Looking back on Festival America and Dans la Cage…

It has been a busy few months, but I’ve been meaning to do write something about my time at Festival America, where I was invited this past fall in conjunction with the French publication of Dans la Cage, by the mighty Editions Albin Michel. It’s been some time since the fest, but I’m finally getting down to it now. Anyways, it was truly one of the highlights of my writing life so far, and I don’t think you can fully grasp the enthusiasm of the French literary crowd until you experience it all firsthand.

The above shot is from where I was sat during the official opening of the event, where the introduced all of the visiting authors at once to the attendees that were in town early for the fest. Just to give you a quick idea about the calibre of writers at the fest, the backs of those peoples’ heads in the foreground belong to Nathan Hill, Michael Chabon, and Lauren Groff. That is John Irving (guest of honour to the fest) to the furthest right of the incredible artist and journalist Julian Brave Noisecat, who began the event with a ceremonial drum song. And, as far as Canadian fancy authors go, I was sitting beside David Chariandy and behind Heather O’Neill.

Just before this we’d been down to a media call where they took photos of all the authors and we got to mill about in the main festival building and talk to each other like we’re not all weirdos. There I talked to Lauren Groff, Jacqueline Woodson, Christian Kiefer, some of the Canadian folks I knew a little and mentioned before, and I’d walked Guy Vanderhague and his wife over to the place as we were at the same hotel inn, and were both trying to figure out where the hell we were going. Of course, the most hilarious thing is always when John Irving, who I’ve known since he moved to Toronto, comes up and gives me his old-man-strength wrestler vice-grip bro hug and then the least known author in whatever fancy thing (me), gets to introduce Irving to whichever famous author is baffled about the whole thing. But yeah, it was a nice way to kick things off, and everyone I got to meet was very kind and not at all assholeish.

Over the course of the weekend, I did a book club event and five panels in two days (other than the opening and closing type deals and other little meetings), which is a lot compared to most festivals. But not a one of those events turned out bad. I learned a bunch about how everything was presented from acclaimed fiction writer, Dan Chaon, who I met in Paris with my publisher and editor Francis Geffard (who also founded the fest), Carol Menville, also my editor and general guide when I had no idea what I was doing in Vincennes, and some of the other staff at Albin Michel. We had a lunch in Paris to get all the Albin Michel authors together, including Dan, Christian Kiefer, and Guy Vanderhague. Colson Whitehead, Claire Vaye Watkins, and John Vigna were the other Albin Michel authors there, but I didn’t meet them until the actual fest.

In any case, Dan Chaon is huge in France, and has been to the fest a number of times, so he told us all about the format and what to expect. On a panel, the questions get asked in French, and each author is with a translator, who, in real-time, whispers the translation into your ear. Then you answer in English, and, as I learned because of my excellent translators telling me to not just reel off and endless string of ravings, you give them a few lines and let them translate and then you give little more, and rinse and repeat. It worked far better than I imagined, though I was lucky to have fantastic translators throughout the fest. It was also a very good lesson in being concise and measured, for a rambling dink like me especially, because you knew they had to translate, and you knew the format means you’re taking time from other authors if you don’t allow space for them to get their answers in. So, that actually helped me in that regard.

The first thing on my schedule when the fest actually took off was a meeting with the Picabo River Book Club, who were responsible for the earliest postings on social media about Dans la Cage before it was officially out in France. I was getting tagged on instagram and whatnot by French readers in that club who had the book long before I ever laid my filthy hands on it, and, no matter what they thought (mixed), that organic level of getting through to readers, with no ability for an author to hustle in their country, is pretty impressive compared to how it happens over here in Canada.

I knew going into that book club brunch that they were mainly there to see the previously mentioned literary force that is Dan Chaon, and I was happy to tag along and meet readers willing to give my novel a go. As I always try to do, I answered as honestly as I could about the things those who’d read the novel liked, and especially about those things they didn’t like, and all the whys of why I did the things they didn’t like.

All in all, I got a few more readers who hadn’t thought the book would speak to them, which is something I’ve always understood since In the Cage was published in Canada a couple years back now. As you can see by the above photos, borrowed from Eva of the Picabo River Book Club (thanks, Eva), nobody wanted to punch me by the end of the brunch. Which I always consider a win…

For this event, I give another of many thanks in this post to Carol, from Albin Michel, who chaperoned us to the brunch and to Dan’s book translator who came down to mediate for us where necessary (as usual, most of the French readers I met spoke better English than I do, which is a good measure of how I am at speaking French).

Of course, if you are smart and cultured like, say, Heather O’Neill, you might be able to speak French and don’t need a translator at all. But I’m no Heather O’Neill…

To follow that, the above is a bit of a blurry shot from the crowd for panel I did with Heather and David Chariandy, about writing stories about poor people in the underclass. This was the first actual panel I did at the fest (I did a book club event with Dan Chaon in the morning), and a really good one. I’ve done a similar one a couple years back at Vancouver Writer’s Fest, with David and the American poet Matthew Dickman, and Francis Geffard knew about that and wanted us to do something like it, discussing class and poverty and those kinds of concerns from writers who know about it intimately, and who write about it consistently. I did suggest to him we were missing a female perspective from the VWF panel, and Heather O’Neill would be great given what she writes, and what I’ve read in her non-fiction and articles about it. They were really receptive to ideas like that at the fest, and actually gave us the perfect panel for this. And I think we all pulled it off and the audience really connected with what we were saying.

The next event I had was a panel with American writer Ivy Pochoda and Mexican author Aura Xilonen, about writing physicality and how the body is involved in our work. That fellow on the right was my translator for the event, and he was giving translations of both French and Spanish during, which is better than I’ll ever be able to do. I was truly impressed by how they managed to pull that off throughout the whole fest, and how well it worked.

I ended up, as I do often on panels, talking about what I’d learned training Muay Thai and boxing over the years, and how I deeply respected the physicality and, more importantly, the mental toughness of fighters and professional athletes. And, about how I always tried to make a distinction between the fighting and training within combat sports, which I do not consider violence, and the actual physical violence that occurs during the scenes involving criminal violence and other such mayhem during In the CageI had some great exchanges with Ivy, who was a professional squash player for many years, about some of these elements and how much more there is to explore than most readers see on the surface.

The last panel of the day was a key festival event, which I’d snuck into by being pals with John Irving, a fellow who has generously supported my work for a few years now. John was guest of honour at the festival, and there was a new publication and celebration for the 40th anniversary of The World According to Garp that was tied into the weekend. This panel also featured very-acclaimed American author, Nathan Hill, who wrote a juggernaut of a book in The Nix, and who John had also crossed paths with and supported (when you read Hill’s writing, that support makes far more sense than with mine).

Hill’s novel is incredible, and I’d recommend it to any Irving fans, or anyone who doesn’t suck in general at liking good literature. It was the first time I’d met him, and we had a funny bonding moment where we both had to make a joint decision not to go on stage until John arrived. He’d been stuck in traffic with festival people, and the event was running late, so they were trying to get us up there without him and then bring him on after, but it didn’t seem right, given that he was the author they were there to see, and nobody was going to walk out on it after twenty minutes. So, me and Nathan said to each other we wouldn’t go up and that was that. It was a good move, as Irving likely would’ve double-legged someone if he’d got there and we were already yammering, and it would’ve disrupted the flow of what was a very good event after all.

That auditorium was full other than a few seats, and went quite a-ways further up than it shows in the photo above. About a thousand people in all, which is not the usual size of my crowds to say the very least. The conversation started lightheartedly, with mostly just talk about how we’d all met (we had both done events with John, which takes some pressure off), how we valued mentors, and lucky things that helped us get our books out.

The moderator, journalist Clementine Goldszal, did an excellent job of not just lobbing us softballs, and she asked a number of questions about masculinity in our books and privilege, and how we felt about those things. But, she had three pretty honest privileged white dudes up there who had no problem acknowledging that we believed all of those things are a factor, and that you have a choice to make. For my part, I talked about how, being the one writer up there from a working-poor background, that you can decide between considering your own hardships and having the empathy to think about how much worse it could be, for those with less. Or you can other people and decide your plight is all that matters.  John, as he has before, neatly tied in the fact that, despite all of the musings on autobiographical content in his writing, he always writes about what he fears most will happen, and not what did. And, that all of our novels are about lives far harder, and more difficult than our own.

We ended with some serious comments about the way things are going in the world at the moment, trying to bring some of our North-American perspectives to the table for a European audience that is often confused by happenings in the US, and, as almost everyone is, flat-out baffled by anything that might be happening in Canada. I may have dropped a single emo tear talking about art as resistance and how it matters as much during times like these as ever. I felt like a bit of a clown, but the audience gave a standing ovation for it, and that did not help. Still, I was being honest and trying to say something that wasn’t canned, so I think it was alright.

Between events we did have some set times to sit at the Albin Michel book table and sign. I always expect to eat shit at these while famous authors sign away, but I magically signed a pile of books for readers, and just being at that table certainly helped. In the first photo I put up for this post, you can see me up there with Dan Chaon, the magnificent Christian Kiefer, and Colson Whitehead, and I was also sat with Claire Vaye Watkins a lot during signings, so it definitely raised my boat to be with those names. I went to dinner with Irving and Nathan Hill after the event we had, so I missed a signing time then, but I’m told there was a run on the book afterward, and I did notice a direct increase in signing after events. So, that was a little more than encouraging. I also was a staff pick at the Shakespeare & Co. stall in the signing tent, and they sold out of both of my books in English. I didn’t figure on that.

I had two events that next day, in the same room, and both with some overlapping content. The first was about sinners and redemption, and the second about how certain characters are punished for their deeds. I shared both panels with Michael Farris Smith, novelist out of Mississippi and one of my favourite writers I discovered at the fest (as far as actual books go), and the first had a young dude named Baird Harper, who I liked very much. That second panel with me, Smith, and the aforementioned Dan Chaon, who I spent a good deal of time with over those days, entailed a lot of talk illuminating French readers on some of the various inconsistencies in “justice” in the US in Canada, and about the slippery nature of who gets punished, and for what. Props to Dan, especially, who did a great job keeping Francis Geffard, our fair moderator, festival founder, and my editor at Albin Michel, on his toes about historically problematic issues with Europe’s record of crime and punishment. They were both panels that suited our work well, and were curated carefully by the folks at Festival America.

We had a night of closing ceremonies, which take place in a magical city hall that is much like a palace, but where the wine and food is on lock until all of the many speeches are over. Which is a dangerous plan in a room full of writers, but is a nice gesture to the people who put the fest together and the city of Vincennes, which is taken over by the fest for days on end. Afterward, as with most nights, you end up with a bunch of writers at a random old hotel bar, drinking outside the place and talking with other guests and people involved in the festival.

On that last night, we ended up closing the place and then going to Librarie Millepages, the local bookstore (also founded by Francis Geffard), and drinking all our leftover comp champagnes, which warmed up all week in our rooms and I rounded up in a stopover at our little hotel on the way over to the bookstore. That was a great sendoff, thanks to the Millepages staff for inviting us over, and to Albin Michel editor Carol Menville, who hung out with us into the small hours of the morning and made sure they didn’t lose any visiting authors on the last day of the fest.

I’m still getting around to going through the fourteen-thousand photos I took during the trip to France, with the festival sandwiched between days in Paris. But it was long overdue that I put something up and give an account of the experience for those interested, and for any lucky authors, fancy or not, multinational or indie, who get their work translated and have a chance to attend festivals like this overseas. I can’t think up enough thanks for Francis Geffard, Carol Menville, my translator Janique Jouin de Laurens, the staff and volunteers at Editions Albin Michel and at Festival America, and all of the readers and attendees who showed up and made it feel like people still really do give a shit about writing, in big numbers too.

That’s especially encouraging given the kind of writing I’m doing, and many other likeminded authors there, I shit you not…

So, I’ll leave it there. I’ve not heard the pub date for sure, but Editions Albin Michel also acquired the rights to Debris, with the idea of publishing it after In the Cage, which makes plenty of sense. Still, a number of authors were there with collections and doing well, so I hope I built up enough of a readership, and a good enough start, to have people interested in that short fiction collection. Perhaps it’ll be more suited to some of the readers who just couldn’t get around the MMA ingredients in the novel, or those who want more variety of poor-ass Ontario redneck stories. There is definitely some of that in the collection.

And, hopefully it lines up that I get to follow Debris over to the festival again in 2020. I tried to bring my best to Vincennes and break as little stuff as I could around town so as to stay in their good graces. That would be peepantsworthy news if it turns out.

Take care, all. More posts are going to be coming to catch up on what other news I’ve got for writing and other projects. So, don’t quit my shitty wordpress yet. I’m on it.


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