Reconnaisance at Someone Else’s Book Launch

Here’s one more insultingly obvious pro-tip from a newbie novelist: the first book launch event you ever attend should not be your own.  For once, I didn’t wait to learn this bit of wisdom the hard way.  My novel’s release date is Aug 3, 2013 – just 86 days from now.  There isn’t much time left for me to get familiar with promotional literary events before the author in the fabulous arts-chick shoes standing behind the microphone winds up being me.

Fortunately, the closest publisher to me geographically – Edmonton’s NeWest Press – held a “spring spectacular” this week.  They collected three of their authors and one poet and brought them into the city for readings and signings of their newly released books.  It was a perfect opportunity for me to sneak into the literary scene and do some reconnaissance.

I started by plotting.  What I needed was a pair of wing-people.  I convinced these two.

Emily MacKenzie and Allan Taylor -- you know, from the Hunt and Gather blog

Emily MacKenzie and Allan Taylor — you know, from the Hunt and Gather blog

This is my extremely helpful and supportive brother-in-law and my baby sister.

[You mean the nursing professor sister? No.  The millionaire business tycoon sister? No.  The ultra-marathon runner sister? No.  The Edmonton slow-food lady sister?  Yes, that’s the one.  I am gifted with lots of gifted sisters.]

NeWest was holding the launch in a downtown coffee house housed in a restored brick building.  By the time we arrived, it was humid-warm and crammed with people and hot beverages.  Its name – Roast – couldn’t have been more apt.

The only place left to sit was in a dim, empty corner.  This was exactly how I had pictured myself here – dark and peripheral.

As we waited for the readings to start, I kept accidentally making eye contact with a lady sitting along the wall perpendicular to me.  I’m awkward and silly so I kept making sure I politely turned away every time we looked at each other.  But if I’d checked my Twitter feed at that moment I would have found this:

@JennQuistAuthor hi, I’m sitting at the next table over #creepytweets

The message was from one of my Twitter/blogger buddies, Laura Frey.  She was the woman I kept looking at across the crowded room.  I’d never met her in person and I was too stupid to recognize her until later when I overheard her name.  This is fairly typical.  Sometimes we joke (because brain injuries are hilarious, I guess) that I have prosopagnosia – brain damage that makes it hard to recognize faces.  I probably don’t.  It’s the kind of disorder that usually only comes on in survivors of horrendous no-helmet motorcycle accidents.

The time came for us to stop whispering in our corner and start listening to the readings.  The first was poetry from Jenna Butler’s Seldom Seen Road.  Her work is set on the central Alberta prairie but it isn’t the usual  western Canadiana.  In the selections she read, there was a longing and loneliness that didn’t just arise from the physical struggle to subdue a harsh landscape while maintaining human relationships.  It rose instead from the decline of the communities that had originally been built on the land.  The first wave of prairie settlers is ebbing away as their posterity rejects their way of life.  And the second wave of settlers, like Butler and her family, is arriving without a script for how to connect themselves to the crumbling social and physical landscapes left behind.

I hadn’t heard of Butler before the launch but the second reader was someone I’d already been admiring on the Internet.  She’s Rebecca Campbell, author of The Paradise Engine.  I know it’s sexist and vapid to comment on a woman artist’s appearance but I have to mention how impressed I was by Campbell’s height.  There’s nothing I’ve seen on her website to reveal the fact she’s at least six feet tall once she puts on shoes (yes, I asked her).  Her book was the one I used my launch party budget to bring home.  The section she read – a gorgeous picture of a Cold War kid’s night frights over nuclear war – could have been a narration of my own childhood.  Campbell writes about crows and Apocalypses – things I love.

Marguerite Pigeon – yet another author I’ve stalked on the Internet – read from her central American thriller Open Pit.  It’s about a hostage taking and a fictitious open pit gold mine.  This was the book Emily brought home after Pigeon tantalized us with a crafty cliff-hanger ending.  Em and I are going to trade books once we’re finished reading – which, knowing me, will not happen soon.

The fourth reader was novelist Corrina Chong.  I’ve quoted her insightful ideas about the influence of authors’ realities in their fiction in an earlier post.  Any girlie-ness that might have been implied by her pinkish book cover is offset by pencil sketches of squid in all their tentacled loveliness.  The selections she read from her book, Belinda’s Rings, felt a lot like real family life to me – especially real life with a demanding little boy who needs his caregivers to be everything and nothing to him all at the same time.  She nailed it – nailed it right to my Goodreads to-read list.

Roast was roasting and my home was over 100km away so we didn’t stay very late into the night after the readings were finished.  I got to meet a few people but not as many as I wanted before my wing-people and I stepped out into the fresh-enough inner-city air.

On the sidewalk, with Emily and Allan, I indulged in lamenting my missteps.  When I groaned at myself for demanding to know how tall Rebecca Campbell is Emily said, “It’s okay.  I figure as long as you’re still talking, it’s all good.”

And for my first outing, maybe she’s right.  The mix-and-mingle concept is not a big part of my current skill set.  Maybe it never will be.  Under the high wooden beams of the old coffee house, maybe we were all just a bunch of bookish writer-types lurching out of our comfort zones, trying to recognize each other’s faces from tiny Twitter and blogger head-shots, forgiving each other for not being as smart and shiny in person as we are in print.

Review: “The Shore Girl” by Fran Kimmel, NeWest Press

Fran Kimmel’s new novel, “The Shore Girl”

I’ve had my head down, raising my kids, for a long time.  It meant that, when my publisher asked if I knew any well-known writers who could provide “blurbs” (that’s fancy-shmancy publisher talk for short reviews) to put on the cover of my book, I had to confess I didn’t know anyone.

It was a revelation for me.  The silly mystique of writers toiling away in thoughtful silence and social isolation really is a sham.  People who hide by themselves have nothing to write about – except maybe science fiction.  I’ve done all my writing in crowded, noisy houses.  The only thing I’ve been isolated from was other people doing the same thing.  And the time had come to find them.  My publisher was able to take care of the book blurb herself but I still needed to lift my head out of my laundry pile and meet my colleagues.

I didn’t expect it to be easy.  Canada is huge and sparsely populated and its artistic communities are densest in urban areas.  What were the odds there would be another literary fiction novelist living in my obscure little town?

Apparently, they were amazingly good.

After about two minutes on the Internet, I discovered Fran Kimmel.  She’s the author of The Shore Girl, a novel released in Sept 2012 by NeWest Press.  And she’s also my neighbour.  We had “coffee” at our local library’s café where she signed my brand new copy of The Shore Girl.  I liked Fran right away.  She’s closer to my mom’s age than to mine but, thanks in part to my big sister complex, I felt comfortable and happy to be with her.  She was gracious and generous with her encouragement and advice.  I came away scolding myself for not finding her sooner.

There was just one lingering worry for me.  I hadn’t yet finished Fran’s book.  By page eighty-eight, I liked it.  But would I keep liking it all the way to the end?  Not knowing any writers personally meant I could always say whatever I wanted when I finished a book without any fear that the old authors from pre-revolutionary Russia, or wherever, would get their feelings hurt.  What would it mean for our new friendship if I got to the end and realized I didn’t like it?

I read Fran’s book anyway.  I trusted her.  I trusted her publisher.  I read.  And I thoroughly enjoyed The Shore Girl.

It’s told in polyphony, through the voices of half a dozen different first person narrators.  They vary in age and gender but they all have two things in common: a girl named Rebee and the question of whether surrendering power to other people by loving them is worth the burden it brings.

I won’t risk trying to write a detailed plot summary.  I’m afraid I’d botch it and make the book with its unstable mothers, homelessness, and all that alcohol sound like an old after-school television special bemoaning the effects of dysfunctional families on developing children.  That’s not what this is.   Somehow, Fran has taken a set of circumstances that are usually treated in sentimental, tiresome terms and knocked the cloying clichés off them.  The clarity of the details of everyday life – the fingernail clippings and the insides of refrigerators – along with the stoic resignation with which the characters negotiate their difficult landscapes allow a story that could have been mired in gratuitous melancholy to become a story told with sincerity, warmth, wisdom, and even hope.

“It’s not a happy story,” Fran warned me.  She’s right.  But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t leave me feeling hopeful about the resilient, resourceful people who can grow out of tumultuous home environments.  Imperfect, incomplete love is still love.  And maybe — miraculously — it’s enough.

It was with perfect sincerity that I emailed Fran the morning I finished The Shore Girl and congratulated her for writing a very fine novel.  Just one more thing remains unsettled between us: Fran has yet to read my still unreleased novel.  Now that’s scary.