December 31, 2012

holiday winding down

I've been a little quieter here than I'd planned, partially due to a bad cold that snuck up right on time for the start of my vacation.  Boohoo.  It hit my husband, too.  But it was a good excuse for staying inside and watching movies and reading and sleeping in and all those other things that are a good part of a vacation, too.  

There was some frivolity.

Orange and white chevron and striped nails.

There was a very necessary haircut.



There were page proofs to review.

Commas to move and chocolates to eat..

But probably the most exciting things I've managed to do on this vacation is work on a new short story.    I'd love to finish it before the new year really takes hold.

You also may have heard that we got a record snowfall in Montreal.  

It helped encouraged the hibernation.

I'm off to scribble down some resolutions.  How about you?

December 21, 2012

The "Next Big Thing" thing

Ariel at The Jane Day Reader kindly tagged me for this blog meme that has been going around everywhere, and since my novel is technically still in progress (the page proofs arrive Monday….wheeeee), I answered these questions about it.  This was fun to do, though, so I think when the book actually comes out, I might take this down and do it again for one of my other in-progress projects.  (Which I fondly imagine I’ll be further along in by then…)  It is epically long, though…so you’ve been warned.

1.   What is the working title of your book?

The working (and indeed, the actual) title of the book is Bone and Bread.

2.   Where did the idea for the book come from?

The novel grew out of a then-unpublished short story that was later published in my collection Mother Superior.  I wanted to start a novel and this particular story, which kept growing and growing, seemed a natural choice.  I felt like I already knew a lot about the characters and their world and their backstories, and I wanted to know what would happen to them.  It’s also the story that people ask me about the most often --- usually to complain that they wanted to know how things turn out for the sisters.  (As complaints go, it’s a pretty gratifying one...especially now that I have an answer in the form of a novel.) 

3.   What genre does your book fall under?

I would call it literary fiction, though I’m starting to realize that this is not necessarily a recognizable genre to the general reading public.  So…fiction!  Sometimes when people want more information than this, I say “family drama” (?), but I don’t think that’s really a proper genre either.  I guess, technically, I have three generations of characters so maybe I could push it and say "family saga," but since it is all set in contemporary or close-to-contemporary Montreal and Ottawa, I probably can’t get away with that either.  Let’s go with fiction. 

4.  Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

This was super fun to think about!  Maybe the girl who plays Zooey Dechanel’s best friend, Cece, in the New Girl?   

Hannah Simone as Sadhana?

The internet tells me her name is Hannah Simone.  I could definitely see her as Sadhana.  Oh, and Hannah Simone is Canadian!  Awesome.  And the amazing Lisa Ray could be Beena: 

Lisa Ray as Beena?

It was challenging to find a photo of Lisa Ray where she doesn’t look like a complete goddess (even the ones where she’s recovering from cancer), but this one is a passable take on Beena (not that Beena isn’t pretty — she is — but her self-image is not the best and she’s not the least bit glamorous).   And not that this picture isn't beautiful,'s just a little less va-va-va-voom.

Both of these Canadian actresses are of mixed origin, too.  Coincidence?  Beauties! 

Of course, a lot of the book depicts their childhood and adolescence, so some child actors would have to be involved, too.

I would choose Sarah Polley to play Mama in the early section of the novel.  She radiates the right kind of pale luminosity and humour and depth and preternatural wisdom. (Well, she does!)

Sarah Polley as Mama?

Mama is supposed to have reddish hair rather than blonde, so I chose a pic where Polley's hair is on the darker side.

For the male characters in the novel — Papa, Uncle, Ravi, Quinn, Evan — I’m really not sure.  Aaaaand...I’ve probably gone on about this long enough.

5.   What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Trying to make sense of her sister’s sudden death at 32 from complications of anorexia, Beena Singh returns to Montreal with her teenage son Quinn in order to delve into the history of their unusual upbringings. 

Oh my gosh, that was hard -- and it leaves so much out.

6.   Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

This book was represented by my agent, who placed it (to my great, ongoing delight) with House of Anansi.

7.   How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I shudder to calculate this, as it feels like I have been working on this novel forever.  I technically started the novel at Banff in May 2007, and I finished a first draft in April 2010.  Three years!!  But my short story collection came out in 2008, so I didn’t end up spending that much time in 2008 working on it.  So…somewhere between two and three years.  I should also say that I also radically changed and reorganized the novel from what it looked like in that draft. The core of the story has never changed, but I have written (and discarded!) a lot of extraneous material.  

It was interesting for me to realize that the final version of the novel is very, very close to what I had originally planned in a notebook in my residence room in Banff. 

8.  What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think it would probably be safer to trust this assessment coming from somebody else.  There is so much that I’ve tried to put into the novel, but I’ll have to wait and see what readers are able to take away from it.  I know the kinds of books I would like it to resemble, and those are ones where the author’s vision is wise and compassionate and the characters are deeply human and believable.  The Birth House by Ami McKay, Annabel by Kathleen Winter, and The Girls by Lori Lansens are three such books that come to mind.   

I don’t know if it is at all similar to these books, and I certainly wouldn’t presume to say so, but some of the novels I was reading at different points before and during writing it included Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic, Catherine Bush’s Claire’s Head, and Michael Winter’s The Architects Are Here.

9.  Who or what inspired you to write this book?

In terms of where the original short story started, I think it began with the realization that both anorexia and pregnancy interrupt menstruation, and that struck me as an interesting parallel: in one case, you have growth and life — and in the other, it is a matter of shrinking and death.  Right away, I could see these two sisters in my mind’s eye: one getting bigger and one getting smaller.  The first line of the short story --  My sister and I stopped bleeding at the same time -- popped into my head and I picked up my notebook and started writing. 

10.  What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, I tried to keep in mind that I wanted to write the sort of book that I like to read.  There is some mystery and suspense, as well as (what I hope is) a nuanced portrayal of sisterhood and parenthood.  I also like to think it has something to offer on the subject of families.  There are a lot of families out there that don’t look like the so-called norm.  In fact, I think there are far fewer “normal” families out there than we’re used to imagining.  The ones that have been passing as normal are full of secrets and repression and estrangement.  This is certainly true in my own experience, at least.

The novel is set in contemporary Montreal and Ottawa, so I think that for Montrealers or Ottawans or even for people who just hold these cities in their hearts, this might be an extra dimension in which the novel can be enjoyed.  I always like seeing the places I live reflected in the books I read.

The meme charges me to tag more people to do it, and it was a challenge to find people who haven't done it yet.  But here goes: Celeste at Celeste Parr's My (Beat)ing Heart, Teri at Bibiliographic, Alice at rapunzel's hair, and Anita at Henrietta & Me.  If you'd like to do it, too, tag yourself in the comments!  (And if I've tagged you and you don't want to do it, well, that's okay, too.)


Rules of the Next Big Thing

  • Use this format for your post
  • Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
  • Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them. 

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
  1. What is the working title of your book?
  2. Where did the idea for the book come from?
  3. What genre does your book fall under?
  4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
  5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
  6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
  7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
  8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
  9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
  10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

December 17, 2012

a weekend away from the computer

A weekend away from the computer always feels strange, like I’ve forgotten to take care of something.  (Indeed, this feeling took hold as Sunday evening turned the corner into Sunday night and I felt as though there must be something...unfinished homework, unwritten essays, unsent emails...resulting in an uneasy few hours before I went to bed.  To tell you the truth, I still haven't quite shaken it off.)  But it was a packed weekend that still managed to be utterly relaxing.  We went to see The Hobbit, witnessed a kids’ limbo competition (V and N always seem to wind up in a dance showdown of some variety or other), picked up Portuguese chicken, and I had a chance to (almost) finish reading a book I started months and months ago. 

Best of all, K was also in town on her way to Ottawa, and we spent time catching up and post mortem-ing (um, it’s a word if I say so) our summer weddings, attending the sing-along Messiah at Christ Church Cathedral downtown, and drinking tea and playing recorder.  K reacquainted me with the fingering for some sharps and flats I’ve forgotten in the decade since I’ve picked one up.  She and B taught me a fiddle song, too.  

We also squeezed in a brunch at our favourite spot near my old apartment, where we were spoiled by the staff (mimosas for me and D, when they heard we’d gotten married, a fruit smoothie for V), and I managed to pick up some winter boots — very necessary as I’d thrown out my old, falling apart ones after I slipped and broke my wrist last winter.  Just in time, too, given today’s weather!

 With one snowfall, a whirl of winter.

December 13, 2012

Does editing make you a better writer?

Editing is one of the few jobs where I think maybe I could do that.  Actually, I think that about lots of jobs, but it’s quickly followed by ummm no, I wouldn’t want to.  (And I really do try not to go around saying or even thinking this because, let's face it, writing has to be the #1 profession where loads of people think that they can do it and feel compelled to tell you about it.  So I conclude that no matter what my feelings are about my abilities, I  probably have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to what other people do for a living....) 

Nevertheless, given my editing aspirations, I was really excited and charged with a special feeling of responsibility when a friend  kindly asked me to take a look at her novel draft.  (“Allowed me” might be more accurate, given that there had been some pleading on my part to let me read it.)  She had very generously and rapidly and, most importantly, usefully given me notes on my own draft during my second-last revision, and I felt all the gravity of wanting to be as useful to her as she was to me.

And was I?  I hope so.  I’m a great admirer of her writing, so I knew that any comments I might have — if, indeed, I could come up with any at all — would probably have to do with structure or plot.  If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile (maybe…I can’t remember how much I might have ranted about it here) or have heard me lament about the process of writing my own novel, you’ll know that neither one is exactly my strong suit.  Not yet.

But I think this is something I’d like to do.  Editing.  I feel like I’m good at it, or I can be, when I can get inside a story.  And of course, half of writing, my own writing, I mean, is editing, too.   

I’ve edited things for people before.  I’ve taught creative writing, and I think I’m an okay instructor once I get past the stomach butterflies of speaking in front of a group.  It's true that sometimes I’ve found it a little hard in workshops I’ve been leading or participating in when it came time to giving comments on manuscripts that were very far removed from my own kind of writing (things in totally different genres or modes) or on things that seem almost beyond help (at least, in my point of view).  It’s not very constructive to say, Well, I’d start with the last word, hit the backspace key, and keep going until you hit the first word.  It's rare, but sometimes a very small part of me wants to say this.  But of course there’s always a way to improve something, even if it means keeping the idea and starting over with it from scratch.  

But will editing someone else’s work make you a better writer?  Or teaching craft?  I can only think that it will.  These are important hours logged with one’s mind and pen to the fiction grindstone. 

And yet.  What may be easy to see in someone else’s words can remain obscure in your own...I think we know this to be true.  And what could be worse than a little extra false confidence?  (Some false confidence is, I think, necessary for the basic act of writing at all.)  Or even the reverse: a more heightened awareness of the potential pitfalls?  Most of us are already too well aware of them, anyway — clichés littering the page, pet words creeping in again and again.  And whoops.  There goes the necessary false confidence.

So I'm not quite sure.  I think that editing and teaching must make you a better editor and teacher.  But when it comes to writing, I suspect we're all always in the same boat. 

December 12, 2012

21 inches - when bigger is better

I’ve a handful of blog posts in draft form – things I want to write about and need to write about, but first I want to tell you about what right now feels like.

I finally finished going over my copyedits, sending them in late on Monday.  This involved staying at the day job until after midnight (ick) to make use of my much-larger screen.  My 11-inch Macbook air is the best computer I can imagine, but I knew the 21-inch screen at work would make reviewing tracked changes in the margins that much easier.  Using the latest version of Microsoft Word rather than Word for Mac 2004 sped things up considerably, too.  The document file for my novel is so large that switching back and forth between versions on my Mac kept forcing the whole thing to slowly repaginate, eliciting the dread spinning beach ball a little too often for comfort. 

Cubicle Christmas decorations – it's an office tradition I could do without, but I claim all the little stuff while everyone else gravitates to the larger angels and poinsettias. 

Editing at home is much more comfortable:

Pretty much my writing desk.

Last night I celebrated the end of editing by actually cooking a meal (I don’t want to tell you how long it has been), knitting (making progress now, but some previous mistakes and a possible lack of wool have made the project extremely dubious at this point…not sure what to do), and a little TV.

The novelty of blue potatoes:

Tri-colour potatoes awaiting their fate

Salad!  Arugula, chickpeas, feta.  Mmmm:

Red wine vinegar -- a great vinegar or the greatest vinegar?

I wanted to paint my nails, but I ran out of time.  But here's a picture of the colour I just stripped off.  I’ll post the name when I get home and check, but it’s from that same new L’Oreal colour riche line I mentioned before as being surprisingly heavy duty.  Sadly, this shade didn’t perform to the same level as the turquoise.  Maybe I just really didn’t use my hands for anything that other week..?  Still, it’s a nice blue.  Come to think of it, shades of blue have been my favourite colours for nail polish since high school. 

Deep blue l'Oreal nails.

Oh, and a drugstore display of Essie nail polish that got me pretty excited:

 I managed not to buy any but couldn't resist snapping a photo.

Ahhhh.  I have so much I want to write, and so many projects I want to get started on!  I need to get time back on my side...

December 7, 2012

nostalgia lane: CBC's The Challengers

Does anyone remember the CBC tv-movie The Challengers?  It first aired in 1990.   It’s the story of 11-year-old Mackie, who moves to a new town with her mother after the death of her father.

To be fair, to like this movie, it probably helps if you were also an 11-year-old Canadian girl when it came out. 

To fit in with a group of boys, Mackie pretends to be a boy.   The boys are in a club called the Challengers where they wear studded denim vests and wristbands and ride around on BMX bikes and are also in a band.  Mackie (played by Gemma Zamprogna, who went on to play Felicity on Road to Avonlea), tucks her hair under a cap, calls herself Mac, and joins the Challengers and plays keyboards.   She also has a friend named Jenny with whom she does fun “girl” things like make up a dance routine to perform.  However, her dual-gendered identity presents some problems, both scheduling-wise and for Mackie’s mother….and for everybody else when they find out during a Challengers performance. 

It was on The Movie Network the other night, and we caught the end of it.  My husband kept trying to guess where it was filmed (“It looks like it’s somewhere out west…”) while I kept insisting it had to be filmed near Toronto because…I don’t know…I just assumed everything ever made before a certain date was filmed near Toronto, which now that I think about it is a pretty baseless assumption.  Anyway, it turns out it was filmed in Stonewall, Manitoba!  I’ve never been there, but it’s about 25 km north of Winnipeg.  I can only imagine the double amazingness if you were an 11-year-old girl from Stonewall when this movie came out.

There is a sad lack of stills available online from this movie.  I want to show you some moments from the montage at the end, set to the Challengers performance of a song I remember thinking was really awesome, where Mackie AND her girl-best-friend Jenny are both Challengers along with the boys.  They both play and sing in the band, ride everywhere on their spray-painted bikes, and eat French fries with chopsticks at a diner.  God, is it any wonder I wanted to be a Challenger, too?  

Oh wait, YouTube!  Here you go:

The awesome song I remember at the end of the movie is actually by Vangelis.  Though the sound quality had warped and flattened on the version they were airing on TMN and sounded truly awful.  I had a moment where I wondered whether my taped-off-of-TV version, which, yes, I'm afraid I still have somewhere, might actually be better (Dear TMN, please find the enclosed, hand-labelled VHS)…until I remembered it still has all the commercials in it.)   

Does anyone else remember this movie?  

December 6, 2012

Miracle on Veith St.

Ninety-five years ago today, my grandmother Marguerite Ainsworth (née Dryden) survived the Halifax Explosion.  Born in December 1916, she may be among the last living survivors.  In our Catholic family, it’s considered a miracle.

Just a few days shy of her first birthday, she was pulled from the rubble of her Veith St. home after the disaster on December 6, 1917.  Her father, William Dryden, had arrived home to find his wife Georgina, 34, and his son Percy, 6, and daughter Dorothy, 3, dead.  According to the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book, he identified their bodies

It is one of the first stories I remember hearing about my family, and I vividly recall visiting the Maritime Museum for the first time and seeing the personal effects taken from the pockets of schoolchildren killed by the explosion...and feeling haunted by the homeliness of the objects, by my grandmother's narrow escape, by the horrible randomness of unpredictable tragedy.
The listings of the dead are available online, as linked above, through the Halifax Explosion Remembrance Book, thanks to Nova Scotia Archives.  The book is an amazing document of tragedy that supplements the original handwritten ledger book that was started after the explosion to keep track of the dead.

At first I thought these
listings for Andrew Dryden and Alice Dryden were misidentified as Georgina Dryden’s children since there was another family at 48 Veith Street, the Findleys, with a mother also named Georgina, and who also died along with a number of children.  Then I found a birth record for Andrew Percy Ernest Dryden, the same age as Percy Dryden, born in 1911 to my great-grandparents William Andrew Dryden and Georgina (Cooke) Dryden  There is no birth record available in the archives for either an Alice or a Dorothy Dryden, but my best guess now is that this is a similar double-listing for Dorothy, based on her full name.  I’ll ask my grandmother. 
What would have happened if my grandmother hadn’t survived?  It's too hard for me to imagine.  Among other things, I wouldn’t exist, or I wouldn’t be me. 

My grandmother, my mother, and me in front of my old house in Ottawa.

I don’t know how my great-grandfather coped with the loss of wife and older children.  He had already lost one son, his first-born and namesake, William, who had died in 1911 at age one from cholera.  I believe he married again, quickly.  My grandmother was soon joined by two half-sisters. 

My grandmother is an amazing woman.  Her husband (my grandfather), John Ainsworth, who died before I was born, was visually impaired, and after her marriage and even after his death, my grandmother has spent most of her adult life (well over 60 years) volunteering in organizations to assist the blind.  She is kind, conscientious, and generous to a fault.  Before her house in Halifax’s Hydrostone had to be sold this year, her wall was covered with recognition awards for her active volunteer work.  There is a little write-up here about her (you have to scroll down) on the occasion of receiving an award for merit in 2008 from the Canadian Council for the Blind.  

A family photo from my grandmother's 90th birthday party in Halifax in 2006.
This year she has not been well enough to get out and be as active as she used to be.  There was no way for her to come to my wedding.  I think I am the only grandchild now who doesn’t live in Nova Scotia. I miss her.  

December 5, 2012

what I want right now

I’ve sent in my final assignment and tonight I give my final presentation in my night class.  I’ve learned a few things…things I’m not sure I’ll ever use in a career context, but that’s okay.  But most importantly – no more homework!  I’d forgotten (how could I?) how unpleasant it is to have things always hanging over me, things that I really “ought” to be doing.  Because of course I already have too many of those self-appointed things already, and more important ones.  I really only like the ones I choose, and god knows, writing fiction is enough homework for anyone.  (But just in case I ever need to, I can tell you all about the challenges faced by internal communications programs and the importance of effective public relations for successful organizations...)  

The loveliest thank-you flowers

After tonight, my next step is to finish reviewing my copy edits for Bone and Bread.  Then I’m going to embrace the holidays as fully as I know how.  I want to see my friends.  I want to track down and watch the movies Tiny Furniture and Young Adult (a natural double feature, I suspect). I want to start making my way through the piles of books I’ve bought lately and start sharing reading lists on Goodreads.  I want to catch up on all the blogs I read.  I want to find new music and listen to the albums people have shared with me.  I want to hang out with my family.  I want to cook and bake.  I want to sit and drink tea.  I want to make plans for the new year.  (I’ve got a couple really good ones brewing, one in connection with, I hope, my knitting circle.)  

What do you want?