Posts Tagged ‘musings’

What is a novel?

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Hello, friends. I recently had a long and utterly engaging conversation with three fellow writers: two of them critically acclaimed poets, all of us writers of novels. We were talking about the act of writing. One of us, who is working on her first novel, said that for her, writing it was like posing the question, “What is a novel?” That is, what are the novelistic conventions I value? Is it true that a novel must feature x? Or that it must not do y? For this friend, the novel she writes will be the answer – or perhaps one set of answers – to that question.

I was completely taken with this philosophical approach to writing because I have gone about things so very differently (thus far). When I sat down to write my first novel, the one thing of which I was certain was how very little I knew about writing a novel. I thought that I wanted a Victorian setting, and that I wanted to write about an outsider: a girl who, in strictly realist terms, would have led a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.* I had my two starting points, and then I panicked. I had no idea how to structure a novel. Fortunately, I am a lifelong devotee of mystery novels, so it felt right to use the genre as a kind of coat-hanger, to give the book a conventional and useful shape. I knew what was expected, and I could tinker with the genre in small but meaningful ways.

That first book became A Spy in the House and its siblings: The Body at the Tower, The Traitor in the Tunnel, and Rivals in the City (which I’m revising right now!). And then, a couple of months ago (before the editorial revisions for Rivals boomeranged back to me), I sat down to write something completely different. Once again I leaned back and craned my neck, trying to picture the shape of this new book. Over the course of four novels I had learned a bit about plot and structure, but little that I found immediately useful.

What I did, instead, was start playing with voice. I was inspired by two things: a person I know fairly well, and a photograph from a book. And quite soon, the voice became two voices, and I began thinking of the new book as a point of departure. I was trying to provoke. I was refuting some of my previous experience of storytelling. Essentially, I was trying to write against.

With these as my two existing models of writing a novel (writing for; writing against), it’s no wonder that I was struck by my friend’s quiet, personal, solitary question: What is a novel? It’s a brave question, and a difficult one. It’s one that doesn’t allow you to lean on tradition for comfort, and which reminds you to stop being such a reactive brat. It’s one that draws your focus, again and again, into the work itself. What is a novel? I won’t know until I’ve written the next book. And I hope I’ll be able to answer that question in very different forms, over the course of my career. What do you think? What is a novel, to you?

To answer the question in a different form: a reader from Toronto, Shann, recently sent me a link to Litograph, which offers a playfully literal definition of a novel: posters, t-shirts, and tote bags printed with the entire text of a classic book. The best ones, in my opinion, aren’t necessarily of my personal favourite books; instead, they’re titles for which the artist really captured the spirit of the book: Anne of Green Gables, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Persuasion, Gulliver’s Travels. Thank you, Shann, for making my holiday shopping that much easier!

*Aside: I read a novel this past summer that offers a fiery but ultimately realist history for a girl like Mary Quinn: Slammerkin, by Emma Donoghue. It’s terrific and vivid and utterly oppressive because you know from the first page that its protagonist, Mary Saunders, cannot possibly have a happy ending.

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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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What kind of Asian are you?

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

I love this.

In real life, I’ve tried a few low-key variations on this, but it never seems to get through. I think if we want to educate the people who ask these questions, we need to explain directly why it’s inappropriate to make assumptions based on appearance. In the meantime, however, I’m just going to watch this one more time and smirk.

How do you respond to questions based on first impressions of race, age, gender, or style?

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Café Cliché

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

Hello, friends. For the past 2 weeks, I have resumed working in a coffee shop. I do the morning routine, shedding kids along the way, and turn up at my favourite old-new café (it moved). I order a drink, admire the pastries, say hello to the regulars, and sit down with my battered, cracked old laptop and time-travel to Victorian London. It’s excellent. In fact, it’s my favourite way to work. While I spent quite a long time trying to persuade myself that I could work just as effectively from home, I think it’s time to concede the truth: CoffeEco, you are the answer.

I love coffee shops because they create a focused window in which to work. I don’t idle all day, holding meetings and checking Facebook. I’m there for about 90 minutes, max, and in that time I give all my attention to my work-in-progress. I don’t worry about laundry piling up, what to make for dinner, or all the unread email clogging my inbox. When my time is up, I pack up and move on. I’ll write again after lunch, but that first 90 minutes sets the tone for the rest of my day. If I’m disciplined and productive in that first writing session, my whole day goes better. Conversely, if I use that time to run errands and do admin, I never seem to catch up in a satisfactory way.

So far, I sound like a smug little model of efficiency, don’t I? Ha. Confession time.

I also adore working in coffee shops because of all the conversations buzzing around me. I don’t participate (I’m busy staring at my screen, right?) but rest assured, I am most certainly “earwigging”, as my mother-in-law calls it. (Isn’t that a great word?) It’s a great way to check in with the rest of the world. It’s also interesting to observe how consistent certain types of conversations can be. For example, in the last five interactions I’ve heard between youngish men and youngish women, the men have spent most of the conversation talking about themselves. At length. While the women nod along enthusiastically and says things like, “That’s amazing!” Now, I have nothing against talking about oneself as part of a balanced conversation; after all, it’s what I do in this space, every Wednesday. But this is something I’m going to keep an eye on

I’ve also noticed that when people ask mothers of young children how they’re doing, they always say something like, “Oh, we’re great. Zoe’s in soccer camp and Carson’s just cut his first tooth!” Did you catch that? The mother IS her children; the spouse is missing. I am 100% guilty of this, by the way, and from now on I’m going to make a point of including every member of the family in my response.

And that’s where I’m at today. Are you an earwigger, too? What patterns have you noticed, in recent conversations around you?

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From A to B

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

Hello, friends! The lake is frozen, it’s snowing like crazy, and I’m dreaming of this Galangal and Coconut Milk Soup. (Don’t heed the blogger’s advice to substitute ginger for galangal. Go galangal, or go home!) I’m also thinking about my chaotic, haphazard, impulsive version of the writing process.

Digression: I am moderately interested in cars. I am married to someone with an obsessive interest in cars. Together, we have made children who are deeply, excessively, hypernormally interested in cars (also trucks, fire engines, buses, construction vehicles, etc). We have a small collection of bashed-up English car magazines dating back to 2005 that, appropriately deployed, can hypnotize both of the children for at least 15 minutes. They are a precious commodity in a house without a tv. Anyway, what I’m saying is that cars are high in the Top 5 subjects discussed in our house. I can confidently state that none of us has ever used the phrase, “So long as it gets me from A to B…” with even a fleck of sincerity.

But “getting from A to B” is one of the things I enjoy most about writing. I love to sit down, create a starting point, and then wonder, “Now, how will I get this character to where I need her? What should happen next? Does that ring true? What if something else happened? What if…” And I’m off. It’s almost always surprising, startling, satisfying. The vehicle matters.

What are your favourite parts about the writing process?

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The cure for perfectionism

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

Hello, friends. Yesterday, my four-year-old was on the brink of tears because the picture he was drawing failed to live up to the picture in his head. I watched him and thought, “Oh, my darling. You too?”

Don’t get me wrong: I am very glad and grateful to live in a world filled with perfectionists. I wouldn’t have the courage to drive a car or heat my house or, generally, live my life, if the world were maintained by the casual and the feckless. Still, I feel for the boy.

We had a chat about how even talented artists can’t always create what they see in their heads, how professional musicians can’t always play what they hear inside. And I mentioned, casually, that I can’t always write what I want, either.

It was oddly liberating, admitting that to a child. It was useful, too, articulating what’s been bogging me down with Rivals in the City. And because I was talking to a child, I had to frame it gently. And that was perhaps most useful of all: the quiet, matter-of-fact acknowledgement that even a finished work will be imperfect, will not quite attain the vision I had for it. And that’s acceptable, too.

I offered my son a parent’s clichés: effort counts; practice equals progress; if you give up, you’ll never find out what you’re capable of. Banal as I sounded to my own ears, I thought the clichés were right, too.

How about you, friends? Are you perfectionists, or happy-go-lucky approximators? How do you deal with perfectionism?

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Negotiating with tradition

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Hello friends! We celebrate Christmas in our house, and we’re still figuring out our traditions. I come from a family whose only tradition is to not have any traditions (even the Christmas tree was hit-and-miss throughout my childhood, and I doubt we’ve ever eaten the same Christmas dinner twice), and my spouse, Nick, is from a family with very strong, sentimental rituals. He and I have talked about what kinds of traditions we want to cultivate. The problem? Our lives are so hectic right now that it seems as though every year, we crash-land in the middle of December with no fruitcake, no lights, and the vaguest of plans to get a tree “soon”.

We have to get our act together.

So this morning I was thinking, what are the most important Christmas traditions for our family? Clearly, we’re going to have to be selective, this year. For me, it’s about a special family meal that we look forward to each year. There will be small menu changes, but it’s not going to be Chinese food one year, followed by Italian the next. For Nick, it’s about the tree and the excitement of Father Christmas for little kids. Following in his dad’s tradition, Nick will create tiny reindeer hoofprints for the kids to find on Christmas morning, as evidence of Santa’s visit. For our four-year-old, it’s all about the gingerbread house, aka an excuse to eat unlimited amounts of Smarties and buttercream icing. And our littlest one is just learning about Christmas, which means she’ll be very forgiving of any amount of last-minute holiday anarchy.

As the kids grow, become more independent, and develop interests of their own, our traditions will evolve. We’ll get to the Christmas baking, the crafty ornaments, the homemade Advent calendar, the big Christmas party – one day. In the meantime, we’ll focus on our dearest rituals and enjoy them to the fullest.

What are your favourite, most-loved holiday traditions?

P.S. There’s a nearby family farm that raises heritage-breed bronze turkeys. The birds roam outdoors, get lots of sunshine, eat organic food (and bugs), and generally have happy turkey lives. We’re all set – for 2013, that is. Yes, we’re waiting on a turkey that hasn’t even been born yet. We are going to be SO ready next year!

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Are we all laughing at the same thing?

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Somewhere in the wilds of the internet, I clicked through to the comedy sketch State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls. It’s fairly funny, in my opinion, although there’s a clangingly callous throwaway joke at the end that ruins it for me. But I was slightly irked by its underlying assumption that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl character is the main thing to be mocked: stupid MPDGs, who start out so refreshing and redemptive, until men weary of their whimsy. Hang on a second. Shouldn’t the mockery be aimed at the creators of the MPDG? There’s a brief flash of this in the State Home video, but it goes unexplored.

I was going to write a post about this until I realized that Feminist Frequency has already done it! It’s a bit more serious than I’d have been, but it’s all there. Take it away, FF!

If you want a transcript of the video, it’s here. And there’s some interesting conversation to be had in the comments, too. And now I’m off to read more about Feminist Frequency. Oh, the internets.

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Writing a book is not like having a baby

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

That’s stating the obvious, isn’t it? Yet for the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a lot of references to “labour” and “birth”, to “midwives” and “newborns” – and these people aren’t talking about tiny humans.

This complaint may sound grumpy and petty; it’s not intended that way. I’m not disparaging the thousands of hours of hard work that go into either enterprise. Having chosen to engage in both, it’s only reasonable that I also love them both. But when we overuse this analogy, it deflates the delicate, consuming, enormously frustrating, and endlessly rewarding disciplines of both writing and child-rearing.

Writing is both easier and more difficult than having a baby because:

1. It fits into your schedule. If you don’t create time to write, you don’t write! (Try putting your colicky infant on hold that way…)

2. It hones skills you were already good at. I’m a voracious reader and I excelled in English all through school – a thoroughly typical profile for a writer. The things you learn daily as a writer tend to be subtle and they make you a slightly better craftsman in small but satisfying ways. The first diaper I ever changed, though? On my newborn son’s tiny, flailing, slippery bum, while I was stunned by opiates, full of stitches, and tethered to an IV pole. Why hello, learning curve.

3. Babies grow, develop, and become ever-more-interesting individuals. Your published book will always contain that typo you missed on p. 187.

4. A published book never grows less beautiful. Children become adolescents.

5. When writing, you are the boss. When parenting, you are a teacher/social worker/butler/wallet.

6. When writing, I am recognizably and consistently myself. When parenting, I am sometimes my own enemy, but more often I feel inspired to be a better human being.

What do you think of the book/baby analogy? Did I miss anything?

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The inimitable (redux)

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012

Hello, friends. I’ve been enjoying Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life so very much, and I was deliberately slowing down towards the end so as to spin it out a bit longer. (Anybody else do that?) But I finished it last night with an immense sigh of satisfaction. And I’ve been thinking about Dickens’s reckless, utterly driven pace of life and death.

It was clear that his death was approaching. He’d had a stroke, was increasingly weak, and unable to walk at times, but he persisted in keeping up a demanding schedule of public appearances. In his last, dying days, Dickens:

– met with Queen Victoria, rather reluctantly, and fumed about her “preposterous” book, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, behind her back

– gave a final series of public readings, in which he couldn’t pronounce “Pickwick”. It came out, variously, as Pickswick, Pecknicks, and Pickwicks

– dined with the American ambassador and Disraeli, and breakfasted with Gladstone

– advised his daughters in an amateur theatrical they were putting on

– supervised extensive renovations to his country house at Gad’s Hill

– made an inventory of the spirits consumed at Gad’s Hill House: rum, sherry, brandy, and “Very Fine Scotch Whiskey”

– and, of course, worked on his last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

As Tomalin points out, there’s a huge amount of contradiction here. Even as Dickens acknowledged his mortality with a farewell reading tour and getting his will and other papers in order, he was also renovating his house, worrying about how much whiskey remained in the cellar, and writing instalments of another full-length novel.

His last days stand in sharp contrast to those of Jane Austen, who also knew she was dying. Austen’s priority (apart from her family) was to finish her last, masterful novel, Persuasion, and I’ve always been convinced by arguments that Persuasion ends so rapidly because Austen was working against time.

Tomalin’s final paragraph is a brilliant compression of the major themes and ideas she develops through the book. It’s too long to quote here, but if you’re at all interested in Dickens as a writer, I urge you to read this bio. It does everything a good biography should: expanded and enhanced my appreciation for the subject, inspired me to read more about people and things related to Dickens, and galvanized me to start re-reading the novels.

I think I shall begin with Great Expectations.

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