Q&A with author Brian Francis

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Brian Francis (photo credit: Samuel Engelking)

Brian Francis is a Toronto-based writer whose third book–a YA novel entitled Break in Case of Emergency–will be released in September 2019. I recently asked Brian about his upcoming novel, his motivation for helping other writers, and how he ended up writing a play. I also didn’t miss the chance to find out which refreshment Brian recommends you enjoy when you crack open his newest book this fall.

Can you describe what Break in Case of Emergency is about in five sentences or fewer?

The book is about a teenage girl named Toby growing up on her grandparents’ dairy farm. Her mom died by suicide and Toby is convinced she’s destined to follow in her mom’s footsteps. Those plans go astray when she receives the news that her father, someone she’s never met, is returning home. And that he’s a female impersonator.

How did you come up with the title?

I didn’t. My editor, Suzanne Sutherland, did. We were struggling to find the right title for the book and she offered up this gem. It stuck. Thank god for editors is all I have to say. Otherwise, this book would be called Book.

What was different about the experience of writing Break in Case of Emergency from writing your other novels, Fruit and Natural Order?

Given that Break is a YA book, I had a stronger sense of the intended audience. Not so with the other two books. I think Break is my tightest book in terms of storytelling. But I guess readers will be ultimate judge of that.

In the book reviews I’ve posted on my blog, I suggest some recommended refreshments. What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading Break in Case of Emergency?

Hmm. Well, if you’re Arthur (Toby’s father), I’d recommend a stiff martini or two. But if you’re underage, then I’d recommend milk, since Toby lives on a dairy farm.

How does having a day job at the Toronto Public Library inform or affect your writing?

It’s nice to be in an environment that celebrates and recognizes the value of books and reading (as opposed to, say, working in an accounting firm.) So my work isn’t at odds with my writing in that respect.

I met you when I took a class you taught called “Kick-Start Your Creative Writing.” What or who helped you to kick-start your creative writing?

I took a class at Ryerson, which really helped. It gave me the focus and structure I needed. It can be hard to keep yourself motivated when you’re the only holding yourself accountable. Paying out money for a course changes the dynamic. Writing becomes work. And you start taking it seriously. Which you should.

In addition to your experience teaching, you also write an advice column for Quill and Quire. Why is helping other writers important to you?

I just remember feeling really shitty and alone when I was first starting out. I wasn’t friends with other writers, so I had to figure a lot of stuff out on my own. When I help other writers, I help the writer I used to be. I want writers to understand that there is no secret formula and that all of us are struggling in our own ways. But none of us are alone.

Are you still teaching, or do you have any future plans to teach?

No, none at the present time. It was a nice run, and I enjoyed doing it, but it’s a lot of work. I might go back to it at some point.

What are some of your favourite books, or who are some of your favourite writers?

I love me some Alice Munro. David Sedaris, too. Margaret Laurence. Some great books I’ve read in the past year include Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight, Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and Little Fish by Casey Plett.

Is there a book or a writer you love to read that you think deserves more attention and readers should know about?

Honestly, I think most writers deserve more attention.

You used to run a blog called Caker Cooking, and you write a food column for Taddle Creek called “The Kitch.” What got you interested in food writing?

I don’t think I got interested in food writing, per se. It was more about the recipes, if that makes sense. I’m not one of those “mouth feel” people. And I generally don’t like food blogs because they make you wade through 25 variations of the same damn shot before you get to the recipe. But I’m interested in the history of recipes. They’re like snapshots to me, little souvenirs, not only of my life, but also of the world I grew up in.

You also wrote a play based on your real life experience called Box 4901, and you’ve starred in the production as well. What made you want to try this different art form and type of writing?

Initially, I thought it might be a website or a podcast or a book. But certainly not a play. But when I approached director Rob Kempson with the material and asked him what he thought, he basically said, “This is a performance piece. And you’re in it.” So it wasn’t deliberate on my part at all. But it’s been a great experience so far. And I’m glad I did it. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone.

You always seem to have some creative project on the go. What are you currently working on?

I bought a paper mache book a few weeks back for a dollar and I’m going to try making a pencil holder. Wish me luck.

Brian’s Francis’ new novel, Break in Case of Emergency, will be available in Canada in September 2019 from HarperCollins and in the U.S. in February 2020 from Inkyard Press. You can find out more about Brian’s writing and his other projects by visiting his website at www.brian-francis.com.

The Magnificent Six and the 2016 Giller Prize

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Five of the six 2016 Giller Prize finalists (the sixth is behind that man!). From L-R, Emma Donoghue, Catherine Leroux, Zoe Whittall, Madeleine Thien, Mona Awad and the man blocking Gary Barwin.

How normal is it for a reader to get this excited about a literary prize? Because, truthfully, I haven’t really experienced this in the past. But tomorrow the winner of the 2016 Giller Prize will be announced, and I can’t wait to find out who wins.

I’ve read three of the six shortlisted titles (read my reviews of Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder and Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People), and all three are incredible books. But the reason I picked up each of these titles wasn’t because they made the shortlist. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book just because it was nominated for, or won, a prize. But when books are nominated, they obviously get some more publicity, so I’m more likely to hear about it. And no matter how I find out about a book, if it grabs me, I’ll read it.

Today I attended the Giller Prize Between the Pages event at Koerner Hall in Toronto. The six finalists read from their nominated books and discussed their work. After today, I wouldn’t be surprised if I pick up the three shortlisted titles I haven’t yet read (Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates, Catherine LeRoux’s The Party Wall and Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing). They all sound like great books.

The discussion portion of the event (moderated by actor and director Albert Schultz) was fun and insightful. I love hearing writers talk about writing. When Schultz asked the group if they were nervous, Donoghue answered that it’s easier now that the authors have spent some time together and have gotten to know each other. They approach these things “like a gang.” A gang of authors–what a beautiful idea.

Tomorrow should be a long day for the Giller Prize jury, as that’s when they will choose the winner. I’ve read only half of the shortlisted titles, and it would be difficult for me to pick from those three. I don’t imagine it will be easy for them to decide.

Watch it all go down tomorrow at 9 p.m. on CBC Television or via live stream on CBC Books…and read the books written by this wonderful gang of authors, the Magnificent Six.

Behold the Dreamers: a fantastic debut novel

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What I read

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

What it’s about

Behold the Dreamers takes place in New York City in 2008. The story opens as Jende Jonga gets a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a Lehman Brothers executive. Jende is thrilled to have landed such a good job after bringing his family over to America from Cameroon. His wife, Neni, has a student visa and is studying to become a pharmacist and is hired for some temporary work by Clark’s wife, Cindy. Jende and Neni work hard to make the life they have dreamed of for themselves and their young son a reality. But when Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt, and the recession begins, things change quickly and dramatically for both the Edwardses and the Jongas.

The story examines themes of race and class, about identity and how much our identity is tied with place. It’s about the quest for home and belonging. It’s also about the struggles families, couples and individuals face behind closed doors.

Why I picked it up

Before purchasing this book, I’d seen the title on a few lists previewing books for the fall. I’ve been reading a lot of Canadian literature lately, and I wanted to read a story from the perspective of a different culture.

What I liked about it

Mbue does a masterful job of creating a sense of empathy for the characters in this book. The pressures Jende feels to provide for his family in New York and for his family back in Cameroon, Neni’s struggle with deciding what is the right thing to do as a mother, Cindy’s inner turmoil–I felt like these were real people and not fictional characters. There is a scene between the Jongas’ son, Liomi, and Neni after Neni has been to a parent-teacher meeting. The description of how Liomi feels as Neni lectures him felt very real, and I wanted to reach out to Liomi to give him a hug.

The major events in this book–the recession, the Lehman Brothers going bankrupt, Obama getting into office–are all from recent history. It was interesting to read about these things with just a few years’ perspective, to be able to remember them from reality and to anticipate what will happen in the novel.

You’ll want to read it if…

This is a good choice for readers who want something more realistic than a feel-good story of people settling in America and living the American dream. It’s also a book for fans of literary fiction: The story focuses on the emotional challenges and intellectual struggles the characters experience.

Recommended refreshments

There were plenty of mentions about African food, such as fried plaintains and puff-puff. I haven’t eaten either, but I’ve since looked up what puff-puff is, and it sounds like a more delicious version of a doughnut. So while I haven’t eaten it myself, I’d say puff-puff seems like the perfect snack to enjoy while reading Behold the Dreamers.

That time Charles Dickens became Morrissey

 

I came across this video via The Paris Review and I had to share it. Apparently it’s from a children’s TV show in Britain called Horrible Histories. Living in Canada, and not being much of an expert in the area of children’s television, I’d never heard of the program. But after viewing this video, in which Charles Dickens educates the audience about his life while imitating Morrissey (and using some of the singer’s lyrics), I’ve become a fan. I guess this just gives me one more thing to love about Britain.