The Mad Tour Continues!

I will admit to experiencing a bit of Mad Hope hangover.  I’m happy to be meeting readers, whether virtual or, um, human.  But life with two small children is busy and dervish-like and fulfilling and frustrating — and the children, thankfully, do not (often) truck with the literati.  So there are two worlds spinning around and inside me.  And sometimes they clash and sometimes they just whizz way too fast so that when I lie down in my bed at night — even though the baby is sleeping through the night (She really is!  I’ve said it aloud a few times now to no discernible/deleterious effect.) — I can’t sleep.  And in the day I often have the sensation of being asleep with my eyes open.

Photo Credit: Zara Rafferty

But the best kind of antidote to any kind of hangover has got to be the gals over at the Keepin’ It Real Book Club.  They reviewed Mad Hope, in a live video, in 140 seconds.  The review is fab (Feel the Mad Hope!), but their connection and banter also remind me of a wonderful pre-partner and kids period; time and space for long exchanges with close girlfriends, finishing and hijacking each other’s sentences, reading and talking about books in a manner I now know to be luxurious and productive and free.  Go check out their vids!

In the last couple of weeks, Lindsay Reeder at Reeder Reads also showed MH some love, and I got the chance to hold forth on the short story form over at The Danforth Review and tell everybody about my favourite colour, how I want to die, and why I hate shrimp in the Proust Questionnaire at Open Book.

Also, here are some photos from the Indie Lit Night in Waterloo.  That drink — cursed, beautiful thing — is called Mad Hope in a Glass and it was conceived by bookseller extraordinaire Caroline Wesley (of Waterloo’s Words Worth Books).  The green thing on the side, perched next to the lime, is a gummy frog!  And that’s me and Carrie Snyder, lookin’ like ladies on the lam from the fams.

Thank you writer-friends (and spouse)…

Very little in our culture goes out of its way to reward good writing; as a profession, writing seems to interest people in the same exotic manner that professional whaling interests people. It is hard psychic work to feel professionally estranged. One explanation for why writers enjoy hanging around other writers is because writers often instantly forgive one another for being difficult or weird.

‘Protesting All Fiction Writers!’ by Tom Bissell, in The Believer

Mad Hope Gets Some Love…

It is so gratifying to see this book finding its readers.  A bit of an embarrassment of riches in the last week or so, but an embarrassment I’m happy to endure…  Also, the Mad Hope blog tour has made recent stops at Open Book, The Rusty Toque, and Grace O’Connell — drop by for a visit!

From Bella’s Bookshelves:

No book is perfect, of course. But Heather Birrell’s latest, a collection of short stories called Mad Hope (published by Coach House), is so good, the writing so strong and skilled, I kept thinking,These stories are perfect.

— Steph Vander Meulen

From The National Post:

(…) a collection of 11 stories that beautifully illustrate the fragility of existence.  Death is a recurring character, as is birth, motherhood, grief and resilience.

The book could be described as a collection of fictional reflections on the search for truth in grief, yet the stories are never dreary. They transport the reader to emotionally corrosive places, yet are alive with a sense of levity even within their darkest passages.

— Rachel Harry

And from The Winnipeg Free Press:

Toronto writer Heather Birrell has tapped into our dark Canadian psyche like a country witch with a crooked divining rod.

Her sublime stories are drawn from the margins of society but they are sure to capture a wider audience. Mad Hope, her second collection, is a sure-footed and mature exploration of modern life.


Mad Hope is best read during the clean light of day. You don’t want to miss any of the nuances, dense language or caustic political commentary.

Read it one story at a time. This collection requires quiet concentration as each tale resonates like a tiny, perfect novella. Mad Hope is hopeful yet realistic, wordy yet sublime. It contains everything a demanding reader wants from her short fiction — wickedly accurate, open-ended portraits drawn from life.

— Patricia Dawn Robertson




Jeffery Donaldson Wins the Edna Award!

The ‘Edna Award’ is an in-house honour administered by The New Quarterly.  You can’t apply for it or enter to win.  It originates with a wonderful and whimsical tradition that Edna Staebler herself initiated — a writer/philanthropist, she would send cheques of a thousand dollars to students and individual writers she admired, with the simple note reading “Enjoy! Edna.” attached.  TNQ has used a generous gift of $25,000 that Edna Staebler gave the magazine in 2006, the year of her death at age 100, to recognize outstanding essays published in the magazine in the previous year with their version of Edna’s flash-generosity.  In 2010 I was a happy recipient of the award; this past year I was thrilled when TNQ editor Kim Jernigan offered me the opportunity to judge the 2011 essays.  I chose an essay by Jeffery Donaldson as the winner.  My comments on the piece, ‘Ghostly Conversations’, as well as an appreciation of the other shortlisted essays, are below.  They appear in black and white in the latest issue of the magazine, available now here, or on a newsstand or fine book shop near you.

The Edna Staebler Award, it seems to me, is the indie superhero of lit awards. It arrives without fanfare, out of the blue, on your doorstep. It rewards an under appreciated, often overlooked form, possibly rescuing it from relative obscurity. It has its roots in one unconventional woman’s sense of solidarity among writers.  It derives its power from a series of Mennonite cookbooks. And its name, my friends, is Edna.

When I learned I had won the Edna award, we had just bought our first house, I was newly pregnant with my second child and overwhelmed with the demands of my day job.  I was not a writer.  The piece judge Susan Olding chose to recognize was deeply personal, and one of my first forays into the non-fiction form.  It took me a long time to write, shape and figure out how to place for publication.  I was beyond thrilled to learn it was being recognized in such a lovely and unexpected way.

An essay, Olding has written, is often difficult to categorize and market – “like a cat, it wants to go its own way.”  As a high school teacher, I am always happy to read an essay that transcends those oft-assigned five paragraph “stumps of thought” (again, so aptly named by Olding).  I want to read something asymmetrical that surprises me, bulges out of itself a little, refuses neat reflection or form for something more organic and interesting.  I want the essay to challenge and cajole me.  I want to learn something without feeling like I’m being taught.

None of the essays on the shortlist were pedantic or clunky, or, for that matter, at all ‘stumpy.’  All manifested a wonderful energy that springs only from a writer’s passion for and knowledge of her/his subject.  So there was I, Alfred the butler to Edna’s Batman, charged with the near-impossible task of choosing the recipient of her shining generosity.  Both Robert Lapp and Jeffery Donaldson owe something of their impetus to ‘essay,’ as it were, to the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye and Lapp makes a pertinent point regarding the insights of critics as both ‘true’ and ‘partial’.  I feel my reading and ranking of these essays to be equally true and partial.

Don McKay and Robyn Sarah, in their tributes to geologist/nose flutist Hank Williams and scientist/philosopher Joseph Bronowski respectively, illuminate the ways in which these unofficial mentors have shaped them as humans and poets“Leaping Time” by Peter Sanger, offers a poignant and somewhat eerie examination of the ways in which the picture books of his childhood shaped his personal cosmology.  Richard Cumyn’s prose in “Paris Notebook” is direct and confident (although he, as a narrator, is not) and his shout-outs to the various novelists who have recorded their impressions of Paris streets before him are gracious and revealing.  Alice Major’s “The Ultraviolet Catastrophe” is a gut punch of an essay that employs an exceptional writerly alchemy to mix memories of the author’s father, musings on the nature of tragedy and theoretical physics to come to an understanding of the nature of private catastrophe.

But in the end, it was Jeffery Donaldson’s “Ghostly Conversations” that emerged for me as the winner.  Donaldson’s essay is personal without turning purple, scholarly but not stuffy, funny and moving and tricky.  Part homage to “absent mentor” Northrop Frye and part journey through the author’s poetic influences, it dares to imagine a wine and cheese with long dead poets in attendance – “Pleased to meet you, Virgil.  Why do you suppose they never put out enough brie?”  It reveals, with humour and candour, how the author’s Tourette’s and Asperger’s make everyday conversation an often excruciating chore.  And finally, it becomes a story of how awkward exchanges with the living are sometimes trumped by revealing exchanges with the distant or dead.

Donaldson believes poems “give us the courage to have a self and lose it too, which is surely the most we can ask of any conversation.”  Maybe it’s the most we can ask of a good essay too.  What I’m trying to say is: this is a wonderful essay, it is, but don’t believe me!  Go back and read them all!  Then mutter into your oatmeal (or chai tea or latte) about why I’m dreadfully wrong or gloriously right in my judgment.  It’s the kind of ghostly conversation the essay (and Edna!) demands.

Mad Hope May Blog Tour

Mad Hope will be hopping from blog to blog this month, visiting with book enthusiasts and reviewers.  The book has already landed at the Book Fridge and Bella’s Bookshelves, and will also be making appearances at PickleMeThisBookside Table, Grace O’Connell, Reeder Reads, and The Keepin’ It Real Book Club.  Stay tuned for more updates.  And if you’re interested in a little Mad Hoping on your blog, please let me (or Coach House Books) know!

Starlight! and a Shindig!

Two back-to-back events coming up mid-May — very exciting!

On the 15th, I’ll be in Waterloo, reading with my friends Carrie Snyder and Marianne Apostolides, fellow Coach House-er, poet Walid Bitar, the illustrious George Murray, and many other writers whose work (and selves) I’m excited to encounter.  The event is sponsored by Waterloo lit journal extraordinaire The New Quarterly and indie book store Words Worth Books — I’m thrilled to be a part of it.  If you’re a Waterloo-er, Waterloo-an, Waterloo-ist, Waterlooie!, please come and have a listen and a chat.


On the 16th, I will be reading again with Carrie Snyder (whose The Juliet Stories are so lovely) in Toronto at Type Books.  Carrie and I will be joined by Daniel Griffin, author of Stopping for Strangers (by all accounts another fantastic story collection) and the evening will be hosted by none other than Kerry Clare, of the book blog Pickle Me This, and 49th shelf.  I am deeply (madly, hopefully) committed to the short story form, so this feels like a particularly fitting celebration!  Join us.



I’m funny!

Check out this great list of books by funny women writers who happen to be Canadian at 49th shelf.  A bunch on there I will check out, I will, once the baby starts sleeping…  Sigh.