Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Word on the Street interview series: David Penhale

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David Penhale

Today's featured author in our The Word on the Street interview series is David Penhale, author of Passing Through (Cormorant Books).

Open Book's interview series features authors appearing at the Vibrant Voices of Ontario tent, a brand-new element at WOTS which is supported by the OMDC (Ontario Media Development Corporation), and which features some of the best fiction, poetry and non-fiction being produced by writers and publishers in our fine province.

Stay tuned to Open Book: Toronto this month for more interviews and a series of exciting contests in partnership with Word on the Street! Check out the contests here, here and here.

Open Book:

Tell us about what you’ll be reading in the Vibrant Voices tent.

David Penhale:

Passing Through tells the story of Daniel Foster, a man who returns to Canada after living the good life in the Middle East for twenty-five years. Foster is on his way to Thailand, where he plans to spend a cushy retirement. Mary, his estranged daughter, and Shawna, his young granddaughter, live in Toronto, and he is stopping over for a few days to put their lives in order. Or so he thinks — fate intervenes, in the form of a bank failure, and he finds himself stranded in a Canada he scarcely recognizes and thrown in with a family he doesn’t know at all.

The story is partly autobiographical. I lived in Dubai for a time and had planned to stay longer, but landed back in Canada rather abruptly. People ask if I experienced culture shock in the Middle East. In fact, I felt quite at home in Dubai. The culture shock — and it packed a wallop — hit me when I returned to Ontario. The grass was too green, the streets too straight, the weather too changeable. What would the first year back in Canada be like for someone with even more at stake, someone whose entire existence gets turned upside down? Passing Through explores that idea.


Have you attended Word on the Street in the past? If so, tell us about a favourite memory. If not, what are you most looking forward to?


A year or two ago, I worked my way down a crowded aisle at the Toronto WOTS and came across a table covered with paperback editions of the New Canadian Library. There they were, the titles that had taught me so much about the Canadian experience — As for Me and My House, by Sinclair Ross, Over Prairie Trails, by Frederick Philip Grove, The Clockmaker, by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan, and many, many more. The books were going for pennies. It hurt to see them so unceremoniously dumped. But then I had another thought. The books had escaped a warehouse. They would find readers here. An update on this story: McClelland & Stewart is reissuing the series, which is very good news.

While I’m at it, I’d like to plug another significant Canadian book. Cormorant, my own publisher, has republished Earth and High Heaven, a novel by Gwethalyn Graham. First published in the forties, the novel is set in Quebec and deals with antisemitism. Earth and High Heaven was a best seller in — wait for it — the United States. Graham published only two novels before her untimely death. She won a GG for both of them. How
many of us know her name? Let us praise our literary heroes. We will be a richer country for it.


The Vibrant Voices tent celebrates Ontario authored and published books. Tell us about a favourite Ontario author or book.


Just one? Fifth Business by Robertson Davies is a great book, a ground breaker as important to the literature of Ontario as Winesburg Ohio is to the literature of small town America. Alice Munro does for Huron County what Faulkner did for his bailiwick in the deep South. Hugh Garner, an author largely forgotten these days, wrote well about what it means to be shaped by life in this province. No one gets Toronto more right than Margaret Atwood.

If I have to choose one book, it would be Abra, a novel by Joan Barfoot. The story haunts me. A young mother walks away from her family, finds a cabin in Northern Ontario and for eight years lives in isolation. Her eighteen-year-old daughter tracks her down. The women live together for a time, trying to understand each other and in the process, themselves. I spent my childhood in Toronto and Owen Sound, and there is something deeply familiar about these people and the way they interact. Barfoot gives the reader a pitch perfect rendition of their intimacies and distances. I know these women, the weight of their silences, the veiled significance of their words.


What’s the best advice about public readings you have ever received?


In the mid 90's, John Updike, a writer I revere, came to Toronto to read in Convocation Hall. I keep the ticket stub in my signed copy of In the Beauty of the Lilies, the novel Updike read from that night. When my spirits are low — after a bad day on the keyboard, for example — I touch the book.

Flashback to the reading. Updike is at the podium, taking questions. Questions that make me squirm in my seat, questions he has answered dozens of times before. Why hadn’t these people read the interview in The Paris Review? To my amazement, Updike answered every question as if it were new to him.

During the last year of his life, although he hadn’t done a book tour in a long time, he went back on the road to plug his last novel. He didn’t need the money. He could have been writing. He was dying but kept his illness a secret. He read to small audiences, signed books — and answered the same questions I had watched him field in Toronto. Updike knew that his audience loved books as much as he did. He treated readers with courtesy and respect.


Word on the Street happens simultaneously in Toronto, Vancouver, Lethbridge, Saskatoon, Kitchener and Halifax. If you could be in two places at once, which WOTS festival (in addition to Toronto) would you attend on September 25?


Can I circle “All of the above?” I got an undeserved D on a chemistry final doing that. No? You really want me to choose one.

Vancouver and Halifax are two of my favourite cities. I know Kitchener well, and I have been to Lethbridge. Saskatoon, I have never visited. Steven Ross Smith, a writing buddy from way back, lives there. (Hi, Steve.) So put me down for miraculous simultaneity in Toronto and Saskatoon.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I’m working on a second novel, a road story with an environmental theme. In fact I’m getting back to it. I was halfway through the first draft when Cormorant called and a rewrite of Passing Through took priority. The manuscript of novel two has been tucked away on my computer for almost a year now. The little people who hang out in my brain — I think of them as demented elves with time on their hands — send me messages from time to time: an idea for a scene, a scrap of dialogue.

How long will it take to write the book? Passing Through was seven years in the making. The second book will go faster, I hope. I know more about my own process.

David Penhale is a published poet. He spent several years in Dubai, and honed his first novel, Passing Through, at writing workshops at the University of Iowa. Penhale now lives in Toronto, where he teaches writing and is working on a second novel.

For more information about Passing Through please visit the Cormorant website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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