Searching for Swag in Montreal

Me at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal

Me at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal

So my 17 year old son asked me, with all the irony he could muster, “Mom, which value is more important to you: YOLO or swag?”

If you’re over 25 and this question makes no sense, that’s exactly how it should be.  This is the current youth lexicon at work, reminding – or warning – us older people that we aren’t the sole proprietors of our language.  However, as the beloved parent of generous teenagers I’m given a pass in a few areas of youth culture including permission to know the meaning and social function of words like YOLO and swag.  Thanks, boys.

I won’t define YOLO here like the old sociologist dork I truly am (and as if there’s no Google).  It’s just a simple acronym anyways.  Swag is more complicated.  It’s concrete and ephemeral at the same time.  It can be stuff, but not stuff.  It arises from what’s inside and outside.  It comes and it goes.  What’s swag on one person may be sad or silly on another.  Sometimes the very best swag comes from the most humble sources.  There’s irony and self-consciousness in swag.  And it descends differently upon everyone.

Follow any of that?  I know, it reads like old theology – swag is invisible, uncreated.  It can be a bit of a riddle. Just ask my 35 year old friend Christi who’s been trying to use the word “swag” appropriately in conversation with teenagers since the New Year.  It’s a process of trial and error but don’t worry, she’s got swag enough to keep trying and will pull it off eventually.

I can use the word swag but that doesn’t mean I can command swag itself.  Sometimes I worry I’ve never had it — especially when I’m doing my writer-thing out in public.

If anyone wants to know what I mean when I talk about good writer swag, I recommend a look at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal.  It’s a gathering of writers, publishers, media, and book lovers from all over the world held annually in one of the great cosmopolitan cities of my country.  The festival is peopled with top literary talent – and me.  Believe it or not, I was given spots at three of the festival’s venues this spring.

With a gig like that, it was time to stop being awe-struck and turn on the swag.

Rightly or wrongly, I believe my best hope for swag begins with boots.  I packed a couple pairs and headed off on a cross-country flight, alone.

My first impression of Montreal was that the city is serious about Canada’s second (or first, depending on who’s asked) official language: French.  I knew most people in Montreal can speak both English and French but I didn’t realize Montrealers’ default is French.  I also didn’t realize how profoundly my French has atrophied since I left eastern Canada twentysomething years ago.

My first Montreal venue: the Atwater Library

When I was a high school student in Nova Scotia, I spoke French all the time – horrible French.  I understood it was bad and did not care.  The badness was part of the sport.  What I lacked in ability I made up for with confidence, enthusiasm and – wait for it – swag.  That bad-French swag is now history and I’m left with my sheepish grownup French – stressing out over masculine and feminine nouns.  At least I still have the comprehension to tell the nice lady asking me to donate blood in the street “Non merci.”  And by the time I left the city I was comfortable enough to be using my natural Acadian quack for “oui” again.

No matter how stupid I sounded, I loved the city.  I went to galleries, cathedrals, museums, and got to debut by reading my novel to a crowd at an old library.  At my publisher’s festival event, I witnessed the gorgeous writer-swag of some of my fellow Linda Leith Publishing authors.  As always, they astounded me.  They’re multi-lingual, well-traveled, well-educated, and each of them writes like a house on fire.  Even the new non-fiction book all about the prostate gland sounded amazing when I heard the doctor who wrote it presenting it at the festival.  Set on a sheltered patio, our party was everything I fantasized it would be.

I was set to appear late in the English portion of the programme.

Want swag even in death? You want a saint’s burial in a French-Canadian Catholic Church.

“Come on, Jenny.  Think swag.  Last winter the Montreal Gazette called your novel the ‘stand-out’ of this company.  Swag!”

I still don’t know if it was swag or not but I got up on stage and nodded to my misfit-ness in the Linda Leith Publishing stable of writers.  Unlike the others, I speak one language, have one degree, and have lived my whole life on one continent.  “But I have the same heart as everyone else,” I said, “and my heart is in this book.”

It wasn’t a confession or an apology.  It was more like bragging.  To be at the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival with Linda Leith Publishing, I have to punch above my weight class.  There’s no shame in that.  It’s as if something has triggered a special dispensation.  The rules have been waived and I’ve been let into something I would normally have no right to approach.  It’s as if there’s something intangible about me and my work that lets me get away with this beyond all reason.

Must be swag after all.

I don’t know this woman but I do adore her.

Down the Rabbit-hole, or, Jenny’s Adventures in the American-Mormon Book Scene

I’m churchy, okay.  I’m not even sorry.

I wrote a novel about people who quote the Bible at funerals, have a large family, and conspicuously don’t drink coffee.  I wrote a book with the words “Joseph Smith” printed in it.  In case anyone missed it, my characters are Mormons and so am I.

Like all writers, my goal is for everyone to read my book.  Everyone includes my fellow Mormons.  The Church is active throughout the world but its densest concentration of members is in the American state of Utah.  By the time my book was released, I had only been to Utah once.  It was when I was twelve years old and caught in one of my parents’ horrifically hot transcontinental summer road trips.

As a grownup author with a book to promote, I didn’t know how to begin to infiltrate the Utah market.  I picked through the Internet until I discovered the Whitney Awards.  They were invented to recognize fiction produced by Mormon writers.  It was a longshot but a few months later, a panel of judges selected my book as a Whitney finalist – one of the top five in the general fiction category.

And that’s when I tripped down the rabbit-hole.

I’m still a novice when it comes to understanding fiction considered “Mormon.”  I haven’t learned all its terminologies and talking points.  Please forgive any rookie misconceptions here.  As far as I can tell from outside the scene, “Mormon fiction” means several different things.  It has to since the Church is large and varied enough to include all kinds of people with all kinds of tastes and reading and writing levels.  Contrary to nasty, simple-minded fairy tales, there is no monolithic Mormon person.  Insisting there is would be calling on a stereotype and it’s as unfair to apply a stereotype to a religious group as it is to apply it to any other bunch of humans.whitneysepia

Far from being a unified movement, the Mormon book-scene is multi-faceted.  Within it there are writers who craft books intended solely for Mormon audiences.  They produce mainly historical fiction, kissing-only romance, inside jokes, and heartwarming lessons.

There are also Mormon authors – big commercial names like Brandon Sanderson and Stephanie Meyer – who write mass market speculative and young adult fiction.

When it comes to literary fiction, much of the book-length Mormon-y stuff is written from the negative perspectives of disaffected members – people who don’t like church anymore.  Some of these writers – no one famous or influential enough for me to spontaneously remember their names – loudly reject the idea that there can be a “Great Mormon Novel” that combines good literary fiction with Mormon orthodoxy.

I didn’t know this a year ago, but I’ve heard there comes a time in most Utah-Mormon writers’ careers when they must ask themselves if they’re going to work within the Mormon niche or in the mass market.  I have never asked myself this question.  Until recently, the Mormon book-scene hasn’t been part of my consciousness.  I’ve missed out on some good contacts and mentors because of that but I’ve also been spared some self-consciousness and second-guessing – the burden of a complicated, value-laden artistic and intellectual drama.

It was when my novel was named a Whitney finalist that it started to get traction in the Mormon book-scene.  At first, it was received with enthusiasm.  Kind reviews started to appear.  People were happy to read my book.  It unwittingly defied critics and filled a literary void in the 2013 Mormon publishing calendar.

What I didn’t understand was that all this goodwill was coming from just one corner of the book-scene.  I hadn’t counted on the larger, sometimes more petulant corner that prefers to have its heart warmed, flipped over, warmed again, flipped over, warmed again…  From that corner, literary work often seems risky and dangerous and pretentious.

I was about to learn this in an episode I’ll call “Off With Her Head.”

There’s a newspaper in Utah called Deseret News.  It’s not run by the Church but it is owned by the Church.  A freelance book reviewer assigned by Deseret News – a woman the same age as my mum — really, really hated my novel.  I can’t find a way to say this that doesn’t sound like bragging so I’ll just blurt it out.  I don’t have much experience with bad reviews.  The fact that this reviewer didn’t like the book was strange and disappointing.  But that wasn’t what made me sick about it.

The reviewer didn’t actually say much about the book – nothing that can be traced back to the text, anyways.  Instead of offering an analysis of the story, she chose to denounce it via the lowest road there is: the one that ploughs through my quality as member of the Church.  In this review, my book — and by extension myself — was pronounced “not the perspective of the Church.”

A complete stranger had called out my work in a Church-owned publication as bad Mormonism.  I don’t know how other churches work but in my Church, book reviewers aren’t supposed to have the authority to say what or who is or is not doctrinally orthodox.

Now, the last thing a novelist should do upon getting a bad review is challenge the reviewer and her editors about it.  Everyone knows that.  We are aloof artistes.  We ignore and move on.  But the reviewer had raised issues outside my book.  She’d attacked my integrity and fidelity.  It was so far offside I blew the whistle.

I complained first to her immediate editors.  They ignored me (though the reviewer showed some shocking hegemony when she wrote back telling me it is indeed her role to warn innocent readers when books “don’t match up” to good Mormon doctrine). Fuming, I wrote to the president of the newspaper.   Within half an hour of sending that email, Deseret News apologized, took the offensive comments out of the review, and asked me to forward the email where the reviewer voiced her absurd self-appointed mandate to judge my orthodoxy.

My novel had become controversial and polarizing.  When the controversy wasn’t terrible publicity, it was great publicity.  In the days after the review, people defended my work.  This included an old family friend who is actually an ecclesiastical leader in the Church. He likes the book, doesn’t find it doctrinally subversive, and when he read the review he wondered, “What book did she read?”

After all this, I decided to travel to Utah to attend the Whitney Award ceremony anyway.  I’d been tumbling down the rabbit-hole of the Mormon book-scene long enough to start to examine my surroundings and the other objects falling with me.  I was curious – perhaps morbidly so – and wanted to land in that world and move through it in the physical universe for a little while.

Once again, my parents were my traveling companions in Utah.  We had the good fortune to be in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square during a quick, free concert played on the massive pipe organ inside the big church that puts the “Tabernacle” in the “Mormon Tabernacle Choir.”  We all agreed this was the highlight of the trip.  Instead of indulging himself with a fussy highbrow organ piece, the organist played accessible songs – organ pop-songs with swelling choruses and big finishes like sonic tsunamis.  They were loud and fancy – songs meant to show us what the old pipe organ could do, sounds that vibrated through our chest cavities as if we were part of the instrument ourselves.  The organist was playing to the hearts and souls of musical Philistines like my parents and me – and we loved it.  It was exactly what we wanted.  There are times and places to play to more subtle and discriminating tastes but this was not one of them.

Back at the Whitney Awards, things weren’t going so well.  I’d brought books to sell and in an entire day, I’d sold one.  Sure, it was to the fiction editor of Sunstone magazine but – come on.  At the banquet I accidentally flung my tough cut of sirloin into the front of my dress and, of course, I did not win a Whitney Award.  I’d been nominated alongside three romances and a buddy-road-trip novel.  The best and most literary of the three romances won.  For the overall best book award, another romance – self-described as Bronte inspired — was the winner.  I was a little offended when, in her acceptance speech, the winner made comments that could have been construed as her claiming to have won because she had prayed harder over her book than the rest of us (again with the beside-the-point piety rankings) but other than that, the award made sense.

See, the final round of the Whitney competition is a popular vote.  It’s like a free, quick concert on an ostentatious pipe organ.  It’s got to be a crowd-pleaser, an easy, emotionally satisfying romp.  That’s just what it is.

What I do appreciate is that someone in the previous selection round, one or more of the Whitney judges, had stuck their necks out and brought my novel – a literary piece, a critic-pleaser by an obscure foreigner – to the Mormon book-scene’s attention.  The Whitneys aren’t really the time or the place to celebrate a novel like that – not yet, anyways.  But someday they might be.  This year, maybe they came a little closer.  Maybe someday that mythical “Great Mormon Novel” will appear on the scene and by then even the most guarded reviewers in the Deseret News will have learned not to be angry and afraid of it.

Until then, take my novel, Mormon book-scene.  Take it into your Wonderland and let it wear away some of the harshness of the hegemony still lurking there.  Grind it up, add its few small grains to the foundation being built for something better than what’s there now.

Getting Ready for the Blue Met

I’ve booked my ticket and my cheap but not inexpensive hotel room and I’m all set to fly to Montreal in four weeks for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.  It’ll be my first time in Montreal outside the airport or the freeway and my first visit to a literary festival in any capacity.  In keeping with my out-of-step career path, at my first literary festival I’ll be appearing as an author with three spots on the programme.  As always, I’m humble and happy to be included in such a great event — and glad everyone’s cool with me performing only in English.

Link to the festival programme 

Love and the Library

My husband got me chocolates just like I ordered for Valentines Day today. And, by playing muse to my novel’s “Brigs,” he also indirectly got me this: a recommendation from the Edmonton Public Library’s “Great Stuff” curator, Diego Ibarra. See?

Really needed that today.  Thanks, fellas.

Writing Without a Grant: Girl in a Post-Shteyngart World Tries to Feel Smug About It

If Can-Lit is subdued by government grants it’s got nothing to do with me.

Between spurts of productive work on my latest just-keep-swimming short writing project, I indulged my bad habit of listlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed.  The Canadian literary community – for all you normal folks out there – is ravenous for controversy.  We love and hate to have a focal point for cheeky, gleefully indignant tweets and blogs.  This winter, controversy flared up around comments 2012 Giller Prize judge Gary Shteyngart made while drinking with a reporter in New York City.  He said something about Can-Lit lacking risk-takers.  His now notorious explanation was that Canadian writers “all get grants” and therefore “they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”

Now, anyone who follows this blog knows I came to be a working writer through unconventional channels.  I don’t have an MFA from any of the creative writing programmes where Canada’s up-and-coming literary talent is usually hot-housed.  I live in a rural area where the local literary fiction circle includes me and my lovely neighbour.  I have never worked in publishing.  And, I have never received any grant money.  No arts council – certainly not the faraway Ontario Arts Council – has ever funded my work.

In the spirit of Can-Lit-Da’s relentless self-reflection, I considered what Shteyngart’s comments (which he later joked should be taken in the context of his “drunken stupor”) say about me.

For one thing, there isn’t much room in his comments for me.  I disprove his over-generalization.  I wrote a manuscript and sold it to a traditional literary publishing house without applying for, let alone getting, a government grant.  Maybe I can ignore everything Shteyngart said and join the cheerleaders tweeting titles of great, “risky” Canadian books which may not have been (but probably were) written by grant recipients.

Or, I could feel robbed.  How fair is it that I work in a country that seems to have an international reputation for being glutted with arts grants of which I’ve never been paid my share?

Or, I could embrace Shteyngart’s assumption that writing needs to be somewhat staid in order to get the bureaucratic rubber-stamping of a government grant.  I could try to spin my grant-free-working-writer status as a sign that my stuff must be subversive and edgy — the kind of thing lucidly drunk, chatty New York City hipsters might find interesting.

There might be a bit of support for the third option – the fun, cocky, unlikely option.  We haven’t had a bad review of my novel but we’ve seen it described over and over again with words like “odd, strange, surprising” or “unusual.”  I knew when I was writing the book that it was peculiar and I had to keep writing it that way regardless.  And now — if Shteyngart is right — I have the distinction of writing it without a grant and thereby proving what a weirdo I am.  I should revel in that, I guess.  There’s not necessarily anything wrong with it.  There could be a whole lot right with it.

Yeah, all this reasoning is a bit of a stretch.

I don’t know if what I do is at all risky.  Frankly, it’s 2014 and I’m not even sure I’d recognize a new literary risk if I saw one.  And I can’t deduce a risk by whether there’s anything entered on the grants line of an income tax form.  Like most people, I just write what I want to write, whether anyone wants to pay for it or not.

Lessons in Vocabulary and Art from Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

Publishers Weekly Reviews My Novel

This week, my little Canadian novel was reviewed in Publishers Weekly.  (I know, right?  Read it here.)  The review isn’t long but it is perfectly positive.  The reviewer isn’t credited by name in the online version I’ve seen but she or he was thoughtful and insightful enough to have me Googling a few of the terms used to describe my own work.

The first was one of those words that’s still vaguely familiar from my Arts degree days — those spellbinding lectures on Jungian psychology at the base of the Tory Tower.  Somewhere in scrolling through the fanciful vocabulary of archetypes scrawled on the overhead projector film, the meaning of this term slipped out of my consciousness.  It’s “psychopomp.”  It doesn’t sound like a nice thing to be called but, as I now remember, it means a creature who serves as a guide to souls — newly deceased souls in particular but also the newly born or anyone unmoored.  As the PW review points out, my novel’s main characters are psychopomps.  I had never thought of them that way before but it’s certainly true.

The second term I had to look up was completely new to me: mono no aware.  Though it’s tempting, don’t try to use an English or Latin vocabulary to decode it.  It’s a bit of Japanese philosophy and translates into something like “the pathos of things.”  The idea is that instead of the bittersweet knowledge that this world is transient making us morbid and jaded, it moves us to reverence our lives and experience them as poignant rather than mundane.  I’m no scholar of Japanese philosophy but I think it might be the opposite of the Western ennui that makes up so much of literary thought right now.  Whatever it is, I think I need to find my old, water-stained copy of The Tale of Genji and read it again.

There’s a lot to love about being an artist.  That anyone would read my work is great.  That they would look up and from my work and have something to say about it is even better.  And having them teach me something I didn’t know about what I, myself, have written makes me want to fall on my face and cry — especially when it’s something true.  Sometimes, it’s wonderful to admit, “I didn’t know that was in there and I don’t know where it came from.”

I’m usually fairly pragmatic and cringe at the conceits and the headier romance of writer-life.  I don’t have much of a stomach for elitist memes and other silliness bent on making embarrassing overstatements about writing and writers.  But there is something genuinely sublime about art — even the quiet, tappity-tap, within sight of my laundry hamper art form of my own.  At its best, art is a miracle.  And we bow our heads, grateful and baffled that whatever it is that makes miracles would stoop to involve people like us.

Betty, Veronica, and My First Book Club

When looking back far enough to recall our teen years, it can be hard not to see them as a little mythic.  It’s not just athletes forced into retirement upon their high school graduations who’ll do it.  Adolescent psychology is marked by egocentric tropes like “personal fables” and “imaginary audiences.” To some degree, all kids believe they play a lead role in a Very Important drama staged before an audience of Everyone Ever.  This was true even before kids could tally their tumblr followers and Instagram likes.  I guess it was true for me too.

I went to two high schools.  The first was a huge school in an urban centre on the east coast.  While I was there, it made the national news for a racially motivated brawl.  It wasn’t a place known for school spirit.  We spent our days clustered in cliques, trying not to bother anyone, and then scuttled home.

My second high school was in a small prairie town founded by Christian farmer teetotalers.  The school was an Archie comic.  It came complete with pep rallies, junior prom, football players in lettered jackets, and a fight-song meant for sports events, not in-school race-riots.

The school culture was richer but it was also simpler.  Unlike my eastern school which demanded a slate of all-around stellar achievements from the kids selected for valedictorians, my western school had only one criterion: grades.  Ever since our class had been in elementary school, the contenders for valedictorian were clear.  By grade twelve, the contest had been narrowed down to two very smart girls.  In a closed system like an Archie comic, all the factors were familiar and easily tracked.  It was as if the two smart girls were Betty and Veronica and the object of their affection was the role of valedictorian.

Things stayed that simple until a friend of mine – the high school’s valedictorian from the class senior to ours – told me, “You know, there’s no reason you couldn’t be valedictorian too.”

I scoffed.  In grade eleven, I’d been a solid but lacklustre student.  A combination of the harder, faster, stronger Alberta math curriculum along with that dang mandatory gym class had torpedoed my average.  Archie didn’t even know I was alive.

Still, by the end of the first semester, the name at the top of the school’s honor roll was mine.  If nothing changed, I was on track to unseat the hometown smart girls.  The town’s competitive culture was closing in on me.  I was getting called an underdog, a dark horse.  Adults I didn’t even know personally were talking about me.  I had hype.  I had critics.  I had rivals.

The idea of rivals would play well if my high school drama was nothing but a story someone made up.  But it really happened.  And in real life, Betty and Veronica were more my helpers than my rivals.  If it wasn’t for Betty being my study partner in math, I never would have done well in the class.  I spent the whole course turned around in my chair with my elbow on her desk while we worked together.  The competition between the three of us was real but it was friendly and collegial.  I took it as a compliment when I came through the door of our social studies class in time to hear Veronica complaining, “What do I have to do to get a decent mark on an essay around here?  Pass it in with Jennifer MacKenzie’s name on it?”

Eventually, Archie ended up with me.  No one likes it when a non-canonical character is tacked on to blast away the integrity and continuity of an old story-line.  What made it worse was I didn’t deserve him – everyone knew that.  I was proof that the valedictorian criterion was flawed.  Betty and Veronica were much more accomplished and deserving than me.  Veronica was elected the equivalent of Homecoming Queen and Betty played so hard on all the sports teams she broke her cute nose.  All I could do was schoolwork.

I accepted the certificate, the cheque, the page in the yearbook, and the speaking gig at our graduation ceremony anyway.  And truthfully, I’m still glad I did.  There were grumbles in the crowd when I gave the speech at our graduation.  I couldn’t hear them but my parents sitting in the audience could.  I have a cousin-in-law who still talks about it to this day.

That was the last big drama of my teenaged years – the noisy, public finale.  But, as they say, high school never ends – not completely.

A little over twenty years later, I made my first appearance at a book club.  Because I’m such a slow reader, I’ve never belonged to a book club myself.  My first experience with one was as the author of the book in question.  I’d stepped out of turn again, just like I did in high school.  And I did it in the same town where that school from the old Archie comic still stands.  Hosting the club was my little sister’s best friend from our school days.  One of the members was Veronica herself.

“You invited my Nemesis?” she joked when she heard I was coming.  The rivalry was still just a myth – an exaggeration, a literary device working within the saga we and the people who still remember us tell about our teen years.

I’m always nervous when someone I know is reading my book.  My writer friends say that feeling never goes away.  It turns out I’m even more nervous when that person is the smart girl I spent a year chasing all over our high school.  If I’m actually a phony and my writing career is just a stupid pretense, Veronica would be able to tell.  If anyone in my history is justified in calling me out, it’s probably her.

Of course, this was all silly.  I was very moved by the things Veronica said about my book.  They were so gracious and thoughtful and earnest I can’t bring myself to repeat them but I will never forget them.  The questions she posed were piercing.  When she asked them, she cited the page numbers and read quotes directly, still the thorough, diligent student.  And out of everything else I felt upon seeing her again for the first time this century, what struck me was her voice.  It was pitched a little higher than I remembered it – prettier and kinder, not a Veronica’s voice anymore.

Regional Bestseller!

Edmonton Journal’s Bestseller List, Nov. 15, 2013

Our book was number 5 on the Edmonton Journal newspaper’s list of best-selling fiction yesterday. It was fifth after the Giller Prize winner, two collections by the Nobel Prize winner, and a Giller Prize nominee. I am very please and extremely grateful to everyone who has ever picked up a copy of Love Letters of the Angels of Death. Enjoy!

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.