Category Archives: A Writer’s Life

Lifestory

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.

Vanished: a thousand words for my mum (memoir)

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.

Carare Barer's book art

Fate of the Book: Fear Not, Beware, Some Great Art & One Happy Man

 

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

Book Club

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

Quercus garryana

“It’s because of your book that I’m going in for surgery next week.”

Quercus garryanaI’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.

Continue reading “It’s because of your book that I’m going in for surgery next week.”

The Past Is a Foreign Country (but sometimes you get a visitor’s pass).

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…

Continue reading The Past Is a Foreign Country (but sometimes you get a visitor’s pass).

The Find

Find Out

The Find is out!

release (v.)
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

Living (Loving) Local

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!

Third Person or First?

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….