Margaret Atwood Meets Freaky Fan-Girl

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Atwood and Quist, nervous with hands in pockets making her stomach look big

I fall in love easily. Not that kind of love, just regular love, like we’re supposed to be able to feel for everyone. It’s one of the best things about me. But sometimes it causes a scene.

Like all good Canadian girls, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale before I graduated from high school. (Take note, aspiring arts journalists. That kind of storytelling is one way to recognize someone’s vast and indispensable contributions to an art form without using the i***ic word.) When my oldest kid was in high school, competing in trivia tournaments, there was a running joke that the answer to every book-trivia question was Margaret Atwood—unless it was a trick question, then the answer was Margaret Laurence. “I wonder,” my big boy said, “if she knows she’s a meme.” That is another way of saying that when it comes to living novelists from my own country, Margaret Atwood is the big one.

I didn’t know she’d be giving a lecture in a concert hall in the city where I live until Laura, my book-scene-friend, mentioned it. Of course I wanted to go, especially at the deeply discounted student admission for which I technically qualified.

Posters started going up around my university, advertising the lecture. “Margaret Atwood,” a classmate said, “is she an astronaut?”

The day of the lecture, the pitch of my excitement started out low. I didn’t dress up, I left the house calmly, well in advance. And then I distractedly took the wrong route. Late to meet Laura, I dumped my car in an underground parkade and bolted up into the daylight, a big metal door closing behind me as I realized the odds of remembering which big metal door to go back to at the end of the night were not good. I was just starting to run through the streets when, through nothing short of a miracle, Laura saw me and called my name.

She got us great seats—the kinds with brass plaques on them engraved with millionaire donors’ names. Margaret Atwood was right there, elevated on a step behind a podium, a step that had been awkward for the taller people who used the microphone before her. I had heard she was tiny. I liked it.

Her lecture was a slide show, the secret history of the Canadian literary community, the one kept hidden from me while I studied sociology during my own undergraduate degree. Margaret Atwood was funny, quick, and sharp. She definitely knows she’s a meme. I wanted to write down some of her remarks but I was afraid I’d miss what was coming next. Her life story is the story of Canadian literature. By the time the lecture was over, I was in tears. I had fallen in love.

The lights came on and I normalled-up for Laura. She’s a book reviewer and critic, experienced at these sorts of events, and she knew if we didn’t line up to have our books signed right away, we’d be waiting all night. In line, I weirded-up again. I wanted to send Margaret Atwood some kind of signal that she is my benefactor. Saying “I’m a writer too” doesn’t convey as much information as it used to. I needed to say something—strange, not hand-on-my-shoulder strange, but something she doesn’t hear at book events every day.

Laura listened to my stupid, stupid brainstorming. She was patient as I took this sophisticated evening out without her little kids and turned it into a night of being wing-man to a freaky fan-girl. “Maybe I could get her to sign my name in Chinese…I could introduce myself to her doing my impersonation of her voice…I should have totally brought her a Margaret Laurence book to sign, that would’ve been hilarious…Maybe I should introduce myself as ‘the Margaret Atwood of Edmonton’ (which would have been even more hilarious)…” It was all terrible. We moved up the queue and I reconciled myself to just saying thank you, which is actually pretty special.

And then, it hit me. I gasped and hit Laura in the arm with my high school copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The 2015 Dublin International IMPAC Literary Award long-list—there had been nine Canadian books on it. One was by Margaret Atwood, and one was by me. “That’s what I’m going to say,” I said to longsuffering Laura, “I bet that’s what everyone in this line-up who’s been on an awards list with her is going to say.”

I leapt up to the table a little too energetically. Atwood didn’t recoil but I recognized that look people who aren’t afraid of bugs use to watch advancing spiders. As she wrote “all the best” in my old copy of her most commercial novel, I blurted out the one time our work had been mentioned in the same public breath, on the IMPAC list.

“What’s your book?” she asked.

I told her and watched her write the title on a scrap of yellow paper. “It’s just about marriage,” I added.

“I wouldn’t have known,” she said.

Spectacle successfully made, I thanked her and moved on.

After everything that had happened, Laura was still willing to introduce me to people—people whom I showed that my hands were still shaking. I made it back to my car that night only because Laura, invoking another miracle, found it for me.

It was harrowing and ridiculous and wonderful–taking my big, loopy, overflowing artist’s heart to out where it could fall in love with someone who inspires it, right in front of crowds of people. Do it. I recommend it. Just make sure you bring along someone to take care of you.

The 2016 Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards Long-List

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Libraries are good for books and authors. Not only do they buy, circulate, and promote our work, they’re involved in the ever-more delicate process of cultivating readers so the pursuit of professional writing can continue to mean something. In my area, libraries also trouble themselves to run the annual Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards. Our Sistering has been included on this year’s ARC long-list. I am delighted.

Thanks again, libraries.

Finalist Status in the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards

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Sistering has been named a finalist in the novel category of the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards. It’s the first time any of my work has been included in the annual awards and I am very pleased.

Here’s the link to the announcement. The winner is going to be announced in Hawaii the same day I’ll be making a mid-term presentation on the grammatical intricacies of the Chinese 把 construction in Edmonton. Ha!

Here’s the link the to announcement.

At the Flywheel…

pages2If anyone thinks Calgary is all pancake breakfasts, politicians in Stetsons, and dubious animal handling ethics, they don’t know Calgary. It’s home to a great literary arts scene–poets, writers, literary mags, university programs, the whole package. It’s a pleasure to get to travel there as part of my own book tour. Last night, I was part of filling Station magazine’s Flywheel Reading Series along with fellow writers Erin Emily Ann Vance and Bren Simmers. It was the first time this tour I wasn’t either sick or late, making the event a triumph. I had a great time, was the subject of some horrible photos as I hammed my way through my reading, went back to the hotel, ordered room service with my sponsor (my husby), and crashed. Thanks, YYC!

The Edmonton Launch of “Sistering”

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This is not what’s usually meant by books going viral

After spending the summer terrified, plunking through oral presentations spoken all in Chinese, this fall’s chance to appear in public, speaking to people about my novel in my native language seemed like a breeze.

Easy!

But there’s precious little in life that turns out to be easy. The week of my book launch, I came down with a cold. Grownups muscle through colds all the time. It’s not heroic or dangerous. However, my family, the MacKenzie family, has a talent for coughs and colds. We cough until we gag. We cough so loudly little children cover their ears. We cough until the blood vessels around our eyes break, giving us a scary petechiae–a rash of red-brown flecks on our skin. In the late 19th century, one of our great-great-grandmothers lost nine of her eleven young children to influenza. I’m not convinced there’s any such thing as a man-cold but I do believe in the Mac-cold: the MacKenzie cold.

So I turned up at my book launch at Audreys Books in Edmonton with a Mac-cold. I arrived still embarrassed about having to leave a lecture earlier that afternoon to go hack in the privacy of a stairwell. All the hopes I had for the event had been reduced to one simple goal. I wanted to make it through the reading without a spectacular, face-bleeding coughing spasm. All that mattered was breath.

I took my medicine, prayed, took comfort in the goodwill of the family, friends, and colleagues who came, and accomplished my reading in a low, smoky but cough-free voice.

Then I came home and crashed, just like the computers at the store.

From the fog of medication and illness, I missed a few event details that would have been nice. I couldn’t taste any of the cake my sister made for the guests. I also failed to set up any proper photos and am left with phone-shots to document the night.

That’s okay. Someone with a Mac-cold is best seen through a fuzzy screen at a far distance anyway. And the more adversity, the more thankful I am to be in the position to be headlining the launch of my own book, for the second time, in a venerable space, surrounded by people who wish me well.

Thank you, from the bottom of my lungs.

“Sistering” in the Edmonton Journal

Me in my local. Click the link to read the online version.

Me in my local. Click the link to read the online version.

The Edmonton Journal, my local daily newspaper with its robust books section, ran a feature on me and Sistering this week.

Michael Hingston (fellow Can-lit humour novelist) interviewed me and wrote the piece, and a nice photographer named Bruce met me outside the University of Alberta Humanities Centre, stood me up against a tree and shot pictures of me. I’ve never heard someone say, “You look like you’re pissed off at me” so pleasantly. I wasn’t, of course. I always hate pictures of myself, but at least my hair was full-throttle Smurfette that day.

They also posted a notice of my upcoming book event in Edmonton. We’ll be at Audreys Books on Sept. 29 at 7pm.

Here’s the link to the easy-to-read online version: Sistering in the Edmonton Journal

Sistering is Published Today, or, Enough With the Eerie Coincidences Already

Summer 2013, my first novel is published. It’s a family saga about death and dying. The week it’s released, a close family member is diagnosed with a life-changing, life-expectancy altering illness.

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Oliver, BC fire, 2015

Summer 2015–today, to be exact–my second novel is published. It’s another family story–a dark-hearted comedy instead of a light-hearted tragedy. It’s about sisters and fire and love and stuff. So, naturally, right in time for publication week, the mountain town where my sister Mary lives catches fire.

Ya can’t make this stuff up.

Upon waking on the morning of the unveiling of a five year project my future and my identity as an artist are inextricably linked to, my first thought wasn’t “book.” It was “Mary.”

The last images she left on Facebook last night included the one above. But while we slept, the lightning stopped, the rain started, the firefighters fought. This morning, my sister and her family (plus a second sister who just happened to be visiting this week, posting fire-photos on Instagram that ended up on the Global News website) have all reported in safely from their undamaged home.

I am relieved, finally ready to celebrate, and resolved that my next novel will be a tableau of fluffy bunnies nibbling wildflowers in peaceful meadows.

Oh yeah, and if you’d like to read my “wonderfully bizarre and surprisingly recognizable” book click the “Finding the Book” tab above.