Why Canada Reads inspires Lisa Moore to 'read everybody'

The Newfoundland-based writer reflects on what she learned competing both as a panellist and an author on CBC’s annual battle of the books. The 2023 edition of the great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30

The 2023 edition of the great Canadian book debate takes place March 27-30

Lisa Moore is a Canadian writer and editor who was born in St. John's. (Ritche Perez)

Back in 2002, a radio program dedicated to uplifting and highlighting Canadian literature launched. Coined a "literary Survivor," Canada Reads has artists, celebrities and prominent Canadians debate books in order to determine which title will be crowned the one book the whole country should read.

The 2023 edition of Canada Reads will take place March 27-30.

The year 2023 marks the 22nd edition of Canada Reads.

Canada Reads premiered in 2002. The first winning book was In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, which was defended by musician Steven Page. In 2021, CBC Books put together a retrospective to look back at the show's biggest moments and its impact on Canadian literature.

LISTEN | Canada Reads celebrates 20 years:

We're celebrating the great Canadian book debate's 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them.

Award-winning author Lisa Moore is no stranger to Canada Reads. In 2008, she served as a panellist defending Mavis Gallant's ​From the Fifteenth District and in 2013, her novel February, championed by Trent McClellan, was crowned winner.

Moore is one of three people to have been a book panellist and an author of a book defended on Canada Reads. David Bidini was a panellist in 2008 and an author in 2012, and Nalo Hopkinson was a panellist in 2002 and an author in 2008.

February was inspired by the true story of the sinking of the Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland on Valentine's Day in 1982. It tells the story of Helen O'Mara, whose husband died during the accident. The novel explores how the tragedy impacted Helen's life and the Newfoundland community in the years that followed. It was on the 2010 Booker Prize longlist.

Moore is a Newfoundland-based writer, known to set her stories in her home province. Her other books include the novel Caught, the YA novel Flannery and the short story collection Something for Everyone. Caught was made into a miniseries for CBC and can be streamed on CBC Gem.

Ali Hassan spoke to Moore about her Canada Reads experience.

What is easier: being a panellist or being an author?

Both of them are really hard. Mavis Gallant — still unbelievably for me — was voted off first. That was a real stab to the heart because her work is a real touchstone for me. I love it so much, and I feel like it's so layered and beautiful. So it really hurt to have Mavis voted off first because she's so important to me as a writer. I've never met her, but I feel like I know her.

Everything about her work is layered and nuanced. It's a very particular tone she strikes. Her sentences are like trampolines — you could bounce on them, they're so tight and they're so strong. But if you read between the lines, which she makes you do, there's a tremendous wit.

It was also a thrill to read the other books and hear how people talk about books who aren't necessarily writers and what they want from a book. I found that fascinating when it was time to have my own book being discussed. That was harrowing.

Did you feel at a disadvantage because you brought a short story collection to the table? Do you think that's why you were voted off or were you just a threat to the rest of them?

No, I think that there is something unpalatable about Mavis Gallant if you're not a feminist, if you're not willing to see the dynamics of the characters in those stories. You could see tensions between the sexes in those stories, you could see power dynamics. And yes, she cast a cold eye — witty, funny — but also searingly political in some ways. I think it had more to do with the tone of her stories. She was not going to pander to a desire for a gushy feeling. 

WATCH | Looking back at Mavis Gallant's life and work:

Mavis Gallant: a Canadian in Paris in 1965

1 year ago
Duration 45:06
In 1965, expatriate short story writer Mavis Gallant shows viewers the adopted city she calls home. Aired on CBC-TV's Telescope on Jan. 22, 1965.

There's a lot of debate among the Canada Reads fans about whether or not it should be a competition. How do you feel about the format and the concept of the show? 

For me, the competition is not important. What is important is an honest discussion about literature. I think that's why I was both excited and elated, and upset when people felt differently. Literature is meant to provoke in lots of ways. It's meant to matter and it's meant to make people rethink all of the things that they think about the world. I can't think of another format. So I see the competition as an aside or something that we had to contend with.

For me, the competition is not important. It's not an important part of the piece for me. What is important is an honest discussion about literature.

When we got down to it, what mattered was the notion of what kind of story matters to you, what kind of story needs to be told, what kind of stories aren't being told? I think that's what got people's ire up. Not that they were voted off or their book won or any of that, but what matters, what really matters to us? 

Let's fast forward to 2013. You get that call that February had been selected for Canada Reads. What did that feel like? 

Wow, it was a shock. And I'll be honest, I found it incredibly difficult to listen to the shows. I could not do it. I sometimes turned it on when the panellists were talking about other books, but I turned it off right away when they started talking about my book. I could not listen to it. When the final book was going to win, I was packing my bags to go to Mexico and the phone rang and somebody from CBC said, "Stay on the line." I thought, why do they want me? Because by this time, for some reason I thought that I heard that February hadn't won. So then when I heard that it had won, I thought it was a trick. 

February is about the sinking of the Ocean Ranger, and it's about the men who died on the Ocean Ranger. It's about that legacy in Newfoundland. Regardless of the writing in the book, the story is very important here in Newfoundland. It's important in different places in the world where other oil rigs have sank. It's an international story that affects the people who die on rigs and their families, and of course the politics of oil and the horror of all that. I felt like the fact that people were taking into account that the oil industry is dangerous for the planet and that oil rigs are dangerous places to work and that the people who work there are putting their lives in jeopardy and that oil companies are often all about profit and sometimes, quite often, sacrifice safety for profit, I was glad that that was being spoken about. 

I can't say that it's true or not, but I heard that at a couple of intersections in St. John's, when it was announced, people were blaring their horns. 

I wanted to ask you what you thought about that idea of the Turf Wars theme in 2013, with every book representing a different region of Canada. Are we representing all of Canada or are we dividing us up into regions? 

I think, really, at the end of all of the Canada Reads that I've heard, I want to read all those books. It does a good job of saying to Canadians, 'This is the literature that is happening in your place.' It's not that I think we should only read Canadians. I think quite the opposite. I don't think literature has borders. I think we have to read everybody.

I don't think literature has borders. I think we have to read everybody.

It's also important to be cognizant of the fact that certain, very powerful cultures in the world, A.K.A. down south, can take over our imaginative space. If it's wall-to-wall Ken Follett at Chapters, then we're going to be reading Ken Follett. I think it's an important thing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to be putting forward stories that are just extremely important for you to read.

It's been nearly 10 years since February won Canada Reads. How do you think the win impacted the legacy of that book? 

Hugely. I think it brought a lot of readers to the book. The book is being made into an opera now and I am a co-librettist. I was asked to be a librettist and I said, "Sure." Then I looked it up and I said, "Absolutely!" 

My co-librettist, whose name is Laura Kaminsky, knows everything that the two of us needed to know. I think it's going to be fantastic. It's by Opera on the Avalon. They're producing it. Cheryl Hickman and I, we've had a few read-throughs of the libretto and I think it's going to be good. I'm really excited about it. 

Lisa Moore's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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