Blue Met’s Gregory McCormick takes the BD Spotlight: on Grafton, East Asian literature & Idaho

March 31, 2015

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Every year, Montreal’s very own, remarkable Blue Metropolis literary festival breathes fresh air into the cultural scene: from writer’s workshops to author interviews to panels to podcasts, the festival does an unbelievable job of introducing readers to a range of authors, from the little-known to the well established.

Spearheading its programming is the charismatic Gregory McCormick: read below to learn his thoughts on ‘criminally’ underrated books, how to snag authors, and what makes Montreal stand apart from other cities.

Please check out the 2015 festival line-up (April 20-26) – which includes Junot Diaz, Nancy Huston, Heather O’Neill, David Usher and Hector Tobar.

What is something about book festivals that people would be surprised to find out?
How expensive writers can be, especially American writers. Because of well-developed touring infrastructure in US universities, authors can often get $5,000 to $10,000 to do a single event, plus first class airfare, etc. Some writers can be four times that price. To me, though, this is a challenge that makes my job more interesting: how do we create high-profile events that get the public’s attention without it always being only about money?
This is what a city like Montreal can do better than other places in North America: our public doesn’t only care about famous people: they want a creative, interesting event that makes them think and keeps them entertained. This is one reason why Montreal is my home.

Do you have any funny / interesting stories regarding the book festival?
It’s difficult to name names but there was one writer who wouldn’t go anywhere without an entire glass of vodka with him: this included taxis, restaurants, hotel lobbies and back stage at one of the largest events we ever put on. He claimed that the vodka made him more interesting and more comfortable being the centre of attention! As soon as his event was over, he was backstage, sipping his vodka again and he refused to let anyone even hold it.

What is the last, great book that you read and to which type of readers would you recommend it?
Elena Ferrante’s Naples series (My Brilliant Friend, Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). I’ve read three of them and the fourth one comes out in English in September and I can hardly wait to get my hands on it. Her books are thrilling and absolutely riveting.

Which one book would you recommend that almost everyone read at least once?
Donna Tartt’s first book, The Secret History. It’s very much a young person’s book (I read it when it first came out and I was 20 or 21) and when I re-read it now, I’m still struck with how it captures being that age so beautifully, being so full of uncertainty about the future and insecure and so wrapped up in what we think others’ perceptions of us are.

Do you have a favourite bookstore?
A few: Elliot Bay Books in Seattle. Shakespare & Company on the Left Bank in Paris. The foreign fiction section at Kinokuniya in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo. And, of course, The Word on Milton right here in the McGill Ghetto.

Tell us a little bit about one of the books that has a soft spot in your heart.
Books from my childhood : C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia were my favorite books when I was young. And The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. My entire family read all of those books over and over.

If you could add one book to the high school curriculum, which one would it be?
A contemporary novel from China or East Asia (Wang Anyi, Haruki Murakami, Minae Mizumura, Jiang Rong): even the average educated adult reader knows shockingly little about the lives of contemporary Japan or China.
Literature opens an entire world up to young people and helps mitigate all the news-biases we are constantly fed.

Which contemporary book will become a classic in 50 years?
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (maybe it is already a classic?!)

Which book is criminally underrated?
The Alphabet Series of detective novels by Sue Grafton: it’s crime writing but Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton’s gumshoe) is one of the most unique detectives ever created. The series is structured in time in a very unusual way (they move much slower than real life and Kinsey Millhone has only aged like 10 years since 1982) and the setting (southern California) is as integral to the story as anything else. Yes, they are crime novels, but they are written well, they are funny, and they have influenced crime writing massively (one can see Grafton’s influence, for example, on other crime writers like Anthony Bidulka, Gianrico Carofiglio and many others).

Describe a teacher who had an impact on what you do now:
The university in Idaho, where I did my undergraduate, had very good literature professors who were incredibly passionate about books. It was there that I discovered Dostoevksy and Anne Tyler and Borges and Charles Dickens.
Dr Janne Goldbeck is one teacher who stood out for her insight and ability to get small-town kids from the mountains and fields of Idaho inspired to read and write about literature. From the poetry of Anna Akhmatova to Nathaniel Hawthorne, her breadth of knowledge was vast and she loved all kinds of books. I’ve always felt that her passion and love of reading was one of the most impactful things I experienced as a young man.

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