“Love Letters…” Live on Calgary Radio

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.

Jenn Quist on CJSW, right here.

Fan-girling: Why You Should Go to Book Events

Cover with blurb by Padma Viswanathan

On the front cover of my book — above the title, my name, my magpies – is a blurb. Yes, that’s the technical term for pithy reviews printed on books to help readers judge them by their covers.

Thanks to my resourceful publisher, my book’s blurb is written by internationally published Canadian novelist Padma Viswanathan. Blurbs are usually written by people from an author’s network – teachers, editors, classmates. But Padma read my book and wrote the blurb without knowing me from anywhere. It was extremely generous of her and I am very grateful.

Simple reciprocity isn’t the only reason I’m Padma’s fan. Reading her first novel, I had the impression she understands family much the same way I do. She writes about families that are close, more or less content with each other, and LARGE without making them seem maudlin, boring, or trite. It’s rare in literary fiction.

She writes about people of faith too. She doesn’t do it with the heavy sermonizing of “inspirational” fiction but she also doesn’t soundly denounce faith the way a lot of literary fiction does. She acknowledges the existence and the salience of faith. She writes about it like any powerful, abstract human motivation – like love or hope or fear. This is also rare. This is also me.

After seeing my work called “strange” over and over again (which I love) it’s gratifying to recognize something like my own strangeness in someone else’s stories. It’s validating. It transforms me from lone weirdo to the ultimate form of joiner: the fan-girl. 

And fan-girl I was when I finally met Padma. This summer, the tour for her new book The Ever After of Ashwin Rao brought her back to Audreys Books in Edmonton. I was so there.

If you’ve never been to an event where an author is reading from her own book, go. I won’t say the difference between reading a book and hearing the author read it is the same as listening to the radio and hearing a song performed live. But it is significantly different enough to be worth brushing your teeth and driving downtown.

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books, Edmonton

I’m happy to say that, by now, when I go to local book events I can usually be recognized without having to make a spectacle of myself. In the crowded room, I met Padma and got to thank her in person for the boost she gave my career. I met her dad too. He was greeting people at the foot of the stairs.

Padma’s new novel revolves around the Air India bombing of 1985. The scene she read aloud describes people coping with sudden, violent loss. It’s beautiful and, once again, familiar.

Within the passage she read, Padma included the Gayatri Mantra, a chant her characters use to comfort themselves. If I’d been reading the book alone, in my head, my mental shorthand would have read it as “okay, some Sanskrit” and rushed on to the English translation. But in the bookstore, Padma pronounced all of it. She sang it. And I cried.

I cried because I was surprised and touched by her commitment to the reading – the risk of it, the gift of it. I cried because the sound of scripture being sung by one female voice in that place was strange and out of place enough to feel a little like a miracle. I cried because I already knew, in my own words and feelings, the things she would read next:

The sound did not hide the void, but it filled it with a kind of light: nothing that would stop you from falling, but maybe stop you from being so afraid.

Lo, the First Foreigner on “The Good Word” Podcast

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!”

Jennifer Quist Interview with Nick Galieti

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.

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 

Anthologies Are the Friendliest Literary Form

My Name — Among Way Cooler People’s — on the Back Cover of “40 Below”

Last year, a piece of my short non-fiction was included in 40 Below: Edmonton’s Anthology of Winter.  As always, I was thrilled to get the gig.  The book was released three months after my novel’s debut and it turns out to be the gig that keeps on giving.  It helped introduce me — a little hick in the sticks — to the big city Edmonton literary scene.  It got me invited to some cool events (most of which I couldn’t attend because of the winter weather — is that irony?) and also got me a slot in the podcast series produced to accompany the anthology.  Here’s a link to me and editor/writer/nice guy Jason Lee Norman celebrating the book writer-style — locked in a little room.

Jennifer Quist’s 40 Below Interview and Reading

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.