Reading In Toronto, Traveling Some Unexpected Full Circles

The first time I was in the Pearson Airport in Toronto this year, 4000 km from home, I was on a stop-over on a cross-country flight with all my immediate family members.  There were seven of us but, suddenly, only six boarding passes.  It made for some exciting air-travel fun.

The second time I was in Pearson Airport this year, I was by myself.  It was a bit too quiet but at least my passenger to boarding pass ratio was a solid one to one.  This time, I was stopping in Toronto, staying for a book event at the venue my publisher calls “the bookstore of our dreams.”  Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t bring along anyone to pinch me.

The view – When I sent the pic to my husband he thought it was of the inside of an empty vending machine.

I booked a room downtown, not realizing until I saw it jutting out of the skyline, that I’d be staying two blocks from the CN Tower.  In the hotel lobby, I wondered if I’d be able to see the tower from my tenth floor window.  Not so much…

The book event – which was for all five of the 2013 authors of Linda Leith Publishing — was on Bay Street at Ben McNally Books.  In every city, long-established, well-known stores are sometimes called landmarks but Ben McNally Books really is picturesque – pillars, carved woodwork, chandeliers, and books, even my book.

In the shop were people I’d been working with for the past year whom I had yet to meet in real life.  What puts the “Linda Leith” in Linda Leith Publishing is a real person: a lovely, bold, accomplished writer, teacher, editor, and publisher.  She’s a fellow mother of boys, the eldest daughter of a large family, a survivor/beneficiary of her parents’ many relocations during her years at home.  It’s no wonder she was the publisher to look at my work and “get it.”

The ceiling in Ben McNally Books on Bay Street

The ceiling in Ben McNally Books on Bay Street

Here’s something I know about myself.  I love doing readings.  I love audiences and microphones and voice-acting my way through my story for people to hear.  The storytelling part of a book event is always my favourite part.

Meeting the other LLP authors was another pleasure.  I already knew they were formidable people.  They’ve written multiple books, worked in publishing and academia, lived and studied abroad, eschewed car ownership.  They’re multi-lingual and speak with cool accents.  They don’t get lost traveling on foot in downtown Toronto.  And they are very kind to the dippy little sister figure in their midst.

The consensus at the casual dinner after the event was that I should spend the time the next day, before my return flight, visiting the Royal Ontario Museum.  It was a long walk to get there – one that kept getting interrupted by women about my size asking for directions I couldn’t give.  In a big city, little girls gotta stick together.

Even after the rave reviews, the museum far exceeded my expectations.  It was vast and fascinating.

And up on the third floor, in a dim room with stone mortared to the walls, was a mummy taken from Egypt.  There he was, as the narrator of my novel would say, “caught in a bad funeral that threatened to go on until the end of the world.”  Dry and brown and desecrated with his face, neck, and toes exposed from the bandages — dead people, there’s no one more helpless.  Take that zombie garbage and grind it into compassion.

Canopic Jars at the Royal Ontario Museum

Canopic Jars at the Royal Ontario Museum

The book I wrote – it’s small and it’s only paper, but it’s a museum for the dead too, complete with all the ambivalence pent up in the display cases.

“I’m sorry,” I told the dead man from my side of the glass tomb.

Sorry but standing there anyway, seeing, knowing I would go away and tell.  This mummy and I – we were in my book together, part of the original art that brought me here, and made me this.

The circle closed.  It was time to go home.

Bon-Bons and Soap Operas and Other Stories

Stop asking me what I do all day.

I’ve been wanting to say that since 1996 when my sister arrived at my apartment during one of the fifteen-minute intervals when my ravenous newborn baby was asleep and found me standing in my living-room flipping through a board book about farm animals.  My reply to “what do you do all day” used to sound noble – the kind of thing that gets championed on Facebook by mothers in need of recognition and respect and, heck, some social justice.  When I was raising my little boys I would have been justified in replying with something like, “I spend all day making human beings from my own guts and mettle, you ignorant boors.”

Oedie, the blue lineolated parakeet. She’s nuts.

1996 was a long time ago.  It’s been ages since that original farm animal board book fell into the toilet and passed out of our lives.  But questions about what I do with my daylight hours remain.  In fact, I’m getting questioned about them more than ever.  My youngest son started full-day school last month.  From 8:25am to 3:40pm, no one has any business being in my house except me and my deranged parakeet.  When my last son left the building, so did my best “excuse” for being at home full-time.

Sometimes I admit my life is now all soap operas and bon-bons, all day long.

But when I’m not feeling sarcastic, I’ll go on and on about how when I’m not doing all the cleaning, errands, shopping, and emergency interventions my family of seven still needs during the day whether any of them are inside the house or not, I’m at home working on my writing career.

These days, enough people work from home that we should all understand it’s not a sham for lazy folks.  Working from home may not be slick and pretty but it’s real.  And it’s an especially common practice for people working as writers.  Still, claiming I’m working as a writer just triggers more questions.

“Working?  But you already wrote your book, didn’t you?  What’s left to do?  What do you actually do all day?”

As far as occupations go, writing is pretty flaky.  I get that.  There’s no tool belt, no lunch kit.  And sometimes working as a writer means looking out the window, driving around crying, or using all the hot water zoning out in the shower.  Yeah, it’s pretty flaky some days.  But in between all those black-box creative cognitive processes there is real work to do.  We write at our big projects but we also write smaller pieces, read and review other people’s books, scour listings for new places to send our work, and manage systems for tracking what’s been submitted to where and how long we should wait before we give up on getting a reply.

For new writers, publicity is vital to success.  It doesn’t come naturally for most of us and it takes a lot of time and energy.  In addition to doing spoken and written interviews (if we’re lucky), we maintain social media presences on three or four different platforms and most of us write blogs.  Sure, some people do this stuff for fun.  I happen to thinking mowing lawns is fun.  But that doesn’t mean people who get paid to mow lawns aren’t really working.

In many ways, writers bring the perception that our jobs are jokes upon ourselves by talking about our work in terms of a lot of goofy, mystical claptrap.  It might help us feel gifted and precious in our own minds but if we’re going to indulge in silly, fanciful claims that make our skills sound like dubious super-powers, other people aren’t going to relate to our work the same way they relate to their own jobs.  People don’t really believe in super-powers – and frankly, neither do writers.  So let’s stop it.

If we catch ourselves beginning sentences with “Only a writer would…” or “You know you’re a writer if…” we ought to know we’re being pretentious and throwing away our professional credibility.  We’re begging people to ask us what we do all day.  I know it may be fun to think we’re doing the opposite – getting people to take writing seriously by astounding them with the “specialness” of it.  But it doesn’t work.  Stop it.  Let’s get off the “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs and grind our way through some word processor software instead.  That’s what writers do all day.

Reeling with Reviews

I assumed the new Facebook message was going to be another invitation to an in-house-selling-stuff-party from one of my girlfriends (events for which I have a lot more sympathy ever since I started hawking books out of the back of my car).

It was actually a message from — you guessed it — my high school boyfriend’s dad, a man I have not seen in over twenty years.  Even so, he had sought out and read my novel.  And he liked it — said he wished the book was longer.  He’s not a professional literary critic but he is someone I admired so much as a teenager I always made myself into an idiot in front of him.  His review of my book — short, private, informal, encouraging – meant as much to me as a printed page in a prestigious publication.

That’s real-me talking.  Pro-writer-me can’t be so sentimental.  Amassing reviews in established, well-known publications is serious business.  It’s no place for getting mushy and indulging in adolescent vindication.  For some of us, book reviews — those columns bundled in newspapers and obscure literary journals, those afternoon public radio programs I listen to while folding laundry — are not idle entertainment.

I treasure all the professional reviews I’ve got.  It’s a huge honor to see half a page of a national newspaper devoted to discussing a story I made up.  In return, I’ve started writing long-form book reviews myself.  The first will appear this winter in a new Canadian literary journal called The Rusty Toque.  Writing a review is time consuming and intellectually demanding.  But I owe it to my community to do it anyway.

Book reviews are also controversial.  Some of the nastiest squabbling in the writing world today revolves around the state and fate of book reviews and literary criticism.  Authors of commercial fiction complain about reviewers being snobs fixated on “serious” literary work and ignoring popular books.  Reviewers who write for established, bookish publications have been known to sneer at other reviewers who start book-blogs and write about whatever they want.  Even more casual than book bloggers are blurb-length reviewers on websites like Amazon and Goodreads.  Some authors denounce these hobbyist reviewers who sometimes off-handedly and ignorantly judge their work — and their private lives.  At the same time, the hobbyists complain about website policies they feel are muzzling them.  In the world of book reviews, everyone’s threatened, no one’s completely happy.

Reviews for self-published books are an even murkier morass.  Most publications still won’t review self-published books.  Among whatever high quality work might be out there in self-publishing, there are literally millions of sub-standard products glutting the system.  Being shut out of the traditional review pool leaves self-publishers to create their own systems for evaluating each other’s work – systems vulnerable to abuse where real reviews can be hard to distinguish from ones that have been bought or swapped for reciprocal but meaninglessly gushy reviews.

All of this might be very important but I’m still newbie enough to just be thrilled anyone is reading and talking about my work.  I’m grateful for any airtime or column space or bandwidth I can get.

And that includes coverage by book bloggers.  I’m not moved by arguments from those who worry bloggers are cheapening and proletarianizing literary criticism.  I think there’s definitely room for plain-spoken, personal reflections on books and reading.  In my experience, there’s some very good writing in book blogs, like Daniel at The Indiscriminate Critic who described the narrative style in my book as “a mental Mobius strip.”  This is exactly what I hoped to achieve even though I didn’t see it that way until he said it.  Authors who’ll agree to interviews are being asked thoughtful questions on book blogs too.  Laura at Reading in Bed came up with a list of questions that excavated the roots of the themes I write about just as well as any professional has done to date.

Book bloggers can read earnestly and critically.  They take their work seriously.  And they can write from a personal angle that more formal reviews can’t approach.  They’re doing for literary criticism what book clubs are doing for publishing – keeping it relevant and accessible to people not professionally invested in the industry.  That’s a great service to all of us.

Kleines Mӓdchen: Little Girls on a Book Tour

Reading on the Road

Reading on the Road

I never meant to cram a month’s worth of book promotion into seven days.  It just happened — an unforeseen consequence of good luck, good will, and good publicists.  I was so busy last week my kids actually noticed and mentioned how little time I’d been spending in my pumpkin shell.

I told them, “Look, I took a seventeen year mat-leave.  You’ve got nothing to complain about.”

Sure, it was a maternity leave full of freelance work and “will-you-just-let-me-finish-this” but I was here, in the house with them, for almost all of it.

The week started early Monday (because, that’s when it always starts) when I went into my closest — the room in the house most like a radio booth — and did a telephone interview with a talk-radio station in Edmonton.  It was a “top-line” interview meant to promote an appearance I’d be making in the city the next day.  It went well until the very last question.

“So,” Mr. Radio asked, “who’s taking care of the kids while you’re [in Edmonton]?”

Instead of musing, “You know, when my husband gets interviewed by the media, on the courthouse steps, no one ever asks him who’s looking after his kids,” I laughed it off.

“That’s their problem,” I told the interviewer.  “The oldest is seventeen so it’s Lord of the Flies over here when I’m gone.”

So far, no visit from Child and Family Services.

By bedtime that evening, I was gone.  I was at my sister’s house in Edmonton, getting ready for another “top-line” interview on the most terrifying of all media: television.  I haven’t watched television for years and I was scheduled to appear on a morning news show I’d never seen before.  What I remembered from TV was mostly how it’s been used to make “real” people look foolish and grasping.

In the morning, I got dressed while it was still dark — high black boots, skinny black pants, white top, black jacket.  Looking in my sister’s mirror, I finally saw it: I had subconsciously dressed myself to look like the black and white magpies on the cover of my book.

After a breakfast of Diet Coke with the coolest girl in Yellowbird Elementary School, I was on the freeway.  I got to the studio early enough to meet the other author being interviewed that morning.  In the green room was a man my age wearing a raspberry-coloured suit with a peach handkerchief tucked into the breast-pocket.  This was self-proclaimed over-dresser and Edmonton literary institution, Todd Babiak.  I thought I might run into him here.

“Don’t get nervous and start making fun of him,” one of my little sisters had warned me.  “That’s what I’d do.”

This was good advice.  It turns out Babiak isn’t a TV watcher either and we sat in the green room puzzling at the monitor on the wall as the program wound its way toward our segments.  He nodded at the anchor-lady on the screen.  “She’s actually read my book,” he said because, in a top-line interview, this is remarkable.

Left alone in the green room, I watched Babiak’s interview.  Of course, his raspberry suit had to be acknowledged on-air, just like my five kids at home had to be acknowledged on the radio on Monday morning.  The boys — they’re my raspberry suit.

Walking the hallway to the studio, I asked the producer with the pixie-cut hairdo, “There aren’t going to be any questions about who’s taking care of my kids, are there?”

She smirked.  “Any what?”

I told her about the radio station and we all scoffed together.  The anchorman who interviewed me was sweet in a clean-cut-captain-of-the-football-team kind of way.

I spent the rest of the day in the city, visiting family, calming the frick down before I went to a reading in a bookstore downtown.  The guests at this reading included some old friends I hadn’t seen in this century.  One of them reintroduced herself in case I’d forgotten her — which I certainly had not.  A wonderful thing about a book tour is the way it’s also a time machine.

After two days of massaging social media, the time came for another reading.  This one was closer to home, in the city my husband commutes to for work.  The Red Deer venue was warm and cozy and the time machine coughed out a long lost aunt and cousin.  There was a question from a woman — a fellow artist — who earnestly and innocently wanted to know how I “do it” with so many kids in my life.

I shrugged, “By being a crap mother, I guess.”  This might be my new pat-answer.  Put it right in the press kit.

fmroad

Get your kicks on Route 63

The last event of the week was the most ambitious one of all.  The person stepping out of the time machine this time would be me.  The  machine took the form of my black pickup truck — the kind they issue everyone crossing into Alberta’s borders.  I picked up my sister (the third sister in this story) and we went north, to Fort McMurray.

I’m no carpet-bagger, no oilsand opportunist.  For five years during the early 2000s, the city was my hometown.  I bought my first house, repaid my student loan, met bears, planted trees, and had two magnificent babies in the city.  An entire chapter of my novel is set in the Wood Buffalo region.  To get there, we drove for five hours — me boring the heck out of my sister with all my “Wow, this is so different.”  I alternated between, “I can’t believe all this is here” and “I can’t believe all that is gone.”  No matter what the Old Man says, the region is not Hiroshima.  It’s not a wasteland.  But it’s not like it used to be either.

In seven years, the city’s service industry hasn’t changed.  We arrived at 2:45 pm but we couldn’t get into our hotel room to change our clothes.  It was still a mess.  I’d be appearing in public looking like I’d spent the day in a pickup truck.  We hadn’t had a meal all day and we went to a fast food restaurant with milk and grease smeared all over the sky-blue tabletops.  This was familiar too.  The restaurant couldn’t hire enough staff to have anyone to clear the tables.  Customers go there knowing they’ll have to do it themselves.

At the event — a launch party for the latest edition of NorthWord: A Literary Journal of Canada’s North  I was invited to read first.  I chose the chapter set in the neighbourhood where I now stood reading.  And when I got to the part about the trees along the highway — the ones that now exist only in my imagination — I choked into the microphone.  Maybe it’d sound noble and Neil Young would pat me on the head if I tried to say I was having a fit of environmental conscience.  It wasn’t that.  It wasn’t the trees.  It was me.  There was some kind of awful longing rising in my throat with the words I read.  The whole time machine idea — it’s wrong.  This place that I love had moved on without me.  I was abandoned.  And I hadn’t even known it.

Part of the NorthWord event was in impromptu poetry contest.  The theme was contrast.  I jotted some lines and signed my sister’s name to them.  The poem was about the dirty tabletop at the restaurant.  It was silly and pretentious right down to the lines I wrote in German.  The judges got the joke and it won a prize in the contest.  But my sister was too embarrassed to let them announce it.  Fair enough.

Sister-Sleepover

Sister-Sleepover

When we were finally let into the hotel, we put on pajamas, got into one of the beds, put our heads together, and watched YouTube on my sister’s tablet — a sisters’ sleepover, just like old times, only not at all like old times.  Neither of us had wi-fi or a credit card or an ex-husband or a book to tour when we were little girls.

Still, those German words — the refrain from our winning poem — they were these:

Kleines Mӓdchen.