Friday, October 26, 2012

The Edinburgh World Writer's Conference @ IFOA

I've been appointed a delegate to the Edinburgh World Writer's Conference Canadian Section which is happening this week at the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront. As a delegate, I go to panel discussions offered under the EWWC banner, sit in the front row, ask questions, contribute to the discussion. We're also invited to Tweet (which hasn't caught up to me yet) and/or blog (which has).

Thursday night's session was a two-part keynote address delivered by Britain's China Mieville and Canada's Miriam Toews. Mieville's analysis of the future of the novel was smart, funny, irreverent, and to the point. The gist: it's time writers recognized that the world has changed irrevocably; copyright and creative control of a work of art vanish once they're in the digital realm and we have to be prepared for a world in which fans, amateurs, and virtual revisionists will tamper cut and paste, alter, and generally play with our work. The business model for publishing is finished and copyright is meaningful only to those under the illusion that there's still money to be made in the marketplace by producing books. His suggestion: that a new system for establishing merit be established and that recognized authors be put on salary--a daring proposal in the current economic climate.

Toews delivered a reflection on the viability of a "National Literature" in today's world and confessed that she was dubious of the idea, largely because it opens the door to an author's becoming subject to artificial constraints and obligations imposed by prescribed notions of what a national literature should be. As an author, she said, you are "not a soldier." Your first duty is to "serve your story." And the only true literature is one that is constantly "falling short of certainty."

Hard to quibble with these fine speakers. The only caveat I would add to the discussion is that at the heart of the literary experience is a sense of the particular: of the individual reader engaging with an individual author who has concentrated whatever time, effort and talent they can muster to lend shape to the chaotic flow of our lives. Bring on the fiddlers and tamperers, but let's not forget what's at the heart of this process and do what we can to ensure that the particular voice of the dedicated author survives. Similarly, I think it's important that national voices are preserved. These too, are particular voices, however artificial the definitions we lend them. It's important we keep those definitions loose, but I value a world in which an Irish literature, a Kenyan literature, and a Canadian literature can exist side by side, if only as constructs that ensure that voices from all parts of the world are heard.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On Winning the 2012 Toronto Book Award

...and the winner is ...

I seem to remember bowing my head, readying my neck for the blow as City Councillor Gary Crawford fingered the envelope. Being half Polish, I’m genetically conditioned to prepare myself for the worst.  


That’s all I heard—the first syllable of my name, then a whoop from the Cormorant cheering section. Then everything went silent for a few seconds until Martha shook me awake saying “OhmyGod, Andrew. You’ve WON!”

My life didn’t flash before my eyes, but maybe the life of my book, Copernicus Avenue, did: thinking “You know, this book actually isn’t bad,” when I read over the final proofs; thinking “You know, this book just might be good,” when I read the reviews in National Post and the Globe and Mail; thinking “Wow, people actually like this book,” when I learned it had risen into the Top 10 on the CBC’s Giller Prize Reader’s choice contest. Now this.

I had to get up there. I had to say something. Any shortlisted author will tell you that the worst part of the buildup to an awards ceremony is having to prepare an acceptance speech which—the odds are—you won’t get to give. I had made a few notes and now I couldn’t remember which pocket I’d stashed them in, so I winged it. I thanked everyone for turning up at the Appel Salon in the Toronto Reference Library, my favourite building in the City of Toronto,  a place I called a Treasure House of Stories. I thanked them because story telling is something we all do together: writers, readers, listeners, the people who make sell, lend, and organize events for books. I thanked the Toronto Book Awards committee—who review seventy-odd books, thrash out a short list and agree on a winner, as well as helping to set up events and raise the award’s profile, all on a volunteer basis. I thanked the gang at Comorant, my heroes. I thanked Martha for putting up with me as I’d been bumping into things and mumbling to myself in the days leading up to the ceremony (much as I’d been doing for the previous 27 years of our marriage).

Then I told a story I like to tell, about an afternoon almost 25 years ago, laying on a beach in Kenya and reading that year’s winner of the Toronto Book Award. We’d been living abroad for a time and were about to return to Toronto and I wasn’t convinced that going back to “Tomato, Can.” as Ezra Pound once called our fair city, was the best move for my literary career. But that book—Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion—convinced me that my home town was a place of mysteries and marvels and big ideas, and that it just might be worth a shot.

Then I thanked my fellow shortlisted authors—Dave Bidini, Farzana Doctor, Michelle Landsberg, and Suzanne Robertson—whose work is part of the proof, all these years later, that Mr. Ondaatje was right.
Hi Everyone,
Well, life as an award winning author rolls on. For those of you who couldn’t attend the Toronto Book Awards ceremony, where Copernicus Avenue took home top honours on Oct. 11, I’ve posted an account of the night summing up my acceptance speech on my blog, which you can read at or access via my website:
The TBA has also posted the videos produced for each shortlisted author and shown at the ceremony. You can see mine (with special guest appearance by His Holiness John Paul II) at:
Upcoming are two events where you can join me in person:
A precious and rare opp. for East Enders to visit Copernicus Avenue as I read at Gerrard /Ashdale Public Library, 1432 Gerrard Street East (near Coxwell)
Thursday November 1, 7-8 p.m.
A chance for locals to celebrate on the book’s home turf: a reading and talk as part of a special presentation by the Roncesvalles Village Historical Society to an open meeting of the Roncesvalles-Macdonell Residents Association at Fern Ave. Public School, 128 Fern Ave., on Tues. Oct. 30 at 6:30 p.m.
Thanks for reading!
Andrew J. Borkowski

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Hi folks,

Well, the cat is out of the bag– Copernicus Avenue has made the shortlist for the 2012 Toronto Book Awards. Thanks to all those who’ve already heard the news and sent me messages of congratulation and support. It’s a great honour to be included with the other fine writers on the list.
The announcement kicks off an eventful season and I hope you’ll be able to join me for one or more of them.
On Tuesday, September 18, I’ll be joining novelists Antanas Sileika and Eva Stachniak for a reprise of our Writing Eastern Europe panel, presented under the auspices of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. The time is set at 2–4 p.m. The exact location at U of T is still TBA, so stay tuned.
I’ve got a big day planned for this year’s Toronto Word on the Street festival of authors and readers, Sunday, September 23 (which also happens to be my birthday!). As part of the Toronto Book Award celebrations I’ll be reading from and talking about Copernicus Avenue at the City of Toronto marquee at noon and 4 p.m. In between, and on the same stage, I’ll be hosting a block of readings by writers representing Toronto’s amazing diversity for Diaspora Dialogues 2–3:30 p.m. Then I’ll be signing at the Cormorant Books booth at 5 p.m.
The TBA festivities continue on Wednesday, October 3, when I and the other shortlisted authors convene at the Toronto Public Library’s Yorkville Branch, 22 Yorkville Avenue, to read from our books, 6:30–8 p.m.
The big night is the TBA Awards Ceremony which will take place at the Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon on Thursday, October 11.
Quite a month coming up. Hope you can be there!

Andrew J. Borkowski

Friday, August 3, 2012

July 29, Leek, Staffordshire
The town of Leek is known locally as the Queen of the Moorlands. It’s a market town in the Churnet Valley, once a centre in the silk trade, which drew William Morris and Co. to the area in the nineteenth century for the manufacture of their fabrics.  The heights around the town mark the beginning of Peak District National Park, a conglomeration of heather-covered moorlands, plunging dales, and spectacular outcroppings of black millstone grit in what’s known as the Dark Peak and limestone cliffs in the White Peak over in Derbyshire.
Several scenes in The Frenzy of Mad Sweeney take place in the Peaks and I’m intent on visiting one of them: Lud’s Church, a long deep chasm in the heights above the River Dane, a few miles north of Leek. I’m relieved to find the path to it well-signed as I found the directions to it on a website called It’s Not The chasm is breathtaking. We descend through a series of “chambers” that are thirty feet deep and five to fifteen feet wide. The walls are coated in emerald green moss and feathered with long grasses and ferns. Oak trees sprout from the walls near the top. Lud’s Church gets its name from the Lollards, a persecuted religious sect  which once held secret services here. The gorge is also reputed to have been the location of the duel between Sir Gawain of the Round Table and The Green Knight. There’s an outcropping along the walls that resemble a human face, said to be the malevolent Green Knight keeping watch over his preserve.
In 1993 a dead Wallaby was found at the bottom of Lud’s Church. The animal is preserved in the Nicholson Institute in Leek. Wallabies have been living on the moor above Lud’s Church since the 1930s when a batch from the London Zoo escaped from a nearby estate, where they were being temporarily housed.
On the other side of Leek, we ride a miniature-gauge steam railway along the shores of Lake Rudyard, actually a reservoir created in the 18th century to feed nearby canals. Rudyard Kipling was named for this lake after his parents visited here, and a beautiful spot it is. Lined with stone boathouses and villas, it’s a touch of Muskoka in the heart of England.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

July 27, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent
We’re back in “the Potteries”—the name the English give to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, an amalgamation of the six Staffordshire towns that, for almost three hundred years, has served as the centre of Britain’s ceramics industry. Martha and I lived here in the late 1980s and it’s the setting for my novel-in-progress The Frenzy of Mad Sweeney. We’re here to visit old friends and I’m taking the opportunity to refresh my memory, visiting locales that serve as the backdrop for the book and brushing up on local history.
Until the 1950s the Potteries skyline was studded with the chimneys of 2,000 Brick Bottle kilns like the ones pictured here. The kilns were coal-fired and belched thick smoke that almost permanently blocked out the sun and covered buildings in black soot that can still be seen clinging to the facades of Victorian buildings in Longton. Arnold Bennett’s novels about the Potteries made him one of England’s most successful authors in the early twentieth century. He described Longton, which specialized in the production of bone china, as the Potteries town “most akin to hell.”
The use of toxics like lead and arsenic in glazes, smoke from the kilns, and the dust-filled air of Victorian “pot banks” resulted in an average life expectancy of 46 among pottery workers in 1900. Stoke-on-Trent also endured Britain’s highest infant mortality rate at that time. Health inspectors of the time noted a high rate of “lowered intelligence” among the population, the result of environmental conditions for a workforce that included 50 percent of the towns’ women, most of whom would have worked while pregnant
 That all changed as the Bottle Kilns were replaced by cleaner gas and electric kilns and safer materials were introduced. But there is still something stunted and strange about the Potteries. In spite of  having created wares that adorned the tables of Catherine the Great and Teddy Roosevelt, the great pottery owners left behind little in the way of great architecture or cultural institutions. The towns still cling to the hillsides like so much stubble.
The men and women working in the Potteries enjoyed clean, safe working conditions and fair wages for a very short time.  Globalization has decimated this city. Wedgwood’s factory at Barlaston was a model to others in health and safety when it opened during the 1930s. By the 1980s it employed 2,800 people. Today there are only 200 employees at Barlaston and most of the product that bears Josiah Wedgwood’s name is made in Asia. Royal Doulton closed its works here over a decade ago. On the day of our visit, it appears that every third storefront in Longton is either shuttered or boarded up and butterfly bushes sprout from the chimney pots. The day after this photo was taken, this street had to be closed to traffic after a derelict  building collapsed.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

July 24 , Abingdon nr. Oxford
We’ve stopped just below Oxford to visit with friends who’ve been camping in the vicinity while attending our favourite British craft festival, Art In Action, which I wrote about years ago for Canadian Family magazine.
Out past High Wycombe we visit Hughenden Manor, a National Trust property that was once the home of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Hughenden is the perfect day out—a stately manor steeped in political and literary history (when not running the country, Disraeli was a popular novelist), a country park with formal gardens, and a WWII site whose history turns out to be linked to my own.
During the war Hughenden served as the centre for Bomber Command’s cartography section, where aerial photographs of targests in occupied Europe were turned into maps for Allied bombing raids. A tour guide takes us down to the Ice House, a vault set into the side of a wooded bank. This is where maps hand drawn and painted by women artists in Hughenden’s bright and airy parlours were photographed and where negatives were made for the maps that navigators would use on the raids. Inside the Ice House, our guide holds up one of the maps made here. It’s for the raid on Hitler’s compound at Berchtesgaden in April 1945. The hair goes up on the back of my neck. My father flew that operation. I’m looking at the very map he, as a navigator, would have used.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

July 19, Lulworth Cove, Dorset
The first glorious rain-free day Britain has seen in six weeks, just in time for our visit to Lulworth Cove, a perfectly circular inlet in the cliffs along what the Brits call the Jurassic Coast (for its wealth of fossils).  We walk the coastal path (well-manicured by breath-stoppingly steep in the rise out of West Lulworth) and walk one mile west along the cliffs to Durdle Door, an outcropping of chalk and Portland stone, striated vertically where the south coast of England once collided with the coast of France pushing the rocky layers upwards. Durdle Door is a piercing about twenty feet high where the sea has worn through a weak spot in the cliff and it’s flanked by two beautiful beaches. We sit and paddle, mesmerized by and the surf.  The beach is a gravel beach of fine stones the size of ball-bearings  polished to sun-catching brilliance by the sea. The hiss of retreating breakers is accompanied by the rattling of thousands of these tiny stones.
Our B&B, in the hills above Lulworth, is situated in the middle of the tank range, their practice fire sounding like the banging of bin lids.

July 17, Lulworth Cove, Dorset
On our way down to the coast, we stop in at Jane Austen’s cottage in the village of Chawton in Hampshire.  Two yew trees stand outside the visitors’ entrance to the house. The one pictured here is two hundred years old and would have been standing when Jane lived in the house with her mother and sister. Like the women in Sense and Sensibility, the Austen women were left penniless when Jane’s father died unexpectedly. They were given use of the cottage rent free by Jane’s brother who unexpectedly inherited the estate of which Chawton was a part. In an upstairs room, I stand by the small round table, no bigger than a pizza stone, on which Jane finished Sense and Pride and Prejudice. I marvel at how simple a writer’s life was in the early 19th century, but then I’ve never had to salt a pig—something Jane would have known how to do.
At Chawton we also learn of Jane’s naval connections; two of her brothers were admirals, a fact that inspired favourable depictions of naval officers in her novels and a love for the seaside town of Lyme Regis. I doubt the smell of fish and chips was quite as pungent along the Parade in Jane Austen’s day, but the view of the cliffs spreading eastward is still breathtaking, and the long stone pier they call The Cobb is just as it appears in Persuasion.
We also visit Thomas Hardy’s birthplace at the end of a track in a tiny hamlet outside of Dorchester. Hardy, who rose from a family of poor stone masons to become an architect before turning to literature, designed the front garden himself. In the tiny parlour, we’re invited by a National Trust animator to settle on the settle (a bench with a very high wooden back) and sit by the fire while she tells us the story of Hardy’s ancestors, his struggles with the class system in London, his retreat to Dorset, and his courtship of Emma, the Cornish rector’s daughter who became his first wife.

Friday, July 20, 2012

July 16, Claygate, Surrey

Today we drove up to Ham House, a National Trust property on The Thames just above Richmond. The gardens there are host to “Garden of Reason” a contemporary art exhibit. This is me installed atop one of four metal staircases that form “Compass” an installation by Brazilian artist Alexandre de Cunha. The staircases form a pedestal like those supporting conventional sculptures. By climbing it the viewer becomes a part of the artwork and the landscape.
Ham House is in the background. Built in 1610, it’s distinctive among British great houses for its having escaped a neo-classical makeover in the 18th century. The interior remains Jacobean, dark, secretive—most fitting for the home of Lady Dysart, who built her career on spy work for ex iledroyalists during the reign of Oliver Cromwell.
You know you’re in England by the strange signage: “Male Toilettes” reads the indicator in the Heathrow customs hall, raising the spectre of bathroom fixtures sprouting facial hair; on the way to Ham House we are enjoined to be watchful  at crossings frequented by Humped Pelicans.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I promise, I promise, I promise ...

And welcome (again) to my blog! I launched this site at the same time my website went live over a year ago--and where did the time go? To make amends, I've decided to re-activate with a series of postings from our trip around England, starting next week. If the technology doesn't fail me, I'll be notifying Facebook friends of new posts as we trek from London (gingerly skirting Olympic mayhem) down to Thomas Hardy country, visit gardens galore, and take a fresh look at the settings for scenes from my novel-in-progress. If nothing appears, you'll know that I've caved to my inner Luddite.