Margaret Atwood Meets Freaky Fan-Girl

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Atwood and Quist, nervous with hands in pockets making her stomach look big

I fall in love easily. Not that kind of love, just regular love, like we’re supposed to be able to feel for everyone. It’s one of the best things about me. But sometimes it causes a scene.

Like all good Canadian girls, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale before I graduated from high school. (Take note, aspiring arts journalists. That kind of storytelling is one way to recognize someone’s vast and indispensable contributions to an art form without using the i***ic word.) When my oldest kid was in high school, competing in trivia tournaments, there was a running joke that the answer to every book-trivia question was Margaret Atwood—unless it was a trick question, then the answer was Margaret Laurence. “I wonder,” my big boy said, “if she knows she’s a meme.” That is another way of saying that when it comes to living novelists from my own country, Margaret Atwood is the big one.

I didn’t know she’d be giving a lecture in a concert hall in the city where I live until Laura, my book-scene-friend, mentioned it. Of course I wanted to go, especially at the deeply discounted student admission for which I technically qualified.

Posters started going up around my university, advertising the lecture. “Margaret Atwood,” a classmate said, “is she an astronaut?”

The day of the lecture, the pitch of my excitement started out low. I didn’t dress up, I left the house calmly, well in advance. And then I distractedly took the wrong route. Late to meet Laura, I dumped my car in an underground parkade and bolted up into the daylight, a big metal door closing behind me as I realized the odds of remembering which big metal door to go back to at the end of the night were not good. I was just starting to run through the streets when, through nothing short of a miracle, Laura saw me and called my name.

She got us great seats—the kinds with brass plaques on them engraved with millionaire donors’ names. Margaret Atwood was right there, elevated on a step behind a podium, a step that had been awkward for the taller people who used the microphone before her. I had heard she was tiny. I liked it.

Her lecture was a slide show, the secret history of the Canadian literary community, the one kept hidden from me while I studied sociology during my own undergraduate degree. Margaret Atwood was funny, quick, and sharp. She definitely knows she’s a meme. I wanted to write down some of her remarks but I was afraid I’d miss what was coming next. Her life story is the story of Canadian literature. By the time the lecture was over, I was in tears. I had fallen in love.

The lights came on and I normalled-up for Laura. She’s a book reviewer and critic, experienced at these sorts of events, and she knew if we didn’t line up to have our books signed right away, we’d be waiting all night. In line, I weirded-up again. I wanted to send Margaret Atwood some kind of signal that she is my benefactor. Saying “I’m a writer too” doesn’t convey as much information as it used to. I needed to say something—strange, not hand-on-my-shoulder strange, but something she doesn’t hear at book events every day.

Laura listened to my stupid, stupid brainstorming. She was patient as I took this sophisticated evening out without her little kids and turned it into a night of being wing-man to a freaky fan-girl. “Maybe I could get her to sign my name in Chinese…I could introduce myself to her doing my impersonation of her voice…I should have totally brought her a Margaret Laurence book to sign, that would’ve been hilarious…Maybe I should introduce myself as ‘the Margaret Atwood of Edmonton’ (which would have been even more hilarious)…” It was all terrible. We moved up the queue and I reconciled myself to just saying thank you, which is actually pretty special.

And then, it hit me. I gasped and hit Laura in the arm with my high school copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. The 2015 Dublin International IMPAC Literary Award long-list—there had been nine Canadian books on it. One was by Margaret Atwood, and one was by me. “That’s what I’m going to say,” I said to longsuffering Laura, “I bet that’s what everyone in this line-up who’s been on an awards list with her is going to say.”

I leapt up to the table a little too energetically. Atwood didn’t recoil but I recognized that look people who aren’t afraid of bugs use to watch advancing spiders. As she wrote “all the best” in my old copy of her most commercial novel, I blurted out the one time our work had been mentioned in the same public breath, on the IMPAC list.

“What’s your book?” she asked.

I told her and watched her write the title on a scrap of yellow paper. “It’s just about marriage,” I added.

“I wouldn’t have known,” she said.

Spectacle successfully made, I thanked her and moved on.

After everything that had happened, Laura was still willing to introduce me to people—people whom I showed that my hands were still shaking. I made it back to my car that night only because Laura, invoking another miracle, found it for me.

It was harrowing and ridiculous and wonderful–taking my big, loopy, overflowing artist’s heart to out where it could fall in love with someone who inspires it, right in front of crowds of people. Do it. I recommend it. Just make sure you bring along someone to take care of you.

The 2016 Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards Long-List

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Libraries are good for books and authors. Not only do they buy, circulate, and promote our work, they’re involved in the ever-more delicate process of cultivating readers so the pursuit of professional writing can continue to mean something. In my area, libraries also trouble themselves to run the annual Alberta Readers’ Choice Awards. Our Sistering has been included on this year’s ARC long-list. I am delighted.

Thanks again, libraries.

The Association for Mormon Letters Best Novel of 2015

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The AML’s Andrew Hall and me in our kukui nut leis

My career as a novelist is still fairly new but I’ve already been on both the loved up and the snubbed up sides of literary prizes. Awards are a bittersweet fact of life in contemporary publishing. For an essay that says everything I’d like to about literary prizes, I highly recommend this, by poet Kimmy Beach.

Sitting alone, secretly and miserably refreshing Twitter as award long-lists and short-lists are announced without any of our own work on them has got to be a universal experience for writers. It’s certainly been mine. However, I’m grateful to have also stood and bowed my head as winners’ medals have been hung around my neck. For my first novel, it was a weighty pewter disc on a blue ribbon. For my second novel, it was a lei made of kukui nuts. Yes, Sistering was awarded Best Novel of 2015 by the Association for Mormon Letters at their conference in Laie, Hawaii.

In a book-world full of so much good material, it’s hard to stand out. Being part of a group outside the deep, swift mainstream can help. I’m a white Anglophone woman but there’s no P in my WASP. Instead, I am the granddaughter of women who raised their families in post-World War II, post traumatic stressed New Brunswick, both of them seeking new spiritual compasses. Independently of each other, they found Mormonism. It was passed down to me, and while most of my family has let go of my grandmothers’ spiritual legacies, I’ve held onto them. The reasons are personal and religious—which means they don’t have much to do with reason at all. My faith is based in transcendent experiences that began in my childhood and continue today. I don’t usually talk about them in detail, not in public, and especially not on the Internet. But they are real, not the kinds of things I would deny or abandon.

Religious codes that include direction on how to live face criticism. It’s unpleasant but I suppose it does move adherents to keep examining our praxis and to focus on prevailing ideals like love and compassion. Differences of beliefs and lifestyles don’t have to mean discord. For instance, according to my religious beliefs, people shouldn’t be drinking coffee. That’s how I live, but I can still sit at a table and watch anyone drink coffee without feeling the slightest bit of bigotry or enmity between us. This example can be extended to any behaviour contrary to my religious ideals. Regardless of how I believe people should live, my strictest principles are leveled at my own heart. They’re based on the first laws of Christianity which are all about love—love to the point of the losing of the self, which, with typical religious irony, is actually the finding of the self. No matter how differently someone may live from me, I can love them. I do love them. It’s something I’ve learned to do because of my religion rather than in spite of it.20160306_165902

The Association for Mormon Letters “is a nonprofit founded in 1976 to promote quality writing ‘by, for, and about Mormons.’“ It’s not the only organization set up to serve and promote Mormon writing but it is the best fit for quirky Can-lit like mine which tends to get a rough ride in heartwarming “inspirational” fiction circles. The judges were kind enough to call me “one of the most talented” Mormon novelists writing today. The AML are my people. I’d be happy to join them even if they didn’t hand out their awards on the north shore of Oahu.

My husband and I were only out of the country for three and a half days. We left our kids here in Canada, in the care of their oldest brothers. One them is legally an adult, and the other has a driver’s license. Between the two of them, they’re enough man to run our household for a few days—but just a few days.

20160305_154555Outside the Honolulu airport, Hawaii is just as delightful as everyone says it is. Thanks to our Mormon ties we didn’t have to go full-tourist. Friends of ours–fellow Mormon-foreigners, a couple where the wife is South Korean and the husband is Japanese—have been living in Hawaii for years and showed us local favourites like a huge old banyan tree hidden off the side of the road, and a strip-mall restaurant serving massive “Hawaiian-sized” slabs of sushi. On Sunday, we wound up at a church service singing from a hymnal written all in Samoan and witnessing a congregation sending off a woman named Celestial to be a missionary abroad.

Our religious ties were a source of diversity and authenticity. It was our Mormonism—something often thought of as a parochial American backwater—that made this weekend of thoughtful, artful validation of my work possible. It was our Mormonism that spared us a spending frenzy in crowded, urban Waikiki and provided us with a walk through idyllic daily life in small-town Hawaii. It was our Mormonism that gave me something to say as I stood —so low and so small—in the Pacific Ocean, pitching in the currents, my back to continents I’ve never seen, calling out psalms to my husband and the sea and everything above it.

I shouted what, in one form or another, I always shout. “What is man, that thou are mindful of him?”

 

 

On My Mother’s Knee-Replacement Surgery

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My mother took this picture. It’s mould she found growing in the refrigerator, on the surface of a long leftover batch of homemade pea soup, when she came home from a vacation. It’s beautiful and she needed to show us all before she threw it away.

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This is a picture she took of herself this winter, when she was propped open, clamped, half-gagged, left alone to wait for anesthetic to set in before root canal surgery. It captures the dehumanization of dentistry with blithely understated honesty where there could be shrill drama.

When I was learning to be a person, the eyes that framed these pictures framed much of my world for me. It’s not that my mother trailed along after me, doting, driving, fussing over making sure I’d grow up to be an artist. Actually, it’s kind of a joke in our family that when I was born, she still wasn’t quite finished babying my 13 month old big brother so she lobbed me at my father with, “Here, this one’s for you.” I’ve never been sorry for that and the truth is, I was never far from her anyway. My father had my ear but my mother had my eye. I saw what she showed me—mould and teeth, pineapple weed in the cracks of sidewalks, clam holes in the sand at the beach.

My aunties said no one finds four-leaf clovers as easily as my mother does. She’d press them in books—thick, heavy, green books by men like Dante and Plato and Milton. She didn’t care for those stories but the books were kept through thousands of miles of moving house for our sake—that is, for my sake, and maybe the clovers’ too.

Get well, Mum.

Finalist Status in the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards

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Sistering has been named a finalist in the novel category of the 2015 Association for Mormon Letters Awards. It’s the first time any of my work has been included in the annual awards and I am very pleased.

Here’s the link to the announcement. The winner is going to be announced in Hawaii the same day I’ll be making a mid-term presentation on the grammatical intricacies of the Chinese 把 construction in Edmonton. Ha!

Here’s the link the to announcement.

This Is What a Good Day Looks Like

I emerge from 准备考试 (where I’m all about midterms in a class of super-smart people all clutching raw scores of over 90% which will eventually be hammered into a horrifying curve) to share this post from the Literary Press Group’s All-Lit-Up blog. It’s about both of my books.

Go ahead and read it here.

The author, Leonicka Valcius, compares my novels’ treatments of themes of family, love, and death. She even picks a favourite of the two books–and it’s not the same as mine. The piece is long and thoughtful and I enjoyed it immensely, reading as my bus rolled along Jasper Avenue, away from the restaurant where I’d had lunch with my tall, fancy husband and, for the first time this month, we hadn’t been asked if we wanted separate bills.

I got home and made dinner for my family, almost from scratch. And in the evening, whilst watching Chinese TV on the exercise bike, I understood not only a phrase but its cheeky play on words that doesn’t translate into English–because no matter what grade I end up with I am learning something.

That’s a good day.