Our Fairy Godmother is the Queen of England

The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award

The Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award

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.

Me at Government House , Edmonton, Alberta

Me squinting in the daylight at Government House , Edmonton, Alberta

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.”

Thanks!

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.)

Me and the Honourable Donald Ethell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta

Me and the Honourable Donald Ethell, Lieutenant Governor of Alberta

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.

My Family and the Lieutenant Governor

A Bit of My Family Meets the Lieutenant Governor

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.

“Award-winning” at the Last Minute: I Am No Paul Henderson But…

My dad has shown me enough inspirational sports movies and documentaries for me to know it’s best to wait until right before the buzzer sounds at the end of the game to score a big goal.

That’s the way the literary awards season for my debut novel has unfolded. The book was released in August 2013 and I sat here quietly and morosely ticking off each of the season’s awards as their short-lists were announced without my name on them. I got to watch kind well-wishers saying it was too bad I was overlooked and while that went a long way in buoying my spirits, it didn’t give me and my novel any grounds to be called “award-winning.”

Near the end of the season, I was named on one shortlist but, while I appreciated the honour, the award was a bad fit for me and I didn’t win it.

Since it’s Fathers Day this week, I’ll tell the rest of the story with a Canadian hockey history analogy.  Let’s just say it was the final seconds of the third period of the literary award season…

“Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell”

… when I got a phone call…

“Here’s another shot right in front of the…”

…congratulating me on winning the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award.

“Score! Henderson!”

It finally happened. I won the last award I was a contender for this year – scored on my last chance to claim the “award-winning” designation, right before the final whistle. Along with the rights to “award-winning” it comes with a prize, a medal, media coverage, and a fancy ceremony with His Honor. I’m one of eight recipients chosen from a wide range of artistic fields to get the award. I’ll find out who the rest of them are at 10am today at Government House in Edmonton.

I couldn’t be more pleased or more grateful to the board for selecting me. Yay!

 

[Thanks (and apologies) to hockey legends Paul Henderson and Foster Hewitt.]

Morbid in the Mountains

April and Chris Demes’s guitar birdhouse in Hill Spring, Alberta as posted on canadiangardening.com

My May began with a literary festival in a world class city and ended with a book club in the village of Hill Spring, population not quite 200.

This book club was hosted by my friend and fellow writer April Demes.  Years ago, when we first met, April was an arty, precocious teenager and I was a newly married 21-year-old who knew EVERYTHING.  Now that we’re older, we have more in common: gardening, bird watching, CBC Radio, pretty blond children, and writing.

Despite their idyllic Rocky Mountain surroundings – a white house on the side of a green hill where a repurposed guitar is nailed to a tree as a birdhouse – April’s family hasn’t been luxuriating in a quiet simple life.  (Quiet simple life is a myth.  If we think we know someone living this way, it’s a sure sign we don’t know them very well at all.)  While still in his 30s, her husband was afflicted with cancer, right inside his skull. They nearly lost each other.  That my novel strikes any kind of chord with April is a great honour.

The Hill Spring book club was one of my favourites.  It was peopled with bright, interesting women of varied ages and backgrounds – some of whom may be distantly related to my well-connected husband.  They came prepared with questions and we had a great discussion about love and death and the writing process.  But it wasn’t because everyone unreservedly loved the book.

One of the ladies who enjoyed the book described her grownup daughter’s reaction to it.  They’d been reading aloud and the daughter stopped when the narrative got too “morbid.”  There is a fair bit of death and death paraphernalia in the novel.  It begins in the title and never really lets up.  It can be tough for some readers to see through it to the tenderness that is the real point of the book.  Sometimes, they dismiss it as “morbid.”

Strictly speaking the word “morbid” means sick, unhealthy.  I flinch when I hear this word used to describe my book.  Writing in frank, practical terms about loss is not something I consider unhealthy.  Not everything that’s uncomfortable – exercise, pelvic exams, insulin shots – is unhealthy.  Willfully ignoring the difficult and complicated process of dispatching our loved ones until we’re devastated by a crisis is what seems unhealthy to me.  As I wrote the book, “morbid” was not my aim – quite the contrary.

While I’m no longer surprised to hear “morbid” spoken at book clubs, I was surprised to hear which part of the book made the lady’s daughter squirm.  It was the chapter where the main female character is cutting up a grocery store chicken, making dinner.

I hate cooking more than most people.  I wrote about cutting chicken honestly, flaunting but not exaggerating my perceptions of it.  “Take that, cooking.  You’re gross.”  But even someone who abhors cooking as much as I do probably doesn’t find her own kitchen a morbid place.

Please enjoy this photo of a butchered chicken

Maybe death is the same.  Life on Earth means eating and it means dying.  Both are messy, inevitable, and natural.  It doesn’t matter how healthy or vibrant or “morbid” any of us is, we all have to eat and we all have to die.  It remains true even if we don’t want to know anything of the finer points of how either is done.

I don’t make money on book clubs but I did sell two books in Hill Spring.  One was to a lady who came to the meeting without finishing the book.  It was morbid, she said, but after hearing the rest of us talk about it she’d decided to give the book another chance and invest in her very own copy (personally defaced by me) instead of borrowing April’s.  She was willing to question her sense of what’s morbid and consider changing her mind.

It may have been the most gratifying book club comment ever.

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.