Last Moment Ideas

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So this is my second day in the office as WIR at the Regina Public Library (WIR stands for writer in residence–I like the acronym…it sounds like things are whirring around me). I’m here every Wednesday from 1-9 PM.

My day started out with the two and a half hour trip from Saskatoon. This is office time, too, because I listen to audiobooks as I travel. Today’s book was a BBC version of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. It…ummm…sounds very ‘70’s at times but certainly captured my attention and is classic science fiction. I was reminded that when Asimov pitched this series he’d already set up an interview with an editor (I guess you could do that in the old days) and was on the bus on the way to his appointment when he realized he had no ideas to pitch (nothing like waiting until the last minute). He happened to be reading Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and thought, why don’t I pitch a series of novels about a galactic empire that is in decline?  That’s what he pitched and that’s what the editor bought. And the rest is history. Or psychohistory…for those who’ve read the books.

It’s an example of how sometimes the big ideas can come at the last minute and from a simple concept. It’s the work of the writer to find those ideas and turn them into a story that readers will want to read.

One more note:  I took the above shot on the way down. There was an overwhelming abundance of clouds in the big blue sky. The STOP sign is important. Is it telling you to STOP what you’re doing and start writing? Or is it telling you to STOP and look around and capture the moment?

Technically it was telling me to STOP and LOOK before turning onto the highway. An important thing to remember.

I Hate Goodbyes – May 29, 2014

However, the time has come.  From my first day to my last, my WIR tenure has been a joy, filled with supportive colleagues; committed emerging writers, rewarding community events and some very exciting special projects.

Warren James and I had a great time working together.  Under Warren’s gentle supervision, I visited many branch libraries.  Without exception I was impressed with how creatively and effectively each of these very different libraries meets the needs of its community.  From the time, I could barely see over the desk of the librarian at Earlscourt Public Library to the present, I’ve always known librarians are very special people., and my visits to the branches proved how right I’ve been to hold librarians in such esteem.

And there were community events. I did two afternoon sessions with the Lifelong Learning writers’ groups.  So much interest and so much fun.  The Lifelong Learning Centre is a great advertisement for the benefits of stretching mental muscles and meeting the possibilities of every day with excitement.  Many of the attendees at my LLC sessions came to see me later for one-on-one meetings about their work, and I was struck by their talent and their determination to write well.

Together, Warren and I planned and executed (with panache) three very different events at Central Library.  The first on the very frosty, blizzardy Wednesday night before Valentine’s Day was called either Hot Reads For a Cold Night or 50 Shades of Erotica (depending upon who you talked to).  Before the evening, we had an online list of questions about erotic literature and readers were invited to comment (if they wanted to) on the first piece of literature that made their loins twitch.  That was a lot of fun, and the evening when we gathered to discuss Erotica was lively. And – huzzah–there were prizes from Love Plus for those who were still contemplating the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for their beloved.

The Banned Books Café engendered some lively conversation with the larger community. I did an hour long radio appearance on Community Radio talking about the subject and then Stefani Langenegger and I did an open-line show on CBC where we asked the question “Is there ever justification for banning a book.”  Stef and I were both impressed by the thoughtfulness of the responses we got from callers.  Overwhelmingly, the conclusion was that, with the exception of hate literature which is banned by law, books should not be banned.

We had celebrity readers for our Banned Books Café:  Stefani Langenegger from CBC Radio read from Alice Munro, Kelly Handerek of U. of R. theatre Department read Walt Whitman, Jennifer Campeau MLA, read a banned childrens’ book and Dean Mike Sinclair of St. Paul’s Cathedral read from Huckleberry Finn.  We had a good crowd and again the conversation was lively and respectful.

The Readers Summit in April was the RPL’s first Readers Summit, but it will be not be the last.   We started the weekend Thursday night with Dr. James Daschuk reading from his critically acclaimed book Clearing the Plains.  Friday night Yann Martel delivered the keynote – a smart and provocative discussion of politicians and reading that centred on his book Letter To a Prime Minister.  Saturday morning Dianne Warren talked about the sources she drew from for her G-G award winning novel, Cool Water.  Her talk was very informal and a great deal of fun.  Alice Kuipers, wearing a gorgeous pair of hand-tooled western boots, sat on the desk and talked about how she handled massive rejections from publishers before hitting her stride with her very successful YA and children’s books.  She truly was an inspiration to all writers who’ve experienced the stomach punch of a rejection letter from a publisher.  To finish the afternoon Yann Martel talked about the difficulties of finding a fresh way to discuss the Holocaust, a task he undertook in his novel Beatrice and Virgil.

On Sunday, Annette Bower read from her romance novel A Woman of Substance and gave a very frank and helpful talk about how to get published.  I finished off the Summit by reading a scene about betrayal from my upcoming novel 12 Rose Street, and having a very moving Q&A with the audience about the theme of betrayal and forgiveness.  All in all it was a great weekend.

When I was interviewed for the WIR job, I said that I believed my most significant task as WIR would be to talk to emerging writers about their work.  I’ve been a WIR at two other libraries. In both the rule was that each writer could have only one interview. The RPL allows writers to come as often as the WIR has free time, so in addition to having some great one time only interviews with writers, I’ve had the privilege of watching writers bring along their writing by using some of the suggestions we’ve arrived at jointly. I have learned a great deal from the people who’ve come through my door and I am grateful beyond measure for the chance to get to know them.

And now – finally—my thanks to you all for making me feel so welcome and so much a part of the library.  Thank you, Andree for being there.  Thank you, IT guys for putting up with me. Phil, thank you for making sure I was safe every Wednesday night.  Tammy, thank you for always having a smile when I came to pick up my manuscripts.  Josie, Ivy and Alice, thank you for being the best neighbours any WIR could wish for.  Thank you, Navee for always finding time for a quick but warm chat.

I will miss you all, but I’m hanging onto that old Dr. Seuss line:  Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Kickoff to Summer – May 15, 2014

Whatever your views on the monarchy, the 24th of May long weekend is always a cause for celebration.  It’s been a lot of years now, but I can still remember that endless Friday afternoon before the long weekend, and how when we were finally freed from school, we raced home from school chanting, “The 24th of May is the Queen’s Birthday/If we don’t get a holiday, we’ll all run away.”

Then, as now, the 24th of May signaled the beginning of summer.  The end of school was in sight.  Our winter boots and jackets were long gone. Our parents were musing over their perennial beds and planting their gardens. People who were lucky enough to have cottages were driving north to open them up.  The cottage-less stayed in the city, but every house in the neighbourhood had fireworks to celebrate the birthday of Queen Victoria.

Queen Victoria is a shadowy figure to most Canadians now.  The last time Ted and I were in Winnipeg we were walking through the legislative grounds and we noticed that some wag had planted a cigarette between the lips of the statue of the Queen. School kids no longer mark the May long weekend with the chant about the Queen’s birthday, but they still race home from school on the May afternoon that kicks off Canadian summer.  Whatever the weather, we’re all wearing sandals and shorts. People with cottages are still opening their cottages on the ‘May Long’ as my students call it.  Fireworks are no longer set off in our backyards.  We’re more cautious now.  Our fireworks are now set off communally under very strict and sensible rules about public safety.  Most of us have a very tenuous relationship with our agrarian past, but this weekend, like our forebears, we will be digging and planting and hoping. And like our ancestors, we still hedge our bets. Only the foolhardy plant their gardens before the Queen’s birthday.   Our country’s memories of Victoria may have faded but she is and always will be our fertility goddess.

Happy Beginning of Summer!!!!!!

Books for Summer Reader – April 30, 2014

Ever the keen-er and determined not to let this week’s fresh dump of snow dampen my lust for summer, I’ve already started my summer reading.  My first choice was Angie Anjou’s The Canterbury Trails about men and women who live (and sometimes die) on the slopes.  Angie has a special insight into joys and privations of the lives of athletes.  Her first book The Bone Cage centred on a swimmer and a wrestler preparing for the Olympics. I found it absolutely riveting and The Canterbury Trails is even better.

My second choice was Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.  If you’re keen on reading 39,000 words climaxing in a premature ejaculation, this is the book for you.  If not, you might prefer something less steamy, not to mention, less messy.

My daughter has been nagging at me for years to read Donna Tartt.  Bandwagon Jumper that I am, when The Goldfinch won this year’s Pulitzer, I started the novel.  It’s a bildungsroman – a big, fat page-turner, and it’s absolutely wonderful.  Donna Tartt writes one novel a decade. She has a devoted cult of fans and she deserves every accolade.  The Goldfinch is perfect summer reading –involving, insightful and impeccably written.  We’ve already ordered Tartt’s first two books, The Secret History and The Little Friend and I can close my eyes and hear the loons when I think about how wonderful it will be to read these brilliant books on the beach at Anglin Lake.

My friend Jeffrey Round’s new mystery Pumpkin Eater arrived in my mail today.  The blurb on the front cover is from Luba Goy.  She says Jeffrey Round is ‘the gay Margaret Atwood’.  Recommendation enough, in my opinion.

The death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on April 17th made me aware of an inexplicable gap in my reading. I had never read a single word by this brilliant, kind and funny man. This summer will be a good time to remedy that sin of omission, and Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude are already stacked neatly in the pile beside our beach towels.

Among the many wise words attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one particular observation caught my eye.  “What matters in life is not what happens to you, but what you remember and how you remember it.”  Saskatoon writer, Suzanne North’s new novel Flying Time is a sensitive and probing exploration of how memory shapes our lives.

The narrator is a woman in her late 80’s and her account of her life in Calgary in 1939 is funny and wise and heartbreaking.  Kay Jeynes is a 19 year old typist.  Her family is decidedly working class and their life together is an extraordinarily close and happy one.  In 1939 prejudices against the Japanese were already a spoor on Canadian history.  Kay is the only member of her typing pool to volunteer to work as an assistant to a wealthy Japanese businessman, and her association with him and with his gentle wife changes her life.  I guarantee that you will love Flying Time.

Now will someone please pass the sunblock.

Curling up for Summer Reading – April 23, 2014

This past week, we had a day that was warm with the promise of summer.  Of late, we’ve been short of green and golden days in Saskatchewan, so I wasn’t about to waste this one.  I made myself a cup of Earl Grey; picked up the book I was reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – more about it in next week’s blog) and found a place to curl up in on our back deck.

Reading is always a joy, but that afternoon as I felt the sun on my face, smelled the warming earth and heard the birds chirp, I realized how much I’ve always loved reading outdoors and how sharply etched the memories of many of my summer reading places are.

I grew up in the west end of Toronto – a distinctly working class neighbourhood– but one where families took immense pride in their gardens, especially in their roses.  For me, the scent of summer roses will always evoke memories of dragging a kitchen chair out to our back porch on a warm June day and reading the latest novel in the Cherry Ames series.  Ultimately there were 27 novels devoted to this job-hopping, mystery-solving nurse with the bouncing black curls and the cherry red cheeks, and even when I was far too old for Cherry Ames, I read and re-read every one of them.  Our family had a cottage at Cameron Lake and we spent the entire summer there.   My reading place there was the dock. I loved to lie on my stomach reading the complete works of Sir Walter Scott because that’s what the Fenelon Falls library had to offer and looking through the slats of the dock breathing the weedy fishy air of the lake and dreaming dreams of Scottish history.

As a student at University of Toronto, summer were for binge reading: fat Russian novels, slim books of poetry and battered paperbacks filled with sex.  I distinctly remember walking from my rooming house on Charles Street East to my summer job on Jarvis street, smoking a Rothmans and reading Dostoevsky or John O’Hara. Toronto air in summer always smells faintly of garbage and hot dogs, but I knew I was cool.

As a writer, I’m often at writing festivals during the summer and I’ve had some glorious experiences.  Last summer we were at a Festival on the east coast of Newfoundland. Our hosts had rented a beautiful cottage for us in a place called Happy Adventures.  I remember sitting on our deck, smelling the ocean, reading Kevin Majors’ Hold Fast, a stunning Newfoundland novel about a 14 year old boy’s coming of age and looking up to see my landlord offering me ‘a nice bit of cod’ for our dinner.

Ted and I have been in at the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts many times. The motel where we stay is oceanfront – a three minute walk to the beach, and I remember taking Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers out to a bench overlooking the ocean, listening to the ocean pound and then glancing over and seeing Jane, who was also reading at the festival, walking along the beach.  Magic!

This summer the festivals are at Elephant Mountain in B.C. and closer to home in Moose Jaw. We’ll be at the cottage in Anglin Lake for a couple of weeks and at home in Regina.  Wherever we are, I know I’ll find a perfect spot to read.

Next week, I’m going to blog about some books that I think you might want to throw in your tote bag along with the beach towel, the slaps and the sun block.