I’ve just returned from the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. It was literally the Big Smoke: at times the air was orange and unbreathable due to forest fires burning in Québec. As one taxi driver said to me, it brought back eerie memories of the last time the air had been that bad: September 11th. And I agreed.
The Tribeca Film Festival was founded by Robert DeNiro, his long-term producing partner Jane Rosenthal and her then husband Craig Hatkoff in late 2001 to spur economic revitalization after the terrorist attacks.
I lived in Tribeca at the time but moved to Brooklyn when the area south of Chambers Street became uninhabitable after 9/11. I’ll never forget the ashy particles that fell from the sky in the days/weeks that followed as the fires burned.
New York isn’t an easy place to live. You constantly need to fight for space – on the sidewalk, in line at the grocery stores, on transit. It’s expensive. And so loud, everywhere, all the time. But the quid pro quo? A city that feels alive in every square inch, and a pulsating energy that drives you forward (until it flattens you).
New York’s complexities and contradictions, its riches and its poverty, engages the imagination of artists and ordinary citizens alike. “You looking at me?” it asks, in a pugilistic tone. But of course the place and its people already know the answer. The world looks at New York, consuming its images in film, books, video games, photographs and more.
It was great to stay in Chelsea for the first time and walk the streets from Sixth Avenue to the east and Hudson River to the west. 14th at the south end where it meets the West Village. The soon-to-be revitalized Penn Station at West 34th, Chelsea’s northern demarcation along with Hell’s Kitchen and its history as an Irish slum controlled by organized crime (now of course gentrified, with sizeable Irish, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities).
Chelsea has long been associated with the arts. There’s the infamous Chelsea Hotel of course, the largest and longest-lived artists’ community in the history of the world, made famous by Leonard Cohen’s song, Allen Ginsberg’s poetry and the documentary Dreaming Walls: Inside the Chelsea Hotel – among many others.
There are hundreds of art galleries in those twenty blocks, and I slipped into Maison Ten late one night to watch an artist install a new work and have a glass of wine. I also visited, for the first time, the sprawling Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River, originally a passenger ship terminal revitalized as a waterfront sports village with film/tv production facilities and a marina.
I was there to attend a festival pre-party for horror film Somewhere Quiet on a yacht complete with film swag bags to take home.
Let’s just say – a little outside my normal snack bracket. 😎
Tribeca Film Festival is a mecca for genre fans, and this year horror films made a big splash. On the awards side, Cypher, a tale about the dark side of celebrity and conspiracy theory, won the US narrative feature award while A Strange Path, which follows a young filmmaker’s returns to Brazil during the pandemic to reconnect with his father, won the international competition.
The Graduates, a searing debut about the aftermath of a mass school shooting in Utah that left me speechless, won best narrative cinematography.
In addition to film screenings, Tribeca Film Festival produces a storyteller’s forum of on-stage interviews. I was able to catch one: David Letterman and John Mellencamp. I haven’t seen Letterman’s Netflix show, My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, but it was clear the sold-out audience was there for him as much as Mellencamp.
Their talk about life and addiction and anxiety channeled into art was funny and honest and genial, these two men from Indiana at a stage in life where they have nothing left to prove but are still rocking the political and social commentary.
Don’t look back, there’s nothing back there worth keeping. – John Mellencamp.
I’m currently listening to the audio book of Deepti Kapoor’s new thriller, Age of Vice,set primarily in New Delhi. I’ve never visited but imagine the city to have the same kind of frenetic energy as New York.
Age of Vice is long; over 500 pages in print, almost 20 hours in audio format. I listened to the first 5 hours in a blind rush – it was that good – but then my attention began to lag. The novel’s effortlessly cinematic tone wears a little thin and the character turns become less believable. But still, it stands above, and I look forward to finishing. Age of Vice has already been optioned for television by FX.
I’m also listening to the audiobook version of In Extremis, about famed foreign correspondent Marie Colvin, who was assassinated by the Syrian government in 2012. The book is excellent. My daily step count has nearly doubled as I take walk breaks so I can continue to listen, inspired by the story of a strong, brave and intelligent woman who went out in the world to bear witness. She wrote what she saw despite criticism, including about the American-led invasion of Iraq after 9/11.
Listening to this book confirms my preference for researched biography over memoir. The journalist who wrote it, Lindsey Hilsum, had been good friends with Marie Colvin; they were the ‘Thelma and Louise’ of the press corps. But the book never descends to hagiography.
Hilsum did exhaustive research: Colvin’s articles, emails, faxes, interviews with Colvin by other journalists, books by other journalists, her own interviews with 100+ people who knew or met Colvin, and, most importantly, more than 300 journals (personal diaries and reporting notes) Colvin kept from age thirteen until a month before she was killed.
Hilsum reveals an honest and complicated portrait of a woman who lived at the edge in both her personal and professional lives, as well as the trade-offs involved in war journalism. I don’t think any individual would be capable of producing that about themselves. As humans, we’re rarely the best expert on ourselves and objectivity,gained through intersecting points of view, gives greater insight.
Next up on my to-be-read pile: Arrested Song, by Irene Karafilly, an historical novel set in the Greek village of Molyvos, on the island of Lesvos, which is a place I love. And political thriller Last Election, by Stephen Marche and former democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang, that is getting great reviews.
I loved this novel. It’s ideas-driven, with strikingly original characters, a propulsive plot, dark humour, whole-hearted empathy and love, idealism yet fatalism, and joie de vivre to burn. There are Chechen fighters, Russian KBG, CIA democracy agents, Russian writers, real-life politicians, even an appearance by Noam Chomsky – my kind of writing!
The action spans from 1975 to 2003, exploring the legacy of the Soviet Union. It’s set mostly in the Republic of Georgia, a part of the world where longing on a large scale makes history, and protest is as essential as breath. ‘Where Amirani challenged God and Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and Medea slayed her children. This mythical landscape, born of revolution.’
The novel is a love song to revolution, and to the passion and intensity of people whose lives are rooted in it – yet a clear-headed look at revolutions’ futility and ugly aftermath. It explores whether monsters are born evil or shaped through environment. Asks if nationalism is always destructive and whether politics and performance art are the same kind of spectacle. If the curation of truth a lie. And perhaps most fundamentally, what are we to do about the past?
It’s also prescient. Garfinkel’s novel was finished before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But for the countries and peoples who’ve long suffered from Russia aggression, it’s not a surprise. The Russian imperial project is far from played out. As one character says, “they’re never going away.”
The interview was part of MotiveTO, the crime & mystery festival of the Toronto International Festival of Authors that took place in early June. (Their main festival runs 21 September-1 October 2023.)
A second event I moderated involved two serious but absorbing non-fiction titles:
- Tamara Cherry’s The Trauma Beat, about how reporters cover stories of violent crime and the lasting traumatic impact that has on survivors/families as well as journalists. Cherry uses real-life examples from Canada and the US to illustrate her points which was at once both gripping and nauseating.
- Kent Roach’s Wrongful Convictions, about those instances, more numerous than we want to admit, where the criminal justice system convicts the wrong person for a crime.
I’ll keep this section short, as I just published three special editions of Letterbox about the publishing industry. But a few short tidbits.
The endless saga of who will buy Simon & Schuster continues, in the wake of Penguin Random House’s blocked takeover. HarperCollins and private venture capital firm KKR are the two main suitors. Lots of ink has been spilled on the pros/cons of either scenario; Ken Whyte’s ShuSH newsletter here on Substack has a great summary of the takeover bids, as well as the state of independent publishing in Canada.
This Lit Mag News piece details how aspiring writers are soaked for money. From contest entry fees to marketing opportunities to MFA writing programs, how much someone can afford to pay influences the opportunities they have.
Profiting within an industry is one thing (i.e. using money to create positive change). Profiting off an industry is a more pernicious monster that we should learn to recognize and perhaps even overcome.
The whole phenomena about emerging writers and the almost fetishistic atmosphere that’s developed around the hashtag #amquerying is unsettling. Running a literary mentoring organization, I often think about the best path forward for new writers.
#amquerying, in the most positive light, can provide peer-to-peer support for writers, and constructive advice from agents. But too often the tone gets nasty, and the fervour reinforces a message that securing an agent is the end game when that’s just one step toward a publishing deal and a non-guaranteed one at that. It also implies there’s a magic elixir involved, which helps justifies fee-for-service courses and services provided by some literary agencies.
This all knocked around my mind as I Grace Lavery’s article, You Already Write How You Write, Just Give In, in LitHub:
A few final things: one, just do your work. Most drama associated with people who call themselves “writers” or who are identified as such by others, is a form of procrastination, which is to say, resistance. It doesn’t really matter. If you can’t write, read. If you can’t read, do something else. Don’t force it—it might not come, but that’s fine too. Not everything needs to be written and not everyone needs to write.
Bye for now. Thank you for joining me for this twentieth-first regular edition of Letterbox. See you next month.