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!
We’ve got a release date for Sistering, my upcoming novel.
Yes, “release date” can mean many things, especially in a family like mine where one of us works in the criminal justice system.
What I mean by it is the book will be available in print and ebook formats from Linda Leith Publishing, online bookstores, and on the shelves of fine bookstores beginning August 15, 2015.
That is, as long as I get off the Internet and get the latest revisions resubmitted on time. Fighting!
I’m always grateful for anything that extends the lifespan of my first novel. I wrote it in blood and it’s part of my heart. So fittingly, this Valentines Day morning, I woke up to find the book mentioned in the Montreal Gazette newspaper in a feature on my publisher, Linda Leith.
Read the piece here: Linda Leith in the Montreal Gazette
But wait, there’s more. A portion of the interview was video taped and posted on Youtube. It’s worth a listen just to hear Linda’s lovely, one-of-a-kind accent. In this clip she talks about surprising people, overcoming obstacles, and taking chances. To illustrate, she tells the part of her story that includes my story. Lucky me, to have fallen into the hands of someone with an iron stomach and a golden touch for my first, and soon, my second novels.
Watch the clip here: Linda Leith on Youtube
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.
I’ve had my head down, raising my kids, for a long time. It meant that, when my publisher asked if I knew any well-known writers who could provide “blurbs” (that’s fancy-shmancy publisher talk for short reviews) to put on the cover of my book, I had to confess I didn’t know anyone.
It was a revelation for me. The silly mystique of writers toiling away in thoughtful silence and social isolation really is a sham. People who hide by themselves have nothing to write about – except maybe science fiction. I’ve done all my writing in crowded, noisy houses. The only thing I’ve been isolated from was other people doing the same thing. And the time had come to find them. My publisher was able to take care of the book blurb herself but I still needed to lift my head out of my laundry pile and meet my colleagues.
I didn’t expect it to be easy. Canada is huge and sparsely populated and its artistic communities are densest in urban areas. What were the odds there would be another literary fiction novelist living in my obscure little town?
Apparently, they were amazingly good.
After about two minutes on the Internet, I discovered Fran Kimmel. She’s the author of The Shore Girl, a novel released in Sept 2012 by NeWest Press. And she’s also my neighbour. We had “coffee” at our local library’s café where she signed my brand new copy of The Shore Girl. I liked Fran right away. She’s closer to my mom’s age than to mine but, thanks in part to my big sister complex, I felt comfortable and happy to be with her. She was gracious and generous with her encouragement and advice. I came away scolding myself for not finding her sooner.
There was just one lingering worry for me. I hadn’t yet finished Fran’s book. By page eighty-eight, I liked it. But would I keep liking it all the way to the end? Not knowing any writers personally meant I could always say whatever I wanted when I finished a book without any fear that the old authors from pre-revolutionary Russia, or wherever, would get their feelings hurt. What would it mean for our new friendship if I got to the end and realized I didn’t like it?
I read Fran’s book anyway. I trusted her. I trusted her publisher. I read. And I thoroughly enjoyed The Shore Girl.
It’s told in polyphony, through the voices of half a dozen different first person narrators. They vary in age and gender but they all have two things in common: a girl named Rebee and the question of whether surrendering power to other people by loving them is worth the burden it brings.
I won’t risk trying to write a detailed plot summary. I’m afraid I’d botch it and make the book with its unstable mothers, homelessness, and all that alcohol sound like an old after-school television special bemoaning the effects of dysfunctional families on developing children. That’s not what this is. Somehow, Fran has taken a set of circumstances that are usually treated in sentimental, tiresome terms and knocked the cloying clichés off them. The clarity of the details of everyday life – the fingernail clippings and the insides of refrigerators – along with the stoic resignation with which the characters negotiate their difficult landscapes allow a story that could have been mired in gratuitous melancholy to become a story told with sincerity, warmth, wisdom, and even hope.
“It’s not a happy story,” Fran warned me. She’s right. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t leave me feeling hopeful about the resilient, resourceful people who can grow out of tumultuous home environments. Imperfect, incomplete love is still love. And maybe — miraculously — it’s enough.
It was with perfect sincerity that I emailed Fran the morning I finished The Shore Girl and congratulated her for writing a very fine novel. Just one more thing remains unsettled between us: Fran has yet to read my still unreleased novel. Now that’s scary.