Publishing is in the news this week because of the financial collapse of Jack Stoddart's General Publishing, one of the country's oldest publishers.
On one level, the fallout will affect the shape and scope of Canadian publishing because General owns all, or part, of a number of small publishers and distributes books for most of the literary presses in Canada. That makes the future uncertain for a number of famous, but financially marginal companies such as House of Anansi (which General owns) and Coach House Press (which it distributed). These are the firms where many of our best-known writers, such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, published their first poetry and fiction.
But while the industry may well look different, the business of writing and publishing will go on as before. Writers write because they have stories to tell; editors and publishers seek out untried writers because they want to discover new voices; readers read to find solace, inspiration, joy, amusement or information. All of that will continue because we are not only a nation of readers, we are a nation of readers of literary fiction. Where else but in Canada do literary novels reign so supreme on bestseller lists?
Anybody fearing for the future of Canadian writing need look no further than the authors we are showcasing today. From the mounds of first novels and story collections that have come our way this spring, we have picked the following 10 to watch.
Certain things can be said about them as a group. They are mostly female, they are not all that young, several have honed their craft in other literary disciplines, and very few are published by small Canadian-owned publishers. The most important thing about them, though, is that they are all talented writers with unique voices and stories. Read them. Kevin Armstrong Night Watch (Penguin)
Few authors fit the romantic prototype as completely as Kevin Armstrong. Even though he could convince his professors to let him submit creative stories in the place of essays on English literature, he grew weary of the rarefied air of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. After graduating, instead of the standard trek to Europe, Armstrong took to the seas. His 15-month voyage through the South Seas serving as first mate on board an 80-foot yacht was spent observing human nature.
His debut collection, Night Watch, is a collection of eight short stories based on his own journeys. They're not your average seafaring yarns, but vivid stories about personal explorations, power, love and betrayal that will stir the armchair Ishmael within.
"Nothing against women," muses the narrator in the title story, "but they're bad news at sea," a saltwater-sharp sentiment that surely earned the 28-year-old writer the comparisons to Hemingway and Conrad. The volume also includes the celebrated story, The Cane Field. The moving portrait of the harsh realities for an impoverished Fiji woman and her young daughter nabbed Armstrong the $10,000 Journey Prize this year.
Armstrong comes and goes with the tides, not settling in one place for too long unless it's to write, an activity he admits he can't do unless it's on dry land. So far it's been serendipitous for the Ontario native, now committed to working on his next book, a novel about sailing in Micronesia, from a Vancouver base. Sue Goyette Lures (HarperCollins)
Nobody was more surprised than Sue Goyette to realize that the "unruly" poetry she was struggling to lasso was really a novel bursting out of her poetic restraints. She thought of herself as a poet, and with good reason: Her first collection, The True Names of Birds, was shortlisted for the Governor-General's Award for poetry in 1999.
A single mother of two teenagers in Cole Harbour, N.S., Goyette, 38, had won a five-week fellowship to the Banff Centre in Alberta to work on what she thought was her second poetry volume. But the poems she was producing were "really" bad.
The first step from unwieldy narrative verse to fiction was a short story, but even that form didn't contain the story she wanted to tell about two neighbouring and troubled families in Beaumont, a fictional town on the south shore outside Montreal that is based on her own hometown of St-Bruno, Que.
When she finally succumbed and let the story tell itself, the characters began to emerge and like her own teenagers, they frequently took her by surprise. The result is a lyrical, atmospheric novel set in the late 1970s, at the height of the language crisis, about a town split between French and English, children emotionally isolated from parents and couples at war within the same household. " Lures needed the language to insinuate a layer of isolation," she says. "My characters felt isolated linguistically and other ways too, of course."
Since finishing Lures, she was completed another poetry collection, Undone, and has chosen Miracles as the title for her next novel, which she says will also be set in Montreal but will not be as dark as Lures. "I say that with complete optimism," she laughs, "but I will probably go just as dark as I always do." Lee Henderson The Broken Record Technique (Penguin)
At 28, Lee Henderson has already had two careers. As a teenager, his interest and skill in animation found him a gig working on a music video for rock group Sonic Youth. Later, Henderson dabbled in acting, earning the princely sum of $2,000 for a role as a villain in a TV movie. But the Saskatoon native was turned on to writing by his high-school English teacher and "the wrong-headed assumption there was big money in short stories. Someone told me that's how Kurt Vonnegut used to pay the bills. Apparently things have changed."
Henderson's wry, quirky sense of humour resonates in his debut collection of short stories, The Broken Record Technique. The whimsically light alternates with the self-deprecatingly dark as his seemingly ordinary domestic tales about love, childhood and, yes, marmots, burst into the extraordinary.
The inspiration came from an obsession with difference and repetition, says Henderson. In Attempts at a Great Relationship, a near-drowning is repeated, Rashomon-like, until finally the narrative skips out of the groove. In the poetry-riffed Sheep Dub, a brother and sister re-enact mother's pill-popping, substituting candy for prescription drugs.
A University of British Columbia writer's-program grad, Henderson has a tempered view of the state of the country's literature: "Canadian fiction ranges from extremely bland to horrifically inventive," he writes, adding that he designs his short stories hoping to appeal to a friend of his. Paulette Jiles Enemy Women (HarperCollins)
Think of Cold Mountain,Charles Frazier's picaresque novel about the American Civil War, switch gears and gender and you can begin to visualize Enemy Women. This too is an odyssey, but it is written by a poet and undertaken by a young woman, Adair Colley. The eldest daughter in a motherless farm family in the Missouri Ozarks, Adair sets out with her younger sisters to try to rescue her father after he is bludgeoned and abducted by a band of Yankee soldiers who have accused him of being a Confederate sympathizer. Although she has never taken up arms, Adair is denounced as a spy by travellers along the road, arrested and imprisoned.
Paulette Jiles, a Governor-General's Award-winning poet for her 1985 collection Celestial Navigation,a memoirist and broadcaster, was born in Missouri in 1943 and moved to Canada at the height of the Vietnam War protests. Now living in Texas, Jiles has returned to her geographical roots in a powerful novel that combines a love story, her family history and persuasive documentation about the incarceration and abuse of neutral women by both sides during the Civil War.
This bringing together of the imaginary and the archival reflects Jiles's linking metaphor of the precious pieced quilt that Adair, her feisty and brave heroine, rescues from her burning family home and carries with her on a treacherous journey to home and maturity. Shaena Lambert The Falling Woman Vintage
While it's becoming de rigueur to take writing courses or attend workshops, few writers can claim to have studied with not one but two Booker Prize-winners. Shaena Lambert speaks glowingly of Margaret Atwood and Peter Carey as teachers at Humber College writing workshops, particularly of Atwood's inspiring dedication and intensity.
Lambert's got dedication and intensity of her own. The 42-year-old considers the past seven years of writing poetry and fiction her long apprenticeship, and now that she's published her debut collection of short stories, The Falling Woman, earning her rave reviews, comparisons to Annie Proulx and Alice Munro, and a sale to Virago in the U.K. The mostly family-themed pieces are masterful works of deceptively simple prose with a darker intent, like a pool that reflects the sky while obscuring a murky darkness that lies beneath. The title story centres on a childhood scene of two girls, cousins whose normal sexual exploration quickly rears into ugly exploitation.
"I feel as though when I have a pen in my hand, I think more clearly and I am a better human being," she says. "That process of trying to understand and get underneath the world is what compels me."
Another compulsion is her passion for activism, particularly the antinuclear movement. For five years, the Vancouver native headed the Canadian Peace Alliance; like Kaye, the lead character in Resistance, Lambert's been arrested during protests. Today, she's taken a more even approach to advocacy, channelling her energy into finishing off her first novel, due in late 2003. Lori Lansens Rush Home Road (Knopf)
Even if you think you haven't heard of her, you've heard of her: Lori Lansens, she of the staggering half-million-dollar (U.S.) book advance based on an unedited manuscript for Rush Home Road. The superstar of the hot new discoveries that propelled major publishing houses (and media) into a first-fiction frenzy last year.
Writing was always a passion for the Toronto-based Lansens, who wrote short stories while growing up in Chatham, Ont., but ended up studying advertising at Humber College in Toronto. (A short stint selling ads at The Globe and Mail convinced her to go back to writing.)
Before all the brouhaha, Lansens was better known in the film community, both as an actor and a screenwriter (her nine produced films include the acclaimed Ontario ode South of Wawa). One summer, she went from acting with Al Pacino in Sea of Love (in a scene that was ultimately cut) to being dressed in a squirrel costume performing children's theatre in a local library: "That's when I knew it was time to start writing again."
Rush Home Road is a courageous, harrowing and inspiring look at the life of Addy Shadd. Prompted by the arrival of an abandoned child, the elderly black woman recalls her own aborted childhood in Rusholme, an all-black community founded by Underground Railroad settlers based on Buxton, Ont., a five-minute drive from Lansens's childhood home. Pregnant and unwed, Addy's family tossed her out and she struggles to find love and redemption in a Southern Ontario haunted by racism and rum runners. The 39-year-old writer's enthralling cinematic scope has nabbed the book countless kudos and sales in 11 countries. Mary Lawson Crow Lake (Knopf)
In this wonderfully distilled and assured coming-of-age novel, Mary Lawson has taken the familiar conceit of orphaned children raised by older siblings and given it a couple of powerful twists. The substitute parents in Crow Lake are teenaged boys, not girls. Luke, 18, has just been accepted into teachers' college when his parents are killed in a collision with a logging truck. Always an indifferent student, he demands the chance to keep the family together by sacrificing his opportunity so that his brilliant younger brother Matt can finish high school. The story, which is set in an isolated farming community in Northern Ontario, is told by Kate, who was 7 when her parents died, and is now an academic in her late 20s.
Lawson, 55, a Canadian who has lived in England since graduating from McGill in 1968, began Crow Lake back in the 1980s as a short story about hero worship for a women's magazine. It had only one scene and two characters, Matt and Kate.
She spent years writing the manuscript and submitting it to agents before she struck it lucky with a sympathetic reader at the Lutyens and Rubinstein agency in London. Since then, Crow Lake has found publishers in 13 countries, including Bulgaria, and been on The Globe and Mail's bestseller list for nine weeks. That makes Lawson an instant success after decades of trying. Nancy Lee Dead Girls (McClelland & Stewart)
Nancy Lee, 31, was an entertainment publicist when a psychic told her six years ago that she was in the wrong career and she would never be happy until she found the "right" one. Stunned, Lee went into metaphysical mode and tried writing a short story, mainly to prove she could finish it. That story, which won two small literary contests, encouraged Lee to split her public-relations company's assets with her partner and enroll in the creative-writing program at the University of British Columbia.
Dead Girls is a stunning collection of short stories about loss, pain, despair and young women living perilously on the fringes. Haunted by the disappearance of more than 50 women from Vancouver's downtown east side over the past several years, she says she would wander around the city and wonder how such horrible things could happen in such a beautiful place. Those feelings grew into characters -- mothers, fathers, sisters -- who are concerned about the missing women, "who miss them, who love them and who want them to come home." Lee, whose fiction predates the horrific recent discoveries on a B.C. pig farm, takes her readers behind the headlines and under the skin of imaginary characters holding vigils or posting notices on telephone poles.
In the title story, a mother can't sell the family home in case her disappeared junkie daughter might show up and find strangers living there. As a writer, Lee can twist a narrative with an Alice Munro-like punch, and speak directly to the reader in a voice that pins you to an abortionist's table or the predator's lair. If nothing else, Dead Girls proves that Lee has hit upon the ideal career move. Laisha Rosnau The Sudden Weight of Snow (McClelland & Stewart)
McClelland & Stewart's acceptance of Laisha Rosnau's novel The Sudden Weight of Snow sounds like a scene from a book in itself. While travelling the Australian outback with her family, Rosnau had to engineer a specific time at a payphone to see if the publishing house would take her manuscript. Dingoes howling in the distance, the moonlit call came at 12:30 a.m. -- with good news. It was three months before she would finish travelling and return to Vancouver to start the editing process.
Rosnau, 29, was born in Quebec and lived there as a child until her family moved across the country, eventually settling in Vernon, B.C. That town's strange juxtaposition of sixties liberation and religious fundamentalism would later provide the setting for Rosnau's coming-of-age novel focusing on teenagers Harper Kostak and her best friend Krista as they strain against the crushing yoke of boredom in Sawmill Creek, B.C.
The Sudden Weight of Snow deftly captures the relationship between the girls, its shifting viewpoint reflecting the ever-changing realities of adolescence. Her writerly skill was likely honed at the UBC writer's program, where Rosnau was the executive editor of PRISM magazine. Before enrolling, Rosnau worked at odd jobs, from child-care worker to journalist to construction worker, writing all the while. Mary-Lou Zeitoun 13 (Porcupine's Quill)
Reading 13 is like going through adolescence all over again. Mary-Lou Zeitoun, 38, has written a dramatic monologue in the voice of Marnie Harmon, a raging, passionate, smart and rebellious Ottawa teenager. Marnie, who is 18, is remembering back to 1980, the year she was 13, in love with John Lennon and at war with her parents, her teachers and her body. Her parents won't listen, her favourite teacher turns out to be a pervert, and even she has doubts about running away to New York to hang out with Lennon at the Dakota. Marnie's voice, trembling between the playfulness of a child and the sneering bravado of an adolescent, is captivating.
Zeitoun, an arts journalist, only started writing fiction four years ago. She signed up for a night course and started pounding it out. "There's no mystery about writing," she says. "You don't wait for inspiration. It is like working out. A little bit every day and it accumulates and you throw out the crap at the end of the week."
Despite a blurb from Booker-winning writer Roddy Doyle, enthusiastic reviews, and negotiations for a film deal with Heather Conkie and Don McCutcheon, Zeitoun is having trouble getting her books into readers' hands. Her publisher, owed a bundle of money by General Distribution Services, pulled out of its distribution arrangement before GDS applied for bankruptcy protection this past week. That left Zeitoun humping a box of books to stores on her author tour earlier this month. "And I thought that all I'd have to worry about was what I was going to wear at the launch," she sighed.