On Meeting your Literary Heroes
Some people (and lots of songs, including one of my favourites, Metric in Breathing Underwater) suggest it can be dangerous or disappointing to meet your heroes. I understand the impulse, the fear that someone you've admired for so long could be unkind, or uninterested in talking about writing at all, (don't worry, it definitely has happened to me too) but I have to say, most the time, writers are elated to hear that you love their work. So much of the work we do is solitary, and then when we start editing, we might as well take a bulldozer for all the demolishing we have to do. (When I wrote my recent novel, A Place for People Like Us, I thought of live tweeting a construction site near my house, a completely destroyed apartment building with the caption "So Danila, how's the new novel going?" )
Telling someone what their work means to you is such a gift.
I'm always so grateful when someone emails me, or messages me, or comes up to me at a reading to tell me something moved them, or felt authentic. It's strange but so gratifying when your job is to make things up, and someone tells you that they believe it, that these imaginary people who've been living in your head for so long resonated with them.
I'll never forget the time I read at a reading series at Glad Day Bookstore in Toronto called Brockton, and a woman came up to me, in tears, shaking, wanting to tell me how much For All the Men... meant to her. I nearly cried too.
It's also strange to think that our heroes, the people who have influenced our work the most experience the same self doubt, the same questioning of their work, but they're human too. Reaching out, or going to a writer's reading or book signing and telling them what their work means to you, as scary as it seems, can be such a wonderful experience all around.
So starting at the beginning, I'm going to share how wonderful it's been to meet my heroes.
When I was a very young writer, still in my Creative Writing undergrad, I discovered Zoe Whittall's first book of poetry at the Chapters off Queen st near where I was living. It blew my mind. I loved her voice and her vitality and her honesty and her humour and her phrasing. It was called the Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (and it really was, I remember tearing through it, loving every word. I had no idea that writing could feel so contemporary, and address daily life so poignantly) Around that time, I was an intern at a small press called the Mercury Press, which was also a wonderful experience. I got to work with their team on the Word Literary Supplement which included Zoe. I wish I could say I acted cool, but as the kids say, I literally had no chill. She was so kind and generous and patient with all my writing questions- in addition to continuing to write some of the greatest books ever.
This was taken at the Toronto International Festival of Authors event for the Guelph MFA annniversary party in 2016.
Right after this time, I went to live in Israel. I spent a lot of time in bookstores, and like everyone who's read his work, I couldn't get over Etgar Keret's brilliant writing. He exclusively writes short stories, and he does so much with the form, his stories are wildly imaginative and so funny and insightful. It's hard for me to overstate how much I love his work and the possibilities that reading it opened up for me. Short fiction is my favourite form, and despite being told nearly constantly that short stories didn't sell, etc-- here he was, an international success, every collection somehow better than the last.
I met him in 2017 when he came to read in Toronto. He was so generous and kind and when I told him one of the characters in my first novel was reading one of his short stories, he asked if he could see, and if I could sign it for him and let him keep it. I nearly cried. It was so incredibly kind of him. (he also writes hilarious inscriptions when you ask him to sign books.)
Back in my younger writer days, I discovered an incredible short story called I Know Angelo in an amazing anthology edited by Zoe Whittall called Geeks Misfits and Outlaws. It was written by Heather O'Neill- and it changed everything I thought about beauty and description and voice and what it meant to write a short story. Her first poetry collection, Two Eyes are You Sleeping was already out of print, but the magicians at Pages (one of the best bookstores Toronto has ever had, I still miss it) tracked it down for me, and it was stunning. She has also always been incredibly generous and kind to me-- she even came to see me read in Montreal once, which was one of the greatest experiences ever. Every single book she's written is so beautiful and masterful and unique. Daydreams of Angels is a stunning short story collection.
(This was the Toronto Reference Library, where she read from The Lonely Hearts Hotel)
Around the same time, I discovered Lynn Crosbie's beautiful writing. The first book I read of hers was Queen Rat (so fantastic) followed by everything else, from novels to more poetry. I loved how fearless she was- there was no subject she seemed afraid to touch, and yet she always did it with such sensitivity and insight.
She has also been incredibly generous to me- I want to cry every time I reread her blurb for For All the Men... not to mention the time she invited me to speak in her U of T creative writing class (which included a student who did a presentation on my work!)
When I finished my undergrad, I did the Summer Intensive program at Humber School for Writers. It was such a fantastic experience (and it's incredible to be part of the faculty today) One of the many great writers who spoke was David Bezmozgis, who had recently had his first collection of short stories, Natasha and Other Stories, published. Hearing him talk, before I ever read his work was amazing- I remember him discussing the Denis Johnson collection Jesus's Son, among others, and I got so excited because I loved it so much too. Representation in writing and art is so important, and seeing neighborhoods I knew so well, from Goldfinch and Bathurst and Finch all the way down to Antibes was so important for me. I had never considered that places I knew intimately, and the immigrant Jewish experience in Toronto could be considered serious and literary, and beautiful. His characterization and pacing and descriptions were amazing too. I loved every story starting with Tapka. His new collection is wonderful too.
This was taken at the amazing FOLD festival in 2018. (In addition to his writing, David is the Creative Director of our program, along with the amazing Alissa York who is our Program Coordinator)
And finally, the fantastic Nathan Englander. He is also an absolute master of the short form. His collection What They Talk About When they Talk About Anne Frank was life changing for me. Like everyone who writes short fiction, I love classic writers like Raymond Carver, and I had no idea that a premise could be played with like that. I love anything that subverts expectations, and each of the stories was so wonderful I had to go out and get them all. He was very kind too, and also excited to talk about craft, which I always appreciate.