Blue Metropolis Literary Festival
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
I was recently in Montréal for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. The grand prize winner of the festival this year was the American Richard Ford, winner of a Pulitzer back in ’95. I haven’t had a chance to read his work yet, but I’m trying to write a book too, so I figured I’d check out his award acceptance speech and get a few pointers. It was scheduled for a Saturday evening in Montréal’s Grande Bibliothèque (that means “big library” for all you drop-outs), but, boy, did things turn out differently than I expected.
The festival week started out pretty chill. I went to a couple different festival panels about Canadian-Italian literature, historical Québec political cartoons, and a panel on mental illness hosted by The Walrus magazine (sometimes referred to by those in the know as the Canadian New Yorker). Then something strange happened. As I was making my way to my hotel one late afternoon, I noticed that the intersection up ahead was blocked off and full of people. As I got closer, I realized that there was a protest going on. The scene had a certain unsettled, fractious air over it, with police in riot gear lined up across from a crowd of about 100 who were displaying red banners. I happened to be walking through the crowd at the exact wrong time, because when I got to the middle of the street, the police rushed out and surrounded me and everyone around me and wouldn’t let us leave.
While I was trying to figure out what was going on, I looked over and saw that Richard Ford himself was standing a few feet away from me! I immediately recognized his face from his picture in the festival catalogue. He came up to me and asked me what was the hell was going on. I said it looked like we were going to be kettled up along with the rest of the protesters. He said he was just trying to meet a friend at a nearby restaurant and that this was horseshit. I agreed, but there was nothing we could do: neither of us could communicate very well with the francophone police, and besides, the situation was pure chaos.
After a few minutes, they rounded us all up and put us on a bus. Ford looked frustrated and stared at his shoes, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I kept trying to get the attention of the police until finally they brought someone who understood me. I explained that they were mistakenly arresting a modern master of English prose and the whole Blue Met award thing. Then I showed the cop the catalogue with Ford’s picture in it and her eyes widened. We were immediately released.
Afterwards, Ford thanked me and said he was so impressed with my quick thinking that I should interview him tomorrow at the ceremony instead of the radio broadcaster the festival organizers had booked. Elated, I agreed and gave him my number. He said he’d call me the next day with the particulars. I couldn’t sleep, so instead I spent the night writing down questions.
And so that’s how it happened that I sat down with Richard Ford, Big Time Literary Dude, for a little tête a tête in front of a crowd of 1,000. I have no idea how I got so lucky, except for maybe I was born this way. I arrived at the venue just in time to hear Ford give his acceptance speech, then the staff hustled me out onto the stage to start the interview. At that point, I suddenly became super nervous and silently prayed that I wouldn’t fuck the whole thing up.
The first question I asked him was why he writes. He said literature is about reconciling the irreconcilables. I didn’t know what he meant and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself, so I just nodded thoughtfully and moved on to my next question, which was why he named his last novel Canada. Was it because he was angling for Blue Met grand prize? I inquired. He frowned said no, that wasn’t why. He said he does really dig Canada, but that winning the prize never crossed his mind. Who was I kidding, he said, everyone knows he’d already reached the mountaintop when he won the Pulitzer. Besides, his trophy case is pretty much full.
Next, I asked him whether he reads his reviews. He said he used to, but that the critics were so harsh that he had to stop. I totally understood that, and I said that critics can be self-important bloviating douchebags, which led him to raise a silver eyebrow at me a little. I suddenly got more anxious. Was I screwing this up? Maybe I shouldn’t have said douchebags. I decided to watch my language a little more closely.
He asked me if I had any questions of a philosophical nature, so I asked him what he thought about Twitter and the internet and how it seemed the kids weren’t really reading books anymore and how maybe the age of the novel had come and gone. He said that yeah, it kinda looked that way, and he was worried, but what can you do? He said that writing is a moral inquiry and that it wouldn’t ever really go out of fashion. Good point, I said. I had to admit, he was smooth, kind of like an actor on TV. Did he ever think about becoming an actor when he was young? I asked. Nope, he responded.
I had time for one more question, so I asked him if he would read a draft of my novel and give me notes. He said he would not, which was a little disappointing. Regardless, as we wrapped things up, I felt pretty good about the whole thing. I had acquitted myself well, I thought. But a few minutes later backstage, I tried to thank him in private. The problem, though, was that I couldn’t find him. It was like he had vanished into thin air. The festival was over at that point, so I spent the rest of the trip cruising around Montréal and enjoying that wonderful city.
Ian Edwards is a writer living near San Francisco. He tweets at @ian_edw.