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Debut novelist Heather Jessup brings a little sparkle to IFOA

The International Festival of Authors is not just a place for brushing shoulders with CanLit’s big guns, it’s also an opportunity to discover new talents. Tonight, first-time author Heather Jessup reads from her debut novel, The Lightning Field (Gaspereau Press), a tragic yet hopeful story set in Cold War“era Toronto.

Never one for sitting still, Jessup is a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto and a creative writing instructor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Q&Q spoke to Jessup about her IFOA debut.

As a first-time IFOA participant, what are you most excited and nervous about?
I’ve been most nervous about giving my reading, rather than the panels. I love being read to. I love the performativity of readings, mixed with the comfortable, tucked-in feeling of listening to a story, and so I want to do my book justice in the way people hear it. Speaking about writing with intelligent writers just feels like such a privilege; a kitchen table conversation on stage.

Your IFOA round table on the writer’s craft focused on creativity and technique. How do you do keep that balance in your own writing?
I read lots of different kinds of books. I let myself make mistakes. I try not to be too precious about first drafts. I try to cultivate an attention and slowness in relation to the details of the world that allows good things to come in: the taste of an orange; the way a crow looks against the sky; driftwood; a snippet of dialogue that passes me by on the sidewalk. I try to be more like a welcoming committee to writing, rather than a task-master. Then, once I have a decent number of words, I ignore them. I let time do its share of the work. Then I go back in and work and work and work, sentence by sentence, to make it all better. I repeat. I make more mistakes.

You’re a big letterpress fan: what does it mean to you to have your first book designed by Gaspereau Press?
It means a tremendous amount to be published by a house that cares about the beauty and tactility of the objects they make. I love that these old machines have been rescued from demolition and from dumps, and are clicking away thanks to Andrew Steeves’ and Gary Dunfield’s care. I feel like books should appeal all the more to the senses within our world of digital saturation.

The feel of a book is a part of the enjoyment of reading. From the letterpress bite into the paper, to the smell of the ink, Gaspereau’s books are like putting on an LP of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon rather than listening to an mp3 of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon: all groove and scratch and romance.

The Lightning Field is the first book to use the Goluska typeface, designed by Rod MacDonald and named after the late book designer, Glenn Goluska. What does that mean to you?
It’s an incredible honour. I had the privilege of meeting Glenn on a few occasions, and he was a tremendously kind man. Rod MacDonald’s typeface is such a pleasure to read.

Before last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize ceremony, there was a Toronto Star article that mentioned you helped Sarah Selecky and Johanna Skibsrud pick out their Giller outfits. Did you indulge in anything new for your IFOA appearances?
I buy a lot of vintage clothes or get my clothes from friends at clothing swaps, but I did buy a brand-new, royal-blue dress that made my heart swoon a little, just for this occasion. I’m pairing it with pink sparkly high heels that have a tear on the heel from the pedal of my bike, and a necklace designed by Donna Hiebert, a Halifax jeweller. The necklace is made from components of heirloom jewellery worn by my great-aunts and great-grandmothers, recently given to me by my mother. The necklace makes me feel like past female generations of my family will be taking care of me when I’m up on stage, knees knocking.