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Double Edged Sword

In 2014, when I became involved with a new literary journal at the college I teach at – first as the reviews editor and later as editor-in-chief – I found myself moving closer to the writing community that I had long wanted to be a part of. I’d been reviewing books for several years, having published my first review for Quill & Quire in 2008 and placing reviews in a number of other publications, but hadn’t published any of my own original work, fiction or otherwise. I was, and still am, very much on the fringes, but once I was working as a journal editor and then founder of Hamilton Review of Books, I was by necessity more immersed in the writing community in the Toronto and Hamilton area, in regular contact with writers, editors, critics, and publishers. I have met many wonderful people as a result, and felt fortunate to be able to associate with a group of people I have always felt akin to. I’ve frequently been reminded of something said by a former boss, the owner of the indie bookstore I worked in as a university student: he declared “book people” the best kind, and I’ve always felt this was true for me as well. Book people and animal people – my people.

I always believed I would be a writer, from my early school years when I was writing stories and attending “young authors” conferences. That path toward writing took a turn, though, in my early twenties after university when I entered teaching, and hours and days were consumed by lesson preparation, marking, student appointments, and commuting to and from campus. When the opportunity arose, late though it was, to reconnect with that lost part of myself by stepping into the writing community, I felt really good and confident that I was finding my feet again. And I’ve been enjoying the work I do with the lit journal I now edit and the events we run and the writers and reviewers we meet and work with and publish. It’s often very fulfilling work, especially when an issue releases and readers let you know they like what you’re doing.

But there’s another side to this closer connection to the writing community that I have discovered isn’t as fulfilling. The last few years have been some of my most anxious in a very long time. In fact, the last time I can remember suffering so many panic attacks, feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt, was back in graduate school when I felt like I was constantly trying to prove myself and my worthiness. There’s something oddly contradictory about the writing community – no surprise to those much more involved than me, I’m sure. Many wonderful people, but so much anxiety, so much competition, so much judgment, so much self-promotion, so much jealousy, and so much hypersensitivity – you can feel it, be affected by it, even at the fringes. Often in dealing with people I have met through my journal work, I’ve felt I had to walk on eggshells, say the right things, protect delicate egos, my own included. On a few occasions, I’ve had to defend my work as a reviewer as writing and not some other activity, whatever that would be. I’ve struggled with serious doubts about the quality of my work and whether I should even consider trying to add my voice as anything other than a commentator on other people’s work. I’m amazed and sometimes very irritated by some writers’ unabashed ability to self-promote themselves all over social media, and I feel terribly clumsy when I try to do the same: Check out my latest review of X!

I question my motives for wanting to be a writer, for wanting to be a part of something that doesn’t always make me feel very good. I love books. I always have. It’s not an exaggeration to say that books have saved me on a few occasions when nothing else could. I don’t ever want to lose that pure connection to reading that makes it easier for me to be okay with living in the world, I don’t ever want that to be spoiled. But the business of writing, and the culture of writing, and the society of writing, that I thought I wanted in on, well, maybe now that I’ve hit my fourth decade, I’m finally figuring out, it all may not be for me. Not in the forms I’ve encountered. For now, I’ll keep plugging away at the work with the journal, but the fringes are looking much better than they used to. Here at least I can focus on figuring out what really matters.


Posted in Ideas and Opinions.

I’m a Contributor!

16123267_1379235458761905_1702833174268084224_nI started reviewing for Quill & Quire magazine in 2008, never expecting to still be at it today. I’ve been very fortunate to have steady work from this excellent and brilliantly-edited publication, and I’m always proud to see my work appear in it – it never gets old. So when I was for the first time officially noted as a contributor in the current issue (Jan/Feb 2017), I have to say I was pretty chuffed.


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

Quill & Quire Books of the Year 2016: Reviewer Picks

on-the-shores-220I was delighted to be asked to participate in Quill & Quire‘s end-of-the-year reviewer picks, and I had no trouble coming up with my favourite book for 2016: Cordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light, published by ECW Press. Here is the full article.


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

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.

In Between

UnknownAs I’m working on a review of Betsy Warland’s Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas (Dagger Editions, an imprint of Caitlin Press) for Room Magazine, I’m struck by the perfection of this book’s timing in my life. It’s not unusual for me to go to the books when I’m looking for answers, advice, or just comfort; it’s wonderful, though, when the right book seems to find me when I most need it.

Oscar of Between is a genre-bending work of lyrical prose that explores through raw, immediate, what can only be called thought-impressions the condition of being between – that is, being someone who does not fall easily into conventionally established and accepted categories. These categories may include notions of gender and sexual orientation – and much of Warland’s memoir concerns these kinds of categories – but her work in this memoir so readily applies to any experience of not fitting in and to the need to find ways to be at ease, at peace in that liminal space.

We all experience threshold moments in our lives when the categories we identified with no longer suit us, if indeed they ever did. For some, the threshold may be lifelong, as it seems to be for Warland, and I suspect for many writers and artists. In some ways, a creative life is really about continually pushing against those limiting categories and those who would assign us to them. But we also impose limiting categories and labels on ourselves without the help of anyone else, something I’ve thought a great deal about lately in my own life. Why do we box ourselves in, defining ourselves according to our jobs, our roles, our skills, our resumes, our addresses, our bank account balances, and so forth? What happens when those familiar, safe categories disintegrate? It’s often when we’re in between things – jobs, relationships, homes – that we are most free to create and reveal something closer to our real selves because we have nothing and no one to answer to. No limiting definitions or expectations. No rules to play by, or consequences to suffer. Warland plays with the idea of camouflage throughout her memoir and the ways in which we disguise, intentionally or not, our real selves in an effort to go unnoticed, unremarked upon by others. To remove one’s camouflage is to upset the unspoken agreements that we have all made to accept and adhere to our prescribed categories.

For me, I’m finding that in my late thirties I no longer easily fit into some of the categories I used to when I was in my twenties and early thirties. I’m not comfortable these days with identifying as a teacher because, while I’ve been at it for nearly fifteen years, I’m more unsure now than ever about what teaching should be about and who, especially in our current reality of education-as-commodity, it really benefits. Once fairly certain that I would teach for a long time, I feel change coming. I’m also having trouble identifying with the roles I have played with friends and acquaintances in my life. Where I might have naively trusted implicitly in the past, I’m now more cautious. Looking for more depth and meaning in relationships now, I’m more readily detecting disingenuity in others – a gesture of friendship made for the purpose of gaining something I have to offer. This undoubtedly makes me sometimes a challenging and even difficult person to know, and I’m learning to be comfortable with that.

So I’m in between identities, as a worker and as a friend, not to mention as a creative person (a whole other story!). Nothing quite fits these days and it can be awkward, frustrating, scary, and isolating. And I think more of us than not are feeling it. Oscar of Between is very timely, and it’s a book I’ll likely return to often while hanging out here, for now, in the between.


Posted in Ideas and Opinions, 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.

Endings and Beginnings

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about endings: the end of years, phases, obsessions, relationships, jobs, projects. As someone who has spent her life in and out of one project or another, always looking for something to give myself over to, it’s remarkably hard to walk away from an object of my devotion. Yet recently, and quite unexpectedly, that is what I had to do.

Almost two years into my editorship with the fledgling literary magazine I was running, a power struggle erupted between myself and another in our collective. I made the decision to step down and I realized how much of my life energy I had been giving to something that, wonderful and rewarding in many ways, was feeding my ego, but not my spirit. And while I was enjoying helping other writers polish and publish their work, I wasn’t getting any of my own done.

Weeks have passed since then, and my emotions have run the gamut, from rage at having been compelled to abandon something I loved, worked so hard for, and dedicated so much time and energy to, to relief at being released from the obligations of orchestrating all the moving pieces of an emerging publication (which I was doing as a novice and in addition to an already extremely busy full-time teaching job). When something comes to an end so abruptly, as this job did for me, it can feel for a while like you’re one of those inflatable punching clowns: the hits keep coming and you just can’t find your centre of gravity, all while keeping a smile plastered on your face to assure everyone that, yes, of course, you’re just fine.

In truth, for a while I felt strangely removed from my life, pulled back to a position of observing the situation I had got myself into. Unknowingly, I had come to identify myself by yet another label, this time as an editor-in-chief, as someone with a title and a role to play in the writing community with which I have only ever had a fairly marginal relationship. The label, I reasoned, granted me access to a world that can seem remote and unwelcoming to the non-credentialed. The label legitimized my participation in that world even without a published book, an MFA, a high profile, or a substantial contact list. I was no longer an interloper. With that label suddenly torn away, what was I? Well, I was back to being just an English professor again at a community college. Not a bad thing really, but the magazine editing had allowed me to expand in directions I genuinely was interested in going, and to begin – how cringeworthy – to create a name for myself as an editor and writer. Losing that label made me feel as though my world was retracting, that the new path stretching before me had rolled right back up and I was back where I started. My pride was smarting, and my ego, such a frail thing to begin with, was shredded.

I began to think about all the ways in which I have long and carefully identified myself with my work, as a worker, a producer, as someone who has a job and a title and a business card and an office and a resume and a byline and a reputation and so forth. Where was I in all of this? Where was the me that not that many years ago (well, maybe a few more than I would like to admit) really thought about what I liked, what I enjoyed, what I wanted to be. Being very quickly became doing once I was employed in an officially adult job with all its attendant, and sometimes not very interesting, responsibilities. I began to worry more about what others thought of me and how I could make a bigger, better impression. Should I go back to school and earn another degree? Would people think more highly of me if the prefix Dr. were in front of my name? Would I feel more legitimate then? Should I make the effort to climb the academic administrative ladder? Was I meant to be a coordinator (the answer to this one, I found out, is no), associate dean, or even one day a vice president of something? What other projects and initiatives could I take on to demonstrate my value and indispensability? Everything felt like an attempt to expand my resume and prove my worth as though I was curating an exhibit of the model employee. Nothing felt quite right.

The further I have delved into my academic job, the farther away I have moved from my plans to write, so when the opportunity to take on the editorship of a department initiated literary magazine came along, it felt like a wonderful way to keep my day job and combine it with a kind of dream job, or at least something closer to it. Books are my passion; I’ve been an intensive and eclectic reader since my childhood. I began writing stories when I was in elementary school, and excelled in anything involving writing in high school. I went to university to study English literature, confident that my future held writing of some kind and that my life would always revolve around books, my own as well as others’. The rigours of grad school took their toll, however, and my worries about what I was going to do with a couple of English degrees and a bunch of student debt prompted me to jump into the working world and prove to myself and everyone that I was making good choices. The writing went on hold.

Teaching, never a career I intentionally chose, fell into my lap by chance, and I started working part-time teaching communications courses at a nearby college. Three and half years later, clinging to the teaching gig like a life raft, I landed a full-time faculty position at my current college and resigned myself to the fact that my job was, as a colleague of mine once noted, like “golden handcuffs”: a good salary, benefits, summers off, and most significantly, stability, in exchange for the often exhausting, soul-crushing, infuriating task of teaching language-challenged young people to write proper sentences and make coherent arguments.

That was nearly ten years ago. In that time, I have made a point of staying connected to writing by reviewing books when my teaching schedule permits. Working as a book critic for a number of publications over the past decade has been very rewarding, and I hope I’ll always have opportunities to do this work. We need strong, fair-minded, objective, engaged critics (something I’m always striving to be) more than ever in Canadian literature, and I feel honoured to be a part of this literary tradition. Now, though, I realize it’s also time – well past time, in fact – for me to make good on my promise to myself to write my own stories, or essays, or whatever decides to come forth. This doesn’t mean I’ll be giving up my day job; the financial obligations of my late-30s life wouldn’t allow for it. But it does mean clearing some space in my life for my writing, taking myself more seriously as a writer, stopping the making of busy work or the taking on of grand projects to distract myself from writing, and finding fulfillment in more genuine, less ego-bound pursuits.

So, the ending of one thing may be, if this is not too much of a cliche, the beginning of something else. I did the very best I could with the magazine and set it on its way, going strong. The space that has opened up for me in its absence will be filled, when the time is right, by other devotions. And I’ll be on the watch for them.


Posted in Ideas and Opinions.

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.

Copyright © 2016, Dana Hansen. All rights reserved.