David O'Meara, poet and bartender, is a literary character of a different age. Lean and lanky, the sideburns long, there's a bit of the Beat about him, San Francisco of decades ago the address to expect. But here he is, in Ottawa, down the steps of the Manx on Elgin Street, where, even with no cigarette lit, the atmosphere is hazy and a little dark. As it should be. A semi-basement hideaway, the Manx is the underground literary milieu of a city with a lively, idiosyncratic literary scene played out in small pubs and coffee shops. O'Meara, on his day off, insists we meet at the Manx, his second home, and vouches for the rigatoni and sausage ragout, the day's reasonably priced special. Ottawa, he says, "is a cheaper city than most to live in and so an easier place to write, with the bonus of a lot of cultural activity that audiences can afford."
O'Meara has tended bar at the Manx for 14 years. During the Saturday afternoons of Plan 99, the reading series he helped found, you'll find him explaining to customers – the ones who aren't there for the reading – that there's to be no chatter while the authors do their bit. Writer Rob McLennan, an inveterate blogger and the organizer of the city's Factory Reading Series, drops by from time to time. "As the capital, we're both local and national," he says. And, indeed, today the Montreal and Toronto poets Stephanie Bolster and David Seymour, in town for the Ottawa International Writers Festival, are deep in conversation at the next table.
While recesses like the Manx sustain the local character of literary Ottawa, especially during the colder months, it's the city's appetite for festivals that provides the unifying moments that bring together writers of all stripes. The Ottawa writers festival takes place twice a year, gathering a celebrated international cast in fall and spring. Come March, Ottawa poets corral their energies for VERSeFest, a city-wide celebration of the spoken and written word, and every June in Westboro, tens of thousands enjoy the open-air performances of aboriginal and Canadian artists, musicians and writers during Westfest. The one-off Northern Scene, which took place last April and May, brought together writers, artists and performers, many of them Inuit, from around the Canadian circumpolar North and had plenty of spectators wishing the event were a permanent fixture. One of them is John MacDonald, author of The Arctic Sky: Inuit Astronomy, Star Lore and Legend and now a resident of the city's Glebe neighbourhood. MacDonald – a regular patron of the antiquarian Patrick McGahern Books – arrived in the North as a 19-year-old clerk with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1959. He raised a family in Igloolik before following the path of many Northerners to this city, which, in the curious jet map of the modern world, is next door to Nunavut. (A lesser-known fact of its evolution, Ottawa is the urban centre with the largest concentration of Inuit outside of the Arctic.)
Ottawa also plays host to a couple of Canada's most exclusive literary events: the Writers' Trust Politics and the PEN gala, where authors and politicians, often rushing straight from the floor of the House of Commons, mingle boisterously after leaving their ammo at the door; and the Governor General's Literary Awards, Canada's original prizes for literary excellence. These evenings can be overwhelming, so much so that writers plucked out of their homes and coffee shops and seated at tables of black-tied literati – not to mention glitterati – can eat and clink too much, which is what happened to this writer some years ago. When the Governor General provided an impromptu tour of the stately quarters and pointed at a work by a famous Canadian artist and said, "That's Tony Urquhart," yours truly took the hand of the soldier standing in front of the piece in his scarlet dress uniform and said, like an idiot, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Urquhart." (The soldier, a disciplined fella, did not flinch. Neither did the Governor General, and, by night's end, the party had moved on to Zoé's Lounge, the plush bar of the august Fairmont Château Laurier, where this writer found himself a Quebec publisher – a boon unlikely to have occurred in Toronto.)
But the Governor General's and Writers' Trust galas, closed to most, merely provide the glitzy exterior to a city that has so many conclaves, it can take a detective to know all their guises. Perhaps this is why Ottawa has a plethora of literary bloggers, a proliferation that Rob McLennan attributes, in part, to the capital being a tech hot spot. This, and the goings-on from Parliament reported in the news, puts the city under a kind of media strobe light. More contemplative and entertaining views of contemporary Ottawa are to be found in the wide-angle gaze of novelists like André Alexis, Terry Fallis, Colin McAdam and Elizabeth Hay.
One afternoon, after a matinee at the Mayfair Theatre emceed by Shelagh Rogers, the Ottawa-raised popular host of CBC Radio One's books program, The Next Chapter, I catch up with Hay, who won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2007 for her novel Late Nights on Air. The Mayfair, located at Bank and Sunnyside, a flâneur's stroll up the street from the independent Octopus Books that I visit every time I'm in Ottawa, is a splendid, fabled repertory cinema that Hay's readers will know from her novel Garbo Laughs. A block away is Stella Luna Gelato Café, the coffee shop that she favours, but, too gorgeous a day to be indoors, we walk through quiet streets and lanes instead. Hay talks about the lakeside cabin where she likes to work and the proximity of Ottawa to the countryside, which she sees as one of the benefits of this city. She calls Ottawa "a good quiet place, out of the swim." When she was living in New York, she eventually found herself so homesick that she decided to move back.
"A place calls to you for deeply mysterious reasons that can't always be fully explained," says Hay, smiling in the beguiling way of a person at ease. Her father, she tells me, was a headmaster, and she often wonders if this is the reason she occasionally finds Ottawa "a strange place, even tense sometimes. When I pass the Parliament Buildings or some statue or other, I always have the uncomfortable feeling of an exam: Do I know enough about Canada? Do I know who this or that Cartier was?"
Indeed, this is a city steeped in history and replete with museums and galleries to preserve that past – the evolving Canadian Museum of Civilization, the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum, to name a few. Then there are the media types, who like to gather at the Métropolitain Brasserie & Restaurant, steps away from the Fairmont Château Laurier and the Hill, to gossip or celebrate, or to dissect the day's brewing controversies. The Fourth Estate lives on thrills: on the scuttlebutt, facts and rumours that lie at the intersection of private and public lives where the news so often begins. This sine qua non of Ottawa literary life becomes evident over breakfast at the arcane Mayflower Restaurant & Pub. With old-fashioned booths and bottomless American coffee, the Mayflower is the sort of timeless breakfast joint where you could order a gin to go with your omelette and no one would blink. There, my Parliament-beat reporter pal warns me to keep my voice down as he glances warily about the room. In Ottawa, it turns out, people-listening, as much as people-watching, is the name of the literary game.
Later at Benny's Bistro, a discreet diner at the back of the excellent French Baker in ByWard Market, I order an espresso and sit down with Edem Awumey, a thirtysomething novelist I very much admire. Raised in Togo, West Africa, Awumey moved to Hull in 2005. He's the author of the Prix Goncourt-nominated novel Dirty Feet and used to teach English-speaking bureaucrats French to get by. Fondly, he speaks of the friendship he formed with a French-Canadian civil servant and writer and how the regular lunches they had at Hull's Piz'za-za helped the African-Canadian think of his unlikely new northern residence as home.
I dig into pan-fried fingerling potatoes with diced, double-smoked bacon while Awumey excitedly explains that Hull was once known as Little Chicago – Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed in its clubs and cabarets – and that the history of Ottawa's companion city provided a lot of material for his most recent novel, Rose déluge. Before he left Africa, he says with a laugh, he thought of Quebec "as a village in the ancient Gaul of Asterix and Obelix, only it was resisting Americans, not Romans." Improbably, but with an indisputable logic, Awumey describes how living on the border of Quebec and Ontario reminds him of his childhood in Lomé, on the frontier of Togo and Ghana. "The capital," he says, "is striking for the possibility of living between spaces, between universes, between languages."
01 At lunchtime and after work, the Métropolitain Brasserie & Restaurant fills with hungry national reporters, noshing on French bistro fare like onion soup, steak frites and coq au vin.
02 Stripped to the brick and decorated with vintage maritime bric-a-brac, the Whalesbone Oyster House is the place to take your Ottawa poet pal when he or she needs a treat, or to be taken by a journalist when the stories you have to share are the menu du jour.
03 ARC The.Hotel is a small, independently owned property a couple of blocks from Parliament Hill. A boon for the inquisitive, the restaurant is favoured by civil servants seeking a little privacy to go with executive chef Jason Duffy's locally sourced fare.
04 The Mayflower Restaurant & Pub is a survivor of small-town Ottawa, untouched by the development that has taken place all around it. (613-238-3731)
05 Good pub fare and friendly service are the reasons there are lineups for brunch at the Manx. The Plan 99 reading series takes place for three months in spring and fall. (613-231-2070)
06 Benny's Bistro, open for breakfast and lunch in a room at the back of the French Baker, is just the spot to convince the news editor who's already been up and at it for a few hours of the merits of a second breakfast – and your own writing talents.
07 Zoé's Lounge, at the Fairmont Château Laurier, is the favoured meeting place of politicians, diplomats and lucky authors before and after big parties. Swing by any day for afternoon tea, or on Friday and Saturday nights for live entertainment.
08 Favoured by Rob McLennan for thinking and writing, Bridgehead is a local chain of fair trade coffee shops with four outlets on Bank Street in the Glebe. David O'Meara prefers Pressed, close to Chinatown, with live jazz, bluegrass, poetry readings and open-mic events, and Raw Sugar Café, which has a small library for whiling away the afternoon until live musicians take the stage. The Stella Luna Gelato Café that Elizabeth Hay likes is at Bank and Sunnyside, a block away from the Mayfair Theatre.
Factory Reading Series
October 11 and 21
Ottawa International Writers Festival
October 24-30, 2013, and April 25-30, 2014
September 14 to November 16
March 25-30, 2014
Second weekend of June, 2014
Air Canada and Air Canada Express operate the most non-stop flights to Ottawa from Canada, the U.S. and cities around the world.