Dear Evelyn is the winner of the 2018 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.
The jury citation reads:
“Kathy Page’s Dear Evelyn tells the tender and unsettling story of working-class Londoner Harry Miles and the ambitious Evelyn Hill who fall in love as the world around them goes to war. What initially begins as a familiar wartime love story morphs into a startling tale of time’s impact on love and family, as well as one’s complex search for personal meaning and truth. By integrating themes that are universally understood by readers and skilfully crafting endearing characters that surprise and delight, kathy page has created a poignant literary work of art. The result is a timeless page-turning masterpiece.”
VIDEO: Dear Evelyn Writers’ Trust video
The Horse on the Road
The road is pretty much a straight one: highway, with various intersections and stop lights. It passes a small shopping mall, a tiny airport, various yards stacked with lumber , a used car lots, garages, two farmer’s markets. To the left: high ground, still snow-capped; to the right, glimpses of the ocean. Houses. Densely packed trees. Occasional fields. What you see most of all, however, is the road itself, signals, blacktop, crash barriers, signage, and, of course, the cars and trucks ahead, to the side, or glimpsed in the mirrors. It’s pass or be passed on a two-way river of metal and glass; the road reels out and on, suspending us drivers in the means to our ends, and active trance, a kind of super-alert sleep… Then the brake lights ahead go on and we’re down to forty, then twenty kilometres per hour. Ten. Gaps narrow. Traffic clots to a standstill, vehicles pack the road ahead solid until it disappears around a bend. All of a sudden we are going nowhere.
Some days, the sky is spectacular, cerulean, stormy, or multiply rainbowed, but today it’s an even grey. We sit under it and wait, each in our metal box. One by one, we switch off our engines, reach for the radio or phone. A grey-haired man in the Subaru next to me winds down his window, lights up a smoke. According to temperament, we rage or resign ourselves. Perhaps five minutes pass before the reason for all this appears: a perfectly groomed chestnut horse – so real that he seems like some kind of hallucination – appears between a piled logging truck and an empty a school bus and trots at a steady pace against the now-stilled flow of traffic. He does not appear to hurry. Choosing always the widest gaps, anticipating, never slackening his pace, he threads his way between the vehicles as if they were simply part of the landscape. His mane floats up and sinks again with each step. Unfettered by any kind of reins or bridles, he disappears behind another truck, reappears and is suddenly just feet away: I look up from my bucket seat at a being from the World Before Cars. I see something far larger than I am with long teeth, soft lips; deep, velvet nostrils; brown eyes fringed with a plethora of lashes. His coat glistens, and beneath it, every muscle seems independently alive… Oh, to climb up there and be joined to him, part of the fleshy world instead of the metal stream. My own, lesser musculature aches for that lost world, for movement itself. All I can do is wind down the window to catch the beat of hooves on the road, the tang of equine sweat as the horse passes, going where he wants to go.
Our engines cough into life. We pull away from each other, accelerate, drive to work.
TC The short story form is chameleon and shape shifting, filled with infinite possibility. The best short fiction, I think, comes into being seemingly fully formed, completely original, sui generis. Who are the short story writers you admire most? What short fiction writers have had the biggest impact on your own work in this form?
KP Yes—one of the wonderful things about the short story is the scope it offers for formal invention, how infinitely various and startlingly new (and at the same time ancient) it can be. Of course, the novel is a shape-shifter too, but brevity makes innovation and radical experiment more feasible, and it certainly makes it possible (though not required) to play around with the way plot is put to work. The short story, in its intensity and in the ways it is structured and read, is as much related to poetry as it is to the novel.
Oddly enough, many of the short fiction writers who have meant most to me have names beginning with C: Carter (Angela), Carver, Calvino, and Chekhov… These are writers who do very different—indeed, almost opposite—things with both the story and the sentence. Carter, for example, plays with folk and fairy-tale motifs but writes in an intricate, baroque fashion, whereas Carver is distinguished by the pared-down style he and his editor arrived at, and by the sheer ordinariness of his characters. Calvino is playful enough to tell a story from the point of view of a mollusc. Chekhov’s characters are so convincing that he can get away with anything: think of the ending of “Gusev,” where the protagonist dies and the perspective shifts to a shoal of fish, a shark, and finally the ocean itself. British writer David Constantine, just beginning to be read this side of the pond, is another C, and then of course there is Joyce Carol Oates, and (moving on to other letters), Kafka, J.G. Ballard and Olivia Butler. Since moving here I’ve encountered wonderful Canadian short fiction writers—to name just a few, Caroline Adderson, Alice Munro, both of the MacLeods…
As for your “fully formed” hypothesis, this is probably a very personal thing. For me, some stories arrive almost complete and others are a struggle to excavate (it’s often a matter of stripping out extraneous parts), but I don’t think you’d be able to judge which is which from reading them.
TC You’ve had a varied career—teacher, carpenter, therapist, lecturer, just to name a few. You’ve also lived and worked in several countries—the U.K., Finland, Estonia, and now Canada. How do the various threads and themes of our lives make their way into fiction? How should we, as writers, treat this real-life source material? Why fiction and not memoir, for example?
KP I don’t think there is a “should” here. What you do with your material and how much you use your own life experience or observations of others depends on whether your interest is in the story and where it can go, or in coming as close as you can to the experience, or the facts, and the meaning they have for you. Intention is important, but I’d argue that even when we try very hard not to, most of us write some degree of fiction. Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest” pretty much sums the situation up, I feel. I’m by nature a fabricator. I sometimes write memoir, or stay close to my own experience in fiction, but I tend to feel uncomfortable doing it. I want to shape things, edit and exaggerate, and I feel restricted if I don’t, and sometimes guilty when I do. It’s better to feel free.
TC If you could spend a full day with one of your literary heroes, who would you invite, and what would you do?
KP Perhaps I’d go for a hike with Edward Thomas, an English First World War poet with “Eco” leanings. He figures in my forthcoming set of linked stories. My caveat is that we’d go in the landscape of his time and place, not mine. Thomas wrote a few short stories, though his poetry is on the whole more interesting than they are. He’s a fascinating character. Often depressed and conflicted at home, he was at his best outdoors, walking or cycling, and was supposedly a great wayfaring companion. Like most heroes, he might be a disappointment, but the landscape would not.
TC In your own career, you had early success, and then stepped away from writing for a time, disillusioned by the publishing world in the 1990s. Eventually, you found your way back, and have enjoyed great success and recognition, winning or being shortlisted for major literary awards. Dire prognostications of the future of books have been sounding in the literary world for some time—publishers going under, bookstores closing, reading numbers seeming to decline in the age of the virtual world. Given this backdrop, why continue to write?
KP I did step away from writing novels, or I tried to. I flirted briefly with writing for film and TV, and looked into a career in social housing management… However, I continued to write short fiction, and in many ways those years were very productive since the screenwriting side of things taught me a great deal about structure, and I made real progress with my stories. A big part of my problem then was that I was with a big publisher who was then bought by a bigger one. I didn’t really satisfy them in terms of sales. The industry was becoming much more focused on the idea of each title being very profitable, rather than the business simply making a profit over all, as in the old days. So I had a feeling of being a disappointment to them: Could I not just do something differently, though they did not know exactly what, and would I please never write a short story again? I felt bad about it. Now, none of this seems so problematic. Short fiction may not be viable in the new hyper-commercial atmosphere, but nonetheless, I and others (including a few very wonderful publishers) love it, think it’s of huge value and know that it connects powerfully with readers: so yes, this is very much worth doing. The readership may be smaller than it is for best-selling novels or blockbuster movies, but that does not mean its cultural value is lesser. We’re so used to the Hollywood model that we irrationally assume everything should be measured and valued that way.
With a novel, the reader steps into a vast and fully imagined world and may stay there for hours or days on end, pulled along by the emerging storyline, character development and so on. I think this is what many of us want a lot of the time, and it can be a wonderful thing. Short stories ask something different of the reader—a particular, concentrated kind of attention and the ability to sense and absorb the story as a whole. Reading a good story is both intense and very satisfying, but it is not the same as being “carried along.” It’s more like a dive into the lake.
Of course, in the current market, short fiction is unlikely to pay the writer a living wage for the time put into crafting it, and yes, there are many competing forms of entertainment. Even so, I think that the important thing is to make good work and get it out, to build and sustain a short fiction culture, which is exactly what we’re doing here, with this contest.
TC In a follow-up question, what do you think is the state of short fiction in Canada today? Are you optimistic about the short story’s future?
KP Yes. I see many wonderful short story writers and a great deal of respect for the short story in Canada. There’s a tradition of story writing, and some pride about that tradition. Canada’s wealth of independent presses, and journals like this one, are a huge force for the good, ensuring that a huge variety of short fiction can appear. There’s a sense of the Canadian short story moving beyond its traditional confines, especially in terms of subject matter. So all in all, I think the ecosystem is very healthy.
TC You’ve written successfully in both short fiction and in the novel. How and why does a project find a particular form for you?
KP My novels often arise out of a combination of a character or characters who won’t go away, a predicament of some kind, and a big question that needs to be explored and elaborated (rather than answered). The beginning of a novel is rather like making a snowball: more and more seems to stick to what I already have; the thing accumulates, grows, and eventually begins to move, still growing as it rolls along. In a novel, I’ll often be interested in the fruits of a particular action over time. My short stories tend to foreground shorter periods of time, and even when they are full of event they are more likely to focus on the architecture, quality and meaning of a particular experience. I always know when I am beginning something whether it is a story or a novel. Once, I did return to a published short story and use the main characters and events again in a novel. In that novel (Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, which comes out in Canada this fall), the material from the story is not much changed, but there are many other characters and a much longer timeline which stretches either side of the original idea.
TC Finally, what are you looking for in this year’s contest? Any tips for the short story writers who will be entering their work?
KP I want to be surprised, moved, or made to think, and perhaps all three—to read vivid, original stories that have a powerful effect of some kind, whether that is achieved by subtle or spectacular means. One tip: Leave as long as possible between revisions.
While drinking coffee at the Cornerstone Café in Fernwood, I noticed something flickering in one of the trees across the road. The tree grew in the paved area by the Belfry Theatre–it was some kind of ornamental cherry, I thought–low and unusually broad, the lower ends of its branches either trimmed straight, or growing in remarkable harmony with each other, so that they all ended a foot or so above head-height. Labels or tags of some kind had been fixed at the ends of these branches, rather like fruit, and they were blowing in the breeze, drawing attention to themselves. I soon crossed over to look.
There were at least a hundred labels, probably more. Most were the old fashioned kind made of cream-coloured card, with a punched hole threaded with brown string. Others were improvised from pieces of paper and card, torn or cut to size and fixed with anything that came to hand. I took hold of one of them and read: “For my mom to get better and be big and strong like she used to be.” I let go and chose another, which read, “I wish that mermaids were real.” A wishing tree! I spent a while reading, moving through “For a day off,” “Mum and Dad to be happy and healthy for ever,” “To be able to fly,” “That Jake reads this!” and “To be an awesome father,” to “For Fernwoood to stay as it is and not be spoiled.” There was an interesting mixture of childish, righteous, simple, complicated and often deeply personal wishes, and I read on until I came to “I wish my daughter knew me.”
There I stopped, brought suddenly close to tears by the suffering inherent in those six words, and by the way the wish was both enormous and modest at the same time Not loved, but known. Was it written by a mother or by a father? In either case, someone who had given up their child, or someone who had been kept from their child. I remembered the drug users I used to work with in a London rehab. Some of them had lost touch with their children, often out of shame, or given them up to foster care or adoption, and dreamed of finding them again one day when – or if – they were living well again. The wish, bobbing on its scrap of paper, was a door into someone’s life story, and an invitation to imagine. The tree was a book, full of lives and possibilities.
What we wish for should be what shapes our future. It should,at lest. Did any of these wishes lead to action or to some kind of choice? Did writing them down make them more likely to be acted upon? What did it feel like to have a wish out there on the tree with everyone else’s, rustling together in the breeze, instead of buried, perhaps unspoken, in a corner one’s heart or mind?
I can’t answer those questions but I can say that it was exciting and moving to stand under the tree, reading what people wished for. The wishing tree energizes the entire space around it with human desire. It reminds me powerfully that everyone I pass in the street is full of yearnings, large and small, and that this is a wonderful thing, even though the gap between reality and desire is sometimes painfully wide.
How did the wishing tree come about?
The funny thing is that no one I asked seemed to know, and neither does the internet, though it seems that is it has been there in some form since 2013. Was there a visiting community activist or artist, or did someone just dream it up or hear of something similar, like the idea, buy a packet of labels and stand in the street to get it started? Did it happen during a festival of some kind, or on a regular afternoon, or over a week or an even longer period of time? Are people still adding wishes? No one seems to know. “It was probably just someone from the community,” the servers in the café told me. Fernwood is a place where people do things such as plant community gardens, start festivals, give things away, so that makes sense. I noticed that no-one else was stopping to read the wishes. Perhaps they had simply grown used to the sight of them fluttering there, or felt they were or should be private. My only regret is that I didn’t have time to read them all; my thanks go to those who thought of the Fernwood wishing tree, and to all those who joined in and made it real.
What would you wish for?
I now live in a forest on an island near Vancouver. But it has not always been so, and I’ve been meaning to post this piece about Carlton Mansions for over a year. I understand that the residents are still fighting the council’s latest attempts to evict them from 387 Coldharbour Lane, where I spent some very formative years.
Living in The Mansions
Carlton Mansions, on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton: I lived there between circa 1980 and 1987, and I enjoyed telling people my address. There was the piquant contrast between the two names, one suggesting luxury, the other austerity, and an equally delicious contrast between the stately-sounding Mansions and the reality of the accommodation. The long, thin block of sixteen flats had been derelict and was at that time in the process of turning itself into a housing co-operative. The building, which stretches along the side of the railway line, so close that passengers can see into some of the flats, was riddled with rot and woodworm and had to be gutted. It had shuddering sash windows, a leaky flat roof, lead pipe-work and far too many cats. Those who lived there or wanted to had to put in the time to fix it up. We had to learn plumbing, brickwork, carpentry, window-glazing, plaster work or whatever was required at the time. Most of the materials we used were reclaimed from skips. Until others were installed, there here was just one a communal kitchen, supplied with cast-off vegetables collected at dawn every day from Covent Garden market. None of the hard work was a bad as the interminable house meetings, but the point was, you ended up with somewhere to live, and those, like me, who put up with the downsides of the place were people who either wanted or had to live out the box: artists, activists, and vulnerable people of various kinds.
The flat I ended up with was at the front, opposite the old steam laundry building, with huge windows looking out over the street and the market arcade on the other side. Despite the incessant traffic, the yelling and the music from the street, despite the way the passing trains rattled both windows and floor at least three times an hour, day and night, I felt instantly at home. I knew all my neighbours. If something went wrong, I had to fix it myself, but the affordable rent meant I could take time to work out what I was going to be and do. I’d graduated from university, and had not quite given up on my idea of being a painter. During my years in The Mansions I took up wood-carving as a hobby, but it turned out that what I mainly did there was write. I started out at an evening class at the City Lit, and just kept on at the end of it. Six of us women from the class continued to meet every two weeks, hosting in rotation. Again, there was a great deal of contrast: one lived in a vast converted warehouse flat with a grand piano, views over the Thames and original art on the walls, another in a tiny first-time buyer flat – but no one had as much space to herself, such extraordinary neighbours or such convenient and interesting food shops as I did. We ate, talked, read our work aloud. Over the course of a year or two I wrote my first novel, Back in the First Person, and then another, The Unborn Dreams of Clara Riley, both of which went on to be published by Virago Press. I became a writer. It’s still what I do. Writing of course rarely pays well. I wanted a job that didn’t drain my creativity, and since I had enjoyed the building work, I signed up for a four year apprenticeship in carpentry and joinery with Lambeth Council. One of a group of pioneering women in the trades, I emerged at the end of it with a certificate and a good job. By then, The Mansions had passed through the Brixton riots, weathered various other storms and, to a certain degree, matured. People painted their front doors, fixed up window boxes, and even swept the stairs. Some of us grew almost house-proud. Others not. Meetings continued to be tortuous: perhaps not surprising when you consider that the caste of characters included a man who wore rubber gloves on his feet, whom I shall never forget. There was an under-employed actress, a council employee, an art student, an ESL teacher. Right above me lived a wonderful puppet-maker who chipped away at blocks of wood into the small hours. Another tenant was a photographer whose sideline, chandeliers made of recycled glass, propelled her work into the pages of glossy magazines. It was a very good place to be and hardly anyone ever moved out. I did sometimes wonder if I’d ever be able to leave – but then, quite suddenly I did. I moved to Norwich to begin an MA in writing, and never returned.
I live in Canada now, teach at a university and continue to write. But for over twenty years I’ve kept in touch. The Mansions is still, as it ever was, both a haven and an eyesore, but now the housing co-op has been there long enough for it to have a history, too. The huge mural on the wall has become famous, and is commemorated with a plaque. Some of the tenants have lived there a quarter of a century or more. So I was a shocked and saddened to hear that Lambeth Council may be about to close The Mansions down and make everyone move on. I only hope they remember that communities like this, which allow the non-conformists, the vulnerable and the artists amongst us to carve out the shape of our lives and make a contribution to the whole are just as vital as all the other kinds of accommodation cities provide: I’ve absolutely no idea what would have become of me had I not lived in Carlton Mansions, on Coldharbour lane.
Paradise and Elsewhere comes out in the USA this month. Here in Upcoming4me is an article about the background to the book, and how one the stories, “Low Tide,” was inspired by a trip to Oregon.
For years, I carried the idea of a new short story collection in the back of my mind, yet did nothing about it. Procrastination? Of course, but in my defense, short stories are far harder to administer than novels are. Scattered in the filing system, they lurk in various degrees of completeness: published, unpublished, in progress, embryonic, forgotten; some are crying to be sent somewhere, and others for help, which may include radical surgery or even dismemberment prior to use elsewhere. Add to this that agents and publishers tend to discourage the production of short fiction, and you’ll see that it’s easy to let a year, or three, or five go by, and so I did, until a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of Biblioasis, a dynamic indie publisher described in the Canadian trade press as “the gold standard for short fiction.”
Encouraged, I gathered my stories together and began to arrange them. There were two kinds of writing: the regular realistic, contemporary kind of story, and something else rather hard to describe – stories that have a mythical, magical, uncanny, futuristic or fable-like, quality. I liked both kinds, but had to admit that they did not mix particularly well. Belatedly, it dawned on me that I had two collections, not one.
It was exciting to put the two books together at once, and especially so to see the many ways the fabulist stories in Paradise & Elsewhere connected with and amplified each other. For example, there are recurrent motifs and themes: travel, trade, money and sex: what happens when a stranger arrives at the gate, or on the shore. What are we looking for when we make journeys? What kind of relationships do we create? In one story, a group of media people venture out of the city in pursuit of a story – a journey which only one of them will, barely, survive. In others, travelers return home after many years, arrive at a desert oasis, or visit the relics of ancient civilizations. The stories began to talk.
I sent both books to John Metcalf, the editor at Biblioasis. Within a week he made contact to acquire the realistic collection. I asked about Paradise & Elsewhere, but he hadn’t read it. Three months later, we began editing The Two of Us and he still had not. When pressed, John admitted that he had a prejudice against non-realistic writing, and said that he tried to discourage his authors from taking that path. Still, I begged, since I already had taken it, would he not take a look? Dreading both the read and the letter he would have to write to me, John agreed to at least run his eyes over the MS.
“Actually,” he told me two days later, “I like them very much. I think we should do them first.”
Asked for an adjective to describe my writing process, I’d have to pick slow, which may not at first sound attractive, yet has hidden depths and merits: consider slow, as opposed to fast food. Years sometimes pass between the idea for a story or a novel and its first draft, and although occasionally a story comes out almost whole, others demand numerous drafts and then insist on lying dormant before I can finish them.
Not surprisingly, given its themes, many of the stories in Paradise and Elsewhere originate in journeys I’ve made for personal or professional reasons. I don’t travel frequently, but when I do, it has a powerful and lasting effect on me. I look carefully and think about what I find abroad, and so you could say that I am a hybrid of the two sisters (one stay at home, one traveler) in my story “I Like to Look.”
One story, “Low Tide,” was written in 2013, but has its origins in a journey that took place five years earlier when we attended a family wedding in California, and took the opportunity return slowly home to British Columbia using the coast road. On one of our many stops we visited the lighthouse at Cape Blanco in Oregon. I have always liked lighthouses – the isolation, the potential for drama – and Cape Blanco is a particularly beautiful example, with its shell-like spiral staircase and, at the top, a multi-faceted Fresnel lens. It was a bright but windy day with good views of the wild coast there and I did not want to leave. The lens in particular fascinated me. That evening, I recorded the visit in my notebook, adding that at some point I must write about a lighthouse, and the idea promptly drifted out of consciousness until John Metcalf and I began to edit Paradise & Elsewhere. Two of the stories were, he felt, weaker than the rest and he suggested that I replace them. Although this was hard to hear, I knew that if I accepted his praise, then I should also listen to his more critical thoughts. I was nervous, though, about writing to order, but soon realized I had plenty of ideas slowly maturing in the back of my head.
Every story arises from a variety of elements and comes together through a kind of alchemy. In the case of “Low Tide,” I began with a feeling that the book, which features several stories set in deserts, needed water. This led me to an image of a beach at low tide, and to the selkie stories from Orkney. I’ve heard these tales since childhood and there are many variations, but the essence of the story is that a woman (or it can be a man) emerges from a seal’s skin and is taken my a human lover, who hides her pelt so she cannot return to the sea. The selkie cares for her human lover, but still yearns for her own kind. I was interested in the idea of a seal-woman who actively sought out her transformation, as opposed to being caught. From there I found my way back to the lighthouse and its keeper, who would be her lover.
Much of “Low Tide” takes place inside the lighthouse and it was a huge pleasure to write about one at last (not exactly Cape Blanco, but close) and to include the Fresnel lens: “A glass beehive, he called it, though also, I thought, it could be a gigantic insect eye. In daytime, the lens glittered and took on the colours of the sea and sky; at night its many planes glowed, so that it appeared to hover in the room: a hallucinatory vessel, a ship that might have travelled from beyond the moon.”
Each story has its story, and this slim book contains many years of work: the ingredients have matured, then been combined, refined and distilled. I have come to accept that the process is long, as with making wine, fine cabinetry, a garden or any number of worthwhile things. It’s pointless to yearn for speed. On the whole it works best for me when experience is slowly mulled over, absorbed and almost forgotten, then later retrieved and combined with other unexpected ingredients to make something new. I certainly do procrastinate, but in the end (which naturally takes a good long time to reach) that seems to be a good thing.
We writers may not always admit it, but we love to know how other writers work, and, if my experience at readings is anything to go by, it’s something readers find fascinating, too. Why should this be? On the face of it a person sitting, standing (or even walking) at a desk, either typing or staring into space is not a promising subject, but perhaps that is just it: What is really going on? Can it possibly be as dull and peculiar as it sounds? No. The devil is in the detail: routine, word-count, early start, midnight oil, inspiration, perspiration, planing, free-fall, cork-lined room, cafe, music, no music, same music every time… There are indeed many ways of getting those words on the page. So when Barbara Lambert, author of The Whirling Girl, invited me to participate in this blog tour, which asks two writers a week to answer four questions about the way they work, and then nominate two more writers to answer the same questions, I said yes. My responses are below.
What are you working on?
I have a story collection, The Two of Us, forthcoming with Biblioasis in 2015 and a set of linked stories, The Other Man, forthcoming in 2016, so I’m busy with both of those. I’m writing new work at the same time as researching for stories-to-be (there’s a historical element to the linked stories) and revising pieces that are already drafted. I enjoy having all these different tasks to turn to, and writing stories fits better with the fragmented nature of the time currently available to me than would a novel. All the same, I do miss my novel, and write to it in my note book. We’ll get back together eventually, and I know from experience (see the last question below) that the time away is likely to be beneficial.
How does your work differ from other work in its genre?
The first thing to say is that I write in a variety of genres, and that in itself may be distinctive. In terms of the short story, this year’s collection, Paradise & Elsewhere is unique in the way it blends myth and fable with contemporary concerns and solid, believable settings. I don’t see anything else quite like it. However, the next two collections will be completely different from it and to each other. As a (literary) novelist, I’ve written contemporary realism, but also speculative and historical fiction. There’s definitely a dark, thriller-ish edge to my last three novels. These are serious books about very complex characters and they and the issues they face are what interest me, but at the same time I do have a natural drive to build suspense, and end up with a book that hovers on the border between literary novel and psychological thriller. Perhaps what pulls all this together is that I’ve always been very interested in power, the way it flows between people, and how the flow or balance can unexpectedly change. Many of my stories and novels feature some kind of radical transformation. At the same time, story-telling itself fascinates me and consciously or unconsciously, I often tap into the archetypical and mythical, which I think can add resonance to a basically realist narrative.
Why do you write what you do?
I write what I do because it interests me emotionally, intellectually and, in terms of how to shape the particular piece, aesthetically. As to why I’m interested in what I’m interested in, I can only (and affectionately) blame my family. I’ve been thinking about this for a book John Metcalf is compiling called Writers Talk. There was a great deal of conflict in my family, which includes some dramatic, complex characters. I’ve always credited them, and my mother in particular, for the lessons they unknowingly taught me about writing dialogue; I realize now that they are also in some way behind the characters and the kinds of storylines I’m drawn to. It’s because of my family and how it made me that I have an affection for difficult characters, an openness to the messy, imperfect qualities of human life, and an understanding of the potential in conflict.
How does your writing process work?
In a word: slowly. I have ideas and then put them to the back of my mind for years before setting to work, or start to work on something and then realize I’m not ready or have backed myself into a corner so then put the project aside for years. The first half of my novel Alphabet, eventually a GG finalist, sat in a drawer for almost a decade; it was only when packing to move to Canada that I rediscovered it, saw what it needed and completed it. A short story I recently wrote for Paradise & Elsewhere has its origins in a visit to a lighthouse made five years previously, though in that instance the writing itself was relatively swift. The collection itself took years to put together, and many of the stories have been through multiple revisions. Sometimes I’m impatient with myself and send work out too soon, and I always regret it. Sometimes I wish I wrote quickly and more, but it is fruitless to argue the way things are, and after all, many worthwhile things, such as wine and gardens, do take a long time to make. As for the rest of it, mornings are best, routine is good, and I can’t work to music, though sometimes Debussy will put me in the right mood.
Next up on my side:
A multiple award-winning poet, playwright, novelist (To All Appearances a Lady, Cat’s Pilgrimage, What it Takes to be Human) , and songwriter, Marilyn Bowering recently adapted her collection of poems about Marilyn Munro, Anyone Can See I love You, into an opera, Marilyn Forever, which premiered to great reviews in Victoria. Soul Mouth, a collection of poems, came out in 212.
I am jealous of Susan Juby a) because she makes such great use of humour in all her work and b) because is one of the most industrious and disciplined and productive writers I know. She too works in more than one genre. Her teen sci-fi novel Bright’s Light was shortlisted for a Sunburst Award. Her most recent and very funny adult novel, The Woefield Poultry Collective, earned rave reviews.
Other stops on the tour:
It’s out! The current bright red issue of Canadian Notes & Queries celebrates the work of John Metcalf, writer, critic and editor extraordinaire. Tucked in amongst appreciations of John from Kim Jernigan, Clark Blaise, Caroline Adderson and many others, is a short story of mine, “G’Ming,” from the collection Paradise & Elsewhere, forthcoming with Biblioasis in 2014, and, of course, edited by Mr Metcalf. So I’ll add my voice to the chorus: Working with John is an extraordinary experience, not just because of the blend of encouragement and astute literary advice he dispenses (advice which ranges from scrapping entire stories to moving commas or setting off on a week-long hunt for a satisfactory synonym), but also because it involves going back in time. John does not use the internet and conducts business according to the stately rhythms of Canada Post, with the occasional phone call when clarification is urgent. There are normally about two weeks between sending him revisions and receiving a his considered response in a letter as much as ten pages long, handwritten on thick, creamy paper, with accompanying photocopies from the text, relevant articles and so on, all interspersed with news, opinion and more general discussion.
At first the delay frustrated me, but now I’m converted. Each of us can forget the book a little between readings, and that helps to keep it fresh. More importantly, this is reading in real time, part of another person’s existence. The letters make me palpably aware of the book as part of both of our lives. My work is being carefully read, by a man I’ve not yet met who lives halfway across this vast country, and he wants it to be its very best… Knowing this is a powerful thing.
It’s done! I’ve just sent the final edit of the text of my collection of short stories, Paradise & Elsewhere, to Biblioasis. Years of work go into a book; sending it out ushers in a delicious cocktail of emotions, which may include (but is not limited to) satisfaction, lassitude, excitement, euphoria, anxiety, and exhaustion. The net effect could be summed up as a feeling of deliverance: I’m free, now, to explore something new.
I’m delighted that Paradise & Elsewhere has found a home with small but beautiful Biblioasis (Such a lovely name! And so appropriate to this book!) of whom a Quill & Quire reviewer recently wrote: “If there is a gold standard for Canadian short fiction in the new millennium, it is probably set by Biblioasis. The press has been at the forefront, season after season, of producing collections by some of the finest practitioners of the form, both veterans and newcomers.”
Biblioasis is a small team of exceptional people absolutely committed to the books they produce. In this instance they have been brave enough to take on a set of stories pitched somewhere between myth and realism and verging on impossible to define or describe. The collection spans human time from its origins to its later days: in the beginning, there may have been a garden, an oasis – or perhaps an island. And there was sex, money, and a bargain of some kind, though between whom and how and exactly what was done, why, and what the consequences have been: you’ll have to read the book to find out. It comes out in the spring of 2014, which is not so very long to wait.
This is an unashamed plug for Jackie Jaques, whose novel The Colours of Corruption, just published by Honno Press has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize in the UK.
I look forward to reading it!
This piece, published in Carte Blanche, centres on a day out with two nonagenarians: one of the last excursions my parents and I took together. http://carte-blanche.org/the-perfect-day/
“Fiction depends for its life on place…” Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story
Two new novels arrived in the mail yesterday, Rook, by Jane Rusbridge, published by Bloomsbury, UK, and The Apple House, by Gillian Campbell, published by a small but wonderful BC publisher, Brindle & Glass. Both books are fresh from the press, yet also familiar since I read them in early draft form, and edited The Apple House last year. So I have a sense, to varying degrees, what each book contains, yet at the same time, I know that they have changed – a great deal, in the case of Rook – since I last saw them. Wanting to read the real books, as opposed to the work in progress or the MS, to see how it finally turned out, is a very powerful hook, and even though I’m half way through reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (At last! It’s wonderful!), I was unable to resist a brief exploratory diversion, and equally unable to limit myself to dipping into just one of these new novels.
I might not have noticed it had the books not arrived together and forced me to read them in concert, but what hits me right away is that both writers have set their stories in watery places which are evoked with exquisite, sensuous detail. Continue reading Waterscapes
This article about emigration, gardening and family, was first published in Aqua Magazine, 2011 p28 on.
How it Grows
In one of those windy, sunny days when the light and sound levels are in constant flux, as if an exuberant toddler were in charge of the effects, I crouch over my rows of carrot seedlings, thinning them to a centimetre apart and knowing full well that I will have to do the job twice more before things are right. Every year I try and fail to sow them thinly enough. The seedlings are tiny, the first ferny carrot-leaves just appearing, their white stems fragile as hairs. I keep the plucked ones in my free hand to dispose of safely, since crushed foliage of any kind can attract the carrot fly. It’s tedious, finicky work. And at this time of day I should actually be working on my new novel, and I want to, I really, really do – yet here I am squatting in the vegetable patch, an inane smile spreading across my face.
In the bed behind me are rows of huge lettuces with crinkled deep red and green leaves protecting tender green hearts. To my right, onions, to the left, two kinds of potatoes and three kinds of beans, rhubarb, beets, peas; over by the house, flowerbeds: all of them thriving under current wet then sunny conditions. There’s a greenhouse full of tomato plants over by the rocky knoll, and of course, in between all these areas of cultivation lie vast tracts of weed and wildflower, and round about it, the encircling trees. The whole place hums with growth. What is it with gardening? Why do I love my lettuces so much? Because I do: I love the crinkled gleaming look of them when they are thriving (this variety, Yugoslav Butterhead is as gorgeous as any flower), and I love the almost–sweet, wild taste and the soft yet very definite texture of a just-picked leaf. Naturally, it delights me to be able to avoid the pesticides and the supermarket, to feed my family and friends with what I have grown. And gardening is certainly easier, mentally speaking, than writing books… There’s all that, of course, and yet there is more, too.
To use a gardening metaphor, my family and I transplanted ourselves here from England about ten years ago. Language, climate, and values were in may ways similar, so we didn’t go into transplant shock on arrival, but I have come to realise that while there may be romance and excitement to a voluntary move such as ours, it is also a brutal thing. Even though emigration is softer, less absolute than it used to be before there were planes, phones, the internet and so on, leaving one’s country to make a home in another is a rupture – one that deepens, rather than lessens over time. I miss not only my family – especially, now, my father – and not just certain loved or archetypical land and city-scapes, but also unexpected things such as newspapers and radio programmes, accents, trains and train journeys, certain bushes and shrubs, clothes that don’t shrink, and the relatively high quality of supermarket-baked bread… Emigration disconnects you from the physical locations of your past, and also from the future that would have flowed from that past, had you not left, and so even though Canada, and in particular this convoluted, rocky island, has been kind to me, I sometimes yearn (impossibly) to return.
So, I dispose of my carrot thinnings and then return to the garden to tug out the chickweed and dandelions that have started to grow between the garlic plants. This forest soil, sandy and acidic is not what garlic wants. It takes at least five years of adding compost and manure to darken and develop real fertility. But the summer light and warmth are wonderful, and if, as we do, you collect and store the winter’s abundant rainwater, it will take you right through the dry summer months. The garlic is already tall and as I reach between the stems, the sun warms my back and somewhere out of sight an eagle sings – a strange fluting noise quite incongruous with the bird.
The eagle and its call are emblematic of the West Coast, and I think one of the things I am doing here in the garden is joining myself, literally and symbolically, to a new land. The hours I spend out here working are also hours spent listening to the birds, the rustle of the deer and the wind in the trees. I observe the sky and the way the light shifts and changes, the weather, the quality of the air: I experience the same patch of land, many different ways. I’m learning it and at the same time becoming part of it.
Yet the thing about gardening is that I have done it all my life, and so, despite this garden being so very definitely on the Pacific Rim, a new place for me, five thousand miles away from where I was born, tending it reconnects me to my past. When I am in the garden I am me, now, working with raised beds and fish compost, dealing with tent caterpillars in my fruit trees, sowing peas called Cascadia and beans called Gold Rush; I am also a young woman with an allotment patch in London, the owner of a window box and then of a thin, shade-free hundred foot slice in Norwich, of a shady square, of a rubble-ridden rectangle in Tooting Bec – I’m all of those, but most of all, but I’m a child, being shown by my father how to weed properly and how far apart to plant the peas.
There was a magnolia tree in the front of the house I grew up in, and Dahlias, plagued by earwigs, grew to one side of the path that led to the front door. Most of the garden was at the back, and it included both a tree-house built in a pussy-willow tree, and a swing set close by a laburnum, the flowers and pods of which I was frequently reminded not to eat. There was a peach tree on the south facing wall of the house, a hazelnut, and several apple varieties. A bed of azaleas and rhododendrons (which grow wild here) was treated annually to maintain the correct PH. Behind that was a mysterious, key-shaped area surrounded in an ancient yew hedge that had been part of the grounds of the manor house on which the subdivision was built.
The vegetable garden ran down the left side, from the kitchen to the swing, and was my father’s domain: the plants in workmanlike rows, the soil turned each spring. Before meals, my sisters and I would be sent out to pick. We were taught how to do that properly: how to find the runner beans amongst the foliage, and take them before they got tough; how to feel the pea pods and judge what was inside, to turn potatoes without spoiling too many with the fork, to rub the soil away from the tops of the carrots so as to make sure they were worth pulling, and judge the ripeness of fruit. One of the best things was picking a peach, cupping it in your hand and turning gently until it came free.
My mother was in charge of storage: we wrapped lettuce or chard (which had to be picked or it would bolt) in damp newspaper before we put it in the salad drawer, and kept roots cool in a mini-cellar by the back door. Apples and pears were wrapped in newspaper and stored in boxes in the garage. Convenience food was increasingly available, but we had none of it.
My father commuted daily to his office job. My parents came from the inner city and grew up with untended, postage-stamp sized gardens, and none of our neighbours grew food. But it was what we did, and it’s what I do now. There’s no peach tree here, but I’ve shown my children (and my husband) many of the things I was taught.
The wind picks up. The broad beans, which here we call fava, need staking – that’s what I’ll do next, and before I go in I’ll pick rhubarb and some salad greens: lettuce, spinach, rocket – which here is called arugula.
My parents tended that first garden for over fifty years, their second, for less than ten. My mother’s gone, my father no longer digs and hoes. But I call and tell him week by week, what I am planting, how it grows.
It’s because of you, I tell him, that I’m on my knees in the dirt.
I think that’s as it should be, he says.
It’s with some trepidation that I stuff my suitcase with copies of my latest novel and set out for Lost and Found: In Search of Extinct Species, an Explora International Conference at the Toulouse Natural History Museum.
The last time I attended an academic conference was during my research for The Find. The 2005 Symposium on Dinosaur Park at the Royal Tyrell Museum turned out to be both useful fascinating, but since I was the only non-palaeontologist there (and almost the only person not wearing dusty boots and brown, technical clothes), the initial experience was disorientating. It was as if I had been dropped into another culture – or even onto another planet – an impression compounded by the arid, fantastically eroded landscape surrounding the museum, so very different to the lush temperate rainforest I inhabit. Until I made a friend who could help me translate the dense, polysyllabic language spoken, I understood only about one word in five, and my brain wound itself into knots as a result of the sheer effort expended in connecting those one-in-five words with assorted guesses at other words and with the often baffling visual imagery presented, in order to form some semblance of coherent thought. I was asleep by 8:30pm, utterly exhausted, and fully aware that I could blame no-one but myself. Now, that same self has gone and signed me up for Lost and Found…
It’s a kind of love affair. I found him in a footnote in Donna Dickenson’s Body Shopping, scoured the province’s libraries and drew a blank, then ordered The Kingdom of Infinite Space and The Hand: A Philosophical Enquiry into Human Being, both by Raymond Tallis, from a well-known online bookstore. They did say they had the books, but it was silly of me to believe them: weeks passed. One, then another email arrived announcing that there would be a delay in the fulfilment of my order, and then finally, came an admission of failure: both books were unobtainable. Meantime, I’d almost completed the project for which I wanted to read them, but still, I don’t like unobtainable so I asked our local librarian to put in an Out of Province Request, for which, she warned me, I might be charged an unspecified amount. Four days later, the books arrived courtesy of the University of Regina. And then it began.
There’s no point, my husband knows, in asking what I’m reading. The answer at the moment is always the same: Tallis. And no, he can’t have it afterwards, because it has to go back to Regina.
For some time I have been working with my friend Lynne on a book of literary essays about the human body — an anthology in which twenty writers each take on a part of the body about which they have strong feelings of some kind. In the Flesh will be published in 2012 by Brindle & Glass.
Raymond Tallis, who until he retired, was a physician specializing in geriatric medicine, and a clinical scientist – as well as a novelist, poet, and a writer-philosopher – considered a similar idea some years back, though he was not limited to twenty parts and would have written all the essays himself from a very definite philosophical perspective.
However, he decided that it was impossible to cram so much into one volume, and went on instead to write a volume about the human head, which, since it seems to present particularly acutely the “am I my body/where am I in my body/ how do I relate to my body” question, he uses as a portal into a detailed exploration of what he calls our “muddled, even tortured” mind-body relationship. Tallis is also the author of Handkind, a trilogy of books about a single body part – the human hand – which, he argues, is the origin of our sense of self, our feeling of agency, even of human consciousness.
These are huge topics, and vital ones too. Tallis approaches them with a blend of meticulousness and gusto that’s entirely appropriate to a subject in which he, just like the rest of us, has an intense personal interest.
It’s unsettling when life imitates art, and a story you have written starts to happen around you. For example, shortly after I finished the Story of My Face, I met the teenage version of my character, Natalie, in a motel swimming pool near Vancouver airport. She was called something else and she was in the wrong part of the world, but she was the right age looked exactly as I had imagined her: wild auburn hair, a milky, freckled complexion. It was baking hot afternoon. She was on her own in the pool, trying to learn to swim. She waded over and started asking the kind of questions Natalie would ask – about our family and what we were doing there, and what it was like where we came from. Her father was busy, she told us, waving at one of the poolside rooms, its door closed, its curtains closed against the sun… We went for dinner and came back, and Natalie was still there in the pool, in the dark, half an hour before it closed.
Planes roared through the indigo sky above our heads as my character’s doppelganger and I sank up to our necks in the water so to avoid the mosquitoes that had gathered above the pool. How old was my daughter? Natalie wanted to know. Where did she go to school? It was as if I’d stepped into my own book. Just as the other (I nearly typed real) Natalie does in The Story of My Face, the pool Natalie seemed to desperately want to become part of someone else’s family, and I felt terrible, leaving her.
Recently, I contacted a local palaeontologist in the hopes of borrowing a photograph for a presentation about The Find that I’m giving later this year. Did I realise, he asked, that here had been a recent discovery on Hornby Island, very like the one in the novel? I did not, so I looked it up. It was clear that although the news about the pterosaur discovered, Gwawinapterus beardi, had come out in January 2011, following the publication of the official description, the discovery itself had taken place back in 2004, while I was writing my book. Ironically, I was at the time trying very hard to avoid imitating life , and so not writing about the local discoveries, or the real palaeontologists, about which I knew. Despite these valiant efforts to keep fiction and fact apart, ‘my’ find had been taking place for real only two hours drive from where I sat, typing away, and just few miles from the novel’s (fictional) setting. Naturally enough, both discoveries were made in the same geological formation. As in The Find, the story of the real discovery involved a female palaeontologist and, I realised as I read further, there was controversy as to exactly who had found the specimen.
There (I hope) the similarities end, but even so, for an hour or two, the world about me felt subtly different, somehow less certain.
It’s probably as simple as this: life is so prolific, that anything you can invent will happen, somewhere and probably more than once. Another interpretation might be that all the stories ever written do exist, in a multitude of almost parallel but sometimes touching universes. In every story there are seams between it the real world. As I writer I work very hard on my seams, but somehow they are fraying, and coming undone…
The Story of My Face McArthur & Co are re-issuing The Story of My Face in April 2011
Thinking ahead to an illustrated talk I’ll give in March, I was leafing through a box of research materials for The Find, and came across this image, a detail From The Story of Life by Lorraine Malach. The post card was pinned to my office wall for at least two years while I wrote the book; the original work is an enormous relief that runs along the entrance wall in the Royal Tyrell Museum: ten adjacent clay panels, each one four feet wide by eight feet high. Using human-like figures as actors/storytellers, it tells the story of life from the Precambrian to the Cretaceous era.
I fell in love with The Story of Life at first sight. I was overwhelmed by sheer ambition of the idea, and the beauty of its execution: this is a sculpture that you walk alongside and take in slowly, as a sequence, then step back from and try to absorb as a whole. It’s impossible for an image of the entire work to do justice to its scale, to the tenderness of the details, or to the tactile qualities of the clay, but it can give you a sense of the flow from one panel to the next: Story-of-life_mural.jpg. You’ll see that it’s a pattern, but also a narrative. Certain shapes – arms, hands, heads – are repeated throughout, but in each panel they arrange themselves in different configurations and become – or are in the process of becoming – something else. In this way the various body parts/visual elements seems to be working just as genetic materials do, combining and recombining, repeating and varying. These panels ressemble fossils, and also something you might see under a microscope: cells growing and dividing, specialising, massing together. And at the same time, they look like a flattened-out cathedral, and they look like snapshots of a dance, like movement frozen in time. The Story of Life is modern and simple. The repeated figures are abstracted, but when you look closely, you see that they are also subtly individualized. A hand touches a face or a head, one face tilts towards another: they’re part of a long, very slow process, but they also have an existence in the moment. Something is writing itself through them, and it also connects them, each to the other. You can see a mother and child in the third panel from the left, and you can call it a Madonna and Child, if you so wish.
There’s little information readily available about the artist, who died shortly before the work was complete, but one thing that’s clear is that Lorraine Malach was a deeply spiritual woman. The Story of Life has a kinship with other great works of public art that are both secular and spiritual – Diego Riviera’s murals, some Hindu temple sculptures, some First Nations art.
When I saw Lorraine Malach’s mural for the first time, I was, to use that 70’s phrase, blown away. I stood there, my eyes moving from one part to another just as they do when I’m out on the beach or in the woods – noticing both similarities, and variation in the forms around me.I’d felt for years that art and science need to merge, rather than polarize, so it was thrilling to find a huge and brilliant work of art with spiritual undertones given pride of place in the entrance way of a scientific institution – and it was doubly thrilling because I knew already that one the main characters in my as- yet-untitled novel would be a palaeontologist, that her mother was an artist, and that the scientific discovery that began the story would soon broaden out into a far larger one… For years, this picture reminded me of something I was interested to explore in my writing. It kept me company, served as both inspiration and talisman.
In the “bio” section of this site, written way-back-when, I begin by suggesting that that my desire to write springs from “my father’s love of books and my mother’s habit of exaggeration.” It’s true that these were both huge influences. I remember Dad, on his birthday, giving me Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and how my desperation to unlock the words it contained (combined with my big sister’s patience) drove me to learn how to read, well before school even began. Later on, I used to go and meet my father when he reutrned from work at the end of the day. Looking downhill towards the railway station, I could see the other men, smartly buttoned up, stride homewards, their briefcases clutched rigidly in one hand, their eyes looking forward to their destinations. Dad, his coat or jacket open, was always right at the back of the group, increasingly left behind as the main group surged up the hill. He did not stride, but ambled towards me, the book he had been reading on the train still open in his right hand, still reading as he walked. It was almost a shame to greet him. On holidays, the pari of us haunted second hand bookstands, and shared the same books: thrillers, sea stories, classics. I remember sitting up way past my bedtime while Dad wrote out the titles of books he thought I’d enjoy.
I could say much more about my father here, but my mother died recently, and, as is the way when someone is lost, I have been thinking a great deal about her and how she shaped my life, and especially my writing life. What I described as her habit of exaggeration was a wonderful thing. She never wrote (other than letters) but she had a writer’s instincts. She knew how to make a story better by knocking out the distractions and upping the ante, and she knew how to make you notice her words, which were rarely bland, but often suggested a story, a drama of some kind. If one of us was late for a meal, we had vanished, or absconded. It never merely rained – there would be a tempest or a deluge. These words came aloud in your mouth and in your mind.
As well as modeling this vital skill, my mother continually encouraged us (and in turn, our children) to imagine and pretend. Looking at the family photographs and slides my mother kept is a powerful reminder of this apprenticeship in the extended kind of pretending that I undertake as a novelist. I was encouraged to talk to statues, animals and imaginary beings of many kinds, and sometimes she would join in this too. My friends and I dressed up, made houses in trees, on the coal bunker and under the table, and for the duration of the story we took our meals in role. We were allowed to play out our fantasies until they finally bored us or turned into something new. I think Mum encouraged imagination because she enjoyed it herself. What would it be like to have musical genius in the family? To fly first class? To live in a mansion?
Occasionally, her generosity backfired on her, for all this exercise to my imagination made me quite a good liar, too. I convinced her of the existence of a school play, for which she duly made my costume and in which she believed until the day of the performance was upon us, and later, as a teenager, I set off with a backpack saying I was going to volunteer on an archaeological dig (and did, briefly, appear at the site), but spent the rest of the week in a tent with my boyfriend.
My mother was my first reader, and always appreciative; her suggestions for improvements were often excellent. She was a good typist and keen to add a professional touch, and also prepared to push me into action when she saw the need.
When school sent around a flyer encouraging all pupils to enter a national children’s writing competition sponsored by Barclay’s Bank, she was determined that I should try. The brief for the contest was to write a short story set in a bank.
“You should do this,” she told me. “Nothing to lose. Look at the money you could win!” In principle, I was willing. The year before, there had been a story contest sponsored by The Royal Missions to Seamen, for a science fiction story. I had enjoyed writing my brooding piece about Cody, an astronaut who slipped out of the spacecraft and launched himself into outer space (and certain death) in order to experience something I called Freedom. J.G. Ballard had picked my story, and signed his book Vermillion Sands for me… Yet science fiction was one thing and banks were quite another: set in a bank?
Had I been more politically aware, I might have come up with something to do with Apartheid, given that Barclays was, at the time, heavily criticised for trading in South Africa. As it was, the only potential I could see was in bank–robbery, which everyone would do.
“Have you started it yet?’” Mum asked a few days later; she had a fair bit of time on her hands with just the one rather self-sufficient child to look after.
“Banks are so boring,” I told her – and as the words slipped out, a story came to me: two male bank employees, one in London, one in a place I rather vaguely called Africa, both bored, bored, bored. A memo comes around, offering the opportunity to exchange posts. Both bored employees jump at the chance, only to discover, once they have made the break and taken over each other’s lives that they are bored, bored, bored, the food is dreadful and they miss their friends! I got it down as quickly as I could, and handed the scrawled sheets to Mum.
‘They won’t like this,” she said, “I mean, suppose you were them!” All the same, she typed it out at 70 wpm and, to give the bank credit where it is due, some months later a congratulatory letter and a cheque arrived. Really, my career has never been so simple or so successful since…
Mum’s own work life as a secretary at the BBC had ended when she fell pregnant for the first time and was therefore automatically dismissed, as per normal in the 1940s. She enjoyed all her girls’ careers, and took great pleasure in my book reviews, appearances at literary festivals and so on, especially if international travel and decent hotels were involved. Until the last decade of her life she was too busy to be a great reader of books, but she read each of mine, and congratulated me on it in detail, often surprising me by what she saw in it. My most recent book came out only a few months before her death and after it, when I let myself into the suddenly empty house, the book was still on display on her hall table.
We tend to simplify and idealize the dead, and perhaps in doing so we do both them and ourselves a disservice. So I will say here that it was not all dressing up in a sunlit garden. My mother was a powerful woman, a vivid, magnetic personality, and also a fighter, not at all inclined to doubt. There were periods of difficulty and conflict in our relationship, though fortunately we eventually got to the point where we could joke about them. As a writer, I thank Mum for the difficult times, too. An unintended gift, they taught me some of the most important things I know: how complex and contradictory we all are, how anger can be a kind of caring. How hard we cling to each other. How vital struggle is to any story, and how deeply we yearn for its resolution.
Now, she has vanished.
I saw this book in the window of one of our four independent bookstores. I’d not heard of David Abram, much less read his previous book, The Spell of the Sensuous; it was the dark beauty of the jacket, combined with the blend of militancy and intrigue in the title, that made me want to open the book and look inside. I was running late, but even so, I entered the store, and asked to see it.
The quotation at the beginning was from one of my favourite contemporary poets, Robert Bringhurst:
Voice: the breath’s tooth.
Thought: the brain’s bone.
Birdsong: an extension
of the beak. Speech:
the antler of the mind.
On the other hand, the first sentence of the introduction did not attract me, largely because, horror of horrors, it lacked a verb: “Owning up to being ananimal, a creature of earth.” Reading on, I realised that the paragraph was more about rhythm than it was about grammar: “Becoming earth. Becoming animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human.” It was a kind of incantation. By the second page, things were getting very interesting: “What if thought is not born within the human skull, but is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising, spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders?” What if is, so far as I am concerned, one of the most lovely phrases we have. I flicked through the Table of Contents, and turned to page 57, Reciprocity, which invited me to “Consider one of your hands for a moment…” Since the human body and our relationship with/in it is a long-term interest of mine, and I am currently co-editing a book on that topic, as well as drafting an essay about the human hand, the deal was done. I gladly paid the full hardback price and carried the Becoming Animal home with me.
What’s that? My husband said when he saw it on my desk: as an object, this book has a super-real, almost magical quality, which turns out to be completely appropriate. It insists on its own physicality, and even manages to suggest that it might, if it chose to, either vanish or change shape.
Becoming Animal is a book of philosophy, but unlike any I’ve read before (my experience is not vast) in that it is also a passionate, often poetic manifesto, written in language that’s a fusion of the immediate and visceral and the academic.
Abram’s thinking arises from a way of looking at the world called phenomenology, first articulated a century ago by Edmund Husserl, then further developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology seeks “not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness , the way things first arise in our direct, sensorial experience.” Abram takes us back to the basics of how we perceive (and therefore conceive of and relate to) the natural world, and he looks in detail, always using his own personal experience, at how living in a largely man-made world is altering that experience. It’s a book full of startling and revolutionary ideas. He reminds us, for example, that language may seem like a representation of experience, but is, first and foremost a thing of the body, a way of “singing ourselves into contact with others and with the cosmos, a way of bridging the silence.”
Western culture, he argues, is “a civilization that has long since fallen under the spell of its own signs,” and, with terrible consequences, disconnected itself from awareness of and an interactive, reciprocal relationship with the rest of the planet: animals, plants, rocks, water and so on. Abram wants us to live a more aware life; he wants us to pull ourselves away from our screens and our texts, our abstractions and calculations, and return to our senses: “to the felt intelligence of our muscled flesh and its manifold solidarities.” By this, I think he might mean: follow that excitement you feel in the city when there is a storm, and you are no longer just living in the man-made world, but part of the larger one, too.
If you pause for a moment and consider for a moment the (market) forces ranked against this return to our senses occurring on a large scale, then Becoming Animal might seem to be a very depressing book, a kind of elegy. But Abram is both a visionary and an optimist and leaves no space for that kind of response. “The things of the world,” he writes “continue to beckon us from behind the cloud of words, speaking instead with gestures and subtle rhythms, calling out to our animal bodies, tempting our skin with their varied textures and coaxing our muscles with their grace, inviting our thoughts to remember and rejoin the wider community of intelligence.”
Will we respond?
The book itself is a demonstration of just such a rejoining/return. Abram blends lyrical descriptions of experiences ranging from the mundane (listening to the soundscape of his house), to the spectacular and supernatural (being apprenticed to a shaman in Nepal), with careful explorations of some of the basics of our society, such as writing. Writing down oral traditions, even to ‘save’ them, he argues, we have “divested the ground of its voice.” Writing makes the story portable, but it also renders both the story-teller and the locale that gave birth to the story superfluous. Literacy, he says, is cosmopolitan, the internet is globalizing, both of the them ultimately depend for any true vitality on the local and oral.
In the end, Abram’s recipe is a simple and practical; he turns out to be a realist, as well as a visionary and an optimist. He suggests that we “leave abundant space in our days for an interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by computer not by television nor by cell phone, neither by the handheld computer nor by the GPS satellite (nor any of the newer digital allurements that promise to arrive in the coming years). Nor even the printed page.”
He is a voice singing in (and from, and for) the wilderness, and he is saying: use these tools wisely, and remember who/what you are and where you live.
I highly recommend Becoming Animal – there are a couple of slow passages but overall it is an exciting and inspiring read, one which could change the way you see the world, and even the way you live. It is a book to own and to read more than once. I’m already half-way through Abram’s previous book, The Spell of the Sensuous, which lays the foundations for much of what is offered in Becoming Animal, and explores in detail how we came to – as he puts it – close ourselves within an entirely human filed of meanings. It, too, is an astounding read, though sadly, I could only find it in a rather ordinary-looking paperback.
Is the (paper) book dead? What is its fate? Will writers survive? Will the next generation read?
And if so, which platform/reader will they use? These questions, along with related topics (blogging, how to promote your book using social media etc.) were hot panel topics at the book festivals I recently attended, rivalling the staples such as the fiction non/fiction divide and how to turn your own experiences into a story. Writers and other professionals dissected trends, ranted, doubted, pronounced, prevaricated, eulogised. Some said, Fear not: surf the digital tsunami, open yourself to the opportunities and creative potential of the medium – one way or another, stories are our lifeblood and they will evolve and survive. Others said, Beware: writers and readers are being being dumbed-down and forced into a model of production and consumption which suits manufacturers and distributors, rather than bodies and minds… Perhaps, some suggested, the way out of this techno-tangle is to regenerate our oral traditions – perhaps the internet will even help us do so? Actually, others insisted, it’s both: Fear not and Beware, simultaneously.
After a few days of this, my feeling (and yes, my newer titles will soon be e-books, but no, I don’t yet have a reader: ipad, too heavy; Kobo, too tacky; Kindle, better – but still, like all of them, too stiff, and too expensive)… My feeling is that this dizzying blend of excitement and anxiety, this concern with the mechanics and balance sheet of the book, not the book itself, not what is inside it, is Continue reading Fate of the Book: Fear Not, Beware, Some Great Art & One Happy Man
Here is a brief reading from The Find made for a book club site. I postponed making it because I expected, and dreaded, techno-trauma, but it turned out to be very easy – I simply talked to my laptop about my two main characters, read a little from the novel and and then saved the result.
See what you think:
What’s the point of fiction? Why make things up?
Throughout history, some people (and Plato was certainly one of them) have distrusted fiction. Periodically, and often when in the grip of a repressive government or ideology, a whole culture seems to go through a phase of feeling that way. If it didn’t really happen, the argument goes, it’s not a fact. And if it is not a fact, it must be the opposite: a lie or an illusion, and therefore of no value and quite possibly harmful, should you start to believe in it, or use it to distract yourself from reality.
Too much pure entertainment or outright escapism may be unhealthy, but in my opinion there’s nothing essentially wrong with it , though that’s not what I want to talk about right now. I think that fiction is one of the most useful things we have, precisely because it’s fabricated. One of the many things all good stories (real-life or made-up or in between) do is prompt us to think and imagine beyond our actual experiences and the choices we have made. When I engage with other lives, situations and choices—including imaginary ones—I expand my understanding and I often find myself thinking with greater clarity and passion and excitement about my own life. I become more aware; I make comparisons and connections, stretch my sense of what is possible both out there in the wider world, and for me in particular. I may even find myself striving to make more satisfying choices, to engage more with who and what is around me, to express myself more completely, or aim higher – in short, to write a better story for myself. The desire to see some kind of satisfying shape in one’s life is a basic and powerful one.
But don’t we have enough real-life stories to satisfy us, reality being so much stranger than fiction, after all? Continue reading Why fiction?
It was because of a woman I met while accompanying some guests on a sailboat tour that I became anxious about the local book club visit I’d agreed to. I started to think how the noun club has two meanings. A group, yes… but also a weapon.
I’ll call her Jen: fiftyish, fit, designer spectacles, retired. She was one of those people who had something (though nothing substantial) to say about everything, and she very much enjoyed doing so. Friendly, you might say. Or then again… Her husband was quiet, and only brightened up when the conversation turned to high-performance outdoor clothing. What did everyone do, Jen wanted to know, and then to comment and pronounce upon; my nephew, a statistician, stumped her somewhat. I considered pretending to be one, too, but knew he would give me away.
“A writer?” she said. “We had a local writer visit our book club last month. Her book was awful, and she did say to be honest, so we told her so. I thought it was – well, boring. And there were just far too many adjectives!” She paused for breath, beaming at the memory, and waiting, it seemed, for congratulation. “Well, “ she continued, “I guess she got a free meal out of it! “
“Did she cry?” I asked. If she did not, I thought, the nameless local author would have had to laugh hysterically, and thank them profusely for their hospitality. Whoever she was, and however many flabby adjectives she had used, I hated to think of her just sitting there, a fake smile pinned her face. Continue reading Book Club
I’m sitting in the shade of a Garry oak tree with a group of other parental units, as our children call us these days. Clare, the grandmother of one of my son’s friends, (one of those fresh-faced grandmothers who look five years younger than I do), looks up from her book and turns to me.
“I’ve been meaning to say how much I enjoyed The Find…” she says, “and actually, it’s because of your book that I’m going in for surgery next week.”
How come? In any case, no! I’m thinking. Surgery? Please, don’t… She must have seen my jaw drop.
“I don’t mean that, exactly,” she says, looping her hair behind her ears. “Well, I’ve had this thing going on with a man ten years younger than me. It’s lasted for years – hit and run, no demands. Though he’s a nice guy. Very nice: I’ve gained weight these last few years, and when it began, he said: “I don’t know how I’ll handle this, Clare. I’ve never been out with a fat girl before.” But after a while, he said, “It’s okay, I love you, you can be as fat as you want.” And from the start he’s always wanted it to progress into something more… but I always say no, it works this way… And then I read your book. And it happens I have this surgery needs that doing, and then I’ll need a few weeks recuperating, and I suddenly thought, Okay, Clare, this is it. So I asked him: May I come stay with you and you feed me soup while I convalesce? And he said, of course, I’d love that…. So that’s where I’ll be next week. It’s all your fault!” She breaks into a smile, manages, somehow, to look seventeen.
The Past Is a Foreign Country (but sometimes you get a visitor’s pass).
First, an email via this website: I would like to send some material to Kathy Page. This material belongs to her and is something she would like to receive… The writer turns out to be a penfriend with whom I last communicated half a lifetime ago, in 1974. I was sixteen – sixteen! He wants to send some old cassette tapes – letters that I recorded for him back then. “Blackmail?” my husband jokes, agreeing to stand by me should that be the case, and a week later, a padded envelope containing six tapes arrives. Since you are a writer, my ex-penfriend wrote in the brief email that preceded the package, I think it will be very interesting for you to meet your sixteen year old self. He had, he noted, deleted his half of the correspondence form the other sides of the tapes.
Interesting? It might be terrible: things were not easy at that point, and in later years, I think I tried to blot out and gloss over that part of my life – so successfully, in fact, that I did not really remember these letters very well, though letters in general are something I’ve thought about a great deal, and written about, too, in Alphabet. As I wrote there, to begin with a letter is simply a piece of communication – heartfelt, manipulative or somewhere in between, a sliver of marked paper that stands in for the spoken word, for contact itself. Later, though, it becomes something else, a record, even kind of evidence: there it is – not what you remember being said, but what was actually written down, or in this case, said, thirty-six years ago by the girl who gradually turned in to the current version of me.
So I was a little nervous – resistant, even – when the tapes spilled out of the envelope, some in cases, some not, C90, C60 with KATHY printed in tiny writing on one side of each. And at first, the ‘material’ was physically hard to listen to: my voice was flat, and strangely muffled – this, as I explained at one point, was because I was speaking into a pillow with the radio on so that no-one downstairs could possibly hear me. I wasn’t sure that the precaution was necessary, and would later conduct an experiment to test what could and could not be heard from downstairs, but meanwhile, I wanted to play safe…
Readers often ask about imagery: is it consciously or unconsciously created – and the answer is both. For example, the idea of flight, of leaving the ground and swimming in the air is a recurring one in The Find, and in writing the novel I was aware of it, but I was certainly not aware of the extent of it.
Anna was, until her move to the museum, a specialist in flight, and the fossil she discovers at the beginning of the book is that of a huge, winged lizard. Other winged creatures – ravens, hummingbirds, insects, etc. populate the book, and mechanical flight features too – helicopters and float planes, airports… Here, Anna is flying back from the site in a float plane:
“The roar of the engine was both deafening and soothing and the vibration and noise together seemed to scour her mind clean. The ocean below looked more than anything like the skin of some enormous animal, though as they progressed its appearance became more complex. Huge quantities of deep green algae formed viridian clouds, shifting and billowing beneath the surface. A school of thirty or so porpoises, dwarfed by distance, leapt and sank back into the water in apparent unison, sewing their path through the sea. The plane passed over forested and rocky islands, harbours cluttered with yachts and docks, and then they were approaching the delta, the water suddenly smooth, shallow, and heavy with reddish sediments.
For a moment Anna let her eyes close, and allowed herself to imagine a huge winged creature, downy with brownish hair, its legs tucked up, its neck folded down, slowly beating its way through the air and tracked by its shadow on the water below. Its sight, far more acute than human vision, allowed it to see beneath the water — warmer back then and far more profuse with life, home to car-sized turtles, enormous squid. For a moment, she saw what it saw — and then the floatplane, rejoining the water with a bounce, jolted her back into the now…”
Even before he meets Anna, the other protagonist, Scott, has an emotional, rather than an intellectual interest in flight. He yearns to soar away from his life as it is. The base jumpers he thinks of on page 88 were inspired by this clip, sent to me by a student of mine.
I’ll admit there is something personal in all this. Flying – specifically, the human experience of it – has always fascinated me. I still recall the full page reproduction of Draper’s Lament for Icarus (the son of Daedelus, who flew too close to the sun and melted his man-made wings) in the twenty volume encyclopaedia kept in the study of my childhood home. I studied it many times and at length. I enjoyed the lushness of the picture, the vast feathery wings, the beautiful naked, sun-burned youth, the pale nymphs – but the myth was so tragic (think how Daedelus must have felt!) that it made me cry, and it seemed to be some kind of warning against trying to be more than you were… I still do not really like the story, even when it is told so that Icarus makes a choice, rather than a mistake. I like to think that not all flights will end this way, that it is possible to go almost as close to the sun as he did, survive, and bring back the story, too.
The Find is out!
c.1300, “to withdraw, revoke,” also “to liberate” (c.1300), from O.Fr. relaisser “to relinquish, quit, let go, leave behind,” variant of relacher “release, relax,” from L. relaxare (see relax). Meaning “relinquish, surrender” is recorded from late 14c. Of press reports, attested from 1904; of motion pictures, from 1912; of music recordings, from 1962. As a euphemism for “to dismiss, fire from a job” it is attested in Amer.Eng. since 1904
publish (v.) early 14c., “to make public,” from M.E. publicen (c.1300), altered (by influence of banish, finish, etc.) from O.Fr. publier, from L. publicare “make public,” from publicus “public” (see public). The meaning “to issue (a book, engraving, etc.) for sale to the public” is first recorded 1520s. Publisher in the commercial sense is attested from 1740. Continue reading Find Out
The following FAQ are archived from an older version of this site. Feel free to use CONTACT (left menu) if you have a question about writing or about Kathy Page’s books.
Q. Is Simon Austen based on a real person?
I have met several people who were in some ways like him. But, like most fictional characters, he is an amalgam of different parts of many people I have observed, large doses of imagination, and my own conscious and unconscious projections. Perhaps all this could be analysed to show exactly what went into the making of him, but I’m not interested to do it! The experience with Simon was very much of him arriving whole, and seeming to me, as I wrote, to be ‘real’.
Q. Why do you end Alphabet where you do? I wanted to know what happened next!
Some people love the ending and others are frustrated by it. I picked that moment because it is a decisive one. You can see Simon has moved on, but also that there is plenty of potential for trouble ahead of him and the outcome isn’t clear. That blend of hope and difficulty – a sense of his continuing struggle – was what I wanted to leave the reader with. I have to admit as well that writing with very limited settings is hard. I don’t think I could have borne to stay in prison much longer, but he has to. If I were to continue his story, some of which I do have in my mind, I think I would take it up many years later, after his release, and fill the intervening years in from that vantage point. Continue reading FAQ
When you live in a vast country – and on a small island which you only leave once in a while – it is hard to tell whether or not your book has reached the bookstores. All I know is that The Find is in my nearest city, Victoria, turned outwards on the shelf, with ‘signed by author’ stickers top right. One friend emailed me to announce its arrival in Indigo, Montreal; another spotted it in Costco, Barrie, Ontario – several stacks, nicely placed, she said (but deeply discounted, too, I bet). You can’t miss it in the local bookstore… Actually, there are four independent bookstores here, as well as a gourmet coffee shop that is gradually turning into one. Each bookstore carries different stock, and they’re all good, but Salt Spring Books is, yet again, heading for the Kathy Page Bookseller of the Year Award.
Adina Hildebrandt, the co-owner, is also an actress, drama teacher, theatre director, and mother of two. She sat behind us in the theatre the other night, gasping at the sensual drama and emotional honesty of Wen Wei’s Cockpit. In just the same way, when Adina is reading, the expression on her face shifts from moment to moment as a scene unfolds: it’s just as if she’s listening to someone talk, intimately, about their life and what it all adds up to. What Adina wants from a book is emotional engagement, feeling – artful storytelling and intellectual pyrotechnics too, but above all, feeling: words that stir, disturb, excite, transport. When she has just read a book that touched her, she’s illuminated. Radiant. Every cell seems energized. Adina is not sleepwalking through life and she doesn’t read that way either. It matters. Or it doesn’t – in which case she bails out.
“I’ve just read the most amazing thing,” she’ll say, taking your arm, and lead you through the stacks to the book on the shelf. “A-mazing:” her eyes, always bright, widen as she says that word. “Here.” She puts it in your hand, tells you exactly what she thinks the writer has done, watching your face the whole time. It’s pretty much impossible to resist, because even if you don’t love that book as unconditionally as she does, there will be something there – a daring use of point of view, a character you can’t forget, an unexpected ending.
Another thing Adina at Salt Spring Books excels at is book launches with wonderful, impassioned author introductions, and I’d like to thank her here for mine (other people made the launch happen, too, but it’s Adina I’m talking of here). The room was full: a great, question-asking audience – willing, at the end, to buy books.
What many people may not realize is that these events are rarely cost effective for the bookseller. There’s the time – at least one person for the evening, often the proprietor – not actually paying herself for the hours spent lugging books to the venue, selling them and then lugging them back. There’s the advertising, the drinks and snacks and the serving thereof, the liquor licence if you can get one. Publishers may or may not chip in (thank you, McArthur & Co!). At about ten dollars profit on a hardback or trade (large format) paperback book, 20 copies sold is not going to cover it. Fifty is getting there. there are before and after sales, of course. I think we made it.
“There’s goodwill, of course. But I do it because I want to,” Adina says. “I want to celebrate the book and the writer, reading itself.”
Writing is solitary pursuit. The words murmur, sing or shout themselves in your head; sometimes you speak them to an empty room, test them. But when the book is complete, you get the chance to read them aloud to an audience, to feel and hear the reaction.
Thank you, Adina!
Extract from a notebook entry made during the writing of The Find
Choices, choices: the writer’s life is full of them. Current example: do I stick with the third person, limited omniscient point of view which should ideally offer me some flexibility in telling the story, or, since I don’t seem to be actually using that flexibility, rewrite the pages I have in the first person, from Anna’s point of view?
She is in an extraordinary situation, so it would open things up immeasurably if I could get right inside her… And why stop there with one first person? What about two ‘first people’? What about Scott? Could I filter one character’s take on things through the other’s first person point of view or – since they are sometimes not in the same place as each other – would it be better to separate them out? Probably. But how will I deal with that long gap when one of them is out of the story? And suppose I find, later on, when the different strands of the story come together and everyone including all the extras are on set, that I want to use the view points of yet further characters in the same way?
Anything is possible, of course. To pick just a couple of examples: Matthew Kneale in English Passengers makes use of a huge succession of ‘first people’ to tell the story, each picking the baton up from the last; Andrea Levy in Small Island works fluidly with a smaller cast of first person narrators… But the question is, what do I need to do in this novel?
The only way to discover whether a first person narrator(s) will actually work, is to try it out – and that of course, does not mean simply substituting ‘I’ for ‘she’ in 120 pages of text. It means re-imagining the story as told by my character(s) and discovering her/their relationship(s) to it, which inevitably will affect the story itself and even its final outcome. It means an entirely different novel….
Research for my novel The Find included visits to clinics, hospitals, museums, and paleontological sites. I love research, but sometimes I hate it too. Here’s an extract from a notebook I kept during one of my trips to the Royal Tyrell Museum.
Suspended forty thousand feet above the Rockies I absolutely knew that I would die. Probably not soon, not this trip, but some time. It was not anxiety, not terror that the plane would crash, nothing panic-stricken or urgent like that. I simply sat there in the sky and thought: the fact is, I can’t avoid this thing.
It will happen – and very likely before I’m ready for it, since I can’t see myself ever not wanting to know and see what’s happening with the children and their lives and to be there to help as required… They will grow up and away and there will be so much of interest – no doubt problems too sometimes – but whatever happens it will be utterly compelling – and so, of course, I continued, beginning to feel now as well as think, how hard it will be to go when the time comes, how sad it will be to have to let go of them, not to see all of it, for ever…
I sat there in the sky and remembered how tears came to my mother in law’s eyes as she passed. I wished my husband and I had met and had children earlier, so that then I would (with luck, though you never know) have been with them longer. I sipped my iceless tomato juice and hated being away from my family and wondered why on earth I have involved myself to be drawn into this strange profession that takes me on bizarre trips like this one…. Research, for Heaven’s sake! Hopefully, I thought, when you get closer still to death, philosophy does eventually console, but hell, I really don’t want to go there. I wondered: Does everyone think this when they get middle-aged, or is it just morbid old me? I didn’t feel I could ask the very large, short-of-breath man sitting next to me, so there was nothing for it to distract myself with a book.
An hour later, I was sitting in a hire car trying to work out what all the dials and buttons could achieve. It seemed more like a space ship than a car. I could heat the seats but there was no obvious way to turn on the inside lights. I spent another half hour circling the tangle of highways that surrounds the airport before I found the road I wanted and soon enough, left the outskirts of the city behind. So now, I’m on the road and should reach Drumheller in a couple of hours.
Last time I was here I found this landscape dull and ugly, but under a bright, pale blue sky it is transformed. The sun is low behind me. To the left the huge shorn fields, bordered here and there by the suggestion of a hedge, are all of different textures and shades of straw and yellow, some almost buff, some greyish, some buttery with hints of marigold. The land undulates more than I remembered – or perhaps, simplified like this, it just seems to do so. Here and there are the patchy remnants of the some snowfall, a scraping or a dusting of white, a half frozen creek. Towards the horizon, the land grows paler and is tinged with lilac and mauve. The ghost of a three–quarter moon hangs in the sky directly ahead of me and to my right is a ditch and then a bank where the snow is a little thicker; it is in shadow, and glows with an almost ultraviolet tinge.
A few cattle stand in these fields, or the occasional horse. The road vanishes suddenly at the top of a small rise, or disappears into an equally minor dip and it too is less absolutely straight than I remember it. The feeling in the plane is fading, changing. It is becoming a memory, something to tell people about. I’m on my way to the Badlands, almost there. And yet part of me just wants to turn around and go straight home…
From one surreal moment to the next…
The trip was part family, part business. Melatonin did not work and for several days we had walked in an exhausted, dreamlike state through the shade of galleries and museums taking in old favourites and seeing strange new things, such as the National Portrait Gallery’s video loop of David Beckham, sleeping. He was artfully lit and shot to emphasise the musculature of his shoulders; the image, poised midway between soft porn and religious icon, drew a steady stream of female voyeurs who settled themselves on the bench provided and watched the whole thing through. Teenage school-boys on a field trip blundered in now and then:
“Think he’s really asleep, Matt?’ ’
“Na. Can’t be, not with that effing light shining right in his face.” Continue reading Sales Figures
Maria hasn’t arrived. I refuse to panic myself by checking my watch but I know it’s after 7pm, and I’m supposed to read at Pages at 7:30. I peer out at the glitter of passing traffic; nothing even slows down, and finally I cave in and call her.
“Hi, Maria, how are you?”
“Kathy, I have a problem.” Her voice is subdued, unnaturally even. “The restaurant I was in threw away my glasses! I can’t see very much. I’m a bit flustered, but it’ll be all right. Can you tell me again where you are?” I repeat the address; all I know is that it’s somewhere in the southwest of the city, not far from downtown… Graham, the proprietor, steps in. I notice his forehead pucker as she explains to him about the glasses.
“Get on to Second. You’ll see a large crematorium on your left, with yellow and gold neon signage. Turn left. Left again. All our lights are on. There’s a big sign. Some flags. We’re the only low-rise in the street. You can’t miss it.”
Let’s say time passes. A vehicle pulls up. Continue reading The Reading
The Book Arrives (Alphabet)
Strawberries. Sunbathing snakes. The first garden vegetables, the first swim in the lake, the last days of school, the long, golden evenings… I write in the garden, lying in a hammock that’s shaded by an old cherry tree; in a branch above me a robin pecks at the fruit, splattering my legs with tiny drops of juice.
The house is sunk in shade. Someone has been to the mailbox: waiting on the kitchen table, along with a wad of junk mail, is a padded envelope that I know must contain a finished copy of Alphabet. I was told it was on its way but all the same the actual presence of it – the book, the final object, here in my house, gives me a jolt. I feel it’s something to be handled with care: will it be the colour we discussed, as opposed to the anaemic hue that showed up on my computer screen some weeks ago? Will the text have survived the printing process or will there be some terrible mistake, such as a chapter upside down or an overlooked typo in the blurb? Will I look at it and want to run away? After all, it’s over a year since I sent the manuscript to W&N and nine months since we finished editing it. And that’s just the recent history. It is also at least ten years since I first conceived of the book, over three since I started it for the second time… And now this thing has arrived!
I’m about to put it back on the table and leave it for a while when Jim, four, appears and asks ‘Have you got a present, mummy?’ Becki, seven, is close behind: ‘Can I open it for you?’ she says, and Richard, following them both, laden with all the stuff they can’t or won’t carry for themselves realizes straightaway what I’m holding: ‘That must be your book!’ They are all three staring at me, so I go for it, rip open the seal.
The colour is right (spooky, Becki says) – I can see that much straight away. A flick through shows that the layout changes were made, that nothing is upside down and all the chapters are there. It looks good. I can breathe again, but I’ll need to screw up a little more courage in order to actually read it. Before long, of course, other people will be doing that too. The story will have a life of its own. It’s wonderful, terrible. Both.
Snakes & Ladders.
The phone rings at 7.40 am: I’m easing the kids into raingear and out of the door along with their lunches, books, sports equipment and a recently discovered sheep skull for Show & Tell. Yes? I say, thinking it’s either a UK emergency, another cancelled soccer match or the dentist again – but no: it is the Canada Council telling me my novel Alphabet has been short-listed for a Governor General’s Award. The day – the month – is transformed into a mini roller coaster of interviews and trips. The kids bid for a float plane ride if I win; naturally, I agree – but sadly for them it doesn’t fall out that way. Even so, Alphabet and I have a good time.
There is a silver sticker on my book jacket to draw people’s attention to it and I can tell myself that I must, at least to some degree, be succeeding artistically if three of my respected peers, in a country I am new to, sat together for a day arguing over this and that point and agreed to put my book on a list of five.
So it’s very good. All the same time, this moment in the sun cannot but remind me how strange and difficult the writer’s life mostly is. Not long ago, I was talking with a talented, well-respected writer who, when I asked about her work, burst into a hurricane of tears because she had been suffering an unexpected rash of mid-career rejection letters. We hugged, and I commiserated and but there was nothing to say except that this can be a tough job, and that’s after you have written the book. Whilst writing itself can be difficult, most of us would agree that overall it is both a pleasure and a privilege. Being a writer is a different matter; it requires us to develop skills that have nothing to do with putting words on the page. The sad truth is that while some kind of verbal or story-telling talent is a prerequisite for writers, being able to cope with the psychological hazards inherent in being a writer is at least as important.
Success stories like JK Rowling’s haunt the public imagination but the reality is that most writers write into a void (no one knows or minds much what they are doing until, years later, it’s done) or even face outright discouragement (rejection letters, family disapproval, low sales). You have to be able to sustain yourself, emotionally and financially, under these conditions. You dedicate your time to what others may seem as an insane or lost cause; you must take the solitude you need to work, but at the same time you must not allow yourself to become utterly isolated or totally crazy (a little craziness is fine, even necessary). It’s important to generate ways of looking at the bizarre situation you are in which keep you going rather than stop you in your tracks. As John Gardner pointed out in his mordantly funny piece Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Novelist?, a writer needs to be “at once driven and indifferent” – passionate about the book, but also, I’d add, hard-nosed and realistic about his or her circumstances. This is not an easy combination.
Another difficulty is that in order to write, you must be sensitive, but to be a writer, you need rhinoceros hide or a good supply of bandages: rejection in all its nasty varieties is the biggest hazard of all, and spreads itself like Kudzu over the entire profession. Again, some rarely encounter it, but they are a tiny minority. Most writers must find a way to deal with constantly being judged, ranked and sometimes rejected or not even considered in the first place. Your name is not on the short list… a magazine editor declines your story… the year’s list of recommended books does not include yours… you receive a swingeingly bad review in a major publication just before you have to stand on a platform and read the damn thing aloud to 500 people…
Add to this that if you are so inclined, there is always some other book or writer to compare yourself with: a massive snake this, if you let it grow. You can feel either overwhelmed by his or her superior talent, or grow bitter and twisted because he or she has been rewarded for something that to your mind amounts to lesser achievement than yours. Prizes can have an especially infantilising effect: the chosen few step suddenly up into the limelight, leaving the rest behind. It can take a determined effort not to give in to this kind of thinking, even though anyone who has ever sat on the jury for an award will tell you that another five books could just as easily have been selected.
These are the snakes, and as you slide down their slimy gullets, it’s a good idea to remind yourself of the ladders, the biggest of which is having done what you wanted to do, being pleased (even temporarily) with the result, and then having someone read it and sees/enjoy/be moved by what you have done. Or, better still, having many people read it and see/enjoy/be moved by what you have done.
Just as in the board game, it is possible to go for long periods where there is a chronic imbalance between snakes and ladders: far too much reptile. At other times, each inviting ladder is followed immediately by a pair of wide open jaws and you never seem to get anywhere at all: the editor loves it, the book is published, the jacket is great – but your book receives no reviews at all, or your book gets great reviews and wins a prize – but for mysterious reasons just doesn’t sell, and your publisher doesn’t want to put it out in paperback/won’t commit to your next.
Again, there is nothing to do but remember: you are writing because you think it is important, because it gives you pleasure, because you want a particular story to be told, because you want to make people laugh or make them think, because it is part of the way you relate to the world, because in the end you can’t not write (all or some of the above). Yes, working in an atmosphere of encouragement, feeling that readers actually want the results of your hours at the desk – basking, even, in their appreciation of your work, is far pleasanter than the opposite and will set you up for better few hours at the computer. Yes, being paid well helps too – and both together is brilliant, but it is only likely to happen some of the time. Meanwhile, find a way to keep on working: denial, distraction, and meditation, laughter, weeping fits, philosophy or simply writing itself… You do whatever works.