My Pantheon of Smallness

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Perhaps I like artists who have deliberately chosen to keep things small because they seem rebellious in our culture of pathological overstriving. In my Pantheon of Smallness I have a special place for a man named Kenny Shopsin.

Shopsin owned a popular deli in Greenwich Village back in the days when the village was still an inexpensive and charming place for struggling artists. Bob Dylan used to go there to eat turkey sandwiches. Madonna used to sit at the counter. Eventually the rent shot up and he moved to another place. Then his wife died and the restaurant rent went up again so he settled into a small nine-seat stall in the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side of NYC. His stall is just one among about thirty stalls—including Hispanic produce shops, butchers, fishmongers, and cheese merchants. He claims he’s never been happier.

To be in the middle of Manhattan, where people work like dogs under the tyranny of gigantism, and to not get carried away by that imperative feels like a victory.

Here is what he says in his wonderful book, Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin: “The art of staying small more or less sums up my feelings about running a restaurant—and about life. I know it goes against out capitalist system, but I have never been interested in the normal symptoms of success, such as higher profit margins and expansion of income. I never had a goal to make more money so that I could retire or so that I could hire a low-wage employee to do the cooking for me. I have no desire to open a second restaurant, to oversee a restaurant empire with my name on it, or to endorse a line of pots and pans. Running a restaurant for me is about running a restaurant. It is not a means to get someplace else.”

(Images from Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin. Published by Alfred A. Knopf.)

Martin says “Merci!”

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The winners of les Prix Jeunesse des libraires du Québec were announced yesterday in Montreal. “M.Flux” (the French version of “Mr. Flux”) received the award in the “International 6-11 year old” category. Matte Stephens and I share this honor with our wonderful French publisher, La Pastèque.

Thank you booksellers and readers of Québec! Thank you La Pastèque for always thinking outside the box. You are the best and the true spirit of M. Flux.

Bon Appétit.

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Today is the official pub date for Julia, Child. I hope it nourishes you in little-big ways. I hope you enjoy feasting on Julie Morstad‘s delectable art.

I did an interview about the book with Jama’s Alphabet Soup, which you can read here, and, while you’re at it, you might want to check out Jama’s posts on other Julia-related reads (such as this). Also, there is this, which is simply too amazing for words. You’ll just have to take a peek yourself.

And, finally, I thought I’d share two quotes from Julia Child herself:

“You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.”

“I’m afraid that surprise, shock, and regret is the fate of authors when they finally see themselves on the page.”

(Images: book illustration by Julie Morstad; “Julia correct proofs of Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” 1961.)

Ten is…

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Ten is: little big, purposefully mismatched socks, assorted sports jerseys, and enthusiasm not yet schooled out. Ten is loving things to bits. And—ha,ha,ha,ha—ten is being comfortable in your head. Ten is rewriting instructions and filling notebooks with Manga marginalia. Ten is heat-seeking hugs and Whee!!! Ten is writing declarations that begin: “I believe in Cheese and Pandas!” Ten is made-up languages and fake modern dances. Ten is pratfalls in the morning and worries about death at midnight. Ten is outwitting your elders while enjoying your youngers. Ten is a persony blur, a dash to the double-digits. Ten is… today.

(Happy Birthday Mika!)

All Over the Map

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As you can see, this blog hasn’t exactly been a hotbed of activity. To resuscitate things a bit, I agreed to take part in this blog tour on the invitation of the very talented and kind Lauren Stringer. Lauren’s work is a marvel—lyrical and smart. If you’re not already familiar with her book When Stravinsky Met Njinsky (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I suggest you get a copy pronto.

The format of this blog tour is to answer four questions and introduce two other writers at the end. So here we go:

1) What am I working on?
Thankfully my writing notebook has not been as empty and forlorn as my blog. I have been busy working on several projects including: 1) a narrative non-fiction book about birds; 2) a graphic novel about singing, a boygirl and Maria Callas; 3) a picture book about a band of solitaries.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I find this hard to answer. It feels a bit like being asked: “How does your dog differ from other dogs?” There is so much intra-species variety within the breeds “literary fiction,” “memoir” or “picture book biography.” A “novel” can be as wildly various as a “terrier.” Also: I keep reading the word “differ” as “worse than” or “better than” and neither seem like beneficial comparisons.

3) Why do I write what I do?
I write all over the map (literally and figuratively) but, in general, I write what I do because I like to take a bit of this and a bit of that (usually unlikely people and/or dissimilar things) and see what happens when the two combine. I am also a professional dilettante. I get restless if I’m not investigating something new. I am a writer of the “I think through writing” ilk. On good days, I thank writing for keeping my mind open and considering.

4) How does your writing process work?
On a very mundane level: my process is propelled by routine. It is wonderful to know I am going to wake up at 5:30AM, go to the gym, drop my son off at school, go to a café and writewritewrite, go home for lunch, do some writing-related work (admin, school visits, mentoring or editing), writewritewrite, listen to music, make dinner or go to dinner with friends, read a bit, go to sleep by 10:30PM and then wake up and do it all again tomorrow. If there are weeks of this, I am happy and entranced. The creative benefits of a routine were affirmed for me when I read this interview with Haruki Murakami in the Paris Review. (To quote: “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”)

On a more general level: my process is bewilderingly slow. Long periods of gestation. Bouts of low morale. Moments when the manuscript feels about as appealing as a cold and wet log covered with giant slugs. Moments of inspiration. Moments of pragmatism—i.e. a final push to finish so as to feed the children.

And, last but not least, here are the two fabulous authors whom I’ve invited to join this tour. They will post their entries on June 23rd.

SARA O’LEARY is the co-creator with Julie Morstad of The Henry Books published by Simply Read: WHEN YOU WERE SMALL, WHERE YOU CAME FROM, and WHEN I WAS SMALL. Their latest book, THIS IS SADIE, will be published by Tundra Books in 2015. Also, in 2015 Sara will be producing a series of baby books for Owl Books. She blogs at

VIKKI VANSICKLE is the author of the acclaimed Clarissa books (WORDS THAT START WITH B; LOVE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD; DAYS THAT END IN Y). Frequently referred to as “Canada’s Judy Blume,” Vikki’s most recent middle grade novel, SUMMER DAYS, STARRY NIGHTS, has been called “Summer reading at its best.” After obtaining an MA in Children’s Literature from UBC, Vikki’s career began in bookselling at The Flying Dragon Bookshop, which earned her the 2011 CBA Young Bookseller of the Year award. She is a popular children’s lit blogger and is frequently called upon to speak about kids’ books for radio panels, conferences, and as Lainey Gossip’s YA mentor! Currently she balances writing with her duties as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Young Readers at Penguin Canada. She blogs at

(Images: “Maria Callas with her Poodle”; “You Are Here Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination” by Katharine Harmon)


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Empty: a bookshop when all of the books have gone.

Photo: Closing day for Toronto’s beloved “Book City” bookstore.

“What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul.”
—Neil Gaiman

Remembering Roy Kiyooka (1926-1994)

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There is nothing more attractive to me than a person with fence-jumping knowledge. A person who knows the creative and liberating effects of roaming and not being single-minded. Roy Kiyooka was such a roamer—a poet, photographer, painter, musician, performer, sculptor, filmmaker, teacher. Roy treated these activities as part of a connected project, alternate perspectives on the same fundamental human dialogue. He proposed that being an artist was not a vocation but a life-long search and calling.

“…Be indubitably an eye: by which
I mean the least gesture of the least thing underfoot or up in the air ought to captivate your whole sensorium.”

He inspired a generation of younger artists and academics on the West Coast, and found his way into my pantheon via an ill-fated love affair and a beautiful book entitled Pear Tree Pomes (at a time in my life when a boy could win me over by knowing the right poets.)

The first time I read publicly (in Vancouver), Roy squatted at the edge of the stage, a gnomic presence quelling my performance anxiety with his reassuring quietness. Later, and more significantly, he saved me from the anxiety of specialization, simply by modeling a life that moved laterally across fields.

It has been twenty years since Roy died suddenly and unexpectedly and there are a few lovely tributes including a commemorative exhibition and this wonderful article to mark the occasion. I know I am hardly alone in thinking of him frequently. As one of Canada’s first “multidisciplinary” artists and a self-professed member of the “artist tribe” he taught us what it meant to flout convention, stasis, and market expectations.

“Don’t allow yourself to be mislead by the false/urban
Sophistications, particularly ‘those’ ideas that come under
The rubrics of our conflated Media. Don’t let your own
Psyche dissemble because of its false aggrandizements. Find
Out how small your daily needs really are and then ask
Yourself—what high-tech progress and ambition really means.”

Please take a few minutes to watch this trailer (note: groovy cameos). You won’t be sorry.

(Excerpts: from Roy Kiyooka’s Hieronymus Bosch’s Heretical April Fool Diverti-mementos & Other Protestations as quoted in “Art Calling Fool Scold: The Discursive Pedagogy of Roy Kiyooka” by Henry Tsang. Images: “Roy Kiyooka teaching at Emma Lake Art Camp,” 1961. Trailer: “REED: the life and works of Roy Kiyooka” by Fumiko Kiyooka.)

Bonjour & Olá

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“Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate…” —Anne Carson, Nox

(Recent translations from the wonderful people at La Pastèque and Edições Sm)