A Lot of Reasons Why

The Saturday morning Vancouver weather was a mix of dark and light. Hail and rain in the early hours gave way to dissipating clouds, splotches of puffy white and lovely patches of clear blue.

The same shades of darkness and lightness were experienced by the attendees of Why Do We Do The Things We Do at Studio 1398. And though the content was seriously serious it was a pleasant morning spent with dark material.

Marjorie Celona, author of Y, Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quarter, and Nancy Richler, author of the Giller nominated The Imposter Bride were game to read and talk shop.

Moderator and Vancouver Sun features writer, Denise Ryan, opened the event with eloquent introductions. She brought insight to the author’s work, asking wonderful questions of each and ran a smooth, thoughtful event. It was a delight.

The writers prepared two readings each, which allowed us a smack at two tastes of their work. All multi-character driven stories they each presented more than one voice in their readings, showcasing the abilities to deftly switch personas and weave these disparate voices together.

Emily St. John Mandel, also a columnist for The Millions, read a wonderful scene about her recovering gambling  addict purchasing lottery tickets. The character works the night shift in a diner because, she, “Never wants to work in the daylight again.” She makes a choice to shut out the light. We are always surrounded by temptation, and as Ryan pointed out this book teeters on the edge of crossing that threshold.

St. John Mandel also commented on how her real life has found itself in her work. Her first apartment and its leaky shower that turns her bathroom into a tropical climate finds a home in the disgraced journalist’s home in The Lola Quarter. And her love of music is present in many scenes as well as in a guitar player character.

Richler read from the beginning of her book, setting up the titular character on the first day of her marriage to the brother of the man she was promised to marry, that man who rejected her. Lily hides who she is in many ways, the way we often do when we want something, whether good or bad. She has a reason for her actions, but we only get a glimpse. To find out all the answers we’ll have to read the book.

She also gave us a Giller Prize Gala fashion preview, letting us know the designer of her frock is from Vancouver.

Celona’s reading opened with a prose poem that precedes the narrative. An exploration of the Y of the title. Why is what we’re always trying to find an answer to, but sometimes why/Y is unanswerable, an image, a symbol, a meaning, a letter.

She too read from the opening pages, the scene of a man watching a mother drop her baby off on the door of YMCA. Yes, Y. There it is again. The letter that inspired Celona to write an entire novel.

Richler addressed the question of the heavy subject matter in her book, saying that while she’s writing it she doesn’t feel it. St. John Mandel nodded her head in agreement.

Celona in contrast said, “I’m a basket case when I’m writing.”

She writes in full work-out gear, sweatpants on, protein bars stacked by her sides, prepared to tackle the written word. For her it’s like a full on work-out, and she has to be prepared, because she feels it all. It helps that she’s propped in her bed, comfy with pillows, while she’s doing it. Though she goes on 13 or 14 hour writing binges.

As Ryan pointed out these books conclude with ambivalence, not redemption or easy endings. These three writers have their characters constantly assessing why they do the things they do, and continue to have them do things they probably shouldn’t. And it’s all for the better. How boring would it be to read about characters making great decisions? Horribly boring.



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