From Here to There: Melissa Kuipers, Sue Bedford, and Shekhar Paleja

On Wednesday May 16 at 6 p.m., authors Melissa Kuipers (short story collection The Whole Beautiful World), Sue Bedford (travel memoir It's Only the Himalayas) and Shekhar Paleja (novel An Extraordinary Destiny) will appear at Ben McNally Books in Toronto to introduce readers to their works and take part in a conversation about the influence of place and setting. To give you a taste of what they'll be talking about, Tori Elliott of Brindle & Glass Publishing asked some questions via email, and was kind enough to share the answers with us—and with you!

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Tori Elliott: Melissa, your short story collection features character​s​ who are tied to the fictional small town of Talbot, a home base that provides both support and judgement. You grew up in a small town in Ontario. How would you say your upbringing in an insular, tight-knit community affected how your characters responded to their circumstances?​ Do you think your stories would have ​been any different if you'd grown up in a city? 

Melissa Kuipers: I'll answer the second question first: probably. The town I grew up in, on which Talbot is very much based (Talbot is the name of the main street that runs through Aylmer, Ontario), is conservative, religious, friendly, quaint. I think a lot of my characters, especially the younger women, are reserved. They try to be nice, try to do the right thing, try to be respectful and try to fix everyone else's problems. I don't want to stereotype and paint everyone from a small town with the same brush, but these are some the characteristics I saw people exhibit in small towns.

But it's not all restriction and traditionalism: there's also a type of freedom that rural life brings out that I don't think we see as much in city life, a freedom inspired by open fields and forests, by quiet roads and big yards. There's a freedom, at least in certain social spheres, to be uncouth: to pull mattresses behind tractors, to eat bacon bits by the handful, to have the minister and his wife dress cross-dress for a wedding skit.

"There's also a type of freedom that rural life brings... a freedom inspired by open fields and forests, by quiet roads and big yards."

Melissa Kuipers

There aren't the same expectations around "coolness" or maintaining an urban aesthetic, staying "trendy" or "hip" or "relevant": you can be a folk artist and not worry about where your work fits into the contemporary art scene; you can serve your grandkids pasta from a can and not worry about whether or not it's organic; you can drive slowly through the downtown and probably won't get honked at. There aren't the same pressures that city life imposes, and the slower pace of life can mean lowered anxiety levels. 

TE: Sue, your travel memoir is about one of your first long-term, multi-country adventures in your early twenties. It leads the reader from Toronto to Africa, Nepal, Tibet and India, among other places, and then back to Toronto. You're a traveller at heart and have been to more than 50 countries but Toronto is your home base. How has Toronto, being such a multicultural city, informed your travel experiences? Upon return from your travels, have you felt that you related to the feel of the city and the people in it any differently?

Sue Bedford: Toronto’s the most multicultural city in the world—I think the BBC said that, or perhaps Torontonians secretly made it up to make ourselves feel better about not being as naturally beautiful as Vancouver and our perpetual subway delays. While I obviously appreciate the opportunity to experience a diversity of foods, fashions, markets, and cultures, I’m happier knowing that immigrants from almost anywhere can find here the support, comfort, and friendship of their home community. I know how daunting it is to travel somewhere without knowing the language or customs—I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be to move permanently—and the importance of connection and familiarity. I have so much respect for the bravery, determination, and resourcefulness of new Canadians. 

I know how daunting it is to travel somewhere without knowing the language or customs—I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be to move permanently.

Sue Bedford

TE: Shekhar, your novel transports your readers to 1990s Bombay where you dig into the complicated relationships between three generations of fathers and sons. You were born in India but immigrated with your family as a young child, and your book was inspired by a trip to India you took after university. What surprised you about India? Do you think that the timing of your visit changed your Canadian worldview? Do you think that you could have written about India without having visited?

Shekar Paleja: I was born in India and immigrated to Canada at the age of eight. I went back to visit India after finishing university. The things that surprised me most: the diversity of cultures and languages in the metropolitan city of Bombay (many speak four of five languages!); the variety of socio-economic classes (private country clubs next to slums); and how the ancient world lives hand in hand with the modern. The timing of my visit changed my world view. I was in my early 20s, a very impressionable time. I met many exceptional people in Bombay from a multitude of backgrounds. The challenges some of them faced would have immobilized most Canadians. Their perseverance, grit and ingenuity was astounding. There is absolutely no way I could have written about India without having lived there that year.

There is absolutely no way I could have written about India without having lived there that year.

Shekhar Paleja

Apart from the many sights, sounds and smells that are particular to India, there is also its unique history with the British Raj, the partition with Pakistan (and the four wars which have been fought between the two countries) that has influenced much, including bitter enmity between Hindus and Muslims. India is a land of contradictions, and I was interested in exploring that on the macro level and micro level. My novel includes some of India's complex history, including a relationship between two young lovers (a Hindu and a Muslim).

TE: Each of your books is a different genre. If you hadn't written short stories, a memoir, or a novel, respectively, what other format would you have chosen to tell the same story?​ Why?​

MK: There are a few stories in The Whole Beautiful World in which I would be happy to delve deeper and draw the narrative into a novel—"Happy All the Time" or "For George's Sake," for example (which happen to be the longest stories in the collection). However, I think I would say creative nonfiction to answer this question, as I've been working more in this genre lately. I've written and am working on a bunch of personal essays, many of them set in my aforementioned hometown of Aylmer.  In addition to setting, there are many overlapping themes in my short fiction and non-fiction around religious legalism, childhood friendships, craft and domestic creativity, mother-daughter relationships. I'd love to write more about my immediate and extended family members as well (for any of you who might read this, with your permission, of course!)—small bits of their stories or experiences are already laced throughout TWBW (read: mattress surfing, eating road pizza, witnessing one's date urinating on the wheel of his truck), though none of the characters are based on family members.

I'd love to write more about my immediate and extended family members as well—small bits of their stories or experiences are already laced throughout TWBW (read: mattress surfing, eating road pizza, witnessing one's date urinating on the wheel of his truck)...

Melissa Kuipers

SB: As self-indulgent as it may be to write a memoir (especially before your 30th birthday), I don’t know if any other format would have worked. Short stories would’ve portrayed me as a sitcom character continually engaging in embarrassing misadventures that resolve in 22 minutes with suspicious regularity, and I couldn’t have written a novel because my story is nonfiction. I don’t know anything about sonnets—an iambic pentameter sounds like the thing my mom’s mechanic fixed in her SUV. Also, I can’t think of anything that rhymes with Kathmandu other than Batman poo, and good luck working that into a travelogue.  

 I don’t know anything about sonnets—an iambic pentameter sounds like the thing my mom’s mechanic fixed in her SUV. Also, I can’t think of anything that rhymes with Kathmandu other than Batman poo, and good luck working that into a travelogue.  

Sue Bedford

SP: If I hadn't written a novel, it might have been a memoir. When I first put pen to paper, it was a single protagonist, first-person, present tense style story-telling that I wrote, inspired by some of the experiences I had that year while living in Bombay. I was only supposed to stay for a couple of months, but ended up living there for an entire year. I'm a professional actor (I did my undergrad in Theatre) and I got cast in a couple of commercials and an English play which kept me there. I also briefly dated a girl who had recently returned from studying abroad at Princeton. She introduced me to her friends and some of my first draft was based on these experiences.

TE: In It's Only the Himalayas Sue writes about getting chased by a lion in Africa. Melissa and Shekhar, what is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you during a vacation? Sue, have you had an experience to top that?e

MK: I did a shark dive near Capetown with my family. We took turns climbing into a long, narrow cage that hung against the side of the boat. The top of the cage was open and we would hold onto a handlebar with our heads above the water until the staff yelled "Get down! Get down!" when a great white shark approached. Then we would drop into the water to the bottom of the cage and watch through our goggles as the shark swam alongside the cage. When it was my turn and I was under the water, a massive stingray swam up right against the cage in front of me. It swooped upwards against the cage, its small mouth pulsing and wings fluttering. It was a beautiful and brief second, but when I came back up to the surface, everyone was looking at me with concern, like they were trying to make sure I was alright. Turns out the stingray flung its tail up out of the water and into the cage right above me. If I had come up too soon, I would have been barbed in the head. The captain said in seven years of leading these excursions, they had never attracted a stingray. I guess it wasn't really a scary experience for me because I was unaware of any danger at the time. But the cages were made to resist shark attacks, not stingrays. 

SB: I’ve almost been kidnapped in Latin America—twice, actually. It was an eventful summer. The first time was due to an ill-fated series of happenstances that were sort-of-but-not-really my culpability in Guatemala. The second time, however, was entirely my fault. My friend and I were hitchhiking through southern Mexico without any knowledge of the threat levels in the different regions. Or of Spanish. Spoiler alert: we survived, but we did have to leap out of a moving semi and run for the fields.   

 I’ve almost been kidnapped in Latin America—twice, actually. It was an eventful summer.

Sue Bedford

SP: I've never been chased by a lion, and thankfully I have nothing close to even compare.

TE: What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received about your writing? Who was it from? 

SB: I received a one-line mention in The New York Times: “A Canadian waitress who swears like a fishwife goes to Boracay.” I’m not sure if it was a positive sentence or not, and I had to look up what a fishwife was, but hey, I made The Times.  

SP: The best compliment I ever received about my writing was from someone whose opinion and taste I highly value, a friend in India. They said that I captured the feeling of Bombay and the complex relationships between generations that young Indians have to navigate.

TE: Are you more likely to borrow a book from the library or buy it? If you buy, what do you do with a book once you've read it?

MK: I get books out from the library more frequently than I buy them, but if I really like it, I'll buy it afterwards. If I know I like the author, I'll buy it. If I've bought it and I'm a big fan, I'll lend it to someone, usually in a match-making sort of way with the hope that they'll experience some fireworks, and the anticipation that we'll be able to debrief it later. If the book didn't wow me, I'll donate it—books are heavy to move with and I probably have too many already.  

SB: I receive most of my books second-hand from my mother and I always pass them along because, as a reader, I suspect it’d be bad karma to do otherwise. That said, as a writer, maybe it’s bad karma not to support other authors by purchasing their books—but that said, because I’m a writer, I can’t afford to buy books. There’s a hole in this bucket…

SP: I buy books and also borrow some from the library. After reading bought books, I usually gift them to friends. I keep only a few that I want to use for reference again. I'm trying to be a minimalist, but my wife likes to keep things. If it were up to me, our house would have 80 percent less stuff!

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Find more details about the event at https://benmcnallybooks.com/event/from-here-to-there/ 

May 14, 2018
Books mentioned in this post
The Whole Beautiful World

The Whole Beautiful World

Stories
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
It's Only the Himalayas

It's Only the Himalayas

And Other Tales of Miscalculation from an Overconfident Backpacker
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
An Extraordinary Destiny

An Extraordinary Destiny

A Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook
More Info
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