Small Things Like These

In 2013, I had the happy privilege of a week at The Banff Centre in a short story course with Alexander MacLeod, whose collection Light Lifting had been shortlisted for the 2010 Giller Prize. I applied for the class specifically because he was the instructor and was thrilled to be accepted.

Besides our sessions as a group of eight, we met with MacLeod individually. I recall asking him in my turn about how to carry what I might call the “burden” of religion in my stories, since they are often set in the Mennonite history and environment I know best. This felt complicated, and I worried, in addition, that they would be too alien to publishers perhaps, the Church being so pervasive, demanding to be critiqued or defended but most of all explained. The gist of the answer, in terms of what he may have said and what I’ve figured out myself, was that you simply let the story swim in its own ocean. Let it unfold, that is, with whatever the story requires, which probably isn’t a history lesson on Menno Simons or doctrines or the schism that accounts for the group to which the protagonist belongs or may be fleeing.

contentHe also gave me a good piece of advice, and that was to read Irish writers, for if there’s a place that’s religion-soaked, it’s theirs. So I’ve watched for them since, and read quite a few. Which brings me to Claire Keegan, whom he praised and whose work I’ve followed, and her newest book, Small Things Like These. It’s a short book, only 114 pages, but perfectly realized in my opinion, just oh so good! I felt I’d held my breath to the end, and then, exhaling, I began again from the beginning. I think that the main character, Bill Furlong, a coal merchant, a tender man, both brave and probably foolish, will stay with me a long time. The story is about who he is and about something he discovers when delivering coal to the local convent, which runs one of those Magdalen laundries for so-called “fallen women,” such as featured in the movie Philomena. This isn’t much of a review, I know, but it’s a definite recommendation. I also recommend Eleanor Wachtel’s conversation with Keegan at Writers and Company, where they talk about the writing of short stories (their difference from novels), and about this book and some of Keegan’s earlier work.

Incidentally, I’ve begun Alexander MacLeod’s newest collection, Animal People. Like his father Alistair, he’s not a prolific writer, but he’s worth waiting for.

Also incidentally, a story of mine, Her Own Self, has just been posted at the online Journal of Mennonite Writing. It’s longish, though not as longish as Keegan’s, and I would be honoured if you put your feet up with a cuppa something at your side and give it a read!

Seven

If seven is a perfect number, it’s been accomplished this fall: seven reading/launch events for All That Belongs and in its wake, a grateful and satisfied weariness. It’s been quite a year.

It was just ahead of my January birthday that I got the call from Turnstone Press saying they wanted to publish the book, and since there was an opening in their fall list, we could — if I chose — aim for a fall release. That sounded overwhelming; usually there’s more lead time for the processes post-acceptance, even when the book is already written, but why not? I would make it a priority. So we did it, the entire team (editor, copy editor, designer, proofreader) and me bending into the required tasks.

Writing and publishing are no stroll between the roses. My first instinct when people tell me they want to write — whatever it may be — is to persuade them otherwise, which of course I don’t actually do because maybe they just have to, maybe it’s their vocation too, what do I know about their necessities? Or the story maybe only they can tell.  I’m not quite done with writing myself. But what I’m trying to say is that while there’s a great deal of joy in it — for me writing itself is mostly a pleasure — there are other parts that are more fraught.

unnamedThere’s the very competitive quest for readers, which begins with somebody saying Yes, we want to publish this. A quest that can never — statistically speaking — be assumed, unless one is famous. Another scary spot, at least for me and probably many writers, is that space just after the book appears and there’s nothing more to be done and it is what it is and then one wonders if it will live on for a while or languish in warehouse boxes? And then putting oneself out there in public events and on social media, inviting and announcing and hoping not to annoy by overdoing it and hoping people will come and hoping people will buy and hoping people will read. Hoping the first, perhaps only major review, will be okay. (It was.) It’s a vulnerable time. (And if I/we sound insecure, yes, that too.)

But. done for now. (Until spring, maybe in Ontario). And so I want to round off this year that I still can’t quite believe actually happened with saying Thank you to Turnstone for producing the book, then setting up the joyous Winnipeg launch, and subsequent readings in Saskatoon, Calgary, and Vancouver, and to friends in my childhood hometown of Linden for a truly delightful time together, and to the folks at the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford and friends and family here in Tsawwassen and Ladner, and to the writers I was paired with at several of the events. Some were small gatherings, some large, and each had a story. (Including finding myself wandering around downtown Vancouver looking for the bookstore whose address I had typed wrong into my computer and thus thoroughly lost!) I’m grateful Agatha Fast let us use her art for the cover, which people are loving. I’m also grateful to Kerry Clare at Briny Books for the honour of being one of her fall picks. (Here a short interview she did with me.)

And grateful to you — you who attended or bought or suggested All That Belongs to your library or book club (including an invitation to meet you by Skype) or put under the Christmas tree for someone else or read. Or just generally shared my happiness about this year.

Author Questionnaire

I just posted the following at my Chronicles of Aging blog, the place I notice the ins and outs of living this stage. Since it concerns my work as writer, which I sometimes talk about here, I’m sharing it in this space too. (My apologies to those who follow both blogs for the repeat.)

I just spent several hours filling out an author questionnaire for Turnstone Press, publisher of my next novel, All That Belongs. They need information to market my book. A long string of questions. Basically, who am I, what have I done, where have I lived, who do I know?

It wasn’t my favourite assignment of the week but of course I did it. It’s among the things you do after the euphoria of a manuscript’s acceptance wears off.  But it felt peculiar, vulnerable, like taking a slow 360 degree scan of one’s life, to see if anything’s still relevant. Fortunately I have an up-to-date CV I could use for my publishing history. I was also glad I could think of several places across the country where a cluster of friends and relatives might be interested in me and my book. (Glad too for a big family.)

There were questions about the work itself. A description in my words? Themes? What do I think people will like about it? (So I can’t hide behind “I hope they’ll like it”?!)

What about its inspiration? This was my answer:

I clearly remember sitting in the sun near my local library when the character of Uncle Must–a mysterious and haunted man, a kind of Desert Father, equal parts faith and fear–dropped into my head. Then, like the narrator Catherine, I had to figure out who he was and what he wanted, and who she and the other characters who soon gathered around her were and what they wanted. I was interested in the whole concept of shame as well as how the past remains with us and what we do with its legacy when we would rather turn away than embrace.

Now I’m going to reward myself with a break and go read someone else!