September 30th, 2013
The harder I work on writing short stories, the more I read of them. I do it partly for professional reasons, of course: I like to see other interpretations of the form, be inspired by the successes and learn from the missteps. Sometimes I’m searching for specific clues and tricks, actually looking for problems similar to my own so I can see how others solve them. Sometimes I’m just generally keeping abreast of what’s going on in my world. And my world is short stories, no doubt about that, at least literarily speaking.
But thank goodness, I have not lost my ability to just enjoy short stories as a reader above all else. And honestly, the more I learn through my work about all the different pitfalls and pratfalls and challenges of the short story, the more I’m able to fully appreciate it when an author gets it really right. And when that happens, I lose my ability to read like a writer, looking for the technical bits, the seams and strings that allow the story to work the way it does. I just read like a reader, and live inside the stories. (This is one of the many reasons I’m bad at reviewing.)
Such is the case with Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. This is a wonderful collection of short stories about the small town of Crosby, Maine, and the various folks who live there. Some are happy, many are sad, but all of them are acquainted with the title character. Olive, her husband, and her son are central to many of the stories in the collection–many are told from either Olive’s perspective or her husband’s. In others, though, Olive, Henry, and their son Christopher are just passing through in the more central drama of other lives. In each story, though, one or more of the Kitteridges are *seen*: undestood, imagined, fathomed, or interpreted by the other characters, often in wildly different ways from one story to the next. Thus we see Olive is grim and fearful math teacher, or a wise inspirational one; as a grumpy wife or a good neighbour; or, in the end, a mixture of so many different personas, as we all are.
*Olive Kitteridge* is more than the sum of it’s parts. All short story collections should have pieces that mutually illuminate each other, even if they aren’t linked on the level of plot or character. This should occur even more strongly in a collection that *is* linked. Even if there are some individual stories that didn’t really work for me, I still saw how they worked in the context of the whole book. I simply could not buy that a teacher would recognize a former 7th grade student she hadn’t seen in 20 years through a car window and, moreover, would go and sit in his car with him uninvited AND divine that he was contemplating suicide AND attempt to talk him out of it. But in the context of the book as am exploration of Olive’s whole character well…yeah, ok, this is poignant, this is interesting, this expands what I know and how I feel about this character.
And what I said earlier, about not being able to see the seams and strings applies especially to Strout’s writing style. She thins the veil of author interpretation until it seems to disappear: I completely forgot about *reading* and just felt like I was living inside the book. It’s hard to go back and analyze the style; I didn’t think about it at the time. But that’s a style, too.
I have started going over to Goodreads to see what others think after I finish a book. A lot of apparently very young people found the book too dark and grim, and too much focussed on older people. I was surprised at this Gilmourian naivete, that what one personally prefers to read is objectively what is best. I actually thought it was refreshing to read about people in their 60s and 70s who weren’t consumed by reminiscence, but instead actually living out their present lives as if they were actual fascinating dramas: which of course they are. Too often, the elderly in novels are reduced to stage props of wisdom or nostalgia, rarely characters in their own right. Without getting all preachy about it, Strout goes a ways towards remedying the problem.
This is a bit piecemeal, which is why it’s just “thoughts” and not a review. But I really did enjoy *Olive Kitteridge*–grim at times, but a definitely pleasure to live so closely with such a fascinating character. I may read it again, possibly while sitting in an uncomfortable chair, to see if I can figure out how it all *worked*.
September 8th, 2013
I’m pleased to say that my story Ms. Universe is now posted on Joyland for your reading pleasure. This is one of my weirder pieces and I was so worried I wouldn’t find a home for it–very grateful to Emily M. Keeler and Brian Joseph Davis for liking it and publishing it. If you read it, I’d love to know what you think!
September 3rd, 2013
At last, the wonderful movie made from my story How to Keep Your Day Job is available for anyone who cares to watch on YouTube. It was directed by Sean Frewer, produced by Lea Marin, and stars Georgina Reilly. The executive producer was Tyler Levine and the screenwriter was Lesley Krueger.
Guys, I’m not one to shill too much for my own work, but somehow since I had nothing to do with the film, I have no trouble saying PLEASE WATCH THIS MOVIE. It’s so good, and it’s less than 10 minutes. It’s funny, and it captures the story while still being totally its own thing. It was a truly incredible experience to see this movie made in only 3 days with such a huge, professional, and dedicated cast and crew, and I really think this little film distills that experience into something shiny and brilliant.
Please watch and, if you like it, please share the link around! And whether you like it or not, of course I’d love to hear what you thought!
August 25th, 2013
Regular readers may be aware that I got my first cellphone in March, with great trepidation. I enjoyed being one of the last holdouts on the new technology, and didn’t want to be a slave to yet another form of communication–I already love too many of them. But I was also tired of not being included in last-minute fun, and not getting the message when plans went awry. The last straw was when my friend and I spent 45 minutes waiting for each other at 2 different GO stations. Enough was enough.
I’m pleased to say that no such incident has occurred since the acquistion of my new smartphone. Moreover, I am able to send word when I’m running late, picking up schwarma, or lost–this is helpful. I can check email when I’m paranoically panicking for having left work early to go to the dentist and I have discovered the lovely vice of texting.
I use texts like most people, to communicate the aforementioend useful information and to say a lot of useless things too. Such is the nature of the medium. And of course, the more communication there is the more potential for miscommunication–things go wrong via text that never would’ve happened in the first place via say, email or phone.
But on the whole, my little yellow phone is a gain and I am happy to have it. But the best possible perk (besides angry birds) is that texts are a new vehicle for hilarity. Witness below, possibly the best conversation ever had via text. It’s my brother and I making plans to attend an outdoor concert together. Be patient–it’s a slow build, but there’s some of our finest ebanter later on…
RR: What is your plan for Saturday??
BR: Hmmm. How do we get there? Do you know?
RR: No. The park is really big so even once we get there it will still not be obvious where the shoe is.
BR: If we meet at Downsview Station by the 101 bus for 3, I think we will be OK… Sound goof?
RR: Ok. Check the rules on the website. Are serious. Bring empty water bottle and beach towel. No pot or tiny knife. No food.
BR: I don’t own any of those things. Can I bring a blanket?
RR: WHat do you mean you don’t have a water bottle or a towel???
BR: Hard time, friendo. Hard times, I mean.
RR: Buy a bottle of water. Drink it. Now you have an empty water bottle. I know you own towels because when I see you you aren’t wet.
BR: I air dry. I don’t believe in bottles. They pillage mother earth. I live in a barrel made from platitudes.
RR: Well then you will be thirsty and sitting on the groun at the show. No barrels.
BR: Life is a box of chocolates.
RR: No outside food, even chocolate. And you can’t sit on my towel.
RR: Also no stuffed animals???? Why??
BR: You could hid filled water bottles inside.
RR: Ah. No sharpies but that’s obvious–you could write on someon’s face while they’re sleeping.
BR: I will write on your face with a crayon.
BR: Wow, no blankets allowed. Can you bring an extra beach towel?
RR: I KNOW YOU OWN TOWELS!!!!
BR: Not beachy ones. :(
RR: Ok me neither. Towels art towels.
August 22nd, 2013
I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing lately and it’s pretty good–folksy and a bit “well, it worked for me!” simplistic, but also funny and well-referenced and common-sense. It was clearly written with Stephen King fans in mind (some of the examples do not make sense unless you have read one or another of his novels) but another target audience is nervous novice writers. There’s a lot of gentle handholding about not caring if it’s brilliant, not torturing yourself over the exact wording of the first sentence when you could be writing the second one, not caring when people say you ought to get a real job (Note: King’s central delusion is that novice writers can and will write as a large share of their every day.)
It’s mainly good advice and certainly supportive, but geez, it made me feel bad for people who start writing as adults. So much pressure!
Not that I think you shouldn’t, mind you–anyone who wants to write ought to, immediately. It’s just that it’s so much easier to start in high school. Because I wrote my first creative pieces in grade 9, I always find the “why did you decide to start writing?” question that gets asked in so many interviews a bit baffling. Eh? Why *anything* I did when I was 14? Why the floral leggings, the swamp food, eating lunch on the shotput court, that crush on Bill S.? The short answer for almost everything that happened in high school is boredom. From bullying to band practice, teenagers choose their high-school activities basically just to fill time. The kids in band don’t expect an orchestra career anymore than the football team expects to eventually make it to the CFL. I played intramural *badminton* in high school, and believe me it was not a springboard to going pro (hands up if you’ve ever taken a birdie in the eye?)
I was a chubby smart kid, so sports and dance were largely out for me. I played in band, but drama club was a disorganized mess and honestly, even if it hadn’t been, I really wasn’t much of an actress. I needed another *thing*…and then there as the poster in the library about a literary conest–with prizes! I was bored, I spent a lot of time in the library, I got good grades in English, and my friends said I was funny–why *wouldn’t* I write a humourous essay about my school bus?
My point is slightly undermined by the fact that I did win the “junior humour” category of that literary contest, but I think out of a fairly narrow field. And it wouldn’t have mattered to me if I didn’t, just like it didn’t matter to me that I was a lousy pianist–I still played from ages 5 through 19. What else was I gonna do after school?
Grownups give themselves a much harder time, generally, especially if they have multiple other demands like work, spouse, kids, commute, etc. They feel some kind of pressure to have a “reason” to write, like people loving their work or making lots of money. But writing is hard, slow, and often unrewarding by the conventions of the “real” world. And even if you could write the best novel in the world, if you started tomorrow you wouldn’t be finished for at least a year, more likely a few–and a couple beyond that to see it in print.
Aspiring writers who haven’t yet started the actual process find me a bit baffling sometimes–I have some markers of success, like published books and some positive reviews, the occasional award nomination. But I am neither rich nor famous, and I am still work at something other than writing most days. Am I a big deal? A big failure? What’s going on here?
Grownups, used to doing things for a reason and seeing the results, find the lack of concrete “made it” moments in writing frustrating. Teenagers, who can’t even necessarily drive the car or buy the shirts they want, find random impotent work totally normal. If it’s fun, why not do it? It’s better than homework, and if your brother’s watching something stupid on tv…
This was actually a really wonderful attitude, and one I try to recapture when I feel like writing is pointless. Why does it need a point if I enjoy it? It’s cheaper than golf, and better for me than Facebook–and I like my stories. Game, set, match.
I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this before, but sometimes I can sell working on my book to myself more easily if I think of it as an occasionally lucrative hobby rather than a career. I get that writers need to take ourselves seriously in order to get the work done and done well, and if for you that means saying the word “career” than please do so. But I think I’ll probably write for the rest of my life no matter what I call it, and when I call it a hobby I feel less pressed, more like I’m supposed to have fun.
But mainly I don’t call it anything–I just keep writing, or try to. Because that really is the best part…
August 19th, 2013
Not only is Burning Ground by Pearl Luke my 13th book on my To Be Read *2012* list, I think someone actually gave it to me in 2002 and it got somehow lost in the shuffle…for 11 years. This is all to say that I’m basically an embarrassment to literature, but it’s not *Burning Ground*’s fault.
The book is the story of Percy, a young woman who had the roughest of rough childhoods, and now in her thirties is working in a fire tower in northern Alberta, which gives her income, space, and solitude to reflect on the twists and turns her life has taken.
I’m not a big one for the genre of Canadian novel of emotion recalled in tranquility and this book wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I can recognize it’s strengths nonetheless. Percy’s blazing strangeness, her *meanness* was fascinating and seemed to ring true though I’ve certainly never met anyone like that. At the end of the novel, she does something, or seems to do something or to be about to do something (it was a little fuzzy) so horrible I was shocked–but then I thought, “No, that is the logical outcome for her in this situation. Of course she would.”
Because the entire novel is in flashback, I wasn’t sure I got a totally accurate viewpoint on Percy’s life. Especially, I wasn’t sure who all the “friends” she reminisced about were, when none of them were ever really described in detail and she didn’t seem like the sort many would want to befriend. Was Percy an unreliable lens character (it’s third person narrative) or did Luke just not fill in the details appropriately? I always have this problem with this sort of tightly focussed, decontextualized writing.
There was lots of great detail about life in a fire tower, something I know nothing about. I particularly liked the descriptions of clouds, rain, and smoke. Less the technical details about how to triangular the distance a fire might be at. I can totally see an editor encouraging this level of instructiveness, but I found it a bit much.
The central emotional arc of the novel has to do with Percy’s friendship-sometime-affair with Marlea (I’d not seen that spelling before, but I like it!) That part was vibrant, sexy, weird, and felt honest. There were some things around the edges of that–about Percy’s parents and her childhood–that didn’t seem fully realized to me. There were some emotional bombs that left me reeling, but not in a good, feeling-with-the-character way. I felt like maybe there was a chapter missing.
The end of the novel is really cool in a natural science sort of way, but unfortunately I was really upset with the main character by that point and I did not care how things worked out for her. I’m not sure if that’s a problem with the novel or a success, as it certainly drew a strong emotional reaction from me. Definitely a novel worth reading, though equally certainly not my favourite.
I can’t believe it’s been nearly a month since I posted! You’ll pleased to know I didn’t do much that was literary in my absence–mainly toured the Maritimes with my husband and his various associates, aka, went on vacation. Did you know there are mountains in Cape Breton? Well, there are and they are gorgeous, but scary to drive on. We also saw a wood grouse and ate most of the major mollusks, so I am well satisfied with the trip. Also happy to be home–the best combination. I will try to post some pictures of my own taking once I finally get’em off the camera.
BUT if you did miss my literary self terribly, not to worry: I have a couple stories coming out in the fall. My story “Ms. Universe” will appear on Joyland Toronto in September. Also this fall, my story “Loneliness” will appear in Compose Journal. “Loneliness” is from my second book, The Big Dream, so if you were curious about that one…
I’m also going to chat with some creative writing students on Wednesday night, so hopefully I will shortly be back in the swing of this literary life…we’ll see!
July 25th, 2013
Following up on my first post on my YA reading experiences, I’d like to talk about a topic not particularly dear to my heart but, I feel, still necessary to being a human: moral ambiguity.
This is one area where I feel that YA writers have advanced considerably since my youth. Maybe I’m just misremembering, or was reading the wrong books at the time, but I recall the YA novels of the late eighties and early nineties being exclusively about exclusively good people. Earnest souls trying to do the right thing while still having a good time and maybe getting a boyfriend/girlfriend. Whereas, in Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet does something truly terrible in the first chapter–tricks her toddler half-sisters into eating cat excrement. She’s mad at her dad and taking it out on the little and vulnerable, but it takes her the whole book to own up to her failing. And that’s not even the plot of the book–lots of other stuff is going on, and Violet’s realization that she has hurt little children for no reason is interleaved carefully, not a huge moment, but a quiet meaningful one.
Just to be clear, the George Clooney book is technically middle-grades: the protagonist is 12 and the recommended readers are 10+. When you get to the teen years, a few things change–most particularly, genres split off from the whole mass of “age-appropriate books.” For instance, I read two Harlequin Teen books by Hannah Harrington (I didn’t mean to read two by the same author–I got confused–so I’ll try someone else from the imprint soon). In both of the these books, the heroine (definitely a heroine and not a protagonist) is kept pure as the driven–she feels so sensitive, so *guilty* for something that’s gone wrong, but in both the terrible Saving June and the kind of ok Speechless, the final catharsis is not the heroine taking responsibility for her actions but in fact, deciding her guilt is unreasonable and she’s not at fault for anything. Powerful role models–ha!
In better books, the characters are more complex and it’s not as simple as “good person/bad person” or even “good action/bad action.” In the super-famous The Hunger Games, 24 children battle to the death (I know, when you put it that way…) I was really scared that author Suzanne Collins would carefully set up the action so that protagonist Katniss Everdeen would never have to deliberately kill anyone, but somehow through her strength and ingenuity still win anyway. Such a classic YA move. But Collins comes through in the end, with Katniss causing some deaths indirectly and finally actually murdering some kid. It’s an odd kind of victory, but hurray!
Authors of the protagonists-are-heros camp believe that young readers can only root for a character that never does anything wrong. Actually, lots of writers of adult fiction believe that too, and hell, it’s true for some readers. But it’s condescending to assume I can’t tell the difference between someone who was put in a bad position or screwed up, and someone purely evil. I think it’s a good lesson for young adults to learn, and also reading about these grey-area folks makes reading so much lesson boring.
That said, I do feel the characters in Gossip Girl are so bad they’re boring. If no one ever tells the truth, it’s as predictable and dull as if they always are honest. My dislike of this book (I refer only to the first GG book, not the series–I think I’m done now) might stem not from the moral-one-noteness but from the entirely separate issue of incredibly low stakes. Who cares if the couple that has no love or respect for each other has sex with each other or other people entirely? Who cares if a pretty girl feels lonely at a party for a minute? I mean, I’ve known some shallow rich people in my day, but come *on.*
I think I’m going to read a grown-up book next–I need a break from all this youth! But I’ll be back with more YA roundup in August, promise!
You know you love me (Gossip Girl joke!)
July 16th, 2013
Over the past 6 or 8 months, I’ve been reading a lot of YA (young adult) novels. This is something I haven’t done since I was, in fact, a young adult. Very young, actually, since I more or less stopped reading this sort of fiction when I entered high-school, before my critical skills were really up to par. A lot of what I was reading back then was pretty bad. Which is fine–I totally endorse a tween’s right to read crap, and I doubt it did me any harm (though I have an unquenchable desire for a red Spider Fiat).
But when I restarted YA reading after that 20-year hiatus, I wanted to read the good stuff, because someone had asked me if I could write a YA novel and I had no idea. I figured I would try to read the best of the genre and see if it inspired any ambition in me. No one wants to write trex, and while I probably can’t be the best myself, if you aim for the moon and miss, you are still among the stars, right?
The learning curve has been steep, because YA has *way* evolved since 1992–earnestness is out, drugs and sex aren’t just for bad girls (what, you think Jessica Wakefield had sex????), and the slang is all different now. I know, I know, there’s lots of good books from back in the day, but why not look at the current context, the one in which I could conceivably be writing in.
At first, I also had lots of other rules: no sci-fi or fantasy (because I can’t write that), all Canadian, a few others I can’t remember. Those went by the wayside–I don’t have a tonne of people in my life to recommend these books, so if it looks promising I go for it. Also, I can read a YA novel in a day or two, so they don’t take up much time (and make me feel smarty!) so why not try everything.
Here’s what I found out about the state of the YA novel in 2013. Please keep in mind I’ve only read a dozen or so books so far, with new ones regularly, so these impressions could change… Also I think I will break this post up into installments because, as ever, I am chatty.
Cad dads and trampy moms
If you trace the evolution of YA back to The Grimms’ Fairy Tales (I don’t know if anyone else does that, but it makes sense to me), you’ll see authors have been desperate to knock parents out of the picture for a long time. Moms are always dying in childbirth, dads off to war in the Grimm days. In mine, it was divorce and absentee dads–lots of sad moms drinking wine in the kitchen when their kids got back from the court-ordered non-custodial parent’s weekend. I know that that is a reality many kids face now, and always have in its various forms, but I do think it’s often a writer’s way of not having to write so many darn characters!
That is still going on, but it’s way dirtier now–if you’ll pardon the image, moms and dads are getting laid now. While plenty of dads ran off with mistresses back in the day, now it’s way more explicit: in one of my favourite reads so far, Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mother, Violet’s dad runs off with a big-breasted starlet (standard for me) and her mom dates a string of losers and flashes her thong in a Facebook photo. NON-STANDARD.
Now, instead of writing parents out of the action, authors are writing them off–I came across so many stupid, self-absorbed, slutty parents in my reading. I think this is a convenient way for authors to clear a path for kid characters to have adventures no parents would sanction if they were decent at the gig. In the incredibly far-fetched Saving June, Harper drives across the country with a stranger because her sister died and her depressive mom is so useless. Dad’s out of the picture. In the much more realistic Red Rage, Mara spirals into tragedy because her parents are basically the worst people one earth (but realistically depicted, I swear). In The Hunger Games (yes, I said no sci-fi, but who can stand up against that kind of hype?) Katniss’s mom is, again, a weak idiot who relys on her teen daughter to keep her from ruin.
When I complained to a friend who teaches grade 6 about this “all parents are losers” theme, she said I don’t know how bad some kids have it, and fair enough–I have good parents who never appear on Facebook. But I still think making a teen protagonist essentially parent-free is cheating. Like I’m not saying Jillian’s situation in Wicked Sweet–abandoned by her evil-incarnate mother day after day to take care of half a dozen siblings under 8–would not have happened in real life. I’m saying it would be an emergency and Children’s Aid would’ve shown up in chapter 2. A lot of these books give the false sense that 16-year-olds can do anything, and parents are just dead-weight.
That’s why I liked The Perks of Being a Wallflower so much (so did everyone, I guess). Charlie’s parents are present, his siblings are important parts of his life, grandparents, an aunt, cousins–he lives in a fully realized world that Steven Chbosky took pains to imagine in detail.
I guess what I’m saying is that I read as a writer, and as a writer summarily saying, “This person is bad, let’s not talk about them anymore” is sloppy writing most of the time.
Whoo, I have a lot to say on this topic–more topics soon!
July 12th, 2013
This blog has been a bit quiet of late, and when I do post it tends to be vacation anecdotes or random rants, but here at last is a post with some actual literary news…
First off, in the ongoing adventures of the short film How to Keep Your Day Job, now a nomination for best short film at the Directors’ Guild of Canada Awards. I guess you can watch this space at the end of October to see who won, but it’s just so great to see the amazing cast and crew of the film getting some recognition!
In terms of my own literary accomplishments, my short story “Marriage” has been accepted for an upcoming issue of The New Quarterly. Longtime readers will know I have a long love of The New Quarterly and am thrilled that they like this story. Can’t wait to see it in their pages.
And finally, Monday of this week, I did a fun 75 minute class with Professor Rawding’s literature students at University of Waterloo. They’d read a dozen stories out of The Big Dream, then thought about their reactions and made lists of questions by theme. Each group took a turn asking questions–yes, I did over an hour of Q&A with people who a) knew their stuff (no softball “so do you write with a pen or on a keyboard?” questions) and b) had not chosen the book themselves and did not necessarily like it.
It was *intense* to say the least, but also thrilling–the best compliment is a careful reading, I say. And honestly, no writer worth his/her salt ever believes anyone who says “Great book!” and leaves it at that. But the thorough, insightful questions from these students made me feel truly flattered that the book inspired them. I hope my answers were as good (or nearly).
Here’s a picture with me and the class. I am slouching because I was worried about blocking the kids behind me, who were actually way higher so I just look odd. Professor Rawding’s on the left in the green check shirt.
And finally, a photo of me with the professor’s cat (of course!)