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Interviews, Recommendations, and More

In Conversation With: Shari Lapena on her love of wilderness adventure tales

Shari Lapena chats with Host Julie Wilson about her love of adventure tales, and reads from Things Go Flying.

One of the perks of this gig is that I get to invite myself into the homes of authors who offer me coffee, tea, maybe a little snack, and a good look at their bookshelves. There's always a nice chat, maybe another snack, and upon leaving I usually have an idea of how our follow up interview will unfold. In the case of Shari Lapena, I knew immediately that I'd want to know more about her love of adventure wilderness tales, which sits in opposition to her own writing style. Beyond a guilty pleasure, the impulse to return to one kind of tale, or one particular author, is a creature comfort, something that doesn't just bring us satisfaction, it roots us in a place where we feel at home in ourselves. Enjoy the chat, and Shari's short reading from her novel Things Go Flying.

Julie Wilson: Shari, thank you for having me in your home to record you reading from your 2008 novel Things Go Flying. You have a new novel out, Happiness Economics, launching September 27, at the Dora Keogh, 7 p.m. Toronto people, come on out! (Both novels are published by Brindle & Glass Publishing.)

One of the things I like about recording authors in person is the chance it offers to catch a glimpse at their bookshelves. You mentioned your "creature comforts," the non-fiction, adventure wilderness tales you're taken in by. I'm intrigued by the kind of books we tend to return to because we know they won't disappoint, be it a style of writing, topic matter or the unabashed fandom we have for one author over another. I'm also interested in how these tales might differ from an author's individual writing style.Tell us a bit about your creature comfort books and/or authors and why you're drawn to them.

Shari Lapena: I love to read anything involving nineteenth century Arctic exploration, especially the Franklin expedition and all of the failed expeditions that went looking for the lost Franklin expedition. A couple of my favourites are Afterlands, by Steven Heighton and Voyage of the Narwhal, by Andrea Barrett. Those are novels, but I read a lot of non-fiction on this topic, too—Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail and Ken McGoogan’s Race to the Polar Sea stand out. I could go on and on. Also, anything on Shackleton.

I think what draws me to these stories is the romantic foolishness of these explorers, that they would go into the Arctic looking for glory utterly unprepared. They would make what in hindsight were extremely poor decisions, and dozens of people would die. It was a heroic, but stupid, time. And I’m also drawn to the sheer instinct for survival in the face of the horrific physical trials they suffered. I seem to like nothing better than to sit with a cup of tea and a cozy blanket and read about someone eating his own fingers to survive. It’s really gripping.

It’s quite different from what I write myself, which is comedic novels with urban settings about what’s wrong with contemporary society.

Shari Lapena (photo credit: Debbie Farquharson)

JW: What do you think it is about in the telling of these trials that strikes a chord in us? Even if a reader goes into the tale not knowing the outcome, we know that, in the case of non-fiction, at least, the outcome has already occurred. There's no surprise waiting for us. Is it our impulse to want to know better the people behind these heroic (if sometimes careless) actions? And, I wonder, is there any humour in the experience of reading these tales, the ability to laugh at the horror of something so outside our daily experience?

SL: I don’t think there’s any humour in it, at least not while you’re reading. If it’s done well, of course, you completely identify with the sufferer, and I think it’s a way of vicariously experiencing something that we would never actually experience. I find myself wondering, if I were in the same situation, would I eat the raw, steaming entrails of a seal? Also, it is very interesting to see how different people react when a group of individuals is put under intense pressure. It’s fascinating. Some will steal food, and some won’t. Some will resort to cannibalism, and some won’t. Some will lose their minds. Some will find incredible inner strength. I think that’s what makes these stories so compelling, even though we already know the outcome.

JW: Do you consider yourself an adventurer? The definition is open to interpretation. Writing is an adventure, for instance. Parenting. Climbing the TV antennae outside your house. In your writing, where are the places you go to arrive at the eventual destination?

SL: I’m always having adventures in my mind. Writing is an adventure, for sure. In my writing, I guess I begin with what’s on my mind. My first book, Things Go Flying, is about a man who is wrestling with fear of his own mortality. The interesting thing, I realized part way through the book, wasn’t that he was afraid of dying, it was that he was afraid that after death his life would go on and on forever, and he didn’t think he could face that. (His mother was a medium and had ghosts in the house all the time.) And I guess I’m sitting on that fence. I’m at the age where I recognize my own mortality, but I’m not sure if I want it to be over when it’s over, or not.

My new book, Happiness Economics, deals with another concern of mine—how are we to live meaningfully in an increasingly commercial society? So I pondered that, and found my poet character taking on the characteristics of a guerrilla. When I’m writing, I don’t know where it’s all going to end up. I start with a concern, or an idea, and the characters take me where they’re going.

JW: I'm having a think. To write, for me, is to internalize my adventures knowing that the goal is to externalize them as something else so they can again be internalized anew by a reader. The adventure is the chain reaction, one act of reading leading to another act of writing, which leads to another act of reading.

What's your next adventure? Do you have it in mind?

SL: I think for me the adventure is to see what comes out of my mind as I go along, what’s going to happen. It’s always a process of discovery. So, I’m curious to see what comes out of my mind next. I’m concerned about how we are all having our attention spans shortened, how the capacity for stillness and reflection and depth is being undermined by the way we live today. I think there’s a story there somewhere!

JW: Thanks for your time, Shari! We appreciate it.

SL: Thank you, Julie. It’s been a pleasure.


Shari Lapena worked as a lawyer and as an English teacher before turning to writing fiction. She is a graduate of The Humber School for Writers, where her mentor was David Adams Richards. Her first novel, Things Go Flying, was shortlisted for the 2009 Sunburst Award. She won the Globe and Mail’s Great Toronto Literary Project contest, and was shortlisted for the 2006 CBC Literary Awards. Her second novel, Happiness Economics, will be published in fall 2011. She lives in Toronto and is currently at work on her third novel. Visit her Website for more information about her books and upcoming appearances.

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