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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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Jack Tackle: the narrative of climbing

“Climbing and adventure stories lend themselves to good storytelling because they’re about events and places that are out of the ordinary in every way,” says writer and mountaineer Jack Tackle. “If someone possesses the skills to write or talk about their experiences well, then the stories can be compelling and interesting to a lot of people. Many will never climb a mountain or kayak some rad river, or ski a sick line. But they will want to read and hear about it because it may motivate them to do something different, or change how they look at the world.”

Jack Tackle on Mt. Kennedy in the Yukon (left). Photo by Jack Roberts. Photo (right) by Andrew Burr.

Part of The Banff Centre’s appeal is its blend of arts and mountain culture, and the Mountain and Wilderness Writing program is a unique synthesis of the two, routinely attracts a diverse roster of writers who hunker down in the Leighton Artists’ Colony every November to work on nonfiction, fiction, and poetry.

The scope of the program has expanded to include subjects as remote as Mars, but climbing and mountaineering narratives are still at its foundation. For Tackle, a veteran climber and guide, the program presented an opportunity to devote concentrated time to crafting a book about his career and adventures.

Known for his exploration of remote areas and discovery of new routes in places like Alaska and Patagonia, Tackle’s personality befits an accomplished mountaineer. Soft-spoken yet assured, he immediately inspires confidence, with a demeanor cut with flashes of humor and self-deprecation. “Climbing itself isn’t that interesting,” he told me. “It isn’t like driving an F-1 car”.

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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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Lawrence Hill: “I’ve lost a lot of blood”

Commonwealth Prize-winning author Lawrence Hill was recently at The Banff Centre as part of our Leading Ideas Speaker Series, reflecting on the idea of blood as a historical and contemporary marker of identity and belonging. It was a theme he explored as part of the CBC Massey Lectures series this year.

Hill spoke to our radio producer, Sarah Feldbloom. It might be said that a writer and a mountaineer face similar challenges when attempting to ascend to great summits. Inspired by the local landscape, we like to ask our guests a series of questions as equally relevant to artists and innovators here at The Banff Centre as they are to those who climb — or contemplate — the mountains that surround us.

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Unravelling the riddle of Ryeberg

Andrew Pyper, onstage at the Club for Ryeberg Live at Wordfest. Photo: Don Lee.

What is Ryeberg? Its website provides a helpful formula: written text + video clip/s = a Ryeberg, but there’s much more to it. Ryeberg invites writers and artists to tell stories through curated online video. According to their site, “Ryeberg curators select from the vast, disordered warehouses of video-sharing sites, then interpret and present their videos in a way that best serves their perspectives and purposes.”

So what, then, was I expecting to hear from authors Craig Davidson, Andrew Pyper, Joanna Kavenna, and D.W. Wilson when they came to Banff Wordfest for a Ryeberg Live event in the Club? Well, anything, really. I wanted to see what happens when writers descend into the wormhole that is online video. But what I wasn’t expecting was the starkly diverse interpretations, perspectives, and insights all four authors brought to their Ryebergs — a range that was simultaneously intellectual, creative, comical, and terrifying.

Andrew Pyper kicked things off by telling us that “fear is like sex.” Then he told us that the first 12 years of his life paralleled a crucial era of American horror cinema. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Shining all influenced Pyper’s understanding of what storytelling was and could be. He showed us the trailer for The Shining, and spoke about restraint, and how horror could undersell as much as it could oversell.

After this, Pyper took us inside the elevator in the trailer for Dawn of the Dead, a two-second flash that reveals how “at its heart, horror is about opening doors.”

If Pyper talked about what helped open his creative doors, Craig Davidson plunged us into the brutally honest wormhole of his own psyche, an Internet vortex time suck where, as he put it, “the hole has no bottom.” Davidson navigated us through an online voyage that began with nostalgically researched types of candy, and clips discussing the virtues of Mexican Coke. Then it got horrifying.

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