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.

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All We Shall Know: an emotional roller coaster you’ll want to ride

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What I read

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What it’s about

Melody Shee, a 33-year-old woman, is pregnant, but the father isn’t her husband, whom she’s been with since high school. The father is Martin Toppy, the 17-year-old boy Melody has been teaching to read inside her home.

Melody’s husband has left her, and she can’t find Martin. In her search for Martin, Melody befriends a young woman named Mary Crothery, who is dealing with her own troubles. The two women develop a bond while they deal with family feuds and town gossip.

Most of this story is introspective, where the reader gets much more information from Melody than the characters do. Melody tells of the mistakes she has made leading up to the pregnancy and some of the secrets she has kept from others in her life. But Mary might be able to help Melody right some of her wrongs.

Why I picked it up

I heard about this book back in the summer, marked it on my TBR list, and then forgot about it. Browsing in the bookstore earlier this month, the spine jumped out at me. The title was familiar. I read the back cover copy and was reminded of my desire to read this one. So, of course, I bought it.

What I liked about it

At first, I was drawn in by the idea of the affair. I wanted to know what led to Melody taking advantage of her student, and I wanted to find out what would happen with her marriage. But I quickly realized there is a lot more going on in this book. I thought I had a handle on things only to discover there was more to it, reinforcing the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.

Melody isn’t exactly a likeable character. She’s made some terrible life choices and her decisions weren’t always ones I had empathy for. But she did feel believable, and I was hooked on trying to understand her decisions. At times I was shocked by the things she did, but I wanted to see her somehow redeem herself.

You’ll want to read it if…

If you like emotional roller coasters, this one’s for you. At only 180 pages, you’ll wonder how you could experience a wide range of emotions so quickly, how you could go up and down so much in such a short span of time.

This is also a great choice for readers who like to get into the psyche of characters, even if those characters aren’t necessarily people you’d like in real life.

Recommended refreshments

A cappuccino, like the ones Melody and Mary order at a cafe in town (Mary, who has never had one before, endearingly calls it a “coffacheeno”) and/or the KitKats that the two women share sitting in Melody’s kitchen one day.

6 books to read during the heart of winter

We’re in the thick of it now. It’s the end of January, and it’s dark and we’re cold. But it’s a great time of year to stay in and read. Here are a few book recommendations according to the type of reading experience you’re looking for.

If you want to get hooked by a gripping gothic novel…

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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a perfect winter read. Set in 1940s England, a doctor is called to an estate to tend to a patient. After befriending the family living there, the doctor returns to the property on numerous occasions, only to notice increasingly strange activity in the home. This book is a classic ghost story that includes a psychological element that will leave you thinking about the novel for some time.

If you want to curl up with a delicious mystery…

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You should read The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This dark campus novel centres around a clique of university students. Unlike a lot of murder mysteries, this is not a whodunnit–from the beginning, we learn about the murder, know who victim is and are told that the protagonist was involved. Instead, you will be turning the pages wanting find out what exactly happened and why it happened.

If you want to wallow in the bleakness of winter with an equally bleak book…

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It doesn’t get much more depressing than Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. This certainly isn’t a book for the faint of heart. The story is basically one horrible thing happening to protagonist Jude followed by the next. If you’re already in a dark mindset, it’s best to leave this one alone. But if your mood can handle it, it is a masterful depiction of Victorian society.

If you want to travel to another place, in another time…

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That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan will transport you to 1920s Paris. This memoir about Callaghan’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald et al will not only have you dreaming about the writer’s life in the City of Light, but it will also have you ruminating about how even the briefest of friendships can affect us.

If you want to hide away from people…

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You should read The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. This book tells the true story of Christopher Knight, a man who disappeared in his 20s to live in the woods. No one knew what happened to Knight until he was caught, more than two decades later, breaking in to nearby cottages where he’d steal food and other supplies. If winter makes you want to hibernate and avoid society, The Stranger in the Woods might just make you realize you’re more social than you thought.

If you just want to laugh and laugh and laugh…

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You must pick up a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. Have you ever told a friend a story about something funny that happened to you, only to be met with a blank stare? “You had to be there,” you might say. Well, I don’t think that’s ever happened to Sedaris. He somehow manages to perfectly illustrate those hilarious moments of his everyday life in the stories published here. And, when it’s dark and cold outside, the best thing to do might just be to laugh our heads off.

 

Little Fires Everywhere should be your next book club pick

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What I read

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What it’s about

Little Fires Everywhere begins with a house fire and then reveals the series of events leading up to it. The events centre around two families: the Richardsons and the Warrens.

After years of moving from town to town, artist Mia Warren and her teenaged daughter, Pearl, arrive in to Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where they intend to set roots. They rent a home from the Richardsons, whose four teenaged children quickly befriend Pearl. But when an adoption case involving people close to both families forces the entire town to pick sides, Mrs. Richardson digs into her tenant’s past to find out just who she is renting to.

This novel will give you a lot to think about, as it examines themes such as race and class, secrets within families, motherhood, and suburban life.

Why I picked it up

It’s hard to remember where I first heard about Little Fires Everywhere. I’ve come across this title in several online lists and articles and have seen it all over social media, too. But I was curious to read it because I’ve also read Ng’s impressive debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. I picked up a copy at Book City’s Bloor West location.

What I liked about it

I loved how real the characters felt, especially the teenagers. Pearl and the Richardson children (Trip, Lexie, Moody and Izzy) are such distinct people with their own strengths, weaknesses and desires. I felt empathy for each of them at different points and for different reasons. And I was impressed that Ng could write a novel that deals with big ideas and themes and could connect them so beautifully. There were some elements of mystery in this book that had me hooked, too (the origin of the fire, Mia’s past). It was difficult to put this novel down, but it felt like such a treat whenever I could steal a moment to get back to it.

You’ll want to read it if…

Little Fires Everywhere will appeal to readers who like novels with realistic characters and some element of mystery. It’s also a good choice for readers interested in family dynamics and mother-daughter relationships in particular. This novel would make an excellent book club pick. I suspect it would initiate some interesting discussion.

Recommended refreshments

Leftover Chinese food, like the rice and sweet-and-sour pork rice Mia brings home after her shifts working at Lucky Palace.

Be Ready for the Lightning: a riveting sophomore novel

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What I read

Be Ready for the Lightning by Grace O’Connell

What it’s about

Veda has always been close with her brother, Conrad. Even when Conrad begins getting into fights–behaviour that is inexplicable even to him–Veda is by her brother’s side, taking care of him. But when one of Conrad’s fights results in Veda getting injured, she leaves her hometown of Vancouver and moves to New York for a fresh start. It’s here, in Manhattan, that Veda ends up taken hostage while travelling on a city bus.

But this isn’t a novel that just follows a series of events. It’s a story about a brother and sister, a group of lifelong friends, and a thirty-something woman who comes to recognize her own power and strength.

Why I picked it up

I read O’Connell’s debut novel, Magnified World, when it came out a few years ago. O’Connell has been on my radar since then. When I read the first page while browsing in Book City on the Danforth, I was sucked in, and so, of course, I bought the book.

What I liked about it

This novel grabbed me and didn’t let go. There are a lot of things that happen, and even though I was often surprised, the story remained believable.

The way O’Connell structured the novel was wise, too. The story weaves between time periods–from Veda’s life before the hostage situation to after–which played a part in keeping me hooked.

As far as the characters go, not only was I interested in the sibling relationship between Veda and Conrad, but I also liked how the story followed a group of friends and how their dynamic changed from childhood into adulthood.

You’ll want to read it if…

Be Ready for the Lightning is a quick read and a book you won’t want to put down until you get to the end. It’s a great summer read (and there’s still a bit of the season left). Fans of thrillers and suspense novels will enjoy this book. It’s full of dramatic moments, and the scenes on the bus are particularly cinematic. But it’s also a great choice if you’re interested in reading about sibling relationships and friendships and exploring those dynamics. And if you’re a supporter of CanLit, this is a novel you’ll be happy to pick up, too.

Recommended refreshments

Pancakes, like the ones Veda’s friend Al makes for her and his wife when Veda is staying with them in Manhattan. (And if you can have a friend make them for you, too, that’s even better.)