

“The best writing tutors,” said Patterson, “and Malcolm and Angela were in their different ways two of the very best; [they] don’t tell you much, rather they help you discover things for yourself.”

“Angela taught me the most important lesson anyone ever taught me about writing. When a reader opens a book, she said, he enters into a contract with the writer: if you stick to the terms anything can happen.”

Patterson will take up his position as writer-in-residence in 2013, putting off the job in order to spend more time with his daughter who is taking a series of important exams. Patterson’s latest novel, The Mill for Grinding Old People Young, was published by Faber and Faber on March 15.

Jeremy Colangelo is an author and journalist living in St. Catharines, Ontario. His work has been published, or is upcoming, in several magazines, including The Dalhousie Review, Steel Bananas, and The Incongruous Quarterly. Jeremy has an degree in English and History from Brock University. He is currently working on a novel. You can follow Jeremy on Twitter, @JRColangelo.

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