Category: The Juliet Stories

On The Juliet Stories being nominated for the GGs (surreal! and for real!)

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This morning I felt like disappearing into music. I searched around for Lindi Ortega’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and for some reason also felt like hearing Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and I landed for awhile on Danny Michel’s beautiful and joyful new album “Black Birds Are Dancing Over Me.”

I prepped for a reading I’m doing tonight here in town, in support of the launch of Waterloo’s own brand-new Wild Writers Festival.
I worked on a grant application.
All the while, I avoided the internet. Because this morning was the announcement of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the last major prize listing of the season here in Canada. I wasn’t sure I could bear the disappointment; well, that’s not true. I knew I’d be fine, but I knew, also, that the emotions would be unpleasant. It would suck. I was irritated with myself for feeling that way, so I plugged into headphones and listened to a soundtrack of my own creation, which seemed to answer perfectly whatever it was I was lacking. Suddenly I said to myself, hey, let yourself believe you could be nominated, right up until you find out you’re not. Why not? Why not be hopeful? The worst that could happen is that you’re disappointed, and at least you’ve spent a little while in happy fantasy.
Why be afraid of an hour or so of happy fantasy?
So I let myself go, in the music, and got to work.
And then, just after 10am, I saw that my inbox had suddenly filled up with messages. Could it be??? The first message I opened was from Jared Bland, senior editor at Anansi. It was titled: congratulations! And it said simply, “I just saw the wonderful news about your GG nomination.”
What happened after that is a blur. I’m pretty sure I started crying and laughing and shouting all at the same time. I know that I leapt up and scared the dogs, who had been sleeping peacefully in my office. I was shaking so much that I almost collapsed. This is not an exaggeration. “I can’t believe it!” might have been the words coming out of my mouth, over and over. 
I wanted to tell Kevin — instantly. But I’d temporarily lost the ability to use my cellphone. When I finally got through to him, he had no idea what I was saying for the first minute, I think because my words were essentially nonsensical. 
So, dear reader, that is what it feels like to be nominated for a literary prize. It feels dumbfounding and it feels thrilling, and it makes a mess of one’s physical and emotional self for a smallish moment in time. I’ve since collected myself. Mostly. I’m not even sure I should be blogging under the influence of such heady emotions. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life (other than that I really shouldn’t start a sentence with the phrase “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life”), it’s to jump into the good moments with both feet. Dive in. Get submerged. Be joyful. These occasions come rarely and the time to celebrate and savour them is while they’re happening. Don’t worry about looking like a giddy fool! Be giddy, be foolish.
So I’m being giddy. I’m being foolish.
Oh, oh, oh, and I get to read at the International Festival of Authors with the other nominees in Toronto on October 22nd!!!! And let me just say a few words about the GGs themselves. I’ve been a fan since high school. Basically all of my favourite CanLit authors have won the GG. I’m a nominee, not a winner, but it’s like dipping my toe into the waters of Canadian literary history. It’s like being a tiny part of it. I’m blessed and I’m damn lucky.
Also, I have yet to see or hug anyone in person since the announcement (aside from dogs), but I’ve been loving the emails and phone calls and texts and FB posts. (Like this one, from a friend who lives near Kingston, Ontario: “[My husband] and I are at Boston Pizza in Brockville and your book is on the T.V.”) What more can I say? (I’ll think of more soon, I’m sure.)

Winnipeg: Thin Air Writers Festival

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I took our old digital camera on my trip to Winnipeg, and figured out pretty quickly why we’d stopped using it: the battery runs dead after approximately a minute of use. But nevertheless it allowed me to capture fuzzy moments of my whirlwind adventure. The first photo, above, shows the Museum of Human Rights, still under construction, which was my view out the window when I ran on the treadmill in the empty fitness room (I never saw anyone else there). I stayed at the hotel for less than 24 hours, but still managed to run twice, and nap once.

On Monday, I had dinner with Sheree Fitch and took no photos. I knew her instantly though we’d never met in person, and I mean knew her knew her, not just recognized her. Maybe it seemed so natural to be with her that I assumed we’d have lots of time to pose for photos together, forgetting for the moment that she lives in Nova Scotia, and I’m here in Waterloo, and that mere fortune had allowed us to overlap in Winnipeg. Now I’m plotting to bring her to Waterloo to read in some schools — especially in my kids’ schools. How do such things get arranged?

At the table behind us were Bill Richardson and Karen Levine. Sheree knew them both. I’d met Karen eleven years ago when I recorded a story for a CBC radio program — I was just striking out on my own as a writer, and I was also massively pregnant with Albus, and for some reason had chosen to wear gigantic maternity overalls that day. (Why???)

For my mainstage reading on Monday night, I chose to wear my pretty red high heeled shoes that get compliments every time (which my sister Edna has now given to me to keep), and the cute/countryish/suedish jacket that makes jeans look dressy. (I hope.)

That’s me (and my poufy prairie hair) with the the festival’s director, Charlene Diehl, whom I first met when I was 20 and I walked into her CanLit class at the University of Waterloo. What a festival she’s made in Winnipeg. I’m so proud of her. The venues are terrific, the audiences come out (at our book chat on Tuesday afternoon, someone counted 95 people!), and the writers are treated, oh, so well. The hotel was a haven, and I loved every peaceful minute I spent there. What a gift.

I slept soundly. I woke refreshed. I sat and wrote. I read. I ran on the treadmill. There was space to retreat to — I appreciated having that space, as well as having opportunities to connect. As something of an introvert, I need alone time to balance out the meeting and greeting.

Tiny side anecdote: One of the writers on Monday evening was Jess Walters (Beautiful Ruins), who was very funny — and thankfully last to read. He told a story about his dad, who just couldn’t wrap his head around the concept of a reading. “What — you wrote the book, now you gotta read it to them too?” Ha!

On Tuesday morning, I did not sleep in, but I got a nice cup of coffee, I wrote, and ran, and at 12:30 on the dot, with great regret, I checked out of my room and went for lunch. I decided to order a glass of wine with my meal. I sat alone at the table, and read. It was a strange luxury, not one I could imagine getting used to — not one I particularly would like to get used to, when it comes right down to it. But it was good because it was so unusual.

Then I went up to the hospitality suite and discovered a small frenzy, lots of people. Being a bit thick, I didn’t figure it out right away, plopped down on the couch, checked my phone, gazed around, and went, duh! That’s Richard Ford, Pulizter Prize winner, he of the steely blue eyes. We introduced ourselves and shook hands. The general atmosphere was of people excitedly dropping things and attempting not to sound ridiculously giddy or silly.

I missed his reading that evening. I was on a plane back to Toronto, which sounded disconcertingly like its muffler had fallen off.

When I walked through our front door, after midnight, I snuck around to every room and squeezed and kissed and hugged every child. In the morning, in the whirl and bustle of getting us all ready for school and work, nobody even asked: hey, Mom, how was Winnipeg? I though that was funny. It was a short trip, and I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m glad that it was so easy to slide back into home life, so easy that no one seemed to notice much that I’d come and gone. Or maybe they just accepted me back, as if I’d never left.

There’s a bit of that to travelling too. Being present in the moment. And then it’s gone, and it reverts to being almost dream-like in memory, vivid snippets, densely packed. I wonder which vivid snippets from Winnipeg will stick with me most strongly? There’s no telling.

On napping, prizes, and obscurity

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I’m back to napping! And I’m remembering why I love it. All the best thoughts arrive upon waking from a good (short) nap. During the summer, I got by with no naps, partly by lowering my weekly early morning workouts to twice/week, but mostly by nipping back to bed upon arriving home. With no one rushing off to school, our family got in the habit sleeping in. But it didn’t feel like napping, it felt like going back to bed. Like the work-out had been another dream-state.

We’re back to the school routine, and we’re suffering just a little bit, collectively. Trying to adjust bedtimes and wake times. Accepting that there will be after-school meltdowns. Everyone’s tired. Evenings are squeezed. Kevin and I were still doing lunches and dishes last night at 9pm.

There was no moment for a nap yesterday to balance out my early morning run.

So I’ll admit that rising at 5am this morning, in order to go exert myself whilst clad in spandex, was not exactly what I wanted to do. I’m making spin/weights sound way less fun than it is. By the end of the work-out, it felt completely worth it (as it always does), and after breakfast and the getting-ready whirl, everyone departed, and the house was quiet by 8:30. Quiet by 8:30!!! Empty! Just me and the dogs.

So I napped.

I drifted off. And woke with a clear mind, feeling at peace, filled with ideas, thoughts, answers, calm. Call me crazy (or lazy), but I consider napping to be an important spiritual process. Somehow, while gently drifting toward sleep, my mind becomes more open, more at ease. To be creative, one needs to be at ease, not panicking. Many a time, a nap has set me right simply by allowing my body and mind to relax.

This is a long preamble. What I want to write about is the announcement of the Giller longlist earlier this week; should I write about it? Still not sure. But I’m an obscure CanLit mama who had an eligible book out this year (among 226 others), and this brief moment in time is wound into the rest of my life. I knew it would be a long shot to find Juliet on the list, but hope springs eternal, and every Canadian writer understands what a career boost it is to have any association with the Giller attached to one’s book.

In the days and hours leading up to the announcement, I couldn’t get away from thinking about it. It dogged me, no matter how I tried to redirect my thoughts. Such is the power of a prize. So here’s the strange thing: notwithstanding my immediate gut response of plain old crushing disappointment not to see Juliet on the list, I’ve been experiencing an unexpected lightness of heart since the announcement came and went.

I’m grateful to everyone who told me they were sure it would be there, especially those wonderful booksellers who’ve had Juliet’s back all along.

But I didn’t know how heavy the weight of expectation/hope had been pressing on me until after my nap this morning. I got up, voted, hung laundry, planned my attack on today’s scheduling adventures, and realized that I was feeling … really good.

I’m not waiting for anything. The worst outcome has happened. The sadness is over. And in its place is a feeling of gratitude for the sweet minutiae that I’m often too cluttered and harried and anxious to see. Maybe it’s an after-the-storm effect. (And it rained torrentially here on Tuesday.) It sounds trite to say it: gratitude for my kids, for our house, for our neighbourhood, for health, for friends, for kindness, for running errands with two four-year-old boys in tow. For everything, I guess.

I wonder how other obscure CanLit writers are feeling this week.

And I wonder, I’ll admit, how those who made the list are feeling (with special shout-outs to not-so-obscure CanLit mamas, Annabel Lyon, who kindly helped my daughter with her project on ancient Greece this past year, and Katrina Onstad, with whom I shared a seminar table while we were both doing our Master’s at U of Toronto.)

If I could change one thing about myself, it would be the anxiety I feel when outcomes are out of my control. What was I worrying about, all along? What was I hoping for, really? Was it external affirmation, some kind of proof? And if so, why?

Okay, another thing I would change: I would live, always, without fear of failure.

On my “meet the author” evening

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Yesterday evening, I did something I’ve never done before. I went to a local big-box-bookstore and sat at a table just inside the front doors, behind neatly stacked piles of The Juliet Stories and a little poster that said, “Meet the Author!” All of this had been arranged in advance, of course, but I hadn’t really known what to expect.

In the opening moments, I had the sinking feeling that it would be humiliating in the way that certain exercises in one’s literary life can be — readings to which not very many people turn up, or readings to which many people turn up to hear the other person on the bill, leaving one sitting behind a stack of books that no one is interested in buying because they are all lining up to have the other person sign his/hers. Yes, this has happened to me. If you’re a published writer in Canada, it’s probably happened to you, too.
I’m not complaining. Like Margaret Atwood says (and I paraphrase), “Don’t whine. You chose this. Nobody made you be a writer.”
In any case, as the evening proceeded, I discovered quite a lot to enjoy. I smiled at everyone who walked through the doors, and almost everyone smiled back in a seemingly genuine way. The few who didn’t interested me too: they would pretend not to see me at all. Approximately a fifth of all customers were immediately drawn to a lamp that was also in their sightline. (I had to check it out too, finally, and it was quite pretty; but no one actually bought it.) I started to feel more comfortable in my role as “Meet the Author.” Strangers approached and bought the book. My mom arrived and bought two copies! (I was embarrassingly excited to see her, as that was early on and I was worried no one might actually approach.) Acquaintances from Twitter and Facebook dropped by too.
Almost to a person, those who came up to talk to me approached in the same way. Enter customer through front door. Smiles exchanged. Customer takes second glance at table. Customer heads off into greater store. Fifteen minutes later (or so), customer returns, pauses beside table, touches a book. I stand and ask if they’d like to know more. We chat, often at length. I sign book. 
One woman had never met an author before. Several had children who were curious to know more about making books. “Do you have a really big printer at home?” One woman laughed at everything I said as if I were wonderfully witty (I’m not). The only person who approached, chatted, and didn’t buy the book was also the only man who approached (other than the fellow who thought I was a store employee and wondered where to find books on Japan). I got the biggest smiles from the men, on store entrance, but only one returned. Maybe most men don’t read fiction? Or maybe they don’t read fiction with a girl in a bathing suit on the cover?
All in all, it was a genuinely pleasant evening, and I’d sign up to do it again without hesitation.
I haven’t read from The Juliet Stories all summer. May and June were heavy with readings and appearances, and it was a relief to take a little holiday. But readings start up again in September, so it seemed wise to reacquaint myself with the words on the page — which is what I did during the slow moments yesterday evening. It reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing.
This morning I was digging in the attic through old boxes of manuscripts, and came across early versions of The Juliet Stories. Wow. In various drafts, the titles included “American Sandinistas,” “Photograph Never Taken,” “Blackbird,” and, simply “Beautiful Book.” I remember giving that particular draft that particular title because I needed to feel hopeful about the work ahead. I needed to believe in it. I was still two years away from finding the form that The Juliet Stories would inhabit. A long haul, and yet, reading over those printed words in the store last night, it felt worth it. I’m glad that I stuck it out.
This is a very different point in the publishing process, but I need to stick it out, similarly.
I’m fairly certain that everyone who bought a book (with the exception of my mom, and one Twitter friend) wouldn’t have found The Juliet Stories otherwise. One of the great mysteries, as an Obscure CanLit Mama, is how to reach people who might like the book, but who will never hear about it. Which is, let’s be honest, the vast majority of the reading population. That’s why independent booksellers, who hand-sell the book, are so important to writers like me. That’s why friends who tell friends who might tell more friends about the book matter so much. And that’s why I’m more than willing to sit behind a table in a big-box-bookstore smiling at everyone who enters. 

A quiet little Sunday

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roller blading, before and after

Hot, quiet, humid. That’s our Sunday. Looked like rain. Did not rain. One soccer game still on the menu (mine). Though need bread, have not baked bread; see hot, humid. Can’t bear the thought of turning on the oven.

Today, I’ve spent several hours getting to know my new photo editing software. View experiments above.

Also wrote a new short story this weekend — fiction!!! My first attempt since writing the last of The Juliet Stories (which, a very few of you may be interested in knowing, was “She Will Leave a Mark” from the first section.) It felt like breathing or something. Essential, natural.

Oh, and I have to post a link to this truly amazing review, by a book blogger called Buried in Print. Quite enough to swell the head, methinks, so I’ll only read it once.

A happy work day

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This morning I blogged that one of the awesome things about doing interviews this week is meeting people in their air conditioned office spaces. And, okay, admittedly, that is pretty sweet, as I sit here at my own desk in a room that is pushing 90 degrees F.

But that’s not actually the best part.

The best part is meeting people — and the conversations themselves.

Here is the benefit of being an observer: the world is endlessly fascinating. There is always more to learn. There are different approaches to problems, different enthusiasms, different values, different organizational systems, different social approaches, and I could go on and on. I must say I had no inkling of how absorbingly interesting it would be to conduct interviews — the research part of my job. I was thinking of it as a necessity, I guess, a means to an end, the end being the writing itself. And truth be told, I was ever so slightly intimidated by the thought of asking strangers personal questions.

But the more work I’ve done, the more I appreciate the privilege of getting to ask questions. To focus my energy entirely on someone else’s interest or cause or life’s work or story or niche area of expertise. It’s a real gift to get to listen. And it’s proving to be a bigger piece of the writing-for-money puzzle than I initially bargained on. Yes, communicating the end story is hugely important, but the end story can’t exist without first going through the process of trying to understand a subject in-depth.

I know. This all sounds very obvious.

Perhaps what has me most happy, on this extraordinarily warm Friday afternoon, is the discovery that I’m really enjoying the work I’ve chosen to do — the work for money, I mean. There is such variety in it. I love variety! I’m a serial enthusiast by nature; this is kind of the perfect outlet for those instincts.

One more unexpected and happy discovery: The work itself feels very genuine, even though the situation is by its nature contrived — by which I mean, I’m writing stories that have been assigned to me, about people I wouldn’t ordinarily get to sit down and talk to. But the conversations don’t feel contrived or artificial. (My hope is that the people I’m interviewing feel the same way too.)

It’s been a good first week of the summer holidays. And I capped it off by dropping in at my local Chapters, in my other guise as fiction writer, and signing their stock of Juliet Stories. The girl was so super-friendly, it made my day.

Next up: soccer sidelines, and a picnic supper.

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