Q&A with Joe Mahoney: a science fiction writer you want to know

A really fun thing about being a reader is discovering new authors. So I’d like to introduce you to a writer you might not know about just yet. Joe Mahoney is a writer and broadcaster living in Whitby, Ontario. His debut novel was published in October 2017. I asked Joe about writing A Time and a Place, his day job at the CBC, and, of course, what kind of refreshments you should enjoy while reading his book.

Before we get to the Q&A, here’s Joe talking about why you should pick up his novel:

Can you describe what your book is about in five sentences or fewer?

A Time and a Place is a time travel, science-fiction fantasy adventure about a man who has to rescue his nephew who’s been recruited into an army to fight a war half-way across the galaxy.

In the course of trying to rescue the boy, Barnabus J. Wildebear must travel through space and time and even into the minds of other beings, including a seagull, an alien cat, and a creature best described as a monster. He also gets a chance to save his sister who died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years earlier.

On another level, it explores philosophical themes such as the nature of free will and the perils of too much knowledge. And there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour.

How did you come up with the idea for the novel?

A bunch of friends and I were writing stories about one another for fun. So I wrote a few pages about one of my friends being controlled by some unknown force. I was trying to evoke H.P. Lovecraft but in a funny way.

A few years later I discovered those few handwritten pages and I liked the ever-so-slightly comical tone. So I changed the names and began turning it into a proper story. It grew organically from there, with the themes and plot suggesting themselves as I went along.

You work full-time at the CBC. How does your day job inform your writing?

My day job at the CBC has influenced the novel in both subtle and concrete ways.  Although I love my job, it was always a great pleasure to dive into the novel after work as a kind of release.

I realized that I was capable of writing a novel after being locked out from the CBC back in 2005 during that summer’s labour dispute, during which I maintained what they called a Lock Out Blog. I wrote so much that summer on the blog that I realized I was capable of writing an entire novel if I only put my mind to it.

Some elements of the novel are inspired directly from the CBC. I describe the artificial intelligence unit, Sebastian, at one point of consisting of “twenty-eight servers and hundreds of desktop units.” That actually describes a networked digital audio editing system called DaletPlus that we have at the CBC. I’m sure there are other unconscious ways the CBC has influenced the novel as well.

How do you like to write (e.g., pen vs. laptop, home vs. coffee shop)?

I started writing A Time and a Place in pen, but after a few pages switched to typewriter, and did about the first five chapters on a typewriter (this gives you some indication how long ago I started on this novel). Then I got a computer and wrote a bunch on a desktop computer. Then my wife and I moved to Whitby, which is a fairly lengthy commute into my job in Toronto, so I bought a laptop so I could write on the train. And that’s where I did (and still do) most of my writing: on the GO train.

But I take that laptop and write wherever and whenever I can. I like to write in coffee shops, in airports, while my kids take swimming or art lessons–absolutely wherever. I don’t care how noisy or busy it is. As long as I have enough elbow room to type, I will write.

What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

I learned that I have a lot of patience–that I can start a project that literally takes decades to finish and have the perseverance to finish it. I also learned that I’m a perfectionist, which is why it took me so long. Every word in that 103,000-word novel had to be exactly the right word. I’m not sure that’s a healthy attitude, but it resulted in a book that I am happy with.

Who are some of your favourite writers?

I love Stephen R. Donaldson (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), Tim Powers (anything by him), Ken Grimwood (Replay), Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), to name the big ones.  Robert Charles Wilson (anything by him). Thomas Berger (Little Big Man). I have a long list of writers I like, so I’ll stop there!

What’s a book you love that you don’t think gets the attention it deserve?

The Fatness, by Mark A. Rayner. Well, I think it is getting some love, but not as much as it deserves!

In my book reviews, I like to include “recommended refreshments.” What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading your book?

Ooh, that’s easy. Lagavulin Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. Just a sip from time to time.

What are you working on now?

Two things. I’m just finishing up the audiobook version of A Time and a Place. It’s taking me forever because of the perfectionism I mentioned earlier.

And I’m working on a space opera called Captain’s Away. It’s based on a radio play I produced one time, but this is a completely different take on it.

It’s about a family who become refugees when their space station is blown out from under them. They’re all separated, and have their own wild adventures, and have to find their way back to one another. It’s about the consequences of good and bad leadership. But mostly it’s supposed to be a fun space-opera adventure.

Pick up your copy of A Time in a Place at Bakka/Phoenix Books in Toronto, or you can buy online via Amazon.ca, Joe Mahoney’s website or Goodreads.

 

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10 books by Canadian writers for Canada Day

Canada has produced many fantastic writers and lots of amazing books. For Canada Day, I’m sharing a few of my personal favourite books written by Canadian writers.

20170701_103732Lemon by Cordelia Strube

This coming-of-age tale follows Lemon, a teenaged girl who doesn’t fit in at home or at school. Unapologetic and witty, Lemon is a character you can’t help but root for.

20170701_103704Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

This novel tells the story of a 13-year-old girl growing up on the streets of Montreal. Still a child, she must deal with her father’s drug habit and learn how to survive.

20170701_103721One Bird’s Choice by Iain Reid

This memoir, about Reid moving back in with his parents in his 20s, is both humourous and touching–a very entertaining read.

20170701_103519Life After God by Douglas Coupland

Published in the 1990s, this book of short stories gives glimpses into various Gen-X lives and is filled with lines and passages I’ve returned to over the years.

20170701_103613Natural Order by Brian Francis

This novel, about a woman in her 80s reflecting on her life and the mistakes she has made, is beautiful and heartbreaking. You’ll want to keep a box of tissues nearby.

20170701_103454Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

This novel is about an Ojibway man and his story of being forced into a residential school, his gift for playing hockey, and the racism that follows him throughout his life. The book deals with difficult subject matter that is important to read.

20170701_103745The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall

In this novel, Whittall does an excellent job of giving the perspectives of the family members of someone accused of a crime.

20170701_103604That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan

Callaghan’s memoir about his friendship with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald begins in Toronto before moving to Paris. I picked this up for the story about writers in Paris, but I found it’s actually a very moving account of friendship and how even those friendships that only last a short time can affect us for our lifetimes.

20170701_103630The Last of the Crazy People by Timothy Findley

This haunting novel tells the story of a boy whose family is disintegrating around him and the horrific conclusion he comes to about what must be done about it.

20170701_103638The Evening Chorus by Helen Humphreys

This beautiful novel takes place in the Second World War, and alternates the perspectives between an English officer in a German POW camp, his wife back in England and his sister.

4 reasons to write in cafés

20160809_190939If you’re a writer, chances are you can write anywhere. You probably have memos saved on your phone and handwritten notes scribbled on the backs of receipts. But we all have our preferred writing locations, the places where we are most productive. Here are some reasons why my favourite place to write is in a café.

There is background noise

I am a quiet person, and I am a person who likes quiet. But if it’s too quiet when I’m trying to write, I get distracted. Noises from the fridge or from the neighbours seem louder than they actually are, and I get stuck trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m hearing. And I can’t write while listening to music that I enjoy. If I do, I become immersed in the music instead of in my writing.

Background noise allows me to focus. A loud conversation occurring next to me in a café will annoy me, and if a song by The Smiths comes on, I’ll probably stop writing for a few minutes while the song is playing. But, more often than not, when it comes to noise, the café atmosphere gets the balance just right.

Distractions are limited

Writing at home means easy access to the internet. That can be a good thing–perhaps when a writing project requires a fair amount of research. But most of the time it’s just another distraction. Yes, most cafés offer free WiFi, but the trick is not to log in. Of course it’s easy enough to check your phone from time to time, and I am guilty of that, but it definitely limits those internet distractions.

Writing in a café also means I don’t have to look at my messy apartment and think about how I should be vacuuming  or washing dishes instead of writing.

There are strangers to observe (and write about)

Sometimes I finish writing a scene and I’m not sure where to go next. Instead of staring at a blank page, I find it helps to look around the café. I’ll do a writing exercise where I’ll find a person at another table (or a barista, if the place is empty) and I’ll make up a bit of a story about them. If there’s a group of people or a couple, I might write about the dynamic I imagine them having. This kind of exercise allows me to turn back to my main project with fresh eyes, and it could be inspiration for another project.

All of the refreshments!

When I write (or read, for that matter), I almost always have a cup of tea on hand. To be honest, the tea I have at home is usually better than what I get in cafés. But sometimes I like to switch things up with a hot chocolate or cappuccino, which I never make at home and don’t have the supplies to make. And I haven’t yet mastered how to make an almond croissant or pain au chocolat. Writing in a café keeps the hunger at bay and ensures a variety of snacks and beverages to choose from.

It doesn’t matter where you write; all that matters is that you do keep writing. And while writing in a café might not be the best thing for your bank account, if you’re like me, the payoff is worth it.

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.

Remembering poet Mark Strand

Yesterday Mark Strand died, a poet whose work I greatly admire. I first came across Strand’s poetry in my first year of university, where we read and discussed one of his most popular poems, “Keeping Things Whole.”

A couple of years later, a classmate and I went to see Strand read. It was the first time this classmate and I had spent any time together off campus, but it certainly wasn’t the last. We became very close that year and remain good friends. In a way, that night at the reading was when we became friends, or at least it marked a shift in our friendship: We moved from being school friends to becoming all-the-time friends, if that’s a thing.

On our way home that night, we talked about how cool Strand had looked and sounded on that stage. There was no other word for it: He was a cool guy. He reminded us of Clint Eastwood, or of how we imagined Clint Eastwood would be if he were reciting poetry in a dimly lit theatre in downtown Toronto.

I spent some of this weekend remembering Strand by reading some of my favourite poems of his, and I wanted to share a few here. I was reminded of how cool Strand really was and of how brilliant and beautiful his poetry is.

“Lines for Winter”

“From the Long Sad Party”

“The Idea”

“Man and Camel”

“The End” (with audio)