KATRINA ONSTAD appearing in the NOW 25th anniversary tent as part of the literary panel WRITING TORONTO at WORD ON THE STREET , Sunday (September 24), 1 pm, Queen's Park. www.thewordonthestreet.ca, www.nowtoronto.com. Rating: NNNNN
I can barely get two minutes to talk to Katrina Onstad - even on the phone. The thing getting in the way is that film festival that invades our town every September.
It's fitting. It was her smart debut novel How Happy To Be's vicious satire of the clusterfuck of the stars that got her so much attention when the book hit the streets last winter. Now she's working the fest for www.cbc.ca and talking about how, as we speak, Toronto is doing its typical bend-over for the stars.
Onstad's not shy about sharing her opinions about movie personalities who get to do whatever they want wherever they want. Take peace-loving, eco-conscious Sean Penn, for example.
"What kind of bullshit altruism is that?" she asks in the pointed way that's typical of her conversation and her writing. She likes to dissect pop culture with a very sharp tongue. "He's campaigning for the planet yet doesn't mind blowing smoke in the face of journalists."
She assures me, however, that her life covering the festival isn't as bad as it was for her book's protagonist, Maxine.
"The story in the book was always an exaggeration of the real film fest experience," she says, "though the real one is its own horror show.
"Fortunately, this year I didn't have to interface with any of the nasty American publicists." She sighs for a moment and feels a pang of sympathy for T.O.'s famous guests. "I did do interviews with Robin Wright Penn and Gabriel Byrne - in something like seven minutes each - but it's never satisfying, for me or for them."
How Happy To Be is a book with a split personality. One half is a toxic-toned critique of the public's insatiable desire for insider gossip, based on her experience as an arts writer for the National Post. The other tracks Maxine's sad backstory as a child brought up in a series of granola-loving BC collectives by an emotionally absent father.
Both are written with energy and passion, but, not surprisingly, reviewers were obsessed with the Post angle and almost ignored the poetic West Coast scenario.
"The novel started out as a satire of the media industry, and there is an audience for that, which is the huge irony of the book. But I'm glad it took a different focus than an insider tell-all. Who wants to read that shit?"
I'm not so sure. I remind her that The Devil Wears Prada was gobbled up on the page and onscreen, and for that matter, look at how Onstad's own book was reviewed.
"Well, an insider piece about Vogue is different," she insists. "Insider coverage of the newspaper wars might be interesting to us journalists, but not very much for anyone else."
At this year's Word On The Street, Onstad joins Dionne Brand and Michael Redhill (see review, page 88) on a literary panel in the NOW tent to discuss the pleasures and challenges of writing about Toronto. Onstad says she really enjoyed writing about the city's diversity.
"I loved the sequences set in Richmond Hill. They featured families - not from relative privilege - who'd come to Toronto from places like Guatemala and India and established communities out of nothing. I know it almost sounds like a cliché, but that's very Toronto."
Onstad was born in Vancouver, moved to Montreal to go to university and then travelled to Southeast Asia and Europe before coming to Toronto and picking up her first job at the Post. She had, she says, no qualms about working for Conrad Black's baby.
"I wouldn't have stayed there if I'd felt pressured," she explains. "I never felt fettered by the political perspective, and I actually think they were trying to do something over there. The Globe looked positively staid by comparison."
Occasionally, she aches for the mountains out west, but she remembers why she came east.
"I miss my family and the landscape, but culturally I couldn't wait to get out of there so I could drink a lot of coffee and be anguished with like-minded types."
Now she's juggling babies and books.
"It's been a crazy year. I had my second baby last July when we were doing the final edits for the novel. My editor, Jennifer Lambert, would call to ask, 'Can't we just tweak this a bit?' I was post-partum, and it was really hard."
At an event at the Gladstone last spring where Onstad shared the stage with Leah McLaren, McLaren famously dissed the editing process for her novel: "I don't know - at the Globe when I write a column I just send it and it appears on the page."
Onstad, in response, was generous in her praise: "Gee, I think of book editors as smart and underpaid." She laughs as she recalls the moment.
"I do have a great editor," she tells me. "She's an extremely gentle editor-slash-butcher, and I mean that in the best way. She really has a roomy brain."
It's taken her a while to get accustomed to being interviewed. Like a lot of professional journalists, she knows enough to be wary but sometimes can't resist saying what she thinks.
"I realize that in some ways it's easier to be interviewed, because there's an end. This conversation is just the start for you.
"It was weird the first few times I was the one answering the questions. You'd think that because I'm in the business I'd have learned to watch my mouth. But I got burned - even though I know that as writers we are looking for the juicy bite and don't worry too much if we decontextualize it.
"Sometimes I wish I didn't know the darker side of what we do."