(and, yes, an explanation of why you’re receiving this…)
When I was growing up, my Scottish mother always insisted that we have a ‘first foot’ through the front door just after the stroke of midnight on New Year’s to bring good luck for the coming year.
Not just any pair of feet would do, mind you. They required a tall, dark-haired man to be walking himself across the threshold, preferably a lump of coal in hand, although this latter detail was often difficult to achieve in the Toronto suburb of my childhood.
Inevitably, a neighbour was recruited for the job, hand on the knocker as Dick Clark counted down on the television and we poised to sing ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ (And, sadly, I don’t remember him ever looking like Sean Connery.)
Other families on our street didn’t seem to comprehend the havoc that would be wreaked if the gods went unappeased, so even from an early age I understood it to be a tradition the family brought during the emigration trek, along with square sausage, a propensity to cry at the bagpipes, and sayings like ‘haud yer wheesht’ that scattered blank looks everywhere when used among civilians.
Over the past few days, in this dislocating year of social distance, I’ve been reading about the history of ‘first-footing.’ In Scotland, it’s part of Hogmanay – the New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Some argue the tradition originated after the Viking invasion of the British isles, when the arrival of a blond stranger at the door would cause fear and alarm. There are also parallels to Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter, when the boundary between this world and the otherworld thinned and the pagan gods were appeased with offerings of food and drink and verse.
Like much of history, the exact origins are mutable. What is certain: the sense of community it evoked, the house full of ringing laughter and good cheer.
As we turn the corner into 2021, I wish for us all a renewed sense of hope and expansion, along with great big dinners shared with extended family and friends, the ability to wander aimlessly among the shelves in your local bookshop and the much-anticipated return to live theatre and festivals.
In my little world, the most important thing about 2021 – other than the anticipated jab in the arm – is the publication of my first novel, Pull Focus!
I’ve wanted to be a writer from the time I read Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women at thirteen, although I was side-tracked there for a few decades with magazine publishing, film writing/producing and running arts organizations.
But first loves can’t be denied, and this new bi-monthly newsletter will share news of my novel (+upcoming fiction podcast series), curated suggestions from the book and film festival worlds, and news and gossip (publishing + entertainment), because who doesn’t like a little gossip with their cup of tea and biscuit?
Pull Focus launches.
I’m both excited and nervous that Pull Focus launches this fall – September 7th in Canada and the US and a month later, October 7th, in the UK.
The description from the publisher’s catalogue: Jane has been appointed interim director of the Toronto International Film Festival after her boss is removed for sexual harassment. Knives are out all around her. At the same time, her partner, a fund manager, disappears and strange women appear uttering threats about misused funds. Yet the festival must go on. Pull Focus wraps the #metoo issues in the entertainment industry in a thrilling story.
I’m delighted to be with ECW Press, Canada’s largest independent publisher. By the time the novel hits booksellers, it’ll have been two years since we signed the contract and many more years since I first started writing it, sandwiched by fifty-hour work weeks into weekends and writing retreats in Georgian Bay, Edinburgh and Ireland.
I’m enormously grateful to the writers who so generously read drafts of the novel and gave feedback: David Layton, Rabindranath Maharaj, Anna Porter and the late and greatly missed Priscila Uppal. And for the Diaspora Dialogues writing community whose talent and friendship inspires me.
Pull Focus has gone through the edit and copyedit; I’m currently waiting for the page proofs and the revised cover image artwork – which I’ll share with you the next newsletter, along with more details and the fiction podcast seriesthat is a prequel to the book, taking place seven years earlier.
My Scottish grandmother explained the concept of fate this way:
I very much hope you’ll keep me company on this journey, first footing me as I launch myself as an author.
The Magical (and Threatened) World of Festivals.
“Etymologically the term festival derives ultimately from the Latin festum. But originally Latin had two terms for festive events: festum, for “public joy, merriment, revelry,” and feria, meaning “abstinence from work in honor of the gods.”
– Alessandro Falassi, Time Out of Time: Essays on the Festival
I adore festivals.
The thrill of discovering new writers or filmmakers or theatre artists. Rushing from one event to the other, then decompressing over a glass of wine later to figure out what it all meant. Conversations with strangers in line, the hush that comes over the audience as the trailers or introductions start, the titillating exhaustion of the creative brain being bombarded with images, ideas, questions.
But above all else, my favourite time of year is August in Edinburgh, where I have spent the past dozen years, originally at the invitation of the British Council, who kindly hosted me as an international programmer for the first few years.
To give you a sense of scale: the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe alone, billed as the world’s third-largest ticketed event after the Olympics and the World Cup, featured over 3,800 shows in 323 venues across the city; brought together artists, arts industry, media and audiences from over 150 countries; issued 3 million tickets; accredited 1,661 producers, programmers, bookers, talent agencies, festivals and others from 54 countries as well as 1,000 media.
The Edinburgh Book Festival, which transforms Charlotte Square Gardens into an intimate tented village complete with cafés, pub and bookstore, hosted 250,000 people.
The majority of the audiences are Scottish – from 45-80% depending on the festival – followed by the rest of the UK. International audiences make up a small percentage. But still, 2019 saw the busiest summer ever at Edinburgh airport, with 1.47 million passengers. And this despite so much of the British audience come via the excellent train and bus system. (They like to complain about it, but they’ve never seen what passes for public transit in Canada…)
Of course, this scale raises questions and concerns about the environmental impact, and about the burden on local residents who face gridlock in every way in August.
The festivals are more environmentally conscious and overtly political than any I’ve attended elsewhere, both in terms of policy/procedure and content, including this excellent one-woman show, Sea Sick, I attended by Canadian journalist Alanna Mitchell, one of the 25 artists presented by CanadaHub.
What the future holds post-Covid is of course unclear. We are all zoomed out and people do not want to pay for digital content. Nor have digital author talks yet proven themselves effective in translating into book sales.
Cultural festivals everywhere are struggling to figure out what happens in 2021 – will the vaccine inoculation happen fast enough? What will people’s comfort levels be even if it does?
At best, we’re likely looking at some kind of mixed live-digital model for this coming year. In Edinburgh, the current 2 metre rule puts the viability of many venues into question, especially for the Edinburgh fringe which are generally the least ventilated and the most squished. Organizers have their sights set on 2022, the 75th anniversary of the Fringe.
But here’s hoping the other festivals in Edinburgh and elsewhere find a way to produce in-person events in 2021. I say this as both an audience member who’s ready to go back (masked) into the theatre, but also as a writer who very much hopes to do live book talks and meet readers this fall.
News & Gossips.
Let’s hope someone other than Amazon is left standing; if not, it’d be a whole lot worse than Penguin Random House buying Simon & Schuster.
“If it’s correct to worry about a merged company that publishes perhaps 33 percent of new books, then surely it’s correct to worry more about the fact that Amazon now sells 49 percent of them.”
“Flat is the new up.” Hollywood-speak for the continuing freefall of tv/film business models, whether that’s the death of cinema, or viewership erosion for broadcast, cable and pay. Variety ranks the 2020 winners and losers. (And yes, Donald Trump’s crackpot antics were a godsend to cable news…)
Literary Adaptations continue to be snapped up by streaming services, with Canadians riding the trend. Deepa Mehta and Shyam Selvadurai’s adaptation of Funny Boy aired in December on CBC Gem in Canada, and on Netflix in the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand, distributed by Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY films.
Michael Lista’s Toronto Life Article “The Sting” is being produced by Robert Downey Jr’s production company for Apple; Hulu’s betting on Sean Michael’s The Wagers and Amy Stuart’s bestselling Still Mine series is set to thrill TV viewers as much as readers.
Reese rolls-on! Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon’s production company, just announced the purchase of SKR Productions, marking her push into unscripted programming, with a desire for “narratives that explore the full range of women’s lived experiences.”
Her impact on scripted content is already massive, producing projects ranging from Big Little Lies to Gone Girl to Wild, advocating for female representation on and behind the camera.
Another example of Witherspoon’s influence? Her book club, “publishing’s secret weapon,” picked Where the Crawdads Sing, a debut novel by 70-year-old author Delia Owens, for its September 2018 selection, a month after the novel was published with an initial print of 27,500 (high by Canadian standards, but not in the US). The book shot to the top of the best-seller lists, where it has mostly remained, with over 7 million books sold and a film adaptation in the works (yes, by Hello Sunshine).
That’s it for this first issue of my newsletter! See you in two weeks, and please check out my new website: helenwalsh.ca