The Margaret Laurence project

In blog-as-confessional mode today: it’s always gratifying to signal what’s been accomplished, but less gratifying to consider what was begun in high spirits and never completed.

In terms of the done, I refer to items along the right aisle of this site, where I’ve just updated “Recent essays and stories.” I was pleased that “Burial Grounds” found a home in the latest Prairie Fire. This piece grew out of concerns, when we first moved from Manitoba to British Columbia, about where I would be buried someday. All those years in Winnipeg, I’d had my eye on the beautiful Elmwood Cemetery and now we’d left it behind. (I know, I know, I worry about odd things.) I was delighted that The New Quarterly took “On the Memory Set,” a reflection launched by once trying to write a play. And, most recently, a review of Cameron Dueck’s fine book, Menno Moto, at Mennonite Historian (pg.11.)

Margaret Laurence

But the unfinished, the abandoned! Some time ago I made a list of these and it wasn’t short. This morning, needing a binder, I emptied accumulated notes for my Year of Reading Margaret Laurence project (2019), which I referenced back in December. Of four formidable women writers who shaped my sense of Canadian writing — Margaret Laurence, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields — it’s Margaret Laurence to whom I’m most drawn. I suppose I dreamed of one of those “annualist” manuscripts, even though I find them somewhat pretentious.

I glanced through the notes, remembered how much I enjoyed reading Laurence’s African stories for the first time and two collections of her correspondence (with publisher Jack McClelland, with friend Adele Wiseman), as well as re-reading some of her novels. I also read James King’s slightly irritating biography of Laurence. I noticed in the notes that I wondered whether she would have liked me. (Another odd worry, I know.) She didn’t suffer fools gladly, as her letters attest. It was the question of my own identity as writer, I think; a hope for resonance. But it’s the stories, not the personality, that remains. Their passion, their language. (Just one image from a story in The Tomorrow Tamer, by way of illustration: “the children darted, velvety with dust.” Which makes me ache with pleasure.)

While my admiration for Margaret Laurence’s work was affirmed, I lost interest in continuing the project. But if there’s not enough wool for a blanket, I offer a narrow scarf, namely encouragement to read, or re-read, Margaret Laurence. She’s worth it. Still, and again.

 

Listening to a book

This week, beguiled by the offer of 10 Giller-winner titles FREE from Audible.ca and feeling the need to try something new during Covid-19 isolation, I downloaded Sean Michael’s Us Conductors and proceeded to listen to the book, all 11 hours 21 minutes of it.

I know I’m coming to audio books late; all of you have probably listened to dozens of them while running, walking, knitting, driving, whatever it is you do while listening to books. But indulge me please, because the experience was new and I’m still thinking about it, both the novel and the fact of listening to instead of reading it.

152EACD2-CE40-49EF-B04C-21149F599CDD_4_5005_cThe book is based on the life of Russian scientist Lev Termen, who invented the theremin, a musical instrument played without physical contact by the performer, except for contact with the invisible electric waves or whatever. (Watch the inventor play it here.) That might sound boring, but it’s a love story too, and a spy story, and a story of being in New York in the jazz age and in the Soviet Gulag. The fictional Termen, who narrates, speaks crisply like a scientist but observes and describes like a psychologist and poet. It’s quite wonderful.

At first I didn’t like listening. I was afraid I was missing something by not seeing the words. I actually own the print version, just hadn’t gotten to it yet, so for a while I followed along in the book. But that seemed silly. One or the other, I told myself. Listening, I could follow easily enough but when I stopped I didn’t feel as if I knew where I was, as if I’d been looking down at the path through a forest instead of around me the way I do when tracking text with my eyes.

Then I decided to work on a jigsaw puzzle at the same time, which ironically focussed my listening concentration and then I listened and listened and the hours advanced, and I was there, in Termen’s America and ship cabin and Kolyma and Moscow. I was there the whole time and I heard Termen telling his story and I still feel affected by where I’ve been and what I’ve heard.

Some time ago a friend who listened to a book club’s selection asked me if I thought that “counted.” I said Yes. I would still say Yes. As far as retention goes, I feel I know the book as well as if I’d read it. The content is the same. Nevertheless, I’m puzzling over Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and wondering how to articulate the difference. Because it is different. Hearing the book felt intimate, unsteady in some way. It seemed to add a layer of vulnerability, as if another’s voice into my ear, instead of my eyes and personal voice of my mind, both skewed and strengthened perception.

Oddly, I now feel like reading Us Conductors. But why would I? Don’t I know it already? Am I simply looking for familiar ground? At the same time, I feel like listening to another book, to test the book-listening experience again.

Do you listen to rather than read books? What is it like for you?

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.