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Mo Srivastava: getting to The Gods of Scrabble

Mo Srivastava is a geostatistician by trade, which means he travels the world applying statistics to the field of earth sciences – helping Florida’s state government count its alligator population, watching camel births in Mongolia. “It’s always really hard to count animals,” he tells me, “because they hide from you.” Srivastava is also the winner of the most recent CBC Canada Writes prize in creative nonfiction, for his piece The Gods of Scrabble. Part of the prize was a two-week writing residency in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. I met him in the Cardinal Studio just before Christmas.

Writer Mo Srivastava, in the Cardinal Studio. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Writer Mo Srivastava, in the Cardinal Studio. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Srivastava really started writing when he turned 50 and took a solo birthday canoe trip to reflect on the previous half-century, and realized he still wanted to write. The Canada Writes win was an added bonus, though he had originally planned to write about the death of his younger brother Paul. The day before entries were due, he’d composed only what he describes as a muddle of tortured words. So he switched gears and wrote about a memorable Scrabble game from his 20s. The submission felt rushed, but it taught him a valuable lesson about writing. “It’s useful to overcome that writing instinct that your work isn’t ready,” he says. “It’s probably better if it’s not your version of perfect because the reader interacts with the text and they generate their own set of thoughts and feelings.”

Srivastava brought an archive of ideas to Banff — a document titled Ten Writing Projects that soon grew to hold 13 ideas. The piece he worked most on during his Leighton residency is a fictional mystery. He hopes if it’s successful, he’ll be able to cross genres as a writer. “I’d be thought of as that person who isn’t just a writer of non-fiction short stories, but someone who’s just a good wordsmith, someone who can entertain in that artistic form,” he says.

I couldn’t resist asking Srivastava what makes a good Scrabble player — he says there are two kinds: people who get high point scores and people who are just fun to play with. His mother falls into the latter category. “She would invent words and dare us to challenge her,” he says, recalling the time she played “grish”. After debating with his sister whether one of them would challenge her and risk losing a turn, his mother quoted four lines she claimed were from Spenser, the last of which rhymed and ended on “grish”. “She was such a great wordsmith that she could pull that off,” Srivastava says. But he still challenged the word. “As soon as I went to the dictionary, Mum said, ‘Ah, it was worth a try!’”

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Mary-Rose MacColl’s creative winter retreat

The day I met with Australian author Mary-Rose MacColl it was -40°C — the point at which mercury freezes. Despite the 70°C temperature difference between The Banff Centre and her hometown of Brisbane, Australia, MacColl was hard at work in the Leighton Artists’ Colony, fine-tuning her fifth novel, Swimming Home. She had previously spent a winter season here working on her novel In Falling Snow, and this time, between a mid-afternoon writing session and picking her 11-year-old son up from school, she gave us some details on her experience:

Australian author Mary-Rose McColl, in the chillier temperatures of Banff.

What has this experience at The Banff Centre been like?

The Banff Centre is a really extraordinary place. I think it has to do with the geography, the spirituality of the place, what Canada has made here. I first came here to do the Writing Studio in 1999, when I was much younger, and it was this feeling of…at the Banff Centre, you really feel like an artist, like what you’re doing is important. We have nothing like this in Australia, and I would do anything to make sure that The Banff Centre continues to thrive. I think that most artists who spend time here would. Canada is giving this to the world, and we are so grateful. 

What’s something you have access to here that you wouldn’t have at home?

The mountains. I think that it’s often underestimated how important it is that The Banff Centre is in Banff National Park, one of the most beautiful places in the world. I see a lot of links between creativity and nature. Being in this natural environment, you can’t help but be inspired, which leads to that other point that there’s some kind of spirituality here, which I don’t understand but I know is here. Something to do with the confluence of rivers under the ground, maybe. When I want to write, I get very healthy, so I eat well, exercise and sleep early. It almost seems a spiritual sort of reprieve — except that I have an 11-year-old for company much of the time, which is perhaps not as quiet a typical spiritual retreat!

It’s interesting that you’ve come here with your son.  How do you find a balance between your creative and family life?

My life in Banff is almost monastic. I get up early in the morning and write until my son wakes up. Then I get him ready, take him to school, pick him up in the afternoon and at night, after he goes to sleep, I do a bit more editing. I’ll go to shows and things like that, but it is a very different sort of life from many artists here. I think that in any field of life, any work, we have to learn to accommodate families, and particularly women with children. I think that increasingly the Banff Centre is more open to families — as it should be. 

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Helen McClory: Banff in glitter and grey

Scottish author Helen McClory is currently at The Banff Centre as part of a Creative Scotland Creative Futures residency. In addition to working on a multi-step project and her third novel, she’s put her newly-acquired parka and snow boots to good use, pulling together some epic photos and observations about her stay in Canada’s oldest national park. Check out these excerpts from her blog, Schietree.

The view from Banff Avenue.

Lake MinnewankaNovember 10, 2013 “The mist holds its hand over the foreheads of the mountains. The reservoir sits full to the brim, not lapping. It has a deep blue colour apparently when the light is up. But you can see it a little here, a tinge in the greys.”

Lake Minnewanka, also known as "Water of the Spirits" in Nakoda.

Quiet Glitter – November 16, 2013 “Yesterday I went on a tour of the Banff Springs Hotel, but the information was all on the surface – the types of stone, the construction process. Far too hard and dry to sink my teeth into. So for now, I’m going to sit with the novel draft and type at it. Stamped and ugly sentences just for shape. It’s a good thing everything else is so stunning. The landscape, and even my clumsy photographs of landscape, my half-hooded glances and memories, forgives me of any brutal writing mistakes.”

First day in Banff_Helen MacClory

November 28, 2013 – The Cabin in the Woods “There’s something about the word ‘rustic’ that I don’t like: the way it smooths over the sense of harshness – a sense of dishonesty. Or it’s more that I can’t imagine someone who lives in a place like this year round calling it ‘rustic’ without a lacing of irony. So say instead the cabin was perfectly rough, self-contained – what was needed was there, and what was not needed, or could be fetched, was either there or was not – absent, external.”

The Arthur O. Wheeler Hut.

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Artist Janet Egan: Behind the line

Janet Egan spent eight weeks working in a studio in the Leighton Artists’ Colony, and five of those eight weeks were spent despairing. “I worked and worked and worked – I just couldn’t find myself at all,” she says. “It’s been a long time since I worked for five weeks solid to get nothing. Slowly it began to dawn on me: I was trying to respond to the mountains, to be stimulated by them when I was not.” She adds, “When I started to gaze at the blue sky and see that emptiness again, the work came. I stopped trying to respond to the magnificence of the Rockies around Banff and looked within.”

Artist Janet Egan in her Leighton Artists' Colony studio.

Artist Janet Egan in her Leighton Artists’ Colony studio.

A painter, Egan put her art on hiatus briefly when, at 55, she embarked on a trip to India where she found her guru, Sri Vasudeva. When she returned to painting, the flat line, prevalent in most of her work, emerged as the major motif.  Working fluidly with pastels, watercolours and gold leaf, she sees the line as the centerpiece of ‘pictorial unity’.

And although she found the inspiration for her current work here, working in her studio in the heart of the Colony also presented its challenges. Though surrounded by nature, she says she’s “not working on the outer landscape anymore, I’m working on the inner landscape.”

She’ll show the work she created here, based on the relationship between Irish poet W.B. Yeats and Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, at Ireland’s Sligo Yeats Festival in 2014. “Now I’m living a Yeats and Tagore life,” Egan told me. “I listen to my guru chanting in the morning and then I do a meditation. Then I paint.”

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Tim Cope: Writing authentic adventure

tim cope puppies

Tim Cope with his faithful travel companion Tigon (left) and one of his pups.

We just saw Tim Cope onstage accepting the Grand Prize in the 2013 Banff Mountain Book Competition for his book On the Trail of Genghis Khan, part of which he wrote during a Paul D. Fleck Fellowship here in our Leighton Artists’ Colony. Tim is an Australian adventurer who spent three and a half years travelling 10,000 km on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary to discover the modern-day spirit of nomadic people. In between prizes and presentations, I talked to him about isolation, creativity and the long process of writing a book.

Did you know you were going to write a book and make a film before you embarked on this trip?

No I didn’t, I was actually offered a book contract before I left Australia, but I said no…I wanted the adventure to be authentic. I didn’t want any deadlines or pressure hanging over my head. To me that would have eroded the authenticity of the trip as a true journey because with any journey, you don’t know what’s going to happen.

To me, writing and filming are inseparable from the journey itself. Part of the core value of any trip is to record and share and document.  The actual process of writing is a learning journey in itself. For me I couldn’t do a trip without writing.

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Barbara Kapusta: close casting call

Leighton Colony resident Barbara Kapusta’s film Helen, shot and produced over the summer at The Banff Centre, is a film without a protagonist. There’s no obvious Helen in this silent film, which explores human touch in such a way that masks its characters’ relationships and identities.

A still from Helen.

A still from Barbara Kapusta’s film Helen .

At the end of the summer, Helen premiered here in the Philosopher’s Knoll, and drew one of the biggest crowds I’ve seen in that space. I brought some baggage to watching this film as I happen to know all of the actors in the film. They’re all my co-workers at The Banff Centre, a casting choice Kapusta admits was at least partially opportunistic. “It’s not always that easy to meet people who are interested in volunteering to work with, but here at the Centre it was actually very easy,” she says.

She adds that the enthusiasm created energy around a collaborative filmmaking approach. The cast was encouraged to improvise, and the camera operators were left to direct during the scenes in which she acted. “It wasn’t the top-down approach that is typical of bigger production films,” she says.

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