November 11th, 2013

A blast from 2009 (from the Puritan)

If my last post has you intrigued about why I write what I write, this one should be up your alley too. Way back in 2009, my story “If This” ran in Issue 8 of the Puritan. 4 years later, the Puritans (that’s not what they call the editors there??) asked me to write a blog post on how/why I wrote it, and so I did. Enjoy!

It’s funny to be going back to older stories now. For ages, whenever I went back to something from a few years ago, I would want to shrivel up in horror at how bad it was. Now that I have published work that people have enjoyed (or claimed to), I am able to not feel that way sometimes, and instead just, you know, read the story. Sometimes, often actually, I can’t remember writing that bit or exactly how I felt about it or what I wanted to convey. I’m stuck on the outside as a reader interpreting rather than a writer knowing. It’s kinda cool, and kinda terrifying, actually.

November 6th, 2013

Tonight! Plus a guest blog

I know I’ve already seen the film of How to Keep Your Day Job 1 million times (not actually, but close) but I’m still so excited to see it tonight at the Toronto Short Film Festival at the Carlton Theatre. It will be special to witness this little film’s Toronto public debut. Also, people have been telling me how they feel about the film and where they laughed or were surprised, but I’m so curious to actually *be there* in a room full of strangers, hearing and feeling them reacting to the events on screen. There’s also a lot of other wonderful-looking stuff on the bill tonight–can’t wait!

Oh, and I wrote a little blog post for the Compose Journal blog. It’s about the origins of the story of mine they published, Loneliness and, more interesting to me in the present tense, what happened after I wrote it.

Oh, and Lynn Coady won the Giller??!! The first time I have been truly thrilled by a Giller-winning book! I wish she could come be mayor of Toronto!

November 1st, 2013

Rose-coloured reviews Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

I reread Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, the second in Helen Fielding’s series, to prepare for reading the third, which is just out. The first of these books is a classic, and when I reread it last Christmas it held up just fine. It’s a very Christmassy book, which is why I had it out, but beyond the holiday spirit, beyond the nostalgia for a time in my life when I saw my friends every second day and told them EVERY SINGLE THING, it’s simply a very funny, very charming book. Bridget’s a nitwit, of course, but a sweet one you can root for, and Fielding really makes a very simple girl-nabs-boy-after-lots-of-chaos story work in that first book.

In the second…eh, not so much. BJ #1 is a book that spawned a genre, and it really shouldn’t have–it’s a good book, but simply not deep or complex to support a host of imitators with much variation. The later chicklit was all. the. same. (I haven’t read everything, of course, and Marian Keynes is an exception, though a number of her novels are something other than the chicklit.) Some was a bit funnier than others, some a bit more realistic, some a bit less. But it was all manic and bouncy and reveling in the shallowness of fashion and self-help and dieting without Fielding’s dollop of self-aware irony. And, kinda, so is BJ #2–it’s later chick-lit, and it’s not as good.

Bridget’s still sweetly dopey, of course, but now sometimes she’s such a dope that it’s hard to believe she deserves to see everything work out. Her friends are bitchier and/or dumber in this book, depending on which friend, and sometimes you don’t really believe they’re doing her any favours with all their “support.” The biggest problem, surprisingly, is the absence of a villain. In the first BJ novel, we had Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s boss, crush, and eventually, terrible boyfriend. He was a jerk, but a hilarious sardonic jerk and I loved reading about him even as I hated him (and Hugh Grant’s performance as Daniel is the best part of the film version, in my opinion, especially when he falls out of the boat).

There is no such delightful jerk in this novel. Bridget’s boyfriend is actually the dreamboat Mark Darcy, who is always right and super-sweet and thus a fairly dull foil for Bridget. He does have some nice moments–not being able to find the fridge in his own kitchen is sweet–but mainly Mark is banished from the narrative. Either Bridget or Fielding isn’t able to cope with the idea of a functioning adult relationship, so entangles Mark a barely funny series of misunderstandings and then they break up.

I do not accept Tolstoy’s premise of happiness being dull, and I think if Fielding had tried harder we could’ve had some fun with a happy couple (my parents have been married 41 years, and they’re hilarious).

Instead, the novel just kind of rambles for a while. When I first started the reread, I wondered why the movie centred so much on the Thailand bit, since that didn’t start up in the book for 200 pages. But, when I got there, I realized that it was because it was the funny bit. Actually, the immediately preceding bit, where Pretentious Jerome is reading essentially gay erotica to the Lifeboat book club, and then Bridget’s dad and Admiral Darcy burst in and begin reciting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” is one of the most sublime bits of comic writing I’ve read in a while. And the book gets better and better from there, ending at a point where you’re once again rooting for Bridget and Mark to hook it up, those crazy kids. But there’s the 200 pages before that that we’re just going to have to not count, because well…meh.

I am SO curious about the third book in the series. I’m also #600 on the library waiting list, so it’ll be a while. I’ll keep you posted.

October 28th, 2013

Loneliness in Compose

I’m using up all my good news in one burst–another story, and possibly my last of the year, out this weekend–”Loneliness” is in the Fall issue of Compose Journal, which is online now for your enjoyment. “Loneliness” is actually a reprint of a story that originally appeared in The Big Dream, but never did get published as a stand-alone story, so I’m really happy it’s in Compose. If you’ve never read it, maybe take a look! There’s tonnes of other great stuff in the issue, too!

I also wrote a blog post about the origins of this story and, more interesting, what happened to it after I wrote it…that will be posted soon on the Compose blog, too!

October 25th, 2013

New awesome

So, yesterday was a good day for awesomeness–the new and gorgeous issue of The New Quarterly arrived, containing a story called “Marriage” by yours truly, and another called “The Man Room” by Mark Sampson, aka my husband! We’ve never been together in a literary journal before and it feels pretty cool!

Also cool is the Who’s Reading What section of the TNQ website, where you can find out what I and the other contributors have been reading lately.

Another great thing yesterday is that the wonderful Kelli Deeth quoted me in a piece she wrote for the National Post Book blog on short stories. Such a compliment to be mentioned next to Lynn Coady and Shaena Lamber–all three of these other ladies say cool stuff in that piece. Go read! In fact, Kelli’s been guest-editing the NP Books blog all week and all here pieces are wonderful. I especially liked A Writer Who Writers What She Wants. Enjoy!

All this, plus it’s Friday–amazing!

October 9th, 2013

What I’ve been doing

I seem to have gotten away from posts about my personal writing process on this blog. I would love for the reason there to be that I am so much more comfortable and used to my own process now, after two books, that there doesn’t seem to be much more to say.

Ha!

Though it wasn’t a conscious decision, I’m pretty sure not talking about the writing process has to do with my fear that I will never ever finish this book, or if I do it will be unpublishable and no one will ever read it–by talking about it, I’m just making people I’m aware that I’m trying to do something that later, when no book is forthcoming, be an obvious failure.

There, I said it. Whoo.

But whatever–I now know the first part of my fear, at least, isn’t true. I’ve completed a draft. It may be pretty far from a *final* draft, and who knows if it’s publishable, but it’s a complete set of all the stories (I think) the book needs to make sense. Right now, I’m reading quickly through each story for consistency issues (a few characters seem to switch around minor details like age) and obvious big problems. Then, and this is the best part, I put the good-as-I-can-make it story in the “Full Draft” document. So as I go, I get to accumulate word/page count (currently at 30 000/102, and counting). I’m also reading at a pace much faster than I normally do when I’m editing, and reading the stories as they were (I think) meant to go, one after another, as opposed to total immersion for months, followed by not thinking about or touching the story for months or even years. Some of this stuff I’d semi-forgotten.

It’s nice–not that I think the work is necessarily amazing or even good–it’s just nice to feel I did what I set out to do and wrote the book (or at least a version of the book) I meant to write. I’m going on 3 years on this project now, and this is the first time I felt like there was a real milestone.

What happens next? Someone smart and honest who loves me will read it and then gently tell me what needs to happen to make the book accessible to anyone who lives outside of my brain (full disclosure: I am married to this person). And then I will do those things, I hope. And then I’ll see what happens when someone who doesn’t love me reads it.

It’s a long long road, writing books, and at the end of the road might just be a field of lima beans. But along the way you get smarter, and the view is pretty nice.

October 3rd, 2013

Nora Ephron on Reading

I am about halfway through Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad about My Neck, which is largely a funny, silly book about things that don’t matter to me. The food essay was funny, but I don’t think she realizes how rare it is to have both the money and the leisure time to “need” twice weekly trips to the salon. But then, I’m about 20 years younger and a few hundred thou poorer than the target audience for this book, I imagine, so I’m trying to appreciate it for what it is, which is an extremely well-written book. And in passages like this, you see why:

“When I pass a bookshelf, I like to pick out a book from it and thumb through it. When I see a newspaper on the couch, I like to sit down with it. When the mail arrives, I like to rip it open. Reading is one of the main things I do. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape: it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

Just about sums it all up, doesn’t it?

October 2nd, 2013

How to Keep Your Day Job on the road again

I’m pleased to let you know that the film version of How to Keep Your Day Job is going to be screened at the St. John’s Women’s Film Festival on the evening of October 25. That link is the full schedule; scroll down to see the short-film evening on that Friday and all the films listed! Please share the link, either to the fest or the film itself with anyone you think might enjoy it.

The film also recently screened at Cinefest in Sudbury–lucky Sudburians!

September 30th, 2013

Some thoughts on Olive Kitteridge

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

“Ms. Universe” now on Joyland

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!

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