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.
I fall in love easily. Not that kind of love, just regular love, like we’re supposed to be able to feel for everyone. It’s one of the best things about me. But sometimes it causes a scene.
Like all good Canadian girls, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale before I graduated from high school. (Take note, aspiring arts journalists. That kind of storytelling is one way to recognize someone’s vast and indispensable contributions to an art form without using the i***ic word.) When my oldest kid was in high school, competing in trivia tournaments, there was a running joke that the answer to every book-trivia question was Margaret Atwood—unless it was a trick question, then the answer was Margaret Laurence. “I wonder,” my big boy said, “if she knows she’s a meme.” That is another way of saying that when it comes to living novelists from my own country, Margaret Atwood is the big one.
I didn’t know she’d be giving a lecture in a concert hall in the city where I live until Laura, my book-scene-friend, mentioned it. Of course I wanted to go, especially at the deeply discounted student admission for which I technically qualified.
Posters started going up around my university, advertising the lecture. “Margaret Atwood,” a classmate said, “is she an astronaut?”
The day of the lecture, the pitch of my excitement started out low. I didn’t dress up, I left the house calmly, well in advance. And then I distractedly took the wrong route. Late to meet Laura, I dumped my car in an underground parkade and bolted up into the daylight, a big metal door closing behind me as I realized the odds of remembering which big metal door to go back to at the end of the night were not good. I was just starting to run through the streets when, through nothing short of a miracle, Laura saw me and called my name.
She got us great seats—the kinds with brass plaques on them engraved with millionaire donors’ names. Margaret Atwood was right there, elevated on a step behind a podium, a step that had been awkward for the taller people who used the microphone before her. I had heard she was tiny. I liked it.
Her lecture was a slide show, the secret history of the Canadian literary community, the one kept hidden from me while I studied sociology during my own undergraduate degree. Margaret Atwood was funny, quick, and sharp. She definitely knows she’s a meme. I wanted to write down some of her remarks but I was afraid I’d miss what was coming next. Her life story is the story of Canadian literature. By the time the lecture was over, I was in tears. I had fallen in love.
The lights came on and I normalled-up for Laura. She’s a book reviewer and critic, experienced at these sorts of events, and she knew if we didn’t line up to have our books signed right away, we’d be waiting all night. In line, I weirded-up again. I wanted to send Margaret Atwood some kind of signal that she is my benefactor. Saying “I’m a writer too” doesn’t convey as much information as it used to. I needed to say something—strange, not hand-on-my-shoulder strange, but something she doesn’t hear at book events every day.
Laura listened to my stupid, stupid brainstorming. She was patient as I took this sophisticated evening out without her little kids and turned it into a night of being wing-man to a freaky fan-girl. “Maybe I could get her to sign my name in Chinese…I could introduce myself to her doing my impersonation of her voice…I should have totally brought her a Margaret Laurence book to sign, that would’ve been hilarious…Maybe I should introduce myself as ‘the Margaret Atwood of Edmonton’ (which would have been even more hilarious)…” It was all terrible. We moved up the queue and I reconciled myself to just saying thank you, which is actually pretty special.
And then, it hit me. I gasped and hit Laura in the arm with my high school copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The 2015 Dublin International IMPAC Literary Award long-list—there had been nine Canadian books on it. One was by Margaret Atwood, and one was by me. “That’s what I’m going to say,” I said to longsuffering Laura, “I bet that’s what everyone in this line-up who’s been on an awards list with her is going to say.”
I leapt up to the table a little too energetically. Atwood didn’t recoil but I recognized that look people who aren’t afraid of bugs use to watch advancing spiders. As she wrote “all the best” in my old copy of her most commercial novel, I blurted out the one time our work had been mentioned in the same public breath, on the IMPAC list.
“What’s your book?” she asked.
I told her and watched her write the title on a scrap of yellow paper. “It’s just about marriage,” I added.
“I wouldn’t have known,” she said.
Spectacle successfully made, I thanked her and moved on.
After everything that had happened, Laura was still willing to introduce me to people—people whom I showed that my hands were still shaking. I made it back to my car that night only because Laura, invoking another miracle, found it for me.
It was harrowing and ridiculous and wonderful–taking my big, loopy, overflowing artist’s heart to out where it could fall in love with someone who inspires it, right in front of crowds of people. Do it. I recommend it. Just make sure you bring along someone to take care of you.
November 14, 2015
A day after maniacs shot up a “rock show” in Paris, France, we go to a concert in our own city.
This is not a case of us soldiering on with our usual routine in defiance of someone’s sick attempt at an awful new world order. The local techno-Goth music scene is not my usual routine. But I have a marvellously large, culturally far-flung family and one of my loved ones is currently in a band called Voice Industrie. It’s been around for years. “We’re a heritage act,” my sister-in-law explains, each of her earrings as big as my face, burgundy lipstick, six feet tall in black and silver high heels, standing in the evocatively shabby Garneau Theatre lobby. Even without any metal in her face, she’s the most striking person here. What kind of life do I have, to be able to say I’ve known and loved her since she was a child?
I greet her with a hug, announcing myself and her older brother with, “The dorks are here!” It’s okay. It’s true. There are no natural blondes at Goth shows. I am a freak of the freak scene.
Next to where we stand, there’s a young, indie author selling self-published copies of his urban fantasy-horror novel on a white table cloth. He’s done all the art and design for it himself. I buy a book, tell him about the novel I wrote with the word “death” in the title. When he signs my copy I say, “No, not there. Sign it by your name.” There’s a place, a use for me here after all. He gives me his hand and I shake it with that ladylike, finger-pivot-palm-pulse move I can’t keep from using anymore. I don’t know where I learned it.
We have to wait. The show is running forty-five minutes behind and there’s another band on before Voice Industrie. They spell their name with a “9” where most of us would use a “g.” They are not a heritage act. Their front man has his hair bleached swan-white, black pants, white blouse on top, a variation on the dress code our elementary school music teachers used to require at Christmas concerts. He’s a lovely thing, looking like Gerard Way’s long-lost little brother. He can perform too. Breath control—I always envy and admire people with great breath control. Their songs are about despair and gallows and stuff but the fact is, they’re adorable, up there swearing in their skinny jeans. Are their moms in the audience, their big sisters who love them like they’re still kids?
I haven’t been inside this theatre since I was in university the first time around. Nothing’s changed since then. I’d forgotten that the chairs rock back and forth, reclining and recoiling. It’s all the dancing I need, sit-down rocking for not-Gerard and the boys.
When Voice Industrie finally comes on, and people start to gather at the foot of the stage to dance, my husband stands up to join them. He hasn’t danced in public in years and years. “At least take your glasses off,” I say. I don’t go with him but even back in the day, I never did. If we weren’t able to dance without each other from time to time, this thing never would’ve worked so well for so long.
I can’t always see him though the crowd but I never lose sight of the grownup girl with the braids. She’s a beautiful dancer. I hope someone is in love with her. If no one was before, someone must be by now.
I stay in my seat, my rocking chair, right for old broads like me, bouncing back and forth until the lights come on and I stand up to blow kisses at my rock star. She takes her bow and runs off the stage, nimble in stilettos, past everyone else, and throws her arms around the two of us.
This is the “rock show.” For every one one of us–this is love.
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.
Last winter, I traveled to Calgary to do a live radio interview at CJSW about my debut novel. My hosts were Paul Kennett and Emily Ursuliak, a writer deservedly known as one of the most generous and hardest working people in the Calgary literary scene.
Since it was live, I didn’t get to hear the interview anywhere but in my headphones and I was pleased this week when Emily sent me a link to a podcast of our talk.
Here I am talking about the Catholic Church, my bff, and commenting on technical elements of the book that I’d never had a chance to speak about in public until this smart interviewer raised them.
After writing, my favourite medium is radio — no make-up, all talk. Podcasting is a lot like radio — radio without all the “ums” edited out, long-form radio where guests can really cut loose and do some damage. This is a podcast I recorded last month with Nick Galieti, a book industry guy in Utah.
We talk about my accent, my family, Mormonism, literary elitism, the Republican Party (a first for me in an interview, for sure), my marriage and the lighter side of death schtick, and the mysterious geography of the second largest country on the globe.
Nick: So how is Canada today?
JQ: Canada is — is enormous.
Nick was a fine interviewer and it turns out he served with my cousin-in-law when they were missionaries.
Check out the podcast if you’d like to hear some unfortunate, spontaneous voice acting, a little bit of Mormon jargon, and my six-year-old coughing through a door. Must have been a good time; my final word was “Woo hoo!”
It wouldn’t be true to say I chose an arty career just to impress my kids. But I was definitely gratified this week when, right before my kids’ eyes, the unglamorous sitting and typing I usually do was fairy-godmothered into a morning of sandstone balustrades, live harp music, and canapés garnished with purple pansies.
The fairy godmother who conjured this fantastic morning for my kids and me was actually the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta. I’m one of the recipients of the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. It’s a fabulous, generous programme and I’m thrilled and honoured to be included in it. Canada is a constitutional monarchy and some of our traditional royalist sensibilities, like art patronage, provide vital support and recognition for artists – a term it’s probably high time I stopped apologizing for applying to myself.
The award was presented to me and seven other recipients – accomplished singers, filmmakers, poets, visual artists – in a private ceremony. I was able to invite five guests so I brought my parents, my husband, and my 17-year-old and 15-year-old sons – the kids of mine least likely to turn the whole thing into a brawl.
I arrived at the Government House mansion before my family and waited in the green room until we were ushered upstairs where our guests were already seated. We all rose when the “viceregal salute” was played on the harp and Queen Elizabeth II’s local representative, the Honourable Donald Ethell (who is more like an impressive great-uncle than like the queen of anything), entered to officiate from a throne made of dark wood and green velvet.
How cool is that?
Each of the eight of us was formally presented to the gathering as our bios were read. It was the first time I’d heard the adjudicators’ remarks about my work. They said, “Her writing is extraordinarily strong, powerfully handled, and evidence of a rarely encountered original voice.”
We then came forward to greet His Honour and receive a medal – and a discrete folder containing our prize money. (Apparently, Government House lacks a giant novelty-sized cheque printer.)
Just like the day years before when I was in this same room watching my extraordinary husband receive an award from the Department of Justice for his service as a prosecutor, the line from the bio that drew an audible murmur from the crowd was the one reporting our roster of sons. Lawyers, artists, everyone has something to say about a large young family.
Even His Honour mentioned it as he slipped my medal over my head. “With all the writing you do how did you find time to have so many children?”
“They were thrust upon me,” I said.
My mum loved that.
He recognized the pair of my boys sitting the audience. “Where are the other ones? In school?”
I shrugged. “I sure hope so.”
At the luncheon afterward, my boys didn’t fail to appreciate the never-ending platters of dainty sandwiches and sweets. No matter how nice they are, I have a hard time stomaching refreshments at events and it was good to see someone from the family eating my portion.
My sons met His Honour, Her Honour (his wife), their red-uniformed aide-de-camp, the Minister of Culture, the Mayor of the city of Red Deer, and a real live professor from the University of Alberta — the school my oldest boy will be attending in the Fall. The professor, Douglas Barbour, was there as a guest of one of the other artists but he also happened to be the instructor of the only senior-level English course I ever took.
Several times during the boys’ fancy morning out, I overheard strangers asking them if they were proud of their mom. It can be an eye-roller question — even for me, someone who prefers the term “pleased” to “proud” since it travels without the negative baggage and misunderstandings that can come with “pride.”
People in their late teens aren’t renowned for being gracious. They don’t efface themselves like I do but they scoff and sigh and shrug. And the truth is, my accomplishments have meant the boys’ childhoods have been lean on motherly touches like homemade baking and chauffeur service to school.
I kept smiling but I braced myself as I listened to my boys make their answers at the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Awards luncheon. In replying to kind strangers who wished us nothing but the best, the boys set aside any cynicism, bitterness, or semantic fussiness to answer with pleasant enthusiasm – enthusiasm for me and the tumultuous, demanding arts career that may have affected their lives as much as mine.