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Behind the scenes with a former Canada Reads panelist

Jen Sookfong Lee was my book's defender on Canada Reads 2009. She was smart, articulate, funny and passionate. In short, my dream defender.

I wanted to get her perspective on her Canada Reads experience and also her thoughts about this year's line-up (and winner prediction!). She somehow found the time to answer my questions, in between her radio work for CBC Radio's One's On the Coast, writing not one but two books (both due out next year) and raising a newborn son. Cue the "Wonder Woman" music.

An Argentinian Woodcut

Jen Sookfong Lee (left) with Avi Lewis, Anne-Marie Withenshaw, Sarah Slean and Nicholas Campbell, the Canada Reads 2009 panel.

Q: Was choosing a lesser known title for Canada Reads important to you?

A: Yes, yes and yes! When I was thinking about what book to choose for Canada Reads, I knew I wanted to champion something that most of Canada hadn't read yet. I wanted to bring a novel to the rest of the country that deserved all the attention and adulation, but that may have slipped a bit under the radar. I suppose I could have chosen a well-worn classic or a current bestseller, but then where's the fun in that? That said, I chose Fruit not because it was lesser known, but because I loved it from the moment I first read it six years ago. The fact that I was presenting a novel to an entire country of readers that was published by a small press simply meant that this whole Canada Reads thing was ordained by fate.

Q: What did you think when you found out who the other panelists and titles were?

A: I found out what the books were first, when the fine people at CBC Radio sent them to me in a big package. Literally, my first thought was, "I can totally take these books down. NO PROBLEM." I know, such ego! I had read all of the books already except for The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, but I was pretty familiar with Michel Tremblay's stage plays, so I felt like I knew from day one how I could convince other people that Fruit was the best book of the bunch. Perhaps my confidence was poorly applied!

I didn't know who the other panelists were until the day of the reveal at CBC in Toronto. When I arrived in the lobby, I spied Nicholas Campbell being ushered in and I knew he was the one who had picked The Outlander. And I had some weird premonition about Avi Lewis too. And it was clear to me that The Book of Negroes championed by Avi would be the combination to beat. Canadians love their big, epic, historical novels and I knew that Avi was more than comfortable being on-air and saying quippy things. But I also knew that since I was BY FAR the least famous person on that panel, championing the least famous book, no one would have any idea what I would say or how I would say it. In that sense, I had a big advantage and I formulated my whole game plan around it.

Q: What's it really like in the studio among the panelists?

A: Scary. Very scary. Like I said, I'm not even one eighth as famous as the other panelists in my year. I'm just some writer from Vancouver. To be in a room with Sarah Slean, Anne-Marie Withenshaw, Avi Lewis and Nicholas Campbell and be treated like a peer was intimidating and completely absurd. I'm a pop culture addict and spend much of my time evaluating the relative fame of celebrities. According to my own system, I'm not even D-list. More like Y-list.

But if you're wondering if we were actually friendly with each other or not, I would say that we were. We took our roles seriously, but at the same time, we realized that nothing we were saying about each other's choices was personal. And we all love to read, so we had lots of non-debate-y things to chat about. Plus, I received makeup tips from Avi Lewis. Who is surprisingly passionate about under-eye concealer.

Q: Were you surprised by any aspects of Canada Reads?

A: I was surprised by how heated the debates became. Let's face it: we're talking about books, not how to solve global warming. But I think everyone really loved the title they chose and grew defensive and maternal when faced with criticism. Which is what makes for a successful Canada Reads broadcast. I guess I don't debate much with anyone in my real life!

Q: Any bets as to who you think might be the best defender this year and what the winning title might be?

A: I have to say that I am so excited to listen to the panelists this year. Debbie Travis! Georges Laraque! I feel like I should crack open a gallon of paint and stencil hockey sticks all over my walls. Really though, my money is on Essex County by Jeff Lemire, defended by Sara Quin. Graphic novels are a beautiful medium and deserve the serious consideration of something like Canada Reads, and I think there's something very Canadian about the narrative of Essex County: We all live seemingly ordinary lives, but our inner selves are bursting with extraordinary stories. I think it has the potential to win over the other panelists, even those who may have never considered a graphic novel as reading material before. Plus, I am a HUGE fan of Tegan & Sara. Like, so huge, you don't even know.

Q: What's coming up next for you?

A: I have two books coming out in 2011, believe it or not. One is a young adult novel called Shelter, which will be released in January, and my second adult novel, The Better Mother, will be out in June. And I just had a baby this summer, so there's that ongoing parenting thing. I expect my son to be a reading genius! I'm not even joking.

For more info about Jen, check out www.sookfong.com.

Brian Francis

Brian Francis is Canada Reads' resident blogger. His debut novel, Fruit, was the runner-up in the Canada Reads 2009 debates. His second novel, The Natural Order, will be published next year.

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