On the Canadian writers’ blog tour

Sally Ito tagged me for a stop on the Canadian writers’ blog tour. More about the tour in a moment, but first about Sally. She’s  a Winnipeg writer of poetry (most recently Alert to Glory), memoir, and non-fiction, as well as teacher, translator, and artist (see her “tour” posts at Sally’s Visualandia). She often writes a haiku as her Facebook status, like this evocatively colorful one:

On the window sill
replacing ripe tomatoes
empty blue bottle

Now about the tour. Someone described the Canadian writers’ blog tour as a chain letter for writers–except that there’s no threat of misfortune should it be broken! I don’t know who started it or all the places it’s gone, though a google search uncovers some of its  pathways. Essentially one answers four questions, and then tags another writer or two for a further stop.

So, welcome to my place on the tour, and here goes:

1. What am I working on?

I’m finishing a novel that’s been some years in the making. Finishing, for me, is a rather flexible concept. I think I’m finished, and then I discover, no, it’s not ready yet. But soon, soon, I hope, this manuscript will be on its way to publication. I dread this next stage, which may take months or years, but I don’t think about it much when it’s off my desk. — And, you may ask, what’s the novel “about”? An archivist, an odd uncle, a mysterious death, shame and loss.

Between the stages of the novel, there have been and will continue to be other projects. I’ve been fiddling with some more short stories and working on some creative nonfiction pieces. My goal for 2015 is to explore the nonfiction genre. I plan to write an essay on our two-and-a-half years in Paraguay, from which I’ll read a few excerpts at Mennonite/s Writing VII: Movement, Transformation and Place in Fresno, in March.

2.  How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I’m not sure I can assess my work comparatively. I’ve been writing literary fiction. I’ve sometimes mined my Mennonite background for content. I’m interested in women’s lives. My style probably tends to the reflective end of the spectrum rather than quick-paced drama.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Another hard question. I don’t really know why one idea rather than another grabs me. Not just grabs me—for I start more than I finish—but holds me tight enough to carry me to the end of it. In the case of the novel This Hidden Thing I wanted to set a story in Winnipeg and I was curious, for a number of reasons, about secrets (their positives and negatives). Maria and her story grew out of that.

It seems that when I open myself to the possibility of a new idea, something is always given. In the case of the recent novella “Mask” (published in The Malahat Review), it was a single sentence in a book about the quest for Everest—that there were camps or retreats or something like that for men who had head wounds from the First World War. This stuck with me, and before I knew it, I “saw” this girl chancing upon her father without his mask on (if the men couldn’t be repaired properly, they were fitted with masks) and the shock for her of that. Which became a way to consider not only the effects of war but the dynamics of woundedness within a family. And perhaps, in a larger sense, about how we “uncover” our parents in the process of growing up, yet want to love and protect them. I’ve always been fascinated by people and how they manage, sometimes well, sometimes not so well, within the circumstances in which they find themselves.

4. How does my writing process work?

I let myself write a terrible beginning or first draft, not thinking about it too much but just getting it out, usually with pen and paper, often sitting warm and cozy in bed. If these scribblings continue to interest me, I transfer the best bits to the computer, adding and improving as I go. From then on I work at the computer. I revise a lot. I have to. I use various tricks to see the thing freshly, like the print preview option or changing the font or margins. I always read my work aloud, to myself and often later to H.  More than once I’ve had this crazy experience where a rejection will clarify a piece for me. I don’t know if I just get stubborn about it then, to make it work, or what. I’d just as soon leave that step out, however.

Okay, that’s the end of my stop. I’m tagging an up-and-coming poet whose work I  admire and who is also a wonderful reader/performer of it: Angeline Schellenberg. She has a book in her future, but she can tell you more.

 

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You must take living seriously, he said

Just past the middle of our two-week Turkey tour, we had a day “at leisure” in Antalya, on the Mediterranean Sea. In the morning, H. and I wandered around Old Town, an area of charming narrow streets, ruins, cafes and shops which we entered via Hadrian’s Gate. We came upon a monument–to a Turkish poet. An odd-looking thing, a scroll of words tumbling downward, as I recall, and in relief, a face behind bars. (The photo I took of it seems to have disappeared, though here’s the one I took of the English inscription so I could look him up later.)  Continue reading

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Leaving home: two weeks in Turkey

In shallow Tuz Golu (Salt Lake)

In shallow Tuz Golu (Salt Lake)

We’re back from two wonderful weeks in Turkey, a trip we’d thought about taking for some time. Funny thing about me, though, as much as I’d looked forward to the trip, the week before leaving, I could hardly bear the thought of it. Whatever possessed us? and similar thoughts bothered me while I made lists and packed and counted down to departure. H. laughed at me, because it happens every time. I’m such a homebody, that’s the fact of it, and in a strange and completely unnecessary way I feel as  long as one of us is here–in this particular house we call home–our lives and our children’s will keep orbiting as they should. (The children will laugh at this too, for they’ve all circled their own places for years by now!) The minute we’re off the driveway, I’m fine. Nothing I can do about it now, I think, and since there really isn’t, I leave physically and mentally and I don’t worry about the house either. Continue reading

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Eleanor Catton on character

Eleanor Catton, the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker prize (at 28)–this for the longest book ever to win it, the 800+ page The Luminaries–was in Winnipeg recently to kick off the Winnipeg International Writers Festival (aka Thin Air). I enjoyed hearing her read and be interviewed.

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Eleanor Catton at Thin Air 2014

An hour allows only impressions, of course, but in reading about her elsewhere I find my impressions corroborated: Catton is a hugely intelligent and articulate young woman with a friendly, open demeanor. Her life has been irretrievably altered by the fame and money the Booker confers (one feels almost anxious for her sake), but she seems quite solidly grounded. Perhaps her years of immersion in a novel about the 1860s gold rush in New Zealand, with a host of characters who  feel they’ll be changed if only they strike gold, will stand her in good stead. “Money,” she told us, “is incapable of transforming us; only love can.” Continue reading

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Seven in one blow: Mierau, Toews, and other recommends

We’ve  just spent several days at Hecla Island, probably our last camping trip of the year. The routines and menus of these outings are virtually identical–one leaves the routines of home only to fall with pleasure into the routines of away–but there’s always something interesting that differentiates each from the other. This time it was the garter snake, and next the skunk ambling toward me on the path (diverging to another path before it reached me, which as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference), and then the full body plant in the lake when I stumbled on a slippery rock at the shoreline. And a particular book.

image.phpI’d attended, on Friday evening, the launch of Maurice Mierau’s Detachment, subtitled An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), which tells the story of Mierau and his wife Betsy adopting two young brothers from Ukraine. It seemed a good book to read aloud, as we sometimes do when on the road or away, and so we did, beginning on the drive to Hecla and continuing at various interludes–by the fire, over our morning maté or in the evening after H. had dealt with the flies drawn out of the cool autumn evening into the warmth of the trailer (though he never managed seven in one blow like the valiant little tailor of Grimm’s fairy tales fame). We finished the book on the return drive. Continue reading

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My Life in Middlemarch: a review

DownloadedFileI’ve not read much in the genre of writers writing about their reading, so I may have had some misconceptions about what Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch was going to offer me. At any rate, the expectations I had were almost entirely disappointed.

My reading of Middlemarch, I hasten to say, was no disappointment; I was quite taken with that sprawl of a novel, its plot(s), its portrait of 1830s English life, its pathos and humor, the authorial voice. I supposed, that in then turning to Mead, my reading would be enhanced–deepened–the way a very incisive review or the ideal book club can enhance the experience of reading by way of insight into themes and situations, and solid arguments on this matter or that. And all this with a memoirist twist, as promised in the cover copy–the voice of someone who’s breathed in the air of the text for a long time and is in plump literary health on account of it. Continue reading

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The experience of being honored

Besides celebrating our 40th anniversary last Sunday (Aug. 10) with food and conversation and stories and a slide show that still chokes me up a little, some awfully nice things were said to and about us in that public setting. Our children spoke generously and touchingly, and H. and I had the opportunity to give tribute to one another.

Later, we talked privately about the powerful effect this experience of being honored has had on our spirits. I find myself still moving within the effect of it, in fact, as if in awe, and have been wondering how to describe it. Continue reading

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