Prefaces & Afterwords

Welcome to the Prefaces & Afterwords, Q&A interviews with authors. Watch this space for our conversations with writers who will be featured in upcoming events.

Q&A with Priscila Uppal

Priscila UppalPriscila Uppal takes a good photo. The much-published poet, novelist and York University creative-writing professor has bright dark eyes, a cascade of glossy curls and a megawatt smile. She looks so likable and sympathetic that you can’t help but warm to her.

That’s why her new book, a memoir called Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother, is such a surprise. It reveals that this accomplished, outgoing woman -- who served as poet-in-residence at Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympics -- suffered as a girl.

Her life began in Ottawa. Her parents were a dashing, energetic couple with good prospects. But before Uppal started school, her dad, a man of South Asian heritage, had an accident while on assignment abroad that rendered him a quadriplegic. From being vital, active and in control, he became heavily dependent on others. And since he could no longer work, the family’s income plummeted.

ProjectionIn 1982, her mother decided she could no longer abide her new, less pleasant life. She left the country and didn’t once contact her husband, daughter or son as the months and years passed. Uppal writes in Projection that these two traumas dumped adult cares and responsibilities in her lap. At ten, she had a Visa card in her own name so she could help her dad and run the household.

Fast-forward to 2002, when she learned that her mum was alive, not exactly well and living in Brazil. This errant parent, a near stranger, was reviewing movies and had her own website (in Portuguese). Bravely, Uppal decided to fly down and meet her, and Projection tells how their reunion went. Cleverly structured and full of feeling, it has been shortlisted for two of Canada’s most important non-fiction prizes.

Here, Priscila Uppal answers some questions posed by Vancouver journalist Rebecca Wigod.

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Théodora Armstrong

What has been your favorite or most unusual experience at a reading or a literary festival?

My most unusual experience was leaving a Chuck Palahniuk reading with handfuls of candy and a very large blow-up skeleton. My favourite was hearing Richard Ford read last year at the Frederic Wood Theater. The space was intimate and he has that irresistible southern drawl. Also, he wore pink striped socks.

If someone loves your latest book, what would you recommend they read next?

If someone read my collection and enjoyed it, I’d recommend they search out another BC short story writer. There have been some excellent collections published in the past few years: The Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie; Once You Break a Knuckle by D.W. Wilson; Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner. I’d say read them all.

What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelf?

I have a well-thumbed copy of William Goldman’s The Princess Bride in my bookshelf. It has sentimental value because it was one of the first novels I read as a child. I’m not sure if that’s surprising, but there are no other books on my bookshelf with the caption “Hot Fairy-Tale Classic” on the cover.

What are you most looking forward to in coming to this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest?

I have been coming to the Vancouver Writers Fest since I was a teenager, but this is my first time participating as an author. I’m looking forward to experiencing the festival from a completely different perspective. Plus Tomson Highway, Margaret Atwood, Joseph Boyden, and more; I don’t think I could be more excited.

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Roberta Rich

What has been your favorite or most unusual experience at a reading or a literary festival?

Three years ago I attended the writer’s conference in San Miguel Allende, Mexico. That night at dinner the woman sitting next to me, whom I had never met before told me that several years ago her father had murdered her mother by flinging her off the balcony of their 14th floor apartment. By the time she was finished with her tale, I needed another margarita.

If someone loves your latest book, what would you recommend they read next?

My latest book, The Harem Midwife, is set in Constantinople in the 16th century. The one I am working on now is set in a Palladio villa outside of Venice. I would recommend that reader abstain completely from reading anything whatsoever, not even the directions on a package of muffin mix, until this one is published.

What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelf?

The Idiot’s Guide to Making Soap by Sally W. True and The Perfect Aquarium by Jeremy Gay.

What are you most looking forward to in coming to this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest?

Being on the other side of the podium. I have attended Writers Fest events for years and have always dreamed of being a presenter.

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Brian Fawcett

What has been your favorite or most unusual experience at a reading or a literary festival?

During the 2003 Vancouver Writers Fest, I met a burley Scottish writer named David R. Ross who’d just suffered a mild heart attack and was reluctant to drink or otherwise have fun.  As it happened, I was reading Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, and happened to have the book with me. So I read him Nuland’s graphic description of what happens when a person dies of a heart attack. The clearly frightened Scottish writer’s face turned white, and he left the room a few minutes later and went for a 4 hour walk.  When he returned we had a long conversation about living and dying, and then we went off to a party together, where I noticed that he was eating and drinking with considerable gusto.  I guess he’d made some sort of fundamental decision that living and dying were different things, and that he’d best have as much fun as possible while he could.  (Ross lasted another seven years, and died of, you guessed it, a heart attack.)

If someone loves your latest book, what would you recommend they read next?

My latest book is The Last of the Lumbermen.  I can’t think of another book that’s like it, so I’d recommend that if they really enjoyed it, they should either read my own Virtual Clearcut, Or, The Way Things Are in my Home Town, which offers the documentary background for the novel. They could also rent the movie, Slapshot, to which The Last of the Lumbermen has a few parallels, particularly when it comes to slapstick comedy. 

What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelf?

Probably the percentage of serious science books, or the complete works of Italian writer Primo Levi, who is the writer I most admire, and am, by both temperament and life experience, the least able to emulate.

What are you most looking forward to in coming to this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest?

I lived in Vancouver for 26 years, and because I was an urban planner there for a decade, I have a pretty intimate knowledge of the city and it’s infrastructure. Whenever I’m there, I enjoy wandering around and cataloguing the changes. I also have a large number of old friends to visit, including four ex-wives.  In 2003, after one of my events, I spent 10 minutes talking to an attractive stranger before I realized it was one of my ex-wives.  

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Ayelet Tsabari

What has been your favorite or most unusual experience at a reading or a literary festival?

Earlier this year I read and gave a talk at Spur Festival in Toronto. It was the first time I participated in an event where I was the only author, and up until the last minute, I didn’t know if I’d make it. I was nine and a half months pregnant, a week before my due date, and had booked the event against the strict orders of my midwife. I was also on crutches: I had fallen and twisted my ankle because my huge belly had thrown me off balance. I was quite a sight. To top it off, the first question from the audience was, “Are you a Zionist?” which I believe I handled quite diplomatically.

If someone loves your latest book, what would you recommend they read next?

I’d like to recommend two new collections of short fiction by Canadian women writers: Nancy Jo Cullen’s Canary and Eufemia Fantetti’s Recipes for Disaster and Other Unlikely Tales of Love (which is coming up next month).

What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelf?

Shelves upon shelves of comics. Actually, they belong to my partner, but I have my own, modest collection of graphic novels and memoirs, and an even more modest collection of tiny comic books I created myself.  I’m hoping to expand one of my essays ("You and What Army," about my time in the IDF) into a graphic novel one day.

What are you most looking forward to in coming to this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest?

I love this Festival, and I usually end up going to more events than I can handle. One year my friend and I were so exhausted by the end of the week, we could barely speak to each other beyond simple, fragmented sentences. Our brains were over stimulated. I actually said, “If anyone talks to me and it’s longer than a sentence, I’m going to freak out.” If I have to narrow it down, I’ve always loved the Literary Cabaret and the Poetry Bash.  And the go-go dancers. Tell me you have go-go dancers this year!

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