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Recent Press for Hamilton Review of Books

As editor-in-chief of the upcoming Hamilton Review of Books, it’s my pleasure to spread the word about this exciting new literary journal launching in the fall. I had the opportunity recently to speak to Becky Robertson from Quill & Quire and Naben Ruthnum from Open Book Toronto about the HRB. Click on the photos below to read the full articles:

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Posted in Book News and Views, Essays, Reviews, Writers and Publishers.

Hamilton Review of Books

Fall 2016 will see the launch of the Hamilton Review of Books, a new online literary review based out of Hamilton, Ontario. I’m very excited to be editing this new publication showcasing exceptional reviews of Canadian and international books, as well as long-form essays on book and print culture. Stay tuned for more!


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Posted in Book News and Views, Essays, Ideas and Opinions, Reviews, Writers and Publishers.

Make Some Room for Emma Donoghue

Given Emma Donoghue’s recent and so well-deserved Golden Globe nomination – and now Oscar nomination – it seems like a good time to post my April 2014 interview with her (a true thrill for me) which coincided with the release of her novel, Frog Music. The interview, which took place at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario, was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2014/15 issue of The Humber Literary Review.

Emma Donoghue: The Novel As Tyrant

On a cool spring evening in April, I had the privilege of interviewing Emma Donoghue, author of numerous novels (including the international bestseller Room), at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario. Gathered on the first floor of the beautifully renovated brick heritage home that has housed the bookstore since 1977, a large group of readers eagerly anticipated Donoghue’s appearance. Many came from some distance to be there and stayed late to speak with the author and have their books signed. Donoghue, dressed in a bright green jacket that contrasted with her fiery red hair, was relaxed and candid, full of good humour, and modest about her success. The evening began with her reading a short passage from her latest novel, Frog Music. She then settled in to discuss her writing, research, and her next book.

Dana Hansen: I understand Frog Music was some years in the making. How did you find out about Jenny Bonnet, and what compelled you to tell the story of her murder?

Emma Donoghue: I came across the idea about 15 years ago, actually. My novels often take a long time to hatch—not because I’m reluctant to write them, but usually because I’m already committed to other books, and then the new ideas come at me. Writers in films are always walking around drinking tequila and trying to find a new idea, but in my case, it’s more like, “oh stop, stop coming at me!” I literally didn’t have a chance to get to this book until recently.

I think what drew my interest was the particular character of Jenny Bonnet; she was a frog catcher of all jobs. Before that, she had been a shepherd, and before that she had been in a sort of borstal, and before that she had been a child actress gone bad. At the point where she was shot through a window by persons unknown, she was working as a frog catcher for San Francisco’s restaurants. To do this, she wore trousers because when you’re wading in a swamp, you don’t want a long crinoline, but then in the evening she wouldn’t put on women’s clothes, and so she got arrested about once a month under San Francisco’s anti-cross-dressing laws. She would have been a social norm there nowadays, but in the 1870s she was way ahead of her time, not just because she cross-dressed. Many women did, particularly during the Civil War, in order to pass as male soldiers, but Jenny Bonnet didn’t pass as anything. She was known to be a woman, she never had a man’s name, and yet she’d swagger around town with her Colt pistol, which it turned out after her death was just on hire purchase from a pawnbroker. Everything was borrowed. She was this irresistible character to me.

What surprised me in the writing process was how Jenny’s friend, Blanche Beunon, who was in the room when Jenny was shot (and in fact it was never clear which of them was the target), turned out to grip me even more. She’s less unusual, but I found her situation so interesting. Not only was she this high-earning woman working in the sex trade, but she had a baby. I was intrigued by the idea of this good-time girl, a pleasure-seeker, who had this kind of shadow side, which was motherhood. I really tried not to make it an easy, cute set-up with an obviously maternal mother and an obviously cute baby. I thought, not only will I give Blanche every possible reason not to want to be a mother, but I’m going to make the baby really hard to like as well. He’s quite emotionally closed and physically stunted. I wanted it to be a redemptive novel about motherhood, but not an easy one.

DH: Frog Music is a story of an unlikely friendship between two seemingly very different women. What brings these two women together?

ED: They’re both rebels against the rules of gender. On the streets of San Francisco, Blanche and Jenny have a lot in common: they are both determined to set their own terms. Neither of them is settling down to be a wife and mother. Also, I thought their shared French background would be a bond. The French brought very particular elements to the culture of San Francisco: not only the emphasis on pleasure (the French dominated the restaurants, bars, theatres, brothels — all the arts of pleasure), but also on the ideas of Bohemianism, ideas we might associate with the 1960s, which were quite current among the French in the late 19th century. Culturally speaking, Jenny and Blanche would have had quite a lot in common.

DH: San Francisco circa 1876 is a character in and of itself in this novel. Can you tell us about the city during the time Frog Music is set?

ED: San Francisco was a thrillingly modern city, not just because it was very multicultural and diverse, but also because it was founded by bachelors. It was an all-male city to start with, a city of men with no families. There was very little domestic service because few people who’d gone all the way to San Francisco were willing to be maids. Everyone wanted a bit of independence. Not only did I find that interesting demographically, but I liked the way it was known as a city of liberty, and yet in the 1870s, the city government was trying to clean up San Francisco. They had laws against not only cross-dressing, but they also banned things like kite flying and pigtail wearing (they were trying to squeeze the Chinese off the streets; they had brought in all these Chinese men to build the railroads and now they were oppressing them). There were also laws against looking disfigured in public. You could be disfigured, just don’t look it.

There was also a bad outbreak of smallpox, which the city health officer tried to blame entirely on the Chinese. It turned out it hadn’t originated in Chinatown at all, so there were some very interesting city politics going on. It’s not just background for my story, but it’s really part and parcel of it. The same people who disapproved fiercely of Jenny Bonnet marching around in pants with her sack of frogs are the same ones who disapproved of the Chinese. It was the same kind of impulse toward respectability.

DH: Frog Music is full of song. The characters openly sing in public. What role did you want music and performance to play in the novel?

ED: I knew from my research that Arthur, his friend Ernest, and Blanche had all been in the circus and that Jenny had been a child actress, the daughter of French actors. So they all had a performance background. Quite early I came up with the phrase “frog music” to suggest not only the French, culturally speaking, but also the music that all male frogs make in the mating season. It seemed like a good phrase to describe the kind of libidinal urges that lie behind this book. Then I thought, I have to throw some songs into the book because it is called Frog Music. I ended up with almost thirty songs because I like folk music and thought it was a great way to suggest the cultural variety going on (there were hymns, spirituals, French and Scottish ballads, circus tunes, musical tunes, and minstrel shows). Folk songs are also often about the primal pains of love and death and sorrow and alcohol, but they sometimes gesture at these themes in a very light way. You can toss in a few lines from a song, and it’s a great way to lightly hint at these dark forces.

DH: Motherhood is another significant and complicated theme in Frog Music as it was in Room. Blanche, like Ma, has to figure out how to be a mother in extreme, though obviously different, circumstances.

ED: It’s funny. I didn’t see the two projects that way. As far as I knew, they had nothing in common. Once the publicity for Room had finally calmed down, I thought I’d finally have a chance to write my frog catcher book about the sex trade in 1870 San Francisco, but then the baby theme started looming up. Only after I read one of the reviews of Frog Music did I realize both books are about a young woman of about 25 having a baby and coming under pressure to become a mother. When I’m about 80, I’ll probably look back at my career and think those books were all to do with the shock of having children.

DH: There are also some disturbing scenes in the novel…

ED: Oh, yes. The baby farm. The worst thing I learned about baby farms, these full-time city childcare places, was that they typically had two rooms. One was for the children being paid for by the week, and there was some motivation to keep them alive. The other was for the babies that were all paid up, meaning they had been handed over with a lump sum. It was pretty much slow infanticide. That was one of the most distressing things I researched. I also looked a lot at modern accounts of orphanages in some countries that have become known for terrible orphanages. I looked at the question of how babies can be temporarily stunted, but if they are adopted out of such a bad situation, they can recover amazingly well.

DH: There were some other scenes that were difficult to read, and I imagine difficult to write. I’m thinking of Blanche’s treatment at the hands of Arthur and Ernest, and even the description of Arthur’s smallpox. Do you find it difficult to write such scenes?

ED: I’m going to sound really cold-blooded if I answer this honestly. No, I love it. Doing the research is often distressing, but by the time I’m taking whatever insight I’ve gained and shaping my scene and writing it, at that point, I’m wanting you to feel. If I write a line about smallpox being like marbles rising up under the skin of your fingers, and I’m thinking that you’re squirming, I’m going, “yes!” It’s the novel as tyrant, I have to admit. I relish writing scenes like that. I just want to make you feel.

DH: What are some challenges for you with your writing?

ED: What’s quite difficult is writing characters who are quiet. I find I don’t know what to do with the introverts. Also, I’m not naturally good at plot, and my first few books had very little plot. I’ve had to work at building up this skill. Since writing The Sealed Letter (2008), I’ve done a lot more plotting in advance. You might think that would take some of the fun out of it, but for me it doesn’t. It just helps create a more muscular storyline.

DH: What are you working on now?

ED: I’m trying to write a children’s book. I have an idea for a kid’s book, hopefully a series, for the 8-12 market. My own kids are 6 and 10 at the moment. I don’t actually think my son will like it because it doesn’t have super-powered farts or fantasy creatures, but I’m thinking other children his age might. I’m quite intimidated by it, though. Writing children’s fiction is a whole other thing: the thought of all these bored 10-year-olds just putting the book down and walking away haunts me. I love doing events with adults, but the thought of an elementary school visit brings on a sweat. Other writers keep saying to me, you need a lot of visuals! But I think it’s very important for a writer to keep challenging herself. Repetition is the great danger, so setting myself new tasks – not only in terms of the when and the where I write about but also the genre – is very good for me.


Emma Donoghue is the author of eight novels, four short story collections, and five plays. Her 2010 novel Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker, the Orange Prize, and the Governor General’s Award. In addition, she holds a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge and has published three books of literary history.



Posted in Awards, Writers and Publishers.

A Release of Certain Energies

New Ways to Kill Your MotherI am not writing a novel, not yet anyway. But I read a lot of them, for pleasure and also for work. And I especially enjoy reading essays and digressions about the novel form, particularly when they don’t aim to suggest that reading novels makes us kinder, more empathetic, or more emotionally intelligent. This may be true, but it’s dull and lacks meaning for those of us who are more interested in admiring the craftsmanship of a well written novel.  Here, then, is an anything but dull definition of the novel from Irish writer Colm Toibin. It comes from his excellent 2012 critical work, New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families. The definition is an aside from Toibin as he examines the role of the mother, and of older women in the family, in Jane Austen’s novels. It is one of the best descriptions I think I have ever read of what the novel form is really about:

The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place. This is not to insist that a character in fiction is merely a verbal construct and bears no relation to the known world. It is rather to suggest that the role of the character in a novel must be judged not as we would judge a person. Instead, we must look for density, for weight and strength within the pattern, for ways in which figures in novels have more than one easy characteristic, one simple affect. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something in ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.


Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Writers and Publishers.

This Happened



Posted in Book News and Views, Fun Stuff, Writers and Publishers.

Helen Humphreys, The Evening Chorus

Evening ChorusAt a very enjoyable literary event on February 26, Jill Downie interviewed writer, Helen Humphreys, at A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario. The two chatted about Humphreys’ new novel, her writing process, and her deep appreciation for the natural world. The interview will be published on The Humber Literary Review‘s website this spring. In the meantime, I share with you my review of Humphreys’ latest, beautiful novel, The Evening Chorus:

“There is nothing natural about a human being,” admits Rose Hunter, one of three central characters in Helen Humphreys’ latest novel. Set in the wartime England of The Lost Garden (2002) and Coventry (2008), and replete with floral and faunal references, The Evening Chorus is a quietly commanding narrative of nature’s constancy in a time of unspeakable human ruin.

Continue reading here.


Posted in Book News and Views, Reviews.

Call for Submissions – The Humber Literary Review

HLR Call for Submissions Issue Three


Posted in Book News and Views.

Issue Two of The Humber Literary Review is Coming Soon!

Issue 2 Poster


Posted in Book News and Views.

Talking to Krista Foss About Her First Novel, Smoke River

Read the full interview here, at The Humber Literary Review.

I met with Krista Foss on an overcast day in early May 2014 at one of her favourite spots to write, the Mulberry Street Coffee House in downtown Hamilton. Over cappuccinos and date muffins, we discussed her forthcoming first novel, Smoke River, the importance of story in the struggle for identity, what she’s reading, and her plans for what comes next.

HLR: The story in Smoke River closely resembles the Grand River land dispute in Caledonia that erupted in 2006. What made you decide to tell the story of this ongoing dispute?

KF: While the novel is inspired by conflicts such as Caledonia, it’s not a re-telling of those stories; it’s fictionalized account of a land dispute. Many things drew me to the subject matter. To start with, I have a grandfather who is part Native. He never spoke about his roots because he internalized the racism of the time, and was actually in great fear of that part of his heritage being discovered. My mom was proud of this ancestry. She would tell us five kids, who all ended up looking like my dad – a six foot, cheese-eating, skiing, sweater-wearing immigrant from Norway– that it was part of our heritage, too, though there was very little she could tell us. So there was a disconnect for us.

Thematically, that fascinated me. Experientially, I haven’t lived through marginalization, isolation or racism, but I have some understanding of an identity denied, of a history denied, and as a writer I find this compelling. I knew that that struggle for identity would inform the characters in the book.

I was also influenced by my experiences as a reporter based in Winnipeg covering stories Manitoba and Saskatchewan. A few years after I moved back to Hamilton from Winnipeg, the Caledonia conflict began and it reminded me of what happened at Oka and Kanehsatake which I’d followed because my brother was sent there as part of CBC’s TV crew. I remember Alanis Obomsawin’s film, Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, as revelatory in terms of seeing the story from the other side of a barricade. So I drew upon actual conflicts and experiences, merged them, compressed timelines, and created a fictional story that explores land, memory and identity.


Posted in Book News and Views, Ideas and Opinions, Writers and Publishers.

A Sister’s Sorrow

allmypunysorrows-cover-200One of my most recent reviews for Quill & Quire was of Miriam Toews’ illuminated novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Like her previous books, this one deals with mental illness, suicide, and the bonds of familial love. Toews tells the story of two sisters, much like in A Complicated Kindness, who hail from a Mennonite community. Yoli is a writer living in Toronto and struggling to define herself and her right work; Elf is a world-class pianist with a seemingly charmed existence. The truth is much darker. Elf is inexplicably desperate to die and wants Yoli to help her do it.

Anyone familiar with Toews’ biography knows that she lost her own sister Marjorie in 2010 to unassisted suicide. Marjorie had also asked the unthinkable of Miriam, so All My Puny Sorrows is deeply concerned, in a remarkably nonjudgmental way, with how a devoted sibling responds to such a request, torn between wanting her sister to live and understanding why she can’t. All My Puny Sorrows does not have the quirky humour of A Complicated Kindness; it reads as a sadder but wiser grown-up version of the story of Nomi and Tash.

All My Puny Sorrows is deservedly receiving an abundance of critical attention and accolades (Jared Bland’s review for The Globe and Mail is especially lovely), and no doubt will continue to garner such positive reader response. A few hundred words is just not enough to convey the magnitude of Toews’ accomplishment with this novel, but here is my offering:

The choice to die and the shame associated with suicide are at the thematic heart of Miriam Toews’s stunning sixth novel. This is not unexpected, given that the author herself has been touched by suicide (Toews’s father and sister both took their own lives), and that she has written several books involving characters in the Mennonite community struggling with mental illness.

All My Puny Sorrows focuses on Yoli, a writer who travels from Toronto to the Winnipeg bedside of her older sister, Elf, who has attempted, not for the first time, to kill herself. Yoli is dealing with an impending divorce, a faltering career, a tendency toward promiscuity, and the lingering self-loathing brought on by her Mennonite upbringing. Elf’s life, by contrast, is seemingly ideal. She is a famous and respected concert pianist, with a beautiful home and an upcoming tour. Behind the facade, however, lies a fathomless and inconsolable sadness, similar to that which gripped the sisters’ father and pushed him to end his life.

Continue reading here


Posted in Book News and Views, Reviews, Writers and Publishers.

Copyright © 2016, Dana Hansen. All rights reserved.