#reverb11: on the road

For today’s post, I chose the prompt for day 2 from Kat at I Saw You Dancing. She asks: What was your most significant expenditure in 2011? (Not necessarily the biggest, but the one with the most impact.) 

My most significant expenditures this year were travel related. I went with a friend to PEI for ten days in the spring, and in September Myron and I went to Toronto for a long weekend. Both trips gave me different kinds of renewal.

In Toronto I got to steep in the excitement of being in a large city (Ottawa is a city, but it’s a poky one, and Toronto is much more like a city at home), eat fabulous meals, get pampered within an inch of my life and then, hours later, take pictures of gang graffiti in dangerous neighborhoods. I saw dozens of photographers with foot-long lenses hoping to catch a shot of Brad Pitt and walked into Lush on a day when they were giving away fifty-dollar freebie bags. And then I stood a dozen feet from Andy Bell and let him bring me to tears and heights of joy.

In PEI I got to smell clean air, immerse myself in the natural world, and meet a bunch of people I never would have met if I hadn’t gone there with a local girl. I sure as hell wouldn’t have been able to spend a day on a lobster boat and watch the world come awake from a tiny spot in the water with no land within sight. I got to meet other Anne-girls and experience a whole economy based on books, children’s books yet, that mean so much to me. And ohhh, heaven help me, the lobster. 

This post is no major revelation, but I like the way it worked out. I love travel and wish I could do more of it; I always come home feeling better for the time away. It always provides something that I couldn’t quite access the same way at home, and it’s almost always worth what I spend.

soul, I hear you calling

Part of me wants to try to tell you everything.

The filthy angel and his ownership of the stage, the way he modulated his voice, saving his falsetto for when we could not do without it, the way I cheered for him when he let it fly. Four rows of people separated me from his eyes and his voice and his strut. Twice I saw him in tears himself, which made my own feel at home. It was impossible to believe that anything was too big for him.

The magician in the red hat who hid behind a giant gargoyle but came out from time to time, bearing a guitar—and once a pair of scissors to cut the lost boy out of his lace-up leather vest. I have another picture of him looking at “the singer” and beaming with incredible pride and fondness.

We used to sing to Erasure in a red Ford Probe, on our way to dance and on our way back home. If I could talk to the girls we were back then, I would tell them that, in the moments when he’s not singing, Andy Bell dances around the stage with primal, audacious vigor, his arms wide and embracing all of us, his eyes open and defiant. That he is like a spool set free and spinning, that he is orderly entropy and black light and living joy. That he dances like we danced.


The second night of IFOA, David Mitchell and William Gibson shared a stage. There were readings first, and then a talk with both writers. I’ve never read William Gibson, so I had no idea what the two might have in common. (A significant amount, it turns out.) I can’t give you much of a rehash, though. Instead of taking a bunch of notes, I spent the time engrossed in the opinions of two thoughtful, playful, and clever men, and the packed house at the Fleck Dance Theatre seemed just as rapt as I was.

And when I say a packed house, I mean packed. These people were fanboys and fangirls, not just passing a chilly autumn night at the Harbourfront Centre for something to do. I wish you could have heard the gasp of delight when Mitchell announced that he was reading something new, something rough that he’d been working on in the hotel room. And I can’t wait until the podcasts are available, because as soon as they are I’m going to listen to it again, to hear him catch himself using a strong word two times in close enough proximity that he knew to change it, questioning the sound and flow of the sentence in front of an enormous audience, shuffling and marking his draft. The panel the night before had discussed the people who read their early drafts, the people they could trust to be honest. At that moment, that auditorium full of strangers were the fresh ears. None of us could have expected this. (Judging by the bit we heard, I’m already excited for this new work.)

During the conversation, both writers talked about their books’ unusual structures and genre-pushing depth of theme. Both men are fascinated with broken societies and people struggling against cultural and political restrictions, characters fighting to make their lives mean something. They aim high. These are the kinds of books I love to read, and it was one of the highlights of the quick getaway, to spend a few hours steeping in the intelligence, humor, and grace of two true professionals.

This is the title page of the advance copy of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet I reviewed earlier this summer. I told you in that previous entry that I took this book everywhere with me; since it’s paperbound it’s not in the best shape. And I’m not really much of an autograph seeker ordinarily, but I’m glad I handed this one over for a signature after such a wonderful night. I don’t think I stopped grinning for hours afterward. And I am totally comfortable with the fangirl inside me. I was in good company that night.

Editing this post on December 8 to link here, for a report that the [expletive], [redacted], [just-not-nice] Globe and Mail failed to record the [exponential expletive] podcast. 


the worlds in our heads, the worlds at the end of the pen

I was a very little girl when I first started to wonder about the people who wrote books. I was told from that young age that it wasn’t something that a person did to make money; in fact, I was even told by one adult that you couldn’t learn how to write books in college, that college was for learning how to do hard things. Finding an “About the Author” page in a book made me so happy. This was a real person, someone who wrote the story that wound up on the pages in my hands. I always found it magical, even when the work of my degree should have beaten that joy out of me.

At this point, I’ve listened to a lot of interviews and presentations by writers, and read many more. Listeners ask questions about writers’ processes, how they do what they do, always hoping for a different answer than “I sit at my desk for X hours a day (where X=more than you want to hear) and write until the first draft is done. Then I write Y more drafts (where Y=way more than you want to hear). Then I start the next book and wait Z years while the publisher does their thing for the first one.” That stuff is practical stuff, and if you get a different answer from a writer, you’re getting a lie. And really, if you have to ask, that’s the answer you deserve to get.

But if you listen closely, you will hear the magic. The magic was there at the first session we went to at IFOA, a round table called Fictional Truths: Ideas on Time, Memory, and Place. All four of the writers at this one had something to say that prompted deeper thinking about my own work, which takes place in two time threads and has a fair amount to do with the differences between how people remember the same events. Paul Harding, who won the Pulitzer this year for his debut work, Tinkers, reminded me of this when he said that it means a lot, what you remember and what stories you make up for yourself. He’s right—humans do have agency in what they share about themselves to new people, how they explain their past, how they choose their own Why. In the end, we choose a Why we can live with, and if that Why doesn’t exactly encompass all the facts, well… that’s how we live in our own stories, which surround us like bubbles and keep us protected from what we choose not to remember.

And we all have memories we choose to forget. Sometimes, though, they come back with all the force of a flying pair of scissors. Myla Goldberg, whose book The False Friend is one of my favorites of the year, spoke of herself as a very gentle person as an adult, who is so uncomfortable with violence that she couldn’t even fence. One day, she was taken by surprise with a sudden memory of herself as a child throwing a pair of scissors at another person, and was astonished by what was inside her at that time. A similar sudden memory is the inciting event of The False Friend, and it dovetails with conflicting memories from other people who were there at the time. Coming to terms with the uglier parts of who we have been—especially when we have changed so much in the intervening years—is a sweeping part of our own stories, a time when we feel we might well be living with an instrumental score illuminating every moment.

I’ve already gone on for longer than I meant to, but I also wanted to paraphrase a couple of notes from the other speakers that night: Eshkol Nevo, speaking about his book Homesick, spoke about memory and place regarding the place that is The Place for all of us, our home. What is home for someone who has moved a lot? I’ve lived in twelve places by now, and no one from my family lives in the house where I grew up. I believe houses keep memories, and one of my favorite places was a ramshackle farmhouse in New Mexico that was the oldest residence I lived in… but I only got to live there for a little over half a year. Dylan Horrocks, in contrast with the MFA instructors in the room *g*, cautioned against drawing instruction for living from works of fiction, and talked in depth about the difference between truth and fact. Fiction explores them both, he said, but it’s important to separate works of fiction from what we live when we open our eyes. Imagination is powerful, but it is its own world, a personal, portable one that we can manipulate, and make sense of when the waking world can sometimes make so little. Dylan was the only graphic novelist on the panel, and his Hicksville adds an exponential level of imagination to the finished product—the visual art that communicates along with the written story to immerse the reader even more fully into the imaginary world.

I came away from the evening so energized, so grateful to have witnessed such a disparate group of writers talking about the nebulous concepts at hand. Myron and I went to the signing room and had a field day. The IFOA recorded all the sessions for podcasts, and when those are available I’ll update this post with a link to the conversation. In the meantime, here are four writers whose work is worth investigating. Next time—David Mitchell and William Gibson.


I came home from Toronto with a number of signed books, but I bought an extra one to give away here on the blog later this month. Yep, it’s our first giveaway! More info coming soon.