Enough Envy for Everybody

Big stage for big literary celebrity

Maybe there comes a time in every writing career when quiet, solitary writer-person gets curious about the literary world’s version of hype — popular, public, celebrity hype.

It’s true for me, anyways. So before they were sold out, I bought a ticket to see a celebrity author passing through my city. He’s a Canadian now living in the United States who appeared before a crowd of 500 people a few blocks from my house.

The author and I are strangers. I haven’t read his books. I didn’t go to see him as a fan or as a friend. Maybe I was falling back into my social science habits – acting the clinical outsider, coolly observing the phenomenon of celebrity enacted literary-style. There’s something nobly aloof about telling it that way. It lifts my delicate, fretting artist’s heart out of the story.

I arrived at the theatre just as “please find your seats” was announced. Arriving late at a sold-out event means making a rough, rude spectacle, crawling over people to lone seats in the centres of rows. I hadn’t dressed up and I arrived smelling like the onion I’d diced making dinner. That was me — rude, sloppy, late-coming, envious spectacle.

Goodwill and admiration don’t negate envy. Envy, my dad taught me, is different from jealousy. Envy is simply wanting the same thing other people have. Jealousy is wanting to get it by taking it away from them. Jealousy is hating them for having it. Those were the semantics I was raised on.

I knew sitting in a crowd gawking at a celebrity author wouldn’t get all the people who read and talk about his books to read and talk about my book too. Still, reading seems to work on a positive feedback cycle (social science!). The more people read, the more they keep reading. Reading is always good for writers.We lose nothing in supporting our colleagues — even when we’re just a tiny, anonymous faces on the far side of the footlights. There’s something slightly less noble about telling it that way.

Onstage, he read from his latest work. It was masterful and when I applauded, I felt like I meant it more than anyone else in the theatre. Then he talked. He talked about choices he’d made in his career that I wish I’d known to make in mine. He talked about disadvantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring and advantages I don’t have that make his work rich and stirring. He has more sisters than me. That stung. He must’ve mentioned his sisters three times — just like I would have.

Near the end, a book club leader from the audience asked him what he’s been reading lately. This isn’t the kind of amazing story where he answers, “Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist. Check it out.”

That’s not what he said. He answered he doesn’t read other writers’ fiction very often. Especially when talking to a book club member, it’s a claim that demands defending. The author explained, “You read it and it’s like, ‘ah, they’re so good, why do I even bother?’”

That’s what a celebrity author looks like, lit onstage with his delicate, fretting artist’s heart. He looks a lot like the rest of us – rough and envious, unsure. I hadn’t known when I left my house that night, but this was what I’d come hoping to see for myself. There might not be much that’s noble about telling it this way.

Book’s Belated Birthday

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

Roses we raised from a bare root. They smell fantastic.

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.

Fan-girling: Why You Should Go to Book Events

Cover with blurb by Padma Viswanathan

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.

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books

Padma Viswanathan and me at Audreys Books, Edmonton

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.

Lo, the First Foreigner on “The Good Word” Podcast

After writing, my favourite medium is radio — no make-up, all talk. Podcasting is a lot like radio — radio without all the “ums” edited out, long-form radio where guests can really cut loose and do some damage. This is a podcast I recorded last month with Nick Galieti, a book industry guy in Utah.

We talk about my accent, my family, Mormonism, literary elitism, the Republican Party (a first for me in an interview, for sure), my marriage and the lighter side of death schtick, and the mysterious geography of the second largest country on the globe.

Nick: So how is Canada today?

JQ: Canada is — is enormous.

Nick was a fine interviewer and it turns out he served with my cousin-in-law when they were missionaries.

Check out the podcast if you’d like to hear some unfortunate, spontaneous voice acting, a little bit of Mormon jargon, and my six-year-old coughing through a door. Must have been a good time; my final word was “Woo hoo!”

Jennifer Quist Interview with Nick Galieti

“Award-winning” at the Last Minute: I Am No Paul Henderson But…

My dad has shown me enough inspirational sports movies and documentaries for me to know it’s best to wait until right before the buzzer sounds at the end of the game to score a big goal.

That’s the way the literary awards season for my debut novel has unfolded. The book was released in August 2013 and I sat here quietly and morosely ticking off each of the season’s awards as their short-lists were announced without my name on them. I got to watch kind well-wishers saying it was too bad I was overlooked and while that went a long way in buoying my spirits, it didn’t give me and my novel any grounds to be called “award-winning.”

Near the end of the season, I was named on one shortlist but, while I appreciated the honour, the award was a bad fit for me and I didn’t win it.

Since it’s Fathers Day this week, I’ll tell the rest of the story with a Canadian hockey history analogy.  Let’s just say it was the final seconds of the third period of the literary award season…

“Henderson made a wild stab for it and fell”

… when I got a phone call…

“Here’s another shot right in front of the…”

…congratulating me on winning the 2014 Lieutenant Governor of Alberta’s Emerging Artist Award.

“Score! Henderson!”

It finally happened. I won the last award I was a contender for this year – scored on my last chance to claim the “award-winning” designation, right before the final whistle. Along with the rights to “award-winning” it comes with a prize, a medal, media coverage, and a fancy ceremony with His Honor. I’m one of eight recipients chosen from a wide range of artistic fields to get the award. I’ll find out who the rest of them are at 10am today at Government House in Edmonton.

I couldn’t be more pleased or more grateful to the board for selecting me. Yay!

 

[Thanks (and apologies) to hockey legends Paul Henderson and Foster Hewitt.]

Writing Without a Grant: Girl in a Post-Shteyngart World Tries to Feel Smug About It

If Can-Lit is subdued by government grants it’s got nothing to do with me.

Between spurts of productive work on my latest just-keep-swimming short writing project, I indulged my bad habit of listlessly scrolling through my Twitter feed.  The Canadian literary community – for all you normal folks out there – is ravenous for controversy.  We love and hate to have a focal point for cheeky, gleefully indignant tweets and blogs.  This winter, controversy flared up around comments 2012 Giller Prize judge Gary Shteyngart made while drinking with a reporter in New York City.  He said something about Can-Lit lacking risk-takers.  His now notorious explanation was that Canadian writers “all get grants” and therefore “they want to please the Ontario Arts Council, or whatever it is.”

Now, anyone who follows this blog knows I came to be a working writer through unconventional channels.  I don’t have an MFA from any of the creative writing programmes where Canada’s up-and-coming literary talent is usually hot-housed.  I live in a rural area where the local literary fiction circle includes me and my lovely neighbour.  I have never worked in publishing.  And, I have never received any grant money.  No arts council – certainly not the faraway Ontario Arts Council – has ever funded my work.

In the spirit of Can-Lit-Da’s relentless self-reflection, I considered what Shteyngart’s comments (which he later joked should be taken in the context of his “drunken stupor”) say about me.

For one thing, there isn’t much room in his comments for me.  I disprove his over-generalization.  I wrote a manuscript and sold it to a traditional literary publishing house without applying for, let alone getting, a government grant.  Maybe I can ignore everything Shteyngart said and join the cheerleaders tweeting titles of great, “risky” Canadian books which may not have been (but probably were) written by grant recipients.

Or, I could feel robbed.  How fair is it that I work in a country that seems to have an international reputation for being glutted with arts grants of which I’ve never been paid my share?

Or, I could embrace Shteyngart’s assumption that writing needs to be somewhat staid in order to get the bureaucratic rubber-stamping of a government grant.  I could try to spin my grant-free-working-writer status as a sign that my stuff must be subversive and edgy — the kind of thing lucidly drunk, chatty New York City hipsters might find interesting.

There might be a bit of support for the third option – the fun, cocky, unlikely option.  We haven’t had a bad review of my novel but we’ve seen it described over and over again with words like “odd, strange, surprising” or “unusual.”  I knew when I was writing the book that it was peculiar and I had to keep writing it that way regardless.  And now — if Shteyngart is right — I have the distinction of writing it without a grant and thereby proving what a weirdo I am.  I should revel in that, I guess.  There’s not necessarily anything wrong with it.  There could be a whole lot right with it.

Yeah, all this reasoning is a bit of a stretch.

I don’t know if what I do is at all risky.  Frankly, it’s 2014 and I’m not even sure I’d recognize a new literary risk if I saw one.  And I can’t deduce a risk by whether there’s anything entered on the grants line of an income tax form.  Like most people, I just write what I want to write, whether anyone wants to pay for it or not.

Betty, Veronica, and My First Book Club

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.

Return of an Edmonton Cleaning-Lady as an Audreys Author

The best thing about being from nowhwere is being from everywhere.

I lived in thirteen different houses by the time I moved away from my happy, nomadic family at age eighteen (only to have them move right along after me a few months later).  That counts as growing up everywhere doesn’t it?

When I made my first solo move, the place I went was Edmonton, Alberta.  Don’t know Edmonton?  It’s a metropolitan area of about a million people at 54 degrees latitude.  If anyone’s thinking, “That must be a pretty great city for people to put up with living that far north,” they’re right.   I went there to get an education at the University of Alberta.  I met my husband on Whyte Avenue, earned my degree, published my first guest column in the Edmonton Journal, and my two eldest children were born in Edmonton.  I was there for eight years — longer than I’ve lived in any city.  My Edmonton days were happy but not glamorous.  Most of the time, I lived in Strathcona walk-up apartments like this:

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

The Apollo Apartments, just off Whyte Avenue

Even this place was only affordable because I worked as the resident manager and cleaning-lady. I don’t live inside the city limits anymore but if the weather is good, I can get to them in under an hour.  Edmonton is still one of my many hometowns — part of the everywhere I’m from.  In fact, several of the chapters of the book I wrote are set in city — University of Alberta campus, the High Level Bridge, Cloverbar Waster Transfer Station — all Edmonton.

This coming Tuesday night, I’m bringing my book home to Edmonton.

A few weeks ago, my novel was nicely reviewed by Edmonton Journal book columnist (and fellow newly debuted local author) Michael Hingston.  He called it, “A surprising, thoughtful and captivating debut that uses death to illuminate all that’s at stake in life itself.”

The good local review sets the stage for my author reading hosted by Edmonton’s indie bookstore mainstay, Audreys Books. (No, there isn’t supposed to be an apostrophe in the name.  It refers to more than one Audrey and is grammatically above reproach.)  Audreys is a place little girls slogging away at their Arts degrees, and young-mother-cleaning-ladies writing indignant guest columns keep in their minds as the setting for scenes from the futures they want for themselves.  The store is a landing-pad for Edmonton writers in traditional, book-length publishing.  I am beyond happy to be appearing there.

And since my publicist, Sarah, is a total animal, I’m getting right up in Edmonton’s face about my homecoming.  I’m doing a radio interview with talk radio station 630 CHED on Monday, Sept 23, at around 7:20am.  The morning of the reading itself, Tuesday Sept 24, I’ll be interviewed outside the safe, blind box of radio on television with the CTV Edmonton Morning show.  I’ll be on for just a few minutes at around 8:40am.  So crazy!  And if I botch it, remember that we must never speak of this again.