Earlier this year, Sistering was awarded Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters, an international community that’s been very kind and supportive of my work. They sent one of their best and brightest, Michael Austin, to do an email interview with me–the most Mormon and, interestingly, the least gender role fixated one I’ve ever done. The link to read it is here.
Enough people have asked how I managed to write two novels while at home with my kids that I thought I’d better craft an answer a little more thoughtful than “by being a crap mother.” Here it is, some very honest and probably very bad advice on how to launch a writing career while masterminding a large, young household.
- Stop cleaning the house. This is done by a) quitting once conditions become sanitary without proceeding all the way to spiffy and, b) looking at your children the way our great-grandmother’s (and my parents) looked at their children: as a private workforce, a domestic militia of barely competent workers. Assigning one light chore every day and one heavier cleaning task on the weekend should do it.
- Start mowing the lawn. Look, you’re not going away on writers’ retreats to the Banff Centre any time soon. That’s not the life you chose. But you do need to spend time alone with your thoughts en plein air, and pushing a machine that drives conversation away all around the backyard is better than nothing.
- Stay up. My creativity comes in all-or-nothing surges. During a surge, I tend to get about four hours of sleep during the night, maybe less. This isn’t a desperate attempt to make the most of the hours when my house is quiet (though it has that benefit). There’s simply more energy in my mind when I’m creative and it keeps me sleepless for weeks on end. Don’t resist it just because your family needs to get up in the morning. Squeeze a ten minute nap or two into the daylight hours even if it means taking the bus and sleeping away the commute (trust me, most of my university’s student population does this, even the sleep-drooler population). Staying up to write won’t be your lifestyle forever. Think of it as a grueling but temporary training regimen, like going for long, long runs leading up to a marathon.
- Keep reading. I was badly stuck during the writing of my current novel. There was a difficult decision to be made, I didn’t have the confidence to make it, but until I did, the book couldn’t move forward. The solution was to stop writing for the rest of the day and read some excellent writing that succeeds in doing the very thing I was afraid to attempt. I opened a collection of short stories by Mavis Gallant, read until 1am, and went to bed stoked to take the risk I needed.
- Don’t spend too long lying around miserable about not being Mavis Gallant. This was an unintended side-effect of reading good writing. It’s inevitable and understandable, just don’t let it go on for too long.
- Talk to your partner about your book. His input may not make it into the manuscript but airing your story’s sticking points out loud with an attentive adult who wants you cute and happy is a helpful exercise. It also downplays any burgeoning sense of resentment he may have for a) the project that consumes so much of your attention, and b) the way you hog the lawnmower.
- Share with care. I don’t mean to say you should make your partner to read half-baked early drafts. Don’t do this to your loved ones. They often don’t know what to say and it puts them in an awful position. Instead, use a professional writer-in-residence based in your local library, university, or other arty institutions. These real, working writers are waiting to read fifteen pages or so of your writing and give an impartial, informed assessment of how you’re doing and how it could be better. Their services are free and competition for their positions is fierce so you can usually trust they’ve been well-screened for things like being a jerk. But having said all this, if someone asks you to read their work, do it. You can take a lesson from the writers-in-residence and limit the amount of pages you’ll read, but say yes. Strictly speaking, I don’t believe in Karma but I make a cautious exception when it comes to lending my pickup truck and to helping other writers.
- Distract. If you have kids at home during the day, introduce them to pastimes they can do by themselves in the same room as you while you sit still and say very little—things other than screen-time, which won’t make anyone happy in the long run. What could those pastimes be? It depends on the kid. For some kids, nothing will fill this bill and you’ll just have to let them trash your house while you get some work done, or learn to type with their heads wedged into the triangle formed by the crook of your arm and the edge of your desk (been there). If they are willing to give you a break, get them some Lego, craft supplies, Play-Doh, a load of siblings, a bunch of ironing to do—anything.
- Be honest with yourself about other interests competing for discretionary time. If you can’t give up crafting, cake decorating, direct marketing essential oils, etc. in order to make time to write consistently, it might be best to wait until you are willing to make writing a priority. There’s nothing wrong with other pursuits, we just need to be realistic and at peace with how we choose to spend our time.
- Don’t call your writing a hobby if you’re doing it as a serious artistic project. Don’t let anyone call it a hobby.
- Go easy on people. People are who you are writing for. Don’t tell me it’s all for yourself, forever and ever. That might be how things turn out but that’s not the goal you have in your heart. Spending time with your kids, your partner, your extended family, friends, colleagues, strangers is part of writing. Nothing is more inspiring than life going on around you. This is an advantage mothers surrounded by people have over other writers. When I was working as a columnist for a newspaper in Fort McMurray staffed mostly by young, single newcomers to the city, a pattern emerged when these people would try to write columns of their own. They’d write a few articles on food they ate or television they watched and then their columns would usually fizzle. What they lacked wasn’t talent or voice or experience, it was other people. They were isolated, lonely, and in many ways creatively bereft. You and I, we are none of those things.
And that is the awful truth of how I do it.
We’ve got a release date for Sistering, my upcoming novel.
Yes, “release date” can mean many things, especially in a family like mine where one of us works in the criminal justice system.
What I mean by it is the book will be available in print and ebook formats from Linda Leith Publishing, online bookstores, and on the shelves of fine bookstores beginning August 15, 2015.
That is, as long as I get off the Internet and get the latest revisions resubmitted on time. Fighting!
I was three months pregnant with my third son when our washing machine broke. The tub would fill, spin, and drain but the agitator wouldn’t turn. We had no money and a lot of laundry. Something needed to be done. I rolled my pants over my kneecaps, climbed onto the edge of the washing machine and stomped the clothes clean with my feet and legs. From half inside the machine, I realized that, just for a moment, I had become my grandmother – and I was grateful and astounded such a thing could happen.
If my grandmother was still alive, she would have celebrated her one hundredth birthday yesterday. And by “celebrated” I mean stood up beside the dinner table while everyone else ate. I called her Gram but her name was Thelma, a word now used in our family as a verb describing a hostess who won’t stop working to sit down with the rest of the party. “Nah, I’m fine. You guys go ahead. I’m just gonna Thelma.”
If I lived 600km closer, I would have joined my dad and my aunties yesterday at a big Thelma Day dinner. It looks, from the picture, like they went to one of Gram’s favourite prairie Chinese food smorgasbords.
Gram was loving but not always easy to feel close to. We were close anyway. At size 5, she was one of the few adults I could trade shoes with – not that we ever did swap her hospital inspired Naturalizers for my chunky-heeled boots. We were both oldest daughters of large families who had to take on work as teenagers to help our parents. My load was lighter and I was able to stay in school but when Gram quit in the eighth grade, she quit for good. I never heard her complain but when I graduated from high school at the top of my class she bought me a card and instead of just signing her name, as she usually did, she wrote “very proud of you” and my heart spilt in two. We’re both daddy’s girls, cleaning ladies, fast food super stars — doctor snarking, sibling scolding, hard coughing, cat ignoring, short ladies.
She’s a figure recurring throughout my creative work. The first piece I ever did for CBC Radio was a personal essay for Tapestry about the work Gram and I did together tracing our roots from New Brunswick to Scotland. In my novel, I shamelessly lifted the character of the grandmother who sleeps on a saw bench the night before her husband’s funeral from a scene out of my own childhood, with my own grandmother.
When she was nearly dead and losing her hearing, many voices slipped out of the pitch where she could still hear. But I knew where to find the right range and she could always hear me, right to the end. I stood up to speak at a funeral for the first time when she died.
So I felt like an idiot going to bed after midnight on Thelma Day, the one hundredth anniversary of my grandmother’s birth, without doing anything to observe it. While my family members were eating commemorative dinners, I had done nothing and said nothing about it as I fed my kids a rushed meal before darting off to take the 9-year-old to judo lessons. I had eaten standing up while packing his gym bag. I had dropped him off and driven to the senior’s home where my mother-in-law lives and collected her laundry. I had tried to phone my favourite schizophrenic loved one, found out his line was disconnected, and arranged to pay the bill to hook him back up. There are lots of good ways to observe Thelma Day, even if we happen upon them unknowingly while doing what she would do if she was here.
More than any inspiration she’s given me creatively, Gram inspires me spiritually. For our family, she was a Miriam without a Moses. Her Promised Land is a hard brilliant place without anywhere to sit. Someday, I hope to stand with her there.
Happy Thelma Day, everyone.
Along with my IRL friends, my kids’ friends, and my enormous family, I’m accumulating a growing number of writers on my social network feeds. I like it a lot. One of the newest additions to my Facebook friends list is American novelist Sarah Dunster. I’ve met her only once, but through her online voice I’ve grown to admire the heck out of her as a human being.
She’s currently pitching manuscripts to major literary agencies. I learned about it through her fascinating practice of reporting the responses she’s been getting to her queries. It only takes one positive response – one agent willing to take on a book project – to end the pitching process. Sarah hasn’t received that one response yet so the replies she’s been reporting have been what dour folks like me would call rejection letters.
That’s not what Sarah calls them — at least, not all of them. She seems to prefer the term “polite letters.” She announces them and will sometimes share excerpts of them – anything positive or personalized. Perhaps it’s a way of celebrating warmth, encouragement, and humanity in a process that usually ends in dismissive dead silence. It’s one of the loveliest, most surprising acts of making lemonade out of lemons I’ve seen in a working writer.
When a “polite letter” arrives at my house, I log it, shred or delete it, don’t mention it to anyone but my husband, and only after I refuse to cook and insist he go out to dinner with me.
Maybe I lack the sweetness to make lemonade. I, the girl who, thanks to my parents, went to eleven different schools before I graduated, learned to cope with disappointment by moving on, starting over. When it comes to something like a book proposal, there’s nothing wrong with that strategy. The sooner a rejection is obliterated, the better for me and everyone around me. Get on with it!
I’m convinced both Sarah’s way and my way are fine approaches to rejection. As long as we go on writing and improving our writing, it doesn’t matter how we handle setbacks. Into the shredder or onto Facebook – either one is fine. Looking for the bright side or the blank slate — there’s no wrong choice.
Sarah’s sharing of her rejections on a social network is, by definition, social. My choice to not share mine isn’t meant to be social – but it is.
When an acceptance letter, an award nomination, a good review, or any helpful press coverage comes my way, I tell everyone. I hit Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and this blog to let everybody know my good news. And then I refuse to cook and insist we go out for dinner.
Sarah shares her good news too. It’s on her Facebook feed right along with her “polite” letters. Every writer does this. It’s 2015. The world is chock-full of books and if writers won’t talk about our own work, no one else will.
It’s especially true for writers working with small presses with constrained marketing resources. There are publishing companies (not mine, thank goodness) that require authors to prepare “marketing plans” and submit them along with manuscripts when there’s still no publishing agreement in sight.
My small publisher makes a little go a long way. Thanks to their efforts, I had good publicity for my novel’s debut. Still, my personal contributions of time and online platform-space were indispensable in promoting the book. That’s how this industry works. We may cloak it in humblebrags and earnestly sheepish modesty but writers cannot opt out of our own buzz and expect it to continue.
Buzzing really bugs some people. And not everyone caught in my social network puts up with me by choice. Many are connected to me by birth or other kinds of social superglue. They’d have a hard time tuning out my book promotion racket if they found it annoying. I know it. I’m sorry. And if I want to keep working in this field, I have to subject them to it anyway.
This is where not sharing my rejection becomes social after all. If I was more like Sarah — reporting setbacks with frank optimism, not fishing for compliments — maybe my good news would be easier for onlookers to stomach when it finally comes along. Talking about it would seem more balanced, less like a double standard. I wouldn’t be a humblebragger. I’d be simply humbled. Maybe it’s selfish — even dishonest — of me to advance only good news.
Here’s some honesty. I’m not yet emotionally equipped to post my rejections. I probably never will be. While doing so may be useful for writers like Sarah, and satisfying for a few fed-up readers, it has no value for me. It hurts. I won’t do it.
It’d be like publicly posting something about asking someone to love me and having them turn me down. Marketing writing is actually a lot like dating. Some people want to chronicle every detail of the chase, every high and low; some don’t. In my dating days I was never one to announce I liked a guy until he’d already made a very clear first move. It’s not that I never pined for anyone. It’s just that I didn’t talk about it. That’s how I write too – never announcing my submissions until a successful deal is struck. Neither approach to dating or to writing makes anyone selfish or bad. It’s a matter of discretion, not a character flaw.
I’ll always have more to lose, more to suffer, in flaunting my failures than anyone will have to gain in inspecting them. I still just need to move on. This is a tough business. Trust me: I do get bad news, plenty of it. In lieu of public rejection letters, let’s let this post stand as the official, general acknowledgement of all my bad news, past, present, and in perpetuity. It will remain here for easy reference any time my good news feed gets insufferable.
Two decades without camping didn’t seem like too many to me. I love being outdoors but I crave a proper roof overhead when it’s time to call it a night.
Then, this winter, I was asked to take over as leader of a youth group for 30 girls ages 12 to 17. It’s a great gig. It tempers the Smurfette vibe I’ve cultivated living alone in a pack of men for the last nineteen years. I’m honoured and happy to be there.
Still, I spent the spring dreading our youth group’s traditional annual camping trip. Fortunately, some of my fellow leaders are skilled, enthusiastic campers. They took over. My camp role was to sign off on expense claims, make a few rousing presentations, offer hugs to the homesick, and not sabotage the whole thing with my incompetence.
It was a simple role but I fretted anyway. What might have been more daunting than whatever challenges awaited at camp were the challenges I’d leave behind at home. Not getting things done can be just as hard as getting things done. My family is in the middle of moving house. It’s not a great time for me to flee into the wilderness. In order to take the girls camping, I left my house unpacked and unsold, left my kids, left a chance to see my commuter husband who was traveling home to stay with them. And, I left my second novel in the process of an intense unfinished edit.
For me – and probably for other writers who finish manuscripts – there’s no such thing as taking time off simply because life is busy. Activity inspires creativity and the paradoxical truth is I sometimes work best when it should be logistically impossible for me to get anything done. This summer, while single-parenting my five sons and trying to sell our house, I’ve written more, and more consistently than I have all year.
The prospect of my second novel is a bit terrifying. My first book has been well-received and part of its legacy is fear of a “sophomore slump.” I wrote the first version of my second novel before I’d found a publisher for my first book – before I knew who I was as a novelist. It was an experiment. The first version of it was plotty and funny and fairly glib. There were hardly any “that’s my soul up there” moments in it. It ate away at me a little – the secret that I didn’t love my second novel the way I love my first one. I liked it. But…
With this second book I have access to something I didn’t have when I wrote my first one. I have someone in the industry willing to read it and skilled enough to tell me what’s wrong with it. I knew the book was lacking but I couldn’t tell how or what to do about it. With good editorial feedback fueling my revision process, I hope I’m starting to understand.
The radical edits demanded I change something fundamental to the book – the title itself. Every time I opened the document I changed the title and every time I changed it, I hated it more and more.
So I went to camp with my novel gutted, untitled. I went trusting my familiar paradoxes, sure a four day pajama party in the woods would improve everything unsettled in my life right now – maybe even my second novel.
Camp was fantastic. We should have called it “Camp Slacker.” There wasn’t much of a schedule, I kept driving the girls to the beach in the back of my pick-up truck, we stayed up all night every night, we never really stopped eating.
On the final morning of camp, I woke up underneath a brand new spider web, listening to music – not in my ears but in my mind. It was a song I hadn’t heard in a long time – one I first learned when I was a 16-year-old girl. It was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river…
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror…
It’s unlikely LC was thinking of youth camp leaders working to convince young girls of their worth and power and potential – to “show them where to look among the garbage and the flowers” – when he wrote these lyrics. But art is sublime and it doesn’t matter what he was thinking. For a moment, the song was about me and my “children in the morning” – the ones born to other mothers but sent into the woods with me for a few days in hopes we’d all come to understand ourselves a little better.
My second novel – the awkward one with no name – it’s always been about sisterhood. And in the early morning sisterhood of my first camping trip in over twenty years, the paradox worked its perfection and I think I learned what I will call the book.
Photos by Naomi Stanford
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.
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.
If my youngest brother-in-law was a Roman god, he’d be Vulcan. Wait — let’s not let Star Trek confuse us. I’m not trying to say he’s cold and hyper-rational and his sleeves are too short. He’s like the original, Classical Vulcan — fiery and powerful and smart. Like Vulcan, he makes his living building things out of metal with torches and hammers. When he’s having fun, he still likes to yell and hit things. I adore him. And if I was a goddess, I’d be Juno, the shrill but scary wife of the boss-god Jupiter (Zeus, to all you Greek fans). I also like to yell and hit things. It’s a sign of enthusiasm and love. Both Vulcan and I understand that very well.
In the years and years I’ve known him, Vulcan has not been a voracious reader of contemporary Canadian literary fiction. It’d be out of character for him to rush out and buy my novel when it’s released this August. But I hope he will. In order to encourage him, I did what Juno would do: I got up in his face and bullied him about it.
“Hey, are you going to buy my book when it comes out?”
He paused. “Uh — how much money will you get from each one?”
It wasn’t the response I expected. “I don’t know,” I said. “About two dollars maybe?”
He reached into his pocket. He said, “How about I just give you two dollars right now?”
He was laughing at me.
“You have to read it!” I bawled at him. “You have to. Because…”
This is where my Juno started to lose her nerve. Even with my loved ones, I am a shy, apologetic promoter of my work. I tell my friends and family where to find it and then I leave them alone. There’s no follow-up – no awkward audit of their patronage of my art. My loud, bossy questioning of Vulcan was not about getting him to cough up a twoonie. It was about something much more delicate.
He was standing in front of me, towering over me, one hand still in his pocket. He was looking down with his big brown face, waiting for me to finish.
I began again. This was important – something between a warning and a gift and a confession. “There’s this character in the book – and – he might seem like he’s kind of like you.”
Vulcan’s eyes got a little bit bigger.
“But he’s not you,” I hurried. I explained there’s a scene in my novel where a woman meets her in-laws for the first time. That meeting is written a lot like the time I first met Vulcan, when I was twenty-one and he was not quite ten years old.
“They’re not us.” I said again. “They just look like us for a minute. The little boy grows up and does things you don’t do. He’s not you.”
“But someone might think he’s me.”
“Would he be in the book if you didn’t know me?”
Strictly speaking, it’s an impossible question. How can I say whether I could have imagined someone so much like my brother-in-law ex nihilo now that I already know him?
What I could say was this. “If I hadn’t lived the life I’ve lived, I wouldn’t have written the book the way I have.”
This was honest and fair to both of us. The fact is I could have this same conversation (hopefully without the offer to pre-emptively buy me off) with dozens of people. There are sparks and shreds and sometimes even long swaths of all sorts of real people in my work. It feels inevitable. Even if I switched genres and started writing hardcore science fiction, the spaceships and alien planets would still be full of traces of my friends, family, neighbours – everyone.
I’m certainly not the only writer who’ll admit this. In an excellent essay, novelist Corrina Chong reflects on “writing as thievery.” She says, “here’s the truth behind the fiction: as a writer, I am a thief…My writing is a collage of the bits and pieces I’ve stolen. Once your piece is glued on, it’s no longer yours. Finders keepers, I say.”
She sounds flippant but writing real life into fiction isn’t something done lightly. We agonize over it. We weigh the benefits of doing it against the risk. And we understand the people unwittingly serving as our literary models might not agree we’ve struck the balance right. Frankly, it’s scary.
Chong goes on to acknowledge that this theft is actually more like an exchange – a swap. She says, “the very act of writing a story and releasing it out into the world assumes that readers will be able to see something of themselves in the characters, thereby stealing their own little pieces as keepsakes…any idea that rings true in your universe becomes your own.”
Maybe that’s what makes it possible for my self-consciousness at my own thieving audacity to be outweighed by my sense that it’s important for my reluctant, metal smashing baby-brother-in-law to read my novel – the one with a scene rooted in our shared history. It’s not about the two dollars. It’s about us. Maybe that’s why I want all of the poor souls I’ve pilfered to read it. I want to complete the second half of the exchange. I want them to take something from me now – something bigger than my thanks for the inspiration. Take yourself back, I say, and with it, take a piece of me.
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.