So, What’s It About, Anyways?

What’s this book about and where does it fit?

Ever since I got my book deal last autumn, I’ve been fumbling with the inevitable, perfectly natural question of, “So what’s your book about?”  Maybe I’m over-thinking it but I find this question difficult.

The first thing that makes my book hard to explain is the fact that it doesn’t fall neatly into a genre — and I’m not just saying that to try to sound cool and transcendent and stuff.  If the book was about sorceresses with magic necklaces and metal undies I could say it was fantasy.  If it was peopled with smoochy vampires it would be paranormal romance.  If it was about stabby psychopaths I could call it a crime novel.  If it prattled on about dating and shopping it would be chick-lit.  But it’s none of those things.  It’s kind of lovey-dovey, a bit creepy in parts.  It’s a little otherworldly yet it’s realistic and earthy.

When I was still submitting the manuscript, still ticking boxes in search engines of databases listing publishers’ interests, the box that fit best was called “literary fiction.”  And it’s the classification now stamped on the back cover of the book.  However, it’s also a term that gets sneered at for its elitist implications.  Who’s to say what’s of literary merit, and on and on and on… Still, if for no other reason than its acknowledgement that a flashy, racing story-line can come second to arty, thematic prose, literary fiction is the category that suits the novel best (she said, cringing, hoping not to sound elitist).

Another category fits simply because of my geography.  It’s “Can-Lit” — Canadian literature.  I am Canadian so, in some ways, I can’t help but write Canadian literature.  I’ve fallen back on this description a few times.  But Can-Lit has gained a character of its own over the years and when I offer it as an answer, I need to be prepared to embrace that character.  I need to be able to wave my hand and believe myself when I say, “It’s CanLit — you know, bad weather and complicated relationships.”

Nothing I say is very precise or descriptive or satisfying for nice people asking about my book.  So here’s a short Q&A with me about my novel.  It appears in my publisher’s online literary mag, Salon .ll., and hopefully it will shed some light on what I’m writing and why someone might want to read it.  Go ahead and click the link below.

http://www.lindaleith.com/posts/view/280

Woke Up This Morning a Published Novelist

See, it's real.  Here I am with stacks of beautiful, traditionally published books I wrote myself

See, it’s real. Here I am with stacks of beautiful, traditionally published books I wrote myself

This morning when I woke up, my publisher was messaging to congratulate me on the release of my debut novel and my five-year-old son was throwing up in the hallway.  Way to keep it real, Sweetie-Boy.

My good mood is holding up well anyway.  If you’d rather not come get a signed copy of Love Letters of the Angels of Death at my house, the book is available from the publisher, in online stores, and is making its way into fine bookstores (coming soon to my local, Sunworks in Red Deer, Alberta).

Woohoo!

Amazon.ca Jumps the Gun

Even though the official release date isn’t until Saturday — about 36 hours from now — a friend of mine has already received her copy of my book.  Couldn’t have happened to a cooler person!  Thanks for sending me this picture, Janine.

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First Review of My Book!

Montreal Review of Books looks at my novel in the Summer 2013 Issue

Montreal Review of Books looks at my novel in the Summer 2013 Issue

The summer issue of Montreal Review of Books is out today.  And I am thrilled to report it includes Elise Moser’s review of my soon-to-be-released novel.  It’s a feature review complete with quotations from emails Elise and I exchanged.  Read it here:

http://mtlreviewofbooks.ca/reviews/love-letters-angels-death/

Here’s the first paragraph:

“I think Babies “R” Us is one of the saddest places there is – everyone looking to buy something that will make a very traumatic and life changing experience into something more manageable.” Like her main characters, Jennifer Quist does not hesitate to express firmly held, intelligent opinions. That’s her talking about birth. You should hear what she has to say about death…

 

 

Linda Leith Publishing, Montreal QC

A Note from JQ:  I admit I’m jealous this blogger, Erinne, has met my publisher, Linda, in person while I have not — jealous of her and grateful to her for the look inside the far away company. Hooray for the interwebs!

The Great Canadian Publishing Tour

(April 21)

The drive to Montreal from Toronto, at five hours, seems quite short after northern Ontario. For the first few hours, things are great. The sun is out (dare I call it… spring?), the tunes are blaring, and I just snagged one of the last Roll-Up-The-Rim cups from the Tim’s.  (Please Play Again…sigh.)

But as soon as I drive past the Quebec border sign I’m hit with a wave of anxiety.  I’m in Quebec. I’m probably going to have to speak French. Here’s the deal: I’m an editor. I HATE making mistakes. In French, I KNOW I’m making mistakes.

And my vehicle, oh my vehicle. I’m not good at cars, but I can feel something wrong. I place both my feet on the floor (cruise control) and can feel grindy vibrations through my flats. I’m terrified that at some point a seam beneath the car will…

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How I (Almost) Botched My Writing Career

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Writing in bed on a tea tray — like a boss

Last night I attended my very first writers’ group meeting – a “writers’ salon” at the home of a local wire-tap-transcriptionist turned edgy poet.  And I’m realizing now that my late entry into a writing group is yet more evidence that I have gone about my writing career the wrong way – the hard way, the backwards way.

Let me explain exactly how I’ve botched it – so far.

1)      I should have joined a writers’ group years and years and years ago.  All you kids at home, don’t wait until the advance reading copy of your first novel arrives in the mail before joining a writers’ group.

I’m in the habit of not showing my serious writing to anyone – not my husband, not my sisters, no one.  My utter lack of writing colleagues meant I mistook my work-in-progress manuscript for a finished book, started submitting it too early, and inadvertently ended up work-shopping it with the few gatekeepers at literary agencies and publishing houses who were thoughtful enough to jot a line or two (never any more) about why they were rejecting it.  It was a traumatic, slow, costly, and stupid way to get feedback.

Don’t be like me.  Before anyone in the business reads your work, make friends with writers with similar interests and better abilities than your own.  Read each other’s work and offer feedback.  Share contacts and news.  Learn to be gracious.

2)      I’ve never taken a creative writing course.  When my publisher and I were looking for a “blurb” for my book, Linda suggested I consider my former creative writing teachers.  It would have been a good suggestion if I’d had any.  It’s not that I didn’t take university-level literature classes.  I took them and I did well.  But I never took any courses dedicated to creative writing.  I’ve never had my work assessed and graded in an academic setting.

It’s not a fatal mistake.  Many writers spring up outside post-secondary creative writing programs — but not as many as I used to think.  So far, most of the people I’ve met in the working writing community have some past or present connection to writing as an academic field.  They don’t talk about writing as a vocation merely in a romantic, figurative sense.  They mean it the same way plumbers talk about their vocations – as papered credentials and regular, paying gigs.  There is middle ground between an institution-centred career in writing and never enrolling in a class.  And I should have spent some time there.

3)      I haven’t read much of the current literature in my field.  Instead of keeping up with the industry, I’ve used my precious reading time to polish off classics and to survey the YA books my kids are reading.  By now, I’m pretty well-versed in Dostoevsky and Dickens.  And I know my way around J.K. Rowling and Daniel Handler.  But I don’t know much about – whoever the heck has been important in literary fiction since the 1990s.

This was a bad move.  Stay tuned to the tone and the content of the industry.  Don’t raise your head only to when the mainstream media starts clamouring about yet another wave of erotica.  And don’t worry about being unduly influenced by other artists.  It’s the post-modern age – a time when humans have been reading and writing long enough for all of us to be a little derivative.  There’s no way to avoid it and the best we can hope for is to be able to admit it when our work looks like a freaky chimera of Carol Shields, Emily Brontё, and Napoleon Dynamite.

4)      I don’t have a physical space set aside especially for writing.  I write on my lap, sitting on my pillow, leaning against the head-board of the bed where I sleep at night.  It started as a desperate play for peace and quiet in a large, busy household.  I guess that’s still what it is.  It’s bad for my mattress, my spine, my wrists, and my temper.  Get a desk – or at least a chair.

That’s a short list of a few of my most obvious missteps.  I won’t repeat them during my next project — except for the bed-desk.

But there’s something like irony at work here.  I failed in all these ways yet I continued to publish anyway.  All my stumbling around with an unsuitable manuscript served to match my timing up with Linda’s and we found each other at just the right moment.  There’s no fail-safe formula for good fortune.

And on top of all these errors, I did do something right – something vital.  I finished the dang book.  I took good advice when I was finally given it.  I kept revising and submitting.  I kept fighting.  Of all the things I’ve heard people name as the undoing of their literary ambitions, not finishing their projects has got to be the most common.

Maybe that’s the biggest, most valuable lesson of all the ones I’ve learned so far — the one I’d leave with everyone, the one I kept repeating like a holy mantra at the writers’ group last night.  Finish it.  Keep going.

Judging My Book by Its Cover

The Cover of "Love Letters of the Angels of Death"The book itself won’t be out until August 2013 but this week my publisher released the image that will be the front cover of my debut novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death.   And I couldn’t be happier with it.

Before the cover was created, my publisher, Linda Leith was generous enough to ask for my thoughts.  She asked me even though visual design is not a talent of mine.  It’s the same with me and music.  I know what’s good and what I like when I actually encounter it but creating something from my own imagination is a dodgy venture.  Not surprisingly, my first few suggestions were way off the mark.  But Linda still didn’t dismiss me from the process.

Finally, I said, “I wouldn’t mind a pair of birds as long as they weren’t too maudlin.”

It seemed risky to me — the possibilities for sentimentality putting two birds on the cover of a book about a marriage could inflame.  It’s not that I actually feared I might end up with a book cover with a pair of pastel, cartoon lovebirds canoodling on it.  But just to be sure we all understood what I meant, I did an image search and came up with a picture posted on a British wildlife photography website called Warren Photographic.  As time went on, we agreed we didn’t just want something like this photograph.  We wanted this photograph for the cover of the book.

The birds – with their long tails and iridescent blue-green plumage — are magpies.  Even though this pair has probably never set foot on the North American continent, western Canada, where most of my book is set, is teeming with their far-flung cousins.  They don’t migrate with the seasons.  They stay here all winter long making noise, scavenging food, and cleaning up the remains of other animals naturally selected out of the harsh environment.  They’re the most beautiful carrion birds I know — especially when they’re quiet.

The first time I noticed magpies – as an angry teenager newly arrived in southern Alberta from Nova Scotia – they were perched on some statuary outside a Lethbridge cemetery.  I assumed the city must have planted them there – like the swans in the Halifax Public Gardens – to make the urban landscape more exotic and elegant.  Every Albertan I’ve ever told this story laughs at me.

Like other corvids – ravens and crows and jays – magpies live in mated pairs.  And what I love about the pair on my book cover is the way they’re facing different directions but looking at the same thing.  The smaller one (which my prejudices tell me to call the female) is closer to what they see and the male is watching her as part of what he sees.  It’s like the narrative structure of my novel where the male narrator addresses his vision of the world directly to the female – the “second person” to whom he is narrating, the one individual who’s included in everything he sees.

I love the rest of the cover too.  I’m thrilled to have a blurb by Padma Viswanathan as the header.  Even after seeing it in print, I didn’t have a fit of self-consciousness and start hating the title (something that would not have been uncharacteristic of me).  And I’m grateful the surname I lifted from my husband when I married him is distinctive (unlike my first name and my McMaiden-name) while still being short and easy to say.  Hooray for my fine, Swedish in-laws, doggedly justifying the existence of the little-used “Q” section at the dry-cleaner’s – and now, hopefully, at the bookseller’s.