Catch me in Calgary on Thursday 28 June as I help launch Gush: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times. It’s a new anthology from Frontenac House edited by Rosanna Deerchild, Tanis MacDonald, and Ariel Gordon. My contribution has a laugh at how I can answer the old timey cliched question of whether I thought I was dying the first time I got my period with “No, I thought I was getting my period the first time I was dying.” Trust me, it’s funny.
If 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!
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.
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.
It’s been observed in reviews of my work that the imagery I use isn’t the typical sort of literary imagery, rooted in visual experience–things that can be seen. Instead, it’s based on other senses (especially smell), simple minute experiences, and cultural allusions. I was surprised to read this about myself but I have to agree with it.
Maybe I was surprised because, no matter how I wind up expressing myself in the end, I do have albums of pictures in my head that inspire my writing. I’ve kept track of some of them and I’ve been posting them every few days as a countdown to the release of my second novel this August 15. A friend called them “clues” and I suppose they do serve to create a bit of mystery. They also satisfy my little kids, who are very diplomatic about their disappointment that my books don’t come with pictures.
Whatever the pictures do, there are still fifteen days before Sistering is released and in the meantime, here’s a recap of what I’ve posted in the past 15 days–my picture book.
No school for the kids today so I woke up late to a notification for this Tweet:
The US has it’s Oprah Winfrey book world–nods given by a bright, trustworthy, well-read media personality to books of note. In Canada, where everything but geography and weather unfold on a less flamboyant scale, we have a national radio book programme on the CBC called “The Next Chapter” anchored by a bright, trustworthy, well-read media personality named Shelagh Rogers. That’s her smiling face in front of my book cover in the Tweet. The book and I were the subjects of a feature called “How I Wrote It” on her programme this week. It was short and fun but a great moment nonetheless.
Listen here, it begins at 23:45.
I’m not usually fussy about design. There is photographic proof of it. When my in-laws-to-be generously organized decorations for my wedding reception while I was consumed with final exams at a university hundreds of kilometers away, they went for the crepe paper aesthetic—streamers and accordion bells. My in-laws are lovely but the crepe paper could only be horrible. I managed not ruin the day or our relationship over it (don’t worry, the person who did the shopping is dead and won’t be reading this). On my wedding day, I stood in crepe paper carnage, held onto the beautiful husband these nice people had made for me, and smiled for the pictures.
Those easygoing design sensibilities of mine become brittle when it comes to my own book covers. Stakes are high with book covers—not as high as at a wedding ceremony but definitely higher than at the crepe-paper reception afterwards. Book covers can tip the scales for readers choosing from a market full of good books. Covers usually convey something about plot—especially in genre fiction—but more importantly, they communicate tone and theme. They hint at the state of mind and heart readers can expect to inhabit. They make vague but real promises. They’re meant to elicit emotional connections. We’re supposed to have feelings about book covers—especially when we’ve authored the stories between them. For a second outing in an author’s career, getting a new cover is a little like getting a new face. And I loved my old face.
Like my first novel, the tone of the second novel is (wait for it) unusual. The structure and storyline are quite different from my first book but I hope my signature oddness (whatever it is, I’m too close to sense much of it) has endured. However, strangeness makes the book hard to characterize with a single illustration. My new book is grave but funny enough that a spooky cover wouldn’t be appropriate. The main characters are women but it’s got nothing like a chick-lit vibe so a cover full of flowers or lipsticks or purses doesn’t make any sense. It’s got elements of a warm, family story but images of sunlit kitchen windowsills would be bad fits too.
I set up my first ever Pinterest board and asked my sisters (blood sister and sisters-in-law, after twenty years with my in-laws, unless I’m looking for a kidney donor, it’s all the same) for cover suggestions and for their opinions on my ideas. But I asked them to do it blindfolded, knowing little more about the book than its title. I’m unreasonable that way.
A few days before the latest Linda Leith Publishing catalogue was finalized, Linda was kind enough to send me two designs being considered for my book cover. Nothing in our official agreement obligates my publisher to ask me anything about design. As is typical in the industry, the publisher buys the rights to produce the book however they see fit. This cover preview was a courtesy and one not every publisher extends. I am grateful for it. And that gratitude made me feel like a terrible person when I admitted I didn’t feel right about either of the designs. The kinds of images we were using—stairways—were the right kind. The concept was good and it was one I hadn’t been able to come up with myself. But I was being fussy about colour schemes and other fiddly details.
With the deadline for the catalogue looming, we all kept working. In desperation, I even recruited my sister Sara, a photographer, to take photos of the stairwell in her house in case we couldn’t find anything that worked. Her kitten didn’t make it easy, frolicking into the shot over and over again. “Hey, it’s not that kind of book,” I kept telling it. On my way home, I stopped at my sister Amy’s house to take photos of her stairs, as a backup plan for the backup plan.
In further desperation, I reached further into my wealth of sisters. While Sara and I were trying to light her stairwell, my sister-in-law, Stephanie, was picking through the Internet for me. Steph is a writer too—urban fantasy and romance with commercial appeal. She does most of her publishing independently and her best book covers are the ones she designs herself. She has a few favourite resources and on one of those, she unearthed the image of stairs our designer transformed into the book cover.
I love it. The blue-green tones are moody and a bit haunted without being gloomy or melodramatic. The architecture is pretty and visually interesting but not too fanciful or domestic. The title’s font—one of the LLP standbys that give the company’s books their unified look—blends well with the image. And best of all for my poor sophomore nerves, this cover has a comforting sisterly resemblance to my first novel’s cover—the novel that was well-received and not just a fluke, right?
When I posted the finished cover on social media, someone cool and smart said, “I’m picturing the Brady Bunch sisters lined up on those stairs. Except they’re all goth.” I didn’t know until I read it that this was exactly what I wanted to hear.
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.