I was born in 1978, and grew up in Mount Hope, Ontario, a tiny town outside of Hamilton. Mount Hope is close enough to Hamilton that it never grew much on its own — there’s a school, a post office, a library, churches, a Chinese restaurant, and that’s about it. Our house was out of town, with farms and fields and no sidewalks. It’s a pretty part of the world, but not too exciting.
My mother was born on Staten Island and grew up in Brooklyn; my father was born in Brooklyn and grew up in East Los Angeles. They are both sociologists. When my father was offered a good job at McMaster University, they immigrated, three days after their wedding. My mother taught in the States, but in Canada she did research, mainly for Health and Welfare Canada.
My brother, Ben, is two years younger than I am. When I was very small, I was lonely for other kids and would kiss them in grocery stores, so I was sent to pre-school at age two. I loved having different games to play, faces to look at, books to read—the eternal goals, really. When my brother got old enough to be entertaining, we became very close, in that default way that kids from the country usually are (otherwise, you’re playing with the cat). We bickered about everything, of course, but we could entertain each other pretty well: word games, swing-set games, television games, spring run-off games, video games, sumac grove games, dog games. When I got into my teens and didn’t have to hang out with Ben anymore, it was almost startling to discover him to be brilliant and funny, someone I admire. We remain close, and write collaboratively sometimes.
My parents didn’t really get the game-playing, make-believing, covered-in-muck part of childhood, although they indulged it plenty. They also let us watch terrible educational television, and later, wonderful non-educational television. What my folks really wanted was for us to read, or at least be read to. Thus, from birth, we were given books: Isaac Bashevis Singer’s children’s work, the Madeline books, Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, and lots of unfortunate Golden Books in which animals talk. My early favourites were mainly what my mother had saved from herLittle Women and the less-good sequels; Johanna’ Spryi’s Heidi; Dorothy Canfield’s Old-Fashioned Girl; Anne of Green Gables (my first CanLit! Imported from Brooklyn!) and all the less-good sequels, and so on. I learned to read independently on the Little House books. I was very big on plucky, self-sufficient little girls. childhood:
For grades 1-5, I went to a tiny country school. There were only 7 kids in my grade, and the place was always under threat of being closed. I didn’t fit in terribly well, but with so few kids, no one could be too choosy. I was a clumsy, slow athlete, but if people wanted to play a team sport, they needed any moving body, so my fear of having to play with the cat (yes, there was a cat at the school) was generally averted.
Besides being clumsy, there were other things that set me apart. My parents were new arrivals and very quiet socially, so no one knew who we were. I was always the only Jew in the class, and often in the school, depending on the year. There was almost no anti-Semitic feeling, but it wasn’t like nobody noticed—every Christmas I had to tell the class the meaning of Hanukkah, a chore that delighted and horrified me, depending on how self-conscious I was feeling that year. Also, I didn’t have much to say about Hanukkah (“You get chocolate Maccabees. Your father lights the candles and looks nervous until you get away from them.”) I think I would’ve had an easier time in that devoutly Christian area if we’d been devoutly Jewish. It would’ve been easier telling kids, “Synagogue is just like church, the Torah is just the Old Testament, and our messiah just hasn’t come yet.” Often, I just did tell them that, rather than, “My family is heavily influenced by Marxist ideology and though we respect spirituality, it’s been a hundred years since we felt comfortable with organized religion.” That’s never been an easy thing to explain, to kids or adults, come to think of it.
In the fourth grade, I was given a special reading comprehension test. If you’ve never taken one, they are like this: we read several paragraphs, about, say, the Jones’ Calgary vacation, or steam shovels. Then we answered a few questions like “1) Who went on vacation? 2) Where did they go?” Since 30 seconds had elapsed since I’d read the story, and since they did not take the story away while you answered the questions, I assumed there was something wrong with the test, and thus did not believe the report that I had a university-level reading comprehension. This was impossible not only because I still wore snowpants to walk to the end of the driveway, but also because there was nothing university-level on the test.
Nevertheless, from then on I was allowed to read whatever I liked. I liked pretty much everything, from school, public libraries, from the school book-club, my parents’ shelves: if it had an ISBN and was written in English, it was good enough for me. A partial list, from ages 10 to 15, say:
More than 100 Sweet Valley books; nearly as many Choose-Your-Own-Adventures; everything by Judy Blume; everything by Gordon Korman, S.E. Hinton, J.D. Salinger, and Colette; all of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, plus A Moveable Feast, but none of the novels (still); The Bell Jar; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden; The Edible Woman and then most of Margaret Atwood; Lives of Girls and Women and then most of Alice Munro; King Lear for some reason; a book each by Kinky Friedman and Spider Robinson, because they had funny names; Our Town; Six Characters in Search of an Author (because it was in the same anthology as Our Town); everything by Margaret Laurence; everything by Douglas Adams; everything by Douglas Coupland; 66 issues of Sassy magazine; Here Come the Maples by John Updike; A Wrinkle in Time; the Adrian Mole books; Grimm’s fairy tales; A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman; the Weetzie Bat books by Francesca Lia Block; the Griffin and Sabine books by Nicholas Bantock; Down and Out in Paris and London; Bridge to Teribithia The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie; The Diary of Anne Frank; most of The Joy of Cooking; Oliver Twist; the book of Genesis.
I was omnivorous, but not astute. Often I loved a book without knowing why, and equally often I had little idea what was even going on. I doubt all my reading at random did me much harm—if I didn’t understand, I usually just picked up the next book. I wasn’t in the habit of getting people to explain things to me, both because I wanted to seem smart and because stories had a joy stronger than logic for me.
Occasionally, I overdid it. I read Alice Munro’s stories about young girls the same way I did Judy Blume’s for young girls, as useful parables about kids just like me. When I read Who Do You Think You Are?, I was around the age Rose is in “Royal Beatings” and the image of those open-handed blows is bright and terrifying to me still. A couple years later, I was inspired by Anne Frank’s diary to go in search of Holocaust books. By the time my folks realized exactly what I was reading, I was confused and devastated. My mother took the books away, but I had a year of nightmares. I was a sheltered kid, and books were my main clue that the world was much scarier than it looked from the foot of our driveway.
I was put in the gifted program in grade seven. I had really wanted that recognition for my brightness, but if I’d been a little brighter, I would have realized that a) I was to be the only girl and b) the boys were going to make me quite sorry for disrupting the fraternity. We didn’t even seem to learn much in the program—all I remember now is mean boys and making paper mache relief maps of Russia.
In high school (in another town, since ours didn’t have one), my alleged gifts mattered a bit. Those were the years of hyper-streaming, so I got to take the toughest classes. I had to scramble, which was good for me, and in general I was content with high school. I had fun, funny friends and we dyed each other’s hair primary colours, wrote horoscopes, played badminton, spent hours in people’s basements talking about nothing. I also played the piano and the flute semi-seriously, wrote and edited for the school yearbook and newspaper, spent a lot of time trying to get a ride to the mall. The usual.
High school English classes forced me to read in a more organized way. Gone were the reading comprehension questions about characters’ names and ages. Now if I didn’t know what the book meant, I wasn’t simply congratulated for reading it and told to pick another; now I had to figure it out. We were taught to read critically and write incisively, in ways that are still useful to me every day. I am a weak debater but when I can put together a coherent argument, it is with the golden structure of a five-paragraph essay as it was taught to me in high school.
My English teachers were interested in my writing, which was new and very nice. I had started writing stories and poems in pretty notebooks around sixth grade, more because people gave me notebooks rather than being inspired. In high school, I wrote goofy set pieces for the newspaper, yearbook, anything going. Of course I took the creative writing class. There are many jokes about such classes, but ours was outstanding. Our teacher, Pam North, emphasized the difference between first drafts and polished work, brought real writers to class, and read every blessed word we produced. I was so proud of the stories I wrote at the end of high school. When I read them now, though they are pretty lame, I still see sparks of what I’m always trying to do, themes I’m still struggling with.
Occasionally I entered writing contests, and met with some success. Once I confused a literary journal’s call for submission with another kids’ contest (it is also possible that I didn’t know what a literary journal was) and sent them a story. It was accepted on the condition of considerable edits. I didn’t know if or how I could negotiate the editor’s rewrites and wound up agreeing to most everything. I found the experience was very upsetting, though I was much congratulated. (Grown-up Rebecca says: both versions of the story were terrible; it concerned someone getting eaten by an alligator.) I wasn’t very sure about the world of publishing anymore.
I had long been aware that a private citizen could write and publish—my parents did so with academic work throughout my childhood. I thought these were immense accomplishments, and didn’t know why we didn’t talk about them every night at dinner. But despite my “university level” reading, I couldn’t actually understand what they wrote. More accessible was a step-uncle, a sheep farmer who had published several books of pastoral memoir—things about the land and animals, stuff I knew about. For me, the best thing in his writing was a description of flock of starlings rising over his back field, and my father standing watching them fly as I had seen him do many times. A real person in a book, and just as real as life. Astounding.
I wasn’t quite sure how anyone wrote a book, and it didn’t seem quite a relevant question to me. Though I was certainly eager for my writing to be good, and even to be read, I didn’t think that I was going to do anything about it. If I reflected on the situation (and I really didn’t, much), I think I thought that school was an indulged time, when it was appropriate and interesting to have a slightly off-kilter fixation. If I’d been another sort of girl, I might’ve played sports intensely, had obsessive crushes, taken drugs. Even while I was living it, I thought of high school as not necessarily having much to do with how the rest of your life was going to turn out.
At that stage of my life, I was unable to tell the difference between what came naturally to me, and things that, through sublime effort, I could manage. I did well in calculus, geography, French, and thought I might like to be a doctor, or an urban planner, or a librarian. Adults were encouraging but vague—I was supposed to be old enough, and smart enough to find an appropriate direction. I flirted briefly, humourously, with the idea of taking a year off to work between high school and university, which met with hostility from my folks. With good reason: I had worked at a variety of minimum-wage jobs, and was known for the clumsy slowness that had dogged me since grade school. I wrestled hard with hospital corners as a chambermaid, and when I waitressed, patrons flinched at my approach.
University was clearly the only safe place for me. When I was about 7, the family had taken a vacation to Montreal. Walking through McGill’s stunningly, perfectly collegiate campus, I announced I would go there when I grew up. My head was briefly turned by a couple Ontario schools, but McGill and Montreal seemed sexier, more exotic. Plus, just a little farther away. It is to my parents’ credit that they encouraged me to go out of province, when I could’ve just hopped in the car with my father and gone to McMaster. That would’ve been fine but hardly the best thing for a girl like me. Despite my love of novelty and new people, I am a bit…timid, and probably would not have pushed myself if I could have stayed in my safe little rut at home.
And I really did want to do something new.
I loved Montreal. I loved being in a city, being able to walk out the door and already be somewhere. I loved $2 movies, skinny bagels, speaking French without a Bescherelle. After Mount Hope, Montreal should have been a big adjustment, but my folks had talked so much about city life that I acclimated relatively easily. Relatively: my first morning, I ate my bagel walking home from the café, too nervous to sit alone. I got over this pretty fast. I liked to read and write outside, on campus and in parks all over the city. When I got tired or bored, I would lie down on the grass and go to sleep, and no one but squirrels ever bothered me. I was so naïve, but I had such a nice time with it.
I was embarrassingly serious about school. I felt it was somehow my duty to study the hardest things I could manage—a double major in English literature and math, with a minor in geography. A lunatic plan: By midway through second year, I was where I should’ve been all along, in Honours English. I took very few classes I regretted, though. I enjoyed mapping neighbourhoods in urban geography, sketching out stock fluctuations in chaos theory, hiking through bogs in intro to fieldwork. Still, really.
Literature classes were what I loved best, but I was alarmed by the heavy requirements at McGill. In retrospect, I’m grateful someone forced me to read Chaucer, Kant, Milton. I doubt would have gotten through Paradise Lost unsupervised, though I loved it once I’d survived. I could’ve done without Britomart and the Red Cross Knight, but other than that, it was all illuminating.
Even more than the school and the city, I think the friends I made there expanded my view. They are from all over Canada and the world, had gone to boarding schools and religious schools, been homeschooled, and traveled everywhere. I went from being the most foreign body in the room to being provincial. What a relief.
Leisure activities in Mount Hope didn’t offer much variation: movies, parties, the mall…car rallies… So new looked like good to me, and I was mainly content to do whatever anyone else wanted. We went dancing in a lot of hilarious grotty clubs, and sat around a lot of hilarious grotty bars. I saw plays if my friends were in them, ditto team sports. I heard a fair bit of music: jazz, because I knew aficionados, classical because I lived near the music school and there were always free concerts going on, Ani Difranco because it was the late 1990s and I was a girl.
When I’d started being more realistic about my schoolwork, my friends who’d taken English electives for pleasure said I ought to take 20th century Canadian literature. I did, and was thrilled. We read Purdy and Crozier, and Turner and Ondaatje, and I didn’t know who anyone was, but I enjoyed it to a degree that I didn’t even feel supervised.
I was supposed to be a Victorianist (no one is a Victorianist at 20, I know now), due principally to my love of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but the Victorian profs kept going on leave or off on weird tangents. So I read about Tess on my own and kept taking CanLit. There was a lot more, it turned out, than Atwood, Laurence, Munro and the awful anthologies of high school. And it was still going on, which was a strange thought. While we were reading American Whiskey Bar, Michael Turner published a new book, and came to town to promote it. I went and saw him read, something I probably could have done with dozens of authors I admired, but it never occurred to me that they were, you know, around. In Robert Lecker’s contemporary Canadian fiction course, he mentioned the editor of some of the books we were reading, a man named John Metcalf, and what his vision of and for Canadian literature might be—another very simple surprise to me that you could write towards what you wanted. It was starting to dawn on me that stories, books, literature were made things, not miraculous visions. If I was going to write seriously—and I was still constantly writing, but quite unseriously—I would have to think about the why and the how of it.
I knew I had to read to be able to write well, but I didn’t really know what or how to learn from what I read. I kept trying to make everything up out of the whole cloth. When I was studying chaos theory, I wrote a stochastic story; when I fell in love with the Brandenburg concertos, I wrote a fugal story. Everyone was always tremendously impressed, and seemingly embarrassed to ask what the stories meant. Even at that tender age, I knew this was not the readers’ fault.
I started taking writing classes—first a non-credit one at McGill, then a transfer credit at Concordia. I found it all fascinating and intimidating. Everyone was post-modern or Oolipean, Hemingway-esque or Joycian. That sounds derisive, but by and large, the student writers I encountered were good (rare, I know) and often very generous. I tried to read and criticize seriously whatever anyone else put forward, and they tried to do the same for me. I think my real reputation was for being nice, but some people thought I was talented, and started pushing harder when I didn’t make sense, prodding me for endings to “unfinished” stories that were really just long rambles. I know there’s been a lot said about how you can’t teach anyone to write, but for me, help helps. I got better.
I wrote a novella while at McGill, or rather, I wrote a strange fragmented story about 50 pages long. It was called The World of Missing Persons. I believe my writing teacher at the time, Robert Majzels, said of it, “There are many good things here,” which was carefully, gently true—the characters were, I think, alive and painful and funny, but the story was impossible to follow. I think Robert was the only person who ever read it from beginning to end. I had the thing bound for some reason, and due to an error at the printer’s, it ended up with every second page upside down, a fairly fitting metaphor. I put it on a shelf and didn’t look at it again.
I certainly look at that project now as a failure, and even at the time knew it had problems, but simply having done it boosted my confidence tremendously. I started writing much more seriously. I also started editing for the arts magazine on campus and hanging around with a different sort of writer: macho boys (and girls) who wrote about sex and booze, who wanted to be Charles Bukowski. They were pretty far from what I was doing, but the way they did it was inspiring—they poured their lives right onto the page. I wasn’t ready for that, but I edged a little closer.
Right about this point, though, I spun out on schoolwork. My thesis project on Tess, much as I adored it, had been in trouble for some time—one rejected proposal, one personality “disjunct” with supervisor, ongoing lack of background classes—all created a state of panic in my final semester. In reaction, I spent far too much time alone at the library or at home, reading, writing, annotating, and fretting. Eating and sleeping somehow disappeared from my schedule. I still went out if someone asked, but I made a strange date, able to talk only of Victorian dystopias and the strange informercials that local television played after three am.
I think I wrote some good fiction during that period, made some good friends and had some bizarre conversations, and certainly my thesis got all the accolades, to no one’s surprise but my own. I felt that the central lesson of my thesis was that I was not cut out for life as a scholar. After my last class in university, someone asked me if I would do my masters at McGill or elsewhere, and I said I was done with school. My friend, trying to be encouraging, said I’d come to it eventually. “You’re too smart not to go to grad school.”
I stormed home, fuming, “There’s lots of things smart people do besides study.” At that point, however, , I didn’t know what any of those things were. By the end of undergrad, I had had six jobs, two of which I’d been fired from and all of which I’d been bad at. I was 23, and starting to worry I was unemployable. Sounds funny; wasn’t. I had decided against grad school in spite of good grades because of how hard I’d had to work to get those grades. I had loved most of my undergrad classes and the books I read for them. I even liked some of the critical perspectives we looked at, but I couldn’t easily articulate any of my own. Every paper involved considerable blood, and when I had to extemporize in classes, it was even harder. Other students seemed to have access into ideas that I didn’t, be able to say exactly why and how things worked with ease and confidence. I did it—participated in class discussions and wrote essays and was a good student—but I thought that, if I were a natural student, something at some point would be easy. I did not even consider graduate work, which seemed to me only years of anxious toil in pursuit of a career that would amount to more of the same.
What I did instead was work in a bookstore and write bits of a very confusing novel. Mainly, I was just bereft of other ideas and very very tired from the end of my degree. And the bookstore wasn’t bad—a giant Chapters on the edge of the highway is no one’s idea of a great time, but the staff was nice and mainly so were the customers. And I was rather thrilled to be exposed to books beyond academia, beyond “literature.” I really didn’t harbour any ill-will towards academia, but I’d been living it for 4 years, and was now working on a novel about an academic having a hard time distinguishing between fictional and real violence. And the novel wasn’t even going that well. I needed a break.
I started reading anything shiny that caught my eye: celebrity biographies, diet books, travel guides, chick-lit capers, financial advice books, manuals on how to write a good novel. I had never read these sorts of things before, and beyond learning about building beautiful biceps, HTML 4, and what’s wrong with Anne Heche, I really enjoyed the privilege of a private citizen to read without much an opinion. Sometimes a colleague would nod at whatever I was involved in and say, “Any good?” and “Yeah, I love it!” or “Sorta boring,” was all that was required.
I was also learning a little about how the publishing world worked. I was responsible for “scanning,” shooting book barcodes with a little gun that would process some algorithm of sales history to decree whether the book was to be sent back to the publisher. I was stunned—I hadn’t known that could happen. For a while I tried hiding the books I liked, but no one was going to buy a novel if it was stuck in Travel. A manager, noticed this trick, pointed out I had some discretion; if a book was that important to me, I didn’t have to return it. For a while…
That wasn’t enough agency for me. Somewhat cured of my academic exhaustion, I decided to move to Toronto and take publishing classes, do an internship, work in a different bookstore. The courses I took were radically new to me in that they taught practical skills about how to make a book rather than theoretical ones about how to read one. The editing courses I took were also a gift to my writing—learning how to fix broken prose is not exactly a surefire skill, but putting in the time on other people’s work gave me more stamina to pick apart my own.
I put my grim academic novel on hold. I wanted to write my way into Toronto, so I set the new story there, filled with people my own age who were navigating the same space as me. I interned full-time, and worked evenings at the Indigo flagship, except for the two or three nights a week I attended school. So I wasn’t writing all that much, but I was much happier. And then, a year out of undergrad, I was well-qualified for a position as a proofreader of Harlequin romance novels.
So. I dined out on that job for a long time, and still do—people are fascinated. What can I say? In a small room, there were 13 pink cubicles containing girls and a few guys of about my age and education, carefully eradicating comma splices from various degrees of romantic or sexual fantasy. Most of us, I think, liked the job well enough and cared about it. Even though the books weren’t serious, the quality control was: I was thrown into a panic by British punctuation in an American line; several of us once sprawled out on the floor to see if a particularly awkward description was actually possible (it was). Some of the books were of the hand-holding and cheek-bussing type, but most involved at least one or two graphic descriptions of penetrative acts, often more. The word “nipple” was on the first page of the first book I worked on.
After all that “unemployability” thinking, I was thrilled to find a job I actually liked and was good at. I made many wonderful friends at Harlequin, and learned a lot. At lunch hour, we’d do Pilates, or hike across the train tracks to buy candy, or discuss what we read on our own time: Haruki Murakami, J.M. Coetzee, Marian Keyes, John Cheever.
I was still slowly working on my Toronto story, which was assuming a stranger and stranger structure, influenced both by writers I had known at McGill and work I was reading—poetry collages, graphic novels. I started reading Broken Pencil and got inspired by the DIY scene. I interviewed No Media King Jim Monroe for a school project, and although we were ostensibly talking about publishing, Jim’s sublime self-confidence did inspire me to get on with the writing, and to feel that it mattered.
As soon as I finished at my publishing certificate, I enrolled in Michael Winter’s writing workshop. It had been a very long time since a stranger had read my work, but I thought it would probably help. Michael pushed for writing that was specific, precise, real. Not necessarily realistic; I worked a good deal on semi-magical stories in that class. He just wanted to get enough real details that a world could stand behind them. I found this when I read his own books, too: a precision and a confidence in each hair and wire, each smell and taste. I saw something I could aspire to.
Since it was a “fiction workshop,” we didn’t have to finish things, which has ever been my Waterloo. As long as I was free to claim anything I wrote was actually a part of something larger, I would. Scattered in my wake are dozens of stories that start promisingly, and go on for a story-length of time, and then…stop.
I started trying to be more disciplined; I wrote a perfectly tight outline of the novel I wanted and was completely paralyzed by the scope of the thing. Writing was consuming more and more of my time and thoughts. I couldn’t write a good novel, and at work I was surrounded by novels that often weren’t very good, or at least weren’t what I wanted to write. I admired romance writers for their ability to take a constrictive form and (sometimes) make something new and engaging out of it. Like the “Oulipo” poets who imposed arbitrary rules on the work in order to trigger inspiration, clever romance authors can make a wonderful book by engaging their constraints. But that’s not my thing—I have enough trouble with the non-arbitrary constraint of beginning-middle-end—and despite the many aspects of the job I liked, I realized that I should leave.
Much as I had been surprised by how violently I didn’t want to go to grad school, I startled myself a few years later by applying. The University of Toronto program was in its first year, and it sounded nice. It took me most of the fall to muster the courage to approach referees, request transcripts, write a personal statement and collect writing samples. I told no one, in case I didn’t get in, or in case I did and then didn’t want to go. After I’d enrolled, someone asked me where else I’d applied, and I was genuinely startled; more than one of those applications would’ve destroyed me.
In the spring, I took a short fiction workshop with Andrew Pyper and, very slowly and painfully, wrote a story from beginning to end. Andrew wanted us to think about the reader when we wrote: what they wanted to know, what they wanted to read. I had long admired his short fiction, and though I couldn’t exactly write like him, I could learn to think about affect instead of intention. This helped with my completion-phobia.
I was working overtime against the looming possibility of tuition fees. Also foreseeing a rigourous grad school schedule, I also did way more work for Andrew’s class than was truly necessary. I’m sure I was not a lot of fun during that period of waiting. When I actually got into the program I was horrified.
I went over to Goldberry Long’s house. She was acting head of the program, and she wanted to encourage me to come to UofT. I don’t remember whether she physically held my hand (but Goldberry’s the sort who would) but she did figuratively. I had worn a linen dress to go to a professor’s house, and then an enormous greyhound attempted to crawl into my lap. The baby cried and Goldberry went to tend her. I lay sprawled under the dog, thinking, “So this is how writers are.” I decided to get a masters degree in creative writing.
The UofT creative writing MA was new and small, and even in the English department , a few people didn’t know it existed. We were a class of 8 in my year. It was—and is—a great group, but for the first long while, everyone was dreadfully tense and self-conscious. At last, my people!
I took a limited courseload the first term, in deference to my freelance work and my extreme lack of confidence: a class on Virginia Woolf’s shorter works, a required class on book history and how to use the library, and the writing workshop, led in the first term by Goldberry and the second by Andre Alexis. I was intrigued by Woolf’s criticism, her precise ways of seeing, her desire to show the reading process on the page. I already knew how to use the library. Mainly, I wrote. My first grad school story was about a man attempting to teach his fiancée to fly by encouraging her to jump off the roof of their apartment building. I still think it was good, but it had a lot of problems. So impressed was I by my colleagues’ brilliance, that I tried to use every scrap of workshop advice, so the story wound up being enormous, confusing and very intense. Perhaps I’ll rewrite it again sometime.
I really liked the constant stimulus of grad school. My classmates were inspiring, everyone wrote something wildly different from what I did, and the stuff the workshop leaders brought to the table was different again. None of us wrote like Carver, or Proust, or Raymond Queneau, but that there were things we could learn from these strangers, relationships between us, was an addictive thought.
By summertime, I had a group of classmates to sit with in the pub and compare stories. I wrote notes for them, manuscript evaluations for my freelance job, critical essays for classes: I was an insightful-reading machine. Now I had to write a book.
I was assigned Leon Rooke as a mentor in the spring. I knew well his reputation as a writer, but tried to tell myself I’d be a suitable mentee by the time we were to meet, in July. I read his stories carefully, trying to pin down what I admired, what I wanted to learn (lots, both). The other thing I did that summer was start sending my stories to journals. I thought it was embarrassing that I’d never been published, and worse that I hadn’t tried since high school. I thought that rejection letters would be like war wounds, signifying to real writers that I was fighting the good fight. I sent out everything I had that didn’t suck.
In early summer, I was sent a phone number and told to call my mentor. I was alarmed to be calling a serious person at home in hot weather to ask him to read my little stories. He was nice, looking forward to working with me, but hadn’t received my portfolio from the school. Was it lost? Should we enquire of the department? I knew that way lay madness, and chose two stories to send myself.
Leon surprised me by calling only a couple of days later. “Are you writing?” he crowed (I was making egg curry). He raved about one of the stories, suggesting small changes and also where I might submit it for publication. We planned a meeting, and I promised to bring the revisions, other work, etc. As we were signing off, Leon remarked again how delighted he was with this one story. “Of course, the other one’s a mess,” he added equitably.
We set to work.
Leon was brilliantly supportive, insightful, and honest. Although he did not have much patience with a tedious story (“Well, you’ve got to love your failures”) he had a lot of patience with me, slouched at his kitchen counter, bemoaning my lack of genius. He pushed me to write faster, to write more first drafts and fewer twitchy revisions. Stories had to earn my time by being worth revising. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted his “write 20 opening paragraphs” or “write three stories in three days” cues. I worked hard; I had a lot of fun.
The day before I had to hand in my thesis, we put all the stories on the Rookes’ big glass dining table and prowled around looking at them. There was a definite sense of occasion, and I was madly in love with everything I had written (Leon was perhaps a touch more reserved on a few pieces). I had written a book! And now I had to send it away to my defense committee, and elsewhere.
The previous fall, Leon had encouraged me to enter a manuscript for the Metcalf/Rooke award at Biblioasis. Though Kathleen Winter’s gorgeous collection bOYs deservedly won, John Metcalf wrote me a warm letter, urging me to send him something else (and, I assumed, better) in the spring. I considered this a tremendous, if terrifying, compliment, and did my best to put it out of my mind. But I did send him the thesis, once it was “finished” and then skipped off to enjoy having only 2 jobs, no school, and a new novella to write. Mainly, I was just a sleepy library clerk or a harried ESL teacher, but enough writing stuff—readings, publications, making the Journey Prize long-list, grants—happened to make me feel somewhat like a writer.
John wrote me a critique of the stories I’d sent. Though he liked several things and all his feedback was with an eye towards improvement, he didn’t love everything; the word awful was used. I told myself firmly that no one would waste three pages critiquing someone they think can’t do better. I’d received my share of badge-of-honour rejections by then, and they are mainly two lines long and perky (“We found your work lovely and profound, but due to space constraints…”) Also, he was right about where my work wasn’t working, and seemed like he might know why. I thought I could improve with this sort of feedback, and said so, and tried.
John’s letter suggested strongly that my realistic, grimmer stories were much stronger than the fantastic ones, which also were (mainly) lighter. I think I can sometimes use magic well—it’s a relief from constraint, it’s a game, it’s a puzzle, but it’s also a way to give new light on relationships and emotions without leaning on metaphor. Nevertheless, it can get tempting to go to magic as wish-fulfillment, or adventure, or simply “neat tricks.” I want magic to be something I can use effectively to show characters, but it’s the characters themselves— characters that you could see and touch and would want to—that it’s really about. If magic was distracting from the heart of matters—people—I could leave it aside until I had the skill to handle it better.
The manuscript that wound up winning the Metcalf/Rooke award was quite different—darker, and more realistic—than my thesis project, and the book that will be published in September 2008, is different again. Right up until I turned the thing over to Dan Wells at Biblioasis in March 2008, I was writing new work. Straight along, John was eager to see what I could do, happy to read whatever I sent him, and generous with feedback. And with support, and encouragement. And with suggestions of what it might help to read—sometimes he just sent the books. When I had graduated from my MA, I felt very uncomfortable that my education was over. I joked that I felt like running up to strangers in the street and demanding that they teach me something. I felt very lucky to be taught by John’s editing of my work. I worked constantly, but as I felt with Leon, less would have seemed disrespectful of the enormous opportunity I’d been given.
Once, as it turned out and as I always wanted it, is a book of people. By the time I come to writing a story, realistic or magical, I’ve probably spent months or years thinking about the characters in it: working out how they move through the world, writing endless scenes that I can’t use, but inform whatever I do end up writing as “story.” I think this process—which I do occasionally diverge from, but not much—makes it hard for me to shape stories. Life is long, and 15 pages out of anyone’s life rarely can contain any kind of beginning-middle-end line. At my most frustrated, I think the only honest ending of a story is, “Then the next morning…” The longer I’ve worked with characters, the more I know about what they’re doing tomorrow, and the harder it is to find a place to stop.
I don’t take characters from life, exactly—I can’t quite render real humans on the page. Mainly, I get interested in someone from afar—an acquaintance, a colleague, a seatmate on the bus—and in failing to imagine that person, I create someone new. Of course, there is some of myself in anything I write—Isobel, in “ContEd,” works in a Greek restaurant; mine were other sorts of restaurants, but some things still work:
Eva slams a brick of ground beef onto the counter. “Yeah, Iz, you checking up on our honesty?” She and Mara start plucking wads of meat from the brick and weighing them on the little scale. Three ounces, roll twice in your hands, put it between two sheets of waxed paper and press it flat: tomorrow’s hamburgers.
The earliest drafts of “ContEd” contain a lot of slack-paced talk with patrons at the restaurant and in class, a lot of talk about food and shoes. I rarely write with story in mind, or themes, or structure, which is another reason it takes me so long to get from first draft to final. And yet, after I finish something—often long after—I can see that I go back to the same stuff over and over.
I’m interested in people who, for whatever reason, feel caught out. They’re more vulnerable than they should be. Places of loss or lack are where you can see more, say more about people. Love unrequited or lost, romantic or Platonic or familial, that’s always rich ground, but I’m interested in other missing pieces too: money, security, respect—those are huge for any human in society, of any class, and I wonder why they aren’t written about more as emotional issues.
It is through a lens of vulnerability and emotion that I come at the issue of class. This being Canada in 2008, class isn’t easy to get a bead on: it’s a certain amount of money per year, but it’s also how long you think that will last, or what you might need it for, or what you feel entitled to. Teyla in “Massacre Day” supports herself as a high school teacher, yet because of the end of her marriage, her life is consumed by poverty. She feels she lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, has cheap appliances, can’t afford nice clothes. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s true and what’s her invention, because she feels it all as true:
Toaster waffles. In the public-school price-bracket, syrup bottles were all shaped like log cabins or slave women.
Teyla’s students see themselves as outside society, without any status, and I sort of agree with them. Even though only Hart and Samir have left home, none of the teenagers feel they are offered whatever their parents have. Earlier drafts of the story had more about the narrator’s home and how she lives, but I wound up removing that material because how she feels—effaced—is much more important than how her life is. None of the kids in the story perceive themselves as being part of anything larger than each other and school; what their parents do or have is irrelevant. When they go to Sears, there is a moment of derision of the consumer world,
There was this silent moment as we all walked towards the flicker of TVs in the back. All the makeup ladies in their white jackets, purple and silver eyelids, were leaning over the counters and glaring at us.
But they only resent the store because the clerks resent them, and that’s not about class but age—no mall employee likes a pack of teenagers, no matter what their spending power. Kids are an underclass, or feel that way, anyway. I remember feeling that way as a teenager. I am willing to make some imaginative leaps about circumstances, experiences, events—“Massacre Day” was unique in that I even did research about the events—but I try to stay close to what I know in terms of feeling.
Everything is defined by how we feel about it, anyway. Isobel worries about the cost of her school textbook, and eats whatever she’s given or can get cheaply, but people keep pointing out other things she doesn’t have—a boyfriend, a ride home. Mara and Eva make about the same money as Iz, but they feel sorry for her because she is a single woman. The lifts home are perceived very differently by Barton and Isobel—she’s tired and appreciates the time and energy she saves; Barton feels sorry for her because she’s a single woman trying to walk to Parkdale.
It’s something of an awkward question to examine the distance between myself and my characters. I feel like it’s a short one, maybe too short; I feel trapped by my own experiences sometimes, longing to write about 1920s farmhands or Italian pornstars, or aliens. I have hope for progress, though. For a long time, I felt I couldn’t write in a man’s voice, and now I think I can, that those stories ring true. I think what happened was a growth in empathy. The more I learn to listen to other people, put myself in their places, not judge, not wait for my turn to talk, the better I can write.
Listening to characters, characters listening to each other (or not) is a huge part of how I work. I often focus on dialogue because the rhythm of character’s speech and what they choose to say is an easy way to show readers who we’re dealing with, without having to resort to, “He was six-three, an imposing man but with a West-Coast-er’s laid-back charm.” Learning to write good dialogue was one of the first things I tried to do as a writer. In high school (and now), I adored J.D. Salinger, and I read somewhere that his talky style was in part because his publishers judged a book’s appeal by the percentage of dialogue. They told him that if a book could be 100% dialogue, everyone would love it.
I wasn’t sure that was true—even as an impatient kid, I was ok with a little narrative—but I tried hard to render as much in speech as I could. Even then I liked to get close to characters—play out a scene beat by beat. I’m interested in how people talk—what they say, too, of course, but that’s easier to make up. I love to listen to people talk, and to read scripts and watch plays: talk in a concentrated form. At some early age, I either read or watched Waiting for Godot, but I was too young to really get the clipped, hilariously dysphoric dialogue. Besides, the abuse of Lucky upset me enough that I approached nothing else of Beckett’s until university. Then I was thrilled by both him and Harold Pinter, how they play with the line between banal and surreal, which is surprisingly thin. It’s shocking what you can get away with in dialogue.
Another in this line, but more accessible, was Tom Stoppard. I didn’t read Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead until university, but at 11 or 12, I saw Stoppard’s own film adaptation and that quickness, that wit, I got, especially the game of questions on the tennis court, which my brother and I tried valiantly to recreate. Here was another set of rhythms that I could—somehow—distill into realistic dialogue.
In one of his short stories, Andrew Pyper described a well-written page as filled with “tightly packed paragraphs cut by intermittent columns of dialogue,” and that image is one of my ideals when I write dialogue. When I’m stuck, it helps to unfocus my eyes and look for the widest swath of black on the page, then cut it. Rhythm and quickness is known to be important in funny writing, but I think it always is; the most serious conversations rarely take place in fat paragraphs. My favourite dialogue clings fairly tightly to the left-hand margin.
To learn to create this stuff, I actually stole lessons I learned in a method acting class I was taking in my midteens. I didn’t consciously decide to use them, but Sanford Meisner’s repetition exercises became an integral part of the way I drafted dialogue. In these exercises, two actors face each other and work a single line back and forth between them, with tiny variations of tone and breath, and perhaps a single word change, until it becomes a conversation. It’s an effective way of producing something that I think is very realistic—it’s how we speak, just not why—and I know I still do it, still unconsciously. In general, I weed out the most obvious evidence—“You think so?” “I think so?” “You’d think so”—but I can still hear that cadence. Writing in this way forces minute attention to word choice and punctuation, which is both a lesson I was lucky to learn early, and one I’m still learning. Much later, John Metcalf’s essay, “Punctuation as Score,” pushed this education forward immensely.
I love anything crafted to perfectly fit one voice over another: prose, plays, movies, TV shows, music. In an abstract way, I think fast-paced dialogues is a lot like Baroque counterpoint. That is something of a reach, but I studied classical piano somewhat seriously from ages 5 through 19, and since I was a shockingly ungifted performer, but loved the music, I tried to import it to something I was better at. When I said I tried to write a prose fugue in university, I wasn’t kidding—I still think I’ll work out how to do it eventually. Without taking it too literally, the concept of counterpoint of voices is an interesting way to “create realism,” that confusing contradiction.
In my family we have a phrase for when a group dissolves into chaos—“It’s gone all Altman-y,” referring to the great Robert Altman layered dialogue in films, crowd scenes where multiple strands of conversation weave in and out of the audio, seemingly at random. His is structured chaos—there’s enough overlap that it feels like a real mess, but not so much mess you can’t hear what you need to hear.
My high school writing teacher asked us to write a paragraph on the difference between fictional and actual dialogue. I said that in real life people um and uh, repeat themselves, lie for no reason, don’t finish sentences, sneeze and cough and burp, stammer, get distracted; in fiction that stuff doesn’t happen. Then the assignment never got collected, and I was left wondering whether we were meant to learn to observe that divide, or challenge it. Insofar as I can, without making the reader crazy, I do want to challenge it. I love phonetic speech, ums and ahs, slang and smalltalk. But I want to get it to that Altman-y level of orchestrated chaos—like boiling down a mass of ingredients until they meld and intensify in soup. Usually I have boil down a first draft by close to half before it’s a story, often mainly the talking. I have to get it all down before I can play with it.
I think in the end, most of my dialogue is lean enough to give information, idiosyncratic enough to show character:
“You live far, Isobel?”
“No, a bit west.”
“I’ll drive you. My car’s just over… I mean, if you want?”
I think that’s what I want.