Literary Homes Away From Home | TIFA & Malta Book Festival

The life of the freelance writer can be nasty, brutish and long… at least it certainly feels that way as the deadline trenches continue to spew up new nasties and your trusted friends and allies get lost on the way, or are thrown into their own mix of churny nastiness.

All of this is to say that I haven’t quite been able to keep this blog up and updated as often as I’d wished (a perennial excuse/complaint by those of my ilk), which this time was particularly regretful given the awesome stuff that lies ahead.

Namely…

The Toronto International Festival of Authors 

Thanks to the kind collaboration/collusion between Merlin Publishers and the Consulate General of the Republic of Malta, I was able to say “yes” to the kind offer by the organisers behind the Toronto International Festival of Authors, a truly prestigious literary event that this year will feature guests like Angela Davis, John Irving, Adam Foulds, Adam Gopnik, Emma Donoghue and a plethora of intimidating-sounding others for what will be its 40th anniversary edition.

It still feels a little bit unreal to me, and I’m sure it’ll remain so right until we actually land in the beautiful-seeming city after what will be my first trip outside of Europe.

The grounding factor are of course the events I will be participating in, which are the following:

Reading & Conversation: Karen McBride, Teodor Reljić and Drew Hayden Taylor

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Saturday, October 26, 2019 – 4:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

These three authors examine the hidden secrets with which we live, in family life and in our hometowns. Karen McBride presents her first novel, Crow Winter. She is an Algonquin Anishinaabe writer from the Timiskaming First Nation in the territory that is now Quebec. Drew Hayden Taylor presents Chasing Painted Horses. He is a playwright, short story writer, novelist, journalist, activist for Indigenous rights and TV scriptwriter. Teodor Relijić presents Two. He is a writer of fiction, a freelance feature writer, and culture editor and film critic at MaltaToday. The conversation will be moderated by Wendy O’Brien. Hosted by Tunchai Redvers.

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Europe On Tour: Reading & Reception

Sunday, October 27, 2019 – 7:00 PM
Lakeside Terrace, Harbourfront Centre

No passport needed to meet, hear and learn from the European Union’s leaders in contemporary literature at this special event. For the second year running, the Festival is thrilled to present this rare chance to hear acclaimed works recited live in the languages in which they were originally written and in the authors’ own voices.

Spotlighted countries include Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. This event is presented in conjunction with the European Union National Institutes for Culture. Written English translations will be available. Readings will be followed by a licensed reception and the event will be hosted by Laetitia Delemarre.

Featured authors include:

Kai Aareleid (Burning Cities),

Esad Babačić (Every Child is Beautiful When Born),

Helena Janeczek (The Girl with the Leica),

Frido Mann,

Wilfried N’Sondé (Concrete Flowers),

Inês Pedrosa (Still I Miss You),

Rein Raud (The Death of a Perfect Sentence),

Teodor Reljić (Two),

Teresa Solana (The First Prehistoric Serial Killer),

Benedek Totth (Dead Heat),

and Gabriela Ybarra (The Dinner Guest).

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Authors on Tour at Union Station – Day 3

Monday, October 28, 2019 – 12 PM – 2 PM

The Toronto International Festival of Authors has partnered with Toronto’s Union Station once again to bring spirited author readings to Toronto’s busiest commuter interchange.
Hosted by Antanas Sileika, the events will spotlight a select lineup of authors, as well as a “Books On Tour” Library of favourite Festival titles of the past 40 years, which passersby are welcome to take home with them free of charge. Each author will present from their latest book on the topic of “travel” or “journeys” and interact with the audience. The event will take place in the West Wing of Union Station, immediately off the Great Hall at street level.

Next… 

The Malta Book Festival  

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A beloved event that is only growing from strength to strength with each passing year (much like Malta Comic Con, whose second day I’ll be attending pretty much after my Toronto-via-Rome plane back home lands on the Luqa gravel), this year’s edition of the Malta Book Festival is especially exciting for me.

Its chosen theme of speculative fiction is obviously close to my heart, and it is for this reason that its organising body, the National Book Council, kindly allowed me to pitch a couple of names into the ring of their then-burgeoning programme.

Happily, this resulted in both Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Kali Wallace to be selected for participation in a few events at the festival, both of whom I’ve met and made friends with at Cons in the Scarborough and Helsinki, respectively. They round out a set of international guests which also include Dave Rudden and none other than Judge Rosemarie Aquilina. My contributions to the Malta Book Festival, which runs from November 6-10 at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, will be the following:

Kali Wallace at the National Book Festival 

I will be interviewing Kali Wallace on November 7th at 18:00 about her already-prolific and eclectic range of novels, which span from horror to sci-fi, YA to middle-grade to adult fiction, and the latest of which has just been optioned for a big-budget film adaptation.

Kali wallace

Official event description:

U.S. author Kali Wallace will be talking to Teodor Reljić about her already prolific output, which includes the Young Adult cult favourites ‘Shallow Graves’, ‘The Memory Trees’ and ‘City of Islands’. Their talk will touch upon the dynamics of genre fiction and publishing, the difference between writing for young adults and adults, the legacy of space-horror thrillers such the ‘Alien’ franchise and their influence on her most recent work and debut novel for adults, ‘Salvation Day’. Because it is only right, a portion of the conversation will also be dedicated to a consideration of both interlocutors’ undeniably adorable fluffy cats.

Official Facebook Event

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Literary Speed Dating

Prior to that, I will also be participating in the inaugural edition of the Literary Speed Dating event, which according to the National Book Council, “will take place at the Authors’ Hub, a space specifically designated for one-to-one meetings during the Malta Book Festival.

“The idea behind this initiative is to get individuals from the public to meet you as an exhibitor/participant/important stakeholder in the book industry at the Malta Book Festival, in a setting which is more private than the usual ‘from behind the counter at the stand in a festival attended by thousands”.

My own slot will be on Wednesday, 6 November from 17:30 to 18:30, right before the Festival’s annual conference, which will this year feature Loranne Vella, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Kali Wallace and Dave Rudden in a discussion of the ‘strange new worlds’ propsed by sci-fi and fantasy fiction, as moderated by author and translator Mark Anthony Fenech.

Okay, time to strap in, literally and metaphorically. Hope to meet a bunch of you in the flesh! 

The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love | Antonio Piazza on Sicilian Ghost Story

One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.

With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.

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Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna

If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.

So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.

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Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story

We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”

Check out the interview on MaltaToday by clicking here

Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.