Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Lessons from Gail Anderson-Dargatz, author of Turtle Valley

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Last night, I participated in a literary reading with Gail Anderson-Dargatz. She is one of Canada's grandest literary stars, so I studied her approach meticulously. Like all young writers, I too would like to be one of Canada's grandest literary stars, and one ignores the qualities of grandness at one's peril.

I made notes afterward.

Note the First: Make it personal.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz related the events of her latest novel, Turtle Valley, to her family's own story of fire and rescue and declining memory. It was moving. The audience was immediately involved, and sympathetic to her characters, to her family, and to her person. In the Q&A session after the reading, I noticed that most of the questions involved the writers' relationships to their characters, and to deny the forces of autobiography would make such questions unanswerable.

I attempted, gamely, to make Kal — my former hockey player — into me. I mean, look at me. I'm a sissy. It was inauthentic.

Future strategy: if a character or a situation in my novel is purely imaginative, pretend it isn't. Find a personal anecdote, preferably involving an injured dog, and relate it with a tone somewhere in between joy and sorrow.

Note the Second: Hug people.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz hugged a number of people, presumably friends and acquaintances. Even for those who were not hugged — I was hugged — it was a warm gesture to behold. As a potential buyer of her book, I found myself thinking, as I watched her hug people, "Someone who hugs people can't possibly write a boring novel!"

By contrast, I wrote in a very attractive woman's book that she is very attractive, which seemed to make her uncomfortable. Her husband or boyfriend, a large man with a goatee, loomed over her and failed to perceive the spirit of fellow-feeling that is my spirit.

Future strategy: more hugging, less flirting.

Note the Third: Read a romantic bit.

Gail Anderson-Dargatz read from a romantic section of her novel. Not kissy romantic, but romantic-feeling. It was, again, about memory and loss and passion. Fudge was intoned. There were audible sighs from the audience.

I read a section that ends with a man in the back alley cussing at his Harley-Davidson. I actually said the F-word aloud, which does not impress the sort of people who attend most bookstore events. Goodness knows they hear enough of that word at home.

Also, I read aloud from an essay I wrote about envying Yann Martel to the point of impotent rage. Why the hell did I do that?

Future strategy: eat more fudge.

Note the Fourth: Be nice to booksellers

Gail Anderson-Dargatz actually makes things for booksellers across the country when her novels come out. Independent booksellers are very, very important and powerful people. They hand-sell novels and talk to each other about their favourites. She had presented Laurie Greenwood, last night's bookseller, with a gift. And it all seemed remarkably sincere.

I asked for a glass of red wine and, when I didn't get it, made sarcastic remarks to Laurie Greenwood.

Future Strategy: learn to sew.

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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Todd Babiak

Todd Babiak is the author of the bestselling novel The Garneau Block (McClelland & Stewart, 2006) and the award-winning novel Choke Hold (Turnstone, 2000). His latest novel is The Book of Stanley (McClelland & Stewart, 2007).

Go to Todd Babiak’s Author Page