On the Bill at the Leacock Festival, or, “Sistering” is Officially Funny


In tenth grade English class, we were told that Can-Lit can be funny and our teacher proved it by assigning “The Man in Asbestos” by Stephen Leacock. So it is with a lovely sense of full-circularity that I will be appearing at the Leacock Summer Festival this July to read from Sistering as part of an event on women as the authors and subjects of humor writing. Very pleased. If you’re in Orillia, Ontario on July 23 at 8pm, do come see us.

Margaret Atwood Meets Freaky Fan-Girl


Atwood and Quist, nervous with hands in pockets making her stomach look big

I fall in love easily. Not that kind of love, just regular love, like we’re supposed to be able to feel for everyone. It’s one of the best things about me. But sometimes it causes a scene.

Like all good Canadian girls, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale before I graduated from high school. (Take note, aspiring arts journalists. That kind of storytelling is one way to recognize someone’s vast and indispensable contributions to an art form without using the i***ic word.) When my oldest kid was in high school, competing in trivia tournaments, there was a running joke that the answer to every book-trivia question was Margaret Atwood—unless it was a trick question, then the answer was Margaret Laurence. “I wonder,” my big boy said, “if she knows she’s a meme.” That is another way of saying that when it comes to living novelists from my own country, Margaret Atwood is the big one.

I didn’t know she’d be giving a lecture in a concert hall in the city where I live until Laura, my book-scene-friend, mentioned it. Of course I wanted to go, especially at the deeply discounted student admission for which I technically qualified.

Posters started going up around my university, advertising the lecture. “Margaret Atwood,” a classmate said, “is she an astronaut?”

The day of the lecture, the pitch of my excitement started out low. I didn’t dress up, I left the house calmly, well in advance. And then I distractedly took the wrong route. Late to meet Laura, I dumped my car in an underground parkade and bolted up into the daylight, a big metal door closing behind me as I realized the odds of remembering which big metal door to go back to at the end of the night were not good. I was just starting to run through the streets when, through nothing short of a miracle, Laura saw me and called my name.

She got us great seats—the kinds with brass plaques on them engraved with millionaire donors’ names. Margaret Atwood was right there, elevated on a step behind a podium, a step that had been awkward for the taller people who used the microphone before her. I had heard she was tiny. I liked it.

Her lecture was a slide show, the secret history of the Canadian literary community, the one kept hidden from me while I studied sociology during my own undergraduate degree. Margaret Atwood was funny, quick, and sharp. She definitely knows she’s a meme. I wanted to write down some of her remarks but I was afraid I’d miss what was coming next. Her life story is the story of Canadian literature. By the time the lecture was over, I was in tears. I had fallen in love.

The lights came on and I normalled-up for Laura. She’s a book reviewer and critic, experienced at these sorts of events, and she knew if we didn’t line up to have our books signed right away, we’d be waiting all night. In line, I weirded-up again. I wanted to send Margaret Atwood some kind of signal that she is my benefactor. Saying “I’m a writer too” doesn’t convey as much information as it used to. I needed to say something—strange, not hand-on-my-shoulder strange, but something she doesn’t hear at book events every day.

Laura listened to my stupid, stupid brainstorming. She was patient as I took this sophisticated evening out without her little kids and turned it into a night of being wing-man to a freaky fan-girl. “Maybe I could get her to sign my name in Chinese…I could introduce myself to her doing my impersonation of her voice…I should have totally brought her a Margaret Laurence book to sign, that would’ve been hilarious…Maybe I should introduce myself as ‘the Margaret Atwood of Edmonton’ (which would have been even more hilarious)…” It was all terrible. We moved up the queue and I reconciled myself to just saying thank you, which is actually pretty special.

And then, it hit me. I gasped and hit Laura in the arm with my high school copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The 2015 Dublin International IMPAC Literary Award long-list—there had been nine Canadian books on it. One was by Margaret Atwood, and one was by me. “That’s what I’m going to say,” I said to longsuffering Laura, “I bet that’s what everyone in this line-up who’s been on an awards list with her is going to say.”

I leapt up to the table a little too energetically. Atwood didn’t recoil but I recognized that look people who aren’t afraid of bugs use to watch advancing spiders. As she wrote “all the best” in my old copy of her most commercial novel, I blurted out the one time our work had been mentioned in the same public breath, on the IMPAC list.

“What’s your book?” she asked.

I told her and watched her write the title on a scrap of yellow paper. “It’s just about marriage,” I added.

“I wouldn’t have known,” she said.

Spectacle successfully made, I thanked her and moved on.

After everything that had happened, Laura was still willing to introduce me to people—people whom I showed that my hands were still shaking. I made it back to my car that night only because Laura, invoking another miracle, found it for me.

It was harrowing and ridiculous and wonderful–taking my big, loopy, overflowing artist’s heart to out where it could fall in love with someone who inspires it, right in front of crowds of people. Do it. I recommend it. Just make sure you bring along someone to take care of you.

Fan-girling: Why You Should Go to Book Events

Cover with blurb by Padma Viswanathan

On the front cover of my book — above the title, my name, my magpies – is a blurb. Yes, that’s the technical term for pithy reviews printed on books to help readers judge them by their covers.

Thanks to my resourceful publisher, my book’s blurb is written by internationally published Canadian novelist Padma Viswanathan. Blurbs are usually written by people from an author’s network – teachers, editors, classmates. But Padma read my book and wrote the blurb without knowing me from anywhere. It was extremely generous of her and I am very grateful.

Simple reciprocity isn’t the only reason I’m Padma’s fan. Reading her first novel, I had the impression she understands family much the same way I do. She writes about families that are close, more or less content with each other, and LARGE without making them seem maudlin, boring, or trite. It’s rare in literary fiction.

She writes about people of faith too. She doesn’t do it with the heavy sermonizing of “inspirational” fiction but she also doesn’t soundly denounce faith the way a lot of literary fiction does. She acknowledges the existence and the salience of faith. She writes about it like any powerful, abstract human motivation – like love or hope or fear. This is also rare. This is also me.

After seeing my work called “strange” over and over again (which I love) it’s gratifying to recognize something like my own strangeness in someone else’s stories. It’s validating. It transforms me from lone weirdo to the ultimate form of joiner: the fan-girl. 

And fan-girl I was when I finally met Padma. This summer, the tour for her new book The Ever After of Ashwin Rao brought her back to Audreys Books in Edmonton. I was so there.

If you’ve never been to an event where an author is reading from her own book, go. I won’t say the difference between reading a book and hearing the author read it is the same as listening to the radio and hearing a song performed live. But it is significantly different enough to be worth brushing your teeth and driving downtown.

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books, Edmonton

I’m happy to say that, by now, when I go to local book events I can usually be recognized without having to make a spectacle of myself. In the crowded room, I met Padma and got to thank her in person for the boost she gave my career. I met her dad too. He was greeting people at the foot of the stairs.

Padma’s new novel revolves around the Air India bombing of 1985. The scene she read aloud describes people coping with sudden, violent loss. It’s beautiful and, once again, familiar.

Within the passage she read, Padma included the Gayatri Mantra, a chant her characters use to comfort themselves. If I’d been reading the book alone, in my head, my mental shorthand would have read it as “okay, some Sanskrit” and rushed on to the English translation. But in the bookstore, Padma pronounced all of it. She sang it. And I cried.

I cried because I was surprised and touched by her commitment to the reading – the risk of it, the gift of it. I cried because the sound of scripture being sung by one female voice in that place was strange and out of place enough to feel a little like a miracle. I cried because I already knew, in my own words and feelings, the things she would read next:

The sound did not hide the void, but it filled it with a kind of light: nothing that would stop you from falling, but maybe stop you from being so afraid.