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The Globe and Mail

Beyond geography: Mapping Toronto's personal stories and cultural histories

Author Anne Michaels, who has an idea of mapping the city according to people's personal stories, photographed at Berkeley Church on Queen St., E., Toronto, April 22, 2011.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

By her own admission, Toronto writer Anne Michaels is not the first name likely to come to mind to anyone in search of the next great social networking project - the next Facebook, let us say.

Ms. Michaels, after all, is not an entrepreneur, but an artist - the author of four books of poetry, and two meticulously sculpted, highly acclaimed novels, Fugitive Pieces and The Winter Vault.

Warding off a late spring cold with a warm cup of tea, she comes across as - and is - at once serious, soulful, earthy, grounded, the sort of person who might regard a hedge fund as part of the family gardening budget. She's on Facebook, but only as a fan page, not personally.

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Yet make no mistake: her One Big Idea - limned in The Winter Vault (pp 249-250) - packs huge commercial potential.

Because Ms. Michaels was born and raised in Toronto, that's the city she had in mind when the conceit first germinated. The beauty of it, however, is that could apply to virtually any city, indeed, to any landscape at all, real or imagined. And it would work not only for the present day, but for the past and the future as well. Globe and Mail feature writer Michael Posner sat down with the author recently.

In your novel, a character named Lucjan meticulously assembles dozens of unusual maps. Maps of tree roots and wind corridors. A chocolate map. A remorse map. A map of the dead. A secret hope map. Where did this idea come from?

It started very simply...The city has changed so much. Entire eras no longer exist...You go to an intersection and there's no resemblance to the intersection you knew. So I began to think of those palimpsests of buildings and how one might try to remember. How does one keep alive the ghost city? And it grew from that - re-mapping the city according to personal stories, professions, etc, because all of us have different maps. It becomes a way of claiming and sharing the city, exploring the infinite ways it functions.

Pragmatically, elliptically, spiritually?

All of the above. Dog walks. Cafes that don't have music blaring. Where you first understood the theory of relativity.

And how would that work in practice?

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The easiest way would be to have a website, managed and edited, and people could post their maps. It would be interactive. So in terms of today, it might be maps that helped immigrants learn and claim the city. But it could also map their historical encounters - the place they first encountered snow, or carried a child, or exchanged a first kiss, or had an idea. Some representation, in other words, of both the outer life and the inner life. Overall, it could have varying degrees of profundity and banality.

You could map the lives of interesting Torontonians.

Yes - a Glenn Gould map, for example, since we know something of where he walked, ate, etc. One could speculate about where certain of his ideas might have taken root, en route, so to speak. That would make it a quasi-fictional example, because speculation would be involved. We are not privy to the location of the invisible moments.

I understand that some of the novel's readers have actually written to you about the map idea.

Yes, I've had many letters and comments about the maps mentioned in the book and readers say they have begun to make their own maps, in their city. Mapping places that have meaning or utility for them. Maps of public washrooms for mothers with children. Or where you fell in love - or out of love. A map of disappointments, from mild to bitter.

The online maps could be collective, as well as individual. You could map the history of Toronto's - or of any city's - various ethnic communities: where they lived, played, prayed, etc.

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And not just the past, but the future - speculative mapping. So I think there's depth to the idea. We all have a need, in a sense, to mark the place. Now, with everyone walking with devices - phoning, texting, listening to music - we are detaching ourselves from what happens where.

It becomes a kind of online atlas, I suppose. If it were an app, you could call it applas or mapplas or appmap.

Yes, but it's not an atlas of imaginary things. It's another form of history. It's another way of saying that things happen in a place, in a time. Every moment has a location. So that ideas, experiences, connections are not lost.

Would the website have a video component? So that if, for example, you had a map of Toronto's ravines, people could click on a link and see a video of places where they might walk.

There's something about a map itself that is innately mysterious, waiting to be filled in. And there's something nice about that mystery, that process of discovering. But for the site to function properly, the maps must be intimate and come from living mapmakers. What I find satisfying is the implied narrative element - so not only where something occurred (a key decision made), but its consequences. Not only where death occurred, where a soul is honoured, but localities central to the life as well. I dislike the word, but it could be a way to 'empower' the mourners.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

One reader's idea: Remodel banks

For many years I used to work downtown and have always marvelled at the two old bank buildings, 197 and 205 Yonge Street, north of Queen. As a matter of fact I even banked in one of them.

These two banks date from 1905, were designed by prominent architects and represent the founding years of an emerging Toronto.

Today these two bank buildings sit unused, boarded up on a rather drab part of Yonge Street.

My idea is that these two bank buildings should be converted into exhibition spaces for temporary exhibits on a rotating basis for the ROM, the AGO, the Science Centre, the Shoe Museum, and other museums or institutions. Small exhibits with a duration of about one month could be relatively easily mounted.

In addition, in the space between the two banks a modern steel and glass building of roughly the same size should be erected and also serve as an exhibition space. But this space should be featuring temporary exhibits by community-based institutions, such as art schools, fashion design, orchid shows, bonsai shows, flower arrangements, photography, urban affairs, sculpture, crafts, etc.

These two banks and the modern space in-between in their new function would not only be a tourist attraction, but would also invigorate this particular stretch of Yonge Street and have a great cultural influence on Toronto.

Otmar Sauer

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