In 2002, a radio show dedicated to the upliftment and promotion of Canadian literature was launched. Invented a “literary Survivor, ” Canada reads debates books by artists, celebrities and eminent Canadians to determine which title will be crowned the one the whole country should read.
To celebrate 20 years of Canada reads, we return to the dramatic history of the show to offer you interviews with former panelists and authors.
Canada reads1:37:20Canada Reads 20th Anniversary Special
Award-winning author Lisa Moore is no stranger to Canada reads. In 2008, she was a panelist for the defense of Mavis Gallant From the fifteenth arrondissement and in 2013, his novel February, defended by Trent McClellan, was crowned the winner.
Moore is one of three people to have served as a panelist and author of a book supported on Canada reads. David Bidini was a panelist in 2008 and an author in 2012, and Nalo Hopkinson was a panelist in 2002 and an author in 2008.
February was inspired by the true story of the sinking of an Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland on Valentine’s Day in 1982. It tells the story of Helen O’Mara, whose the husband died in the accident. The novel explores the impact of the tragedy on Helen’s life and on the Newfoundland community in the years that followed. He was on the long list for the Booker Prize 2010.
Moore is a Newfoundland-based writer best known for telling her stories in her home province. His other books include the novel Caught, the novel YA Flannery and the collection of news Something for everyone. Caught was made into a miniseries for CBC and can be broadcast on CBC Gem.
Ali Hassan told Moore about her Canada reads to live.
What could be simpler: to be a panelist or to be an author?
Both are really tough. Mavis Gallant – still unbelievably for me – got elected first. It was a real punch in the heart because his work is a real touchstone for me. I love it so much, and I feel like it’s so layered and beautiful. So it really hurts to have Mavis voted first because she’s so important to me as a writer. I’ve never met her, but I feel like I know her.
Everything in his work is layered and nuanced. It is a very particular tone that she strikes. His phrases are like trampolines – you could bounce off them, they’re so tight and they’re so strong. But if you read between the lines, what she makes you do, there is a great spirit.
It was also a pleasure to read the other books and hear how people talk about books that are not necessarily writers and what they expect from a book. I found it fascinating when it came time to discuss my own book. It was heartbreaking.
Did you feel at a disadvantage because you brought a collection of short stories to the table? Do you think that’s the reason you got rejected or were you just a threat to the rest of them?
No, I think there’s something nasty about Mavis Gallant if you’re not a feminist, if you’re not ready to see the character dynamics in these stories. You could see gender tensions in these stories, you could see power dynamics. And yes, she took a cold look – witty, funny – but also extremely political in some ways. I think it had more to do with the tone of his stories. She was not going to bow to the desire for a gushing feeling.
WATCH | A look back at the life and work of Mavis Gallant:
There is a lot of debate among Canada reads fans to find out whether or not it should be a competition. What do you think of the format and concept of the show?
For me, competition is not important. What is important is an honest discussion of the literature. I think that’s why I was both excited and thrilled, and upset when people felt differently. Literature is meant to provoke in many ways. It’s supposed to matter and it’s supposed to get people to rethink all the things they think about the world. I can’t think of any other format. So I see the competition as an aside or something that we had to deal with.
For me, competition is not important. It’s not an important part of the play for me. What is important is an honest discussion of the literature.
Basically what mattered was the notion of what kind of story matters to you, what kind of story needs to be told, what kind of stories are not told? I think that’s what made people angry. Not that they got rejected or that their book won or anything like that, but what matters, what really matters to us?
Let’s move forward quickly in 2013. You receive this call that February had been selected for Canada reads. What was it doing?
Wow, that was a shock. And I’ll be honest, I found it incredibly difficult to listen to the shows. I couldn’t do it. I sometimes turned it on when the panelists were talking about other books, but I immediately turned it off when they started talking about my book. I couldn’t listen to him. When the last book was going to win, I was packing my bags to go to Mexico and the phone rang and someone from CBC said, “Stay on the line. I thought, why do they want me? Because at that time, for some reason, I thought I heard this February had not won. So when I heard he won, I thought it was a trick.
February talks about the sinking of the Ocean Ranger, and the men who died on the Ocean Ranger. It is about that heritage in Newfoundland. Regardless of the writing in the book, history is very important here in Newfoundland. This is important in different places around the world where other oil rigs have sunk. It’s an international story that affects the people who die on the rigs and their families, and of course the politics of oil and the horror of it all. I was under the impression that the fact that people take into account that the oil industry is dangerous for the planet and that oil platforms are dangerous places to work and that the people who work there put their lives in danger and that oil companies are often all about profit and sometimes, quite often, sacrificing safety for profit, I was glad we talked about it.
I can’t say it’s true or not, but I heard that at a few intersections in St. John’s, when it was announced, people were honking their horns.
I wanted to ask what you thought of this Turf Wars theme idea back in 2013, with each book depicting a different region of Canada. Do we represent all of Canada or do we divide into regions?
I really think at the end of all Canada reads that I have heard, I want to read all these books. He does a good job of telling Canadians, “Literature is happening for you. It’s not that I think we should read only Canadians. I think quite the opposite. I think literature has no borders. I think we need to read everyone.
I think literature has no borders. I think we need to read everyone.
It is also important to be aware of the fact that some very powerful cultures in the world, AKA in the south, can take over our imaginative space. If it’s Ken Follett wall to wall at Chapters, then we’re going to read Ken Follett. I think it’s an important thing for the CBC to come up with stories that are simply extremely important to read.
It has been almost 10 years since February won Canada reads. How do you think the victory impacted the legacy of this book?
Extremely. I think it attracted a lot of readers to the book. The book is being turned into an opera and I am a co-librettist. I was asked to be a librettist and I said, “Of course. Then I looked and said, “Absolutely!”
My co-librettist, who is called Laura Kaminsky, knows everything we both needed to know. I think it’s going to be fantastic. It’s by Opera on the Avalon. They produce it. Cheryl Hickman and I have had a few reads from the booklet and I think it’s going to be good. I am really excited about this.
Lisa Moore’s comments have been edited for length and clarity.