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!
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.
I am one of five sisters. I was born first and in exchange for having the best memories of our parents when they were young and cool, I missed out on adventures my sisters had together after I swore off women for a life with my husband and sons. Different combinations of my sisters have traveled to Disneyland, New York City, Winnipeg, Amsterdam, the Northwest Territories, and the old gravel pit in Prince George all without me.
This year, for the first time, I made it to one of their “girls’ trips.” I met the three of my sisters who aren’t currently breastfeeding (see, someone’s always left out – it’s not personal) in Calgary to spend a weekend together.
I am terrible at ordering and it was over a bowl of thick green sauce at dinner that I taught the girls a new word: sistering. It’s like mothering only just between us. And then I warned them about my second novel. It’s about a group of five sisters.
No, it’s not about us.
If it’s not a tribute to our family why stretch the cast over five main characters? Well, because it’s not a stretch. There were five Spice Girls, five Go-Gos, five Miss Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice, and, of course, five Dionne quintuplets. My mind isn’t the only place where a group of five girls is the only size that makes sense.
It was impossible to write the book-sisters without invoking bits of my real sisters. I used some of our quirks and experiences as inspiration, like any writer would have done. To add to the tangle, our family is large. On my side alone there are seven siblings, seven spouses, one ex-spouse, and twenty-two nieces and nephews. It’s hard to create characters and situations that don’t overlap in some way with people I know very well simply because I know so many people so very well. When we’re primed to look, even general coincidences can seem like deliberate rip-offs. For instance, one of the sisters is the book is a nurse, just like Amy. One is divorced, like Sara. One is married to a man who’s adopted, like Mary’s husband. These elements aren’t uncommon inside or outside literature. Moreover, my book’s story wouldn’t work without them. And the story definitely wouldn’t work without the intimate understanding of sisterhood we sisters have given each other.
None of this is the same thing as writing a story about my sisters.
Still, I submitted to the girls teasing me about the book for the rest of the weekend. They let me have it, with that sharp sweetness of theirs and lots of laughter.
The next day Amy had planned girlie activities for us. We spent the morning shopping. That was easy. The afternoon was more difficult. The other girls wanted to go to a spa together. The only place that could book all four of us at the same time was not exactly a spa but a beauty school. I don’t want to use its real name so let’s just call it – oh, I don’t know – Carvel Mollege.
I’d had a facial only once before. It seemed like witchcraft – a superstitious ritual in smearing stuff on my face and wiping it off, a cycle of application and removal. The key to a successful facial is to end it immediately after finishing a thorough removal.
I was about to learn this.
If I’d been a more experienced exploiter of the pink ghetto that is esthetics, I would have realized how strangely my facial was unfolding and made some kind of protest. As it was I laid under a towel that smelled like someone else while a college girl let facial goops drip into my hairline, while she failed to rinse the cocktail of creams and toners and tonics off my skin.
At some arbitrarily determined point she said we were done. My skin felt tight and tacky as I stood up and looked for a mirror. There was only one in the room, mounted too high for me to see much of my face in it. All I could see was a dark, oily perimeter where my hair had soaked up the skin treatments.
Not a good sign.
The supervising instructor was waved out of a classroom to inspect my student’s work. “How do you feel?” she asked me.
“From the moisturizer,” she finished for me.
I went downstairs, fingering the gummy surface of my face. In the lobby, my three little sisters were sitting in a love seat meant for two. They looked great. But when they saw me, they looked concerned – and amused. That’s when I knew for sure something wasn’t right. While the receptionist ran my card through the machine, I flexed my sticky face until it cracked. I stood in the lobby and peeled a sheet of – something – off my face.
Across the room, my sisters were cackling. “Why’d it have to be Jenny?”
Between my fingers I held a transparent mask of most of my face. It reminded me of a bored habit I had in grade four, pouring white glue into my hand and letting it dry before trying to peel it off in one piece. This glue mask was a good one. Every hair of my left eyebrow was perfectly visible.
I rolled the film into a ball between my fingers. “I’m not paying for this.”
My sisters kept laughing.
“I understand they’re just students,” I told the receptionist. “But look at my sisters: they’re not down here peeling their faces off.”
No one argued about refunding my money. Maybe they should have. My sisters and I had spun the barrel in a game of college student esthetician roulette and on our fourth shot, my shot, the game fired its inevitable concluding round.
We got in my minivan and drove away, off to a dinner where I would order another plate of food I wouldn’t like. Mary told me how radiant I looked. Amy lent me some makeup. And we never stopped laughing. That’s my sisters: the laugh track of my life, calming me down, cheering me up, convincing me this drama is much more fun than any amount of reason says it should be.
When my new book appears next year (please read it) don’t skip the dedication page. But just in case, let me reveal now how it will read:
For Amy, Sara, Mary, and Emily
All of whom inspired, none of whom is depicted in this book
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.