An Irish State of Mind.

I’ve been missing Ireland a lot, especially after my friend Aisling sent me pictures from the green fields of Cork in response to the last newsletter while I slipped along Toronto’s icy sidewalks trying to get my hour of pandemic lockdown exercise in.

Normally, I’m in Ireland two or three times a year. My father is buried in Mallow, County Cork, in a grave with his parents and brother William (an Irish thing). And I have a large extended family there. 

My father was one of nine siblings (well, eight plus a cousin raised as a brother for some reason everyone in the town knew but no-one talked about, possibly involving the Black and Tans). Some of the siblings were baptized with the last name Walsh and some Pyne despite all eight having the same biological parents, none of which is very clear why except it involves the rearing of my grandfather, which is another one of those secrets held fast. (A very Irish kind of thing.)

I’ve travelled almost every square inch of Ireland on many, many driving trips with my sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles. I would say, with absolutely no confirmation bias, it’s one of the most special places on earth.

From the rolling hills and fishing villages of West Cork; to the wild Atlantic side with the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, the outer-space topography of The Burren and the rousing music of Galway; to the haunting beauty of Donegal and across into Ballycastle in the North. And then of course the dynamism and energy of Dublin. (Yes, Cork cousins, I am indeed praising Dublin…)

But Ireland’s history is a complicated one, from the extreme hardships and sectarian strife fueled by British rule, to the immense power once wielded by the Catholic Church that enabled widespread sexual abuse of children and the ever-lasting shame of the Magdalene Laundries.

Republic of Shame, How Ireland Punished ‘Fallen Women’ and Their Children by journalist Caelainn Hogan is a remarkable book published last summer that explores how the Irish culture of shaming, secrets and ‘avoidance of public scandal’ permeated institutions and society to such deleterious effect.

At least in The Handmaid’s Tale they value babies, mostly. Not so in the true stories here.

–      ­Margaret Atwood

This Irish Times article by Diarmaid Ferriter – a very fine Irish historian whose books would be a great place to start if you want to untangle Irish history – includes a mini-documentary that accompanies Hogan’s book. Tough subject matter, but them’s the breaks when it comes to the historical treatment of women and girls around the world.


I was very fortunate to work on my novel Pull Focus during two writing residences at Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Co Monaghan, once the home of the great theatre director Sir William Tyrone Guthrie who, in 1971, bequeathed his entire estate to the Irish government to be used for the benefit of artists.

Located close to the border between North and South, and bequeathed at a time of deep political divide, both Arts Councils in Ireland worked hard for a decade to renovate the buildings and open the centre. 

Many Irish writers you will have read – John Banville, Colm Toibin, Anne Enright, Paul Muldoon – have spent time at Annaghmakerrig.

Evelyn Conlon, a writer I met there has a new collection of stories out this spring. One story, about a woman who tried to shoot Mussolini, was published in Accenti, the ‘Canadian magazine with an Italian accent.’ I look forward to reading the collection.

Tyrone Guthrie also played a central role in building the arts in Canada. In the early 1950s, when Stratford was struggling in the face of railway industry pull-out, journalist Tom Patterson came up the idea of using the arts as economic development.

Armed with a whopping $125 city council grant, and assisted by Dora Mavor Moore, Patterson eventually connected with Guthrie, who was intrigued enough to pay a visit. Guthrie ended up staying as the Stratford Festival’s first Artistic Director, working hard to build the festival despite adverse economic headwinds.

That modest grant fuelled a remarkable success story which helped grow both Stratford and the Canadian theatre ecology. . .the return on investment has been profound. Here’s hoping community leaders will be energized by the same kind of visionary commitment as we rebuild from Covid. For example, I’d love to see something similar to Hay Festival established in Prince Edward Country or Simcoe or Perry Sound-Muskoka. (Stay tuned for my fiction podcast series debuting this year.)

For writers on this list, you might consider a residency atAnnaghmakerrig. Write all day, take long walks in gorgeous countryside past donkeys and sheep before dinner, then sit down to an excellent meal over a properly laid table populated with the other artists in residence, where live music just might break out… 

(Also, useful is this Poets & Writers list of world-wide residencies.)


Festivals the world over are in a waiting game, holding off decisions about live vs digital versions this year as they watch the vaccine roll-out and peer at tea leaves. 

But if 2020 proved anything, it was the need for dexterity. Interesting partnerships and digital cross-disciplinary projects have cropped up all over. 

The Toronto International Festival of Authors – who recruited new Artistic Director Roland Gulliver from Scotland just before the pandemic – is taking part in LitFestBergen, a new project uniting festival and literary centres around the world.

Video footage will stream from 13 countries (from India to Jamaica to Afghanistan to Norway to Canada and beyond) with each presenting their own town, culture and lifestyle, followed by writers and artists linked in a ‘best Eurovision Song Contest style’ for a twelve-hour non-stop extravaganza.

Can’t quite get my head around the format – but thank goodness for that. It would be great to be startled by a literary event.


I’ve had the pleasure of attending the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah the past few years but sadly we won’t be packing up skis and flying out this month. Nor can we digitally attend, given the feature films are geo-gated to US residents. (Yes, there’s the VPN option but tickets need to be bought by a credit card billed to a US address.)

Instead, I’ve just finished the first draft of a screenplay set at Sundance and am catching up on films missed last year or re-watching favourites. Some suggestions: Last Black Man in San FranciscoPalm SpringsThe Forty-Year-Old VersionCrip Camp which won the audience award at Sundance and best feature at the IDA Documentary Awards, and Minari (released next month). 

Sundance’s Talks & Conversations are available globally this year. One I’m looking forward to is #SundanceBigConversation with filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) and Sundance director Tabitha Jackson exploring white supremacy, history, creative expression and Peck’s personal journey.

News & Gossips.

Literary Adaptations. Apple TV+ is adapting two books by one of my favourite writers, Mick Herron. Currently shooting in the UK, six episodes will be made of Slow Horses and six of Dead Lions, with an all-star cast including Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Jack Lowden, Olivia Cooke and Jonathan Pryce.

Herron’s books have won nearly every major crime fiction prize in the UK; like fellow ‘spy’ writer John Le Carré, his writing (deadly smart and viciously funny) is amongst the best, regardless of genre (including ‘literary’).

Meanwhile, MTV recruited publishing industry veteran Christian Trimmer to relaunch MTV Books, dormant for several years, in partnership with Simon & Schuster, to accelerate the book to tv/film pipeline.


class action lawsuit alleging anti-trust behaviour was filed in New York against Amazon for their eBook monopoly – somewhere between 83-90% of the US market depending on the source –  by the same law firm that successfully sued Apple and five major publishers for price fixing in 2011.


Foment continues in the publishing community about whose books deserve to be published. Last week, US Senator Josh Hawley saw his book cancelled; while more than 250 authors, agents, booksellers and publishers signed an open letter urging publishers to not sign book deals with members of the Trump administration or anyone who supported the Capitol Hill attack. And of course there’s Jordan Peterson…

Twitter is home to no end of raging about either the prevalence or non-existence of cancel culture, should that be how you want to invest your time and energy.


In Canadian lit agency news, Olga Filina, Ali McDonald and Cassandra Rodgers, formerly at the Rights Factory, launched 5 Otter Literary, a full-service, international literary agency. || Max Alexandre joined Westwood Creative Artists as Literary & Podcast Agent. || Léonicka Valcius was promoted to Literary Agent at TLA.


Publishers Marketplace reports that 2020 trends showed that US publishing deals were up ⬆8% overall, after holding roughly flat for the previous 4 years; UK deals were ⬆ 4.6% but deals by Canadian publishers were ⬇ 2.3%. (I’m curious what percentage of Canadian indie presses and/or agents report to Publishers Marketplace. I read their daily bulletins and I see some deals listed, but not all I suspect.)

Adult fiction sales showed most growth, particularly Women’s Fiction and Debut Fiction; in non-fiction, history/politics/current affairs and business/personal finance showed momentum while cookbooks slid; in children/YA the biggest growth in deals was for middle grade fiction and children’s graphic novels.


And finally in this edition of Letterbox, some wonky stats to answer questions asked about Bookselling in Canada. (Goodbye to those whose fingers just reached for the delete button…)

In 2020, juvenile and young adult titles continued to dominate, capturing 40.5% of the English print market, while non-fiction was 32.5% and fiction 25.5%.

On the topic of Bestseller Lists. . .they differ because they’re compiled from different data. For example, Booknet Canada (reprinted in some media) tracks point-of-sales data from over 2,000 retail outlets, covering an estimated 85% of the Canadian trade print book market.

Meanwhile, CBC Books uses data from close to 300 independent bookstores, courtesy of Bookmanager.

Riddle me this: what percentage of the retail book market do indie bookstores vs Amazon vs Indigo capture in Canada? 

That’s about as clear as the NYTimes Bookseller list compilation, and I did try to dig. I suspect the following breakdown from 2016 is similar still today, although I’d bet that Amazon has a bigger marketshare now:

The Canadian book retail market share in 2016 includes: 33% Amazon, 38% Indigo/Chapters/Coles, 18% non-traditional bookstore market (e.g., Walmart, Costco, drug store chains, supermarkets, and hardware chains), 5% Library wholesalers, 6% independently operated bookstores.

It will be interesting to watch if/how this pie is re-divided as independent bookstores expand their online sales capacity, including via Indiebound.

Although a long read, I found this research paper from 2019 trying to puzzle out the breakdown of the Canadian children’s book market very informative on just how difficult it is to answer what seems like a simple question.

Bye for now, thanks for joining me for the second edition of Letterbox.

An Irish State of Mind.
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