Tales from the IFOA

IFOA nametagOver two hundred writers participated in the International Festival of Authors in Toronto this year, and I was one of them. I'm still a bit dazed. Just to put this in context, I have one book published. One. There is nothing else on my CV except some very long short lists and a couple of ESL adaptations. I felt like Cinderella showing up at this thing, only instead of being the star of the ball, she mainly gets to hang out in a corner with the coats, giggling incredulously. But I loved it.

Rocking Parry Sound down to the ground

My first event was a reading in Parry Sound, Ontario. Recently the IFOA has expanded to bring readings to cities and towns all over the province, which means there are now a lot of author road trips involved. (Another group leaving at the same time was going to Woodstock, Ontario and had already started the Neil Young/Joni Mitchell sing-along.) Parry Sound is a beautiful spot three hours north of Toronto. On the way there, I got to hang out with authors Lewis Desoto and Alexander Maksik (Nicole Lundrigan joined us later), which should have been a great opportunity to find out about writing methods and dealing with publicity and...no luck. My travelling reflexes took over and I spent most of the drive snoring away with my head against the window. The venue at Parry Sound was lovely without being too intimidating, especially as a good part of the IFOA Toronto viewaudience seemed to be composed of guests from the potluck supper we'd attended just before the reading. I was up first, and got to talk about the Novel Fair and read from Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World. (The paperback is out now in Ireland! Makes a swell Christmas gift! Ahem. Sorry.) The other writers were brilliant, and I was actually relaxed enough to be able to listen. On the way back to Toronto, thick snow began to fall.

An audience with the King

The next day I was able to attend a PEN benefit featuring none other than Stephen King and his son Owen. Stephen read from Doctor Sleep, and Owen read a naughty bit from his novel Double Feature in which phone sex and blue dish soap played pivotal roles. Margaret Atwood took the stage to present both Kings with special editions of her poetry. 'This is what you've always wanted,' she told them. There was a queue for signings afterwards, but I knew I'd never get to the end, so I went to the IFOA's drinks reception at the hotel instead. And...I was theBXTLghbCIAAIXsQ only author there. Well, I couldn't very well leave, could I? Several shots of whiskey later, including Ireland's own Writers' Tears, I met Shani Boianjiu, author of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, and found out that she knows all the words to the Degrassi Junior High theme song. 'It was really boring in the missile shelters,' she explained.

The next day I was at a dinner for the authors when I noticed a very familiar face at the far end of the table. It was Stephen King! Chewing pasta! With that jaw! Close enough to hit with a thrown bread roll, but not close enough to speak to. I gibbered. I tried not to stare. I had an impulse to grab my phone and snap his picture, but thought I'd be dragged out by security. On my way back from the bathroom I walked past him, made eye contact, and...nothing. I couldn't make myself say a word. He wasn't exactly incognito either, in fact he was wearing a jacket emblazoned with 'Shawshank Redemption'. If I'd said, 'Hey! You're Stephen King!' I doubt he would have denied it.

So close, and yet so far. Sigh.

Rained out at the Round Table

My next event was a round table discussion with Fiona Kidman, Mary-Rose MacColl, and Alice McDermott. Many, many awarding-winning books between them! I was IFOA stack of booksterrified. Then a few minutes before we were on, the building was evacuated due to a gas leak. No, I didn't engineer the whole thing myself. We ended up huddled in the lobby of a nearby theatre with the wind and rain lashing outside. No one was sure whether we'd end up refunding everyone's money, or perhaps holding the discussion in the lobby. But all was well and we filed back in and began just a half an hour off schedule. I was utterly outclassed and frightened, but managed a few sentences and even found myself disagreeing with a National Book Award-winning author in public. Afterwards there was a signing, where I was pleasantly surprised to meet actual teenagers who had read and liked Cinnamon Toast. Alice McDermott also bought a copy! And so did Mary-Rose MacColl! Amazing stuff.

As for me, I bought as many books as I could carry and more. In fact, Canadian book prices being what they are, most of the money I got for the events went straight to the festival book shop. You can look at my fine new stash if you want, but I'm not lending.

Creemore and beyond

The same afternoon, I got into another van heading for the lovely town of Creemore, Ontario. I was with IFOA WritersTearsLewis Desoto and Nicole Lundrigan again, but this time we were joined by comic novelist Sam Lipsyte. All went well, though the set-up was a bit odd, with the authors on stage at once and forced to watch each other read in full view of the audience. Not a second of inattention allowed! I was up first, and once again everybody was brilliant. During the Q&A that followed, a sweet young girl asked if it was possible to make a living as an author. I just about cried. Please don't lose hope, Creemore girl!

We got in around eleven and headed straight for the drinks reception, and I'm pleased to say that I was among the last to leave, along with Sam Lipsyte and Shani Boianjiu, not that I'm naming names or anything. The Writers' Tears whiskey was gone. My flight left at eight that morning, which meant I had to be up at five, leaving me...three hours of sleep? Two? It's all a bit of a blur...

IFOA celebratingNow I'm back in Dublin, jet lagged and slightly insane, wondering what my name is and if anything like the International Festival of Authors will ever happen to me again. Possibly, but not for many years, I think. Which is fine. If this stuff happened every day, it wouldn't be an adventure.

(Pictures, clockwise: IFOA-issued nametag, me reading at Parry Sound, my wondrous stash of books, me and Stephane Michaka at Saturday's drinks reception, Writers' Tears, the view from my hotel window.) 

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