June 4th, 2014
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
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
W: Was that just a guess?
H: Was what a guess?
H: It was an answer?
W: To what?
H: Your question?
H: Did you ask me a question?
H: Ok, perfect. I withdraw my answer.
Note: some of the participants may have been asleep for portions of this performance.
May 12th, 2014
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.
May 5th, 2014
During my vacation, I offered to participate in a couple of old-leading-young type events. I had the free time, plus lots of people helped me when I was a whippersnapper, so I like to pay it forward. Plus, more selfishly, I’ve crossed the age wire where young people will talk to me socially without a reason, and I miss them. Sometimes they talk to me in social situations, but only if I am friends with their parents and their parents have taught/ordered/prodded them to be polite. That opportunity with teens or older is rare, as most of my friends have little kids–7 and under–and those ones still like me for no real reason. If I want to talk to teens or early-twentysomethings, I need to find something I have that they want, and wave it like a carrot.
Why do I want to do this? Because I’m a writer, and an inherently nosy person. I want to know what everyone is doing, wearing, thinking about, and listening to on their iPods. It irritates me that there are demographics I don’t have access to right now, and so while I’m waiting for my friends’ kids to get older, I go further afield.
Hence the two events last week. The first one was a career-day type event for graduate students/those considering grad school at UofT, run by the Backpack to Briefcase folks. Unlike previous panels of this nature that I’ve been on, no one on this panel was spouting nonsense like, “Follow your dreams” and “Be the best you you can be” so I didn’t feel I had to run interference to give elementary practical advice like “get practical skills and put them on your resume.” In fact, everyone on this panel was REALLY sharp and accomplished–I was actually the least so, and the youth weren’t too interested in talking to me. That was a little boring, but fine since they were receiving really excellent advice from my colleagues.
Impressions: students were tidy, well-dressed in mainly nondescript ways, polite and respectful. They were all obviously accomplished students and sometimes had to dumb down descriptions of their academic work so that we could understand. Almost everyone asked clear and interesting questions, though some of them seemed a little under-researched–there are lots of easy templates you can find to make a resume, so asking at a panel discussion seemed odd. But I think a lot of the folks at the presentation were not yet graduating, so it makes sense that they weren’t really ready for the job market. They were all quite sharp and poised, but I did wish they had a *little* less distain for non-academic jobs. My real advice, which no one asked for, is that they should take part-time or summer work outside of the university while they worked on their degrees, so they could see for themselves what maybe their profs aren’t telling them–every job has its good and bad bits, and none are completely fulfilling. There are many ways to put together a good life. Seeing one ideal option (professorship) and a host of lesser ones is a good way to be sad a lot of the time. Again, no one asked for that sort of advice, so I didn’t say it straight up, but I tried strongly to hint at it.
The second event was probably a lot more up my alley: the Toronto Council of Teachers of English run a short-story contest for high-schoolers every year, and if you make the long list your prize is a lunch and afternoon workshop with a local writer. I was thrilled to be one of said writers, and tried hard to be worthy of my “prize” status. I couldn’t have been more impressed with the 10 students I got to work with–actually, all the other writers said the same, so apparently there was pretty uniform awesomeness at this event.
There was little hyper-fashion in my group of 14-18 year-olds–just lots of jeans and long flowing hair for the girls, jeans and plain shirts for the boys. The girl sitting next to me had picked a pattern of holes in her black tights that looked like a solar system–gorgeous–but otherwise it was mainly the teen standard of trying not to try.
But outside of fashion, these kids were SO keen. I have a speech I make to young workshoppers about being generous in giving as much and as detailed feedback as possible, and doing the work of specifically digging into the details rather than generically chirping, “So good!” which doesn’t help anyone. These kids did NOT need these speech–right through 10 stories they kept up lending each insight, support, and genuinely constructive criticism.
The standard of the stories was also very high–obviously I had my favourites, but everything brought to the table was worth reading. If you are curious, I suggest having a browse through the many awesome stories posted on the website for the contest. You’ll be impressed!
So in short, the kids are more than all right–they are smart, self-possessed, generous and funny. I would have loved a few more hours to pick their brains about tv, movies, their studies, and their parents, but I couldn’t make that not seem creepy. There was actually a “networking event” after the Backpack to Briefcase panel, but I didn’t quite feel comfortable accosting strange young people and asking them career questions, even if it was ostensibly for their own benefit. I left quickly, with complete confidence that they’d be fine without me.
April 28th, 2014
This past weekend, I went to see the theatrical version of four stories from *Once* presented by Twitches and Itches theatre company in St. Catharines, as part of In the Soil festival there. I actually tried to take a picture of the (sold out!) crowd before the lights went down, but my attempt to be unobtrusive meant that the photo is illegible. So above is a ferris wheel that was part of the festival, but had nothing to do with the play. At least it’s on the same general wavelength as the play was–cool and unexpected.
I’ve known that director Colin Anthes was working on this production for a while, and I was quite interested/excited, but I haven’t asked a tonne of questions and tried very hard not to volunteer any opinions. I figured I’d had my say in the stories, and if this group wanted to take on the task of bringing them to the stage (which I imagine was pretty hard), they deserved the right to do it any way they could think of. I learned from the very magical experience seeing the film version of How to Keep Your Day Job come to life that the best way to be amazed by your own work is to let someone else completely recreate it. It’s so stunning to see what they find.
And the *Once* play on Saturday was truly stunning. It was actually 4 little playlets: “Chilly Girl,” “Fruit Factory,” “Cal Is Helpful” and “The Words,” enacted one after another. From talking to Colin and reading this essay by one of the actors, I know that the plays came together collaboratively, with the whole cast involved, and it showed in the vigour and joy of their performances.
The cast was Eduardo DiMartino, Collin Glavac, Hayley Malouin and Caitlin Popek, the stage manager Nathan Heuchan, and the adaptor Colin Anthes. Their versions of these four stories were all incredibly faithful to the texts, while still very different from them. It was amazing how much room they found to vary pace, tone, focus, with almost no real rewriting (I think I caught maximum three small instances when the actual prose was different, each time in logical ways to make up for cut scenes or other practical matters). The humour in a number of the pieces was highlighted, the pace quickened, and some of it was simply different than I imagined. Which is good–no writer should ever get too caught up in her own imagination being the right imagination. I was also really surprised by how much music this group found in the stories–they used music in a lot of surprising ways in the plays, but actually a lot of it came from within the stories. It really surprised me, in the best possible way.
It’s possible that *Once* the play will get remounted at some point in the future, and I sincerely hope it does because more people would enjoy seeing it, I’m sure. Until then, I certainly did!
April 19th, 2014
Wow, I’ve never had a blog lull like this one before–and I hope to be somewhat back in the saddle as of now. The break was brought on by the insane busyness that I’m starting to think is just a part of adult life. Sometimes it’s a bit less, sometimes a bit more, but grownups who are lucky enough to have friends and family and a way of earning a living are just going to always be busy. We were in the “a bit more” side of things for all of 2014 so far, due to work stuff and (cough) trying to finish my book, but I’m heading into two weeks of vacation starting…sometime this week, and while the book is still a foot, it’s very close to done for this round. So I’m trying to do a bit more from the other categories of life, like blogging.
The other reason you haven’t heard much from me here is that I was taking my own advice not to take blogging as duty, since no one really cares that much and blog posts written out of drudgery are as unfun to read as they are to write. I haven’t had much that felt like it needed reporting, other than rants about people who are rude on the subway and in grocery stores, so I haven’t posted.
During my silence, a few interesting things have crept in, so please allow me to summarize:
–my poem Dead Boyfriend Disco got posted in a “from the archives” dealie on the echolocation blog. The poem appeared in their print journal way back in 2006, and still stands as my only published poem, as it is likely to remain. This one lone poem though seems to get mentioned and reprinted every now and again, so perhaps it is all I really need.
–the *Once* play is coming to fruition–April 25 and 26 down in Saint Catharines, you’ll be able to see it as part of the Soil festival. Here’s the Facebook invitation if you’re interested, though I know it’s far for many….*Once* presented by Twitches and Itches. I have no idea what to expect–the playwright and company worked up the play from the stories, but i don’t know more than that. I’m terribly excited, and will be there on the Saturday night to see it in all it’s glory.
–my beloved friend Fred was on Jeopardy on Thursday and won!! I had been looking forward to this for months, but it was still thrilling to actually see her face on my friends’ giant screen tv. That link above is to the full show, and though I’ve spoiled the ending for you, it’s worth watching for the fun trivia but also to see the tiny moment between when she wins and when she *realizes she won*. The Jeopardy party guests at I was with were SCREAMING, it was so amazing (too bad about the formerly sleeping baby upstairs). And then she went back last night and she won again (there’s a video out there that I can’t seem to post, but it exists). This time I was at my parents house for the holiday/to do my taxes, and again with the screaming. Quoth my brother: “Fred is really improving my life. It’s so much fun to watch something on tv I actually care about.” He was totally right. She’s back again on Monday and I can’t wait–if you have the opportunity to watch, I strongly encourage it!!
–I went to a few truly outstanding book launches in the past few weeks, and for some I’ve already read the books–that’s how exciting the launches were. I’ll try to give a report on some of these in the weeks to come, but I’m out of practice in the blogging department. So for now, wonderful things you might want to read include: Career Limiting Moves by Zachariah Wells, Mothering in the Age of Neoliberalism edited by Melinda Vandenbeld Giles (a little out of my subject area, that one, but that’s what I get for being friends with an anthropologist), Yaw by Dani Couture, and The M Word edited by Kerry Clare. That last one is what I am immersed in currently and it is SO good it’s addictive.
So that’s what I’ve been up to–not too shabby, eh?
February 26th, 2014
Man, I’ve got to get snappier subject lines… Anyway!
I have, as I mention above, been up to a few more things. CBC Books surveyed the Canada Writers readers on our favourite short stories–I would advise reading pretty much everything on this list.
And my story “Ms. Universe” is now posted on Byliner. If you’d like to read it there, and/or other stuff on Byliner, follow the link and than scroll down to the end of the page to get a 14-day trial of the site for free. Enjoy!
February 18th, 2014
Last fall I read about 550 short stories in two months for the CBC Canada Writes contest. I was a big crazy slalom, but I enjoyed myself and learned a lot. If you’re not familiar with Canada Writes contest, it’s pretty prestigious and pretty challenging–I read that many stories and I was one of TWELVE readers. In addition to the very stiff competition, the word count on the contest makes it all but impossible for me to even enter–1500 words MAX. I’m not really that kind of writer lately–I felt like I’d all but forgotten how to write an effective story in that tight a space and I was hoping that helping out with the contest would help me relearn that skill. It did, to some degree, but all really good short stories are truly just their own thing and while there’s a glimmer of “oh, I see how you did that” mainly the spell remains unbroken.
Anyway, the long list was announced on Monday–from that list of 36 it’s up to the judges to determine the shortlist. I do not envy them the task. There was plenty of dross in my pile of stories, of course, but when I passed on my selections for the long list they were all pretty damn amazing–any number could have won in my book.
If you want to read my thoughts on the three stories I chose that made it to the long list, you can do so in the little interview CBC did with me, Amber Dawn and Michael Hingston, two of the other readers. More of those interviews will follow in the next few weeks.
So now you know why I was always stressed and carrying a big pile of papers last fall….
February 13th, 2014
I do not have anything new to say on the concept of Valentine’s Day–I looked it up and apparently my beliefs are exactly the same as on Vday 2011. And no one at any point has every cared for my Family Day is fascist position. So why don’t I just wish you a great long weekend of demonstrating affection for whomever you want however you want. I plan to take many naps and potentially see an aerialist.