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Q&A with Canada Reads defender Trent McClellan

This year’s Canada Reads debates are underway and David Bergen’s Age of Hope has already been eliminated. Dubbed the Canada Reads Turf Wars, the debates feature five panelists defending a book they selected to represent their region. The contenders are:

  • British Columbia and the Yukon: Carol Huynh defends Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
  • Prairies and the North: Ron MacLean defends The Age of Hope by David Bergen
  • Ontario: Charlotte Gray defends Away by Jane Urquhart
  • Quebec: Jay Baruchel defends Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan
  • Atlantic Provinces: Trent McClellan defends February by Lisa Moore

Quillblog caught up with comedian Trent McClellan to talk about his pick and his affinity for literature. Born in Newfoundland, McClellan is a regular at comedy clubs and festivals, as well as on CBC radio and television, CTV, and the Comedy Network. His selection, February, focuses on Helen O’Mara, who lost her husband in the 1982 sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig.

Your book fared pretty well this morning. There wasn’t much opposition and no one voted against it. How are you feeling about the coming days? People say, Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is your book just not being noticed? Well I’m going to take it as people enjoy the book so there’s no critique. Even in the exchanges themselves there weren’t a lot of folks who went after it.¦ It’s a credit to the book and the work that Lisa Moore has done with it. But I have lots of homework to do tonight to prepare in case some arguments come up.

What’s the best part of being a defender on Canada Reads? On a personal level it was just really great to be exposed to books I probably wouldn’t have been previously. With this [format], you have to read all the books, which is great. You’re seeing all these different styles, the topics are varied, the characters are very different, and for myself as a comedian, it’s really helpful with regard to my writing and storytelling ability ” the more information you’re taking in, the more you can give out. The other thing is just the whole making books cool thing. People are on Twitter going, Hey, Canada Reads is coming up, so I think you can see people who aren’t readers but are kind of on the fence are really getting engaged¦. Someone mentioned, Leave it to Canada to have a reality show about books. It’s so Canadian. It’s been a cool experience so far.

Why does every Canadian need to pick up February? When you read a good story, you’re looking for something that’s primal, something that resonates with you¦. This book is about a woman who is trying to process her past, being open to what is happening now and trying to have an optimistic view of the future. Happiness lies in the balance and equilibrium of those three things¦. On top of that, there’s the story of industry in general and capitalism and how sometimes we just take away the safety aspect of things because there’s money at stake. But this is all interwoven into [Helen’s] life and experience. Sometimes the book is criticized because people say it’s a female perspective, [but] if you can’t plug your life into this book you’re cold and dead on the inside¦.  It’s about loss and I’ve dealt with that. I think it’s a book that can help a lot of people move forward.

Do you feel connected to the loss Helen goes through in February? My grandparents raised me, and by the time I was in Grade 8 my grandfather had passed away. The year I graduated from university, my grandmother passed away. So [I was] pretty much an orphan at the age of 21 or 22. You have a lot of questions: Why me? How did that happen? In the book, Helen wonders, What was Cal doing when the rig went down? And you feel all those things. I wondered what my grandmother was thinking when she passed away. What were her last moments? They’re pointless questions because you’ll never have resolution but you can’t help but think them¦. It was quite easy to plug my life into the book and look at it in a broader scope.

You’ve also talked about how being a comedian doesn’t mean you can’t defend a serious book because comedy and drama are so alike. On Twitter, some folks were saying, Really, a comedian to defend February? But … it’s still storytelling. My object when I’m on stage is to say something to make people laugh. In drama, someone’s doing the exact same thing — making you feel something. They’re not that far removed. When I first started doing stand-up, I felt this obligation to be funny [on and off stage]¦. But [now] I don’t. I felt that going in to this today, I wanted the other panelists to see that I was serious about this book. That this wasn’t just, Hey, I’m a comedian, I’m going to make fun of your cover or this character. I want them to see I have a literary background and I’m here to talk seriously about these books. If humour presents itself as an opportunity then I’ll take that, but not at the expense of the book I’m defending.

You mention your literary background. How has that helped you prepare for the debates? I have a degree in English and History from Memorial University. I was an avid reader and drifted away from it for a while. When I got into this, it felt like university again. We have themes, and motifs, and cross-themes, and it was really kind of good to exercise those muscles and it took me right back to university¦. It’s like riding a bike; you can always pick it back up.

The Canada Reads debates run until Feb. 14, and can be followed on the web, or via radio or television.