Small room, small worlds, big stories

The lure of food, drink and two talented authors drew a crowd of more than 70 students, teachers and bibliophiles to the Bard and Banker’s Sam McGee Room on Oct. 17 for the launch of two new Hamish Hamilton publications: Bill Gaston’s seventh novel, The World, and Marjorie Celona’s Victoria-based debut novel, Y.

Waitresses parted seas of faces, carrying trays of drinks through the mahogany-accented room to the small patio and hallway; each small space quickly filled with more people standing shoulder to shoulder, like the books that lined the walls.

UVic writing alumna Celona took to the microphone first, reading an excerpt from Y, the story of a young woman who was abandoned as an infant on the doorstep of the Victoria YMCA. Y has received glowing reviews in national publications, as well as a nomination for this year’s Giller Prize.

Gaston is no stranger to critical acclaim; his fiction has received much praise, and previous works have garnered nominations for the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award. When it was his turn to read, Gaston congratulated Celona for her success and joked to the audience that The World is “much harder, much better.”

The World is a tough beast to describe. It’s the interwoven telling of five worlds: a newly divorced/retired Stuart Price, who burns down his Saanich house the day after paying his mortgage; Stuart’s friend, Mel, who plans to end her days ruled by esophageal cancer; Mel’s father, Hal, who’s forgetting his life as an author and Buddhist in a Toronto facility for Alzheimer’s patients. Then there’s the story within the story: Hal’s book, The World, which tells the story of a professor, who acquires a collection of letters from the D’Arcy Island leper colony; and the story within that story of Li, the lone female leper who lived on D’Arcy Island.

“I burned my house down. That’s what gave me the idea [for The World]. Then I just kept going and going,” said Gaston of the real-life accident that inspired the complex novel, which took nearly four years to write.

However daunting The World may seem, it’s honest and tragic and funny in the complicated ways of the world. The novel is character-rich, well researched and told with an innovative structure. And, Gaston assured his audience, it all makes sense.

“It sounds like a dire and depressing book. There’s a leper colony, an Alzheimer’s ward, cancer, all that stuff,” said Gaston. “But, I hope readers can take from the book — without sounding corny — that it’s possible to find humour, maybe even some kind of light, in moment-to-moment life, in the smaller worlds.”

Gaston teaches fiction at UVic and acts as the Department of Writing chair.

“I don’t write when I’m working, when I’m teaching,” he said. “So, summers and leaves are good. I take leaves whenever I can, whenever I save my pennies. It’s a good job where I can take off when I want and have a job, probably, when I get back.”

The launch’s turnout suggests he’s good at his teaching job, as, once he finished his reading, his students congratulated him with handshakes and hugs.

Gaston has a completed collection of short stories, House Clowns, to be released by Hamish Hamilton later in the year and a “sort of memoir” in the works.

After the readings, Celona and Gaston mingled and signed copies of their hardcover releases, sold by Munro’s Books in the corner. People stayed a while to talk. Smiles and stories and empty glasses filled the space. There were no more fish bites or nachos on the tables. Slowly, the warm room grew roomier and people trickled out into the night, back to their own worlds.

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