Guillaume Morissette on Montreal
In 2011, I drove from New York to Montreal, then spent three days in the city afraid to talk to anyone because I thought everyone spoke only French. I strolled the parks, checked out McGill’s campus and ate poutine, but generally felt like I was missing out on the truly great culture the city has to offer. This week Guillaume Morissette, author New Tab: A Novel, breaks down the neighborhoods, readings, journals/magazines/presses, writers and cool places that exist in Montreal. If only Real Pants had existed in 2011.
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As a literary city, Montreal is probably bi-polar. Its infrastructures (magazines, presses, creative writing programs and so on) churn out literary content in both French and English, though generally speaking, the Francophone and Anglophone writing communities tend to function separately, with minimal crossover between both scenes.
On one hand, this probably makes sense (language barrier, etc), but on the other, it seems odd (or maybe it just seems odd to me, being bilingual) that writers who live in the same city and have similar problems and similar concerns rarely get to interact with each other. Regardless of language, writers are writers, I feel.
For the purpose of this column, but also for brevity, I’ll focus mainly on Anglophone literary culture in Montreal, though I’ll try to give a few shoutouts to things from the Francophone side as well.
How long have you been living in Montreal?
Five years? Something like that. I moved here in early 2009, and I’ve been living here ever since minus a fun period of maybe six months where I was living in Toronto and was extremely broke and jumping from weird job to weird job a lot.
Do you like Montreal?
Yeah. Rent is affordable and public transportation seems fine to me. There’s a seemingly bottomless artistic community of writers, musicians, visual artists and weird people, though everyone always seems to be broke.
Do I have to be bilingual to live there?
No, but it helps. You can function more or less entirely in English in Montreal, though being bilingual when looking for a job makes your life much easier.
What does Montreal look like?
1) Old Montreal. Tourists, old buildings, expensive restaurants, St. Lawrence River.
2) Downtown. Concordia University, McGill, Urban Outfitters, malls, tall buildings for people with jobs, other things.
3) More downtown. Quartier Des Spectacles, Place Des Arts, other things.
4) Quartier Latin. UQAM, Office Nationale du Film, gay village, Radio Canada, other things.
5) Plateau. Chilling in public parks, bikes, Schwartz, Tam-Tams.
6) Mile-End. Artists, bagels, Drawn & Quarterly, everyone you know, afterparties.
What’s the literary scene like? Any good books coming out of Montreal?
Book-wise, Montreal had, I think, an insane year last year. Sean Michaels, a music blogger and first time novelist, won the Giller Prize, which is Canada’s most prestigious literary award, for his debut. Heather O’Neill returned after a ten-year hiatus with a great second novel and Anna Leventhal’s short story collection drew tons of praise. Rising authors like Meags Fitzgerald, Ashley Opheim and Jay Winston Ritchie also had a strong 2014, I feel.
Should I move to Montreal to study Creative Writing?
Maybe. Tuition costs in Quebec are lower than in other Canadian provinces, which is why a lot of people move to Montreal to study. Concordia University has a Creative Writing program that’s at times decent, at times dubious, but generally gets the job done, while McGill offers English Lit with some Writing courses.
Are there, like, reading series and stuff?
The bookstore Drawn & Quarterly does a really good job of organizing in-store readings and launches, and there are also monthly reading series like the Résonance reading series, curated by Klara du Plessis, the Kafein poetry series, LitPop, curated by Matrix Magazine, or Street Level, curated by Rollie Pemberton.
What about magazines or journals?
I have a soft spot for The Void, which is a student-run journal affiliated with Concordia. For a lot of writers coming out of Concordia’s Creative Writing program, The Void represents their first opportunity to be published in print, which is cool. There are also other things like LemonHound, an online poetry journal curated by Sina Queyras, Cosmonauts Avenue, Maisonneuve as well as Matrix.
Let’s say I complete a manuscript for a book, would I be able to find a press based in Montreal that would be willing to publish it and make me famous and stuff?
Maybe, though you’ll probably have to submit your thing to presses located outside of Montreal as well. One excellent Anglophone publisher in Montreal is Véhicule Press, which published my novel last year and has a long history dating back to the Véhicule Poets in the 70s. There are also smaller outfits like Metatron, which focuses on young authors and contemporary literature, and contests like the Robert Kroetsch Award, whose winner receives a publication deal.
What else can I find in Montreal?
Bands, parties, record labels, bad or ambiguous relationships AKA “writing material,” cold and lonely Februarys, bros, hiding in bed, poutine, Jewish bakeries, Provigo, massive student protests/uprisings, Habs, Parc Jeanne-Mance, not taking Hydro-Québec’s threats seriously, hangovers, Pop Montreal, Piknic Electronik, that one week where the F1 Grand Prix is in town and then suddenly it’s, like, douchebags everywhere, other things.
What if I am interested in literature in French written in Quebec, what would be a good place to start?
There’s tons of stuff, but let’s start with Le Quartanier, a well-curated literary press based in Montreal. You could also check out Poème Sale, an online journal that publishes a lot of emerging French Canadian authors, or magazines like Nouveau Projet or Urbania.
I would recommend Wendy, a graphic novel about contemporary art, partying and making bad decisions that’s funny and captures Montreal pretty well. If you feel like it, you could also check out the poetry of David McGimpsey or Laura Broadbent.
Yeah. Or, like, not really, but let’s stop here.