I signed a contract today with Linda Leith Publishing of Montreal for the publication of my third novel in Spring 2018. LLP published my first two novels as well and I’m happy to be working with them again. We’re currently in the revision stage of the process and the title is part of what’s under revision so I’m not able to announce it yet. I can say that the book is set mostly in contemporary western Canada and looks into a family grappling with the absurdity of the normalcy of violence, tragedy and evil in human life after one of three siblings is killed in a domestic homicide. I love it and will bring it to you by Spring 2018.
Unlikely as it is, I have done my most intense and productive writing during summer months–except for that one summer when the irises of my eyes got inflamed and I temporarily lost a good portion of my vision for about a month and could not write at all (well, hardly at all). The inflammation may or may not have been the result of too much time spent looking at an old, fuzzy laptop screen, writing.
In light of this–and many, many other things–I am probably not someone to model oneself after, but if you’re out on the interwebs right now looking for a pep-talk to keep you writing through the summer, consider this it.
A writing atmosphere of bad, cozy weather is one of the stereotypes repeated on “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards where the aesthetic is all sweaters, cats, and hot drinks. Setting up any kind of external setting or internal personality or background as essential for writing is counter-productive, usually elitist, and simply irritating for writers interested in actually finishing a writing project. So enough of that. No more passwords or potions, no rites or effete orthodoxies, no self-indulgent mythologies about who writers ought to be. No more talking about writing in a way that draws only the ‘right’ kinds of people into thinking of themselves as writers, trusting themselves as writers, and braving the risks needed to publish. Enough. Ignore it.
You can write even if:
- You weren’t a bookish child. Don’t worry if you can’t stare into the middle distance, all dreamy, and claim your best friends growing up were books. If your best friends were actually people (and I’ll bet that, for just about everyone, they were) you are better off in every way, including as a writer.
- You aren’t a voracious reader now. It’s true writers have to read in order to learn who we are and how to do what we do. It’s true writers owe everything to readers. Thanks for reading this right now. But you don’t always have to have someone else’s book on hand in order to have something of your own to write.
- You have kids. Writing will be much more difficult and distracted with constant kids in your life. You knew that going into this. But it can be done. Virginia Woolf was wrong about this one. Trust Shirley Jackson, and Ursula LeGuin, and Zadie Smith, and hundreds of other people writing in the teeth of their offsprings’ childhoods.
- You don’t drink too much coffee. It’s just short term gain.
- You don’t drink too much alcohol. It’s just long term pain.
- You aren’t a native speaker of the language in which you want to write. In fact, newness to a language might be an asset (I’m staking my MA thesis on it, so I sure hope so). No one experiments with a language in original ways, no one wrings new things out of the same old lexicon like someone who has learned it as a second language and approaches it free from the cliches and conventions native speakers have been bound by since we were babies.
- You don’t have an MFA in creative writing. Whatever your education or experience is, it is part of your training as a writer and the weirder, less prescribed it is, the better it is, in my opinion.
- You’re allergic to cats.
- You get along with your family. In fact, make sure you write something if you get along with your family. The literary world needs more families who find conflict in things other than breaking each other’s hearts.
There it is. No excuses, no exclusions. All the best this summer!
This Thursday I’m reading a new short story at the University of Alberta’s Modern Languages and Cultural Studies Graduate Students’ Conference here in Edmonton. Everyone’s welcome!
I was born and spent my early childhood in northern boreal towns in western Canada—Prince George, Prince Albert, St. Paul, High Level—remote, freezing places bristling (if you’ll forgive the Can-lit cliché) with black spruce and lodge pole pine. These towns were the centres closest to large Indigenous communities my father worked with as part of the federal government, and later as an employee of First Nation governments themselves. My uncle, my father’s older brother, worked in the same field, in the same communities. As a little girl, I wasn’t sure exactly what my personal connection was to the local reserves or to the people who lived there. They were my father’s colleagues, his hockey and softball teammates, and often, as politics would allow, his friends. As a four-year-old, I didn’t understand anything about anything and ignorantly assumed from my sickly pale features—a genetic throwback to my parents’ Irish ancestors–that I probably wasn’t Indigenous myself. But I wondered about the rest of my family. I was a little girl taking the only surroundings I had ever known for granted, and I suspected my father and my uncle might be Indigenous.
Whatever they were, their connections to the communities seemed profound. Dad’s Indigenous colleagues were generous and he was given gifts of art and crafts like the hand-made beaded moose-hide jacket and gloves that hung in our storage room. My father treasured them, but felt unqualified to wear them in public, wary of “pretending.” Still, these articles were a part of our home. When we’d been away from home for a few days and came back no longer habituated to the smell of the house, I could smell my father’s moose-hide clothing from the front door.
Despite their time and goodwill, their gifts and service, my father and his brother were not Indigenous. Eventually, I figured this out without having to ask. Our family history includes rumors of a grandmother in New Brunswick in the 1800s—a midwife and accomplished canoeist—who was descended from Indigenous people. But I’ve researched the line and haven’t been able to substantiate the story. It remains conjecture—fascinating but certainly not something anyone in my family has ever staked anything on.
My husband’s family history is more illustrious and better researched. It unfairly benefits from romantic exceptions to old racist American policies. He and our sons are among the thousands of North Americans who can trace their ancestry to Pocahontas and her English tobacco magnate husband. It’s not a fairy tale–unlike the ridiculous gossip spread by John Smith and embellished and repeated by Disney itself. While I have not seen the Disney film (our twenty-two year boycott of the movie is going strong) I have seen the genealogy—name by name–that links my children to the most famous Indigenous woman on the planet. Even so, I wouldn’t presume to try to get my kids recognized as status Indigenous people so they could enjoy benefits meant to curb the marginalization of Indigenous communities while simultaneously enjoying the privileges of moving through Canadian society free from racial marginalization. Of course not.
Claims of aboriginality have become an issue in the world of Canadian literature lately as one of our celebrity writers has been challenged to provide clarity and credibility for branding himself as part of Canada’s Indigenous community. The writer in question is Joseph Boyden—a man who has recently also made a howling mess of a university’s labour tribunal against a male creative writing professor, leading a chorus of sexual harassment victim-blaming. In the latest controversy, the best Boyden has come up with in answering questions about his heritage is to make vague references to the same kinds of indigenous connections I have—murky ones on the east coast from generations ago—ones that in no way give people like us the right to presume to speak for (or, as one Anishinaabe/Metis writer has said, to speak over) Indigenous communities. Boyden has admitted that his roots are mostly “Celtic” but he hasn’t backed down from identifying as Indigenous.
Before all of this, I went to hear Boyden speak. It was in a large auditorium to a sold-out crowd. He read from The Orenda, from a chapter narrated in the first person by an Indigenous character. I remember him speaking the words in an accent most Canadians would identify as “Native.” It’s too much.
Boyden has said little in his defense but of what he has said, one statement keeps coming back to me. He said, “A small part of me is Indigenous but it’s a big part of who I am.” This may be something someone like my father could rationalize saying himself—only someone like my father would understand that it’s wrong.
Last night, right before lights-out, I checked the website of venerable old Canadian literary magazine Prairie Fire and found it had been updated to show the Fall 2016 issue–the issue featuring a short story called “Everybody’s Horror Movie,” new fiction written by me. The news meant I couldn’t sleep but I was happy enough not to mind. See, nothing is harder for me to write and to publish than fiction. I am always ecstatic when it happens. What makes this publication credit extraordinarily exciting for me is that the short story in Prairie Fire is the project from which my current novel-in-progress evolved. I needed an infusion of hope and encouragement that this novel will have a life outside my computer and the publication of this story did exactly that.
The story isn’t available online but if you get a copy of Prairie Fire, have a look.
When a book is part of the Fall publishing season (as both of my novels have been) the anniversary of its publication, its birthday, comes in the summertime, in the season for not noticing typical business. Yes, once again, I forgot my book’s first birthday—no tweet, no Facebook post, no mental note to self in the shower, not even a mention to my husband over non-coffee.
So happy belated birthday to Sistering, my second novel, now thirteen months old. I didn’t completely forget. I still remember:
- The reviews, balanced but not at all bad. The first review was one I heard rather than read. It was an interview on a province-wide CBC Radio programme between Chris dela Torre and reviewer Angie Abdou. A stand-out line for me was, “Jennifer Quist makes you believe it.” Tempted to have some T-shirts made…
- Finding Sistering among fifteen newly published titles on CBC Books’ 2015 Fall Reading List.
- The Edmonton launch at Audreys Books where I was sick with a terrible cold but made it through the evening on my feet, in good enough voice, and in excellent company. The beautiful artisan cake my sister supplied is probably what saved the day.
- Travelling to Red Deer and Calgary to read during the early launch days, seeing old friends, meeting talented and interesting people, and having some very unflattering pictures taken of myself voice-acting a chapter from the novel. All’s fair in the promotion of a humor novel.
- Being recognized by fellow members of my faith community and invited to Laie, Hawaii to receive the Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel Award. For once, my husband was able to go with me to a fly-away writing destination. Going to paradise with my favourite to celebrate a book I wrote that other people read— totally worth taking a hit on that missed Chinese quiz.
- Coming home to find I’d been long-listed for the 2016 Alberta Readers Choice Awards. We didn’t move past the first round but it was (wait for it) an honor to be nominated.
- Getting interviewed. I know this is rare in the blogosphere, but I love talking about myself and what I do. Ha! It’s especially true when interviewers know the book and don’t get in the way with preconceived ideas (read: are not hell-bent on a cute-mom story).
- Coming closer to a Canadian literature icon than ever (not counting having Margaret Atwood sign a book for me this spring) when I was invited to be part of the Leacock Summer Festival in Orillia, Ontario at the museum to Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock.
- Appearing at book clubs. I love this. If you have a book club, call me. One of the clubs I visited had everyone vote for their favourite sister of the novel’s five main characters. Everyone except “Suzanne” got a vote but “Ashley” ran away with it.
- The satisfaction of writing a book my mum and her bff could genuinely enjoy.
That was our year. What a business. It pushes us ever onward and I am now finishing up the manuscript of my third novel, one I also love, but won’t promise to remember its birthday when the time comes either.
Earlier this year, Sistering was awarded Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters, an international community that’s been very kind and supportive of my work. They sent one of their best and brightest, Michael Austin, to do an email interview with me–the most Mormon and, interestingly, the least gender role fixated one I’ve ever done. The link to read it is here.
In tenth grade English class, we were told that Can-Lit can be funny and our teacher proved it by assigning “The Man in Asbestos” by Stephen Leacock. So it is with a lovely sense of full-circularity that I will be appearing at the Leacock Summer Festival this July to read from Sistering as part of an event on women as the authors and subjects of humor writing. Very pleased. If you’re in Orillia, Ontario on July 23 at 8pm, do come see us.
Enough people have asked how I managed to write two novels while at home with my kids that I thought I’d better craft an answer a little more thoughtful than “by being a crap mother.” Here it is, some very honest and probably very bad advice on how to launch a writing career while masterminding a large, young household.
- Stop cleaning the house. This is done by a) quitting once conditions become sanitary without proceeding all the way to spiffy and, b) looking at your children the way our great-grandmother’s (and my parents) looked at their children: as a private workforce, a domestic militia of barely competent workers. Assigning one light chore every day and one heavier cleaning task on the weekend should do it.
- Start mowing the lawn. Look, you’re not going away on writers’ retreats to the Banff Centre any time soon. That’s not the life you chose. But you do need to spend time alone with your thoughts en plein air, and pushing a machine that drives conversation away all around the backyard is better than nothing.
- Stay up. My creativity comes in all-or-nothing surges. During a surge, I tend to get about four hours of sleep during the night, maybe less. This isn’t a desperate attempt to make the most of the hours when my house is quiet (though it has that benefit). There’s simply more energy in my mind when I’m creative and it keeps me sleepless for weeks on end. Don’t resist it just because your family needs to get up in the morning. Squeeze a ten minute nap or two into the daylight hours even if it means taking the bus and sleeping away the commute (trust me, most of my university’s student population does this, even the sleep-drooler population). Staying up to write won’t be your lifestyle forever. Think of it as a grueling but temporary training regimen, like going for long, long runs leading up to a marathon.
- Keep reading. I was badly stuck during the writing of my current novel. There was a difficult decision to be made, I didn’t have the confidence to make it, but until I did, the book couldn’t move forward. The solution was to stop writing for the rest of the day and read some excellent writing that succeeds in doing the very thing I was afraid to attempt. I opened a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant, read until 1am, and went to bed stoked to take the risk I needed.
- Don’t spend too long lying around miserable about not being Mavis Gallant. This was an unintended side-effect of reading good writing. It’s inevitable and understandable, just don’t let it go on for too long.
- Talk to your partner about your book. His input may not make it into the manuscript but airing your story’s sticking points out loud with an attentive adult who wants you cute and happy is a helpful exercise. It also downplays any burgeoning sense of resentment he may have for a) the project that consumes so much of your attention, and b) the way you hog the lawnmower.
- Share with care. I don’t mean to say you should make your partner to read half-baked early drafts. Don’t do this to your loved ones. They often don’t know what to say and it puts them in an awful position. Instead, use a professional writer-in-residence based in your local library, university, or other arty institutions. These real, working writers are waiting to read fifteen pages or so of your writing and give an impartial, informed assessment of how you’re doing and how it could be better. Their services are free and competition for their positions is fierce so you can usually trust they’ve been well-screened for things like being a jerk. But having said all this, if someone asks you to read their work, do it. You can take a lesson from the writers-in-residence and limit the amount of pages you’ll read, but say yes. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in Karma but I make a cautious exception when it comes to lending my pickup truck and to helping other writers.
- Distract. If you have kids at home during the day, introduce them to pastimes they can do by themselves in the same room as you while you sit still and say very little—things other than screen-time, which won’t make anyone happy in the long run. What could those pastimes be? It depends on the kid. For some kids, nothing will fill this bill and you’ll just have to let them trash your house while you get some work done, or learn to type with their heads wedged into the triangle formed by the crook of your arm and the edge of your desk (been there). If they are willing to give you a break, get them some Lego, craft supplies, Play-Doh, a load of siblings, a bunch of ironing to do—anything.
- Be honest with yourself about other interests competing for discretionary time. If you can’t give up crafting, cake decorating, direct marketing essential oils, etc. in order to make time to write consistently, it might be best to wait until you are willing to make writing a priority. There’s nothing wrong with other pursuits, we just need to be realistic and at peace with how we choose to spend our time.
- Don’t call your writing a hobby if you’re doing it as a serious artistic project. Don’t let anyone call it a hobby.
- Go easy on people. People are who you are writing for. Don’t tell me it’s all for yourself, forever and ever. That might be how things turn out but that’s not the goal you have in your heart. Spending time with your kids, your partner, your extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers is part of writing. Nothing is more inspiring than life going on around you. This is an advantage mothers surrounded by people have over other writers. When I was working as a columnist for a newspaper in Fort McMurray staffed mostly by young, single newcomers to the city, a pattern emerged when these people would try to write columns of their own. They’d write a few articles on food they ate or television they watched and then their columns would usually fizzle. What they lacked wasn’t talent or voice or experience, it was other people. They were isolated, lonely, and in many ways creatively bereft. You and I, we are none of those things.
And that is the awful truth of how I do it.
In 2005, Quebecoise author Dominique Jolin’s popular children’s books were adapted for English television as Toopy and Binoo, an animated series headlined by an oversized, chatty mouse and a little white cat who doesn’t speak at all.
2005 was also the year my fourth son was born, delivered without a doctor in a Fort McMurray hospital during an April snowstorm. No one thinks her kids are ordinary but this boy has made an exceptionally strong case for extraordinariness. Ask anyone.
While he was still in his super-toddler form, his little brother, my fifth son was born. Baby brother’s birth wasn’t ordinary either. But instead of being a cavalcade of feats of frontier hardiness, my ultimate son’s birth drama was launched six weeks too early, beginning in an ambulance and ending in a neonatal special care unit.
By the time itty-bitty, needy brother made it safely home, our super-toddler had started identifying with Jolin’s cartoon mouse character, Toopy. I could tell by the way he called me nothing but Binoo and the way my new baby was renamed “Patchy-Patch” after the stuffed toy Binoo fawns over on the show. We all played along. It was hecka cute, cost us nothing, and benefitted us in ways I didn’t recognize during the haze of caring for five children under the age of eleven.
I’m not sure if Jolin wrote Toupie et Binou as a script for toddlers confronting the harsh fact
that mothers are busy people with more to their lives than indulging the whims of one child, no matter how extraordinary. When we make art, we may wind up expressing truth we don’t otherwise perceive. Either way, Toopy and Binoo is a work of genius.
In print, the script of an old-school episode of Toopy and Binoo would read as an uninterrupted monologue by Toopy, mostly spoken in the second person to Binoo. Toopy prattles on in the forefront while in the background Binoo cares for Patchy-Patch, makes small adjustments to keep Toopy’s surroundings safe, and gently redirects and makes suggestions without a word—no pop psych editorializing about social skills or recycling. Binoo plays along, lets Toopy’s imagination wash over him, engaging it, validating it without adding much to it.
This is what the daily life of a toddler at home with his mother (especially with a little sibling) really looks like. They are together in the same world, but each of them wanders within it. There’s constant interaction but its intensity ebbs and flows. The mother’s role in the child’s imaginary world is a supporting one, like Binoo’s role in Toopy’s world. She participates almost by default and, though it may be unwitting, fosters the child’s sense of being “fabulous” by letting him take the lead in play.
For parents, there’s a self-serving side to this arrangement. A Toopy-kid—imaginative, caring, happy—is secure enough to loosen that strangle-hold toddlers like to have on their mothers’ attention. In the “Binoo’s Island” episode, Toopy can’t reach Binoo because he’s sitting on a blanket, wearing his glasses, reading a book. And it is not a crisis. “Looks like Binoo is on his very own island,” Toopy narrates, adding only, “Wow!” He then spends the rest of the show goofing around with the premise of a marooned Binoo but actually leaving Binoo the frick alone until Binoo himself decides he’s finished reading his book.
That’s some social modelling I can get behind.
There are lulls in the story where Binoo is not even looking and Toopy is happy just to be near him. Sometimes when a Toopy-kid is talking, a real Binoo-mom keeps looking down at her preemie infant or at her screen full of work and just says, “Uh-huh, uh-huh…” Toopy can deal with that. He knows he’s still “fabulous” even if other things and people need some space to be fabulous too. He knows the dividing of Binoo’s attention won’t last forever. Maybe Toopy and Binoo makes a case for the value of “quantity time” because parents are human, houses are small, everyone is important, and sometimes quantity time is all we want.
My penultimate son told me as much. One afternoon, I had been on Binoo’s Island for quite a while when he came into the bedroom where I was working on a novel and just stood at the foot of the bed. I looked up, greeted him, and asked if he wanted anything. “I want,” he said, “to be near you.”