(at)eleven with john wing — when the red light goes on, get off

(AT)Eleven is a series of Q&As with writers whose paths and mine have crossed in one way or another and whose books I want to discuss—ideally in person, over lunch (my favourite meal of the day)—but given how we’re all in different parts of the country and beyond, it’s a bit simpler to do a vicarious version. So here we are. If you’d like to take a moment to get something to eat, I’ll wait. And if, after the Q&A, you’re inspired to read the book, you might be interested in my suggestion of the perfect meal to go with the reading.

—bon appetit.

“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”
~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

I’ve never met John Wing—we were introduced online by a mutual friend—but he’s a familiar face; I’ve been watching him on the Comedy Chanel for years. He’s a regular at Montreal’s Just for Laughs, and various other festivals and clubs throughout the country and the U.S. where he has long made his home. (It’s amazing how many of the best comedians working in the States hail from our side of the 49th.)  I was delighted when he agreed to do this Q&A, partly because he’s the only person I know who’s been on the Tonight Show (something like eight times), but mostly because I thoroughly enjoyed his book.

Beginning with the title—When the Red Light Goes On, Get Off—there’s a very engaging kind of instructional entre nous vibe in Wing’s writing; hey, he seems to be saying, if you think comedy is all laughs, think again: here’s the real deal, here’s what the road is like, the people, the venues, the hotels, the food, the hours and years devoted to a single joke. And while we’re at it, here’s how to write a joke—“Take them somewhere, until they’re sure of where it is, and then go somewhere else at the last second. The juxtaposition of the incongruous…”  He makes it sound simple but then talks about rhythm, sound, word choice, pacing, why the ashtray in a sex joke must be cold… He tells stories, dozens of tiny, perfect anecdotes, how 25 years ago he hired a couple of guys to help him “shpritz” jokes for his act; they worked for three hours (at $50/hour) and at the end of it he had one excellent joke, which he shares, and which he still uses and so “got his money’s worth”.

Here is what I didn’t know before reading this: a good comedian is a good writer. They have to be. I can see that now. Like a lot of people maybe, I assumed it was all about the performance, but that’s zip unless the words are there first… tight and perfect and rehearsed and balanced and revised and updated and and and. One difference Wing notes between writing standup and writing anything else, is that “The audience has the final say, and it’s by their sound that you make the corrections.”

Wing is a good writer. And this is a good book… should be required reading for anyone thinking of going into the business, as well as anyone curious about the ‘other side’ of the business, as well as anyone who enjoys a well told story. As much as we learn about the business, Wing also candidly shares personal moments. He talks about the addiction to attention, the solitude, drug use, the need for a good memory, his penchant for photographing cemeteries, meeting Eric Idle, rivalries, strange but solid friendships and the ‘private club’ that is comedy—a hard place to make friends ‘on the outside’.

Wing has also published a number of poetry collections… a form he says is not dissimilar in process to writing standup. That in itself sounds like a whole other conversation…

Overall, I was left feeling I’d grown up a little. My naive idea of comedy considerably changed, I found myself more drawn to the form than ever. I’m watching the acts on the Comedy Chanel in a different way, laughing, yeah, but with a deeper, new-found respect. Awe, even. This is one tough business and you wonder why anyone sticks with it. A question that could be asked of many professions that require mere brilliance, passion and dedication.

Let’s just be glad they do.

And now, may I present…  comedian, writer and poet, John Wing.


1. What literary character did you identify with as a child?

JW:  Probably Tom Sawyer, which was the first novel I read. The idea of coming to one’s own funeral was as delicious then as it is now. And there is such haunting beauty in the note he was going to leave. ‘We ain’t dead. We’re just off being pirates.’

2. Can you recall an early piece of writing?

JW:  I wrote a speech in grade eight about the Canada-Russia hockey series of 1972. I started writing poetry about that time, too. Lyric poetry, unimaginably bad. I tried to use large words, many that I had to imagine the spelling. I remember my version of ‘epitome’ was ‘epittamy’, which is, to this day, how I think it should be spelled. I tried to write a novel with my sister when I was around that age, too. I wrote the even-numbered chapters. Unfortunately it didn’t work out, as she hated and rewrote all of my chapters and I had no real idea what hers were about. I also wrote a funny newscast about that time. My brother and I performed it at a family gathering to huge laughs. The first jokes I ever attempted were in there. I recall one: “Studies show that the best way to avoid a hangover is to keep drinking. There is one side effect, however. In two months, you’ll be dead.”

3. Do you find recurring themes in your work that surprise you?

JW:  Of course themes are recurrent, sometimes to an embarrassing degree. I try to branch out occasionally, but it is very difficult. I don’t know that I have themes that surprise me. They all come from a deep well somewhere. I am more surprised to find new stories in the well at times, since one always wonders when one book is finished if there will ever be another. The why of things is always my fascination. The truth of what you think is true. A poet friend of mine once mentioned he was trying to get a Canada Council grant. I asked what he would do with it if he got it and he said, “Oh, you know, go up to Baffin island for six months and write poems about my father.” I suppose I have written more than four or five poems that reference Moby Dick. Probably just wishful thinking.

4. A few questions on process. Given the amount of travelling you do, it must be a trick to find time to write or create an ideal work environment—or does the how and where and when depend on the ‘what’, i.e. poetry vs. performance material vs. memoir? Did I read that you’re also working on a novel?

JW:  It’s not a trick at all. I write voluminous amounts on airplanes, which are almost perfect places to write. My routine is not a set thing, despite the warnings of all my literary heroes that it should be. My ideal work environment is a deadline. I need goals, concrete goals. I wrote thirty pages of ‘When The Red Light…’ in about ten months, and then was told by the publisher that he needed a full draft in three weeks. I wrote the whole thing in twelve nights, midnight to six, on a cruise ship. I finished the draft so quickly that I had time to do a polish, thanks be to God. Regarding the various types of writing, I tend to stick with one for a while, then switch to another. Where I am generally has very little to do with what I’m writing. The deadline creates the energy. Comedy and poetry are very similar types of writing, so that’s an easy switch. Prose is the hardest for me. I have started many novels and rarely reached a second chapter. However, hope springs eternal. If only someone would put a gun to my head. My favourite writing is the rewrite. I have three editors for my poetry books, and one gets the first draft, critiques it, then I rewrite it, send it to the second for another sandblasting, then another rewrite and the final editor and the final rewrites. Those are the best sessions. Making things better than they were.

5. In ‘When the Red Light Goes On, Get Off’, you mention that you’re good at being alone; I’m interested in the idea of solitude as it relates to art and wonder: is ‘being good at’ the same as being ’happy’ alone? And if we were to take work out of the equation, would the need for a certain amount of solitude still exist? It’s a kind of chicken/egg question, i.e. do the kids who are good at being alone become artists or do artistic kids learn to like being alone?

JW:  Yes, being good at being alone is the same as being happy alone. I don’t know why I’m happier alone, but undeniably, I am. This job requires one to live in one’s head a lot, and being alone helps with that. I don’t know if I would like it so much if I were in another profession. I don’t know if my liking it was bred in me and came in handy when I chose comedy or if I adapted when I had to. As a boy I was fantastically homesick, to such a degree that I was razzed about it by my siblings. I was hosting a documentary film last year and we worked full days, 8:00 a.m. to around six. Four of us: me, the director, the cameraman, and the sound man. We would get back to the hotel after a long day and the director, who was the friendliest of fellows, would say, “Okay, boys, dinner in forty-five minutes!” And I would just groan inwardly. Not that I didn’t like all three of them. I did. But God in heaven, I just spent all freaking day with you guys! I have to have dinner with you as well? I have for thirty years been used to going back to my room alone having the rest of my night free. I need the recharge. Or to put it another way: Once I was doing a panel on addiction among comedians, and I said to the host, “I’m not good at interacting.” “You interact with the audience,” he replied. “Yes,” I said, looking out at the crowd. “I love to perform for you, but I don’t want to meet any of you personally.” Cold, I suppose, but it was true. Do I need lots of alone time as an artist? Absolutely.

6. Speaking of art, I was struck by your description of comedy as a skill not an art, how you remind us that art is open for interpretation, yet a joke can’t be ambiguous… you don’t want fifty different reactions, or people leaving the show debating what everything meant. You want laughter, a visceral, immediate response. In that way it’s more like a science. This is what’s so great about the book, this quality of opening the readers’ eyes to the industry in a way that allows for an appreciation of the work as something beyond being able to tell a good joke, which I’m pretty sure is how most people see comedy. (I’m wondering if even newbie comics think it’s as simple as that.) In a nutshell, what would you say is the most important quality any successful comedian has… is there a common denominator?

JW:  This is difficult. You need three things to be successful. Writing ability, performance ability, and business ability. The amazing thing is you can do very well on a smidge of the first two if you have a lot of the third. The business ability has always been my weakness. The common denominator I have always seen is enormous insecurity. You need something you failed to get from your parents or siblings or peers when you were very young and impressionable. A prodigious memory helps, also. And persistence, which is the real problem now. Almost all comedians are going to just suck in the beginning. It takes two to five years to really develop an act. And there are going to be a lot of painful nights in that development. And you have to believe in yourself, and what you’re doing.

7. Any thoughts on why the majority of comedians are male?

JW:  Well, the road might be harder on women than it is on men, partly because every week you’re working with someone who’s hitting on you. It is an utterly nomadic life, where extended periods of time at home make you really itchy and hard to be around. Also, if your partner doesn’t do stand-up comedy, you can’t really share much of it with him or her. Do women enjoy being alone as much as men do? I don’t know. I married a stand-up comedian. She pretty much stopped when we had children. Women have other pulls on their psyches. I hope none of that sounded idiotically sexist. It has nothing to do with women being funny or not. They are amazingly funny. The club owners are almost all male, and they prefer booking males. Sad but true. Women have a harder time getting booked, because it’s either an all-woman show, or there’s only one. Not as many spots. So it’s a hard life, and a harder living for women.

8. I enjoyed the road stories; you tell them well and I can see how it plays a big part in the lifestyle—the road being almost a character. Does it ever feel like a friend/enemy at times? There are also some nice bits about the culinary (or lack of) side of things and a lovely riff about which hotels/motels have the best amenities, location, bedspreads… I was stunned to learn that the best rooms are next to the elevators. That surprises me. Is it true?? Just curious.

JW:  The reason the best rooms are next to the elevators is because they’re the shortest walk with a lot of baggage. and the further down the hall you go, the smaller the room is. You’re also close to the soda machine when you’re near the elevators. Yes the road is a friend, a companion. Have I been here before? Where did I go? Was it good? Let’s go there again. I’m going to Niagara Falls, London, and Toronto next month, and have favourite places in all three. And one of those favourite places will be the hotel room.

9. Of your poetry you say that you started doing it as a way to appeal to women. Did it work? And, more seriously, what about poetry speaks to you? Who are your influences; who do you read? And, finally, of all the genres you write in, which feels most comfortable? Which allows you the most freedom, if freedom is even the right word…?

JW:  Did it work? I suppose it did, to one degree or another. One wished to be seen as soulful, or the word we used at the time– deep. In college, all my dorm mates thought I was gay, which was a wonderful way to recognize the idiots. Poetry was something my father loved deeply, and I wanted to impress him, too. In learning about it and reading it out of spite for his criticisms of my poor reading habits, I grew to love it. Housman and Kipling were early influences, also e.e. cummings. The first book of poems I ever bought was The Collected Hart Crane. I thought it was a nice copy, and I thought his name was interesting. His poetry was a new world. I also bought Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems around that time. Both were large influences. Then I began to get poetry books as gifts from relatives. My aunt bought me Earle Birney’s Near False Creek Mouth, and my grandfather bought me Don Coles’ Sometimes All Over. My grandfather was friends with Don’s father, Jack. And Don had been a school friend of my father. Don became the greatest influence over my writing, and one of my great friends now. He is my first reader, and second editor of my manuscripts. His poetry is among the best I have ever read, and I have learned much from him. In college, my first writing professor was John Ditsky, who had a huge influence upon me. We corresponded for twenty years and he was my first reader and his critiques were brief but telling. His letters usually said one of two things. ‘Liked the poems’ was what I craved, and ‘Not up to your usual standard’ was what I feared. Sadly, we stopped writing each other for a time, and had just started again when he died suddenly. I owe him a great debt.

I read and collect reams of poetry. British, American, Canadian, and some Irish. Philip Larkin, D.J. Enright, Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Dylan Thomas,T.S. Eliot, Robert Burns (technically not a Brit—a favourite of my father) among other U.K. poets. Many Americans, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Theodore Roethke, Carolyn Kizer, John Ciardi, Walt Whitman, Cummings, Crane, Ezra Pound, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and James Tate, a Boston poet who is so original you can’t put him in any category. My Canadian brethren include Susan Holbrook, Julie Bruck, Erin Moure, Phil Hall, Al Purdy, John Newlove, Raymond Souster, Marty Gervais, and Joe Rosenblatt. On road trips, I always take two or three to keep me company, almost always a Don Coles or a Phil Hall. I feel most comfortable writing poetry or jokes, which are very similar disciplines. The hardest thing to write is a funny song, where the jokes have to rhyme AND scan. The only thing I find harder is to perform a new song. The first performance is so scary. What if they hate it? And every song has a weak line or a weak couplet, and every single time you sing that part you think, “Goddamnit, I should fix this piece of crap line.”

10. The memoir ends with your first appearance on The Tonight Show. There’s a whole lot more to your story since then. Will there be another book?

JW:  I doubt it at the moment. It’s not on my radar. In the future, who knows?


Chocolate or Vanilla?
Vanilla. No doubt. Vanilla

Prairie or Mountains?
Difficult, as I live within sight of mountains and grew up in a flat place. Though I like mountains, my heart is prairie.

Pizza or Pasta?
I like pizza pretty much one way, and I love the variations of pasta, so I will pick pasta.

B. Dylan or D. Thomas?
I’ll take the poet.

Chopsticks or Fork?
Man is this easy. Fork, fork, a thousand times fork.

Large Room or Small?
I have spent the majority of my life in small rooms, so I would hope it’s my preference.


Editor’s Note:  food and drink inspired by When the Red Light Goes On, Get Off

—one perfect grilled cheese sandwich, *sponge cake, strong coffee, Pepsi and beer

*read the book and the reason will be clear; still laughing about this one


John Wing was born in Sarnia Ontario during the Diefenbaker administration.
He has published seven books of poetry, all with Mosaic Press, and one memoir
with Black Moss Press. He has been a standup comedian for over 30 years,
logging more than 250 television appearances. His new book of poems,
Almost Somewhere Else, will be published in the fall. You can find John’s club dates on his Facebook page, and his books on Amazon.

(at)eleven with karen shenfeld — my father’s hands spoke in yiddish


“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”
~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

I met Karen Shenfeld a couple of years ago through a series of events set in motion by a short post on Matilda about her lovely 2007 film— Il Giardino: The Gardens of Little Italy. To my surprise, she saw the post when she happened to be writer in residence at Open Book Toronto in December, 2009, from which vantage point we conducted a back and forth until we decided to meet for lunch in her College Street ‘hood. That it was winter didn’t matter—no gardens in bloom but one of her neighbours invited us into her house to see the most charming and amazing xmas display.

Ever since, I’ve had the feeling that where Karen Shenfeld goes, serendipity and the best kind of magic follows.

I was delighted when she agreed to a Q&A for my new (at)eleven feature on Matilda. Still evolving to some degree in my wee brain, but essentially meant to focus on writers and books, with a culinary slant. Because, in my world, good books inspire thoughts of food, and vice versa.


1.  I’m always curious about process. Where do you work best, do you have a writing routine, an ideal environment? And the all important question: what about blocks? Do you write through them, or do you feel they’re a necessary piece of the whole, a sign maybe that it’s time to step back for a bit and play?

KS:  I’m heliotropic. In the morning, I work at my kitchen table to catch the light of the eastern sky. In the early afternoon, I move to my west-facing study, which I confess looks like the study of a Victorian poetess: high ceiling, plaster mouldings, wood-burning fireplace, oak bookcase, Persian rug.

I tend to write from around 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, only stopping briefly to snack. And I often work on several projects at once: the writing of a poem, a magazine article, or a grant proposal; the editing of a documentary, etc.

Ah, blocks… Yuck! I’m a harsh taskmaster. I chain myself to my chair and force myself to work through blocks. I try not to quit working until I have something–at least a line or two. Even a word!

2. Here’s an even bigger question: how do you deal with the distraction of the Internet, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.?

KS:  I get distracted!

3. What were you reading when you were fifteen?

KS:  On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I and Thou by Martin Buber. Shakespeare’s sonnets. The metaphysical poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvell.

4. Are there certain themes that often appear in your work and surprise you?

KS:  I’m surprised by how often Jewish themes crop up in my works, because I don’t think of myself as particularly observant. (though, for complex reasons, which I can’t quite explain, even to myself, I do attend services at a tiny historic Toronto shul, a little ‘shteibele,’ many Saturday mornings, and I often light Sabbath candles on Friday night—a ritual, which, as I note in an early poem, my mother, a devout atheist, conscientiously  refused to do). I think Jewish themes crop up because, as a poet, I’m drawn to create works that somehow transcend the everyday.

5. My first taste of My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish was when the book opened to p. 41, ‘Sweetheart of Second Avenue’; I was immediately struck by the ‘sound’ of the language, the joy and playfulness of the structure and rhythms, the way you combine English and Yiddish (in several pieces), mixing the two in a way I’m guessing comes natural to your childhood memory of growing up with these two ‘sounds’, these two cultures, yes?

KS:  You’re absolutely right. On two counts. I did hear lots of Yiddish when I grew up. My father spoke solely in Yiddish to my paternal grandmother. And my parents also spoke in Yiddish to each other when they didn’t want my brother and I to understand what they were saying. (No wonder we kids picked up so many great words and expressions!) You’re also right in surmising that I grew up in two distinct cultures simultaneously: a distinctly Jewish culture and a 1950s/60s Canadian culture.

6. Your poem on reciting Archibald Lampman is one of my favourites. That reversible skirt! And the innocence expressed in that back and forth motion, ‘reversing’ from the power of reality to the power of poetry. Can you talk a little about early influences, or The Moment it occurred to you that poetry would be an important part of your life?

KS:  I can honestly say I wanted to be a poet for as long as I can remember, but I’m not really sure why! I think the idea of it appealed to my heightened sense of romance. I also remember reading, at school, the poems of Pauline Johnson and, as the poem you mentioned reveals, Archibald Lampman. Those poems seemed to contain the power of a spell. I was tempted to try to create something that possessed that incandescent charge.

I started to scribble down a few poems when I was around 10 or 11. Later, during my undergraduate years, I studied the art and craft of poetry with Irving Layton at York University. (I’m still influenced by Layton’s sense of aesthetics, and return often to his signature poems for pleasure and inspiration.) But, I don’t think I really began to write poetry in earnest, or truly realized that poetry was going to be an important part of my life, a defining part of my identity, until I’d finished school. After fourth year university, I went on a long trip to Europe and North Africa. It was then, within the confines of cheap hotel rooms, that I began to spend substantial time calling upon the muse and wrestling with words.

7. One of the things that surprised me most was how physical the reading felt. Very much a journey, not only across time but actual space, and the way those ‘spaces’ featured, not as backdrop, but prominent characters—Bathurst Manor, northern Ontario, Auschwitz-Birkenau, a classroom, a skating rink, the shade of a tree—diverse mini universes in their own right, yet connected to a distinct and singular path. Was this intentional, this visiting of ‘place’, or something that became apparent to you along the way, as being essential to the greater, internal, journey?

KS:  Carin, you’ve made me super happy, because the visiting of ‘place’, the revelation of the genius loci of Bathurst Manor, was indeed one of my conscious intents in writing My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish. What drew me to this? Perhaps because, as I said, I’m a traveller. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I was fortunate enough to spend years back-packing through Europe, Africa, India, and South America. I hitchhiked across the Sahara desert through Algeria. I rode the top of trucks transporting coffee and tea across Zaire. I trekked in Nepal and floated idly on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Kashmir. In my mid-thirties, however, I decided I wanted to have a child and travelling became more difficult. (My husband, mathematician Stephen Watson, and I didn’t mind taking our son, Oren, out of school for long periods of time. But we did mind that, as he grew older, he began to get very lonely for his friends on long trips away.) So, I guess what I’m saying in this perhaps roundabout way is that travelling initially inspired the writing of my poetry, and now, the writing of poetry itself has become a means for me to travel.

I probably should also tell you that I love reading poetry that’s about ‘place’. I love, for example, the poems of Seamus Heaney, Dannie Abse, and Douglas Dunn. And, yes, travelling, for me, both literally and metaphorically through poetry, is an exploration of the self.

8. Golems! I sense mystery, reverence (also a hint of fear?) mixed with humour—I’m intrigued. Can you share something of what this figure represents in the context of ‘the neighbourhood’?

KS:  I’m so glad you’ve asked me about the golem! Because the golem poems are truly at the heart of my book. (In fact, I originally wanted to call the book The Golem of Bathurst Manor, but my publisher, Antonio D’Alfonso, did not think that enough people would be familiar with the Jewish folkloric figure.) I was striving to use the golem in the book as a leitmotif to connect the luminescent Eastern European Jewish Old World, which was essentially destroyed in World War II, to the Jewish New World in suburban North America. I was also, through the use of humour, striving to reference the Jewish people’s eternal, very unhumorous struggle against anti-Semitism.

By the way, a Toronto indie band, by the name of KlezFactor, has coincidentally put out a CD of klezmer-infused jazz music called The Golem of Bathurst Manor. I listened to KlezFactor’s music on the band’s Myspace site and I think it’s great! The music is available for sale from CD Baby and iTunes.

9. ‘Elm Tree’ is, for me, one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. It feels like a vantage point from which the past is seen through wisdom, experience, love, and everything suddenly has a deeper meaning; a final inhalation before the slow exhale of the denouement. I would love to know the background to this poem.

KS:  Thanks so much for your sensitive reading of this and other poems! Bathurst Manor, the suburban neighbourhood in which I was raised, was built on previously cleared farmland. So that particular elm tree truly was, as the poem states, the ONLY tall tree standing for blocks and blocks from my house. It actually stood right across the street from me in the backyard of an ever so slightly older girlfriend named Linda Schatzker (with whom I have recently reconnected). I grew up of course long before the time of central air conditioning. So, on hot summer days, all the kids on the block would go into Linda’s backyard to play in the shade of the tree. I was absolutely shocked and saddened when the tree died, along with millions of elm trees in Europe and North America, from the terrible Dutch elm disease.

10. Why poetry?

KS:  I love the compression of poetry. The distillation. The transformation. The transcendence. The unconscious connections. The physicality. The intellectuality. The abstraction. The sound. The fury. The music. The rhythm.

11. Choices:

Coffee or Tea?  Cappuccino!

Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas?
Carin! Do I have to choose between these two? I love them both! And I was just in Wales!

Desert or Ocean? Ocean.

Sweet or Savoury? Savoury.

Pen or Keyboard?
Both. I begin composing most poems on paper using a fine-point rolling pen. I used to write on narrow-ruled graph paper, but, a little while ago, a friend and colleague, the wonderful documentary filmmaker, Dany Chiasson, gave me as a present a Moleskin notebook. And, now, I really like writing the first drafts of poems in it. Once I’ve written the first draft, I revise the poem on the computer.

Primary or pastel? Mediterranean pastels.

Editor’s Note, aka Culinary Slant food and drink inspired by My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish:

a perfectly made espresso and a grilled cheese on matzo.

(To which KS added Campbell’s Tomato or Mushroom Soup—an after school staple in her mother’s kitchen!)


Karen Shenfeld has published three books of poetry with Guernica Editions: The Law of Return, 1999 (which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry in 2001), The Fertile Crescent, 2005 and, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish (November, 2010). Her work has appeared in journals and magazines across North America, and in South Africa and Bangladesh. Her poetry has been featured on CBC Radio, and on the U.K.’s 39 Dover Street.

Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival. She is currently at work on two new documentary films and on writing her fourth book.

My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, can be ordered on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support Indies!

From the Re-run Series: originally posted May, 2011.

(at)eleven with teri vlassopoulos — bats or swallows

“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

The idea behind the ‘(at)eleven’ Q&A series was to allow me to highlight books I like, written by people I know (because I am so lucky to know some lovely people who write), without having to worry about bias. Having said that, I don’t really know Teri Vlassopoulos, that is, we’ve never met in person although we’ve ‘known’ each other since taking the on-line Humber School for Writers mentorship program circa 2006, at which time a sort of group emerged.  Amazingly, the group (we keep threatening to name ourselves) is more or less intact and continues to inform, critique, support, and celebrate one another’s achievements—of which there have been a delightfully surprising number—not the least of which was the recent short-listing of Bats or Swallows for both the ReLit Award and the Danuta Gleed Award.

The other reason was to connect food to books. (I do believe there is a connection.)

A funny thing about The Group is how many of us are foodies. (Although, given that food is one of the world’s great tools of procrastination, I suppose it’s a natural love interest for writers.) In any case it ties in well with the small but important side theme, i.e. what food an indvidual book inspires.

My answer to the all-important question: what does Bats or Swallows make me want to eat?… follows the Q&A.


1.  Okay. My favourite question first: what literary character did you identify with as a child?

TV:  The first character that springs to mind is Leigh Botts from Dear Mr. Henshaw, even if our lives were vastly different. I almost feel embarrassed for identifying with a character that was, in many ways, sad when my childhood was not, but I guess as an only child there was a loneliness to him that I understood. And I liked writing fan letters too. Let’s also say Ramona Quimby and her cat-eared Q’s. (Beverly Cleary: she knew what she was doing.)

2. What were you reading at fifteen?

TV:  Girl by Blake Nelson, which I discovered when Sassy magazine published a few excerpts. Andrea Marr is a teenager in Portland who stumbles onto the local rock scene, wears a fish-printed dress, gets obsessed with rock star boys and has confusing and intense friendships. It was a bible of sorts.

3. What about themes… are there often recurring themes in your work that surprise you?

TV:  The surprise comes in retrospect when I read what I’ve written and realize that I’ve been working through an issue that I didn’t necessarily admit to myself was something I needed to work through.

4. Describe your work space, what’s on your desk?

TV:  Our apartment is tiny and I don’t have a proper desk, so I do the bulk of my writing on the kitchen table. I’m sure one day I’ll get sick of this arrangement, but in themeantime I prefer it. What’s on my desk depends on the day. Right now there’s a vase with a Christmas branch, my husband’s camera, a glass of water and a lone mechanical pencil. Soon: dinner.

5. What are your biggest distractions while writing: internet, chocolate cravings, a sudden need to learn another language, rain…? How do you deal with them?

TV:  THE INTERNET, UGH! I deal with it by telling myself that my writing time is precious and that I shouldn’t squander it. It sometimes works.

6. What’s the best advice you received (writing related or not) that you’d like to pass on?

TV:  I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg years ago and her comparison of writing to running was life-changing. “Like running,” she says, “the more you do it, the better you get at it.” It reframed the way I thought of the act of writing: an exercise that requires stamina and practice. This advice still reverberates with me, especially when I haven’t written for awhile and realize that I’ve gotten rusty.

7. The stories in Bats or Swallows explore relationships with family, friends, partners, for the most part from the perspective of young women. ‘My Son the Magician’ stands out for its POV of a mature single mother with an adult son. You nail the voice perfectly, BTW, but I’m curious – how did this one come to you?

TV:  Thank you! It was one of the last stories I wrote for the book and I was getting sick of young woman narrators, to be honest. I do a lot of thinking about my writing during my commute to and from work. The first sentence of that story came to me while I was waiting for the metro – I’m not sure why (I guess I was thinking about male strippers?), and once I had the hook, the rest of the story kind of poured forth.

8. There’s a sense of movement throughout the book. People physically moving from one place to another, from one person to another, distance, travel, road trips, moving on. Were you aware of this as you wrote or was it one of those things that become apparent only afterwards?

TV:  I write about things I want to read about, and travel—not necessarily big travel, but small voyages, physical and mental—is one of those things, so I was conscious about it at the time.

9. If you had to spend a long weekend with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?

TV:  Zoe from ‘Swimming Lessons’. We’d walk around Montreal and I’d show her my favourite places and try to introduce her to better friends. I’ve actually chosen to spend more than a long weekend with her because she’s now one of the main characters in the novel I’m working on.

10. Why short fiction?

TV:  Because I like reading short fiction; because it gives me flexibility to experiment with voice and style; because writing short fiction is conducive to a full-time job schedule; because I didn’t really think about it when I first started writing, it was just what I did.

11. Choices:

Breakfast or Lunch?  Breakfast! My love of breakfast is well documented (http://www.bibliographic.net/2011/02/26/scrapbook-4-in-praise-of-breakfast/).

Pen or Keyboard?  Keyboard.

Theatre or Film?  Film.

Dylan (Bob) or Dylan (Thomas)?  Bob.

Pasta or Pizza?  Pasta, homemade.

Bicycle or Canoe?  I have an irrational phobia of bikes and I can count the number of times I’ve canoed on my hands. I like walking.

Twitter or FB?  Twitter, as proven by @terki.

Coffee or Tea?  Coffee, although only on weekends because it makes me kind of crazy and this is not conducive to my day job.

Mountain or Ocean?  Ocean.

Party or Solitude?  Solitude.

Pie or Cake? — and *both* isn’t a choice ;)  CAKE! (With an extra slice for you for asking me such great questions. Thanks for the interview, Carin!)

Okay, Bats or Swallows. I’ve read you. Now what to eat??

My pick: gourmet burger made of  the best pasture-raised, sunshine-in-its-face-all-its-livelong-life, happy beef.
And a side of fries— travellin’ food.


Teri Vlassopoulos is a Montreal-based writer who’s first collection of short stories, Bats or Swallows (Invisible Publishing), was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best first collection of short fiction and the ReLit Award. She is currently working on a novel. Find her on-line at http://bibliographic.net
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted January, 2012.

(at)eleven with steven mayoff — fatted calf blues

“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

From the start, food has featured large in my friendship with Steven Mayoff. We met at the inaugural Seawords workshop series on PEI, in 2009. A brilliant experience and a magical place where words and the business of words were the daily focus from early morning til night.

But it’s the food I remember most.

Oysters right off the boat, lobster, patios with beautiful watery views, roadside chip vans selling fresh-from-the-red-dirt spuds, mussels ten thousand ways, a tiny mom and pop diner on a Charlottetown side street that made the kind of perfect toast I haven’t eaten since I was a kid, and the giant bowl of cioppino Steve and I shared at one exceptional place he kept suggesting I try: The Dunes (officially now one of the top ten places I’ve ever eaten; and I’ve eaten a lot).

Food continues to find its way into most of our e-conversations, if only as a closing comment—and due to Steve’s powers of description, I can sometimes almost smell what his foodie-extraordinaire wife, Thelma, is fixing for dinner (especially hard on the days I’m having sauerkraut).

Despite the title, Fatted Calf Blues is not about food. But in my world, all good books inspire culinary thoughts at some level.

The meal inspired by Fatted Calf Blues can be found at the end of the Q&A.


1.  What literary character did you identify with as a kid?

SM:  As a kid the only literary characters I knew came from TV and movies, such as The Wizard of Oz or Winnie the Pooh. I actually walked around with a posse of imaginary cartoon friends (Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, etc.) like we were some kind of street gang. They were my confidants.

I didn’t do very much reading, although I do remember picture books about mythology and dinosaurs. And I remember being fascinated by book spines on our shelf and strange titles like Tropic Of Cancer and Nine Hours To Rama and unpronounceable author names like Kazantzakis. There was also a book about the Holocaust that had gruesome photos of shrunken heads and lampshades made of human skin. That certainly caught my attention.

The first books I remember actually reading were The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Catcher In the Rye in high school. Of those two, I’d say I identified more with Holden Caulfield: the loner, the outsider, someone with a rich interior life. Duddy was more of a go-getter, which is not how I saw myself, although the influence of Richler’s book is still with me. Salinger influenced me more with his short stories.

2.  Can you recall your earliest poem, story or finger-paint-illustrated trilogy?

SM: I remember making a finger painting when I was probably around 5 or 6 years old and having my sister, who was around 19, ask me what it was called. I’m pretty sure I said something like “Snakes of Love.” I knew it was a grown-up thing to say and my sister was both amused and shocked.

I drew a lot as a kid, mostly super heroes and later on rock bands. I didn’t start writing poems until my last year of high school. I had three published in the school literary journal. One was a description of a pair of construction boots “looking at the world through unlaced eye-holes” or something like that. Another was some kind of meditation on the contradictions of labels while trying to figure out my identity. I can’t remember the third. I was also into writing song lyrics as a natural outlet for being a frustrated musician. I didn’t attempt a short story until my late twenties.

3.  Are there recurring themes in your writing that surprise you?

SM: I’m surprised when any kind of recurring theme arises, because I don’t think that way. I’m not even sure what the recurring themes are. Alienation, I guess. Ummm…good hygiene? Seriously, I do notice things in retrospect that, more often than not, don’t surprise me. But I am a great believer in what Wayson Choy said: “I know I am a writer because until I’m writing I don’t know what I know,”

4.  Do you work to a routine, a schedule, a daily word count?

SM: The only real routine I work to is the urgency in my head that I have to get something done. How that happens is anyone’s guess. There’s no particular schedule I follow, except that I try to write every day, usually in the afternoon or evening. The idea of a daily word count makes me want to blow my brains out. I know the professional thing is to see writing as a job, but I’ve always resisted that. I worked at various jobs for most of my adult life, so I’m happy not to have one now. In one way I kind of envy writers who say they wake up and bang out so many pages or words first thing in the morning. Waking up is a long process for me.

5.  What is a favourite passage from any book?

SM: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” from Slaughterhouse Five. It’s a simple sentence (I suppose I should say “deceptively simple”) that leaves a lot to the imagination. It could be describing the most liberating experience or the most horrifying nightmare. Surprising how often those two things go hand in hand.

I’d have to say that sentence (as well as the book and Vonnegut in general) really influenced my writing. The whole idea of coming unstuck in time is a kind of madness where one discovers that linear time as we understand it doesn’t exist and everything – past, present and future – is happening all at once. That’s what fiction and the writing process is for me: a kind of madness where truth reveals itself, but not in any coherent way, until I begin writing and trying to make some kind of sense of it. I learn things about my characters and the situations they are in (and also about myself and what is important to me) as I slowly organize the events and give shape to the story.

6.  What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?

SM: When I was in high school I asked an English teacher what I needed to do to become a writer. He looked down at me soberly (he was a giant of a man with very blue eyes) and said: “You have to suffer.” That scared the crap out of me and maybe even deterred me a little, because I didn’t know what “suffering” entailed. I thought of that when I published my first book, Fatted Calf Blues, (I even thanked that teacher in the acknowledgements). In retrospect, I like to think he was really telling me to go live my life so that I’d have some experience to enrich my writing. I appreciate the fact that maybe he was just treating me like an adult and giving me the real information, thinking it would either scare me off or inspire me. And it did both.

7.  The opening story, The Most Important Man, sets the tone of ‘displacement’ that runs through the collection, personal discomfort, shown through discomfort with the physical space the characters occupy. This leads me back to the theme question: was this intentional, something you were exploring, the idea of ‘not fitting’… or did you recognize the thread only after the stories were written?

SM: To be honest, I didn’t realize there was a thread until you just mentioned it. While promoting FCB I was asked what the connecting idea of the stories was and I usually tried to bluff my way through and say all the characters were searching for some notion of home. “Displacement” is probably a better answer. Anyway, these things only become evident after the fact. I never or rarely think about them beforehand. But again, in retrospect, the themes of displacement and looking for a home are very personal for me, so it only seems natural that they would creep into my writing. I’m obviously attracted to those kinds of stories, so I have no doubt an unconscious part of my creative process preplans some sort of exploration of those themes.

8.   A couple of the pieces are written in either the voice or POV of a woman; what were the challenges with that, if any?

SM: I can’t think of any real challenges. I invest myself in my characters and try to be a kind of witness to their lives. I never think to myself something like: “what would a woman do here?” because I’m looking for the humanity in the character, although I do believe there are specific differences in the attitudes of men and women. Men might have more difficulty expressing themselves and women might be more open about their feelings, but people as a whole don’t voluntarily give out too much information without some prodding. So discovering any character’s voice or POV entails me searching for the right buttons to push.

9.  If the title story were made into a film, who would you like to see play Mavis Jean? (Any other casting ideas?)

SM: That’s a very timely question as I have just returned from the Screenwriters’ Bootcamp that happens every year in Charlottetown and is sponsored by the Island Media Arts Cooperative (it’s only open to Atlantic Canadian writers). I was in an adaptation workshop with renowned story editor, Ken Chubb (he was involved with the Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps and the CBC mini-series Dragon Boys). I’m trying to adapt the story Fatted Calf Blues into a screenplay and it has been a long process. After this workshop, I now find myself back at square one, although I have a better idea of how to go about it.

Mavis Jean: Hilary Swank, Tara Spencer-Nairn (also, Nancy Roberts, although she is older, would be interesting)

Milo: Michael Cera, Elijah Wood

Two-Gun Billy: Chris Cooper, Nicholas Campbell

Vesta:  I used to think Jackie Burroughs was pefect, but she’s passed away, so my alternative would be Toronto actor, Barbara Gordon. Or even Sissy Spacek.

10. Why short fiction?

SM: It has the expansiveness of prose, but matched with the precision of poetry. It is a kind of postcard portrait that allows you to glimpse life beyond its edges. Every short story should be a kind of map you might find in a mall that says: You Are Here.

11. Choices:

Coffee or tea?  Coffee. I do like a nice caffeine buzz.

Lyrics or prose?  Lyrics. My fantasy job is to be a lyricist in a rock band like Keith Reid in Procol Harum or Pete Sinfield in King Crimson. (I bet you will have to Google these). The next novel I want to write will have a lyricist as its narrator and a series of song lyrics to complement the unfolding story.

Ocean or river?  River. I live right by one and I think a river has more metaphorical mojo.

Pen or keyboard?  Keyboard. I find it more playful. I like tapping things. Also, it placates the frustrated musician in me. I’m the Elton John of hunt-&-peck.

Kundera or Beckett?  Kundera. His quote: “The present moment is unlike the memory of it.  Remembering is not the negative of forgetting.  Remembering is a form of forgetting.” from his book of connected essays, Testaments Betrayed, helped me get a handle on my novel manuscript, Blessing and Song (which I’m currently shopping around).

Scrambled or Poached?  Poached. On toast. I have it rarely, so it’s a treat.

Editor’s Note: Food and Drink inspired by Fatted Calf Blues

Beer Steamed Mussels (aka moules) and frites with an icy cold selection from

The Gahan House Brewery


Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and now makes his home on
PEI. His fiction and poetry have appeared in magazines across Canada and the
US, as well as in Ireland, Algeria and France. His story collection, Fatted
Calf Blues, won a 2010 PEI Book Award, was shortlisted for a 2010 ReLit
Award and was a Finalist for the (Maritime) 2011 CBC
Cross-Country Bookshelf.

His web site is www.stevenmayoff.ca

From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in April, 2011.