Novel Questions – Gary Barwin

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-6-12-01-pmGary Barwin‘s latest  novel, Yiddish for Pirates was short-listed for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize.  I had the privilege to meet him at the Between the Pages event in Toronto leading up to the announcement of the winner.  Gary’s sense of humour had the audience chuckling as he spoke about his intense historical fiction which shared knowledge about the persecution of the Jewish with a sense of irony and touch of humour.  I am very pleased that Gary has shared answers to Novel Questions and for those of you that have not read Yiddish for Pirates, it would be the perfect book for a snowy afternoon by the fire.

After previewing the Q&As, I hope that I don’t find Gary having a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store and love that he has enjoyed Party Wall which was another short-listed book for this year’s Giller Prize.  I laughed out loud to read that he was scolded by his Hebrew School teacher about some of the Yiddish in the book but for many readers the Yiddish added charm and authenticity to the book and errors would go unnoticed.

Thank you Gary for taking the time to answer these novel questions!


What is your favourite childhood book?  Why?

I read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings as a young teen. It was years before I looked at nature except through Tolkein’s eyes: some kind of pan-European syncretic pastoral/romantic/medieval filter of story, loss, nostalgia, beauty, wandering, poetry, music, mystery, and notions of grand narratives (metaphysical, social, emotional, cultural, linguistic.)
When I was twelve, I read Kafka’s The Castle. I remember how vivid it made trudging through the snow on the way back from school. But it wasn’t metaphysical or existential alienation, it was rather a warm feeling of being in a story, of being able to conceptualize an experience larger than me (that snow was metaphysical, ontological. Epistemological, even.) I walked through the music of Kafka’s language. I didn’t need to get into the Castle like K. I was happy wandering.

Did you always want to be a writer?

As a small child, I drew, I wrote, and I created music. No one told me that I should stop and so I didn’t. I do all these things to this day. The one thing I do less of since I was little, is have tantrums, though, of a day, I might lie down in the grocery store and have a good one, if, say, my favourite kefir happens to not be in stock, or they’re out of coffee.

Where is your favourite place to write and why?

My neighbour, the writer Jeanie MacFarlane, asked me to write about this for a series on her blog. I thought I’d share it here because there’s pictures of where I often write and I go into a whole shmear about it and tell, as my parrot narrator in Yiddish for Pirates would say,  the whole megilllah from fore to aft.

What work are you most proud of and why?

I think, at the moment, I’m most proud of Yiddish for Pirates. For two reasons. Firstly, because it was the thing that I worked longest and hardest on, incorporating tons of research, a real examination of my sense of what Jewishness is and what it means to me, and it has opened up a new way of thinking for me as to what I am able to try as a writer. And secondly, because I am profoundly moved at the response from readers. I have been approached by a wide array of different people—from older Jews who shared their experience of Yiddish and their childhood to a banker who emigrated from West Africa as an adult and saw something about identity and new experiences in the novel. It is so deeply gratifying to have spoken to so many readers, all who have spoken to me about how they have connected with the novel. (Though I should say, a Yiddish teacher who taught me in Hebrew school when I was about 11, and who I hadn’t seen since then, came up to me at a reading and scolded me about some of the language in the book.)

What is the last book that you read and why would you recommend it… or not? 

I just finished reading The Party Wall by Catherine Leroux, a book that was on the same Scotiabank Giller Prize that my novel was on. Over the holidays, I’ve been reading my lobes off. I found the book beautiful, inspiring, and clever in an intelligent, energizing way. I felt it had a heft and resonance, a truth in its insight and understanding, and a great zest and grace in its storytelling. I understood the “wall” of the title, not only of course to be the thin wall which divides person to person, the self and other, the heart and the world, fate and choice but just understood as I finished that it also the fourth wall, dividing (or connecting) reader from text, writer from reader, self consciousness, introspective and artifice from directness and the unexamined narrative, and coincidence from structure. There is so much more to consider about this compelling, thoughtful, and insightful book including the brilliant, vivid, and graceful use of language. And the metaphors knocked my conceptual and emotional socks off.

Gary’s website:
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3 Responses to Novel Questions – Gary Barwin

  1. Pingback: A Year in Review – 2016 | A Year of Books

  2. Naomi says:

    His answers make me smile. 🙂


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