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!
Goofing around on Google, I read a blog post by author Lauren Carter where she mentions a review I wrote of her debut novel, Swarm. The occasion was the one year anniversary of the release of her book and the post was a list of great, book-related things that have happened to her in that time.
Lauren’s idea struck me as a good one – a theft-worthy one, one to make me feel a little less robbed of the roses we were too frantic to stop to smell this summer when the one year anniversary of my novel came and went without my notice.
Here’s my version of the one-year celebration list. [If your Jenny-is-a-horrible-braggart-alarm is tripping, please close this tab or relax and try to read the list as gratitude – which it is and which ought to be expressed.]
- My book returned me to Montreal and Toronto and gave me excellent reasons to leave their airports for the first time. Both cities were magnifique with cool people, great art, literary events, and me roaming around reading maps like a dork.
- My book toured me around most of Alberta (no map required): Lacombe, Edmonton, Calgary, Sherwood Park, Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Hill Springs, and a quiet homecoming in Raymond, the town where I graduated from high school.
- Drama! In the peculiar American-Mormon book scene, my book was made a finalist for an award with one hand and branded heresy in a review in the local media with the other hand. Eventually, the review was revised (a mighty feat) and an apology made.
- Apart from the Salt Lake City newspaper debacle, the book got great reviews and mentions in major newspapers, regional newspapers, trade publications, magazines, and online. It was awesome (in the literal sense that it inspired awe in me) to see thoughtful reviewers finding things in my book I didn’t realize were there. Making art is frickin’ amazing like that. Highlights include Publishers Weekly, National Post, and the sweetest text ever from my dad.
- The book led me to discover my colleagues – my fabulous, generous colleagues. I wrote my novel in isolation and it wasn’t until it was nearly time to release it that I started meeting the writers, librarians, bloggers, and readers I should have been befriending all along. My book gave me a community.
- On the merits of the book, I won a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award. I got to take my parents, husband, and a few of my sons to a fancy ceremony in a sandstone mansion before wearing the medal inscribed with my name to vacuum my house.
- The television appearances were challenging but book promotion also got me spots on radio and podcasts. As long as no one can see me, I enjoy speaking almost as much as writing and these appearances were great pleasures.
- The book actually sold. It was distributed in large bookstores as well as in indies and online. In Novemeber 2013, it was a regional bestseller according the Edmonton Journal.
- Meeting new people was wonderful but so was getting back in touch with old friends and long lost family and hearing how the book affected them. Sure, there was lots of “oh, it’s so morbid” but there were also touching tributes I will never forget as long as I have a mind that remembers anything.
Don’t mistake my list for a eulogy. There’s more ahead for Love Letters of the Angels of Death in its second year. More copies have been printed, more book clubs have been booked, and more good news will appear in due time. Thanks for your help and support. Yes, you did – simply reading to the end of this blog post is a show of support.
My May began with a literary festival in a world class city and ended with a book club in the village of Hill Spring, population not quite 200.
This book club was hosted by my friend and fellow writer April Demes. Years ago, when we first met, April was an arty, precocious teenager and I was a newly married 21-year-old who knew EVERYTHING. Now that we’re older, we have more in common: gardening, bird watching, CBC Radio, pretty blond children, and writing.
Despite their idyllic Rocky Mountain surroundings – a white house on the side of a green hill where a repurposed guitar is nailed to a tree as a birdhouse – April’s family hasn’t been luxuriating in a quiet simple life. (Quiet simple life is a myth. If we think we know someone living this way, it’s a sure sign we don’t know them very well at all.) While still in his 30s, her husband was afflicted with cancer, right inside his skull. They nearly lost each other. That my novel strikes any kind of chord with April is a great honour.
The Hill Spring book club was one of my favourites. It was peopled with bright, interesting women of varied ages and backgrounds – some of whom may be distantly related to my well-connected husband. They came prepared with questions and we had a great discussion about love and death and the writing process. But it wasn’t because everyone unreservedly loved the book.
One of the ladies who enjoyed the book described her grownup daughter’s reaction to it. They’d been reading aloud and the daughter stopped when the narrative got too “morbid.” There is a fair bit of death and death paraphernalia in the novel. It begins in the title and never really lets up. It can be tough for some readers to see through it to the tenderness that is the real point of the book. Sometimes, they dismiss it as “morbid.”
Strictly speaking the word “morbid” means sick, unhealthy. I flinch when I hear this word used to describe my book. Writing in frank, practical terms about loss is not something I consider unhealthy. Not everything that’s uncomfortable – exercise, pelvic exams, insulin shots – is unhealthy. Willfully ignoring the difficult and complicated process of dispatching our loved ones until we’re devastated by a crisis is what seems unhealthy to me. As I wrote the book, “morbid” was not my aim – quite the contrary.
While I’m no longer surprised to hear “morbid” spoken at book clubs, I was surprised to hear which part of the book made the lady’s daughter squirm. It was the chapter where the main female character is cutting up a grocery store chicken, making dinner.
I hate cooking more than most people. I wrote about cutting chicken honestly, flaunting but not exaggerating my perceptions of it. “Take that, cooking. You’re gross.” But even someone who abhors cooking as much as I do probably doesn’t find her own kitchen a morbid place.
Maybe death is the same. Life on Earth means eating and it means dying. Both are messy, inevitable, and natural. It doesn’t matter how healthy or vibrant or “morbid” any of us is, we all have to eat and we all have to die. It remains true even if we don’t want to know anything of the finer points of how either is done.
I don’t make money on book clubs but I did sell two books in Hill Spring. One was to a lady who came to the meeting without finishing the book. It was morbid, she said, but after hearing the rest of us talk about it she’d decided to give the book another chance and invest in her very own copy (personally defaced by me) instead of borrowing April’s. She was willing to question her sense of what’s morbid and consider changing her mind.
It may have been the most gratifying book club comment ever.
I never meant to cram a month’s worth of book promotion into seven days. It just happened — an unforeseen consequence of good luck, good will, and good publicists. I was so busy last week my kids actually noticed and mentioned how little time I’d been spending in my pumpkin shell.
I told them, “Look, I took a seventeen year mat-leave. You’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Sure, it was a maternity leave full of freelance work and “will-you-just-let-me-finish-this” but I was here, in the house with them, for almost all of it.
The week started early Monday (because, that’s when it always starts) when I went into my closet — the room in the house most like a radio booth — and did a telephone interview with a talk-radio station in Edmonton. It was a “top-line” interview meant to promote an appearance I’d be making in the city the next day. It went well until the very last question.
“So,” Mr. Radio asked, “who’s taking care of the kids while you’re [in Edmonton]?”
Instead of musing, “You know, when my husband gets interviewed by the media, on the courthouse steps, no one ever asks him who’s looking after his kids,” I laughed it off.
“That’s their problem,” I told the interviewer. “The oldest is seventeen so it’s Lord of the Flies over here when I’m gone.”
So far, no visit from Child and Family Services.
By bedtime that evening, I was gone. I was at my sister’s house in Edmonton, getting ready for another “top-line” interview on the most terrifying of all media: television. I haven’t watched television for years and I was scheduled to appear on a morning news show I’d never seen before. What I remembered from TV was mostly how it’s been used to make “real” people look foolish and grasping.
In the morning, I got dressed while it was still dark — high black boots, skinny black pants, white top, black jacket. Looking in my sister’s mirror, I finally saw it: I had subconsciously dressed myself to look like the black and white magpies on the cover of my book.
After a breakfast of Diet Coke with the coolest girl in Yellowbird Elementary School, I was on the freeway. I got to the studio early enough to meet the other author being interviewed that morning. In the green room was a man my age wearing a raspberry-coloured suit with a peach handkerchief tucked into the breast-pocket. This was self-proclaimed over-dresser and Edmonton literary institution, Todd Babiak. I thought I might run into him here.
“Don’t get nervous and start making fun of him,” one of my little sisters had warned me. “That’s what I’d do.”
This was good advice. It turns out Babiak isn’t a TV watcher either and we sat in the green room puzzling at the monitor on the wall as the program wound its way toward our segments. He nodded at the anchor-lady on the screen. “She’s actually read my book,” he said because, in a top-line interview, this is remarkable.
Left alone in the green room, I watched Babiak’s interview. Of course, his raspberry suit had to be acknowledged on-air, just like my five kids at home had to be acknowledged on the radio on Monday morning. The boys — they’re my raspberry suit.
Walking the hallway to the studio, I asked the producer with the pixie-cut hairdo, “There aren’t going to be any questions about who’s taking care of my kids, are there?”
She smirked. “Any what?”
I told her about the radio station and we all scoffed together. The anchorman who interviewed me was sweet in a clean-cut-captain-of-the-football-team kind of way.
I spent the rest of the day in the city, visiting family, calming the frick down before I went to a reading in a bookstore downtown. The guests at this reading included some old friends I hadn’t seen in this century. One of them reintroduced herself in case I’d forgotten her — which I certainly had not. A wonderful thing about a book tour is the way it’s also a time machine.
After two days of massaging social media, the time came for another reading. This one was closer to home, in the city my husband commutes to for work. The Red Deer venue was warm and cozy and the time machine coughed out a long lost aunt and cousin. There was a question from a woman — a fellow artist — who earnestly and innocently wanted to know how I “do it” with so many kids in my life.
I shrugged, “By being a crap mother, I guess.” This might be my new pat-answer. Put it right in the press kit.
The last event of the week was the most ambitious one of all. The person stepping out of the time machine this time would be me. The machine took the form of my black pickup truck — the kind they issue everyone crossing into Alberta’s borders. I picked up my sister (the third sister in this story) and we went north, to Fort McMurray.
I’m no carpet-bagger, no oilsand opportunist. For five years during the early 2000s, the city was my hometown. I bought my first house, repaid my student loan, met bears, planted trees, and had two magnificent babies in the city. An entire chapter of my novel is set in the Wood Buffalo region. To get there, we drove for five hours — me boring the heck out of my sister with all my “Wow, this is so different.” I alternated between, “I can’t believe all this is here” and “I can’t believe all that is gone.” No matter what the Old Man says, the region is not Hiroshima. It’s not a wasteland. But it’s not like it used to be either.
In seven years, the city’s service industry hasn’t changed. We arrived at 2:45 pm but we couldn’t get into our hotel room to change our clothes. It was still a mess. I’d be appearing in public looking like I’d spent the day in a pickup truck. We hadn’t had a meal all day and we went to a fast food restaurant with milk and grease smeared all over the sky-blue tabletops. This was familiar too. The restaurant couldn’t hire enough staff to have anyone to clear the tables. Customers go there knowing they’ll have to do it themselves.
At the event — a launch party for the latest edition of NorthWord: A Literary Journal of Canada’s North — I was invited to read first. I chose the chapter set in the neighbourhood where I now stood reading. And when I got to the part about the trees along the highway — the ones that now exist only in my imagination — I choked into the microphone. Maybe it’d sound noble and Neil Young would pat me on the head if I tried to say I was having a fit of environmental conscience. It wasn’t that. It wasn’t the trees. It was me. There was some kind of awful longing rising in my throat with the words I read. The whole time machine idea — it’s wrong. This place that I love had moved on without me. I was abandoned. And I hadn’t even known it.
Part of the NorthWord event was in impromptu poetry contest. The theme was contrast. I jotted some lines and signed my sister’s name to them. The poem was about the dirty tabletop at the restaurant. It was silly and pretentious right down to the lines I wrote in German. The judges got the joke and it won a prize in the contest. But my sister was too embarrassed to let them announce it. Fair enough.
When we were finally let into the hotel, we put on pajamas, got into one of the beds, put our heads together, and watched YouTube on my sister’s tablet — a sisters’ sleepover, just like old times, only not at all like old times. Neither of us had wi-fi or a credit card or an ex-husband or a book to tour when we were little girls.
Still, those German words — the refrain from our winning poem — they were these: