There’s a rather lovely glossy print lifestyle magazine published in my town every month. The December 2015 issue features an interview with me. Thanks so much to t8n.
Click here for the interview.
Books, writing culture, writing process
There’s a rather lovely glossy print lifestyle magazine published in my town every month. The December 2015 issue features an interview with me. Thanks so much to t8n.
Click here for the interview.
If anyone thinks Calgary is all pancake breakfasts, politicians in Stetsons, and dubious animal handling ethics, they don’t know Calgary. It’s home to a great literary arts scene–poets, writers, literary mags, university programs, the whole package. It’s a pleasure to get to travel there as part of my own book tour. Last night, I was part of filling Station magazine’s Flywheel Reading Series along with fellow writers Erin Emily Ann Vance and Bren Simmers. It was the first time this tour I wasn’t either sick or late, making the event a triumph. I had a great time, was the subject of some horrible photos as I hammed my way through my reading, went back to the hotel, ordered room service with my sponsor (my husby), and crashed. Thanks, YYC!
I emerge from 准备考试 (where I’m all about midterms in a class of super-smart people all clutching raw scores of over 90% which will eventually be hammered into a horrifying curve) to share this post from the Literary Press Group’s All-Lit-Up blog. It’s about both of my books.
Go ahead and read it here.
The author, Leonicka Valcius, compares my novels’ treatments of themes of family, love, and death. She even picks a favourite of the two books–and it’s not the same as mine. The piece is long and thoughtful and I enjoyed it immensely, reading as my bus rolled along Jasper Avenue, away from the restaurant where I’d had lunch with my tall, fancy husband and, for the first time this month, we hadn’t been asked if we wanted separate bills.
I got home and made dinner for my family, almost from scratch. And in the evening, whilst watching Chinese TV on the exercise bike, I understood not only a phrase but its cheeky play on words that doesn’t translate into English–because no matter what grade I end up with I am learning something.
That’s a good day.
After spending the summer terrified, plunking through oral presentations spoken all in Chinese, this fall’s chance to appear in public, speaking to people about my novel in my native language seemed like a breeze.
But there’s precious little in life that turns out to be easy. The week of my book launch, I came down with a cold. Grownups muscle through colds all the time. It’s not heroic or dangerous. However, my family, the MacKenzie family, has a talent for coughs and colds. We cough until we gag. We cough so loudly little children cover their ears. We cough until the blood vessels around our eyes break, giving us a scary petechiae–a rash of red-brown flecks on our skin. In the late 19th century, one of our great-great-grandmothers lost nine of her eleven young children to influenza. I’m not convinced there’s any such thing as a man-cold but I do believe in the Mac-cold: the MacKenzie cold.
So I turned up at my book launch at Audreys Books in Edmonton with a Mac-cold. I arrived still embarrassed about having to leave a lecture earlier that afternoon to go hack in the privacy of a stairwell. All the hopes I had for the event had been reduced to one simple goal. I wanted to make it through the reading without a spectacular, face-bleeding coughing spasm. All that mattered was breath.
I took my medicine, prayed, took comfort in the goodwill of the family, friends, and colleagues who came, and accomplished my reading in a low, smoky but cough-free voice.
Then I came home and crashed, just like the computers at the store.
From the fog of medication and illness, I missed a few event details that would have been nice. I couldn’t taste any of the cake my sister made for the guests. I also failed to set up any proper photos and am left with phone-shots to document the night.
That’s okay. Someone with a Mac-cold is best seen through a fuzzy screen at a far distance anyway. And the more adversity, the more thankful I am to be in the position to be headlining the launch of my own book, for the second time, in a venerable space, surrounded by people who wish me well.
Thank you, from the bottom of my lungs.
Oh, how I love the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, especially when it does stuff like this. The CBC has a healthy, powerful books department in a world thin on books departments. They just made a “Fall 2015 Reading List” suggesting fifteen “must-read books of the season.” They’ve included new fiction from international writers like Salman Rushdie and Franzen, Canadian names like Lawrence Hill and Marina Endicott — oh yeah, and my latest novel.
Wha?! I mean, “Yay, for Sistering!” See the list here.
Great way to end a day of spit-washing spaghetti sauce off people’s faces.
The Edmonton Journal, my local daily newspaper with its robust books section, ran a feature on me and Sistering this week.
Michael Hingston (fellow Can-lit humour novelist) interviewed me and wrote the piece, and a nice photographer named Bruce met me outside the University of Alberta Humanities Centre, stood me up against a tree and shot pictures of me. I’ve never heard someone say, “You look like you’re pissed off at me” so pleasantly. I wasn’t, of course. I always hate pictures of myself, but at least my hair was full-throttle Smurfette that day.
They also posted a notice of my upcoming book event in Edmonton. We’ll be at Audreys Books on Sept. 29 at 7pm.
Here’s the link to the easy-to-read online version: Sistering in the Edmonton Journal
Summer 2013, my first novel is published. It’s a family saga about death and dying. The week it’s released, a close family member is diagnosed with a life-changing, life-expectancy altering illness.
Summer 2015–today, to be exact–my second novel is published. It’s another family story–a dark-hearted comedy instead of a light-hearted tragedy. It’s about sisters and fire and love and stuff. So, naturally, right in time for publication week, the mountain town where my sister Mary lives catches fire.
Ya can’t make this stuff up.
Upon waking on the morning of the unveiling of a five year project my future and my identity as an artist are inextricably linked to, my first thought wasn’t “book.” It was “Mary.”
The last images she left on Facebook last night included the one above. But while we slept, the lightning stopped, the rain started, the firefighters fought. This morning, my sister and her family (plus a second sister who just happened to be visiting this week, posting fire-photos on Instagram that ended up on the Global News website) have all reported in safely from their undamaged home.
I am relieved, finally ready to celebrate, and resolved that my next novel will be a tableau of fluffy bunnies nibbling wildflowers in peaceful meadows.
Oh yeah, and if you’d like to read my “wonderfully bizarre and surprisingly recognizable” book click the “Finding the Book” tab above.
It’s been observed in reviews of my work that the imagery I use isn’t the typical sort of literary imagery, rooted in visual experience–things that can be seen. Instead, it’s based on other senses (especially smell), simple minute experiences, and cultural allusions. I was surprised to read this about myself but I have to agree with it.
Maybe I was surprised because, no matter how I wind up expressing myself in the end, I do have albums of pictures in my head that inspire my writing. I’ve kept track of some of them and I’ve been posting them every few days as a countdown to the release of my second novel this August 15. A friend called them “clues” and I suppose they do serve to create a bit of mystery. They also satisfy my little kids, who are very diplomatic about their disappointment that my books don’t come with pictures.
Whatever the pictures do, there are still fifteen days before Sistering is released and in the meantime, here’s a recap of what I’ve posted in the past 15 days–my picture book.
I’m not usually fussy about design. There is photographic proof of it. When my in-laws-to-be generously organized decorations for my wedding reception while I was consumed with final exams at a university hundreds of kilometers away, they went for the crepe paper aesthetic—streamers and accordion bells. My in-laws are lovely but the crepe paper could only be horrible. I managed not ruin the day or our relationship over it (don’t worry, the person who did the shopping is dead and won’t be reading this). On my wedding day, I stood in crepe paper carnage, held onto the beautiful husband these nice people had made for me, and smiled for the pictures.
Those easygoing design sensibilities of mine become brittle when it comes to my own book covers. Stakes are high with book covers—not as high as at a wedding ceremony but definitely higher than at the crepe-paper reception afterwards. Book covers can tip the scales for readers choosing from a market full of good books. Covers usually convey something about plot—especially in genre fiction—but more importantly, they communicate tone and theme. They hint at the state of mind and heart readers can expect to inhabit. They make vague but real promises. They’re meant to elicit emotional connections. We’re supposed to have feelings about book covers—especially when we’ve authored the stories between them. For a second outing in an author’s career, getting a new cover is a little like getting a new face. And I loved my old face.
Like my first novel, the tone of the second novel is (wait for it) unusual. The structure and storyline are quite different from my first book but I hope my signature oddness (whatever it is, I’m too close to sense much of it) has endured. However, strangeness makes the book hard to characterize with a single illustration. My new book is grave but funny enough that a spooky cover wouldn’t be appropriate. The main characters are women but it’s got nothing like a chick-lit vibe so a cover full of flowers or lipsticks or purses doesn’t make any sense. It’s got elements of a warm, family story but images of sunlit kitchen windowsills would be bad fits too.
I set up my first ever Pinterest board and asked my sisters (blood sister and sisters-in-law, after twenty years with my in-laws, unless I’m looking for a kidney donor, it’s all the same) for cover suggestions and for their opinions on my ideas. But I asked them to do it blindfolded, knowing little more about the book than its title. I’m unreasonable that way.
A few days before the latest Linda Leith Publishing catalogue was finalized, Linda was kind enough to send me two designs being considered for my book cover. Nothing in our official agreement obligates my publisher to ask me anything about design. As is typical in the industry, the publisher buys the rights to produce the book however they see fit. This cover preview was a courtesy and one not every publisher extends. I am grateful for it. And that gratitude made me feel like a terrible person when I admitted I didn’t feel right about either of the designs. The kinds of images we were using—stairways—were the right kind. The concept was good and it was one I hadn’t been able to come up with myself. But I was being fussy about colour schemes and other fiddly details.
With the deadline for the catalogue looming, we all kept working. In desperation, I even recruited my sister Sara, a photographer, to take photos of the stairwell in her house in case we couldn’t find anything that worked. Her kitten didn’t make it easy, frolicking into the shot over and over again. “Hey, it’s not that kind of book,” I kept telling it. On my way home, I stopped at my sister Amy’s house to take photos of her stairs, as a backup plan for the backup plan.
In further desperation, I reached further into my wealth of sisters. While Sara and I were trying to light her stairwell, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, was picking through the Internet for me. Steph is a writer too—urban fantasy and romance with commercial appeal. She does most of her publishing independently and her best book covers are the ones she designs herself. She has a few favourite resources and on one of those, she unearthed the image of stairs our designer transformed into the book cover.
I love it. The blue-green tones are moody and a bit haunted without being gloomy or melodramatic. The architecture is pretty and visually interesting but not too fanciful or domestic. The title’s font—one of the LLP standbys that give the company’s books their unified look—blends well with the image. And best of all for my poor sophomore nerves, this cover has a comforting sisterly resemblance to my first novel’s cover—the novel that was well-received and not just a fluke, right?
When I posted the finished cover on social media, someone cool and smart said, “I’m picturing the Brady Bunch sisters lined up on those stairs. Except they’re all goth.” I didn’t know until I read it that this was exactly what I wanted to hear.
The words have been said so often by so many millions of lads to so many millions of lasses, that they must be worn to tatters. But when you hear them for the first time, in some magic hour of your teens, they are as new and fresh and wondrous as if they had just drifted over the hedges of Eden. Madam, whoever you are, and however old you are, be honest, and admit that the first time you heard those words on the lips of some shy sweetheart, was the great moment of your life… L.M. Montgomery, 1924
While my husband was away from home this winter, fighting crime, I fought to keep my happiness from capsizing. Little sorties became important, like roaming alone through Wal-Mart during Valentines week. It was there, in a seasonal hearts-and-flowers display, that I found a three-in-one DVD collection, the trinity of twenty-first century young adult romances, the first three movies of the Twilight series, for $9.99.
I have a secret weakness for young adult romance (secret up until a moment ago, anyways). I spent my teen years reading Greek drama and the Victorians. My idea of escapist reading was L.M. Montgomery. My idea of desperation reading was my mother’s Stephen King collection. The Sweet Valley High novels on my sister’s side of the room neither interested nor tempted me.
My appreciation for YA romance is an adult-onset phenomenon but it’s genuine. When I paid $3.33 per flick to catch up on Twilight five years too late, I expected to be indulging in a guilty pleasure. Ironically or not, I wanted to like the series. I understood a lot of people didn’t like it. But haters’ gonna hate, right? And Stephenie Meyer and I have more in common than just our professions. Rock on, Sister Meyer. Thanks for the good time. That’s what I hoped to be saying.
But instead of cheering, I was groaning my way through Twilight.
There wasn’t a lot of dialogue in the movie version of the story. The film was mostly heavily filtered frames of pretty scenery, clunky CGI action shots, quiet staring, and slick soundtrack. When there was talking, the lines were often awkward and incongruous. For instance, big daddy vampire and his bride—the Cullen “parents”—were written and played like Mike and Carol Brady.
Sometimes, when I wondered why a character says something in a certain odd way, I’d find out it was because he was repeating a stand-out line from the original novels. What was more puzzling than these strange lines were the ones that weren’t nearly strange enough—the obvious lines a writer might jot down in a first draft but then refine into something more nuanced and artful as the story matured.
“Never go for the obvious kill,” a Twilight vampire warns a werewolf, “They’ll be expecting that.”
Never a truer word…
Forty minutes into the fourth movie (yes, I keep buying them) Twilight’s appeal started to *ahem* dawn on me. By that point in the movie, nothing has happened except exactly what we knew would happen. In all that time, the couple gets married. That’s it. The plot doesn’t advance a single step. It just delivers in hair-shoes-makeup detail what it’s been promising all along. It’s “fan-service.” Twilight gives its target audience, mostly teenaged girls, precisely what they want—the pretty boys, the comfy wardrobe, the smooching, the cool parents, the social one-up-manship— everything, right down to each word of dialogue. That’s the genius behind the series. The entire endeavor is fan-service.
As a jaded old lady and a writer in my own right of fiction approaching a Gothic love story, my first reaction to Twilight—the groaning—was about weariness with cliché, disappointment with the people behind the story and the audience in front of it for going for “the obvious kill.” As a demographic of writers and readers, we can do better.
But L.M. Montgomery’s advice (the quote at the beginning of this piece taken from Emily Climbs, her folksy, nineteenth century flavoured, Maritime-y take on the gothic teen romance) is worth considering. So sit down, Madam—or Sir—and remember high school dating. I remember it as a cringe-worthy mess marked by a few perfect moments—iconic moments that are a lot like everyone else’s perfect moments. Epic piggy-back rides, private musical recitals, handmade jewellery, working on a car together, catching someone staring from across the parking lot, secret knocking at the window, dancing in public with everyone gawking because it’s obviously a huge deal (or so we imagined) —those aren’t just personal moments. They’re ones we share with each other and with stories like Twilight. That’s what makes them clichés: their truth.
Twilight is criticized for the expectations it fosters in young girls about romantic love. I don’t know if there’s much anyone could do to prevent those expectations. The romantic words, the gestures within the story are fairly universal in contemporary Western adolescent relationship scripts—or, at least, in my old diaries. Maybe those expectations are just as inevitably widespread. Twilight didn’t strike a nerve with young women because it unearthed the vampire fad at just the right point in history. It resounded because it told our own stories back to us, without trying to dress up or disguise the worn out “tatters.” It didn’t so much create young women’s culture as it reflected and codified what was already there.
Here is where I could plough into the fact that movies like The Avengers and Transformers perform the same fanciful but clichéd reflective function for young men only they get away with it without the searing social commentary leveled at Twilight for no reason other than sexism. I could, but instead I’ll stick to girl-talk. I’ll continue with L.M. Montgomery and her description of what our sweet, tattered words look like to onlookers:
Everything had suddenly become ridiculous. Could anything be more ridiculous than to be caught here…That’s how other people would look at it. How could a thing be so beautiful one moment and so absurd the next?
This is what impresses me most about Twilight: its refusal to balk at its own ridiculousness, its headlong dive into the absurdity of everybody’s love story. I don’t know why she did it. I don’t know whether it was calculated or not. But I’m going to choose to believe Stephenie Meyer is a brave writer. She wrote what we all know, what so many people apparently wanted to hear repeated. And she did it with that “unflinching” spirit critics usually praise. It’s like a teenaged girl stood up and used her own fingers to flip off the entire literary world. There’s something fierce and kind of admirable in it—but nothing that can keep me from flinching my face off.