It’s hard to go wrong, when photographing a city like London. Nath and I walked to Westminster from the rebuilt Globe theatre on Wednesday evening, before I left.
Crossing Westminster Bridge, this was the view behind us (above), with the sun shining, as if it never rained in London — which it almost never did while I was there; I had a running joke with my UK publisher Lisa Highton that she’d arranged the weather especially for my stay.
And this was the view from the banks of the Thames as we approached Westminster. On the walkway beside the river were crowds of people, some of them tourists, some commuting home from work on foot or bicycle, and a surprising number of runners, many of them training while wearing backpacks, dodging the crowds while trying to keep up a quick pace. It looked moderately hellish, frankly, although in theory I can see the appeal of running along the river. I much preferred my morning runs in Greenwich Park, with green grass everywhere and buds on trees, and the wafting perfume of the flower gardens in the air. (No photos, however, as I was running.)
The queue was enormous, so it’s a good thing I hadn’t planned to go on the Eye, although it looked much more tempting up close. Each of those pods holds 25 people. Essentially, it’s a giant money-generating machine.
Earlier in the evening, Nath and her kids and I met at the recreated Globe Theatre and went on the tour. It was as if I’d planned it: tickets for the last tour of the day were half price. You know I love a bargain.
Tate museum, with bird
I’m going in reverse, I see, though I’m not sure how that’s happened. Perhaps it’s because, after my 20-or-so hours in transit yesterday, I’m more tired than expected, so exhausted, in fact, that it feels like I’ve entered a kind of fugue state. I have no idea if anything I’m writing here is comprehensible, but I sense this will be a longer post than usual. Brace yourselves. I’d arrived early, Bankside, to meet Nath and kids, so I popped in at the Tate, which is beside the Globe theatre. At that point in my day, I was pretty foot-sore and had lugged my laptop all over London and the Tate seemed enormous, so I stood for awhile before this painting by Dorothea Tanning, an artist I’d never heard of before; I was strangely transfixed by it — it’s quite large, and it seemed almost to move or transform, as if it held figures emerging before my eyes.
views from the Millennium Bridge
I’d come here on my own by the underground; it took me a couple of days to become oriented to the system of overlapping lines and trains, but I had no trouble finding my way around. If I lived in London, I would never drive.
spring, outside the Victoria & Albert museum
Earlier in the afternoon, I went to the V&A, mainly to visit the gift shop for a specific souvenir for Child-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and also to look at clothing and household items from the Renaissance.
That final day in London was crammed to max, but mostly I spent my time here, at the British Library.
inside the BL
It’s a new building (built within the last 20 years), and it’s bustling and vibrant. The individual Reading Rooms are packed, yet quiet, and in order to protect the valuable and rare material that can be accessed by anyone with a Reader Card (like me!), people are only allowed to bring in a limited number of items, which one carries into the reading room in a large plastic bag, provided by the library. Pencils only. No drinks, no edibles of any kind. Laptops permitted only in certain areas. I discovered on the first day the importance of arriving early, finding a desk, and staking it out for the rest of the day.
train, before and after arrival at the Charlton station
On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I commuted to the BL by train and tube.
escalator inside London Bridge underground station
I have a fear of heights. It took me the better part of the week to conquer the fear and be able to ride the escalator without clutching the handrail with a death grip, and literally going weak in the knees. Miraculously, I trained myself out of my fear by the end of the stay. Breathing exercises. For serious.
I have no photos from the parties I went to on Monday evening. It rained, but I brought along a little umbrella that fit into my satchel. I did not wear a dress, but tried to look suitably glamourous. This was achieved with mascara, earrings, and my gold shiny top, three things I never wear under ordinary circumstances. I like to go unadorned most of the time, so that when I dress up the difference is measurable; start with a low bar, that’s my advice.
On Sunday, I rode the train and tube for the first time all by myself, and met my agent and my US publisher for lunch. Afterwards, Nath met up with us, and we went to the National Portrait Gallery, which is right behind me in the photo above. Having been once, I would go again, and again. I will never tire of faces.
Tower of London, foreground, by the river
Saturday, Nath and I walked all around the old city of London. We walked at least 8 kilometres, according to Nath’s calculations. All of the old buildings are surrounded by new ones. Transposing oneself back in time requires imagination, but that’s fine by me. I’ve got plenty of imagination.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Take for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral. This building is really really old. But it’s still not as old as the St. Paul’s Cathedral that existed during the time period I’ve been researching (1530-1660). That St. Paul’s Cathedral burned down in the Great Fire of 1666 (which destroyed two-thirds of the city of London). The “new” Cathedral was built in the same location, but not to the same design.
Nath knocking on the door of St. Paul’s Cathedral (as instructed by her photographer)
creepy cherub detail on St. Paul’s Cathedral
with Lisa Highton, at the Two Roads office
I take a lot of things for granted that I know I shouldn’t. For example, when I arrived in London on Friday morning, I went directly to the offices of my London publisher, where I was welcomed with open arms by Lisa Highton and her crew, and Nath and I were fed sandwiches and fruit followed by a sumptuous cake. I’m not saying I took that welcome for granted, exactly, more that I just find myself rolling with these things as they come. I never quite expected to be where I am, but it is where I am, and so I try my best to be here without questioning it or worrying over the transience of the experience. That’s what travelling is like, too. You roll with what comes at you. You have to, really. And so, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I welcomed the welcome at Two Roads, as you can see from the photo above. And later that same day, with a short nap to bolster me, I welcomed the welcome of dinner out with my fabulous Canadian publisher, Anansi, who were in town for the London Book Fair.
Friday evening, street in Charlton, looking rather Dickensian here
I welcomed the welcome of my friends, too, who hosted me so generously in their home, and who accompanied me around London, and got me oriented. I wouldn’t have gone to London at all if they hadn’t been there — I couldn’t have imagined taking the leap on my own. And that’s what it comes down to, really, the leap of the imagination, which is the first step to any adventure.
one way to clean up the toys in the back yard, left out since the fall: cover them with snow
I was doing so well with my plan to visit FB only during portions of the day devoted to waiting in the car or standing on the sidelines, as happens virtually every day. In fact, I did so well that FB got in touch to tell me what I was missing, to which I said, haha FB, you are only confirming that my goal has been achieved!
I was doing so well until this morning, when I did a bit of work on my FB author page. If you feel so inclined, please *like* it. I will use the page for promotional purposes so as not to clog up my personal page with self-cheerleading, which can get a bit tedious. I don’t want to lose friends.
Anyway, this morning. This morning, I had news to post on my author page, so I visited FB and instantly got sucked into the vortex of liking, making witty/supportive comments, clicking on links, and, I must confess, looking at photos of Leonardo DiCaprio (hardly on purpose, I swear!). Therefore, I recommit to climbing back on the wagon henceforth.
Here is my news: we’ve had offers for Girl Runner from Catalan and Poland. Catalan and Poland! That means Girl Runner has sold in 11 territories, and will be translated into eight languages (German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Polish, and Catalan). I’m told that the publishers will send me copies of the translated book, which in my imagination I’ve already lined up on my office bookshelf to gaze at in wonder. Will they all have different covers? Will the title be changed in translation?
I’ve received comments back from my US editor, and the news is good. The work that remains is minimal. I expect to have a finished manuscript to deliver (to all of these publishers!) within the week.
Oh, and we’re getting a gas stove in the living-room! It won’t be installed for a few weeks, but I have a funny feeling we’ll still get use out of it this winter. Yesterday, I was tossing shovelfuls of snow onto banks already so high that I was lifting the shovel to shoulder height. There’s nowhere to go with this stuff! When I came outside for my run, at a very early hour this morning, I discovered that in the night the snow ploughs had gone by and thoughtfully undone all of yesterday evening’s work, filling in the nicely cleared sidewalk and driveway with heavy, rock-hard street snow. In a rage (and in my running shoes), I grabbed my shovel right there and then and cleared the sidewalk again, tossing the snow on the street-side banks, because there was nowhere else to go. It was like human v car, with car obviously winning. Have we noticed how much we privilege cars over humans in our culture?
Then I went for my run, slipping and sliding and tripping, and generally wondering whether it was worth it to expend such an effort for a pace so ridiculously slow. Is this even running? I asked myself. Could 5 kilometres under such conditions perhaps count for 10? How the heck could I begin to train for a marathon under these circumstances? (As I’m not training for a marathon, this was a purely theoretical question, but now that I mention it again, it makes me want to!)
there’s a boy in that bed
Albus is home sick for the fourth day in a row, but I’m sensing his imminent return to school. Every day he ate noodle soup for lunch, and we sat together reading the newspaper. Today’s conversation centred around the new book deals, and what I might want to write next.
“You should write Girl Swimmer. And then Girl Cyclist. And then Girl Triathlete!”
“Well … it’s not really a sequel kind of a book.”
“You could write a prequel! Girl Before Runner.”
“Before Girl Runner?”
“Girl Before Runner.”
“Girl Before Runner. I like it.”
one of the ways she reminds me of me
One son this morning refused to wear a coat or mittens (it was -1C when he left the house). The other son, even grumpier, declared he didn’t want to go to school today. “You don’t have a choice! Now put your backpack on and get moving!” That wasn’t me speaking, it was my younger daughter, who has developed certain characteristics I find awfully familiar. I felt for them both. Neither one had a choice: she didn’t want to walk him, and he didn’t want to go. It cheered both up when I offered to walk along. Who knows what I’ll manage to get done today anyway. It’s been busy and I’m tired. Good busy, but I’m still tired.
I’m going to catch you up, which may, frankly, be exactly all I manage to get done today. This post will have a lot of photos.
Let’s begin with paella night, which was exactly as fun as I knew it would be, and maybe even more tasty. I do have the best siblings around. My brother Christian was the chef. Our version of paella packed in every meat and seafood we could think of. At one point, I realized I was eating a delectable mouthful that included chicken, pancetta, and chorizo, and probably a tiny clam, too. We drank red wine, cuddled a new baby, and quizzed each other hilariously from a Trivial Pursuit game, Canadian version, that appeared to have last been updated in 1996. I don’t think anyone napped or googled.
Yesterday, Kevin and I were off to Toronto, as soon as the kids left for school. Our new car is so comfortable. It’s so luxurious. It has seat-warmers! I kind of hate how much I love it, but I do. Kevin drove. Traffic was unexpectedly light. I took photos.
the escarpment, in passing
I met my agent, Hilary, at her office, which I’ve never actually visited, although she’s been my agent for nearly a decade. I signed some important papers.
very important papers!
me and Hilary
We posed for a photo. Hilary tried not to make me look short.
me and Hilary, take two
I told her to go ahead and stand up straight. I am short! Also, she’s very tall and was wearing heels. This photo cracks me up. When Kevin first glanced at it, he thought it was a picture of AppleApple (ie. a child standing beside an adult). This is exactly how I feel sometimes on the soccer field, I must admit.
Then Kevin dropped me off at the Anansi office, which feels very familiar to me now. Our small party headed off to a restaurant nearby for lunch.
I was very geeky and hauled out my gigantic camera and lens to take photos. Above, my US editor, Claire Wachtel of HarperCollins, my Canadian editor, Janice Zawerbny of Anansi, my Dutch publisher, Jacqueline Smit of Orlando, and my Canadian publisher, Sarah MacLachlan also of Anansi. Mostly, I just listened, ate a very good turkey sandwich and french fries, and enjoyed a glass of champagne. Mostly, I was just amazed at the places Girl Runner has taken me already, at the connections made.
More news to report, and another meal to add to the menu: the rights have sold in Sweden! To Albert Bonniers Forlag. I said to Kevin on the drive home that it doesn’t feel like I’ve done anything I can take credit for, in terms of these sales everywhere. I wrote a book. The result is weight lifted, and lightness of heart, but what I really want is to write another, and another, and another. We arrived in Waterloo in time to see our oldest walking our youngest home from the school bus. It was slightly heart-melting.
For an after-school snack, and to cheer up one small boy who did not want to go to swim lessons (but who had no choice), I cracked open the tin of “stroopwafels,” which Jacqueline had brought with her from the Netherlands, and which the kids called “waffle cookies.”
And then we went to swim lessons. And even though he had no choice, CJ loved it, and couldn’t stop talking afterwards about how he jumped into the deep end without a life jacket, and treaded water for 15 seconds, by swinging him arms like this, and pretending to ride a bicycle. I didn’t tell him that when I saw him jumping into the deep end without a life jacket, and his teacher not exactly in arm’s reach, I held my breath in genuine fear as he went under, and almost couldn’t believe it when his little goggled head popped up again and he swam to the side and pulled himself out. “I think you actually love swim lessons,” I teased him on our walk this morning, as he continued to regale us with tales from the lesson yesterday. He grinned sheepishly. And then Fooey admitted she feels the same way sometimes: really really really doesn’t want to do something, and then discovers while doing it that she loves doing it. I figure it’s my job to keep reminding them. Just like it’s my job to walk along sometimes: my job, and my fortune.
the leaves have all since fallen off this tree
I’m distracted. It appears to be Wednesday already, which means I’ve got course prep to finalize, and photocopying to do, which means also that I get to visit the mailroom at the English department and check my mailbox. My mailbox never has anything in it, and yet it gives me such pleasure to check.
my mailbox, in its natural state
I was musing about this little slice of happiness while driving AppleApple to swimming last week, and she said maybe it makes me feel part of something bigger, to have a mailbox at the English department. I think she’s on to something. It’s not that I don’t love my home office (I do!), but I work very much alone (not counting the two dogs), very much on projects of my own devising (which I love, don’t get me wrong). This brings me great satisfaction, but not a sense of connection with a larger community. It’s desert island work, in a way. I’m tapping away under my palm tree, shoving notes into bottles and heaving them out to sea. Every once in awhile (or quite often, lately) a bottle returns with a note that says, I love your note! Or something to that effect, if we’re following this metaphor to its conclusion, which we really must, having committed ourselves thus far.
there she goes, Girl Runner
I’m trying to parse the oddness of what I’ve been feeling as Girl Runner sells abroad. I receive a phone call, or an email, that seems out of the blue: Carrie, we’ve had offers from X,Y, and Z, and we recommend accepting Z’s. And I reply, Sounds good to me! And then I go back to my office and try to maintain good posture whilst working on revisions, staring at the words on the page, and wondering at the power these very words seem to have, and how that power, which might almost be magic, seems utterly separate from me. It’s as if Aganetha Smart (that’s her name, my Girl Runner) is off on adventures all her own, while I’m here in my ordinary office waving goodbye, and admiring her efforts, but quite distanced from them.
I just got a phone call. Spain, people, and all of Latin America. If you visit the publisher’s web site, you’ll see they distribute through Central and South America, as well as to the US Spanish-speaking market. It gives me particular joy to see “Nicaragua” listed among the countries. So, you see, there she goes, Aganetha, off on another adventure.
Suzi, hard at work
Meanwhile, my two colleagues, Suzi and DJ, sigh in their dog beds under my desk, and relax into the afternoon. The other evening, AppleApple and I got a kick out of imagining the conversations I might have with my home office colleagues, Suzi and DJ, as they “get the job done.” Suzi: “Rearranged the blanket on the couch with my paws. Totally got ‘er done.” DJ: “Snored so loud I woke myself up. Knocked that one out of the park.” Suzi: “Shortest bathroom break ever. Did you hear me scratching at the door? Genius.” DJ: “That’s nothing. I’ve been eating something unidentifiable under the porch for the last hour. Rocked it.” (Not sure why the dogs like to brag about their efforts around their water bowls, but that’s what we heard.)
Moving on. Work, Carrie, work! Focus! C’mon. Get it done.
morning at the pool
It’s funny how being up before dawn becomes comforting habit, signalling that all is right in my world. Yesterday, while my swim girl swam before the sun was up, I swam too, covering 2.4 km in an hour, which is exceptional for me. (Though not even close to exceptional for her — plus she swam for an hour and a half, and did drills like 25 yard dolphin kicks underwater, and other things I could only dream of being able to do, as I crawl back and forth, slow and steady, in my lane.)
I’ve been thinking about what comforts me, how there are particular places I visit, stored in my memory, that bring me happiness and calm. I mean actual places that no longer exist. There are specific things that I associate with happiness, with peace and safety, like shag carpet, and barn beams, and a double bathroom sink, that belong only to my own private catalogue of good associations. I wonder what associations my children are absorbing, and where their happy places are.
I was thinking about stuff on this morning’s dog walk. How comforted I am by the things that surround me. And yet how frivolous so much of our stuff is. How so much of what we think we need, we don’t, and paradoxically how a certain perfectly placed object can set the mind at ease.
no good photos were taken on this outing, either
Yesterday, I took the family out to celebrate the German deal. We went to Beertown. Kevin and I drank German beer, and the kids drank root beer. The food wasn’t especially German, though I did order schnitzel, just because. Afterward, stuffed and dozy, we decided that we’re going to have to start cooking some of these celebratory meals at home. I’m not quite ready to make official announcements, but the news from the Frankfurt Book Fair has been exciting, and I can tell you that more internationally-themed meals are forthcoming. To celebrate the UK deal, we’ll do fish and chips out with Kevin’s family this weekend (it seems apt, as his parents arrived in Canada, by boat, from Scotland, just before he was born), and then I’ll get creative in our own kitchen. And then I’ll take pictures and share them with you, no matter the quality of the photography.
When I was growing up, I planned to be a writer. I would say that I dreamed of being a writer, but that’s not entirely accurate. I did dream of it, but not in the fantastical way I dreamed of owning a horse farm or of living in a straw bale house off the grid with a homeschooled brood of offspring. Instead, I planned for it. I would become a writer. I remember a very particular moment of clarity, in my parents’ house, in the bathroom (where as a self-absorbed teenager I spent many an hour gazing into the mirror), when I declared to myself that this was what I would do: I would write books.
I aimed myself at the goal with relative consistency after graduating from high school, though I floundered around a bit, seeking the right degree (theatre? music? playwriting? history?), and it took me until I was 19 (almost 20) to declare a major and work away at it like a person possessed: English literature, of course. At night, I would compose poems on my pre-Windows laptop, eyes closed, drumming out the day’s events through my fingertips and transforming the swerving emotions and experiences into imagery, metaphor, allusion, relishing the splendor of language.
I am often asked for advice on how to become a writer. Write, is what I say. And read. Write because you love to. Write what you love. Write as often as you can, doesn’t matter what: dream journal, cooking blog, poetry scribbled in the margins. And read read read for the love of it, too.
Reading for a degree in English literature can kind of kill the love, for a few time-crunched years, pencil clutched to underline key sentences and scribble down themes for future essays and exams. Nevertheless, reading widely, reading work you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, can only be a good thing in a cumulative way. I finished the degree, applied for grants, and went happily off, like a heat-seeking missile, to do graduate work, also in English literature. I was thinking I would do a doctorate and secure myself a job. But things were looking pretty grim for doctoral candidates in English literature back then, and I swiftly grasped that there was only one valid reason to go on in my studies: if I really loved it, then yes, I should. Otherwise, it was time to thank academia for my two excellent degrees, and figure out how to become that writer I’d planned to be.
Skip ahead. Skip over the boring bits, the hours and days and months and years spent writing and reading, and, of course, believing. At the age of 29, my first book was published. It took another eight years to write a second book worth publishing. By that point, I’d lived out the reality of being a writer. I’d been home with young children for years. I’d found paid work here and there as a freelancer and “mommy blogger,” which afforded me babysitting, which afforded me writing time.
I kept circling around the question: do I want to be a writer?
Wrong question, as it turns out; misleading, distracting. I already knew the answer: yes, I wanted to be a writer, and had proven that I could be. The real dilemma, the one much harder to face, and more personally painful to articulate, was whether I wanted to continue being a practicing writer if I couldn’t make a living at it. And the answer to that, I began to recognize, was no.
Last fall, I decided to switch career paths. I applied to midwifery school. (I also worked frantically on a new novel, feeling the urgency of time ticking down.) This wasn’t a decision taken quickly or lightly. I knew what it would mean: I wouldn’t be writing books, at least for the length of the degree, possibly longer. A book is the product of time and space and does not simply appear in a burst of inspiration; it’s a long-term gamble, is what it is. That’s what being a writer is, too. And my appetite for gambling was waning. This does not seem strange to me. The timing seemed ripe for a change. My youngest would be going to school full-time. I’d put my eggs in one basket for two decades, practicing a particular craft, gaining experience and technical skill, and earning praise from peers, without ever making a living at it. In most professions, this would be a bizarre and depressing outcome: imagine a doctor with two decades of training being unable to earn a living. It would be a sign of personal failure; this would have to be an exceptionally bad doctor. But in the arts, it’s practically expected, and we all understand that, even if we don’t speak openly about it. It’s the price of admission. You get to be a writer, but it’s for love, not money.
I love writing. But I wanted to support my family. I wanted to give us some stability, to take the pressure off my husband as sole provider, and, yes, to experience the reward of working in exchange for a paycheque. It was time to a get a job-job (or, more precisely, to train for a new career). I was excited and I was ready for a change — eager, even.
And then the novel I’d been working on sold here in Canada. This happened literally on the very same day I received my acceptance letter from midwifery school. I was kind of a mess.
It felt like the intersection of two possible lives. In one, I was a writer, still doing work that would seem relatively unstable to anyone with a job-job, but many steps closer to earning a living. In this version, I would be building on the foundation I’d worked so hard to lay. In the other possible life, I was starting from scratch, a student in the process of becoming a midwife, also a long-held dream. The decision was agonizing. It took weeks of “discernment” (read: long circular conversations with friends and family; thanks, friends and family), and I questioned myself repeatedly after turning down my place in the program. But there was fresh work to be done. I rolled up my sleeves and revised my new novel. I prepared for my first teaching job.
Summer trundled by. I loved sitting my office and working all day. It felt right, as it always has. It feels right.
At last year’s Wild Writer’s Festival, I was on a panel that included Alison Pick, and she was talking about her decision to work as a writer. She recalled that she’d just been hired at a job-job when her first book sold, so she was able to turn down the job-job and keep writing, and she’s never looked back. Every time she’d start thinking, uh oh, I’m going to need a job-job, something new would come along.
As far I’m concerned, that’s living the dream. Keeping at bay that wolf at the door.
So I’m publicly updating the plan I had as a teenager staring at herself in the mirror. Seems about time. What I’m planning seems no more unlikely, delusional, or ambitious than the original dream, which was, I’ll be the first to admit, highly unlikely, delusional, and ambitious. So here goes. Dare I say it out loud? I want to be a writer whose living is sustained by her writing. I want to be a writer who keeps getting to sit in her office and write, day in, day out, day in, day out. Oh, the places I’ll go in my mind.
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