A Conversation with Melissa Barbeau, Author of THE LUMINOUS SEA

You may try to find comparisons, but Melissa Barbeau’s THE LUMINOUS SEA is unlike any other novel you’ve read before—rich, fast-paced, mysterious, mesmerizing and brutal at once. Sharon Bala called the book “A radiant debut, full of sly wit and glorious imagery.” Find out more about the novel here—and then read on for a conversation with the author.

Briny Books: What’s the part of your book that you’re most proud of—the scene you can’t believe you pulled off, the part you most want to highlight, the passage you’d like to enclose in brackets with a note underlined: I WROTE THIS?

Melissa Barbeau: When I was writing the book I couldn’t move past the scene in which something terrible happens to my young research assistant Vivienne until I knew exactly what happened to her and how she felt while this terrible thing was taking place. There were many versions of this passage—more and less awful. I wanted so much for the scene to be honest and authentic to the story and truthful to Vivienne’s experience. I wanted the reader to be with her physically and emotionally in that moment, to feel her shock and fear. And I wanted the reader to recognize how alone Vivienne is in that scene—and how alone she feels in the scene that follows it—because I think a traumatic event can be the loneliest moment in a person’s life. If I’ve written it right a reader can immerse themselves in Vivienne while the terrible thing is happening and feel those things with her and at the same time float outside of her, empathizing with this vulnerable young girl. And if a reader can do that, I hope they also realize there is someone out there to sit with them in their own lonely, confused, frightened moments; that there are people out there in the world who would soothe their tender selves when something terrible happens to them. I felt vulnerable writing this, and scared, and it’s the part of the book I most hope worked.

Briny Books: Was there a part of your narrative that surprised you as your book came together, suggesting that the author isn’t always completely in charge of her work and something deeper and weirder is going on? 

Melissa Barbeau: I didn’t expect to be charmed by that philandering, no-goodnik Bradley. He charms his way through the book and, darn it, he charmed me, too. Many readers have told me how rotten that Bradley is, that he’s a sleeveen, that Tama should leave him, and I defend him every single time. I am surprised at the great and lasting affection for him and how willing I am to accommodate his inability to deal with life without women. I didn’t know that if I wrote a sweet talker that I might find myself falling for his foolishness. And I didn’t know that characters I made up out of my head would end up forming relationships with me too!

Briny Books: Public readings (and learning to do them) are a big part of an author’s experience. But is there a part of your book that you know you’ll never have the nerve to read out loud? 

Melissa Barbeau: I’m not sure I will ever read the scene where something terrible happens to Vivienne. I want that scene to happen in a quiet place between the reader and the book where the reader has time and space to feel and process what happens. But that scene also makes me feel vulnerable and exposed, so maybe that’s the real reason for my reticence to read it. I think it would have to be just the right moment with just the right group of people. I feel like something terrible might manifest if the words were actually spoken out loud.

I am not shy at all about reading the sex scenes and have discovered that they are fan favorites with the 60+ demographic at public library readings.

Briny Books: What has been your favourite reader response to your book so far?

Melissa Barbeau: When I was writing the sea creature in The Luminous Sea, I made a conscious effort to avoid describing ALL of her. I never tell the reader what the creature’s face looks like—so anyone who pictures a complete creature is, to some extent, making her up themselves. The effect, I hope, is that each reader imagines their own unique animal. A book club in St. John’s read my book and after their discussion, these grown-ups each DREW a picture of what they thought the creature looked like and gave them to me. They were the most delightful crayon drawings and so very different from each other. Also, a teacher friend sent me a link to some kind of gruesome, deep sea anglerfish which was very scary looking at not at all what I thought the creature looked like but which she was certain did. I love to hear people describe “their” fish.

Briny Books: What book(s) is/are you reading at the moment?

Melissa Barbeau: I am a polygamous reader so there is a towering stack of books on the table next to my reading chair that I’m bouncing back and forth between. In non-fiction I’m reading The Silk Road by Peter Frankopan which is a non-Eurocentric history of the world, and Find a Way by Diana Nyad, who is a world-class ocean swimmer and the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage (at the age of 64!). I’m reading Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting because Matt, proprietor of my local independent bookstore Broken Books, recommended it to me. I just finished Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which led to a little discussion, with the above-mentioned Matt, about Hemingway’s idea that art is best experienced hungry—and makes me wonder if there’s something to be said about writing hungry. On the horizon is Karen Russell’s new book of short stories Orange World and Other Stories and Megan Gail Coles’ novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club—both of which I am beyond excited for.

Three Books with…Missy Marston

Bad ideas book cover

We asked Missy Marston, author of Bad Ideas, to name three books she considers essential titles, the books that come to mind first when she’s asked to recommend an excellent read. (Apparently, this was not easy…)

This is a tough question. There are so many books that have changed the way I think about life and how I think about writing. I would not be anything like myself, for example, if I hadn’t read Kathy Acker and Kurt Vonnegut in my twenties. Or Atwood and Laurence in my teens. And so on. But if I have to pick right now, I would recommend:

Experience, by Martin Amis

A brilliant, tender, hilarious, wise memoir. I have read it twice and will read it again. I could read it once a year, no problem. I could probably read it once a month.

Martin Amis is one of the most gifted and innovative writers of our time. With Experience, he discloses a 
private life every bit as unique and fascinating as his bestselling novels. He explores his relationship with his beloved father, novelist Kingsley Amis, and examines the life and legacy of his cousin, Lucy Partington, who was abducted and murdered by one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers. Experience also dissects the literary scene, and includes Amis’portraits of Saul Bellow, Salman Rushdie, Allan Bloom, Philip Larkin, Robert Graves, and Ian McEwan, among others. Not since Nabokov’s Speak, Memory has such an implausible life been recorded by such an inimitable talent.


Pontypool Changes Everything, by Tony Burgess

Absolute balls-out madness. Again, have read it twice and will no doubt read it again. Even when I only have the vaguest idea what is going on in this novel, I am still having such a good time as a reader. Great premise— language as a zombie-creating virus—and prose as rhythmic and beautiful as any poetry I have ever read.

What if you woke up and began your morning by devoting the rest of your life to a murderous rampage, a never-ending cannibalistic spree? And what if you were only one of thousands who shared the same compulsion? This novel depicts just such an epidemic. It’s the compelling, terrifying story of a devastating virus. You catch it through conversation, and once it has you, it leads you on a strange journey—into another world where the undead chase you down the streets of the smallest towns and largest cities.


Glass, Irony and God, by Anne Carson

This book blew my mind. I could not put it down. The writing is laser-precise, beautiful, and furious. It made me want to read everything she has ever written.

Known as a remarkable classicist, Anne Carson weaves contemporary and ancient poetic strands with stunning style in Glass, Irony and God. This collection includes: “The Glass Essay,” a powerful poem about the end of a love affair, told in the context of Carson’s reading of the Bronte sisters; “Book of Isaiah,” a poem evoking the deeply primitive feel of ancient Judaism; and “The Fall of Rome,” about her trip to “find” Rome and her struggle to overcome feelings of a terrible alienation there.

A Conversation with Amy Spurway, author of CROW

Amy Spurway’s Crow was called “ridiculous—and ridiculously good” in The Globe and Mail, which just about sums it up. Go here to learn more about Crow and to find out why I finished reading it while sitting naked in an empty bathtub—and then read on for a conversation with the novel’s incredible author.

Briny Books: What’s the part of your book that you’re most proud of—the scene you can’t believe you pulled off, the part you most want to highlight, the passage you’d like to enclose in brackets with a note underlined: I WROTE THIS?

Amy Spurway: I’ll try to answer this without too much in the way of spoilers, but the part of Crow of which I’m most proud is the ending. It felt risky and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. At one point, I was toying with a very different conclusion, but the voice of Crow herself would have none of it. Once I committed to this ending—at the insistence of a character who flat out refused to cooperate with anything else—the final pages just came flowing out.

And my favourite passage in there is Crow contemplating her death, saying, “…will the flickers of energy that steered my flesh and bones through the world simply evaporate? Will they too be absorbed by the earth and the trees and the land I loved? Or will my gaudy spirit hitch a ride on the saltwater wind and swirl away to a place where there’s nothing but golden light and good memories and the sound of Mama gently whispering, Get your bony arse out of bed before I kick it out.” I love the heart, the sorrow, and the sense of wonder in that particular bit. And of course, a dash of humour doesn’t hurt.

Briny Books: Was there a part of your narrative that surprised you as your book came together, suggesting that the author isn’t always completely in charge of her work and something deeper and weirder is going on? 

Amy Spurway: There was most certainly something deeper and weirder going on at times, and I think it stems from the vividness of my characters and their voices. There were times when I felt like I was trying to direct a play while all the actors (i.e. my characters) were going off script, doing full-fledged improv. One example of this was the bit about the onions. I—the author—did not know they were onions until I got to that particular scene and the voice of Effie Fortune said, “They’re onions, ya fool.” And I just sat in my office laughing so hard that my husband thought I’d lost my mind. The entire process was full of such surprises. 

Briny Books: Public readings (and learning to do them) are a big part of an author’s experience. But is there a part of your book that you know you’ll never have the nerve to read out loud? 

Amy Spurway: Public readings are one of my favourite parts of this whole experience, and I’ve read the entire book out loud to myself at least a few times already, so there’s nothing I’d shy away from in that regard. That being said, I do try to be cognizant of my audience, so depending on the crowd, I will sometimes leapfrog over certain sections, words, or phrases on the spot to keep things a little more on the PG side if necessary. I see that as a heightened awareness of my responsibility as a performer. 

Briny Books: What has been your favourite reader response to your book so far? 

Amy Spurway: The response I’ve had from my fellow Cape Bretoners—who are scattered far and wide—has been phenomenal. I tried to make sure that I did the people and the place an honest, loving justice with this story and from what I can gather, I succeeded. My other favourite reader responses have come from outside the region. People who aren’t necessarily familiar with Cape Breton, but who still see some important piece of themselves, their lives, their communities, reflected in this book. It is, in many ways, a story that transcends such boundaries. I didn’t really realize that until I started hearing from readers in different parts of Canada and the US, so that has been absolutely delightful. 

Briny Books: What book(s) is/are you reading at the moment? 

Amy Spurway: I’m in research mode these days so my reading right now has a bit of a weird bent to it. Currently I am picking my way through: A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bly, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deidre English, and a giant reference tome called The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. I’m gonna look some kinda cute hauling that one out at the beach this summer!

Important Update from Briny Books

Whew! It’s not even been three weeks since the launch of Briny Books, but what a time it’s been. We had no idea what to expect when the project launched because we’re working with a new model of bookselling and learning as we go. 

The Good News? Briny Books has been a success beyond our expectations. We’ve put these amazing titles on the radar of so many readers, made readers think about where they buy their books and why that matters, we know readers have purchased these books in-store at their own indie bookshops (including at Blue Heron and the amazing Forster’s Book Garden in Bolton, ON, who sent us a photo of their display) and best of all: we sold SO many books to readers across the country. Thank you to everybody who has supported this project. 

The Bad News? We’ve sold SO many books to readers across the country…that funds to pay for free shipping have been exhausted. This is the best bad news ever, to be honest. But for small businesses like Blue Heron Books, using Canada Post is already prohibitive, and it’s not sustainable that they pay shipping costs that sometimes cost as much as the item being shipped. 

So what to do? (We’re learning as we go, remember?)

We have decided to suspend the FREE SHIPPING option for Briny Books for now. We will continue to promote these titles, and encourage you to buy them at Blue Heron or Forster’s Book Garden, or to ask your local bookseller to order them if they’re not in stock already, or you can order online through our site with shipping charges now included. Some of our books are also for sale through the amazing indie book retailer All Lit Up

And when Briny Books’ Fall Lineup makes its debut (in October!), we will once again have free shipping on our new titles, but for a limited time only—which is good encouragement to buy early. 

Thanks for understanding, for continuing to support this project, and for everything you do to enliven book culture in Canada, whether by writing books, selling books, recommending books, blogging about books, and by reading books (which is the most important part!). 

Three Books With… Zalika Reid-Benta

Frying Plantain Cover

We asked Zalika Reid-Benta, whose debut is the story collection Frying Plantain, to name three books she considers essential titles, the books that come to mind first when she’s asked to recommend an excellent read.


Bastard out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison

The publication of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina was a landmark event that won the author a National Book Award nomination and launched her into the literary spotlight. Critics have likened Allison to Harper Lee, naming her the first writer of her generation to dramatize the lives and language of poor whites in the South. Since its appearance, the novel has inspired an award-winning film and has been banned from libraries and classrooms, championed by fans, and defended by critics.

Greenville County, South Carolina, is a wild, lush place that is home to the Boatwright family—a tight-knit clan of rough-hewn, hard-drinking men who shoot up each other’s trucks, and indomitable women who get married young and age too quickly. At the heart of this story is Ruth Anne Boatwright, known simply as Bone, a bastard child who observes the world around her with a mercilessly keen perspective. When her stepfather Daddy Glen, “cold as death, mean as a snake,” becomes increasingly more vicious toward her, Bone finds herself caught in a family triangle that tests the loyalty of her mother, Anney—and leads to a final, harrowing encounter from which there can be no turning back.


The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.


George & Rue, by George Elliott Clarke

By all accounts, the bludgeoning murder in 1949 of a taxi driver by brothers George and Rufus Hamilton was a slug-ugly” crime. George and Rue were hanged for it. Repelled and intrigued by his ancestral cousins’ deeds, George Elliott Clarke uncovered a story of violence, poverty and shame—a story that led first to the Governor General’s Award–winning Execution Poems and culminated in Clarke’s brilliant and darkly comic debut novel.

Named an editor’s choice by The Bookseller in the UK, George & Rue is a book about death that brims with fierce vitality and the sensual, rhythmic beauty that so often defines Clarke’s writing.

On Book Mail, and Free Shipping

Have you read Helene Hanff’s epistolary memoir, 84 Charing Cross Road, the absolutely delightful story of her correspondence with London bookseller Frank Doel? Their relationship was forged over two decades as Doel sourced the obscure titles Hanff requested and sent them across the ocean to her home in New York City. Via “book mail,” special postal rates for sending books, which—alas—are no more… These days, mailing books is a costly endeavour, although a certain online retailer’s dominance has led to readers forgetting this fact, making us take begin to take “free shipping” for granted. But for a small business—like the one featured in Hanff’s book, like the independent bookstore you’ve got in your town—the cost is a big one, and one that under most circumstances they can’t afford to cover.

Which is why the FREE SHIPPING on #BrinyBooks titles is something we don’t take for granted at all, and I’m grateful to Blue Heron Books for making it work—in the same of making it as enticing as possible to get our great books in the hands of great readers. 

And it’s true that one thing that hasn’t changed since Hanff’s book was published is how exciting it is to wait for—and get!—books in the mail.

Talking Briny Books on the Radio

Thanks to CBC Ontario Morning for having me on today to talk about Briny Books and our incredible inaugural selections. Listen again to the segment on the podcast here—I come on at 33.00.

Books Are Magic

No sweater ever changed a life.