Booking around Kingston, pt. 2

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I felt guilty when I rushed toward my author interview with Wayne Grady as I’d only had time to read a few pages of his new novel, Emancipation Day, a book that explores what it might have meant to pass for white during WWII era Canada. Standing in the impromptu bookstore on the top floor of the Holiday Inn I’d held the thick book in my hand and sunk into the first chapter, happy to read the long, rich sentences.

At least I’d read one of Grady’s earlier books, Breakfast at the Exit Café, a book he wrote with his wife Merilyn Simmonds about their winter road trip across the United States. That book was amusing and at times thoughtful, especially when the couple stayed in small towns in the American southeast, towns that had made Wayne uncomfortable with their hidden and not so hidden racism.

The meeting room was empty when I got there so I had time to write down a few ideas for questions. Grady arrived with Kat Evans, the marketing director of the festival and a writer herself. We shook hands and then stood by the table, talking about Grady’s new book. He worked on the manuscript for almost twenty years, writing it as a memoir, as he tried to understand his father, a man who never told his son of his African-Canadian ancestry. Eventually the only way Grady felt he could tell the story was through the voice of a fictional character, a man who is a jazz musician and serves in the Navy during WWII. Emancipation Day is now on the long list for the Giller prize, Canada’s premier writing award. Grady seemed somewhat astonished by this. He usually writes non-fiction and does translation projects.

Time flew by as we talked about identity and secrets and after a short recording session we said goodbye and my next author walked in. Iain Reid had very short hair and a big smile. His second memoir, The Truth About Luck, is a humorous look at the ‘stay-cation’ he took in Kingston with his 92 year-old grandmother. Reid, then 28, had offered to take his grandmother on a vacation but when the week arrived he didn’t have enough money to go anywhere exotic. Reid drove to Ottawa to pick up his grandmother and brought her back to his apartment in Kingston. For five days the two went out restaurants and spent hours and hours sitting together and talking. I’d skimmed a bit of The Truth About Luck and had found myself chuckling out loud, a good sign. In our interview Reid wanted me to know how much he admired his grandmother, and how she was much more adventurous and brave than he would ever be.

After Reid’s interview I had a bit of time before my final interview of the day. I once again pushed my way out the heavy door to the warm day outside. My sweet-seeking brain turned my legs toward the bakery a block ahead on Princess Street. Once there I had that agonizing decision—what kind of pastry should I select? While I mulled that one over I bought some food for later from the deli—a sweet potato salad and spiced chick pea mixture. It would be a shame to go all the way to Kingston and not try as many restaurants, delis and bakeries as possible. Finally my hand reached toward a medium-sized chocolate chip cookie.

The black-painted bench near the water at the Holiday Inn was empty so I sat down to eat my cookie and soak in some sunshine. Across the bay huge cheers erupted every few minutes and I was quite sure I was hearing the joy as new graduates at the Royal Military College got their diplomas. What a perfect day for an outside celebration.

Did I have time to go to another event?  I looked at my watch and pulled my dog-eared Kingston Writersfest program out of my daypack. With eleven events scheduled for the day I hoped I could get to a few more of them, but my timing was off. I could catch the tail end of “News from Foreign Countries” or the first few minutes of  “Soundscapes”.

Or I could sit on the bench and write up some questions so I didn’t sound like an idiot in my next interview. I actually had read all of Will Schwalbe’s memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, and it was a book that deserved a good conversation. I took out my copy of the book, a pen and a notebook.

This third interview sailed along. I’d gotten comfortable with the format — holding a recorder in front of my face, and the guest’s. Usually I do author interviews in the NCPR studio in Canton and I can rely on a co-host and Joel Hurd, the stations’ amazing audio engineer, to help me out.

Will Schwalbe made the interview easy with his relaxed manner and great answers to my questions.(He’s been doing author events for almost a year now.) Will lives in NYC and his memoir chronicles the two years he spent in doctor’s offices and waiting rooms with his mother, their two-person book group a diversion for them while Mary Ann Schwalbe dealt with pancreatic cancer, and the drugs that combat it. (The whole ten-minute interview is at ncpr.org/books.) The two read widely and voraciously, though near the end Mary Ann Schwalbe said they’d read no more “silly” books. She defined “silly books” as books that are not well-written and have no moral compass.

After I shut off the recorder I asked Schwalbe about one aspect of his memoir that bothered me. He’d included many conversations with his mother, with her words in quotations marks, as if he’d recorded them verbatim. It felt… wrong, to me. Schwalbe listened and nodded. He said he’d been an editor for many years and felt the most important thing in memoir is to get the “spirit” correct. Also, he assured me, he’d taken many notes and his mother really did speak in that slightly didactic way. She’d been a teacher and had worked with refugees and knew what she wanted to say.

Just before Schwalbe shook hands to end the interview he said, “I’ve got a book for you to read.” I held my pen over the notebook. “A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki”.  When I asked why he recommended it he gave me his crinkly smile and said he thought I’d like it. I was intrigued and knew I’d look for it in the library.

This time when I went outside for fresh air Jan was waiting at the black bench. She’d been to Wolfe Island on the ferry, gone for a walk, tested out the bakery, and come back to wander in a couple of art galleries. She was ready to go back inside for the next event “Storytelling and Redemption”, a discussion with a moderator and two Native Canadian authors. And she thought we should get there early.

Early is not something I’ve ever been good at, but I was willing to try. We rode the elevator up to the sixth floor and wormed our way through a long line of people in line, waiting for the doors to open for our next event. We had to wait in the little bookstore and it was pleasant opening up books here and there. Jan wasn’t as pleased. Why don’t they let us in? This is ridiculous. We shouldn’t have come early.

Minutes before the event was supposed to begin the doors opened and the line surged forward. We found seats in the mid-back of the room and hoped we’d be able to see the writers on stage. A Mohawk woman began the event, welcoming us in both the Mohawk language and English. A small woman walked onto the stage—Leanne Betasamosake Simpson—followed by a tall man—Thomas King. We wouldn’t have any problem seeing or hearing him. The moderator was the CBC host, Shelagh Rogers, the “queen of Canada’s public radio.”

Rogers gave questions out to both Simpson and King and they were witty and yet serious about the difficulty of maintaining traditional native language and culture in Canada. They stressed over and over that they needed to be able to have their land, a place their people could call a homeland. They each told one story— both tales were funny and sad at the same time. The conversation swung back to justice and politics and I wished that there was time for one more story each, as they were so good at it. But the time was up and the crowd stood to go. Jan and I found the stairs and thumped down six flights to an outside door.

“Dinner before we bicycle back to Vicki’s?”  Jan asked.

I looked at my watch. We had about one hour of daylight left. “Do you mind bicycling in the dark?”

We decided to make it an adventure and walked up the street, looking for an Indian restaurant that popped up when Jan did an internet search. We found it tucked back from the street in an old building decorated with Indian designs and art. The food was perfect— vegetables in spicy sauces and a fresh chewy naan bread.

We felt the good meal in our bellies as we bent over the bicycle handlebars and headed back to Meadowbrook. The sun had set over the lake but we still had light and pedaled as fast as we could, heading away from downtown. Most roads had bike lanes and in the last mile, as true dark fell, we found a sidewalk to keep us off the busy road.

A note from Vicki on the garage door read, “Welcome back! Come inside for some sweets for the road.”  She and her partner had gone off to dinner and a play. The social life in Kingston was hopping. Next to the lemon bars and homemade cookies in the kitchen we put a thank you note.

Google maps had assured me that getting to Kingston by the 401 was quicker by 15 minutes than driving along the river on the US side so we headed out of Kingston that way, unaware that we would soon be waiting in line for over 4 hours in an endless slow stream of cars. It would have been faster to bicycle home.

I could write a surreal short story about that Rte 401 experience—the quiet advance of two columns of cars. Stop. Start. Stop. Start. We’d seen no signs to warn us of this traffic blockage so we assumed we’d soon pass an accident, waved on by a policeman in an orange coat. But the funeral pace went on and on and on. Once, ahead of us, an animal in a stock truck grew tired of waiting and bucked and kicked against the aluminum walls, making the whole truck shake.

When we finally inched along to the exit for Brockville we thought our ordeal was over but we had another hour of the slow parade. Some people knew where to cut out for a shortcut, others pulled off at a gas station but most of us crawled along, wondering when the endless traffic would find a way to disperse.

It happened suddenly. There we were, with no cars ahead of us, moving along a dark road at 50 miles per hour. It made us giddy with joy. We found out from police at a road stop – “Have you ladies been drinking tonight?”—that the day before there’d been an accident on the 401. Two tractor trailers had collided and one caught on fire. They were still adding new asphalt to the road.

A simple sign would have saved us hours of “transportation time”.  If we’d seen a “Find Alternative Route” message outside of Kingston we would have taken the Thousand Islands Bridge.

Still, the roads were quiet at 2am. The Kingston Writersfest adventure had apparently needed a dramatic ending.

  1. Mr. Wakiki says:

    descending on watertown

    neal muzak is not so much
    about the trees or the squirrels

    he is about rolling down the rural roads
    to the adirondack border town

    to a community college
    a bedroom community
    to fort drum

    o to be beyond excellent
    but there are these moments
    of poetry where

    and when he rolls into watertown

    he brings the pajama party with him
    even if he isn’t wearing the pajamas
    after the third scotch and water

    he will let you wear the top
    but you soon realize
    the buttons have been removed

    the feel of silk against your chest
    is the blueprint of adventure

    he will whistle dixie land jazz
    using a conch shell as his saxophone

    and when he reads
    you will hear the sneezing
    of killer whales

  2. vagabond

    i am at the right level
    of a glass of scotch
    that could produce
    3-4 more poems
    or more

    but it would take
    another glass of scotch

    and the hangover i’m
    not willing to endure

    so this is a little treat
    wrapped in the dream
    of another highball

    it will wander
    like a tramp stamp
    on the hip end of
    vacation in europe

    with a backpack
    playing home
    to a journal

    that has the words

    which are threads
    to the tapestry of
    a well used bed roll

    laid before you

    creating the heat
    of the night

    covered in the travels
    of a really good

    yarn

  3. Lucy Martin says:

    Thanks for the coverage of this event, Betsy. And here comes Lucy as Curious George!

    It all sounds so busy and vibrant at the festival level. Could you get any sense of how things feel in the world of writing and publishing these days? (The production side, basically.) Are authors enthusiastic? Frustrated? Worried? Ditto for publishers.

    It seems like so much is changing in the world of publishing. Can you speak to trends – good or bad – emerging there?

    One more question: who do you think would enjoy attending these type of events?