Camilla Gibb

Toronto Book Award winner blows up Carnal Nation

Rating: NNNNN

She’s trained as an academic, but her personal style is effortlessly glamorous. Her literary art is fiercely alternative, but she’s made a deal with a commercial publishing house. She writes about gut-wrenching issues in a gut-bustingly hilarious way.

Paradox has a way of working for Toronto author Camilla Gibb.

Her debut novel, Mouthing The Words, copped last week’s Toronto Book Award at Word On The Street, and in a Canadian literary climate more hospitable to stardom than ever before, she stands poised to make a huge splash worldwide.

Random House (UK) has snapped up the English-language rights — Mouthing The Words comes out in Britain this March — and is securing translation rights in Sweden, Norway, Spain, France and the Netherlands.

Pick up Arsenal Pulp’s new anthology, Carnal Nation (see review, this page), and you’ll see what’s getting everybody going. Subtitled Brave New Sex Fictions, it samples over 20 emerging writers’ musings on all things sexual.

Surfing along the book’s so-so selections, I trip over Gibb’s story about a teenage girl who imagines herself the Russian princess Oksana and has a thing for a dildo-packing dyke.

It’s an instant grabber, funny and furious, and it burns across the page in a way that puts it many notches above just about everything else in the collection. Talent has a way of sticking out in these situations.

By the end of the story, things get pretty explicit, but Gibb won’t be going there when she reads at the Carnal Nation launch tonight (Thursday, October 5) at Tallulah’s.

“I’m not reading that shit,” she says with a grin over tea in a house she shares with her oldest friend. “That’s for private consumption. I’m English and a prude.”

Maybe, but prudes don’t give their stories titles like On All Fours In Brooklyn. And they don’t write a pointed novel about the not-so-nice things that happen in families behind closed doors. And they certainly don’t write about that stuff in hopes of making people laugh at the same time.

Right now she’s tiring of the questions about where Mouthing The Words, with its incest text and queer subtext, came from. Art or life?

“If the events aren’t real, people say I’m appropriating voice. And if I say they are, they accuse me of false memory syndrome. So I can’t win,” she says with a wave.

Of course, she is winning in the larger scheme of things. She says she always wanted to be a writer, but even as her star goes into the ascent, she gets a little prickly on the subject of her personal ambition.

Ambition takes a back seat to drive, she explains as she unwinds and then rewinds her lanky frame into a chair, and she’s never written for fame and fortune.

“I wrote my first novel without realizing it was a novel. I wrote it without a publisher, without an advance, in a trailer park, because I couldn’t stop writing it.

“I’ve written articles that have taken more energy than a novel. They’d get published in an Australian journal and I’d pay $12 to read it cause you can’t get the journal here and they don’t even have it at Robarts Library.”

It’s all about wanting to let it out, she says. Her personal history backs her up. She was born in the UK and moved to Toronto when she was three. (So for the record, she’s not quite British.)

In grade 13 she entered the Maclean’s student essay contest with a piece on the changing Canadian family entitled — how hot is this? — Family Ties: A Commitment To Kinship. She won.

Then she sent the Norel Canada National Geographic writing contest a piece on tobacco farming and won that, too.

“Wasn’t I earnest?” she says with a grimace. It sure doesn’t sound like the randy teenagers in her Carnal Nation story. “Well, now that I’m not 18 any more, I can be a little more cocky.”

After she completed a novel that she worried was a pretentious piece of shit, she handed it to an ex-teacher who had been supportive of her writing.

“He told me it was a pretentious piece of shit,” she laughs, “and then he said, ‘If you want to write, go out and get a life. Study something.'”

She did get her PhD in anthropology — spent 10 years at it. “I sort of put the plug in it,” she says by way of explaining what happened to the previously unstoppable creative force inside her.

Then she took a job counselling PhD students on what to do with their lives.

“I’m not much with the 9-to-5 thing. And I wrote a piece called Why The Fuck I Got My PhD, or something like that, which Arsenal Pulp published in their Bad Jobs collection.”

And she rediscovered the voice that had gone mute during her studies. When Pedlar Press published Mouthing The Words, Gibb also rediscovered whatever it was that made her want to enter contests as a teen. She is in many ways a marketer’s dream — someone with chops galore and, crucially, a willingness to sell herself.

“I bought a hundred copies, read at every series and sold the thing out of my knapsack. And I got my friends to go into Chapters and take it off the bottom shelf and put it on the Oprah’s picks table. I went to practically every independent bookstore in the city and signed copies.”

By the time buzz started mounting over Mouthing The Words, she’d finished the first draft of her second novel.

She’s careful about contextualizing her shift from tiny Pedlar to major mover Doubleday for the second book.

“I really appreciate the intimate relationship that goes with the edit, but you sort of pay on the business end.”

Beth Follett, who heads up Pedlar and performed the loving edit on Mouthing The Words, admits she wasn’t ready to offer that kind of promotional push. “We had some differences over the role of a small press versus the virtues of a commercial house. It’s not my practice to do major promotion. I believe books move by word of mouth.

“But I also wish for my authors that they fulfill their dreams.

“Camilla has a plan for herself, and I support her.”

Watch the plan unfold when the second novel, now titled The Petty Details Of So-And-So’s Life, hits the stands in early 2002. And remember, I told you so.

CAMILLA GIBB, reading from the sex fiction anthology CARNAL NATION, launching tonight (Thursday, October 5) at Tallulah’s Cabaret (12 Alexander), 7:30 pm. $2. 975-8555.

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