“You should come to the village,” my friend David Layton said. “It’s where the severed head of Orpheus came ashore, still singing. It’s also where Golding wrote Lord of the Flies. So, it has good pedigree; it’s a place to compose.”
I booked an Aeroplan seat four days later.
I’d read David’s remarkable memoir, Motion Sickness, years after it was published but shortly before meeting him. Our mutual friend Priscila Uppal loved to throw parties that involved karaoke and people from different parts of life. David and I got to know each other a little, occasionally for coffee and heated conversations about politics.
I started Pull Focus with Priscila’s help. She knew I wanted to get back to writing but had very little time between running two arts organizations. “You’re always going to be busy, it’s who you are,” she said. “You need to just do it. We’ll make a trade. You mentor me on raising money [for an institute on health, sport and art she wanted to start], and I’ll mentor you on a novel.”
Two years, and 1.5 drafts later, Priscila was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma and began a fierce battle with cancer that ultimately took her from us. We continued to meet, now at Annona restaurant in the Hyatt where Priscila would go to recover from lung surgeries and where I had my office, mostly to talk about life.
May 2017 and I was in Winnipeg producing an on-stage author talk with David for his novel The Dictator. He asked where things stood with my writing. In the middle of Portage Place mall, I began to cry. Too many years of working flat out, too little consistent writing time reflected in the novel drafts. His kindness pierced my armour.
Within three months, I’d re-arranged my life to create space to write. Two years later, after two more drafts and editorial meetings with David in Toronto and London, I found myself sitting in a taxi hurtling at top speed along tiny roads cut into steep mountains with the azure blue Aegean visible out my window. I was freshly landed in Mytilene, the capitol of the Greek Island of Lesvos, and headed towards the Molyvos I’d read so much about in David’s memoir.
“You’ve caused a big stir in the village. Everyone has eyeballs on you including the landlady and my godmother. . .who is also your neighbour.”
That night, I wound my way along the cobble stone path that ran from the apartment I’d rented half-way up Molyvos’s small mountain (topped by the Castle of Mithymna, built by the Byzantines to replace the one conquered by Achilles during the Trojan War), through the wisteria-shaded agora with its small shops and bookstores, and down to the twinkling lights of the harbour.
David spent summers growing up in Molyvos with his parents Aviva and Irving Layton, part of the sprawling Bohemian web of writers, artists, thinkers and their entourages that blew in from around the world for summers, or settled there, or who like David’s godfather Leonard Cohen came to visit from other Greek islands.
And indeed, that evening at a long table over many small plates of food and bottles of wine, people came and went. Bronwen and her husband showed up from India, Gary and Addie from Thailand, Aviva from Los Angeles, David and his partner Anastasia from London, her sister from Athens, her mother Jennifer from just outside the village.
During my time on Lesvos, Anastasia and her family generously folded me into their midst. In the mornings, David and I would have an editorial meeting over eggs at an open-air restaurant off the agora or at the water’s edge while Anastasia and her family engaged in lengthy negotiations about which beach we’d visit that day – dependent on the quality of the food the beach taverna offered – and what monastery or mountain town or pottery maker we would visit on the way.
Early afternoon, our caravan of small cars would roll up to the selected location and pick a table in the taverna, arrange chaise lounges on the beach nearby, order keftethes and tzatziki, crispy fried sardines and anchovies, salad topped with big hunks of feta, spanakopita or stuffed zucchini flowers. And olives, of course.
After some swimming (at least the ‘Canadians’ swam, the Greeks dipped their toes into water so warm it was a bath, and shuddered), then there be another round of food (kolokithia and melitsanes and more feta, maybe some calamari), this time with ouzo and wine, followed by reading (in my case writing), coffee and sweets, and before you knew it, it was 7ish, and the sun was losing its heat.
Time to pack everything up and head back to the village to shower and convene again at the harbour later for a grilled fish dinner or a film in the open-air cinema or a street festival of food and dancing.
Having a trusted editorial relationship with an experienced author/mentor is manna to a writer trying to finish their book. Someone to give tough advice, but also to hold your hand during the wobbles. Being able to have those conversations in a place so steeped in history and natural beauty like Lesvos is a gift to never be forgotten.
The Show Must Go On
As Jane, my protagonist in Pull Focus, knows: the world around you may be burning but the show must always go on.
Over the past year, book fairs, library association meetings and in-person sales pitches have either been cancelled and/or moved digital, requiring publishers to get creative about new ways to market their books to those who will sell them.
Voilà, the author video.
Recently, my publisher asked me to send a short video to use in their outreach efforts. I was keen to do so but it required some quick planning.
Afraid to pass something on to my mother (who has complex health needs), I’ve remained essentially locked down since last March. My hair grew so long I could almost sit on it; without tint my eyebrows and lashes disappeared, and not one for much makeup, opening the mascara took a vice grip.
YouTube may be owned by the evil Google empire, but I’m telling you in the DIY arena, it rocks. Smitha Deepak taught me how to shape and pluck my own eyebrows. Curly Tay showed how to cut my own curly hair (unicorn method, anyone?). And, over at Masterclass, Bobbi Brown inspired me to spend so much money on new makeup that the Shoppers Drug Mart cashier (yes, this was an essential drug store run) looked down at the total and then back up at me, twice, before saying, “wow.”
Purolator brought me this bad boy:
And I was in business.
It turned out to be more fun than I imagined, and not only because it broke the daily routine. Now I’m kitted out, my partner suggests I should turn myself into a TikTok-er. But unless I can borrow a neighbour’s pet to shoot some dancing cat videos or convince the ladies in my Nia class of the merits of a Gen Z audience, I think I’ll just stick with my existing social media accounts and be ready for whatever Facebook and Instagram live events are to come. 💪 👩🏽
Next issue of Letterbox: cover reveal!
Sundance’s first big sale of this year’s festival, and it’s a record breaker. CODA, writer-director Siân Heder’s coming-of-age drama about a girl who is the only hearing person in her deaf family, was scooped up for $25million dollars, the largest sale in Sundance’s history eclipsing last year’s hit Palm Springs (which sold for $22.5MM).
Apple emerged victorious from the fierce bidding war with Amazon, sending another shot across the bow in its fight for video streaming market share. (Apple also set a record at Cannes last year for Emancipation, from director Antoine Fuqua, starring Will Smith, rumoured to be worth $120MM. And if you recall from the last issue of Letterbox, they are also adapting the Mick Herron novels).
Meanwhile, large-scale summer festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella have cancelled, and spring/summer book festivals such as Hay and Edinburgh are planning staged events that at a minimum will be broadcast digitally, but are hopeful that live audiences may be possible. (The UK is really ahead in vaccine roll-out.)
And in Canada, here’s hoping a combo of vaccination and herd immunity enables the big fall festival season (Kingston WritersFest, ThinAir, WordFest, Word on the Street, Ottawa International Writers Festival, Toronto International Festival of Authors, Vancouver Writers Festival) to welcome both digital and in-person audiences.
(If you need a pick-me-upper, I found this morning’s NYT article a helpful – and hopeful – context-setting read about why the vaccine development news is more positive than we might necessarily appreciate.)
News & Gossips.
Walking With Ghosts, a memoir by actor Gabriel Byrne has been garnering strong reviews for being introspective and literary, instead of simply a celebrity book. Byrne has made over 70 films with a remarkable range of directors including Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects and In the Name of the Father. If you also enjoy his smoldering Irishness, this Kirkus interview might be for you.
Meanwhile, actor Ethan Hawke has just published his second novel, which dramatizes the struggles of a Hollywood actor whose marriage has just ended because of his infidelity (!). He’s currently doing the book publicity rounds including this exclusive Canadian event with the Vancouver Writers Festival.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach will begin shooting a film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s National Book Award–winning 1985 novel, White Noise. The perfect apocalyptic book to revisit for these times! The movie will star Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig. Baumbach previously directed both actors in Frances Ha and most recently, was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for his screenplay for Marriage Story, which also co-starred Driver.
Publisher’s Weekly reports that in 2020 independent publishers gained ground in the US, while the Big Five declined. With hardcover titles, the Big Five captured 89.1% of all available bestseller slots — down from 92.5% in 2019. They had an even greater loss in paperback, with their share of positions falling to 79%, versus 83.7% in 2019. I’ll be interested to read the 2020 Canadian Book Market sales data report when ready to see what happened in Canada.
Also interesting was the “pronounced disconnect between the books that grabbed the media’s attention and those that resonated with book buyers and readers.” Much attention was paid attention to titles such as Mary Trump’s Too Much and Never Enough, Elana Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults and Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist all of which did land on PW’s lists, but they didn’t have staying power.
(Netflix just announced they’ll be adapting Kendi’s books. The power of a successful TV adaptation cannot be overestimated: Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton series for Netflix have skyrocketed those novels back to the top of the charts as did Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.)
Meanwhile, debut novel Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age lasted fifteen weeks on the PW list as did one of my favourites – The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
The February 1st edition of Publishers Weekly (subscription-only) has a feature article interviewing multiple acquiring editors about how the #MeToo movement continues to impact the kinds of books publishers are buying. Many of the publishers argue they’ve always sought out books with strong female voices – the difference being now the media and market are showing greater interest and attention to those books.
The article also noted the rising interest in non-fiction, in books by women of colour, books where feminism is linked to wider social justice issues and novels in which characters find actionable ways to fight back against oppression.
At its core, Pull Focus wraps the #MeToo aspects of the entertainment industry in a wider exploration of gender and power. So, I found the PW article and in particular that last point very interesting.
In Hollywood, another long-alleged abuser is being called to account – this morning Westworld star Evan Rachel Wood came forward on Twitter and through Vanity Fair to name her former partner Marilyn Manson as her abuser, with other women quickly following suit. As always, questions arise about the entertainment power-brokers around Manson that have threatened and intimidated these women for years to stop them from coming forward.
Next issue of Letterbox: a look at changing business models and what that means for writers and the future of publishing, including Substack (the platform I use for this newsletter, one which many writers have adopted); Spotify’s expansion of ‘the books experience’; online reading such as Wattpad, and more.
One last photo of Greece, because why not, it’s frigid in Toronto and so I’ll dream of the warm Mediterranean sun on my skin as I dig into revisions to Pull Focus’s follow-up novel whose first draft I’ve written during this lockdown.)
Bye for now, thanks for joining me for this third edition of Letterbox!