Just back from the Word on the Street book fair in Saskatoon. It was a terrific visit. The fair, in just its third year, is very much together already. I was interviewed on stage by the generous man and fine author (yes, people can be both) Arthur Slade. Had drinks and dinners with fellow authors, walked the riverside in  glorious end-of-summer sunshine, signed books for lots of readers and chatted with them. What’s not to enjoy?

One reader/volunteer threw me with a question after the on-stage event. ‘Why didn’t you talk more about Ysabel? That’s my favourite.’

People can move you and disconcert you simultaneously. I could have said, ‘Meet me halfway: ask about it!’ (There was a Q&A at the end.) But in fact I was touched and didn’t feel like joking. One of the things I have always liked is how it every one of the books is a favourite of some readers. Ysabel is tricky to talk about, actually. Need to avoid a major spoiler, and it requires some unpacking of my usual process to discuss how it is a mirror-image of many of the books that frame it. Instead of taking readers into a period of history, I brought the past into today, which allowed me to comment on some themes of history. (The different meaning of being ‘young’ through time, for example, or landscape, beauty, and violence.)

Here’s a picture Art had taken late on Sunday afternoon, of himself (on the right), me, and Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi, of course):


News arrived regarding French editions. L’Atalante, my publisher over there, announced that Under Heaven will be published next summer, and Alire, who publish me in Quebec sent a  copy of Quebec’s Book Club’s handsome edition of that book (I’ll upload an image when I get a jpeg). Elisabeth Vonarburg is to translate River of Stars for them, which makes me very happy. She’s a friend, a gifted author, and has done most of my work.

Various discussions in L.A. continue, but I still can’t relay any ‘real’ information. It is a bizarre place, you know. You do know that, don’t you?

Tomorrow I’m off to Italy for a short trip. Partly a fall getaway, but some work involved. I plan to get to Torcello in Venice’s lagoon, to see the mosaics there and lunch at the inn/restaurant where Hemingway hid in 1948 to write Across the River and Into the Trees.

On the road again

The second stage of touring/travel for a spring book usually kicks in during the autumn after. In Canada that’s an increasingly busy author’s festival season. It is also awards seaosn, but that’s a different matter.

Immediate trip is New York, for meetings with agents there (principal agent and the foreign rights department) and my splendid friend-and-editor Susan Allison. First discussions may take place about concepts for a new book. Maybe. Perhaps.

After emails and phone calls and juggling, I’ve worked it out through Penguin Canada that I’ll go to Saskatoon for their Word on the Street Book Fair on September 22nd. I’ll be interviewed on stage there by the very fine writer Arthur Slade, who is also a scholar and a gentleman of the first order. One other writer attending is the equally fine Lesley Livingstone, and I have a memory of the two of them (who have apparently never met) threatening/promising to have a sword fight. This may be even more fun than usual. (Lesley is tough, Art may be in trouble.)

I’m also going to do Toronto’s major literary event, the Harbourfront Author’s Festival, on Sunday November 3rd. Again a stage interview it appears (as of now); not sure whom I’ll have to fend off or make laugh. I’ve also agreed to do one of Harbourfront’s ‘outreach’ gigs, in Owen Sound. I really like the idea behind these, where smaller communities around Toronto can reap the benefits of the authors from all over the world coming into town for the main festival.

And finally (for now) grant funding came through to the Halifax library for their request to have me read and speak there, so I’ll be headed that way later in November. Not sure which dates yet, but it is a long way off, we are still in midsummer here, right? Campari on a terrace not single malt inside. (Though I’ll confess to having a Springbank this evening.)

Even with the long time-line to next spring, discussions have begun here as to a new cover for the Canadian paperback of River. Everyone loves the blue one we have on the hardback, but there are sometimes different mandates, different contexts for paperbacks (including different ones for mass market and the larger trade paperback format). Nicole Winstanley, (Penguin’s president and publisher, and my editor here) and I have begun exchanging image thoughts in emails – and it is increasingly clear to me that she has an idea. We shall see. They haven’t let me down yet, actually.

You Had Me At … Some Point

I did a panel some years ago during a convention at Harvard. The topic was ‘You had me at hello: how to hook the reader on page 1″. I am afraid I was a tad contrarian.

I suggested, with examples, that we’ve come to wildly over-obsess with desperate, arm-waving ‘look at me’ openings. That books have taken on some of the ‘gotcha’ thinking of summer blockbuster films. The Dan Brown kill-a-person-in-the-opener style.

I suggested that this sort of beginning can’t help but create a tone, style, a set of expectations in a reader for what will follow. That it closes off access to different notes and nuances, and any real consideration (in the writing and the reading) of what I have always called the ‘architecture’ of a book.

Of course you want to draw in – and keep – a reader. Being discarded is, we might agree, a bad fate for a book. But there are a myriad of ways to seduce, and a myriad of reader types, and changing moods and desires in a given reader. People can and do read a techno-thriller and then a book by Jane Gardam or an Alice Munro short story. We aren’t all locked into a single mode of enjoying art.

Given that, I argued (and still do, obviously) the opening of a work needs to be guided by the needs of that work. A long, panoramic book (think Tolkien, or Tolstoy) will require a different immersion, a slower one usually, than a 300 page serial killer novel or paranormal romance.

We’re an impatient society. I joke about the ‘what have you done for me lately’ thing (I think I used it last post here, even) in an age built around dodging boredom via texting and on-demand tv and fast-forwarding. Or six second videos online. But the pleasures of a novel aren’t always or inherently best explored or developed at breakneck speed. We can enjoy vodka shots or chugging beer and also sipping something rare and good, no?

I was put in mind of all this while reading a short, sweet online review of Under Heaven, wherein the blogger talked about truly loving the book after she got through the ‘slow opening’ and she urged her readers to push through that opening. Obviously, I’m pleased, it was a lovely comment, but it left me with some thoughts along the lines of what you see here, and a little more.

One is that, as it happens, there were a lot of readers and reviewers of Under Heaven who thought the opening was their favourite (or one of them) of all my works, or even of books they’d read. It is a very particular, mood-shaping start, a set up for a story that moves a character from extreme solitude to a thronged, dangerous urban space. It was also meant to lay in many of the themes of the novel and a particular set of values in the culture, and establish a couple of the ultimately central mysteries and conflicts. (I’m being careful not to give details.)

One obvious point here is a variant of one I’ve made before: about dialogue not monologue, readers and authors. How one person’s great action scene is another’s too violent one. One reader’s too slow opening is another’s perfect, lyric immersion into ‘another world and time’.

The other point is a fine-tuning of the one I mentioned above: a very long novel that intends to draw the reader in to a very different setting might not be best served by breakneck speed out the gate or a too-heated come-hither. It might: it can be done, alnost anything can be done with enough talent, but I do believe there are more ways of luring the hapless reader (!) into the devious author’s castle than a flamboyant gotcha on page one.

Context matters, so does purpose. We use the words novel or fiction to cover a really wide range of writing, if you think about it. And the pursuit of excellence isn’t always the same as the pursuit of eyeballs. Sometimes you want both, but the methods aren’t always so obvious as gotcha.

Put it another way: we get gotten by many different things in our lives, in many different ways. Books are no different.


“Not Dark Yet…”

Okay, so I am among those who like to quote Dylan (Dylan Thomas, too).

It has been a week or so since last posting here, but I did alert that these entries would slow as touring ended and my next phase began. I’m not going to go away, though. After discussions with friends and colleagues, and being very much aware that some people put a lot of work into setting up this WordPress site, it would feel wrong to bail. I’m also conscious that some people seem to enjoy these, even indulging me when I ‘go wide’ with posts.

In addition, and on a more pragmatic but also critical level, River of Stars is still in launch mode. My UK agent emailed an hour ago (triggering this post) that he received his hardback copy of the book today and ‘it is stunning‘.

This counts as a sentence you like to read from an agent. Maybe ‘Dan Brown is in our dust!’ is another, but, really…

You may recall that the senior team at HC UK, led by Emma Coode and with a lot of input from Amy McCullogh, have planned a major repositioning of my work there. Beginning with a gorgeous and very different new cover for River of Stars (the one on this side of the ocean is gorgeous too; these two looks represent a fascinating example of how differently the same book can be well designed). We’ll start seeing some evidence soon how that new plan plays out in the UK. Book is out on July 18th in hardcover there. (Ebooks have been on sale from April.)


I got a very good email this morning from a clever magazine editor friend, regarding letters to the editor concerning a piece she’d written. She’d asked the letters editor, ‘I guess it’s too much to ask that letters actually respond to the piece itself.’ And that person replied, ‘That’s definitely asking a lot.’

Ouch. And yes, alas.

We had been discussing reviews, the frequent tendency of people, whether print professional, online magazines, bloggers, or on places like Amazon or Goodreads to impose their own agendas, understanding, expectations (prejudgments, too) on a work when they assess it.

There is nothing new about this (though the forums for people sharing views have grown exponentially), nor is there anything surprising. I have spoken and written for a while about fiction (any writing, any art) as a dialogue between artist and consumer, not a monologue. Having said that, sometimes you have to blink at what people are taking away from reading your book (article, essay, whatever). What they find, as much as what they don’t.

I think we’re all too quick. I think it may even link to the media fiascos of fast false reporting on recent tragedies. Sometimes these review issues might be because of a deadline, but more often it feels to be just the nature of our society. Read (or watch or listen). Declare a quick opinion. Move on. Art – and our response to it – needs more nurture. No?


Back west

I’m swinging west again Tuesday, to Calgary and then Kamloops, in the Okanagan Valley. Calgary is a library reading at the main branch on Tuesday evening. The link to register (free, but requested for admin purposes) is off this page

and there is a separate link there if you follow it up, for out-of-towners without a Calgary library card to be able to also register.

This one looks like a straight reading (and probably Q&A after) so I’ll likely do the Chapter 8 passage I’ve been using.

In Kamloops I’m being interviewed on stage in the Clocktower Theatre (love the name) at the university Thursday after reading, so will offer the shorter chapter 2 bit (introducing Lin Shan) I use when a two-part event is what’s happening. Go ahead, accuse me of finally figuring out how to handle this on-the-road gig.

One of the things that amuses me about touring, and it is fairly new, is that local media do not necessarily interview authors when they arrive in town. They do interviews by telephone before we get there. But they only do them because we are coming. It makes perfect sense when explained (wait, I’m coming to that!): the intention is to promote the author’s event in town in the article, and if the interview it isn’t done ahead of time, they can’t manage that.

So, I fly to Calgary in part because the Calgary Herald will give interview coverage, but the interview took place yesterday from home. (An enjoyable conversation, reporter had such a good voice he should be on radio; plan to tell him if I see him Tuesday evening.) Same thing with Kamloops, one phone interview from here Monday, another from (of course) Calgary on Wednesday.

Yes, this is an odd business.

A really nice review in the National Post today and I have been (supremely) restrained in not teasing writer or editor on Twitter about typo in title, or plot summary error. They happen, proofreading and fact checking have become problematic, of late, in print media. Can you say budget cuts?

Here it is:

My restraint is even more luminously admirable (!) as Mark Medley, the books editor, has been teasing me about an interview we did three years ago where he claims I declared I would NEVER (sic!) go on Twitter. Sigh. It sounded like me, but I checked. What I said was:

“I have a very uneasy inner-relationship with modern marketing,” he [me, that is] says. “It’s easy to sit back and say ‘I disdain it’ when you have people (volunteering to do it for you, as Kay does), but I will not Tweet about where I’m having coffee, or what my kids are doing. I won’t do it.”

I repeated the last phrase in the interview, after he named other writers busily tweeting (Margaret Atwood, included).  I’ll stand by that, pretty much (though I may yet tweet about older son’s film work and am happy to out a certain books editor’s scandalous café habits). But the lesson, for me, of course is the old never say never, because Medley’s main point is right. I thought I’d hold out entirely. And now I find social media fascinating, worrisome, engaging, problematic, wit-filled and disturbing (add some other words of conflict, go ahead). I think it’s a tool, and a seductive toy, and an ambush.

I think my first post in this Journal, or one of them, was about the insistent, clever marketing execs at Penguin who tag-teamed me over lunch, broke me down, and got me to agree to go on Twitter directly in the period before River of Stars was due to appear. (They later did the same thing to Nicole Winstanley, the President.)

So that’s why I’m not teasing @itsmarkmedley too much … I can draw distinctions as to what really I said three years ago (and the all-caps are all-his), but the core point is valid: I might have been perfectly happy just having a publisher or Bright Weaving’s person tweeting news of the books. And I’d have missed so many opportunities to make puns online, or otherwise get myself in trouble.

What needs to happen, as I migrate from marketing phase to research and then writing stages will be something of a pulling back. The ‘toy’ part of the online world as a whole lies partly in how easy it is to access. Our work space, as writers, is also our play space. It’s, as the phrase goes these days, complicated.


Historical Fiction

Someone had a comment on the last post, and I thought it better to reply in a full post here.

The Ottawa reading and interview were absolutely worth the drive up from Mtl, so thank you again. I should have asked this question that night, but couldn’t formulate it right. I have had a few days to percolate and would be interested in hearing your thoughts on how you reconcile your…need (is that the right word?) for using the “quarter turn” due to your preference for not assuming you (we) know what an Emperor and his wife are discussing in their bedroom in Byzantium with your love of the Dunnett books. I don’t mean to imply that one must override the other. I’m just interested in your take on the subject.

I’ve talked and written a lot about this. A few points…

My preference as a writer is not identical to my taste as a reader. When I discuss the co-opting of real lives in fiction and my concerns with it, I always note that the books I am about to name as examples will be books I admire! (It is lame and distracting to go after weak titles and authors.)

Dunnett is not the best example, actually, because with a few exceptions over many books she tends to follow the Sir Walter Scott notion (one I agree with) that in historical fiction the real figures should serve as backdrops for the playing out of the story of the author’s invented point of view ones. In particular, that means not going ‘into their heads’ (my usual ‘favourite position in bed for Henry VIII’ comment). Dunnett does do it at times (Richard Chancellor in Ringed Castle comes to mind, and she happily makes Margaret Lennox (buried in Westminster Abbey near Elizabeth I) a supreme villain, but for the most part she’s in Scott space.

Other writers I admire greatly go much, much further in giving us invented inner lives of real people. George Garrett (Death of the Fox, about Ralegh), Hilary Mantel (obviously, today), the brilliant The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, many more.

Many other authors share my concern here. A.S. Byatt, Antony Beevor, Jonathan Dee, just for starters, have written about it. There’s a trend to note here, tangled up with a sense of entitlement culture, and it tends not to be acknowledged, or to be defended as connected with ‘total artistic freedom’.

But, to directly answer Tasha’s question, I have always argued that we can hold two propositions at once (more, if we’re good!): this is a really well-done novel, and it gives me some ethical concerns. Think about “Birth of a Nation” or “Triumph of Will” in film, to take my point here.

I gave Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies the best review I think I have ever given a book in print, and do have issues along these lines (I mentioned them).


This week feels like a lot of to-dos to cross off, write more down, cross off. That tends to happen in a break at home during a release period. (Yes, I filed my taxes.)

The CBC ‘Next Chapter’ interview with Shelagh Rogers was exactly what I thought it would be: she’s warm, funny, really smart, likes puns (!), reads carefully, and somehow always wants to talk about some things I want to discuss in a book but no one else has asked. This time we keyed on family relationships in River of Stars, and on courage, in the widest sense. There’s a scene where a mother walks to a market town alone, trying to get help for a sick child, and for me it may be the bravest single thing done in the book. Shelagh gave me a chance to discuss that.

We chatted for about 45 minutes and it was a highlight of the media tour. It’ll air on ‘The Next Chapter’ on May 27th and then again on June 1st, and it’ll be a podcast, too, of course, for CBC.

Ottawa on Sunday night was genuinely a pleasure. First of all it is a good book town, period. Secondly, I seem to have a really solid readership base there, so it was a crowded, lively hall. I checked and a number of them had been at earlier readings years ago for Perfect Books, in a pub they booked. My considered view is that an audience with a drink or two to hand will laugh more easily – and when you want them to.

But even without much in the way of drinks Sunday, it was a terrific session. I was interviewed, after a short reading, by Neil Wilson, one of the Author’s Festival directors (a return engagement for us, we’d done this three years ago) and he gave me great questions to run with – and then in the Q&A the audience did the same.

The line was long and there was a panel starting in the same space, so the Festival people moved everyone to the basement for the signing. I made a (too predictable?) joke about none of them ever seeing the light of day again. Most stayed to get their books signed anyhow. Brave.

Tuesday was more questions, online this time, during a Q&A on Goodreads. I fielded about 70 questions or so through the morning and afternoon, typing away. I haven’t checked but am sure the field of my answers is littered with typos. My first sustained interaction on Goodreads, and it was a really generous group.

I also signed stock at two branches of Book City here in Toronto (both stores took photos, one caught me looking about as unshaven and shaggy as I get … well, I hope that is as shaggy as I get.)

River is still at #2 on the Maclean’s bestseller list which marks, best I can remember, the longest I’ve been at that high a level with any book. We’re #3 on the Canadian Bookseller’s Association list, too. I’ll slide soon: Le Carre, Hosseini, Dan Brown are all May books, and Edward Rutherford, who always hits the top levels just released his newest.

And I’m already back and forth with my editors on jacket copy for the paperback. That feels so strange (and we’ve talked about it): prepping the pb while still touring for the hardcover. But lead times are enormous in publishing these days. The good news is a wonderful slate of reviews to choose good quotes from. Do jacket and inside review quotes sell books? Old (endless?) debate. The industry still assumes they help.

Next out-of-town is in two weeks, when I fly to Calgary (May 14) and Kamloops (May 16), for readings and signings. That should do it for spring, with the possible exception of a return to New York. Come fall, a new Festival season starts but that has a different vibe from touring with a new book. We’re weighing about 7-8 invitations and balancing dates. Before that I really want to have started the research for another book.

Touring is a dying phenomenon, really. Conversations on the road underscored this for me. Despite some colleagues who hold forth on giving away books and charging for readings and t-shirts (how realistic is that, honestly, for most authors?) the migration to online marketing and PR is a reality now. Even when I do an interview with, say, Nancy Pearl in Seattle, that evening ‘lives’ far longer and reaches more widely in the televised version of it than in the actual evening encounter. In a way, some are arguing, you do the live event to create the taped one. Different world.



Cover Reveal

And … here’s a first look at the elegant HarperCollins UK cover for River of Stars. It’ll be out in July there, though e-books are already available in that market .

This is an ambitious positioning of the book for a literary mainstream market, to be accompanied by targeted marketing to fantasy readers already established over there. Some talented, committed people are putting their heads to this process.

UK cover, River of Stars

UK cover, River of Stars


Tracking the Boston news on a difficult day. Wordsworth wrote ‘The world is too much with us…’ and it has never been more true. We know (or are led to believe we know) so much, so quickly, and we see so much, at speed. The intensity can overwhelm even those calm by nature.

I’m in what feels to be a tiny, trivial irritation stage. Morning flight to Seattle from Victoria harbour was cancelled by fog. Scrambled onto the 1 PM, and publicists back in NY scrambled my noon tv interview to 3:00 which will require very fast driving. Frazzled Author Enters Studio – Celebrated Composure To Follow!

A good night here, interviewed on stage by novelist Rob Wiersema, after a short reading (Shan’s intro again). Signed a lot of books, urged people waiting in line to make friends with each other, because – I always say, and mean – I have really interesting readers. The mother of one couple – who ‘met’ on the forums, and later met in life, and married – came to get a book signed for the two of them, to mail to England. Too cool. Really.

Tonight will be on stage and television with the utterly splendid Nancy Pearl at U of Washington bookstore. Look forward to it hugely. Nancy was just in Bosnia on a world of books tour, pushing reading as a way of bonding. That’ll be a pre-event dinner topic, probably. Fascinates me. And we can use things that bond us these days, and always.


Sometimes an evening comes together unexpectedly well. I had no idea what to anticipate from the Vancouver Writer’s Festival event last night at the main library branch. It was a shared reading/Q&A with the writer Ruth Ozeki (who lives in B.C. now). I’d read her book and liked it a lot, and was looking forward to meeting her. But one academic friend had emailed me last week saying he’d only learned of the event from me, when I emailed about saying hello beforehand.

His miss, not the organizers’, it turned out. I walked into the library with my brother about 30 minutes ahead (for the Green Room meet-up) and there was a major line or 200+ already snaking through the corridor, waiting for them to open the doors. Yes, evidence there’s a crowd does reassure.

In the Green Room, Ruth turned out to be smart and fun, and then we got a surprise request back there from a Chinese tv crew asking for fast interviews to air over there for World Book Day next week. Couldn’t have been better timed: last week I signed off with my agents on a new two book deal in Chinese for Under Heaven and River of Stars with Chongqing Publishers. (Some will remember that Under Heaven was sold in China, before the house doing it was merged – or bought out – by another, and the joint entity officially withdrew from doing foreign language translations of fiction. They reverted the rights to the book to us, and the agents got to work.) It was nice to be able to talk about this to viewers in China.

On stage, it was a seriously full house. Ruth read exceptionally well from A Tale for the Time Being – she did her own audio book recording (unusual) and it was easy to see why they’d asked her. She does short sections to offer the ‘voices’ of several characters, and since she’s being touring awhile, the reading was polished and engaging – and ended right on time, a sign of a pro.

I talked a little about context for River, after a few thank you remarks, then ‘introduced’ Shan to the audience in the reading from Chapter 2 I’ve been alternating with the passage from Chapter 8. By now I can almost always tell if an audience is with me, and I had that feeling last night.

After, Hal Wake, who runs the Author’s Festival came on to say some over-the-top generous things about the two readings (‘I’ve heard a lot of readings, trust me…’) and we had some terrific questions. Ruth and I were already easy enough together to turn to each other and hand off comments and have some dialogue, riffing on what we were asked. It was just relaxed and enjoyable, even warm. I did have (alas?) one frivolous moment (to offset a few ‘curmudgeon’ mini-rants). Someone asked what I’d tell my 20 year old self if I could talk to him, and I said (forgive!) ‘Buy Apple.’

I then played it straight and did a short bit on the idea of ‘don’t imagine all your decisions and choices are of apocalyptic significance, things shift and evolve’… (But buy Apple, too. When it is invented.)

We signed for a long time, and I was reaffirmed, yet again, in a career-long sense of what generous, thoughtful readers I have. Signing lineups are (pretty obviously) not the place for any kind of real conversation, but people manage to make their intelligence and decency show through. I feel lucky every time. It was a good night.

To Victoria in an hour, the little float plane I love. What I don’t love is having a winter coat (read Winnipeg entry, below!) as I pass through mild coastal weather. I feel like I am lumbering down from mining in the Yukon. Kay of the Klondike, at a bookstore near you!