Love Letters of the Angels of Death Goes Global with the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Long-list

I’m so pleased to announce my debut novel has been included on the long-list of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Awards.

Of all the books written in or translated into English in 2013, 142 are contending for this award. They come from 39 different countries. Eleven of them are from my home country of Canada. I’m the only name in the Q section, coming right after Thomas Pynchon because — wow. Only ten (or so) books will make it onto the short-list, announced next spring.

It bears repeating that I’m very happy and grateful to the wonderful Edmonton Public Library for nominating the book.

Laugh Track at the Beauty School

This is not a picture of my four sisters and me; neither is my next novel.

I am one of five sisters. I was born first and in exchange for having the best memories of our parents when they were young and cool, I missed out on adventures my sisters had together after I swore off women for a life with my husband and sons. Different combinations of my sisters have traveled to Disneyland, New York City, Winnipeg, Amsterdam, the Northwest Territories, and the old gravel pit in Prince George all without me.

This year, for the first time, I made it to one of their “girls’ trips.” I met the three of my sisters who aren’t currently breastfeeding (see, someone’s always left out – it’s not personal) in Calgary to spend a weekend together.

I am terrible at ordering and it was over a bowl of thick green sauce at dinner that I taught the girls a new word: sistering. It’s like mothering only just between us. And then I warned them about my second novel. It’s about a group of five sisters.

No, it’s not about us.

If it’s not a tribute to our family why stretch the cast over five main characters? Well, because it’s not a stretch. There were five Spice Girls, five Go-Gos, five Miss Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, five Dionne quintuplets. My mind isn’t the only place where a group of five girls is the only size that makes sense.

It was impossible to write the book-sisters without invoking bits of my real sisters. I used some of our quirks and experiences as inspiration, like any writer would have done. To add to the tangle, our family is large. On my side alone there are seven siblings, seven spouses, one ex-spouse, and twenty-one nieces and nephews. It’s hard to create characters and situations that don’t overlap in some way with people I know very well simply because I know so many people so very well. When we’re primed to look, even general coincidences can seem like deliberate rip-offs. For instance, one of the sisters is the book is a nurse, just like Amy. One is divorced, like Sara. One is married to a man who’s adopted, like Mary’s husband. These elements aren’t uncommon inside or outside literature. Moreover, my book’s story wouldn’t work without them. And the story definitely wouldn’t work without the intimate understanding of sisterhood we sisters have given each other.

None of this is the same thing as writing a story about my sisters.

Still, I submitted to the girls teasing me about the book for the rest of the weekend. Mary even offered to bring her husband to the book launch so readers could meet “the real guy” in person. They let me have it, with that sharp sweetness of theirs and lots of laughter.

The next day Amy had planned girlie activities for us. We spent the morning shopping. That was easy. The afternoon was more difficult. The other girls wanted to go to a spa together. The only place that could book all four of us at the same time was not exactly a spa but a beauty school. I don’t want to use its real name so let’s just call it – oh, I don’t know – Carvel Mollege.

I’d had a facial only once before. It seemed like witchcraft – a superstitious ritual in smearing stuff on my face and wiping it off, a cycle of application and removal. The key to a successful facial is to end it immediately after finishing a thorough removal.

I was about to learn this.

If I’d been a more experienced exploiter of the pink ghetto that is esthetics, I would have realized how strangely my facial was unfolding and made some kind of protest. As it was I laid under a towel that smelled like someone else while a college girl let facial goops drip into my hairline, while she failed to rinse the cocktail of creams and toners and tonics off my skin.

At some arbitrarily determined point she said we were done. My skin felt tight and tacky as I stood up and looked for a mirror. There was only one in the room, mounted too high for me to see much of my face in it. All I could see was a dark, oily perimeter where my hair had soaked up the skin treatments.

Not a good sign.

The supervising instructor was waved out of a classroom to inspect my student’s work. “How do you feel?” she asked me.

“Pretty sticky.”

“From the moisturizer,” she finished for me.

I went downstairs, fingering the gummy surface of my face. In the lobby, my three little sisters were sitting in a love seat meant for two. They looked great. But when they saw me, they looked concerned – and amused. That’s when I knew for sure something wasn’t right. While the receptionist ran my card through the machine, I flexed my sticky face until it cracked. I stood in the lobby and peeled a sheet of – something – off my face.

Across the room, my sisters were cackling. “Why’d it have to be Jenny?”

Between my fingers I held a transparent mask of most of my face. It reminded me of a bored habit I had in grade four, pouring white glue into my hand and letting it dry before trying to peel it off in one piece. This glue mask was a good one. Every hair of my left eyebrow was perfectly visible.

I rolled the film into a ball between my fingers. “I’m not paying for this.”

My sisters kept laughing.

“I understand they’re just students,” I told the receptionist. “But look at my sisters: they’re not down here peeling their faces off.”

No one argued about refunding my money. Maybe they should have. My sisters and I had spun the barrel in a game of college student esthetician roulette and on our fourth shot, my shot, the game fired its inevitable concluding round.

We got in my minivan and drove away, off to a dinner where I would order another plate of food I wouldn’t like. Mary told me how radiant I looked. Amy lent me some makeup. And we never stopped laughing. That’s my sisters: the laugh track of my life, calming me down, cheering me up, convincing me this drama is much more fun than any amount of reason says it should be.

When my new book appears next year (please read it) don’t skip the dedication page. But just in case, let me reveal now how it will read:

For Amy, Sara, Mary, and Emily

All of whom inspired, none of whom are depicted in this book

Announcing Book #2

pubagreementToday I signed and mailed away the publishing agreement for my second novel. Once again, I’m working with Linda Leith Publishing in Montreal and the novel is a blackly comic literary treatment of family life. Our projected release date is Fall 2015. And I still can’t believe this is really my life.

Watch this space for more and more and more details to come.

Enough Envy for Everybody

Big stage for big literary celebrity

Maybe there comes a time in every writing career when quiet, solitary writer-person gets curious about the literary world’s version of hype — popular, public, celebrity hype.

It’s true for me, anyways. So before they were sold out, I bought a ticket to see a celebrity author passing through my city. He’s a Canadian now living in the United States who appeared before a crowd of 500 people a few blocks from my house.

The author and I are strangers. I haven’t read his books. I didn’t go to see him as a fan or as a friend. Maybe I was falling back into my social science habits – acting the clinical outsider, coolly observing the phenomenon of celebrity enacted literary-style. There’s something nobly aloof about telling it that way. It lifts my delicate, fretting artist’s heart out of the story.

I arrived at the theatre just as “please find your seats” was announced. Arriving late at a sold-out event means making a rough, rude spectacle, crawling over people to lone seats in the centres of rows. I hadn’t dressed up and I arrived smelling like the onion I’d diced making dinner. That was me — rude, sloppy, late-coming, envious spectacle.

Goodwill and admiration don’t negate envy. Envy, my dad taught me, is different from jealousy. Envy is simply wanting the same thing other people have. Jealousy is wanting to get it by taking it away from them. Jealousy is hating them for having it. Those were the semantics I was raised on.

I knew sitting in a crowd gawking at a celebrity author wouldn’t get all the people who read and talk about his books to read and talk about my book too. Still, reading seems to work on a positive feedback cycle (social science!). The more people read, the more they keep reading. Reading is always good for writers.We lose nothing in supporting our colleagues — even when we’re just a tiny, anonymous faces on the far side of the footlights. There’s something slightly less noble about telling it that way.

Onstage, he read from his latest work. It was masterful and when I applauded, I felt like I meant it more than anyone else in the theatre. Then he talked. He talked about choices he’d made in his career that I wish I’d known to make in mine. He talked about disadvantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring and advantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring. He has more sisters than me. That stung. He must’ve mentioned his sisters three times — just like I would have.

Near the end, a book club leader from the audience asked him what he’s been reading lately. This isn’t the kind of amazing story where he answers, “Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist. Check it out.”

That’s not what he said. He answered he doesn’t read other writers’ fiction very often. Especially when talking to a book club member, it’s a claim that demands defending. The author explained, “You read it and it’s like, ‘ah, they’re so good, why do I even bother?’”

That’s what a celebrity author looks like, lit onstage with his delicate, fretting artist’s heart. He looks a lot like the rest of us – rough and envious, unsure. I hadn’t known when I left my house that night, but this was what I’d come hoping to see for myself. There might not be much that’s noble about telling it this way.

How to Read Minds in the Check-out Line: Hints for Parents of Toddlers

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of time.

My uber-toddler. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Those social media posts and blog entries written by moms of young children, complaining about the way strangers interact with them in public spaces — I could have written those. In fact, I once wrote and voiced a five minute piece for CBC Radio about a low point in my public mothering of little kids.

My youngest child is the ripe old age of six and doesn’t attract much attention in grocery stores or restaurants anymore. However, in order to arrive at this time of life, I first had to run the gauntlet of five toddlers.

All five of my kids had monster moments but two of my toddlers – the first and the fourth – consistently and horrendously stood out when we were in public. They were what kind people called “handfuls” or “going concerns” and what not-so-kind people might’ve considered proof that there’s no hope for the future of humanity. Thanks to bad mate-selection on their father’s part, these two also out-class me in every measure of relative size and strength and I often looked more like their underqualified, overwhelmed, soon-to-be-fired nanny than their biological mother.

What I mean to say is I fought in the trenches of toddler-motherhood for as long and as hard as just about any other women ever to complain about it. I hear you, sisters. I remember. Three short years ago, I was you.

I want to show support for mothers of younger children – treat toddler-moms and their kids the way I wish people had treated us. I want to give the assurances I wish someone had given me – even if it’s going to be a few years before toddler-moms will be able to believe me.

Of course, what I have to say might not be true for everyone witnessing the struggle. I know that. I went on the radio and testified about it to the whole country. Yes, there are plenty of grownup weirdos who have no idea how to behave in public and feel they can scold other adults for things that do not concern them. I don’t know what they’re thinking.

But I can speak for myself. And between me and more than a few other parents with older kids, it’s safe to assume there are allies among the onlookers. It’s safe to assume:

No one cares about the noise and mess kids make as much as their parents do. Everyone in line at the Wal-Mart has ninety-nine problems and someone else’s little kid isn’t one. To strangers, little kids are pretty much white noise – alright, maybe beige noise but definitely not the red noise they sound like to their own parents. What might be interpreted as hostile glaring from strangers is likely just bored staring, idle bemusement, a lack of anything else to look at. We won’t remember or resent a noisy little kid. But thanks for the floor-show while we wait in line.

Wanna know what we’re thinking of that noisy little kids’ parents? I’ll tell ya. Nothing. We’re usually not thinking about them at all. Like most people, we have no trouble staying busy thinking all about ourselves. Most experienced parents are only too happy to let newer parents enjoy absolute rule in their own jurisdictions. There’s nothing we want more for toddler-wranglers than the free exercise their own good judgment. Maybe we’re jerks but compassion isn’t the only thing on our minds when faced with someone else’s struggle. Sometimes, it’s more like, “Better them than me.”

Our smiles for goofy little kids aren’t supposed to encourage them to keep acting up. We usually give frazzled moms space, willfully trying not to notice them. But kids don’t understand space the same way we do and can wind up too close to ignore. At times like these, our smiles and friendliness are meant to show goofy kid’s mom that he’s not bothering us nearly as much as she might worry he is. It’s a simple sign of good will. His mom is having a hard time and a common, deeply ingrained social reaction to seeing one of our kind in distress is to offer non-verbal reassurance and comfort with a smile. We don’t expect those moms to smile back at us – heck knows we never did – but if they did, it’d probably relieve some tension. It’d feel better than scowling and making a retort about how it’s not okay. The truth is, if no one’s being hurt, it probably is okay.

Sometimes someone is being hurt and it’s hard for moms of older kids to ignore years of well-learned reflexes and let it go. Raising toddlers leaves us with something like a post-traumatic stress disorder, hurling us into flashbacks of our very worst days – the ones when we went to the emergency room hoping the medical staff wouldn’t call the police about our kids’ bizarre but completely accidental injuries. When a fellow mom is distracted and her little kids look like they’re in danger, we might break down and squawk out a warning.

This was me, a few weeks ago. I was waiting in a slow, painful line while a mom with two young kids was paying for her purchases. She was focused on the cashier, trying to move along as quickly as possible, and her older daughter was pushing the baby back and forth in a shopping cart. It was a harmless, boring game. It was so boring the little girl added a new element. She pushed the cart as hard as she could and let go of the handle. The baby was launched toward a metal shelf. His mom was still busy with the cashier and hadn’t seen any of it. So this horrible voice called out “Excuse me, your daughter…” It was my voice. The mother whirled around, lunged for the handle of the cart, and turned back to the cashier without looking at me. She wasn’t grateful. She was ticked off. I get it. It’s embarrassing to feel like we’ve been called out in public for making a mistake. It’s embarrassing to be the one doing the calling. But accidents happen to everyone, even good parents. People jump in to help not because they don’t care about adults but because they do care about kids. That sounds sappy but it’s true.

We’re not trying to sabotage other parents. Everyone in the mall is muddling through, trying to figure out his or her own humanity. For me, being a good human means if I see a toddler standing alone screaming in a big space full of strange adults I will always rush up to him and say, “Hey, honey, are you okay? Are you by yourself?” Among a thousand reasons, I will do this in case someone who may not be such a softie steps in to take advantage of the situation. There is no way for me to know the kid’s mom is standing behind a nearby planter trying to teach him a lesson about the perils of being a doofus who won’t stop running away. I raised a kid exactly like that. I know how frustrated and desperate he can make his poor mother. But I also know how relieved and grateful I was every time my son truly was lost and someone reached out and rescued both of us. Personally, I’m happier living in a world where the “natural and logical consequences” of my kids’ bad behaviour is encountering compassion from someone with no specific duty to love and care for them who’s willing to love and care for them anyway.

Toddler-mothering sisters, we’re in this together, though maybe not at the same time. We’ve obsessed over the same little failures, exulted in the same small successes. Maybe no one has more confidence in young mothers’ abilities to overcome than mothers just a few years ahead of their schedule. We’ve lived through toddlers and emerged largely undamaged. More importantly, so have our freshly civilized older kids.

Book’s Belated Birthday

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Goofing around on Google, I read a blog post by author Lauren Carter where she mentions a review I wrote of her debut novel, Swarm. The occasion was the one year anniversary of the release of her book and the post was a list of great, book-related things that have happened to her in that time.

Lauren’s idea struck me as a good one – a theft-worthy one, one to make me feel a little less robbed of the roses we were too frantic to stop to smell this summer when the one year anniversary of my novel came and went without my notice.

Here’s my version of the one-year celebration list. [If your Jenny-is-a-horrible-braggart-alarm is tripping, please close this tab or relax and try to read the list as gratitude – which it is and which ought to be expressed.]

  • My book returned me to Montreal and Toronto and gave me excellent reasons to leave their airports for the first time. Both cities were magnifique with cool people, great art, literary events, and me roaming around reading maps like a dork.
  • My book toured me around most of Alberta (no map required): Lacombe, Edmonton, Calgary, Sherwood Park, Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Hill Springs, and a quiet homecoming in Raymond, the town where I graduated from high school.
  • Drama! In the peculiar American-Mormon book scene, my book was made a finalist for an award with one hand and branded heresy in a review in the local media with the other hand. Eventually, the review was revised (a mighty feat) and an apology made.
  • Apart from the Salt Lake City newspaper debacle, the book got great reviews and mentions in major newspapers, regional newspapers, trade publications, magazines, and online. It was awesome (in the literal sense that it inspired awe in me) to see thoughtful reviewers finding things in my book I didn’t realize were there. Making art is frickin’ amazing like that. Highlights include Publishers Weekly, National Post, and the sweetest text ever from my dad.
  • The book led me to discover my colleagues – my fabulous, generous colleagues. I wrote my novel in isolation and it wasn’t until it was nearly time to release it that I started meeting the writers, librarians, bloggers, and readers I should have been befriending all along. My book gave me a community.
  • On the merits of the book, I won a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. I got to take my parents, husband, and a few of my sons to a fancy ceremony in a sandstone mansion before wearing the medal inscribed with my name to vacuum my house.
  • The television appearances were challenging but book promotion also got me spots on radio and podcasts. As long as no one can see me, I enjoy speaking almost as much as writing and these appearances were great pleasures.
  • The book actually sold. It was distributed in large bookstores as well as in indies and online. In Novemeber 2013, it was a regional bestseller according the Edmonton Journal.
  • Meeting new people was wonderful but so was getting back in touch with old friends and long lost family and hearing how the book affected them. Sure, there was lots of “oh, it’s so morbid” but there were also touching tributes I will never forget as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.

Don’t mistake my list for a eulogy. There’s more ahead for Love Letters of the Angels of Death in its second year. More copies have been printed, more book clubs have been booked, and more good news will appear in due time. Thanks for your help and support. Yes, you did – simply reading to the end of this blog post is a show of support.

I’m Back — or, Someone Like Me

We — my family of seven — have moved to a new house in a new city. Though the physical act of moving is over we’re still not quite ourselves. Frankly, we never will be. We’re different now. I’ve moved enough to believe that, in time, these new differences will be mostly for the best. And I know “for the best” hardly ever means pleasant or easy.

One comfort I have as I and six other pieces of me venture into the more-than-ordinarily unknown every day is the house we have to come back to. Unlike all the other houses we’ve owned, this one was home to another family before us. They built it to suit their fancies and lived here for twenty-four years. Naturally, it’s a bit quirky — a bit haunted.

Here are some highlights.

Cold Storage!

Cold storage to delay all kinds of decay

This is the cold storage room which, as my father who was raised in a converted former funeral parlor explained to me when I was 4 years old, is the best place in the house to keep a dead person. It’s also got a rack for properly storing fur coats — at last.

Secret office space behind the furnace

Ultra-private office space behind the furnace

Behind the furnace is the secret inner office. I’m not sure who used to work here but he was probably very easily distracted. No windows, lots of white noise, total privacy. No, I’m not using it as my office. I work in the laundry room, like a normal person.

Laundry Office

I’m at the laundry room (What?), I’m at the office (What?), I’m at the combination laundry room and office

Honestly, I’m just happy to be working sitting in a chair instead of leaning against the headboard of my bed, typing on a tea tray.

The wrong wood

The wrong wood

This is what let us buy the house at the price we probably would have paid if it was truly haunted. Everything here is finished in a light, strongly grained oak. In 1990, it was right on. In 2014, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. It’s so wrong the sellers’ (very bad) realtor offered a cash-back incentive to help new buyers rip it all out. We opted for a reduced price instead and will be keeping all the lovely once-living material a hardwood tree was sacrificed to provide. I like it fine and even if I didn’t, it’d be sick and tragic to waste it.

Pin oak leaf

Pin oak leaf

There’s more oak outside in the form of a still-living tree. It’s fertilized by the carcass of a dead dog lovingly buried at its base. What was the name of that grody Stephen King book? About the cemetery, with the pets?

Unstained cedar doesn't look like much but it smells amazing

Unstained cedar doesn’t look like much but it smells amazing

Also outdoors is the virgin cedar deck. It’s never been stained or varnished and when it’s warm the whole backyard smells like a fancy new hope chest. Smell-writer loves it.

Sturgeon (yes, we know he's a goldfish)

Sturgeon is not a sturgeon

Formerly from outside is Sturgeon. He’s the sole survivor of the backyard pond. When a freak snow storm hit the first week of September, the boys couldn’t bear to leave him outside. Yes, we realize he is not a sturgeon but a goldfish (and we also realize a snow storm in September in Alberta is actually not freakish).

Her de facto name is "It's That Spider Again"

Her de facto name is “It’s-That-Spider-Again”

Here’s another new, accidental pet. This big, skinny spider has been hanging around watching the kids play video games in the basement ever since we got here. She commands too much respect for anyone to want to kill her and she refuses to step onto a sheet of paper so we can turn her loose in the outside world.

portal

The Portal

This might be our favourite thing about the new house. It’s a magic portal in the kitchen floor that sucks up dirt from an ordinary broom and hurls our filth into the void. It might be old technology to better housekeepers but I remain astounded by it.

rock

Sometimes a rock is just a rock

When my dear barely-older-than-me brother — my childhood animus — came to help us unload the moving truck, he said this towering rock in the front yard was the only thing he envied. Let’s not psychoanalyse this any further.

Tabula rasa

Tabula rasa

And last of all the quirky and darling things I could include in the tour of the house that has consumed all my time, energy, and money for the last month, here’s a 17 foot tall neutral-coloured wall I have no idea how to decorate. Leave suggestions in the comments, I beg you.

With that, here’s to clean slates and new beginnings and all things desperately optimistic.