I’ve booked my ticket and my cheap but not inexpensive hotel room and I’m all set to fly to Montreal in four weeks for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival. It’ll be my first time in Montreal outside the airport or the freeway and my first visit to a literary festival in any capacity. In keeping with my out-of-step career path, at my first literary festival I’ll be appearing as an author with three spots on the programme. As always, I’m humble and happy to be included in such a great event — and glad everyone’s cool with me performing only in English.
Last year, a piece of my short non-fiction was included in 40 Below: Edmonton’s Anthology of Winter. As always, I was thrilled to get the gig. The book was released three months after my novel’s debut and it turns out to be the gig that keeps on giving. It helped introduce me — a little hick in the sticks — to the big city Edmonton literary scene. It got me invited to some cool events (most of which I couldn’t attend because of the winter weather — is that irony?) and also got me a slot in the podcast series produced to accompany the anthology. Here’s a link to me and editor/writer/nice guy Jason Lee Norman celebrating the book writer-style — locked in a little room.
My husband got me chocolates just like I ordered for Valentines Day today. And, by playing muse to my novel’s “Brigs,” he also indirectly got me this: a recommendation from the Edmonton Public Library’s “Great Stuff” curator, Diego Ibarra. See?
Really needed that today. Thanks, fellas.
I never read faster than when I’ve found a short book written by someone I know. It’s especially true when that short book by someone I know is also a good book.
That’s the experience I had blazing through Dominant Traits, a collection of short stories by Eric Freeze. Eric and I went to the same high school – the one I came to in grade eleven and into which I never became fully socially integrated. He was in the show-choir/theatre scene and I was an egghead poor-girl whose only extra-curricular pursuit was a part-time job. We were not close. But in a small school where everyone had some knowledge and experience with each other, Eric and I had good will between us.
This good will, our high school, writing fiction, and seeing it published aren’t the only things Eric and I share. We have both set stories in the same southern Alberta town where we went to school, the place that inspires his “Ridgeview.” We both write fiction deeply rooted in real life. I read his collected stories out of sequence and noticed real life first in “A Prayer for the Cosmos” when the narrator refers to an infamous pep rally where dear old Ridgeview High School made a casual racial slur against an exchange student basketball star playing for a rival school. Something like that really happened.
Then there was the story about the awkward white rural kid who thought of himself as a rapper. When I first came to Ridgeview, I assumed this kid must have been playing a character, trying to be funny. He wasn’t. It was excruciatingly embarrassing. I tried to ignore him. I guess it worked. I hadn’t thought about him for decades. He’s probably grown up and put his rapper days behind him. But then, in Eric’s “Francis the Giant” story, there he is again, not grown up at all, falling down on-stage in this MC Hammer act, and I can’t look away from him. Eric’s fiction folded the kid’s story into the accordion fan I hadn’t realized it had always been for me. There was the real kid, his act, my initial confusion about the act, the fictional character arising from the kid, and then the hallucinated transformation the character makes within the story, changing from a scrawny teenager to a giant, leech-flinging monster. We are everyone around us. We’re folded into accordion fans with everyone we know. Their stories are rightfully ours, the opposite sides of our own folded surfaces.
“He’s doing it,” I thought as Eric’s stories started to bend into my own experiences.
I do it too. Last night, at a literary event in Edmonton, I read one of the chapters from my novel that is crafted very much like an event from my family’s real story. Afterwards, as I signed her book, a nice lady asked if the book was fiction or not. I grinned, “Yeah, it’s fiction. But it cheats.” She seemed pleased. Readers love cheating.
Though I’ve been on the giving end – force-feeding my family, friends, and high school classmates doses of our histories, fictionalized, printed, bound between the brittle, narrow margins of my perspective — I don’t think I’d ever been on the receiving end of this kind of storytelling in so direct a way until I read Eric’s book. Seeing it from the other side had a much greater impact on me than I expected. I didn’t just smirk knowingly and say, “Ah, yes, it’s this.” Instead, my heart lurched inside me when I realized Eric’s “Torched” – a piece about a roofing crew grappling with the tenuous mortality of men early in adulthood — includes the story of a boy from our school who suffered an oddball head injury riding a bike in the dark. Even though he seemed to recover from the accident, he suddenly died from the injury a few years later. It’s weird but true. There’s a monument to it in Eric’s book.
It was good for me to read Dominant Traits. It ambushed me even after a mutual friend, the eye on the cover, and my cursory grasp of ancient Ridgeview gossip warned me the book was closely connected to things I had seen and heard for myself. Reading it helped me consider my own writing in a new way, with greater empathy, with more tenderness and patience for what I demand of everyone.
Here was another writer not only playing my game but playing much of it on the same field – the same place and time. Sure, his “Ridgeview” is different from mine. He lived there as an insider (compared to me, anyways) and as a boy. Unlike Eric, I would probably never attempt a story about cattle castration. That is not my Ridgeview. But I knew the convenience store, the comically wide roads, even the squeak of the gym floor, though I usually only heard it through closed doors.
Closed doors – that brings me to the point where I prove I don’t give old high school classmates free passes in book reviews. The collection, in many ways, is men’s fiction — if the prevailing literary privilege will allow me to talk of such a thing. It’s smitten with the male problem of imagining erections and ejaculations are far more salient in the world outside their own pants than they actually are. The other half of humanity rolls its eyes, scoots to the cold side of the bed, and tells those Very Important erections to just go to sleep, for crying out loud. I’d like to see a man my age write a meaningful, earnest, literary love story without any penises in it. I’m not protesting out of stodginess. I’m protesting because I’m tired and disappointed with male (and often female) writers taking the slimy, easy shortcut to writing about intimacy. Work at sex and intimacy in a different medium once in a while, fellas. Feel free to prove me wrong with examples in the comments.
In the age of “post-fiction,” writing from life is accepted and understood, sometimes preferred. Maybe it’s not considered cheating anymore. I don’t believe in creation ex nihilo – that everything we know must have been created by some kind of magic out of emptiness. I don’t believe in it physically or artistically. Ex nihilo nihil fit. I’d wager Eric Freeze doesn’t believe in it either. Everything created is organized out of pieces of things that are here already – Big Bangs exploding whenever someone or something comes crashing through us.
This week, my little Canadian novel was reviewed in Publishers Weekly. (I know, right? Read it here.) The review isn’t long but it is perfectly positive. The reviewer isn’t credited by name in the online version I’ve seen but she or he was thoughtful and insightful enough to have me Googling a few of the terms used to describe my own work.
The first was one of those words that’s still vaguely familiar from my Arts degree days — those spellbinding lectures on Jungian psychology at the base of the Tory Tower. Somewhere in scrolling through the fanciful vocabulary of archetypes scrawled on the overhead projector film, the meaning of this term slipped out of my consciousness. It’s “psychopomp.” It doesn’t sound like a nice thing to be called but, as I now remember, it means a creature who serves as a guide to souls — newly deceased souls in particular but also the newly born or anyone unmoored. As the PW review points out, my novel’s main characters are psychopomps. I had never thought of them that way before but it’s certainly true.
The second term I had to look up was completely new to me: mono no aware. Though it’s tempting, don’t try to use an English or Latin vocabulary to decode it. It’s a bit of Japanese philosophy and translates into something like “the pathos of things.” The idea is that instead of the bittersweet knowledge that this world is transient making us morbid and jaded, it moves us to reverence our lives and experience them as poignant rather than mundane. I’m no scholar of Japanese philosophy but I think it might be the opposite of the Western ennui that makes up so much of literary thought right now. Whatever it is, I think I need to find my old, water-stained copy of The Tale of Genji and read it again.
There’s a lot to love about being an artist. That anyone would read my work is great. That they would look up and from my work and have something to say about it is even better. And having them teach me something I didn’t know about what I, myself, have written makes me want to fall on my face and cry — especially when it’s something true. Sometimes, it’s wonderful to admit, “I didn’t know that was in there and I don’t know where it came from.”
I’m usually fairly pragmatic and cringe at the conceits and the headier romance of writer-life. I don’t have much of a stomach for elitist memes and other silliness bent on making embarrassing overstatements about writing and writers. But there is something genuinely sublime about art — even the quiet, tappity-tap, within sight of my laundry hamper art form of my own. At its best, art is a miracle. And we bow our heads, grateful and baffled that whatever it is that makes miracles would stoop to involve people like us.
Our book was number 5 on the Edmonton Journal newspaper’s list of best-selling fiction yesterday. It was fifth after the Giller Prize winner, two collections by the Nobel Prize winner, and a Giller Prize nominee. I am very please and extremely grateful to everyone who has ever picked up a copy of Love Letters of the Angels of Death. Enjoy!
A fairly new literary magazine, The Rusty Toque, put out a call for book reviews last spring and I responded with this, a review of fellow Canadian Cold War kid author Rebecca Campbell’s debut novel The Paradise Engine. Check it out:
There I was, walking across the University of Alberta campus in 1992 – stupid, lonely, horrible — and at my feet on the concrete outside the Central Academic Building was a playing card, face down. I’m a believer is signs and wonders (and I was thinking seriously about dropping out of my statistics class) so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing the card – a wild card, free-range, occurring naturally in the earth.
The back of it was printed with some tiny, uniform pattern, white and blue. And I wasn’t so bad at statistics that I could fail to know the odds were ten to thirteen – excellent odds — that the side of the card still pressed against the ground would bear a number, pips. There was a three out of thirteen chance it would be a face card with eyes and hands, a crown and a weapon, footless. There was only a one in thirteen chance it would be a queen. As I stooped to flip it over, I decided that if the card was a queen – just lying here, at this precise time — it would mean something.
It was a queen – the queen of clubs. It’s the lowest suit, the flower queen, dark-robed, white-faced, grim. No one writes songs about her. And what is that clover thing of hers supposed to be good for anyways?
I picked the card up, right in front of everyone else walking by, as if it was mine. No one asked.
I took the card to the library, found some kind of book – I have no idea anymore what it was called or even what term I would have typed into the clunky database to find it. All I remember of what the book said about the meaning of the queen of clubs is one word: worry. That was my sign. Worry — it wasn’t good but it was true.
I kept the queen of clubs, took it home, taped it to the wall beside my bed, right next to a colour print of a detail from a painting of the Virgin Mary that had fallen out of a different library book and landed on the desk, as if it was a sign too. This Mary was languid, brown-haired like she’s supposed to be. My hair is yellow. They always said it would turn brown but it never did. That’s why it was never me but my sister who they got to play Mary in the pageants at Christmas. They told me to be the angel – which was embarrassing because, in the book, the Christmas angel is clearly a boy, a white-haired boy. Little, neuter, dirty-blonde me, the fake Christmas angel standing on a kitchen chair.
The signs stayed posted on my wall until I moved. The first time I unpacked, I hung them up again. When I moved for love, they stayed in a box. They’re still here somewhere – I think. I could probably find them again if I wanted to but – signs change.
And today, as I walked over the wet ice and traction sand on the road in front of the mailbox, I stepped over a single playing card, face down in the freezing, dirty water. Its back was printed in a pattern called “bicycle,” white and red. I’m more of a believer in signs and wonders than ever and I did end up with an improbable A in that statistics class so there was no way I could walk any further without drawing one more wild card. Signs may change but odds don’t. The odds were still just one in thirteen that the card would be a queen. If it was a queen, I would have no idea whether it meant anything.
I stooped in the middle of the road and picked it up.
I’m not stupid, okay. I know that if this was fiction, I’d have to write this story so that the card was not a queen. It would have to be something else or we’d all hate this story. It would be silly. We’d be right to sneer at it. But this is a real story – the kind that doesn’t need my permission to be a little bit perfect.
Here I was, on a Tuesday in November, two hours before my kids got home from school, with a new sign, a real sign — the queen of hearts.
The first time I was in the Pearson Airport in Toronto this year, 4000 km from home, I was on a stop-over on a cross-country flight with all my immediate family members. There were seven of us but, suddenly, only six boarding passes. It made for some exciting air-travel fun.
The second time I was in Pearson Airport this year, I was by myself. It was a bit too quiet but at least my passenger to boarding pass ratio was a solid one to one. This time, I was stopping in Toronto, staying for a book event at the venue my publisher calls “the bookstore of our dreams.” Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t bring along anyone to pinch me.
I booked a room downtown, not realizing until I saw it jutting out of the skyline, that I’d be staying two blocks from the CN Tower. In the hotel lobby, I wondered if I’d be able to see the tower from my tenth floor window. Not so much…
The book event – which was for all five of the 2013 authors of Linda Leith Publishing — was on Bay Street at Ben McNally Books. In every city, long-established, well-known stores are sometimes called landmarks but Ben McNally Books really is picturesque – pillars, carved woodwork, chandeliers, and books, even my book.
In the shop were people I’d been working with for the past year whom I had yet to meet in real life. What puts the “Linda Leith” in Linda Leith Publishing is a real person: a lovely, bold, accomplished writer, teacher, editor, and publisher. She’s a fellow mother of boys, the eldest daughter of a large family, a survivor/beneficiary of her parents’ many relocations during her years at home. It’s no wonder she was the publisher to look at my work and “get it.”
Here’s something I know about myself. I love doing readings. I love audiences and microphones and voice-acting my way through my story for people to hear. The storytelling part of a book event is always my favourite part.
Meeting the other LLP authors was another pleasure. I already knew they were formidable people. They’ve written multiple books, worked in publishing and academia, lived and studied abroad, eschewed car ownership. They’re multi-lingual and speak with cool accents. They don’t get lost traveling on foot in downtown Toronto. And they are very kind to the dippy little sister figure in their midst.
The consensus at the casual dinner after the event was that I should spend the time the next day, before my return flight, visiting the Royal Ontario Museum. It was a long walk to get there – one that kept getting interrupted by women about my size asking for directions I couldn’t give. In a big city, little girls gotta stick together.
Even after the rave reviews, the museum far exceeded my expectations. It was vast and fascinating.
And up on the third floor, in a dim room with stone mortared to the walls, was a mummy taken from Egypt. There he was, as the narrator of my novel would say, “caught in a bad funeral that threatened to go on until the end of the world.” Dry and brown and desecrated with his face, neck, and toes exposed from the bandages — dead people, there’s no one more helpless. Take that zombie garbage and grind it into compassion.
The book I wrote – it’s small and it’s only paper, but it’s a museum for the dead too, complete with all the ambivalence pent up in the display cases.
“I’m sorry,” I told the dead man from my side of the glass tomb.
Sorry but standing there anyway, seeing, knowing I would go away and tell. This mummy and I – we were in my book together, part of the original art that brought me here, and made me this.
The circle closed. It was time to go home.
Stop asking me what I do all day.
I’ve been wanting to say that since 1996 when my sister arrived at my apartment during one of the fifteen-minute intervals when my ravenous newborn baby was asleep and found me standing in my living-room flipping through a board book about farm animals. My reply to “what do you do all day” used to sound noble – the kind of thing that gets championed on Facebook by mothers in need of recognition and respect and, heck, some social justice. When I was raising my little boys I would have been justified in replying with something like, “I spend all day making human beings from my own guts and mettle, you ignorant boors.”
1996 was a long time ago. It’s been ages since that original farm animal board book fell into the toilet and passed out of our lives. But questions about what I do with my daylight hours remain. In fact, I’m getting questioned about them more than ever. My youngest son started full-day school last month. From 8:25am to 3:40pm, no one has any business being in my house except me and my deranged parakeet. When my last son left the building, so did my best “excuse” for being at home full-time.
Sometimes I admit my life is now all soap operas and bon-bons, all day long.
But when I’m not feeling sarcastic, I’ll go on and on about how when I’m not doing all the cleaning, errands, shopping, and emergency interventions my family of seven still needs during the day whether any of them are inside the house or not, I’m at home working on my writing career.
These days, enough people work from home that we should all understand it’s not a sham for lazy folks. Working from home may not be slick and pretty but it’s real. And it’s an especially common practice for people working as writers. Still, claiming I’m working as a writer just triggers more questions.
“Working? But you already wrote your book, didn’t you? What’s left to do? What do you actually do all day?”
As far as occupations go, writing is pretty flaky. I get that. There’s no tool belt, no lunch kit. And sometimes working as a writer means looking out the window, driving around crying, or using all the hot water zoning out in the shower. Yeah, it’s pretty flaky some days. But in between all those black-box creative cognitive processes there is real work to do. We write at our big projects but we also write smaller pieces, read and review other people’s books, scour listings for new places to send our work, and manage systems for tracking what’s been submitted to where and how long we should wait before we give up on getting a reply.
For new writers, publicity is vital to success. It doesn’t come naturally for most of us and it takes a lot of time and energy. In addition to doing spoken and written interviews (if we’re lucky), we maintain social media presences on three or four different platforms and most of us write blogs. Sure, some people do this stuff for fun. I happen to thinking mowing lawns is fun. But that doesn’t mean people who get paid to mow lawns aren’t really working.
In many ways, writers bring the perception that our jobs are jokes upon ourselves by talking about our work in terms of a lot of goofy, mystical claptrap. It might help us feel gifted and precious in our own minds but if we’re going to indulge in silly, fanciful claims that make our skills sound like dubious super-powers, other people aren’t going to relate to our work the same way they relate to their own jobs. People don’t really believe in super-powers – and frankly, neither do writers. So let’s stop it.
If we catch ourselves beginning sentences with “Only a writer would…” or “You know you’re a writer if…” we ought to know we’re being pretentious and throwing away our professional credibility. We’re begging people to ask us what we do all day. I know it may be fun to think we’re doing the opposite – getting people to take writing seriously by astounding them with the “specialness” of it. But it doesn’t work. Stop it. Let’s get off the “Memes for Writers” Pinterest boards and Tumblr blogs and grind our way through some word processor software instead. That’s what writers do all day.