Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Scene of the crime / library paean

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Scene of the crime/ library paean

Work, in the form of writing, hurls me out of the house every morning. Home is for family, for goofing off. Only rarely will I work on a manuscript at home. Home is where I am myself. There’s an avalanche of irony waiting to fall on this ‘self’ business, but it’ll remain unsaid. What I mean is, at home I’m a husband, a father, a brother, and so forth. There are no airs at home. There’s plain talk, daily stuff that look a lot like dishes, or laundry or bills. The only illusions are the ones that keep the domestic economy going. All the letters and the phrases and the sentences, and all the teeming thoughts and notions and half-wishes and dreams and imaginings – the whole shooting gallery - they will wait. It’s not like I am ever short of that stuff.

It was different when I taught. Let me make a guess at how many writers also worked or work in teaching: maybe 101%? At any rate, there were many hours of marking and planning and writing done at home. But for me, writing is an adventure that means going out into the world. I prefer busy places, like malls and university libraries.

So each morning I head for a well-trodden path, a meandering journey that will land me somewhere between the Kelly and ‘the J’ – someplace indoors, I should add.

The Kelly: The John M. Kelly Library, St. Michael’s College.

‘The J’: The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre

On any given day, writing gets done in the Kelly, or in the Robarts, or in OISE. They are all places I knew from undergrad and grad times. I’ll head there on the motorcycle, or walk it, or give in and take the subway down from St Clair. With a U of T Alumnus card, you have a pretty-well an infinite source of books and research materials.

The Kelly Library has real appeal. It’s redolent of the Catholic Irish background I came up through, and like the saying goes, you don’t leave home, you carry it with you. A lot of writing comes from a mood. I don’t mean waiting for a mood, or a Muse, or even trying to cultivate one. The ritual of going to this ‘serious’ place dissociates me from the rest of the day’s doings, and that does it. For a while at least, time vanishes, along with the other items that rule the day, and I’m in story-time. It’s often said that writing is lonely, but I think the better word is solitary, and solitary is okay. Spending time with imaginary friends is only bad for you if you start including them in cooking supper.

A big part of the attraction of the Kelly library is the trappings of the place. Nondescript at best on the outside, its saving grace a deep sheltered area at the front. Someone woke up there not long ago too, and put in outdoor tables and chairs, and that made a huge difference. Once in the doors, the Kelly it is serious place, a place of the written word. It’s a place that declares a mission of a steady, assertive spiritual devotion that works itself out in the world.

You sense it right away. A device that looks like it was used in the Inquisition is planted four-square in the middle of the ground floor: a printing press. The neon art installation tucked around the corner says much too. It’s two words there glow wanly - ‘Is’ and ‘Was.’ I’m far from that fervent Irish Catholic altar server of eleven years old, but I get it. It puts things in perspective. I smile when I see it – maybe not a good sign. I also feel McLuhan’s comforting mischief lurking hereabouts, his seriousness, his awe of the world, his recoil from the debasement and disenchantment of modern life.

Maybe the most telling item of all in the Kelly is the set up for readers there, for serious readers I mean. Large armchairs face the wall. Read, this declares. Commune with words. Focus. Give yourself over to this work. Go get lost, and find yourself. Another part of the attraction has to be the irony of me writing detective stories in this serious place of scholarship. They’re hardly the theological exposition or the semiotic analyses that I imagine could be/ should be issuing from the place. Or maybe they’re a different kind of mystery, let’s say.

The Robarts has more places to hide in. It is still the ‘Fort Book’ it was since it was given that name in the 70s. It is hard to like. This past year, there have been makeovers in the lobbies and in the seating upstairs, and excellent work it is too. From a perch in one of those dramatic glass-clad corners – ‘an Apex’ the view out over the city and its canopy of trees is mesmerizing. For historical research – or speculation, I should say – it is peerless. I defy anyone not to be stunned at the knowledge one can access, or connect to there.

OISE will work for a day or so, but only for these reasons:

A) Its floor to ceiling windows look out on Bloor St. There is a killer view of the CN Tower and the bank towers.
B) OISE has ridiculously comfortable chairs. No slouches, no adjustments, but fab wheels.
C) (This one ain’t pretty) The comic appeal of glimpses of the OISE Mind at work. The educational Kool-Aid runs like the Nile there, ever more so even than when I studied there.

But no matter which library I end up in, the morning is for longhand, for writing ‘new stuff.’ This often means rewriting ‘old stuff’ to make proper ‘new stuff.’ It also means tearing up ‘bad stuff.’ It is very much a paper and pen event. There will be stickies with ideas, bits of the bottom of shopping lists where more ideas on the run were scribbled, print outs from the web (latest gangland news, or postings on a board in Ireland.) The very few times I sort of come to, and look around, I have registered the odd curious glance at the bits of paper and pens and pencils that I’m immersed in. Usually, the afternoon is for word processing or editing.

By mid afternoon, the body cries out for the real world. That’s where ‘the J’ comes in. The JCC marks the beginning of what we call the Golden Block. That is Bloor, from Spadina to Bathurst. Golden because of a million places like Future Bakery, Pauper’s, a half dozen sushi/sashimi spots, Book City, and more. The gym in the JCC is where the day usually comes together. There’s sweat and humour, and lots of clear evidence that the years can be held back and even mocked, but never banished. Why mention a gym here? It’s because it seems to have become part of the writing day. Maybe the gym it is a library of souls, if there is such a thing, or of characters at least.

There’s no bohemian rhapsody in our lives. There is the back garden on summer evenings, the kitchen window out on to the street in the winter. No late night sessions, clubs, installations, happenings, scandals, outrages, photo-ops, exhibitions. This we like too, and it’s not making a virtue out of necessity. IFOA invites are intoxicating, but I don’t think I will ever shed the feeling of being an impostor when around writers. What there is most evenings instead of bohemia is a restlessness that can only be dinged with a walk or a run. I usually head down through Wychwood, whatever the weather, night or day, and along Davenport, the old Indian trail, and back up to St Clair. If there were a way to make ideas visible, the sidewalks would be littered with them. It is true, solvitur ambulando. The better treks I go on are with friends I’ve known since childhood. We barely exchange a word, not for hours. Talking is sometimes very, very overrated.

None of this may seem miraculous in the slightest, but to me at least, it surely is. I don’t mean the output of the writing, I mean the ordinariness of a day like this. The fact that one can go to a fabulous library, sit in and write, have a coffee, think – and not get shot at or hassled or even questioned. Yann Martel’s remark about Canada feeling like a hotel bites into my mind often, but that only goes so far with me anyway. I’m reading about cognitive bias at the moment – buzz words for how we fool – and that may help explain it a bit, how we routinize the most spectacular achievements and events, and even come to expect more. It never ends. (For the summary dyspeptic take on this, maybe try Louise CK: ‘Everythings Amazing & Nobodys Happy’

Every morning, the blank page, the draw into story world, where we can be released from the weight of self-consciousness. I wonder if this return to the primitive can only happen in such a society as Canada provides, or such a space that a library opens for this. It's just preposterous.

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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John Brady

John Brady is the author of the acclaimed Matt Minogue mystery novels. His first Matt Minogue mystery novel, A Stone of the Heart, won the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award, and his novels Unholy Ground, Kaddish In Dublin, All Souls and The Good Life have all been shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. The sixth novel in the series, Islandbridge, was shortlisted for the Dashiell Hammett prize and his most recent, The Coast Road, was named a Globe & Mail Top 100 book for 2010.

Go to John Brady’s Author Page