Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writers' Trust Gala Guest Authors on Celebrating Margaret Atwood's 75th Birthday!

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Writers' Trust Gala Guest Authors on Celebrating Margaret Atwood's 75th Birthday!

Tomorrow night, November 25, dozens of authors and book lovers will gather at Toronto's Four Seasons Hotel to fete our country's most famous scribe and Scorpio — Margaret Atwood turned 75 on November 18, and the Writers' Trust of Canada has taken up her milestone birthday as the theme of this year's glamorous fundraising gala.

Each year the gala makes up an important part of the Trust's fundraising activities, allowing them to continue as the biggest non-governmental support system for Canadian writers, giving away almost half a million dollars annually. The gala features tables of donors, each featuring a Canadian writer with whom guests can chat about books, writing and much more.

We're talking to four of the guest authors invited to the gala, each of whom tells Open Book not only about his or her most recent book but also answers the most important questions — what are they wearing to the gala and what birthday message they'd like to send to Margaret Atwood!

Read on to hear about fantastic vintage finds, who is considering dressing up as an Atwood character and who shares a star sign with Ms. Atwood.
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Open Book:

Tell us a little bit about your most recent book.

Sandra Martin:

In my most recent book, Great Canadian Lives, I wrote about 50 Canadians including Pierre Trudeau, Mordecai Richler, Rocket Richard, June Callwood, Ted Rogers and Jackie Burroughs to test my thesis that long-form obituaries are some of the cultural building blocks of a country’s history. My subjects all died in the first decade of this century, but cumulatively they create a portrait of modern Canada and how it evolved through war, immigration, economic upheaval and the Charter. Now I am working on something very different, a book about end of life issues, including palliative care, assisted suicide and euthanasia.

Shawn Micallef:

Since I moved to Toronto from Windsor 14 years ago I’ve been thinking about class, something I didn’t think about when I lived there. Windsor is largely a working class town while the person I’ve become in Toronto is much more middle class. Class is a sensibility and hard to talk about, but I have long wanted to write something about it, an exploration and a way to figure out who I was and who I’ve become. The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class & the Pursuit of Leisure was my way into it.

There’s a lot of Windsor in it, much more of a memoir than I intended it to be, but I didn’t know how else to start. A place like Windsor has a lot of lessons for people in a big city with a large middle class economy but where so many people who are ostensibly part of that class work precarious jobs, contract to contract, with no benefits or pension. It’s like a working class wrapped in middle class conventions, though few make that connection. The work people do is so individualized and varied that it doesn’t pull people together the way old-school industrial jobs did. But there are connections through lifestyle pursuits, thus brunch. The trouble with brunch is that it could be so much more: more connections between people in the same precarious predicament that might lead to a wider recognition of those problems. In the past when people in the same boat have recognized their shared plight, solutions have been found. I hope the book nudges people into thinking about this stuff.

Lynn Thomson:

Birding with Yeats is a memoir of the birding trips my son, Yeats, and I took while he was in high school.

Since the 2014 Writers’ Trust Gala is dedicated to Margaret Atwood’s 75th birthday, I’m going to insert her into this short description of my book, even though she doesn’t appear anywhere in it. Margaret and her husband, Graeme Gibson, are avid birdwatchers. I didn’t write my book for serious birders like Margaret and Graeme, because I am a beginner myself, but I have had wonderful feedback from “real” birders. They have said my book reminds them of why they started birding in the first place and brings back the feelings they had while encountering various species for the first time.

I write about Yeats as a small child, too, and tell stories about my family, so that readers can understand why a teenaged boy might want to spend hours alone in the forest with his mother, looking for birds. A second thread of the book is my job as a bookseller, because the month Yeats began high school, September 2007, was the month my husband opened his bookshop, Ben McNally Books. I have worked there part time from the start, as have my three step-children and Yeats. So bird watching and book selling are intertwined in the story.

A third thread of the book involves the desires we have to hold on to things – our children, our marriages, the ideas we have of who we are. During the course of writing the book, I was faced with a health problem that gave me the opportunity to re-evaluate my life and its direction, and I write about that in the book, too.

Priscila Uppal:

Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother is a memoir of the twelve days I spent in Brazil reuniting with my mother who abandoned her two children and her quadriplegic husband twenty years earlier. It's a book about mothers and daughters, trauma and fantasies, family secrets and the movies.

Open Book:

What will you be wearing to the gala this year?

S. Martin:

Not sure what I will be wearing yet. All depends on whether I shed the five pounds I am aiming to lose before the gala.

S. Micallef:

This is a black tie event and though I don’t own a proper tuxedo, I like to cobble together makeshift tuxes. The standard tux is fine but all guys tend to look the same. Women have more creative fun at these kinds of events, but there’s room to play around with it for us, too.

I’m not into used clothes at all, they give me the creeps, but I came across a vintage bespoke Pierre Cardin tailcoat in a resale shop in Bear River, Nova Scotia nearly three years ago. Embroidered inside are the words “Tailored Exclusively for VIN DONNELLY – CRANSTON R.I.”. It makes it feel a little Edith Wharton-ish.

It was a most unlikely place to find such a thing, but it fit me perfectly which meant that I had to buy it for the $60 asking price, but I haven’t worn it yet because a piece like this runs the risk of being too much of a novelty costume rather than something really nice to wear. But maybe the Writers’ Trust gala is exactly the right setting to introduce it to Upper Canada society.

L. Thomson:

What will I wear to the gala? Thanks for reminding me! Ben and I went to the Giller gala, too, which was two weeks ago. Can I wear the same dress to both events? My grandmother would say, “No, dear, you cannot. You must buy or borrow another dress.” But the guys wear the same tux to everything so I don’t see what the fuss is. Maybe we should all go as something from a Margaret Atwood novel. I’ll go as a woman decked out as a sponge cake with green eyes and a pink dress.

P. Uppal:

I love dressing up, so am always delighted to be invited to galas. Although the classic black dress is always in style, I do get tired of looking at a sea of black, so I think I will wear a bright orange-red strapless Wayne Clark gown with a leg slit and frills that I just found at Monique’s Boutique vintage shop near my house. I recently underwent a rather extensive surgery, but this gown manages to cover my right leg bandages and expose my left leg so that I can be protected while being sexy.

Open Book:

This year’s gala celebrates Margaret Atwood’s 75th birthday. If you were to send Ms. Atwood a birthday card, what would you write in it?

S. Martin:

The same thing as I say to her every year: Happy Birthday Peggy, from one Scorpio to another. All the best for many more years.

S. Micallef:

Happy Birthday Ms. Atwood. I didn’t know you were 75 until this event. I hope I’m in my prime come 75, too. Thanks for dropping bits and pieces of the Toronto landscape into your books throughout the years; you’ve helped this city grow up, too.

L. Thomson:

If I wrote a birthday card to Margaret Atwood it would be simply that — a “Happy Birthday” card to a woman whose books we joyfully sell at her launches and in our shop. I admire her for many reasons, so I might say “Thank you for the great coffee,” or “Thank you for taking the time to mentor young writers,” or “Good luck on your next birdwatching tour.” But most likely I would stick to “Happy Birthday to you.”

P. Uppal:

Dear Margaret, Please publish a list of the 75 most important things you've learned in life.


Sandra Martin is a former Globe and Mail feature and obituary writer. She has won the Atkinson and Canadian Journalism Fellowships and multiple National Magazine Awards for her work. Ms. Martin’s book Great Canadian Lives brings an assortment of her most notable obituaries together in one quirky collection that sheds light on the lives of the no-longer living. Ms. Martin lives in Toronto.

Shawn Micallef is an author, a weekly columnist at the Toronto Star, and a senior editor and co-owner of the independent magazine, Spacing. He teaches at the University of Toronto, where he was a 2011–2012 Canadian journalism fellow at Massey College. Mr. Micallef was the Toronto Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence in fall 2013. The Trouble with Brunch is his second book of nonfiction. He lives in Toronto.

Lynn Thomson’s first book, Birding with Yeats, a reflective memoir about change, motherhood and the natural world, was published earlier this year. It recounts the trip Ms. Thomson took with her son, Yeats, to go birding in Vancouver, and how their unusual shared hobby provides both a refuge and bonding opportunity during a transitional period in their lives. Ms. Thomson lives with her family in Toronto, where she is actively involved in the independent bookselling scene with her husband at his eponymous bookstore, Ben McNally Books.

Priscila Uppal was poet-in-residence at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games and the 2012 London Summer Games, and is a professor at Toronto’s York University. Her memoir, Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, is a visceral and brutally honest account of a reunion with the mother who abandoned her when she was eight. It was shortlisted for the 2013 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. She lives in Toronto.

For more information about the Writers' Trust and their initiatives, please visit their website.

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