Wow. I tuned in to an amazing event at the Wild Writer’s Literary Festival yesterday evening. Managed to squeeze it in between the whole family getting their flu shots at a drive-through clinic (amazingly well-run, and gives me hope for the future of public health care in Canada) and birthday cake and gifts for this newly minted adult, pictured above with her sister’s homemade carrot cake. The aforementioned amazing literary event was a panel on the short story, with Souvankham Thammavongsa, Jack Wang, and Vinh Nyugen. Souvankham just won the Giller Prize with her collection of short stories, How to Pronounce Knife, and Jack Wang is the author of a recently published collection that I want to read too, We Two Alone, and Vinh Nyugen is a professor of English who happens to be teaching a short story class to my son, who in his first term of Arts at the University of Waterloo. And How to Pronounce Knife is on the syllabus; my son is now on his second read, and says he has to write his assignment before I can get a chance to read it myself.
But last night, I got a taste of both writer’s styles, and, oh, it was wonderful. Both writers read from each other’s stories, and that flipped the usual way things are done, and made it somehow so much better. It was a treat for the writers, too, to hear their words read with such affection by someone else. I love the short story as a form. And it was so interesting to hear their approaches to writing short stories. Jack Wang said he tries to see how much he can stuff into the short story and still make it work; and Souvankham Thammavongsa talked about making what we take for granted into something strange; and also about how she wants her endings to devastate the reader.
I loved that. I’ve never wanted to admit that as a goal, but damn if it isn’t true. To write toward a feeling rather than an idea seemed to be something both writers agreed on.
And there was more. I think you can access the interview on the Wild Writers website till the end of the November. And you should, if, like me, you’re craving deep intricate exploration of the ways in which stories work, or can work, or might work, and how they get made. Or even if you just want your brain pushed open a bit. I don’t make my stories in quite the same way, but that’s what made their conversation so interesting — maybe I could try different ways of entering into a story, maybe I could try shoving more in, why not? What would happen? I’ll be thinking for a long time about Souvankham’s Point A, Point B, and Point C (the last one being the point that the writer knows about that doesn’t get into the story at all, but exists outside of it, calling to the reader from out past its boundaries).
I also spent some time scrutinizing the backgrounds of the rooms in which each writer was speaking, because I’ve got a few events online to attend myself, and I want to know … things I really don’t know. Like, which wall in my house would make the best background, and do I need extra lighting, and should I wear makeup, and if I’m going to half-dress-up (top half only, of course) what colours work best on-screen, and will my knock-off bluetooth ear buds conk out midway through and what then?
Clearly, these are things that must be figured out by doing, and there are a lot of people learning how to do these things well, from whom I’m sure I can learn lots.
Meanwhile, this is the set-up I’m going to try out, mainly because it’s closest to the router. But the bookshelves make a good background, I think. Please wish me luck as I dip my toe into this new online literary existence this evening, in the brief role of “Introducer” for a conversation between Lamees Al Ethari and Antonio Michael Downing (also at the Wild Writers Literary Festival); and tomorrow morning, as I read my picture book Jammie Day to a friend’s online kindergarten class!
PS For those of you who read these posts as a newsletter received via email, the timing on the aforementioned events will be off by a day. This post was written on Thursday afternoon but due to automation beyond my control (or expertise, more accurately!), it will be sent on Friday. And I can report, updating this post on Friday morning, that both events were more interactive, more natural-feeling, and most importantly more fun than I’d dared to hope they could be. It felt like I could be myself. At the Wild Writers event, the conversation was thought-provoking, personal, and got my brain pinging with ideas. And after the Jammie Day reading and Q&A, all the kindergarteners stood up to show me their pyjamas, and then turned on their microphones to send me a chorus of goodbyes and thank-yous. It was wonderful.
(Yes, I put on a bit of make-up; yes, I borrowed a ring light from my husband, who does online presentations all the time; and I’m pretty sure no one saw my bright-patterned leggings, or noticed that I was sitting cross-legged on a yoga block on the floor!)
We’ve been on a whirlwind adventure, and now we’re home, with all the laundry that implies. I am trying to write this with a chatty 7-year-old nearby, who is missing out on his class’s field trip to the African Lion Safari due to an upset stomach (barfed on the bus, apparently; luckily this occurred before this bus had left the school grounds). So, yeah, we’re home.
Where have we been?
On Friday, I drove to Stratford to pick up AppleApple, who had been to see a play at the Stratford Festival (The Diary of Anne Frank). We had a bite to eat, then drove on through ominous weather to London, where she had a soccer game. So, here is another soccer field in my summer 2015 series.
Home, late. Exhausted. Weary.
Up, early. Packing for a variety of activities and adventures: everyone in the truck, and we’re off!
First stop: Innisfil, Ontario. Brand-new library. (Brand-new everything, from the looks of it; this is a fast-growing town.) Reading from Girl Runner. Kids had fun too. All good. Back in the car, headed down the highway.
Second stop: Seeley’s Bay, Ontario. Visiting Kevin’s family, cousin-time, playing soccer and badminton, sleeping soundly, sleeping in! (Fooey appeared at bedside to inquire “Why are you still in bed, Mom? It’s 9 o’clock!” And it was …) Kevin and I even went for a run together, and managed not to get overly competitive (there’s a reason we don’t play Scrabble anymore). Packed a lunch, then back in the truck, headed down some back roads.
Third stop: Brockville, Ontario. I interviewed the son of Myrtle Cook, who won gold in the 1928 Olympics. What a treat to hear his stories about his mother’s career, both as a young athlete and later as a sportswriter, the only woman in the section. The kids were generously welcomed by our hosts, and treated to a swim in a nearby pool, and cookies and juice. It reminded me of my own childhood, when our family was frequently hosted by kind strangers, so often that we almost took it for granted that we would be welcomed no matter where we went. Maybe I still carry a bit of that with me. (This was a two-way street: our family home was also open to strangers and friends alike, and I remember playing with any kid or set of kids who happened along; my siblings and I could mix in with anyone, boys, girls, older, younger, didn’t matter, by dusk you’d have to holler to get us to come inside, we’d be having so much fun. It was an advantage of a peripatetic childhood.) Interview over, we were back on the road, with some pits stops for supper … and bathroom breaks … and more bathroom breaks …
Bathroom break # 542
Fourth stop: Montreal, Quebec! We stayed near the Olympic Stadium for two nights, and went to a women’s world cup match: Canada v Netherlands (which ended in a 1-1 draw). There were 45,000 or so people in attendance, and the place was humming with energy. Such a fun game to watch: cheering, shouting, clapping, oohs and aahs, highs and lows, fresh-squeezed emotions. I do love live sporting events. While in Montreal, we wandered the neighbourhood, and found ice cream at a place with a banner that read: “Cremerie/Sushi.”
CJ at the Cremerie/Sushi spot
We rode the subway. Tried to walk to Mount Royal, but were defeated by a) the distance and b) more importantly, the whining about the distance. So we stopped for poutine instead. We found a bakery selling the most delicious Portuguese-style custard tarts, and visited a famous bagel shop. The kids swam, I went for a run in a beautiful park. It was a holiday. Everyone was so relaxed.
We arrived early. Very early. This makes it look like we were the only people in the stadium, but we were soon surrounded. In the excitement I forgot to take more photos.
And now, home. But despite the sick kid nearby, and the immensity of the laundry pile, I feel that holiday feeling lingering. It was hard to get packed up and leave, but once we were gone, it was easier and easier to be away, to imagine ourselves somewhere else, leaving everything behind. Not that we would, and we’ve got a lot to come back to; just that it’s possible to imagine escape and adventure when you’ve removed yourself from the physical trappings of home. It’s a kind of wonderful feeling, I must admit.
All for now.
It’s a PD day, which means the kids are home from school. This is a good test run for summer holidays, and reminds me that if I am to get any work done, I need a PLAN. People need to be put in charge of other people. Ground rules must be set on electronic use, and appropriate snacks, and lunchtime preparation, and clean-up. Ideas must be sketched out for healthy, fun, outdoor, active, creative activities. And all of this must be done in advance, before school lets out at the end of June. I’ve got about a month.
I’ll put it on a list somewhere. The kids are good. They’re older now. They play together. They know how to problem-solve. Some of them can cook. It’s going to be fine.
This has been a weird and wonderful week, and will culminate tomorrow with the launch party for The Candy Conspiracy. But first, our family is going to watch the Canadian women’s team play a friendly against England in the lead-up to the women’s World Cup: tonight! We’re all very excited. This is going to be the summer of family adventures, large and small, while the kids are at ages that make this both possible and fun, and this is our Kick-Off Event. We’ll also be travelling to Montreal to watch the Canadian women’s team play the Netherlands in a World Cup match, and in August we’re all flying out to Sechelt, B.C. where I’ll be reading at the Sunshine Coast’s Festival of the Written Arts. That’s a lot of travelling for our family, more than we’ve ever attempted. We’re home bodies. Plus, it’s really expensive to move six people around this vast country, not to mention feeding them and putting them up. I’m excited that we get to do it.
But that’s looking forward: planning. Planning occupies approximately 75% of my brain’s power. When I’m meditating, I frequently discover that my thoughts have drifted to planning mode. I push the reset button. Focus on the breath. And realize a few breaths later that I’m back to planning, list-making, calendar-imaging, email-composing. Ok, that’s okay, note it and move on. Breath. Breath. Breath.
I was writing about my weird and wonderful week, so let me circle back to a few examples. Example 1: I’ve done two kundalini yoga classes this week, and hope to continue through June. It answers a need. Kundalini yoga challenges me to think differently, to kick the darkness till the light bleeds in, to paraphrase a Bruce Cockburn song, as my teacher did in class yesterday. Example 2: On Wednesday morning, I did a radio interview after the kids were hustled out the door to school, and I got to request a song, so naturally, I went with Blondie’s The Tide Is High. Interview over, I turned on the radio and blasted the tune while dancing around the kitchen. Example 3: Yesterday evening, I put on orange tights, a nice dress, and earrings borrowed by Fooey, and with AppleApple along for the adventure, dipped my toe into partisan politics, by making a speech at an NDP rally. AppleApple, who is already an astutely politically engaged kid, was over the moon: Tom Mulcair shook my hand!, she kept saying, to anyone who would listen. (Fooey’s response: “Who?” Not everyone in this family reads the newspaper quite so avidly.) So, yeah. Amidst the usual busy routine, I’m opening different doors, and welcoming unexpected challenges.
My mom has a favourite phrase that I like: Who knows where this may lead?
Happy weekend, everyone.
Today’s post is an unusual one, for me. While this is a literary blog, of sorts, I write it as a writer going about her daily life, not as a reviewer or critic. This means I don’t review books on my blog, don’t take part in blog tours, nor do I accept review copies. Which makes today’s post an odd fit — I was asked to be part of a blog tour for Michelle Berry’s brand new novel, Interference, and I said yes.
I said yes because I really loved Michelle’s book. In fact, I blurbed for it. That’s my endorsement, or part of it, on the book cover above. Here’s what I wrote, in full: “Michelle Berry’s Interference is an immaculately constructed page-turner that is also, miraculously, a redemptive meditation on loneliness and community. Read it for the beautiful writing, the cast of unique characters, and for a certain tender brutality that infuses the telling — by turns moving, darkly funny, and ultimately warm and illuminating.”
So I said yes to Michelle’s blog tour … then wondered how to make this subject not feel shoehorned in to the larger purpose of the blog. And that’s when it came to me: soccer. (There’s no soccer in the book, I hasten to add; but my life contains up to 60% soccer some days, so it was a natural leap. Stay with me.)
Interference is a book with many threads pulled together around an unusual focal point: adult women, who don’t necessarily know each other very well, gathering weekly to compete in a team sport together — in this case recreational hockey. Until last summer’s concussion, this was me: an adult woman joining other women to compete in a team sport (see: soccer!). I miss playing soccer. This book made me miss it even more. So I decided to ask Michelle (whom I haven’t yet met in person) about her connection to sport. Here follows our somewhat abbreviated conversation, for the record.
〉 Me: What’s unique about the team experience that made you want to write about it? Were you part of sports teams when you were younger, or is it something you came to as an adult?
Michelle: Four years ago my friend signed me up for hockey. Our daughters had signed up together and, as my friend said, “If they can do it, we can too.” Neither of us had played before. I knew nothing. The hardest part was putting on the equipment. I really had to concentrate on the order in the first season — what goes on first. Several times I had my skates on before my pants and had to take them off again. But when I was finally bundled up in my equipment, when I had figured out my hockey skates, and when I went out onto the ice, it was life-altering. To be a woman covered in equipment (no jewelry, no makeup, no worry about clothing or hair — I was a giant, hulking body draped in ugly, smelly second-hand pads) was freeing. To be a woman in a competitive sport working together with other women as a team was freeing.
〉 Me: In my case, as an adult and a beginner, I came to a soccer team wanting to play soccer, without giving much consideration to the social aspects of being on a team — and quickly discovered that social dynamics play into how well a team works together. But it was also completely different from being part of a neighbourhood playgroup or book club, in terms of building relationships and friendships around a shared interest. I feel like your book captures the way that being on a team is a bonding experience that leaves a lot of room for privacy.
Michelle: Yes, being on a team works better than playdates and book clubs because it’s a group of people who probably have nothing else in common sharing one same goal. We are there to win (although my team never does and we don’t really care…. not really). And we aren’t there to form friendships and bonds and to make sure our kids play together nicely. We aren’t competing intellectually or emotionally. We are there to do a job. Play a sport. Although friendships and bonds do get formed in the change room, we tend to leave those friendships there. Book clubs, playgroups, those kinds of things, are more about trying to make connections intellectually and emotionally. Hockey is all physical — play well, even play not-well but try, and you belong.
〉 For more information about Michelle, or to purchase the book, click here to visit her publisher’s web site.
So, what do you think? Do you play a team sport, or did you once upon a time? Maybe someday, I keep telling myself. Maybe someday, I’ll play on a team again. Because as much as I love running and spinning and yoga and kettle bells, I’ve yet to find anything that replaces it.
There is so much in this interview with Alice Munro, from 1994 in The Paris Review, that I want to go on quoting and quoting from it. Here is a sample. I urge you to read the whole thing (pour yourself a cup of tea and enjoy the length, depth, and breadth of the conversation). And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction.
MUNRO I was like a Victorian daughter—the pressure to marry was so great, one felt it was something to get out of the way: Well, I’ll get that done, and they can’t bug me about it, and then I’ll be a real person and my life will begin. I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I’m a far more conventional woman now than I was then.
INTERVIEWER Doesn’t any young artist, on some level, have to be hard-hearted?
MUNRO It’s worse if you’re a woman. I want to keep ringing up my children and saying, Are you sure you’re all right? I didn’t mean to be such a . . . Which of course would make them furious because it implies that they’re some kind of damaged goods. Some part of me was absent for those children, and children detect things like that. Not that I neglected them, but I wasn’t wholly absorbed. When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other. I’ve told her that. This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me. I feel I’ve done everything backwards: this totally driven writer at the time when the kids were little and desperately needed me. And now, when they don’t need me at all, I love them so much. I moon around the house and think, There used to be a lot more family dinners.
And one final anecdote, from the interviewers’ introduction. After a while, Munro took us to Goderich, a bigger town, the county seat, where she installed us in the Bedford Hotel on the square across from the courthouse. The hotel is a nineteenth-century building with comfortable rooms (twin beds and no air-conditioning) that would seem to lodge a librarian or a frontier schoolteacher in one of Munro’s stories. Over the next three days, we talked in her home, but never with the tape recorder on. We conducted the interview in our small room at the hotel, as Munro wanted to keep “the business out of the house.” Both Munro and her husband grew up within twenty miles of where they now live; they knew the history of almost every building we passed, admired, or ate inside. We asked what sort of literary community was available in the immediate area. Although there is a library in Goderich, we were told the nearest good bookstore was in Stratford, some thirty miles away. When we asked whether there were any other local writers, she drove us past a ramshackle house where a man sat bare chested on the back stoop, crouched over a typewriter, surrounded by cats. “He’s out there every day,” she said. “Rain or shine. I don’t know him, but I’m dying of curiosity to find out what he’s up to.”
I sponsored the two older kids’ rep soccer teams this season by “buying a sleeve.” We decided to add “A NOVEL” to the title GIRL RUNNER, thinking that a team of 13-year-old boys might not appreciate having to wear that label during games.
This was our dining-room table, Monday afternoon. Two sets of page proofs, one galley, one sharp red pencil, and one mother announcing to all who entered after school, “There will be no eating or drinking on or near this table until I AM DONE!”
I am done.
All may eat and drink here again.
Last night’s reading at DVLB was really fun. I even indulged in a scotch, thanks to the kindness of a friend who treated. Imbibe ye scotches while ye may. Life’s too short not to enjoy the pleasures that arrive. Even if that happens to be on a Tuesday night and you’re running the next morning. And so I did. (And I ran this morning too: Run ye many kilometres while ye may.)
No scotches tonight, however. I’ll be driving to and from Hamilton, where I’m reading at Bryan Price Bookseller, 7pm, with other M Word contributors. (Note to self: look up directions!)
Tomorrow I’ll be at the Anansi offices working on publicity plans for Girl Runner. (Note to self: more directions! Look up!)
Can you read the above? I can’t. File this under Strange Opportunities that Arrive via the Internet. Last month I was contacted by an editor at Unitas, a Chinese-language literary magazine in Taiwan, who wanted to interview me for a special issue they were planning on Alice Munro. (They’d found and loved my review of Alice Munro’s Dear Love in the National Post.) I agreed. And this month, two copies of the beautifully produced magazine arrived in my mailbox, in an envelope covered in fancy stamps. Sometimes the world seems very very small.
I’ve never met Alice Munro, and can’t imagine what I would say to her if we were to meet. It’s an entirely one-sided relationship based purely on my reading of her stories over many years. I’m immersed in MY LIFE IN MIDDLEMARCH right now, a truly wonderful book that combines biography with memoir, and in some way I feel like my relationship with Alice Munro is similar to Rebecca Mead’s with George Eliot; but Mead has the benefit of distance and I’m not sure I’d feel comfortable exploring Alice Munro’s life and work in quite the same way, given that she’s still living, and that our worlds literally overlap in time and space. It wouldn’t be historical exploration. There’s a freedom to digging back into the past, way back. I’m aiming to do it now, in my next novel. Nothing can be perfectly recovered from the deep past, and so one may imagine quite freely.
Yet I’m so admiring and relishing this memoir/biography mash-up on George Eliot — I would do it, if I could figure out my relationship with non-fiction, a form I’m still learning. I’m thinking out loud here, brainstorming as I type. Perhaps not the best way to compose a blog post on which one is about to press “publish.” But if I could figure out how, yes, I would write about Alice Munro.
I think the NMA nomination was especially thrilling (and perhaps seductive) because it was earned for “personal journalism,” aka non-fiction. It’s a form that interests me more and more, that I find myself devouring more and more, and that I want to learn how to master.