Thank you to Barbara McEwan, a Calgary mom who balances a husband and 4-year old son with her job as an environmental scientist but still finds time to read! I have ‘met’ Barbara through the CanadianContent Goodreads group and enjoy discussing CanLit with her. Please enjoy her blog about meeting Madeline Ashby, author of Company Town which is one of the books to be debated today on Canada Reads!
This CBC Calgary and Wordfest Event with Madeline Ashby took place at the Memorial Park Library in Calgary on March 2nd 2017. Hosts were Shelley Youngblut from Wordfest and Russel Bowers of CBC’s Daybreak Alberta.
For Canada Reads fans, the arrival of the Canada Reads long-list is a much anticipated event. This year I was pleasantly surprised to see some science fiction selections on the long-list. My first read of the long-list, and my first read of 2017, ended up being Company Town by Madeline Ashby. I was struck by the originality of the story and the Canadian feel (even if Ashby is originally from the US). There is a lot packed into this novel and while I felt a bit overwhelmed at times, it was hard not to be intrigued by the main character Hwa, and the storyline. So when I saw Madeline Ashby was coming to Calgary, I couldn’t resist the chance to hear her talk about her latest work.
Russel Bowers of CBC’s Daybreak Alberta was the host of the evening and he was hilarious. He had me convinced I should tune into his show if I ever have a reason to be up at 6 am. He wittily chatted with Ashby and asked her questions which were interspersed with readings. After a break, where we ate tiny grilled cheese sandwiches, there was time for audience questions. The event was taped for radio and would play on Daybreak Alberta. Amusingly, Ashby was nervous about being censored by CBC as the book passages she thinks are the most thrilling to read usually involve curse words.
Ashby is an excellent speaker and is incredibly funny, belly hurting funny, it was like being at a comedy show. At the same time, it was immediately clear that she is very intelligent, confident and well spoken . Ashby is not just an author of novels, short fiction, essays, and more, but also teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and Rutgers University, and is a consultant on the social implications of technological development.
This work can be seen in her writing. Discussion around the unanticipated consequences of technology, how some people’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and whether smart cities are really smart, could be part of the defense of Company Town as the book Canada needs now.
Ashby admitted she honestly never expected to be short-listed for Canada Reads. She was pleasantly surprised to be long-listed but never expected to move on, after all she is a science fiction writer! Her character kicks butt and swears a lot! Needless to say, she was stunned when she heard she was short-listed.
There was a lot of discussion and questions related to the writing process and how the characters and the novel evolved over time. Ashby wanted a book that would be snappy, fast-paced, and kind of noir. She wanted to show the pain of being human, especially after having previously worked on a series of robot novels (vN: The Machine Dynasty). Because her last novels were a series she mentioned that it was a challenge for her to include everything she wanted in a standalone book and I think this can be felt somewhat when reading Company Town. Chapters were cut on Hwa’s development, although Ashby felt it was useful for her to write them so she could understand why Hwa is the way she is. When the idea for Hwa first came to Ashby she was initially just a woman who was always taking crazy risks. It was a while before she flushed out why she would be that way. Hwa deepened and developed over time. Hwa’s risk taking personality is partly a product of the fact that she finds herself repellent and has a hard time loving herself, something that Ashby herself admits she has felt in the past.
In addition to Hwa, Ashby notes that a lot of readers connect with Joel, the 15 year old company heir. She thinks this is because he is the only character that is open and wears his heart on his sleeve. Hwa and Joel’s relationship is the only one that is not-toxic/violent. The other characters all seem to have something to hide and this is intentional.
I have to say Madeline Ashby completely charmed me and I am very glad to have attended this event. I even won a Canada Reads bag! Madeline Ashby is the first to admit she is an underdog to win Canada Reads but I can’t help but cheer for the underdog! Kudos to Canada Reads for incorporating new genres into the mix and shaking things up a bit. At the very least I hope science fiction will get a few new fans.
Many thanks to Susan for letting me add to her wonderful blog.