INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair: last, and shortest, set of notes

There were two things I wanted to attend on Sunday, before heading out for my flight. The first was 1015’s “Polish-Canadian Voices,” in part because of a conversation at the Polish Consulate/Polish-Canadian Institute booth the previous day, in part because of the large Polish community right here in Ireland. (What does the literature of the Polish diaspora look like, I wondered? And found some answer to what the Canadian kind does.) It featured Andrew Borkowski and Ania Szado, the children of Polish immigrants, and Jowita Bydlowska and Eva Stachniak, themselves immigrants from Poland. Stachniak was the writer I was very interested to hear from, because not only is she a professor of literature in Canada who moved there in 1981, she writes historical fiction set in Russia around the time of Catherine the Great. (Yes, I bought a book and asked her to sign it. History: I like it.) It was a very interesting, albeit poorly-attended panel, and I have to wonder how the literature (and experience) of the post-Communist immigrant generation will differ from what they were talking about.

I did not have any plans until Maggie Stiefvater’s 1500 main stage panel, and so took the opportunity not only to see the CN Tower (it’s a nice view, I guess, but I don’t see what all the enthusiasm is for and why they bother with bomb-sniffing machines) but to get another meal of poutine before returning to the fair to poke my nose about and ask some attendees and booth-runners what they thought of the fair itself. A couple of random locals I asked believed that there was definitely a niche for the book fair, particularly with a big-name author present they wanted to see every day. They thought the line-up was fantastic, and were very surprised that a first-time fair attracted so many high profile names. Most of the booth-people I talked to considered that they would have liked the fair to be busier – more footfall and more sales – but (with a handful of exceptions) generally felt that they’d got their money’s worth out of the event. (I will confess to not asking the indie-publishing booth-runners, for fear of encountering indie-pubbing evangelists.)

I hung out for a while longer in the geek corner, and had a couple of pleasant conversations with Michael and Matthew and Julie Czerneda, before catching Stiefvater’s panel. Stiefvater is one hell of a performer, that much I will say: knows how to hold and entertain an audience.

And then – farewell, Toronto.

Don’t ask about my flight home.

INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair: in which I write up more notes

Continued from the previous post:

Doing some more wandering around the fair floor, I found my way to the geek corner of the book fair, where SFWA and ChiZine had booths right beside each other. Since I was sticking around for the SFWA Showcase on one of the small stage areas at 1700, this was serendipitous, and I made the acquaintance of Matthew Johnson, as well as that of Alyx Dellamonica, her wife, and Karina Sumner-Smith, with all of whom I had absolutely delightful conversations, and with all of whom I deeply regret not being able to spend more time in conversation.

The 1700 SFWA Showcase consisted of a series of short readings from Alyx Dellamonica (reading from very intriguing short story), Ed Hoornaert (my notes say: “sexist. Middle-grade? Indie-published? WHAT AUDIENCE?!” It is possible my notes were a bit cranky that evening.), Robin Riopelle (reading from debut novel Deadroads, sounds pretty good, my notes add: “find publicist, try to acquire copy for column reading”), and Karina Sumner-Smith (reading from debut novel Radiance, excellent reading, will read the book).

Thereafter, I was a touch on the tired side, and returned to my hotel room to stare at the internet, drink half the can of courtesy beer I’d been provided by Tourism Toronto (something called “Steam Whistle,” really not to my taste but it was that or go looking for caffeine), and arrange dinner plans en group via Twitter – where I learned that we would be joined by the most excellent Michelle Sagara/Michelle West/Michelle Sagara-West, who I’d had the very great pleasure of meeting at LonCon3. So of course I went to the hotel restaurant far too early from eagerness to talk to ALL THE PEOPLE again – but that was okay, because there was a very nice member of the hotel staff from the Ukraine there, who commiserated with me on how incomprehensible baseball and American football are.

Then dinner with Ana, Thea, Jane, and Michelle – I cannot remember if Kelly was there too: my memory grows faulty, and it was dinner so I took no notes, of course. It was delightful. I was still full from breakfast and lunch, but there was a delicious soup, and a plate of things called “sliders”: tiny burgers in tiny buns. Very delicious. All the talking. So much talking. So much excellent talking in marvelous company that I wound up talking to Michelle in the foyer of the hotel until after midnight, after all the others had headed off for sleeping.

That was Friday. I slept well in the gigantic hotel bed and rose in time to do a tourist thing and find a Tim Horton’s to eat doughnuts for breakfast. Delicious, delicious doughnuts. You don’t get doughnuts like that around here.

Then it was closing on 1100 Saturday, and I went to Deborah Harkness’s panel even though I’d never read any of her books. According to my notes, I found her talking about being a historian much more interesting than her talking about her books: all the notes I took were to do with history, not books. “As a historian, I’m concerned with errors of interpretation,” she said. “As a historian, my goal is to use history to teach empathy.” Writing fiction gave her “permission to imagine the past.” Harkness is an engaging speaker, and listening to her talk almost made me want to read her books – although from the sounds of them, they are strongly marked Not For Me.

I had a lunch (I think) and wandered back over the the Geek Corner of the fair floor, where I fell into conversation with Jaym Gates, Matthew Johnson, Robin Riopelle, Crystal Huff, and Michael Matheson (not all at once, but over the course of the afternoon), in between attending William Gibson’s and Kathy Reichs’ respective panels at the main stage. I do not have any notes for the Gibson panel bar: “haunted by the idea he was working with a 1984 idea of contemporary weirdness” “change in human society is now driven by emergent technology,” and re: the future, “I navigate by looking for resonance,” while for the Reichs panel I wrote one thing down: the interviewer/host is a boring ass.

Back at the Geek Corner of the fair floor, Michael Mathesen extolled to me the virtues of David Nickle’s Rasputin’s Bastards by telling me it was a “Cold War spy novel with X-men powers and telepathic giant squid, and I wrote down titles of books that also sounded interesting: Nancy Baker’s Cold Hill Side, Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain, and Gemma Files’ new collection/not-mosaic-novel, We Will All Go Down Together.

Then at 1700 there was another SFWA panel, “The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be,” with Andrew Barton, Stephanie Bedwell-Grimes, Julie Czerneda, and Douglas Smith, for which my notes are mostly illegible, but at which I recall being entertained. Then there was “Y(oung) A(ncient) Literature,” which was a discussion/set of readings featuring Patrick Bowman (my notes say: “Classicists, only read his book while drunk”), Christian Cameron (“has done research, but sounds very grimdark”), Beth Goobie (“literary”), and Caitlin Sweet (“Minoan retelling: sounds like a good book, but probably not to be recommended to Bronze Age Aegeanists like your supervisor”).

After this, I found myself generously enfolded into the dinner plans of Michael, Jaym, Crystal, two Andrews, and at least one other person whose name I embarrassingly do not recall. ETA: Matthew Johnson. (I am extremely grateful for their welcoming friendliness.) Dinner was at a sushi place, where I would never have ventured solo, and I paid the learning-new-things tax to discover that no, sushi is really the very wrong texture for my mouth. But gyoza udon is fucking amazingly delicious.

I still cannot use chopsticks, though. Seriously. I know how you’re supposed to hold them, but damn if I can pick anything up with them. (It is not like one gets a lot of practice in Dublin in general or at my dining table in specific.)

I ate dessert in the hotel, because I was craving chocolate and they had a chocolate cake thing. And then I went to my giant comfy hotel bed and slept like a dead thing until Sunday morning

INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair: in which I write up some of my notes.

As this is me basically consolidating my handwritten notes into something a little more like narrative, it is a somewhat rough account.


On Thursday, with much regret and much gratitude, I left one of the most friendly and welcoming households to which I’ve ever had the privilege of being welcomed to check into the hotel where Tourism Toronto had arranged for me (and other bloggers) to stay for the duration of the Book Fair, the Renaissance Hotel. It was snowing when I emerged from Union Station, and I had a printout of Google Maps directions that was not exactly the most helpful of helpful things. I ended up going down and around a large thing called “The Rogers Centre” and heading off up a hill when a helpful Torontonian noticed me standing at a corner looking puzzled, and pointed me in the right direction.

It turns out that the Renaissance Hotel (which is part of the Marriott chain) is actually part of this thing called “The Rogers Centre.” Which was formerly known as the Skydome, and is a covered baseball stadium. The rear half of the hotel, including the hotel restaurant and several hotel rooms, overlooks the baseball pitch-field-thingy. There was some trouble getting me checked in – apparently the hotel had been informed I was arriving on the 12th, and was rather surprised to find I’d been informed to turn up on the 13th – and the nice lady at the front desk, in the tones of one granting a very great treat or especial favour, informed me that to make up for the delay they’d given me a room overlooking the baseball pitch-field-thingy. (I’m sure she used the proper word for it.)

I’m sure someone who liked baseball would have found it more of a treat. Me, I would have preferred a view of the traintracks and downtown, because it would’ve meant my room had access to natural light and fresh air. But I am Irish, and do not find much of interest in these North American games of baseball and “football.” (I can definitely see the appeal of ice hockey, though. Elegance and brutality: of such things are the best games made.)

But, on the upside: the hotel room itself had about as much square footage as the ground floor of my house. (It was at this point that I understood I was staying in a Fancy People hotel, and immediately began to fret lest they realise that I was guaranteed to Lower The Tone, and ask me to leave. No, really. I’ve stayed in a few hotels, but the vast majority of them have had space for a bed and a cupboard-sized shower-toilet-room, and not much else. I’m much more used to borrowing someone’s futon and sleeping in the office.)(This might be a case of “everything’s bigger in North America,” though.)

At this point it was 1600 local time, and I’d been invited to a “blogger meet-and-greet” in the Metro North Convention Centre for 1700. Since I hadn’t eaten lunch, and suspected dinner would be hard to come by in the convention centre, I took myself off down to the hotel restaurant-bar and enquired how long it would take them to make me a poutine. Poutine! I had never eaten it before. “Ten minutes,” the nice person said, and indeed it took no more than that.

Poutine – my reaction to it varied between what the hell is this? and this is amazing. Chips, gravy, cheese curds, topped with meat – a kind of ham that resembled a light Italian ham, but that goes by “Montreal smoked meat” in Toronto. Amazingly tasty. Really filling. You definitely know you’ve been fed, with that dish.

So, very full, I betook myself off to the convention centre, which was practically right next door. There, I made several inquiries before I was able to determine where this “blogger toast” thing was supposed to take place. Eventually I found it, only to discover that the door to the green room was still locked to keep the peons out.

While waiting, though, I made the acquaintance of Kelly from Book Riot, and soon thereafter the mother-daughter blogging team of Chapter By Chapter, also bloggers present for the book fair, at which point we’d acquired sufficient mass to get up the necessary impetus to actually knock on the door in question.

Behind the door lay members of the PR team for the book fair; a Media Relations Manager for Tourism Toronto, a lovely woman, Vanessa Somarriba by name; and (at the time) two members of the “executive team” of the book fair, Rita Davies and John Calabro, who were later joined by Steven Levy (who conversed like a man who’d already had a couple of beers for tea, but maybe that’s just a personality thing). I dubbed them “the money people” afterwards, because much of the conversation that lingered in my memory were the bits where they were talking about how they spent money like water to set it up: lots of money to get international and indigenous writers on board, approximately CAN $100,000 in honoraria for authors, and so on. They seemed quite proud – and y’know, they have a right to be – in how hard they worked to build diversity into the programme for the fair from the ground up.

Partway through this slightly-awkward conversation – small talk combined with PR talk combined with talk about people’s genuine interests – Jane of Dear Author arrived, another of the bloggers and someone who it was a great pleasure to meet. Eventually we adjourned, only to find the Book Smugglers just outside the door – I think I am getting the order of events and arrivals right, but I could be mixing things up.

Like a bloggerly hive mind, we adjourned to the actual fair floor to investigate what was on offer – and to spy out the preparations for the 1900 “Lift-Off Party” that would open the book fair proper. We were all, I think, fairly impressed with Simon & Schuster’s design aesthetic, as they’d set up their booth like the rooms of a house, complete with chairs, pots and pans, and air mattress. Poking around to get my bearings – and conversing with the other bloggers – was an awful lot of fun, but from the start I felt that perhaps the fair’s layout was not optimised for footfall, visual impact, and sales. I later learned that for the official signings, one was required to purchase the books that one wanted signed from the official signing sales booth – not elsewhere on the book fair floor, and god help anyone who wanted to bring in their own books from home. I think perhaps the organisers did not have their best thinking hats on when it came to considering the book-selling portion of the entertainment, rather than the book-celebrating.

We discovered that the Lift-Off Party was charging $6 for a cup of soft drink and $10 for a beer, and several of us – Kelly, Jane, Thea, Ana, and me, if I recall correctly – hied off to find a better place to talk and drink. Fortunately, my fellow bloggers had a place already in mind: The Library Bar. I had some ginger ale while my fellow bloggers sampled the delights of Canadian literary cocktails – and passed them round the table so that everyone could sample each once.

They’re great conversationalists, and I’ve seldom had so much fun in a den of upper-class iniquity.

And that was Thursday.

Friday morning, it had been arranged that all the bloggers would take breakfast together, courtesy of Toronto Tourism. At breakfast we were met by Vanessa, another Tourism Toronto person whose name I shamefully cannot find among my notes, and the hotel’s rep, Dominique, whose surname (and business card) I have mislaid also.

It was a breakfast of very great fantasticness. The kind of breakfast where if one mentioned one enjoyed a thing, one would find one’s plate heaped with it and perhaps the kitchen sent to for more. Salmon eggs Benedict. Bacon, lovely bacon. Sausages. French toast banana bread (to die for). Fruit. Delicious fruit. Yoghurt and tasty, tasty croissants and cheese and ham from the cold buffet. Orange juice. Sample smoothies. Basically the deluxe hospitality experience, and the kind of breakfast that would leave a body feeling full all day.

Instead of permitting us to return to our rooms to nap (a tempting option) we were ushered into a van for a tour of some of Toronto’s independent bookshops, led by Michael Kaminer, a journalist who’d written an article on those bookshops for the Washington Post. At the first bookshop, we met a group of local bloggers who would also be taking the tour with us: Ardo, Michele, Wendy, and Chandra.

Jane on INSPIRE.
The Book Smugglers on INSPIRE.
Kelly on INSPIRE.
Chapter by Chapter on INSPIRE.

So, book shop tour. It was interesting – and god, BMV and Bakka Phoenix (where we met Jeff, who it turns out is a reader of the Book Smugglers and my column), geek book heaven. Kaminer was a little bit heavily inclined towards book fetishism (“ebooks aren’t real books”) and very much not in favour of chain or online bookshops, for which my feeling is: it’s complicated.

For a city of six millions of people, it seems to have a really healthy literary/reading community.

Also, I got to get cupcakes in Almond Butterfly a second time.

On our return to the convention centre, the other flown-in bloggers went off to do their own thing in the hotel, and I found myself welcomed to lunch with the lovely local bloggers – who were very good about me essentially inviting myself along. They were great people, and showed me a great place for food called The Canteen (om nom glorious burger nom nom nom), and great conversationalists.

I kept wanting to bloody hug people in Toronto, I met so many lovely ones.

And then I returned to the convention centre for the first thing I was interested in, a main stage panel called “I Don’t Give A Damsel,” featuring Gayle Forman, E. Lockhart, Sarah Mlynowski, and Meg Wolitzer, focused on young adult literature. There was some initial interesting discussion of feminism, and likeable vs. unlikeable as terms applied to female characters, and whether or not this was a feminist problem: Forman said, “Imagine Sherlock [from the BBC’s Sherlock] as a woman – that would not fly.” But the panel soon devolved into a defence of the value of Young Adult literature. In itself this could have been an interesting panel, but to that audience, I doubt one needed to make an argument for YA’s worth.

The first questioner of the Q&A period was “dismayed by the preponderance of the supernatural” in Young Adult literature, and I was out of there.

INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair – I am in Toronto

I’m in Toronto to attend the Toronto International Book Fair, on foot of a train of events that led to said Book Fair’s publicity people paying for my flights and attendance. (Thanks, Book Smugglers! Wouldn’t be here with you.) It is a bizarre and unexpected occurrence, and until the fair begins I am crashing on the truckle bed of marvelous and generous friends.

I flew with Air Canada via Heathrow, in one of the more painless long flights of my existence. The aircraft was the very latest in shiny passenger-flying, with actual headroom and windows that could be tinted five different shades of green, and they fed us. Recognisable and tasty food: dinner, a snack, and then a hot wrap thing that actually tasted of its ingredients. Plenty of soft drinks: I had some Canadian ginger ale and discovered I liked it.

I landed to sunset in Toronto, and felt as though I’d stepped onto a film set.

I find the skyline, and the layout, of North American cities surreal, when I see them in person. They are so much a part of English-language television, and so different to the cities I am used to, that visiting them feels rather like stepping out of reality and into a fictional dream where people might be uncommonly handsome and even the tenor of street noise is different. The straightness of the roads and the height of buildings messes with my sense of scale. The sky seems larger.

Surreal, like I said.

I shall conclude this I am on another continent! post by saying that Toronto has some very tasty dumplings and noodles on offer among its eateries. And an impressive amount of fallen leaves.