Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writing in the Hometown

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The literary myth that writers must leave their hometowns in order to write about them played a big role in my teenage imagination. I fantasized about doing dishes in Paris like Orwell or risking it all for Europe like Mavis Gallant (only I pictured myself as Patti Smith off the A-train in Manhattan). But I did neither escape and I think I am better for it.

Living and writing in the town or city one grew up can be a privilege. It can force you to make your eyes fresh for every familiar thing you look at, and to probe known surfaces as a stranger does. How many times have I walked through the alley behind The Green Room, snow-covered and staring down that myopic lane of garages and graffiti, or in summer, when 19 year olds lean against the locked garage doors, smoking and pushing their bodies closer with the electricity of fireflies? More than a thousand times. But every time I pass through this familiar alleyway, my history in Toronto, the image right in front of me, and my imagination, are having this wild three-way call that I sometimes have the pleasure of eavesdropping on – and that’s when some of my most satisfying writing moments happen.

One of the best compliments about my novel Where We Have to Go I've recently blushed to was “You really got Toronto in the 1990’s.” This came from the gifted poet Michael Lista, and Michael lived Toronto in the 1990’s so he’s got clout on the subject among many others. Later, when the buzz of the compliment led to some reflection, I started thinking about Toronto in the millennium and how different it would it look and sound on the page than my Toronto of the 1990s. I think, and this not an exaggeration, it would look and sound like a new city. Immediately Yonge Street came to mind. That painted lady has lost its shady glamour, the basement head shops are empty, and the tattered Jenna Jameson and Bart Simpson flags have become pathetic vestiges of a time when the strip wasn’t a strange concrete playground for tourists. Dundas Street near Trinity Bellwoods, has changed too, only the renovations have refined its fine features rather than re-fashioned them.

For me, getting out of my apartment to write is necessary, even when I’m making excuses for why my desk is where it’s at. There’s a kind of negative stillness/stagnation that can set it when I sit in the same place for too long. It’s not like staring into a pond and seeing the reflection of the trees and the swatches of rainbow colour dancing. It’s more like Narcissus watching his own coffee getting cold. When that happens, I know it’s time to get out into the city. I usually have a stable of about four places that I like to go to read and write. Right now, I like the grassy area just outside an abandoned school and schoolyard on Dovercourt because it has this ghostly aura about it that makes me imagine guys with mullets in Wrangler jeans, which is perfect for what I’m working on right now. I also like the basement of the Y, which has recently installed bright green chairs and tables. Watching people swim is a combination of giant aquarium and the ballet. It’s relaxing.

A few days ago, I asked some of my favourite Toronto writers and friends about their favourite places to read and write in the city. I was curious about how local writers see and work in the public spaces that surround them. And in particular, these questions were on my mind: is it necessary to keep writing in the same place to sustain one’s inspiration? Do people have more satisfaction writing across the city rather than across the street? I got some very interesting answers and you can read what they said below.

Later today I’ll be posting my Q & A with Anansi poet Michael Lista, plus a video we made outside of the church on Grace Avenue.

Saw: The deserted corner of College and Dovercourt at 6:30 in the morning as I packed my bags to Leonard Cohen.

Going: Ocean City, NJ, slip around the golden horseshoe, due west into Pennsylvania, then straight into the ocean.

Favourite Places For Reading and Writing in Toronto

Zoe Whittall - Poet and Novelist

I'm a coffee snob and go wherever there's free wifi, so starbucks and other chains are out. Sometimes I write at the Linux Cafe (Harbord/Grace) because it's a stone's throw from my house, and I can do a load of laundry next door and drink a good coffee while I write. To borrow a phrase from cultural critic / experimental writer-artist Brian Joseph Davis, it is filled with "common geek folk". Laptops on almost every table, free software bins, and several CBC journalists I like to eavesdrop on. The food is expensive but often pretty good, healthy stuff.

I used to regularly haunt places on queen west (the stretch between Dovercourt and Brock called Queer West - a bit of an annoying pun but whatevs) but I've since moved off Ossington and it's not as convenient. But The Beaver is fun for free wifi, cupcakes and the queer art vibe. The Gladstone has some good sunlight coming in the windows. I wrote some scenes in the Gladstone in my next novel, so I spent some time writing it in that space to get the detail. Probably my favourite joint in that area is the cafe on Argyle and Dovercourt - Montreal bagels, good coffee and lots of laptop plugs. Can't remember what it is called Lula? Lulu?

I have recently taken to working at the Common on College near Dufferin. Hands down the best coffee around, big tables, lots of good people watching. I also go there because it's close to the Y and I can bribe myself with a post-workout coffee. I see a lot of other writers there during the day.

Now that I'm closer to the Annex, I've started exploring the options on Bloor/Bathurst, though it seems as if it's a freelance/student mecca or something - trying to find a free table to work is sometimes difficult. I do like the Green Bean at corner of Bloor and Bathurst.

Lindsay Zier-Vogel - Poet and Novelist

These days, my very favourite spot to read a book is on a picnic blanket (that happens to be waterproof on one side to avoid wet-grass-bum-syndrome) in Trinity Bellwoods Park, at the tree just east of the rainbow painted wolf. That park is so alive with frisbee and softball and in-love couples and kids toddling and folks picnicking, it makes every chapter feel more alive. Add in a gin and tonic in a Mason jar and there's not a better way to spend a summer evening (or afternoon!)

For writing, the ultimate location depends on my process. If I'm in the hardcopy-computer-print-out editing phase, I love working in the same spot in Trinity Bellwoods Park with a tupperware container full of watermelon, or at the Victory, with a glass of cold white wine. In the winter, sitting at the edge of the bar is my favourite place to flip through page after page, bright blue pen in hand, and in the summer, sitting at an uneven patio table, surrounded by voices that I can hear and not is fabulous for working.

If I'm editing on my computer, I do so love working at Ideal Coffee on Ossington. The tables are wide and the coffee is strong and I love sitting on the bench that may or may not be an old pew. There's something perfectly puritanical about it's hard wood edge. But my writing and editing processes change every two or three months or so. I've had long stretches at Ella's Uncle, with a great view of Dundas Street, at the Linux Cafe on Harbord, where I'd order peanut butter on toast and a bowl of Corn Pops cereal, or at Manic Coffee where I always end up running into old university chums and it feels like I'm at that coffee shop in Friends.

Evie Christie - Poet and Novelist

I don’t write in public, I’m anxious about what might happen and an awful song or someone talking on their cell phone like it was the Loblaws intercom could set me back a week. I usually write at my computer, the street traffic and yelling from Wellesley below is fairly predictable and serves as a calming white noise apparatus.

I read in my frighteningly sound proof laundry room, in my early 90’s-mirrored elevators, from the rooftop overlooking Church and Wellesley and sometimes, lately, in Winchester park. The latter is the best, by far.

Evie Christie’s first book, Gutted was published by ECW in 2005. She’s working, very slowly, on some more poems. Her novella, The Bourgeois Empire is forthcoming.

Conan Tobias - Founder and Editor of Taddle Creek

I really like to read at the Jet Fuel Coffee Shop (519 Parliament Street, For some reason, despite the blaring (always excellent) music, it's the one place I don't feel distracted. (I also really like the coffee.) I just it's my unofficial east-side headquarters.

Jonathan Garfinkel – Poet, Playwright and Author of Ambivalence: Crossing the Israel-Palestine Divide (Penguin)

There are many places I like to read and write in Toronto. The trick for me is to go somewhere I won't see anyone that I know. Usually I go to a cafe but sometimes I like to write on the subway. I did this sometimes
with Ambivalence, towards the end, when I needed to get away from familiar faces and be surrounded by the anonymous. Movement seemed to help, too; it reminded me of traveling to unknown places. I'd put on a very nice pair of headphones, plug in my ipod, and ride the subway randomly through the city. I liked that, reading and writing at high speeds in that tunnel darkness, and found that it helped give me a new perspective on the text (I would avoid rush hour, of course). Every once in a while I would look up and wonder where the hell I was. The Yonge-University line was my route of choice, since it followed a U, rather than a simple horizontal line.

Steven Beattie - Writer, Blogger and Cultural Critic

I like to read and write in public places, in part because I find it a bit subversive to engage in activities that are so defiantly solitary while out in a crowd. It's not EXACTLY like masturbating in public, but it comes close.

One of my favourite places to read is the downstairs bar at the Imperial Pub. It's an oldey-timey place, with clientele to match (interspersed with Ryerson students and tourists staying at the Bond Hotel across the street). There's sufficient ambient noise to provide a background hum without being intrusive, and there's a kick-ass aquarium above the bar (with mini shark in it!). The only downside is occasionally having to engage in a drunken conversation about what you're reading and why, or break up a bar fight.

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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Lauren Kirshner

Lauren Kirshner is the author of the novel Where We Have to Go (McClelland & Stewart, 2009). Her short stories, arts reviews, interviews and poetry have appeared in newspapers and literary journals such as The Toronto Star, Now, The Hart House Review and Exile.

Go to Lauren Kirshner’s Author Page