Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

Rivals in the City: the transatlantic edition

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Hello, friends. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Rivals in the City will be published in the UK/World in June 2014. The gorgeous cover, designed by Walker Books, is here. And now I have a pub date for the US/Canadian (Candlewick Press) edition of Rivals in the City: February 2015. I am so thrilled to have a concrete date. I know it’s twelve months away, but I hope you’ll find it worth the wait. I hope to have some cover news to share with you soon, as well.

As for today’s main content, Nafiza of the Book Wars interviewed me recently. She wasted no time in asking the big questions: race, geographical identity, masculinity, Canadian identity, and how much of me goes into the character of Mary Quinn. It was a lovely interview for me, and I hope you enjoy it, too.

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Humility

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Hello, friends. This past weekend, a Kingston-based group of children’s authors got together to sign books at our local Chapters. We were five: Leanne Lieberman, Jill Bryant, Mary Alice Downie, Ann-Maureen Owens, and me. Fellow author Christine Fader very generously took photos, rallied troops, handed out bookmarks, and was her ebullient self. Here’s one of Christine’s photos of us getting set up and waiting for our public. (I used that phrase entirely facetiously. If I ever refer to “my public” in earnest, please do something drastic to get my attention.) Isn’t the store lovely? It was a great antidote to a windy, rainy afternoon.

Here are Jill, Mary Alice, and Ann-Maureen with some of their books.

Leanne and I, with our YA novels. We had terrific support from store staff, who ordered books in advance, created signs, made announcements, and generally welcomed us with real warmth. Thank you!

This was the first time I’d done a signing without a reading, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I didn’t count on was a woman who approached us, looking both eager and hesitant. She paused, shyly, and I said hello. “Oh!” She rushed the table. “I’ve been looking for you. Are these the Chicken Soup books?”

I tried not to laugh. I helped her to find the Chicken Soup books. And I realized that I’ve finally had my classic author moment of being mistaken for somebody much, much, much more widely read. It was genuinely funny to me, and it felt like a rite of passage. I maintain, however, that I do not resemble Jack Canfield in the slightest.

It was a good afternoon, hanging out fellow writers. And I did, in fact, sign a book or two of my own.

I now have another appearance to announce: the Calgary Public Library has invited me to give a pair of readings on November 28, 2013.

Reading 1:
Crowfoot Library 

8665 Nose Hill Drive

11-12:30 p.m.
 
Reading 2:
Village Square Library

2623 56 St NE

2 – 3 p.m.

I’m so excited to go to Calgary for the very first time. I hope you’ll spread the word, and to see some of you there!

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 2

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Hello again, friends. Two weeks ago, I wrote about my recent tour of the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary. It was an intense and memorable experience, and today I’d like to round it out with a few more photos and explanations. In my earlier post, I walked you through the main prison building and mentioned the native ceremonial grounds. Just past these grounds there is a second major building that was in daily use: the prison “shops”. This is the building in which inmates could work and learn.

There was a wood shop, a metal shop, and a furniture-maker – the clearest indication of the prison’s rehabilitative function. (It may seem hard to believe, but when Kingston Penitentiary was first built in the 1835, it was considered an enlightened and modern place.) Here, in the shops, inmates could learn skills that might change their futures.

Inmates who held jobs earned a small amount of money – according to our tour guide, David Stewart (pictured), the inmate wage topped out at $6 per day and was reduced in recent years, due to budget cuts. Inmates could spend their earnings at the canteen (which sold snacks and cigarettes). Prisoners who applied for extended visits with their families were also permitted to buy and cook their own food in the family units, using money earned in the shops.

Here’s an image of the metal shop, with its beautiful Victorian brick-arched ceilings.

It’s an interesting level of trust, to have a sole teacher working with a group of inmates using heavy machinery. According to someone who worked as a prison teacher, the consensus was that it was fairly safe: the teacher was seen as an ally, or at least a bystander. If any violence occurred, it was much more likely to be between inmates.

Up on the second floor, there was also a school. You can see the small sign below. Some of the inmates would have been working towards their high school diplomas or possibly university degrees, but many lacked even elementary reading and math skills.

After the cool gloom of “the shops”, Dave led us back outside. The prison grounds house a hospital with a permanent psychiatric ward, and there is also a gym. We didn’t see either of these but we got a strangely beautiful sight of the outdoor exercise area.

It’s hard for me to judge how large this space is – maybe three football fields put together? Dave said that in the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common to have three hundred inmates in the yard, and two unarmed guards locked inside with them. There would also have been guards with rifles posted at two or three lookout points over the yard, but even so, it’s a daunting thought.

This next image is a closer shot of the guard tower. The entrance you can see is the old one; it was filled in some time ago and you now access the guard tower from outside the prison walls. If you’re a Kingstonian, these guard towers are iconic. Along with the front door, they are the only parts of the prison you can see from the outside.

As our tour neared its conclusion, we walked along the west wall towards the entrance. Again, I was struggling to capture the scale of the place but I remembered that there have been escapes from this penitentiary in which inmates have managed to climb the walls. Here’s what the climb would have looked like, over the west wall.

The final brief sight on our tour was of this neatly landscaped limestone building. It now houses the prison’s administration. Can you guess its previous function?

This was the Female Department: Canada’s first prison for women. I’m not sure exactly when it was built, but I believe that originally, female inmates were housed in a separate wing of the men’s prison. They were allowed to bring their children with them. The Female Department was used to hold prisoners until 1934, when the Prison for Women was built nearby.

At this point in the tour, we asked Dave how he’d managed to work in Corrections for thirty-two years. His answer was both encouraging and admirable: he said that the most important thing was to remember that each inmate was a person, and wanted to be treated as such. He emphasized the importance of always being watchful, because prisons are always potentially dangerous. He also said he’d been lucky because he had missed the 1971 riot at the Pen, when prisoners seized control of the building for four days, killed two inmates, and took a number of guards hostage. However, Dave finally said that he tried always to speak to inmates with respect, and to do what he said he would do, and he felt a similar respect from them in turn. I really admired his approach.

I know this is a lot of material to contemplate. But before I go, I want to leave you with a link to this CBC documentary about Kingston Pen, Tales from KP. It’s quite melodramatic but it offers a number of interesting insights into the prison. And it mentions that Charles Dickens toured the Pen in 1842! Dickens called it “an admirable gaol… well and wisely governed, and excellently regulated in every respect.” Despite the suffering and injustices that must have taken place within the walls of Kingston Penitentiary, it is good to know that it was born of generous and progressive intentions.

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Kingston Penitentiary, Part 1

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

Hello, friends. A few days ago I finally fulfilled, with thanks to my friend Michelle Gibson, a longstanding ambition to snoop around Kingston Penitentiary! (I requested a tour on my own, many years ago, but Corrections Canada is not interested in accommodating the curiosity of local residents – even if we are Professionally Nosy, aka writers.) But the Penitentiary was recently closed for good and the United Way of Kingston is cleverly fundraising by offering a limited number of tours. I turned up on a brilliant autumn day and met our volunteer tour guide, a retired guard named David Stewart.

The oldest parts of the Penitentiary were constructed in 1835 and walking through the front door is a deeply Victorian experience. It’s high and dark, and you are made to feel very small. You snake through a corridor and emerge in the Visitation and Correspondence (V&C) room. It’s a deeply dispiriting space: low-ceilinged, dingy and windowless, with glass-topped tables and fixed seats. The saddest part of the room is the children’s corner, which someone has attempted to make more cheerful with a little bright paint. It still contains a couple of strollers and a handful of toys, and there remains a poster on the wall reminding you that Loving Fathers Read to Their Children. I’ve seldom seen a space that so makes me despair of lost potential.

Our guide, Dave, mentioned that there were hidden microphones in each table, so that guards could monitor conversations between inmates and their visitors. KP was used as a maximum-security institution so there was also a visitation area where inmates were separated from their visitors by a glass partition and talked to them via telephone, as I’m sure you’ve seen in the movies.

We followed Dave outside, squinting in the sudden sunshine, and this was the first thing I saw.

More heartbreak. There are six of these “family units” for inmates who earned visitation privileges through good behaviour. For 72 hours at a time, their families could come to stay with them in one of these houses. There, they could cook their own food and generally try to fabricate a domestic life.

We walked past the family units and there was sudden murmur of admiration:

This is the North Gate, through which vehicles holding prisoners were originally admitted. The belltower at the top had an important function in the nineteenth century. According to Dave, all prison employees had to live within earshot of the bell. If there was an emergency, someone would ring the bell and everyone had to muster at the Pen to pitch in. Despite the context, isn’t that gate beautiful?

The barred windows below are on one arm of the Pen’s cross-shaped central building. They allow some light and ventilation into the ranges (rows of cells), and were cleaned by inmates. Inmates also cleared snow, gardened, cooked, did laundry, and many other tasks on the premises.

All that sounds quite orderly, if not downright cozy. Then you walk inside to view a typical range:

All the cells are singles, but the “typical” ones are arranged in rows of about ten. If you lived in one, you’d be able to hear and smell your neighbours – unless, of course, you were atypical. Inmates who couldn’t be in the company of others – especially the notorious – were held in isolation cells, which we didn’t view.

Inmates in insolation cells remained there for 23 hours a day. During the one hour they were permitted outside, they used one of a few small “yards”, where they were again alone. We didn’t view these yards but I grabbed a shot through a dirty window.

One of the doors to such a yard had a small trapdoor just below waist height. Dave explained that a particularly aggressive or dangerous inmate would be led outside in handcuffs. Once outside, the guard would close the door. The prisoner would offer his cuffed wrists through the slot and be released. Before returning, the prisoner would present his wrists for cuffing, and only then be allowed back into the building.

There was a third type of cell, called a “disassociation” cell. These were for inmates who behaved aggressively towards others. In the photo below, the concrete shelf you see is the bed. Dave said that when he began work at the Pen in the early 1970s, those in the “dis” cells got one meal a day, with bread and water at other times. Their mattresses were brought in at 10pm and removed at 7am. In more recent years, they received regular meals and kept their mattresses in the cells, and Dave suggested that the inmates fared better as a result.

The exterior of the “dis” cells.

One of the most surreal aspects of the tour was the contrast between the glorious weather and the very dim interior of the prison; the grim steel and concrete of the cells and the elegance of the limestone exteriors. This is the south face of the main building. Carved into the stone are the three main dates of construction and alteration: 1835, 1893, and 1992.

Beyond the main building, I saw a fenced-in area with a lot of clutter piled up.

It turned out to be the native grounds, where First Nations inmates could observe their faith. Here are the grounds from a distance:

Maybe what struck me most (after all the props and pieces that must have had their purpose) was the luxuriance of the grass – something we always take for granted, until entirely surrounded by concrete. I’m not sure what inmates of other religions did – there was mention of a chapel, but not of a mosque or anything else.

I think this might be a good place to pause. I was a bit stunned by the end of the tour, torn between lively historical curiosity and a genuine sense of mourning for all the known and unknown things that had happened – possibly in the precise spot where I stood.

I’ll return next week with more photos from the second half of the tour. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of the place? Have you ever toured an institution like this?

 

 

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Mythological maidens

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Hello, friends. We were in Ottawa this past weekend and I spent several minutes staring, transfixed, at the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald on Parliament Hill. I had cleverly neglected to bring a working camera with me, so this image is ripped, with apologies, from the Public Works and Government Services of Canada website.

statue of Sir John A Macdonald by Louis-Philippe Hébert

I’m interested, specifically, in the slightly-larger-than-life-sized sculpture that adorns the pedestal: the regal-looking woman seated with a spear. There’s a much clearer image of her here, if you’re willing to click through. Or you can just take my word for everything I’m going to say.

I didn’t know who she was, at first: some generic Greek-mythological nymph, I thought. There’s quite a tradition of placing decorative female figures (which I’ll call FFs, from now on) below statues of male politicians. I had read somewhere, years before, that the FFs embodied aspects of the politician’s best-known leadership qualities. Well. If that is indeed the case, Macdonald (or “John A”, as he’s familiarly known in Kingston) was primarily celebrated for an imperious gaze, carelessly worn togas, and very large breasts.

The most striking thing about this statue (the woman is more than an embellishment; she’s a statue in her own right, and much more prominent than Macdonald himself, if you’re standing at ground level) is how extremely young, firm-bodied, and nearly undressed she is. She’s bare-armed, the thin fabric of her toga leaving nothing to the imagination. And she’s wearing very minimal sandals, so that her feet are essentially bare. This is an extraordinary state of public undress for 1895, the year of the statue’s creation by Louis-Philippe Hébert, and a year when respectable women dressed like this.

I suppose that’s the point: the FF is not meant to be a respectable woman, or any kind of real human being at all. She’s a decorative element, the spirit of a person or nation or movement personified. (This one is sometimes referred to as the Personification of Canada.) But it’s another startling reminder of just how casually the female body could be used, even in 1895. It’s also part of a long artistic tradition of male sculptors and painters evading the standards of the day by using “historical” costume to undress female bodies for visual pleasure.

I’ve been wondering how viewers in late-nineteenth century Ottawa responded to the FF. Did adolescent boys flock to view her, to their parents’ consternation? Did MPs pause before it for a few moments’ distraction, during a break in the House of Commons? Or was it simply another semi-nude figure scattered across Ottawa’s terrain? I would dearly love to know.

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Fermentation

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

I’ve been a very sloppy blogger recently, and for that I sincerely apologize. I didn’t mean to fall into an every-other-week pattern, and I realize it’s Thursday today. I have a specific plan to improve (I’ve blocked out a blogging session each Monday evening) and I hope my weekly post will become a joyful habit, rather than something I cringe to realize that I’ve missed once again.

But I’m here now to talk to you about fermentation! The jars below contain tomato seeds from some of the varieties we grew this summer. This is the first year we’ve tried saving tomato seeds, but our friends Crista and Mike assure us that it’s straightforward. Basically, we choose the ripest, most beautiful specimen possible, scoop out the goo (technical term) and seeds, and put them in a jar. We top it up with a little water – about half as much water as there was goo, by volume – cover it and let it sit. When a thin layer of greyish-white mould grows on top of the water, we drain off the liquid and rinse, rinse, rinse. Then we dry the tomato seeds on a plate on that same sunny window-sill.

Looks like a mad science experiment, don’t you think?

But it’s not just tomato seeds we’ve been fermenting around here. Firstly, I’ve begun work on the New Book and it’s scaring the pants off me, in a good way. (No, I haven’t begun writing horror. I can’t even read horror. I tried reading Andrew Pyper’s The Killing Circle this summer and had to stop, I was so terrified. And then I had nightmares.) But the New Book is completely different from what I’ve written before: new setting, new time period, first-person instead of third-person, two narrators instead of one… I’m not sure I can do it, and it’s freaking me out, but I adore the challenge.

Another thing that’s fermenting is a visit to Calgary in November, about which I’m so excited. On November 28th, I’ll be reading at two branches of the Calgary Public Library! I’ll post times and locations as soon as I know the details.

And finally, my lovely UK editor just sent me a draft cover for Walker Books’ edition of Rivals in the City. I’m not allowed to share it yet, because it’s still being discussed and refined. But I can tell you that it’s gorgeous…

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Crime Scene 2012

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Hello, friends! I had an absolutely splendid time this past weekend at Scene of the Crime, and thought I’d share what I could with you. I had a great “handler” at the festival (basically, a person assigned to make sure the visiting author is supplied with coffee and doesn’t get lost), a Wolfe Islander named Kristina, but I forgot to ask her to take some photos while I was reading & panelling, so mea culpa for the absence of pics.

Scene of the Crime has a perfect setting: Wolfe Island. Wolfe is the largest of the Thousand Islands, it’s a gorgeous ferry-ride from Kingston (excitingly remote!), and it’s the kind of island where everybody knows everybody and everything is connected. All ten authors stayed at the same B&B. YOU GUYS. Could someone please write a cozy, locked-room mystery featuring ten mystery writers in a rural B&B? Thank you.

When I asked organizer Violette Malan how many people she was expecting, she waved her hand and said, “Craploads. Actually, we’re at capacity. We never turn anyone away, but we can only guarantee meals for 100.” This is the genius thing about SotC: it’s small, it’s friendly, and there’s zero room for pretension. I got to chat – really chat – with readers. I learned that some bookclubs do road trips together (hello, Jane and the Stratfordians!). Another reader & writer (hi, Susan!) taught me the finer points of church hall dinners (tip: snag your pie at the beginning of the meal. You get the best selection, plus you can go back for seconds while looking all innocent). And, speaking of church-lady dinners, we were so very well fed. I’m in awe of the SotC Board and volunteers, who worked incredibly hard and made everything look so very easy. Thank you for inviting me!

My fellow authors at SotC were Thomas Rendell Curran, who writes detective fiction set in pre-Confederation Newfoundland – a setting that, as he says, completely justifies description of the weather in a novel’s opening; D. J. McIntosh, author of The Witch of Babylon, who offered the most succinct writing advice I’ve heard in some time: on the first page of your crime novel, “avoid boredom”; and John Moss, who writes the Quin & Morgan series set in Toronto, and who is fascinating on the subjects of old limestone houses, swans, and beekeeping.

Then there were the ladies. Not just any ladies, but the Ladies Killing Circle. They crack jokes. They wonder – very seriously – whether there is enough wine. And they represent, among other things, two decades of crime fiction written by Canadian women. When accepting their Grant Allen Award for contributions to Canadian crime writing, member Vicki Cameron explained that in the early 1990s, it was incredibly difficult for women writers of crime fiction to be taken seriously, let alone get published. So the LKC (which began as a critique group) called for submissions and edited their own anthology, also called The Ladies Killing Circle. This wasn’t vanity publishing: stories from each of their seven anthologies have won mystery-writing awards. And they’ve launched the careers of a number of Canadian writers, as a result.

The Ladies are vicious in name only; you couldn’t find a more welcoming, generous, congenial group of authors. And they’ve inspired me to work at building my own writing community. In fact, that’s one of my goals for this fall.

So that was my Scene of the Crime 2012. What are you up to, in the dwindling weeks of August?

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At the Scene of the Crime

Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m so excited about this week. Tomorrow, I’ll be skyping with a group of YA readers in Prescott, Arizona. And this weekend, I’m appearing at the Scene of the Crime Mystery Festival on Wolfe Island, Ontario. I’ll be there with DJ McIntosh, John Moss, and Thomas Rendell Curran, as well as the deliciously named Ladies Killing Circle.

I love Scene of the Crime. It’s friendly, informal, and it includes a church-ladies’ dinner that usually ends with pie. The first time I went, I was an aspiring writer and I went at the encouragement of my friend Jay Ridler. I met – gasp! – Real Live Authors, who were approachable and funny, and with whom we all went for drinks afterwards. So I’m especially thrilled to be going back this year as one of the authors. I will do my best to be as engaging and welcoming as they all were to me. If you’re in the Kingston area, please come! It’ll be delightful.

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A whole world of leisure

Wednesday, July 25th, 2012

Hello, friends. I’m on holiday with my extended family again, this time in Whistler, B.C. It’s a glorious break from reality: brilliant sunshine, sublime mountain vistas, and every time I wish for a cup of coffee, my brother is already grinding beans. How could I possibly complain?

So this isn’t a complaint, but rather an observation: one of the stranger things about being in Whistler is being in a place built entirely around the idea of leisure and luxury. It’s a wilderness of luxury hotels, twee Disney architecture, and elaborately landscaped boulevards. The “villages” consist of expensive stores and restaurants with holiday condos atop them. And it’s full of people who’ve travelled here purely to have a good time. It’s oppressively, deliciously, entirely synthetic. And you know what it makes me think of?

Bath. As in the city of Bath, in Somerset, England. It became a fashionable holiday place during the eighteenth century, and Jane Austen is famous for disliking it. Even today, it’s a popular spot – especially for Austenphiles like me, who are torn between admiring the Georgian architecture and trying to imagine how such a setting might have dampened Austen’s ability to write.

I’m not sure I have a neat and tidy point to make this week, except possibly that if Whistler’s buildings survive another two hundred years (good luck – they’re made of wood and stucco!), it’s fun to imagine reverent visitors of the future trekking through here, checking out the haunts of famous people in history, and trying to imagine the chaotic, fleshy, posing multitudes who are making it so very popular this summer.

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A women’s detective agency? Why?

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Hello, friends! I’m guest-blogging this week at Bites, where Donna asked me why I chose to write about a women’s detective agency in Victorian London. The short answer? I love bright and shiny anachronisms. The longer answer is here.

And did you know that this coming week, May 5 – May 12, is Canadian Children’s Book Week? In celebration of children’s books, my friends at Young Kingston have organized a group signing at Novel Idea Books on Sunday, May 6. I’ll be there from 3 to 4 with the award-winning Ann-Maureen Owens. Hope to see you there!

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