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.

Reeling with Reviews

I assumed the new Facebook message was going to be another invitation to an in-house-selling-stuff-party from one of my girlfriends (events for which I have a lot more sympathy ever since I started hawking books out of the back of my car).

It was actually a message from — you guessed it — my high school boyfriend’s dad, a man I have not seen in over twenty years.  Even so, he had sought out and read my novel.  And he liked it — said he wished the book was longer.  He’s not a professional literary critic but he is someone I admired so much as a teenager I always made myself into an idiot in front of him.  His review of my book — short, private, informal, encouraging – meant as much to me as a printed page in a prestigious publication.

That’s real-me talking.  Pro-writer-me can’t be so sentimental.  Amassing reviews in established, well-known publications is serious business.  It’s no place for getting mushy and indulging in adolescent vindication.  For some of us, book reviews — those columns bundled in newspapers and obscure literary journals, those afternoon public radio programs I listen to while folding laundry — are not idle entertainment.

I treasure all the professional reviews I’ve got.  It’s a huge honor to see half a page of a national newspaper devoted to discussing a story I made up.  In return, I’ve started writing long-form book reviews myself.  The first will appear this winter in a new Canadian literary journal called The Rusty Toque.  Writing a review is time consuming and intellectually demanding.  But I owe it to my community to do it anyway.

Book reviews are also controversial.  Some of the nastiest squabbling in the writing world today revolves around the state and fate of book reviews and literary criticism.  Authors of commercial fiction complain about reviewers being snobs fixated on “serious” literary work and ignoring popular books.  Reviewers who write for established, bookish publications have been known to sneer at other reviewers who start book-blogs and write about whatever they want.  Even more casual than book bloggers are blurb-length reviewers on websites like Amazon and Goodreads.  Some authors denounce these hobbyist reviewers who sometimes off-handedly and ignorantly judge their work — and their private lives.  At the same time, the hobbyists complain about website policies they feel are muzzling them.  In the world of book reviews, everyone’s threatened, no one’s completely happy.

Reviews for self-published books are an even murkier morass.  Most publications still won’t review self-published books.  Among whatever high quality work might be out there in self-publishing, there are literally millions of sub-standard products glutting the system.  Being shut out of the traditional review pool leaves self-publishers to create their own systems for evaluating each other’s work – systems vulnerable to abuse where real reviews can be hard to distinguish from ones that have been bought or swapped for reciprocal but meaninglessly gushy reviews.

All of this might be very important but I’m still newbie enough to just be thrilled anyone is reading and talking about my work.  I’m grateful for any airtime or column space or bandwidth I can get.

And that includes coverage by book bloggers.  I’m not moved by arguments from those who worry bloggers are cheapening and proletarianizing literary criticism.  I think there’s definitely room for plain-spoken, personal reflections on books and reading.  In my experience, there’s some very good writing in book blogs, like Daniel at The Indiscriminate Critic who described the narrative style in my book as “a mental Mobius strip.”  This is exactly what I hoped to achieve even though I didn’t see it that way until he said it.  Authors who’ll agree to interviews are being asked thoughtful questions on book blogs too.  Laura at Reading in Bed came up with a list of questions that excavated the roots of the themes I write about just as well as any professional has done to date.

Book bloggers can read earnestly and critically.  They take their work seriously.  And they can write from a personal angle that more formal reviews can’t approach.  They’re doing for literary criticism what book clubs are doing for publishing – keeping it relevant and accessible to people not professionally invested in the industry.  That’s a great service to all of us.