July 22nd, 2014

*So Much Love*–heading for the world

I am so very pleased to announce that my book, So Much Love is forthcoming with McClelland and Stewart in 2016. It’s being edited by the very talented Anita Chong, senior fiction editor at M&S.

I have been working on this book a long time–I believe the original idea sparked somewhere in the year 2000 . I know I workshopped some very early ideas with my Concordia friends’ writing group that winter, and have been workshopping and rewriting on and off from this book ever since (about every 3 years, I’d try again). One of the many (many!) joyful things about the book deal is that now I know for sure I will have a place to put my ever-expanding list of acknowledgements. But the weird thing is, so many people have helped me with this book so long ago that they don’t even remember helping me, or in at least one case, who I am (that was an awkward conversation, let me tell you). I think I’ll try not to freak people out with the acknowledgements page–so no one who has potentially forgotten my existence–but I’m still really looking forward to writing it. Gratitude–love it!

After I posted the happy news on Facebook and Twitter yesterday, a few people asked why it would be SO LONG until the book is published–which is the sweetest thing in the world to ask. But the reasons are good ones! First, that’s how publishing rolls these days. To sell books effectively, it’s very hard to just publish things all of the sudden. Substantive edits, copyedits, page design and layout, cover design, composition, proofreading, printing and binding all take time, of course, and when you add in marketing and publicity, even more. It’s better to be later than sooner in order to get it all right. There’s books that come out faster, but mine definitely won’t be one of them…which brings me to reason number two…

SML needs a lot of work. I wrote the best book I could, and a lot of people helped me, and I am very very proud of it. But I knew it needed more, and I knew it was only by working with a really insightful editor that I’d be able to produce it. I am so grateful to Anita for wanting to do this heavy lifting with me, and I definitely want all the time I can get to make the edits and additions to the manuscript work in the best way possible. If it gives you a sense of my perspective, spring 2016 seems crazily SOON to me.

So yeah–that’s the scoop. Book in a couple years, in the meantime lots of work. In case you can’t tell, I’m THRILLED, really just bouncing down the street excited. More on this situation as it develops…

July 15th, 2014

10 Years: A Tribute

I have done very few things for an entire decade–other than be friends with a short (though ever-growing) list of excellent humans, practically nothing as an adult. This is not because of a restless, nomadic disposition (if you know me, you know that’s pretty laughable) but simply because I took a while to find my groove. I think I have found it at last, and I really hope that a lot of what I’m doing now (career, cats, marriage) will last me a lifetime.

But before any of that, there was this little writing group. In the spring of 2004, Andrew Pyper’s short story class wrapped up and four of us decided to try meeting on our own and see what happened. We never specifically decided to be a foursome, and indeed some other members have been invited a time or two, and might yet again, but we’ve always mainly just been us.

Writing groups, as you likely know, are hard–they require the time commitment of not only showing up but reading beforehand, thoughtfully and articulately, and writing down your thoughts in some fashion. Anyone who has ever been in a workshop class, where that sort of attendance and participation is enforced, knows how heartbreaking it is to see someone flipping frantically through your story two minutes before class starts–clearly, they haven’t put much thought into it or made the workshop a high priority. So through the evolution of our group, to have those guys put the time in on every story, year after year, is an incredible gift, one I try to reciprocate at every meeting.

It’s not like we’ve not been doing anything else. Ten years as brought us, as a collective, two masters degrees, three children, and a husband, along with a couple home purchases, job changes, and pet acquisitions. Oh, and a move to the west coast–for two years we met as a threesome, with emails and holiday visits to break it up–until our wandering member completed her degree and returned to us. It was if she’d never left. We have, to put it mildly, kept the faith.

These folks have of course, over the years, become friends–we couldn’t do this kind of work together for so long (and do it over dinner parties, no less) if we weren’t compatible sorts of people. I am interested in their lives and adventures, and they have supported me in mine. But it is kind of nice that we started *first* as colleagues, as fellow-writers. There’s lots of time to talk to other writers in the “writing community”–lots of weird networking/socializing hybrid time. I have no problem with this–this community has given me lots of gentle, lightweight friendships, people I’d rush across a crowded party for, though perhaps not call from jail.

But the people you trust with the stories are a different kind of people–that kind of respect for their judgement and sensibility does not come lightly to me, nor I think to them. I’m really truly grateful to have my little group–we never came up with a name–because it’s made me a better reader and a better writer. The opportunity to see such a long arc of creative growth in these folks has been immeasurably instructive, not to mention fun. We are all so much BETTER as writers than we were ten years ago.

I have a number of awesome reading and writing friends outside the group–true literary colleagues, not the party kind–but this collective its own special thing, and it deserves a sincere happy birthday.

July 6th, 2014

Midyear review

Remember when I used to check in on my new year’s resolution progress every year on my birthday and call it the mid-year review? Yeah, I’m not as organized as I used to be (it turned out that bitchy friend who said, “I wonder if you would get so much done if you had a boyfriend?” was right–I don’t. There’s a few other reasons too, though.) But it is still approximately the midyear and I’ve been thinking about it so, hey, why not. Also, let’s face it–I probably would be less likely to try this if I didn’t think I was progressing decently. Those years I didn’t do check ins–there was nothing happy to report. Anyway, let’s take a look.

Here’s the old post with the original resolutions. And here’s my thoughts on how I’ve done in the first six months:

1. Mini M&Ms charity. This has been going fairly well in the sense that I have actually been giving to people. Sometimes I forget, since for so many years it was against policy, and then I have to go scrambling back on the sidewalk with my little M&Ms case. I doubt it makes me look too sane, but oh well. I have also been noticing to whom I’m more apt to give: anyone with a pet, of course, but also younger kids with kooky signs. I’m trying to go against that instinct a little, because I think everyone has it–younger, saner-looking people are less intimidating than older possibly mentally ill or intoxicated men, especially since that’s the category who is likely to smell a bit funky. I guess most of want to give to those whom we relate to, but my thinking is that the ones furthest out of the mainstream probably need help the most. Hence, I’m trying to give more to them. They don’t say thank you very often, but I’m also trying not to mind that–not supposed to be the point!

2. Learn to play the guitar. Meh, I just finished practicing so I am not at peak self-esteem re: musical ability, but it’s going ok. I can pluck out a number of recognizable tunes, and I think my ear might be getting better. Chords continue to challenge me and my tiny mouse hands, but I preservere. Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” might be in my grasp yet.

3. Possibly file the papers I’ve had stacked on the floor of my office for over a year. Maybe. This one is basically a fail–the pile is still there, and messier than ever after being attacked by a cat. But I did file a few of the papers, and I am tending to fail new papers directly, instead of adding to the pile. Of course, my definition of “file” is a little difficult–I basically mean “put in filing cabinet, anywhere.” This is problematic, I know.

4. Clicker train my elder cat, Evan, to give him something to focus his energies on so he isn’t such a pain all the time. Surprisingly, this one worked. I have trained Evan to do a high-five and assorted other small tricks. We have also mastered “sit” and are working on “stay” now, his first useful trick. He is currently at 17 seconds for stay, which wouldn’t be very much for a dog but is HUGE for a cat. I’m very proud of him. Who would’ve thought this would be my most successful resolution.

5. Knit a thing that has an actual purpose. I did actually secure a scarf pattern and wool for a said scarf, but then the friend who runs my knitting club had a baby. So no more knitting club, and I do not see the point of knitting alone in a room. I cannot knit in an open area of my home because cats, so knitting is kind of over for me for a while. I’m not too upset about it, really.

6. Something about my manuscript-in-progress. I did what I set out to do–I wrote the book I wanted to write to the best of my ability. Which is not to say it is the book it needs to be yet, but I am very optimistic about the next step. Please watch this space for more on this situation as it develops.

7. Cook lots of new recipes. Going well! I will be travelling to Utah later in the summer, and so the lovely Julia Zarankin gave me a Utah cookbook, which has lead to some culinary adventures and deliciousness!

8. Blog more frequently than once a month. Basically successful on this one–3-4 times a month on average, with some dips and overages.

While we’re on the subject, I should probably add to the list:

9. Floss daily. A resolution in previous years that I was successful with. But then I got cocky, so it’s back on the list.

10. Plan to socialize a reasonable amount every week. Not every night, because that is exhausting and also I am allegedly writing a book, but also not no nights, because I am me and shrivel up without social fun.

Well, I feel like I’m set for the next six months. What are you planning for the rest of 2014?

July 2nd, 2014

New stuff

So my very exciting short memoir is now on newsstands and online in the July of Toronto Life. It’s called “Face Value” and is about the very intense jaw surgery I had in 2007. When the editor asked me if I had anything I would like to write about in a memoir piece, I was pretty positive that that event is the only thing in my personal history that would work. It consistently fascinates people I meet at parties and, really, me too–it’s maybe not the weirdest thing that ever happened to me, but certainly the weirdest that can properly be contained in narrative form.

Also, as of today my short story “At the Bar” is available as an ebook single with Found Press. Bryan Jay Ibeas did the cover and Amy Jones provided the blurb! Even if you don’t want to actually read the piece, you should at least go take look.

And that’s what’s up with me right now!

June 13th, 2014

Forthcoming fiction

I haven’t had a new story out since last fall, which to me is a little bit unnerving–the “Now and Next” sidebar item (look right) starts to seem a bit sad. So it is with a joyful heart that I share that my story “At the Bar” will come out with Found Press in July and “The Framer” with Little Fiction in the Fall.

Both of these stories hard the odd distinction of not being parts of collections. I mean, the characters recur elsewhere and if you follow my work extremely closely you may recognize them, but I don’t think they’re going to appear in a book any time soon. And since I have been very book-focussed the last few years, that’s a little strange and cool to me.

Both of the websites where these guys will appear are just awesome–please check them out. One of the many cool things they do is give each story they publish its own individual cover that they create for it. Which I just think is utterly delightful!

June 8th, 2014

Blog questions about writing

There are a few little writing Q&As that roam the blogoverse. Like the frosh questionnaire, they sometimes come around more than once, but usually with enough space in between that my answers have totally changed in the meantime. I actually don’t think I’ve seen this exact one before, so even better. The “blog tour” is coming to me courtesy of my very talented friend, the writer/birder/teacher Julia Zarankin. She’s lovely and her answers to these questions are really wise and interesting–go read (the rest of her blog is also delightful–it’s about birds for the most part, but in a way totally approachable and entertaining to the non-birder). And now here’s my version–less wise than Julia’s, but hopefully still a little interesting…

What am I working on?
A new book! I finished the old one at the beginning of this year, and despite going back to it a couple times for revisions, and knowing that if I should be so lucky as to publish it a substantive edit is still ahead, I have plunged gleefully into a new on. The “finished” book was extremely challenging and dark, particularly at the end–I won’t say it ruined fall 2013 for me, but it certainly made it a grimmer season. Through that, I kept imagining a nice new project where nothing had gone wrong yet, where I didn’t fully know what would happen and the characters were waiting to be explored. Of course, doing that is significantly harder than thinking about it, but I am still enjoying this new, fresh writing with no expectations and no boundaries.

How does my work different from others’ in this genre?
Well, I don’t know that it does–I work hard a being good, but not necessarily at being unique. I figure that just comes with being myself and not being able to really disguise that fact or write in anyone else’s style. I’m actually a pretty conformist person and when I can be like everyone else, I usually will do so. Writing, though, I’m pretty much stuck with myself. I’m ok with that. So I suppose the short answer is that the way my work differs from other people’s is that it is written by me.

Why do I write what I do?
In terms of content, I write about the stuff that interests me. Writing fiction is a strangely useful way to figure out stuff in life that I don’t understand–when I don’t understand why people are behaving the way they are, sometimes I can write my way into their shoes. Who knows if I ever get it right, but I do acquire empathy for their ways of being and acting, and that’s really useful. I write short stories because that is what I am good at. I have been congratulated before at not abandoning my allegedly less-saleable stories in order to write allegedly more-saleable novels. But that is like congratulating me for not selling out to play with the NBA. I don’t know how to write a novel (or poetry or plays for that matter). I still have a lot to learn about stories, too, but I feel like I do know the form a bit, and how to most usefully work with it. That experience is hard won and it allows me to–sometimes–write something a reader can actually connect with. I may eventually be ready to start over in another form, but for now I’ll keep pushing stories to see how far they go.

How does my writing process work?

Whenever I have time–twenty minutes, two hours, a day–I open my computer and scroll through my current project until I get to the spot I was at last time, and then I try to keep going. I get distracted by everything, and rarely have a tonne of time to work, but bit by bit I get a draft. When it’s done, or at least has reached what feels like an endpoint, I go back to the top and read it through–changing obvious issues when I can. I try to go faster this time so I can hold the whole thing in my head at once. It’s usually only on the third time through that I start making big structural changes and finally feel like it’s actually a coherent story another human could read and understand. Another time through for line edits and then I’ll ask the aforementioned other humans for feedback. Then I’ll take the feedback that rings true, revise the piece yet again, and submit it for publication. If it gets rejected and the rejection comes with useful feedback–or doesn’t, but I’ve thought of some one my own in the meantime–I’ll revise it another time. Oh, and if there’s research to be done, it gets done whenever I get a chance. Easy stuff I can google or call a friend about happens mid-writing; trickier stuff that requires interviews or trips usually gets slotted in after the bulk of the writing is done. Sad but true.

***

This is meant to be a tour and I’m to pass on the baton at the end of this, but it seems I have fewer actively blogging friends than I used to, and those I do know have pretty specific content that they like to include most of the time. So I’m just going to leave this open to whomever wishes to try it out–but if you do take up the baton, be sure to let me know (if you don’t mind) so I can read your answers!

June 4th, 2014

I have figured out what’s wrong with *The Hunger Games*

During my period of reading tonnes of young-adult novels in case I wanted to write one (at press time: probably not), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was one of the few I read with pleasure for its own sake, rather than amusement/bafflement/anthropological fascination (the only one to really beat it out was The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky, which just goes to show that sometimes what is popular is actually popular for a reason). I had put off reading HG for a long time, because I do not usually like sci-fi, or dystopian fiction, or post-apocolyptic fiction, or whatever category you want to put it in. More specifically: I do not like novels where starving children murder each other for basic survival.

I won’t outline the plot in more detail, since everyone in the universe has read it or seen the movie or sat next to someone who couldn’t shut up about it. These books are very VERY popular, and as I mention above, there’s good reason: Collins’s premise is incredibly inventive, which is not to say original–her clever mishmash of mythology and reality television is what makes her concept so stirring, and viscerally felt. Her plotting in the first novel is grimly tight–you can’t stop reading because there’s always something new to be worried about. And there’s nothing wrong with her prose, either–I could always picture every scene, characters and actions perfectly.

And while I applaud the achievement, I still felt pretty squicked by my enjoyment. I kept trying to argue with myself that the book makes clear that the Capitol rulers who pit these kids to the death are *evil* and it’s certainly not as if everything is peaches and cream in “real literature”–it’s not like things work out well for Anna Karenina, and Shakespeare is rife with despotic rulers, plus there’s tonnes of gore in Greek mythology.

That didn’t completely sit, but I let a year go by to forget the worst of my misgivings, and then I got the second of the HG novels, Catching Fire, out of the library. This one is not as good as the first–baggier, duller, too focussed on the silly love-triangle (I’m sorry, I know this pretty much rules me out of reading YA, but I cannot care all that much about whom a 16-year-old kisses or does not kiss) and bizarre things like what clothes people wear and identifying every single person who lives in the town. Seriously, there’s nearly 50 characters in this book, and I’m not sure why. We know them semi-well, get a bit of backstory, start to be interested, then they never come back. Very annoying, and constant.

Collins’s prose is as crystal-clear as ever, but the problem is there are much darker and more complex matters to illuminate. The evil President Snow is a dictator and an oppressor, starving the weaker districts to…exert control? This is where things started to fall apart for me. I tried SO hard to make HG a political parable–for apartheid? The Middle East? The most eerie resonances seemed to be Ukraine–Presidents Snow and Putin have some similarities–but the book was written before all that. And the truth is, the scenario with the Capitol and the Districts does not make a whole lot of sense. What do they get by all this violence other than a very expensive tv show? It’s really a child’s version of political oppression, with no real politics, just bad people and good people.

And that means I couldn’t sell the novels to myself as literature. That doesn’t mean I didn’t stay up late reading the end of Catching Fire (rushed ending and stupid cliffhanger, after 400 pages of babble about how the trees looked–not that I’m bitter). But the novel doesn’t really *do* anything–it doesn’t show us the complexity of political life, or political difference. It doesn’t examine how oppression serves the few, or how power corrupts. The first two HG novels really just comfortably underline what we already know: that good people are good and bad people are bad.

And if we’re not learning, growing, expanding our understanding of the world, then the books are just…entertainment. And there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, of course, many of my favourite books are nothing but–but the Hunger Games books are about the murder of starving children.

And that’s when the hammer dropped.

The Hunger Games becomes itself. The readers become, like the awful citizens of the Capitol, voyeurs of the sadistic torture of tweens and teens (and in the second book, some adults too). Whether it’s The Hunger Games I’m reading, or the Hunger Games that I’m watching on TV, I become complicit by not walking away from the book/screen–by indulging in the prurience of being entertained by others’ suffering. Of course, I don’t *want* anyone to die, but since I know that they must die regardless of my will, why not just wish they would hurry up and get offed already, and hopefully in the most entertaining, not-too-nauseating way. Is that a Capitol-viewer’s thought, or is that my thought?

Now I’m really uncomfortable with myself. I’m also not sure if Collins is a genius artist-saboteur, who created a slew of stupid, shallow entertainment gobblers, and then made her readers become them. Or is it all something a bit more benign and less meta? I can’t figure it out.

I suspect that someone has worked this out more insightfully than I did, and I’d really like to read THAT blog post, but I didn’t know what to Google. Anyone know?

Also, if I believe the theory above, does that mean I can’t read the third and final book in the series? Probably, right? Damn.

May 27th, 2014

Why a creative writer is not a journalist

One of the bizarrest comments I get with regard to writing, especially with regard to what I earn from writing, is “Why don’t you just do some journalism to earn money on the side?” (Note: the bizarrest comment I’ve received ever, about anything, may be when recently someone asked me if I shave my arms [no]).

There is so much wrong with the whole “fiction writing and journalism are the same” idea that I usually don’t even respond to it in conversation, but here in the blog, at my leisure, I figure I can. This is more important than I thought, because when I spent the afternoon with the teens a few weeks ago, I noticed that they didn’t seem to really know the difference between creative writing and journalism either (they asked my advice about journalism as if I, a story writer, should know). The adults who don’t get the divide can live with it, I figure, but I do worry about the teens. So here we go there…for the kids…

1) Journalism is a four-year degree or at the very least a year intensive plus an internship. Seriously, I can’t just intuit whatever it is they learn in journalism program. Yeah, yeah, I have a creative writing degree but there is very little overlap between the two curricula. Both would (I should hope) teach you how to read an efficient and elegant sentence, but beyond that, I do not know how to craft interview questions, how to do archival research, how to investigate a mysterious incident, how to avoid libel, or any of the other dozens of things that come up for real journalists every day. And really, if you were going to spend your time reading an article by me, you’d expect me to be able to do all of the above, wouldn’t you?

2) Journalism isn’t a license to print money. In fact, it’s another highly competitive, low-paying field, almost as bad as fiction. It’s not like people don’t have wonderful and fascinating and even lucrative careers in journalism these days, but opportunities are getting to be less, and competition more. If I wanted to really be a journalist, I’d have to work really hard, and do everything in my power to improve with every piece I wrote, and I still wouldn’t be guaranteed success. I’m already doing that in my creative work, and there are only so many hours in the day.

3) Journalists are stuck with the facts. There’s a reason that I write fiction–well, many reasons, but one is that I find the facts constraining. The hoity-toity version is that I feel better able to tell a larger truth without being held back by tiny truths; the more honest version is that writing a credible, engaging, resonant, and maybe funny story is hard enough without adding more stress about exact quotes and what everyone was actually doing that day… This topic has been extra on my mind lately, since I just wrapped up writing a short piece for Toronto Life. It’s not even journalism, it’s memoir (which is like journalism in which the only person you interview is yourself) but I still needed to get the facts straight, and restrain myself from adding illustrative, engaging incidents that did not actually happen. Very hard. Check out the July issue back page to see how I did.

This is only a short summary of the differences between these two rewarding careers. I should also add that I have the utmost respect for journalists (plus I married one), and I feel I can best show my respect by not pretending to be one.

If you are interested, here is a short list of other things folks have suggested I do to earn money while I write. In brackets beside each, I’ve included the reasons why this is not realistic, since I doubt I’ll get round to writing a blog post on each one. And yes, I do realize that it is very strange that people keep suggesting things for me to earn money, especially since I actually have a rather nice job. I don’t know why it happens.

–teach (as with journalism, this is a very hard job with lots of competition, and it also requires a degree most of the time)
–work in publishing (I actually do this, but when I point that out, the suggester always seems to have meant something else)
–freelance (freelance what? Sometimes the suggester doesn’t actually know, but I think folks usually mean occasional freelance magazine writing, which is actually not a bad idea–but only the memoir-type, where I don’t have to talk to anyone else. It is possible that this is what others mean when they say “journalism” and this is all just a language mixup.)
–write a vampire/erotic/Harry-Potter-esque novel (for every Twilight or Secret, there’s hundreds of terrible unsuccessful rip-offs out there. If I am going to write an unsuccessful book, at least *I* want to like it.)
–go on Oprah (Oprah is currently off the air, and I think the book club was discontinued before that. Also, as if it was so easy to get on Oprah even when it was an actual show.)

May 15th, 2014

A short play

Husband: Yes.
Wife: …
H: …
W: Was that just a guess?
H: Was what a guess?
W: “Yes.”
H: It was an answer?
W: To what?
H: Your question?
W: …
H: Did you ask me a question?
W: No.
H: Ok, perfect. I withdraw my answer.

Note: some of the participants may have been asleep for portions of this performance.

May 12th, 2014

The no-house blues

I am a relatively lucky person, I freely admit it. I’m also a pretty hard worker with low standards. So, what I mean by that is, I’m not troubled by a relatively large amount of work, and a relatively small amount of stuff–and I’ve been lucky enough to get opportunities to do the work and get the stuff I want. While I do enjoy material possessions, I don’t need very many or very nice ones to feel happy–my pink $30 skirt from Target thrills me every time I put it on. If you gave me a nicer skirt, I would probably wear and like that too, but I wouldn’t go looking/shopping for it.

What all of the above adds up to is I’m pretty generally happy. It’s nice, but the side effect is my being a bit spoiled, in that I’m relatively unused to the feeling of wanting something material that I can’t have. I want few enough things things, and I earn enough money that when I do want something–trip to visit friends, out of season fruit, pink skirt–I can usually afford it. I haven’t been dissatisfied in the standard capitalistic way in a long time.

But I do not have a house and, judging from current trends, I won’t be getting one. I understand that this is not a tragedy; many people are unhoused in a more literal sense while I am lucky enough to have a relatively large and nice apartment where the kitties run free all day.

But it is not a house. It has no front door into the street, and no backyard in which to plant things. I can’t go “up to bed” or “come down to breakfast” rights of daily passage that I always expected to have as an adult. I have no basement in which to store holiday decoration, out of season clothes, and other things that i do not wish to be reminded every day that I own. I’m not making an investment in my future/the city of Toronto/”the market” either. I don’t know where my husband and I will live when we are old, let alone the cats. All this makes me sad.

I love that I live in a thriving vibrant city with vast and various neighbourhoods, a bajillion parks, tonnes of cultural institutions and a relatively healthy job market. But the price I pay for it is a literal one–almost every time I see a listing on a real-estate websites for a house in our price range, it is listed as a “teardown” or only slightly better, a “handyman’s dream.”

Tiny Rebecca assumed that adulthood would include stairs, a basement, and a yard, because that’s what her parents have. But adulthood is doing your best with the circumstances–emotional and physical–that you find yourself in, not enjoying a set of generic perks that everyone gets upon reaching a certain age (would that it were). I’m sure my husband and I actually could buy a house, if we were willing to take on a terrifying level of debt that would cancel most of our fun in life (even pink-skirt buying) or move out of this city that we love. But we won’t because doing those things would make us sadder than buying a house would make us happy (I think the cats would be happier in the house and they wouldn’t have to pay the mortgage/sacrifice the skirts, but they don’t get a vote).

Not having a house is not a tragedy, it’s not even something worth getting upset about–it’s just an expectation adjustment. But I *am* sad, because past conceptions of the future are hard to let go of. This post has no real larger message than that: I’m sad, but I shouldn’t be. I’ll try to stop.

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