Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers

FDA (full-disclosure alert): that title is a false lead and a limping excuse to drop my current favourite band name into this and nearly every other conversation. Buddy is a Newfoundland band, three guys that play a mixture of goofy, hearty and sentimental songs from down home. (They would seem to have a solid touring career, playing across the Maritimes and for the Newfoundland diaspora all over Canada.)

But that’s not what I’m writing about. (And I haven’t even heard the lads play, so that’s all I have anyway. Reminds me of the opening to a Cockburn song: Woke up thinking about Turkish drummers / Didn’t take long, I don’t know much about Turkish drummers / But it made me think of Germany and the guy who sold me cigarettes / Who’d been in the Afghan secret police who made the observation that it’s hard to live…) Buddy reminds me that I listened to a trio of terrific Canuck writers last night at the local LitWit extravaganza, one of whom was a rumpled, denim-clad Newfoundland writer named Kenneth J. Harvey.

For son Will and me, Harvey was the intriguing highlight of the evening. Faded jean jacket, flushed cheeks under several days growth of beard, a plain black ballcap pulled low over his eyes, he looked the part of the shy, beery, but soberingly clear-eyed Buddy over in the corner, down to the local Legion Hall. I knew little about him, other than that he’s just now becoming widely-known in Canada despite quite stunning “writer’s writer” international praise for over a dozen books. The guy’s a writing machine, though perhaps not an eager seller. Even by Newfoundland standards, he keeps a low profile (he lives in an outport), and didn’t do terribly well with the excerpt he read from his new novel Inside. (Maybe it was his cold.) But the lead character, an old ex-con, started to become real in my head anyway, and in the following Q&A, Harvey was by turns blunt and eloquent, raw or funny, and always and distinctively himself. We bought the book. We bought him.

The Other Fellers are superb writers, and better performers. Steven Heighton is a prolific and adventurous writer (the new novel is Afterlands, an acclaimed re-creation of the harsh aftermath of an American North Pole expedition) and as cowboy-handsome as he is serious. His was the only book I didn’t buy last night – my library groans with unread but enthusiastically purchased books – though a previous Heighton reading had inspired me to buy his poetry, which I never do. He requires himself to write riskily, to drive himself batty but fascinated by not knowing where he’s going, by writing without a map or a safety harness. I could learn from that. I am.

Trevor Cole is a guy I’ve been meaning to read since Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life was short-listed for the 2004 Governor General’s Award for Fiction. It was his first novel, and I happened to be writing happily, feverishly and anonymously for the GG herself at the time. I was intrigued (and royally ticked off) by his “overnight” success; it turns out, though, that he’d been a prominent magazine writer before that, if one paid any attention to business, which I emphatically didn’t. (And in other news, I confirmed in the signing line last night that my bride’s vague memory of having gone out with Cole once or twice was true. Long ago, friends. No, my competitive irritation comes from his having made the jump to hyperspace so far ahead of me.) Perhaps more important (and more interesting!) for you to know, he’s one of those rare authors with a radio voice and real performing skill. His new novel is The Fearsome Particles, which sounds great, and not only because of his acting. He’s a fine builder of sentences and characters, with turns of phrase that are inventive and often deliciously wry. Because I’m cheap, and because I think this might be a writer I’ll follow closely and therefore feel the obsessive and über-controlling need to read him in sequence, I bought Bray in paperback.

This was one of the Ottawa International Writers Festival’s series called “Writing Life”: three snippets of new books and an engaging conversation with and among the three people who made them. It’s been another good Feast of Words and I’ll be dining again tonight. And if you like writers and writing, you can hear some of the best Canuck authors reading their stuff on a cool new site. (My pleasure.)

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