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!
If my youngest brother-in-law was a Roman god, he’d be Vulcan. Wait — let’s not let Star Trek confuse us. I’m not trying to say he’s cold and hyper-rational and his sleeves are too short. He’s like the original, Classical Vulcan — fiery and powerful and smart. Like Vulcan, he makes his living building things out of metal with torches and hammers. When he’s having fun, he still likes to yell and hit things. I adore him. And if I was a goddess, I’d be Juno, the shrill but scary wife of the boss-god Jupiter (Zeus, to all you Greek fans). I also like to yell and hit things. It’s a sign of enthusiasm and love. Both Vulcan and I understand that very well.
In the years and years I’ve known him, Vulcan has not been a voracious reader of contemporary Canadian literary fiction. It’d be out of character for him to rush out and buy my novel when it’s released this August. But I hope he will. In order to encourage him, I did what Juno would do: I got up in his face and bullied him about it.
“Hey, are you going to buy my book when it comes out?”
He paused. “Uh — how much money will you get from each one?”
It wasn’t the response I expected. “I don’t know,” I said. “About two dollars maybe?”
He reached into his pocket. He said, “How about I just give you two dollars right now?”
He was laughing at me.
“You have to read it!” I bawled at him. “You have to. Because…”
This is where my Juno started to lose her nerve. Even with my loved ones, I am a shy, apologetic promoter of my work. I tell my friends and family where to find it and then I leave them alone. There’s no follow-up – no awkward audit of their patronage of my art. My loud, bossy questioning of Vulcan was not about getting him to cough up a twoonie. It was about something much more delicate.
He was standing in front of me, towering over me, one hand still in his pocket. He was looking down with his big brown face, waiting for me to finish.
I began again. This was important – something between a warning and a gift and a confession. “There’s this character in the book – and – he might seem like he’s kind of like you.”
Vulcan’s eyes got a little bit bigger.
“But he’s not you,” I hurried. I explained there’s a scene in my novel where a woman meets her in-laws for the first time. That meeting is written a lot like the time I first met Vulcan, when I was twenty-one and he was not quite ten years old.
“They’re not us.” I said again. “They just look like us for a minute. The little boy grows up and does things you don’t do. He’s not you.”
“But someone might think he’s me.”
“Would he be in the book if you didn’t know me?”
Strictly speaking, it’s an impossible question. How can I say whether I could have imagined someone so much like my brother-in-law ex nihilo now that I already know him?
What I could say was this. “If I hadn’t lived the life I’ve lived, I wouldn’t have written the book the way I have.”
This was honest and fair to both of us. The fact is I could have this same conversation (hopefully without the offer to pre-emptively buy me off) with dozens of people. There are sparks and shreds and sometimes even long swaths of all sorts of real people in my work. It feels inevitable. Even if I switched genres and started writing hardcore science fiction, the spaceships and alien planets would still be full of traces of my friends, family, neighbours – everyone.
I’m certainly not the only writer who’ll admit this. In an excellent essay, novelist Corrina Chong reflects on “writing as thievery.” She says, “here’s the truth behind the fiction: as a writer, I am a thief…My writing is a collage of the bits and pieces I’ve stolen. Once your piece is glued on, it’s no longer yours. Finders keepers, I say.”
She sounds flippant but writing real life into fiction isn’t something done lightly. We agonize over it. We weigh the benefits of doing it against the risk. And we understand the people unwittingly serving as our literary models might not agree we’ve struck the balance right. Frankly, it’s scary.
Chong goes on to acknowledge that this theft is actually more like an exchange – a swap. She says, “the very act of writing a story and releasing it out into the world assumes that readers will be able to see something of themselves in the characters, thereby stealing their own little pieces as keepsakes…any idea that rings true in your universe becomes your own.”
Maybe that’s what makes it possible for my self-consciousness at my own thieving audacity to be outweighed by my sense that it’s important for my reluctant, metal smashing baby-brother-in-law to read my novel – the one with a scene rooted in our shared history. It’s not about the two dollars. It’s about us. Maybe that’s why I want all of the poor souls I’ve pilfered to read it. I want to complete the second half of the exchange. I want them to take something from me now – something bigger than my thanks for the inspiration. Take yourself back, I say, and with it, take a piece of me.
A couple of years ago, while my lonely literary novel was still soaking in publishers’ slush piles, I adapted one of its chapters into a short story and submitted it to a cool, experimental literary magazine based in Calgary. (Yes, there’s actually a very fine literary scene in Alberta.)
I called my novel-chapter-posing-as-a-short-story “Pterodactyl Egg” (I still have to spell check “pterodactyl” every time I type it). The title is a pregnancy reference, obviously. I don’t like pregnancy but I love this story. It’s almost completely autobiographical — which means, of course, that I had to tone it down or it would have seemed too far-fetched.
Reality seems so contrived sometimes. Like the time I went to visit my old lady friend in the hospital where she was trying not to die of some ridiculous infection and I found her unraveling a hand-knit sweater — that was way too real.
And no, that’s not my face on the cover of the mag.