Authors 4 Indies

messy-freelance-writer-desk-540x303That messy desk isn’t mine, but it comes close. It happens that this very busy writer is trying to do too many things at once — work on a novel manuscript, revise a batch of poetry, plan publicity for an upcoming book — so I’m afraid that The Thoughtful Blogger has become Blogger on Hold. But — wait!

It’s Spring at last, and hibernation’s over!6a00d83451f05a69e20168e8ac6bc5970c-800wi

Have you heard about Authors for Indies Day? That’s May 2nd — and it’s a Canada-wide chance for writers to come out and support some of our best friends, the independent bookstores which stock and sell our (sometimes obscure, always wonderful) work! We’ll be chatting up readers, talking about books that have thrilled us and, hopefully, selling loads of these! There’ll be readings, too, and refreshments. And FYI, here’s where I’ll be:

1. Another Story Bookshop @ 315 Roncesvalles, Toronto, from 11-12pm.
2. Book City @ 2354 Bloor W, 2 blocks west of Jane, at 2pm. Drop by and here me read from my new fall release, Here Comes The Dreamer.

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It’s going to be a great cross-country event! And if you’re in Canada, you don’t have to be in Toronto to take part. Your local independent bookstore has authors coming, too. To find a store near you, check out http://www.authorsforindies.com/.

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Poem for Rosie

photo: Roger_Paw

photo of Rosie: Roger_Paw

Those of you who follow this blog know about my interest in a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks, Bobby and Rosie, whose turf is New York City’s Washington Square Park. For reasons unknown to their fans, NYU, which sponsored their webcam, decided to shut it down last spring. Did Rosie miss her worldwide audience? She’s not talking — we’ll never know. What we do know is that this fine haggard has not been seen in the park since last September.

We’re not sure what’s become of her. Hawks mate for life, and her absence may mean that she perished in an accident. January is nest-building/renovating season for hawks, so no doubt Mother Nature will provide Bobby with a new female companion soon.

Rosie and Bobby were the parents of three delightful broods: Boo and Scout (2012), Kiku, Archie and Judson (2013) and Orla and Silver (2014).

Here is a poem for Rosie:

 

Bless Rosie, vanished now,
proud haggard of Washington Square,
matriarch of springtime, three nests full,
her young clumped under her wing —

bless the infinite strangeness of who she is,
a living wilderness, gliding across cities.

Bless Bobby, her mate, who’d mount the axis of her body,
wings outstretched, as if she were the whole earth bending toward the sun,
who waits on a lone branch for the length of days
to bring her home.

And if she does not return,
a solitary hawk will come to him,
to the small park, where they will bend the sky
into each other.

There will be young in a new nest
who will one day vanish, as Rosie did,
as if she had never come, or never left.

 

© Carole Giangrande

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Necessary Souls: Charlie Hebdo

 

Bruce MacKinnon, Halifax Chronicle-Herald

Bruce MacKinnon, Halifax Chronicle-Herald

 

 

As a writer, I have to speak about the assassinations in Paris. Here are the fragmentary thoughts that kept me awake last night:

Another name for the will to absolute power — in the name of God or not — is fascism.

Another name for murder without guilt is psychopathy.

No religious excuses. If you have to “defend” your ideas with guns, you have no ideas to defend.

Islamist radicals are not listening to mainstream Muslims who condemn these terrorist acts. They are listening to their own online voices. Each side claims that the other’s view is false religion. Both sides call themselves Muslims. If so, than a part of Islam has given itself over to unspeakable violence.

How do we put a stop to this reality without inflicting bigotry on peaceful Muslims?

This cruel attack on freedom of expression knocks the breath right out of me. As a native New Yorker who carries 9/11 in her bones, I stand up and say “je m’appelle Charlie.”

I mourn the death of such necessary souls: satirists, jesters, clowns. In their memory, let’s raise hell — or at least support those who mock idiots.

That’s all I have to say.

 

 

 

 

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Strangers and Cities

IMG_4532The photo on the left shows one of my favourite urban nature photographers at work in North America. Without giving his name away, I’ll add that I’m a long-time admirer of his photo blog. He works for a news agency; in his spare time, he hangs out with the wild critters in New York’s Central Park.

At one time, he took spectacular shots of Pale Male, the park’s resident Red-Tailed Hawk, with what appeared to be a 14-inch astronomical telescope (dubbed the Hubble by some of the locals). His grasp of composition and use of light allow him to make art of a technically demanding kind. Have a look at http://www.palemale.com/

So I couldn’t believe my luck when on Boxing Day, I spotted the photographer at work in Central Park near Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, across from the high-end condo that houses Pale Male’s nest. He was setting up his elaborate rig to photograph PM’s mate Octavia, preening high up in a tree. Now I’m an aspiring photographer, so I thought I’d say hello, express my appreciation for his work and maybe ask him a few questions.

“Excuse me, sir?” I said.

No answer.

I tried it again. Either it was his utter concentration or the thick ear-flaps on his winter hat, but he appeared to ignore me — or not to have heard me. Before I could get too disappointed or embarrassed, I made myself look up at Octavia the Hawk as I tried to figure out how to take a photo of her contortions as she set about picking nits from her feathered hind parts. (My pathetic effort — absent huge telephoto — is on view below).

 

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And then it took hold, that unwritten law of public life in New York City: where two or more people are gathered together pointing at something, the two will morph into twenty. This phenomenon is one of urbanity’s delightful little mysteries, like a spring pond erupting with tadpoles.

 
No one’s shy in New York City (including this ex-New Yorker who resides in the quiet precincts of Toronto). A gentleman — a Manhattan resident — asked me what I was looking at, and I did my Tour Guide imitation with my store of Hawks 101 factoids: “Now that’s a Red-Tailed Hawk, she lives in the park with her mate. If you’ll step over to the right, you can see her red tail-feathers; that’s how you know she’s an adult,” etc.

 
I got right into it, repeating variations on the same spiel to everyone who asked a question, adding that the man a few feet up ahead was a famous blogger who didn’t want to be disturbed. It was as if my imagination had free reign, inventing characters for a story, and in the process turning strangers into friends and a preoccupied soul into a Midtown Michaelangelo.

 
It’s well known that New York’s the home of the extrovert, a cradle of spontaneous events. For just a moment, people connect, and when the moment passes, the joy of connection holds the imagination and lingers like a fragrance in the air.

 
Toronto’s not like that. It has its own peculiar gift of shyness and secrets.

 
When we returned home, we went birding at a park in the city’s west end (I’m not naming it for a reason, as you’ll see below). On that day, there were few birds to be seen.

 
As we got in the car and were about to leave, someone tapped on the window, a park regular who my husband had run into on another occasion. He’d found a Saw-whet Owl, he explained, and he asked if we’d like to see it. Saw-whets are tiny brown-and-white flecked creatures, only about 20 cm in height, difficult to see in their shadowy evergreen perches.

 
We followed him into the woods. It felt mysterious to me — a tap on the window, a stranger beckoning, a walk down a hidden path. Who was this guy, anyway, and why had he picked us?

 
It turns out that he was looking for folks who’d know better than to attract a mob to the spot, who’d not frighten the owl. He left us to observe it, leaving as quickly as he came.

 
Whenever we’d hear a crowd trampling down the main path, we’d clear out until they passed, then return to the hidden spot.There the owl sat on its branch, aware of us, a small and compact package of life, watching, lowering its eyes.

 

My first view of a tiny Saw-whet was a gift from a stranger, given in silence and thoughtfulness. In its reticence, it was pure Toronto.

 

The photo is mine. We watched the owl in solitude and awe, and then we left.

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The Hawk Is Always There

Busy as the weekend was (with holidays fast approaching), a few moments of abundant joy found their way into my hectic space. I hadn’t planned for this to happen. In fact I was so frazzled that I might have missed out altogether. Sometimes you just get lucky.

In the Christian tradition, it’s the beginning of Advent, the hopeful season of great anticipation before Christmas. To be truthful, I hadn’t given it much thought. You might say I tripped over my own version: an awareness that something wondrous is humming under the surface of existence, ready to break into the ordinary world. Now and again I sense this, whatever the season. IMG_4317

Here’s how it started: Between Saturday grocery-shopping and household chores, we made a trip to a local birders-supply store where a skilled bird-handler was visiting with his beautiful Great Horned Owl, Alex. By law, raptors may only be owned for educational purposes (or by licenced falconers), and this astonishing bird had all of us — especially the kids — as wide-eyed as the owl.

Her sheer size, her golden eyes and the layered beauty of her feathers was breathtaking.IMG_4320 And yes, the rapport between bird and man had me shaking my head in wonder. Alex sat still, talons resting on her keeper’s gloved hand, then turned her head from side to side, appearing to co-operate with a battery of smartphones by eyeing the flash at exactly the right moment. IMG_4325

There was more. In the back of the store, a woman from the Canadian Peregrine Foundation was demonstrating her Peregrine Falcon, until recently an endangered species. For those of you who don’t know, falcons are among nature’s natural-born killers. Small and streamlined, these feathered fighter-jets can fly at speeds of two hundred kilometres an hour in pursuit of whatever hapless bird gets in the way.

But not Oscar, described by his keeper, as “my boy.” The little guy (15 years old), born in captivity, “imprinted” on his human mother. He’s gentle, doesn’t fuss much (except for an occasional wing-flap). He’ll never be mature enough to live in the wild, but he and his loving mom make the rounds of schools to introduce children to a magnificent creature they might never otherwise see.

And just in case you think nothing can surprise you, watch this little falcon pecking atIMG_4342 “mama’s” nose and her pats and kisses in return. She’s proud of Oscar. She loves this little guy, she’s given fifteen years of her life to his care and as far as I could tell, Oscar is a happy and remarkably affectionate raptor.

The human capacity for love in all its forms is a wonder.

And who’s to say that the falcon, in his own unknowable falcon-ish way, can’t love her back?

I carried this delightful experience in my heart all day and brought it with me to Mass on Saturday evening to observe the beginning of Advent. We attended an intimate campus gathering — a beautiful, simple liturgy that spoke to the awakening of life in these dark days. It conveyed a sense of the wondrous about to break through the surface of ordinary life. It was a beautiful call to the spirit to be watchful, to remain awake.

photo: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

photo: Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The following morning at breakfast, I looked out the window and saw a hawk.

I’m new to bird-watching and I’d never spotted one on my own before, not at such close range. It glided down — a good-sized creature — then perched on the hedge close to the window. I glimpsed its slate-coloured back, its ruddy chest, its magnificent aquiline profile. No doubt it was a Cooper’s Hawk. It seemed like an apparition.

After a moment, it spread its wings and flew.

A day later, as I was writing this blog, the hawk returned.

Native Americans see the hawk as a messenger, a creature which embodies wisdom, clear vision and insight; also as one which carries our prayers to the Great Spirit. In the classical framework of Western theology, the idea doesn’t work. We’re linear thinkers and therefore we live inside of time. Yet if we remove time from the equation, if we consider an eternal “present,” then reality shifts. The hawk is always there, waiting to open our eyes.

Some say that all things are possible with God.

Yet faith (or lack of it) doesn’t change the picture. Gifts abound, even on the most ordinary day. It’s far from a perfect world, but we can’t blame the hawks for that. Or even the falcons.

In this holiday season, I wish you moments of wonder.

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Motion Sickness: An Interview with Ursula Pflug

UnknownSomething new today, dear reader (and perhaps a bit longer than usual) — an interview with author Ursula Pflug about her brand-new flash-fiction novel, Motion Sickness, published by Inanna. Neither a graphic novel nor a conventional one, her book deals with the simplest of things — a young woman’s meanderings through friendship, work and love — in whimsical, complex and poetic ways. I can’t imagine a conventional “review” for this unique and original work, so instead we’re speaking with Ursula, a critically acclaimed author in many forms, including two novels and a short story collection.

For your novel Motion Sickness, you’ve used the flash-fiction format; each chapter is exactly 500 words long. Why did you decide to do this?

I’m an overwriter, so I have plenty of experience creating everything-but-the kitchen-sink narratives that then require massive scaling back. The ceilings were a nice way to prevent that before the horses even got out of the stable. The precise word counts were just for fun; they gave the writing a puzzle-like quality.

Along with shaping the story, this format builds dramatic tension. Your off-the-wall characters have to work against a very tight structure. For the reader, that contrast between form and content is an engine that drives the story forward. Could you comment on this?

Along with being an overwriter I’m also the kind of person who believes an internal shift in your protagonist counts as a plot point. The rigid structure was a reminder that something had to happen in every chapter; I needed to counterpoint Penelope’s poetic perceptions about life with external hurdles, and I think this made for more of an event-filled book.

Could you talk more about your writing process? What planted the germ of this story in your mind?

I won an award in the UK for a flash piece some years ago and thought I’d do more but I wasn’t happy with the results. I have collections of old hard drives and even filing cabinets spilling over with works-in-progress that I hold on to — we’ve all got them — stories that never quite held together but had enough spark that we couldn’t abandon them…

So there I was, wanting to do more flash, but not finding inspiration for the content. I poked around in my archives and came across a short story called “Lunch with Nathan.” It appealed to me because it was already written in the short sentences and punchy style that suited the form. As I began work and a longer story started to emerge I realized I could try a flash novel.

The illustrations are very effective. Did you conceive of Motion Sickness as an illustrated, large-format work?

I did! Illustrations yes, large format, no. That was Val Fullard, the Inanna designer’s particular genius. Once I began the writing I became more and more sure I wanted to have drawings. I envisioned it just as it is, a chapter with a facing illustration. Motion Sickness is a hybrid, not techincally a graphic novel, but it’s closely related — the prose sections are short and the drawings are paramount.

There are so many difficult real-life elements in the story — a creepy stalker, unhappy sex, drugs, abortion — that in other hands, might have made for a grim read. Yet with your central character Penelope, you’ve managed to avoid clichés and tell her story with a light touch. Was this your intention?

Well, humour is what gets us through, often as not, isn’t it? Thanks for saying I avoided clichés; it’s important to me that’s noticed and appeciated, not least because of some of the books that have done really well the last few years. I’m hoping there’s a bit of a pendulum swing back towards quality; the recent success of writers like Ruth Ozeki and Jeff VanderMeer are inspiring.

I believe every story is worth telling, and every story is brilliant if told in a way that does it justice…While it’s true that events or accomplishments make some lives stand out more than others, our perception of life is unique to each of us…It’s Penelope’s idiosynchratic take on things that helps her to survive, providing distance when necessary.

In the end, did the book surprise you? I’m speaking here of the poetic sense that rises out of the story. It feels in some ways surreal and even whimsical at times.

I’m basically a literary writer whose work is infused with elements of the fantasic, whether fantasy, science fiction or magic realism. Motion Sickness is actually the least fantastic of all my books. Heather Spears said it takes place ‘on the verge of the real,’ which I adore. She also said the titles read like poems. After she pointed it out I thought about why I’d done that — and this is a process note, again. The style for the texts was necessarily one of short sentences, but the titles weren’t subject to restrictions, so I had room to create wandering poetic phrases. I enjoyed the counterpoint.

The poetic sense you noticed comes from style but also from character. Right at the beginning we learn that Penelope’s a scribbler, kicking her way through fallen leaves to get to park benches where she can chew on pencil ends…Maybe she would have changed her life sooner if she hadn’t been a scribbler, but it’s also what made her notice Theo, a fellow writer and eventual soul mate. “Hearts on ropes and flowers on telephone poles,” as he likes to remind us.

As to the surpises — I was contantly surprised! Half the time when I sat down to write I had no idea what was about to emerge. Penelope had all kinds of crazy things happen to her that were unforseen to me, and she also had original ways of processing experience that delighted me. I ended up wishing she was someone I knew in real life. I wanted to sit in a leaf-strewn November park with her, drinking takeout coffee and talking about life, or maybe share a beer at Al’s Fish n’ Chips in the wee hours past closing time. Maybe that’s why I finally managed to finish writing her story: it was the only way I could spend more time with Penelope.

Thank you, Ursula…Ursula Pflug launches Motion Sickness at Inanna Publications’ Fall Launch #3: Monday evening, November 17th from 6 to 8:30pm at the Supermarket, 268 Augusta Ave. (Kensington Market), Toronto.

 

 

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Not Your Shrinking Violet

Note: The following was written for the Brockton Writers’ Series blog (www.brocktonwritersseries.wordpress.com) where it was posted two weeks ago to help promote their fifth birthday reading event, where I was one of the readers. It was a fabulous evening! If you’re in Toronto, I highly recommend this series.

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Midsummer front cover (lr)With the release of a new book, a ticking time-bomb always lies in wait, usually in the form of a nasty review. The good news: none of those for Midsummer. The weird news: faint, bleeping signals from the primitive “Who am I?” centre of the brain — and I thought I’d chucked that kind of introspection (along with my love-beads) long ago. Looks like my inner teen has been trying to sort things out.

It’s about ethnicity. Midsummer is a novella set in New York City, on the first day of summer 2000, as an Italian-American family gathers with relatives visiting from Rome. They’re dining at the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center; well below is the subway tunnel dug by their immigrant ancestor. Because of the subject matter, I’ve found myself mingling with Italian-Canadian authors and reading for audiences of the same background. As an immigrant to Canada with an distinctive Italian surname, you’d think I’d fit right in.

Not quite. The more I tuned in to the Italian-Canadian vibe, the more I realized that I wasn’t playing the same chords as the rest of the band. Most of my colleagues had either emigrated from Italy or were the children of immigrants. As a result, themes of loss and exile, struggle and belonging run through the work of Italian-Canadian writers.

This is not my world — not exactly. Apart from travel and efforts to learn the language, I have no connection at all to Italy. My grandparents immigrated to New York City as children more than a century ago. My parents, aunts and uncles spoke the Neapolitan dialect, and while I grew up appreciating Italian food and culture, Italian wasn’t taught in school. Had it been, I would have chosen a different language — Japanese, say — but I was just as happy to study French. I came to Canada for university, married and made my home here. And yes, eventually, I got around to studying Italian.

Ethnicity? I’m American. That’s the country that formed me, the identity to which I lay claim. Only the term “ethnic” pertains to minorities. So, OK — Italian-American, to be precise. Here’s a distinction: my Canadian friends of Italian background return to Sicily or Puglia to be nourished at their roots, while I do the same with the meandering downtown streets of Manhattan, the parks of the Bronx, where I began my life, the leafy corners of Westchester County, the suburb where I later lived.

That said, “American” is a tricky (and sometimes overbearing) identity to claim — not your shrinking-violet next-door neighbour. I used to be an on-air person on CBC Radio, and during the show, my producer would sometimes receive irate calls about my way of pronouncing various words. Is that — an American? the caller would say, is if he or she had been exposed to the scratchings of a large rodent. I worried about losing my job and I worked hard to erase my accent.

I’ve since decided that whatever its flaws, I like the country I come from.

In Canada, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” ethnic slot. As an American, I get to identify myself as such, even if my last name points to a more obvious ethnicity, an ancestral country that is, for me, a vanished place. Instead I cherish the peculiar beauty of Long Island Sound, the intense vitality of Manhattan’s streets, the sharing of common history with loved ones and, yes, the freedom to let my vowels collapse into New Yorkese. Yet, I’m Italian-American — and that’s a bit different from other Americans, as I learned growing up. But that’s a story for another day.

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NovHeader1Heads up, dear readers: I’ll be taking part in a panel at the Toronto International Book Fair this weekend, on “Where is the Italian?” Our job is to complete that sentence, and given what I’ve just posted, you’ll have some idea of what I might have to say. I’ll also be reading a short (relevant) excerpt from my novella Midsummer. That’s Saturday, November 15th, from 4:45 to 5:45pm, Metro Convention Centre, 455 Front St., Toronto. We’re on the ground floor, north bldg, rm. 203b.

And Coming Up: A first for Thoughtful B: next week, I’ll be interviewing author Ursula Pflug on her flash-fiction novel, Motion Sickness, launching November 17th!

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