Category Archives: Notes & Queries

Kathy Page on the Blog Tour

Arnon Grunberg, from Writers at WorkWe 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.

Next up on the tour are Susan Juby and Marilyn Bowering, two multi-talented writers,  both colleagues of mine at Vancouver Island University (though Marilyn  has just left to write full time).

What are you working on?

Battersea Reference libraryI 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?  

Paradise & Elsewhere by Kathy Page thmbThe 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?

Madge PageI 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?

Kathy Page in gardenIn 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.

 Also this week: Janie Chang, author of Three Souls. She is passing the baton to Théodora Armstrong and Kathryn Para 

Next up on my side:

 Marilyn Bowering

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.

 Susan Juby

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:

Matilda Magtree 

Alice Zorn

Pearl Pirie

Julie Paul

Sarah Milan

Steve McOrmond

Susan Gillis

Jason Heroux

Barbara Lambert

Reading in Real Time

CNQ88It’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.

http://notesandqueries.ca/

Biblioasis

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.

 

Huacachina, Peru, by Luca Galuzzi g

 Biblioasis

Biblioasis catalogue Spring 2014

How it Grows (memoir)

This article about emigration, gardening and family, was first published in Aqua Magazine, p28 on.   Click to  read it in the turning pages magazine format  with original illustrations. The text is below.

What I am planting, 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.

 

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.

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).

Flight

winged manReaders 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.

base jumpers in bat suits

winged manI’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

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….

Sales Figures

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

The Reading

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

Notes & Queries

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 and Ladders

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.