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!
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.
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.
Here’s one more insultingly obvious pro-tip from a newbie novelist: the first book launch event you ever attend should not be your own. For once, I didn’t wait to learn this bit of wisdom the hard way. My novel’s release date is Aug 3, 2013 – just 86 days from now. There isn’t much time left for me to get familiar with promotional literary events before the author in the fabulous arts-chick shoes standing behind the microphone winds up being me.
Fortunately, the closest publisher to me geographically – Edmonton’s NeWest Press – held a “spring spectacular” this week. They collected three of their authors and one poet and brought them into the city for readings and signings of their newly released books. It was a perfect opportunity for me to sneak into the literary scene and do some reconnaissance.
I started by plotting. What I needed was a pair of wing-people. I convinced these two.
This is my extremely helpful and supportive brother-in-law and my baby sister.
[You mean the nursing professor sister? No. The millionaire business tycoon sister? No. The ultra-marathon runner sister? No. The Edmonton slow-food lady sister? Yes, that’s the one. I am gifted with lots of gifted sisters.]
NeWest was holding the launch in a downtown coffee house housed in a restored brick building. By the time we arrived, it was humid-warm and crammed with people and hot beverages. Its name – Roast – couldn’t have been more apt.
The only place left to sit was in a dim, empty corner. This was exactly how I had pictured myself here – dark and peripheral.
As we waited for the readings to start, I kept accidentally making eye contact with a lady sitting along the wall perpendicular to me. I’m awkward and silly so I kept making sure I politely turned away every time we looked at each other. But if I’d checked my Twitter feed at that moment I would have found this:
@JennQuistAuthor hi, I’m sitting at the next table over #creepytweets
The message was from one of my Twitter/blogger buddies, Laura Frey. She was the woman I kept looking at across the crowded room. I’d never met her in person and I was too stupid to recognize her until later when I overheard her name. This is fairly typical. Sometimes we joke (because brain injuries are hilarious, I guess) that I have prosopagnosia – brain damage that makes it hard to recognize faces. I probably don’t. It’s the kind of disorder that usually only comes on in survivors of horrendous no-helmet motorcycle accidents.
The time came for us to stop whispering in our corner and start listening to the readings. The first was poetry from Jenna Butler’s Seldom Seen Road. Her work is set on the central Alberta prairie but it isn’t the usual western Canadiana. In the selections she read, there was a longing and loneliness that didn’t just arise from the physical struggle to subdue a harsh landscape while maintaining human relationships. It rose instead from the decline of the communities that had originally been built on the land. The first wave of prairie settlers is ebbing away as their posterity rejects their way of life. And the second wave of settlers, like Butler and her family, is arriving without a script for how to connect themselves to the crumbling social and physical landscapes left behind.
I hadn’t heard of Butler before the launch but the second reader was someone I’d already been admiring on the Internet. She’s Rebecca Campbell, author of The Paradise Engine. I know it’s sexist and vapid to comment on a woman artist’s appearance but I have to mention how impressed I was by Campbell’s height. There’s nothing I’ve seen on her website to reveal the fact she’s at least six feet tall once she puts on shoes (yes, I asked her). Her book was the one I used my launch party budget to bring home. The section she read – a gorgeous picture of a Cold War kid’s night frights over nuclear war – could have been a narration of my own childhood. Campbell writes about crows and Apocalypses – things I love.
Marguerite Pigeon – yet another author I’ve stalked on the Internet – read from her central American thriller Open Pit. It’s about a hostage taking and a fictitious open pit gold mine. This was the book Emily brought home after Pigeon tantalized us with a crafty cliff-hanger ending. Em and I are going to trade books once we’re finished reading – which, knowing me, will not happen soon.
The fourth reader was novelist Corrina Chong. I’ve quoted her insightful ideas about the influence of authors’ realities in their fiction in an earlier post. Any girlie-ness that might have been implied by her pinkish book cover is offset by pencil sketches of squid in all their tentacled loveliness. The selections she read from her book, Belinda’s Rings, felt a lot like real family life to me – especially real life with a demanding little boy who needs his caregivers to be everything and nothing to him all at the same time. She nailed it – nailed it right to my Goodreads to-read list.
Roast was roasting and my home was over 100km away so we didn’t stay very late into the night after the readings were finished. I got to meet a few people but not as many as I wanted before my wing-people and I stepped out into the fresh-enough inner-city air.
On the sidewalk, with Emily and Allan, I indulged in lamenting my missteps. When I groaned at myself for demanding to know how tall Rebecca Campbell is Emily said, “It’s okay. I figure as long as you’re still talking, it’s all good.”
And for my first outing, maybe she’s right. The mix-and-mingle concept is not a big part of my current skill set. Maybe it never will be. Under the high wooden beams of the old coffee house, maybe we were all just a bunch of bookish writer-types lurching out of our comfort zones, trying to recognize each other’s faces from tiny Twitter and blogger head-shots, forgiving each other for not being as smart and shiny in person as we are in print.