Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pitch Perfect Day One.

Day one in New York at the Spring Big Apple Writers' Conference.  I practice my pitch at breakfast in the hotel, mumbling to myself. I had written it at home but I still had a day to tweak and memorize.
Maureen Murdock, author of Unreliable Truth and leader of workshop: Elements of Memoir Writing.

The first day was devoted to memoir. I have had a few successes writing short memoir pieces but most of the women at the conference were doing complete books. A few were working on self help and only two on us had finished novels.

What is memoir? our workshop leader, Maureen Murdock asks. It is insight plus dramatic tension.  it is not autobiography but a selected aspect of life. There is always a universality to memoirs. The hallmark of memoir is the intimacy with its audience. The struggle for emotional truth is central to a memoir. In memoir the author speaks directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. 

Maureen threw out ideas as if sparks were flying from her finger tips.  Every sentence had weight. Then she had us all writing. My pen flew.  The essence of memoir is the track of a person's thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a particular life event.  Memoir often answers these questions: Who am I? Where am I going? What is my tribe? What is my purpose?

She gave up writing prompts. What was the moment when everything changed? Later we read each other our stories. I wrote about long forgotten events, events that had deep meaning for me. The air in the room was charged with ideas, creativity. Did I buy Maureen's book, Unreliable Truth? You bet. Only occasionally in life do you run into true wisdom.  The book distils the brilliance of Maureen Murdock. It was easily the most energizing workshop of my life.

Me with Maureen Murdock, workshop leader extraordinaire.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Off to Pitch My Novel in New York

Joan Baril with Heather Cariou at the 2014 Spring Big Apple Conference 

Off to New York to pitch my novel, Grinstead House,  to an agent. Yikes, what tension! When I learned that the International Women's Writing Guild was hosting a two day conference which included a meet-the-agents session where you could pitch your book, I signed up for three interviews. 

I first heard about the International Women's Writing Guild here in Thunder Bay at the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival from Heather Cariou who gave a memorable workshop on writing memoir and whose inspiring book, Fifty-five Roses, sold very well at the conference.

At the end of that workshop, Heather spoke about the Guild, praising it for the help and support it had given her. I joined the organization that month, read their e-newsletter,  but never attended a conference. Eventually I let my membership lapse. But this year, I took it up again, read about the two-day conference and made a tough decision. I was ready. As ready as I would ever be.

 I hoped.

So last Saturday, April 12, I walked along Park Avenue, admiring the flowering plums blooming all along the the street, breathing the mild spring air, and looking for Scandinavian House, the venue for the conference. A few minutes later in the meeting room, I turned and saw Heather. I introduced myself and was delighted to hear that she remembered Thunder Bay with fondness.  She said the Sleeping Giant Writers' Festival was one of the best in her experience. I was able to tell her that she is remembered in Thunder Bay as well. That year, after the festival, many people told me her workshop was one of the most inspiring they had ever attended. I agreed with them.

That Saturday and Sunday morning were devoted to workshops and panels. Sunday afternoon was pitch time. The entire experience was an emotional roller coaster for me.  More next post.

Heather Cariou

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Pulitzer Prize Winner

And what a great novel it is. A young boy loses his mom in a bombing in a museum. But he manages to save a picture, a mysterious picture of a goldfinch.  He carries it with him through grief ridden wanderings but it does not save him from encounters with the dissolute and seamy side of American life. He finds love and friends but he has to find himself.

The Goldfinch tosses aside the oft-heard belief that successful fiction must be fast paced, action packed,  and, above all, short. The Goldfinch has its moments of action but it is a rather slow book, meditative, and careful.  It is the perfect book for those who believe in the new idea of  Slow Read whose proponents claim we are all skimming written and electronic material to the point where our brains have changed and lost the ability to savour the book.  The idea is related to the slow food movement, which makes similar claims.

I read the Goldfinch some months ago and think about it often.  It is that kind of book.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

In the Realm of Fantasy - Third Printing

The book, In The Realm of Fantasy, by Martin Hicks has just gone into its third printing! It chronicles an entire imaginary kingdom and its surrounding environs as seen from the viewpont of the characters themselves (recounted appropriately enough in the ballad and sonnet forms employed by that age). And it's interactive too! 

The reader helps select poem titles, solve codes, and utilize the workshop atthe end. Now available along with his other collection,  The Good Bartender and other Concoctions, at The Book Shelf just off of  Memorial Avenue in Thunder Bayand sixty-two other regional outlets. 285 pp., illustrated , $15

Gwendolyn MacEwan

Call for female poets
Night of Words

in celebration of April, the Poetry Month

~ part of the Northern Woman Bookstore's 30 on the 30th anniversary series.

~ co-sponsor Gender Issues Centre LU

Wed. April 30, 2014

7 pm 9 pm.

Northern Woman’s Bookstore 65 N. Court St.
This night is dedicated to sharing the words of women poets. The theme is ‘Women and Place through Poetry.’
Each participant poet is asked to

select a female poet

introduce her with a short bio

read a short poem by her (or an excerpt from a longer poem)
provide a brief interpretation of the poem and/or explain how it inspired you or why you selected the poem and the poet
write an original poem in response, which you will read at the event
keep within 10 minutes

Please let me know if you want to be a poet participant by April 11th. Contact Taina Maki Chahal 

Sylvia Plath

Rona Shaffran

Thursday, April 3, 2014



Old churchyard lies on land neglected
Where brownish hay replaces lawn,
No weekend picnic crowd expected,
Last congregation long-since gone.

Its tombstones form a cluster jumbled
Or clutter hillside with small mounds,
Almost half-dozen off-mount tumbled,
Rest standing on uncertain grounds.

Once here at centre members huddled,
Showed also stern and graven faces,
As upright held their message muddled
Until prayers lacked financial basis.

Now near you wander gravel pathway
Through setting picturesque and bright,
And pause in searching travel halfway,
Scan range of objects odd to sight.

It's quite slow chore to find, non-faded,
Deep-chiseled words on block when hot,
Stray sheep from stony flock sun-fated.
But drab white shape stares finally spot.

You put down sudsy pail for scrubbing,
Wash well stone marker clean, wipe dry,
Soon lift from worn inscription rubbing.
Nice day for it, with clear blue sky.

Zeal earns for effort dark impression,
Craft dating bones consigned to grave.
Then grown-late afternoon clouds session.
Best page amongst tries whim might save.

Chose lead print fingers slide in folder.
Such wan-black contrast proves demise.
Good pal looks over left bent shoulder.
Chat ponders interred's Earthly guise.

Chum murmurs comment name was given,
There's no Chance dead confined had say.
Corpse never voted-while Life-driven-
Amidst close-crowded plots own stay.

You pick up bucket by looped handle
And weigh by content work's tough win,
Toss cloth inside as Change-rough vandal-
Wears still things smooth, hard fact rubs in.

-Martin Hicks

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


A birthday speech, given at the celebration of the 30th birthday of the Northern Woman’s Book Store on March 30. The Northern Woman’s Book Store opened in 1984 and it is now the last surviving women’s bookstore in Canada. Joan M. Baril

Tonight we are celebrating the written word. Also a miracle of survival of this book store in an economic melt down of the book business generally.

It seems to me, thinking back, that the great second wave of the women’s movement that occurred in 1968 up to the end of the 1980’s, was carried by the written word. The written word was the conduit.  It is not that it “got the message out.” But it got new ideas out, new ways of thinking, new information out, it opened doors in the mind and it opened a lot of possibilities in women’s lives.

By the written word, I mean pamphlets, position papers, reports from women’s bureaus and NGO’s, many many magazines, newsletters, news sheets such as the Northern Woman’s Journal as well as many books. A great wave of publication, a tsunami of publication, arrived at the end of 1969.  Much of this enormous volume of written material (enormous to fill this book store and much bigger women’s bookstores in larger cities) was written by feminists, produced by feminists, published by feminists, distributed by feminists and sold by feminists.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Thirty Years, Northern Woman's Bookstore

Happy thirtieth birthday

 Still going strong! The last women's bookstore in Canada celebrated its thirtieth birthday Sunday March 30 with a cake, a pot luck, and a sharing of memories. In the photo, founder Margaret Philips is read to blow out the candles on the birthday cake. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mystery novels are more popular that ever. Although half my book club is immersed in Scandinavian noir, I lean toward the historical mysteries. I was delighted to discover Jason Goodwin whose books are set in 19th century Constantinople.  The detective, Inspector Yashim, has access to the harem and its secrets. I am also a fan of Anne Perry and Tasha Alexandra who explore evil doing in Victorian England and Fiona Buckley who makes Queen Elizabeth I’s court her home. And I am still a Sherlock fan, either in the original or the modern versions.

Recently I watched the Brother Cadfael TV series on DVD courtesy of the local library. A couple of years ago, I read all the Cadfael books, written by Ellis Peters. The detective, Cadfael, is a medieval monk who solves mysteries right from his monastery. In the television series, Brother Cadfael was played by Derek Jacobi, a perfect choice for the gentle friar. Also recently, I read Boris Akunin, who writes about life (and death) in pre-revolutionary Russian. His detective is a small and quiet nun, Sister Pelagia, who quietly but bravely tracks down the murderer.  Of course Alan Bradley has his child detective, Flavia de Luce, the clever kid, who scours the English countryside for the villain. And Louise Penny introduces a lot of historical material into her wonderful books, everything from comments on the death of Champlain to the life of Emily Carr.

But my most recent and delightful discovery leaves the historical to enter into the modern world of international business and concomitant crime: scams, money laundering and outright theft. The detective is, of all things, an accountant! But not just your ordinary accountant. Ava Lee, Chinese-Canadian and martial arts expert, tackles the dark forces to recover massive debts caused by fraud or theft. Written by Canadian Ian Hamilton, the series is available in the local library. I just finished “The Water Rat of Wanchai,” and place it in the category of a great read. Many thanks to Murray Becotte, a man involved in the local financial world, who first told me about Ian Hamilton.

Your favourite mystery?  Favourite mystery author? Send us a post ( and tell us what you like and why.  We’d love to pass on your opinion to our readers.   

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Last Reading Night of the Season

Writer Amy Jones, who introduced the last reading night of the winter

The last reading night of this winter was opened by the poets. Alan Campbell read "The Sun and the Clouds," written by Savannah Polenske and published in the anthology Thundering, recently released.  Poet Doug Livingston's work started "The delicate tundra of the soaring hills." Writer Jim Foulds asked "Why is it I travel So Much in Foreign Lands?" He ended with a moving poem about a child with cancer titled "Variations on a Theme by William Blake with Assistance from a Nursery Rhyme."

Short fiction writer John Pringle, with his usual wit and humour, tackled the problem of communication in relationships in a story of a mismatched couple. His second story "The Wig" envisioned a society completely devoted to vanity. The piece starts: Give me back my wig," she said.

Marianne Jones read an excerpt from her mystery The Serenity Stone Mystery published by Split Tree Press, It is slated to be released this coming June.

After the break, Edgar J. Lavoie read a meditation on the subject of boats and specifically the journey of the tiny wooden canoe, launched at Nipigon in the classic children's book Paddle to the Sea, by Holling C. Holling. Lavoie connected the adventures of the tiny craft to his own journey through life. His newest mystery, Geraldton Back Doors, featuring sleuth Kennet Forbes, has his hero meeting two strange drug dealers on a lonely bush road. Yikes!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Alice in the money!

Renowned writer Alice Munro was freshly honoured today, with the Royal Canadian Mint unveiling a special coin to celebrate her Nobel Prize in Literature win last fall in addition to her wider literary achievements

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Grave State of Bookstores

With bookstores, it’s like bowling. Not five pins. Ten pins. Down they go, out they go one by one.

This week three beloved bookstores closed in Toronto: Book City in the Annex, The World’s Biggest Bookstore and The Cookbook Store in Yorkville. Gone.

Here in Thunder Bay the second hand book story on May Street closed.  Chapters has pushed the fiction into the far, far corner.  Thank heavens, Coles in the mall sails on. Northern Woman’s, a northern miracle, remains open but not every day.

People are reading, they are buying on line or for the Kobo, but books no longer generate a profit, or at least not enough.  Thus more and more floor space in Chapters is turned over to candies, cards and candles.

Once both Toronto and Thunder Bay were awash in book stores. Sweet Thursday is a distance sweet memory. In Toronto, the Grim Reader took the Women’s Bookstore on Harbourd Street, Nicholas Hoare, Steven Temple Books, Pages, Edwards Books and Art, This Ain’t the Rosedale Library and Britnell’s.  

The patron saint of books and writers is St. Francis de Sales, a patient and gentle fellow who lived in the 17th century and wrote books.  If you do buy a candle at Chapters, light it and say a prayer to St. Francis for bookstores. They need all the help they can get.

 St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and books, working on his latest.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Philip Roth Interviewed About His Writing Life

Tell us something about your life now when you are not writing?
Roth: Everybody has a hard job. All real work is hard. My work happened also to be undoable. Morning after morning for 50 years, I faced the next page defenseless and unprepared. Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation. If I did not do it, I would die. So I did it. Obstinacy, not talent, saved my life. It was also my good luck that happiness didn’t matter to me and I had no compassion for myself. Though why such a task should have fallen to me I have no idea. Maybe writing protected me against even worse menace.
Now? Now I am a bird sprung from a cage instead of (to reverse Kafka’s famous conundrum) a bird in search of a cage. The horror of being caged has lost its thrill. It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death.

Philip Roth