Monday, May 25th, 2009
Thanks to the organizers and audience of the Prince Edward County Authors Festival, where I read on May 23rd in the distinguished company of Elizabeth Abbot (Sugar: A Bittersweet History) and Eric Siblin (The Cello Suites).
A snippet from Elizabeth’s book: “…in the eighteenth century, an Englishwoman did something that transformed the world. I’ll call her Gladys Brown. She was a farm labourer’s wife with a hacking cough, three rheumy children and a daily ritual. When she could snatch a few minutes from the grinding round of her daily chores, Gladys would slouch onto the bench beside her cook-fire and imbibe a soothing cup of tea. That heady brew had already addicted aristocratic Europe. But when Gladys, a woman of modest means like millions of other Europeans, popped a chunk of sugar into her cuppa, she redrew the demographic, economic, environmental, political, cultural and moral map of the world.”
The Cello Suites
And from Eric’s: “Watching Laurence Lesser expertly play the suites, I was struck by the bulkiness of his instrument – in former times called the violoncello, of ‘cello for short – bringing to mind some lumbering peasant from a medieval string kingdom, rough-hewn and primitive, nowhere near sophisticated enough for the refined music it was playing. But on closer examination I could see the intricately carved wooden scroll and the curvacious sound holes, shaped like some exquisite baroque time signature. And what was coming out of those sound holes was music more earthy and ecstatic than anything I’d ever heard. I let my mind wander. What would the music have sounded like in 1720? It was easy to imagine the violoncello proving itself in aristocratic company and seducing the powdered wigs.”
Thanks to David Sweet and Marnie Woodrow and other organizers of the Festival, as well as to the engaged and enthusiastic audience.
Sunday, May 17th, 2009
Caterina Edwards got the 2008 Edmonton Litfest Cabaret off to a hilarious start with an expertly paced excerpt from her memoir, Finding Rosa: A Mother with Alzheimer’s, a Daughter in Search of the Past. I knew right away that I’d want to read the whole book. It didn’t disappoint. Finding Rosa is not only funny, but also searching, honest, and deeply compassionate, so it’s no surprise that it’s been shortlisted for the Wilfred Eggleston Award for Nonfiction. My review will appear in a few weeks at Prairie Fire. Among the compelling aspects of this book for me is its expert blending of genres and its careful exhumation of public – as well as private – memory. Here is Caterina in conversation.
Q: When did you start writing? Tell us a bit about your writing history.
A: I began telling myself stories before I could write. For many years, I was an only child, and my family moved often. I was often alone. So I told myself stories and peopled imaginary worlds.
My first conscious writing – that is, my first attempt at producing a real book – was in grade five. For a few years, I wrote all the time. But creative writing was not encouraged in schools then the way it is now.
Especially in high school and the early years of university, I absorbed the lesson that you had to be a genius to be a writer. And I obviously was not. During that time, I stopped writing, but not spinning fantasies. I began again when I studied creative writing with Rudy Wiebe. I did a Master of Arts in English literature, but wrote a creative thesis under Rudy and Sheila Watson. I published my first book when I was 34.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: I wanted to make sense of my relationship with my mother. This required discovering her past. That led me to search for the history of the place where she was born. I felt the connection between the personal and the public, between memory and history, before I understood it.
Q: What kind of work routine did you use?
A: I didn’t have enough of a routine. I was still teaching writing online and doing other writing assignments. I tried to write about 4 days a week. I wish I was one of those writers who gets up and goes straight to the computer. I’m fairly useless for the first couple of hours. Every now and then, when I could afford it, I’d go to a writer’s retreat. Then I would work long hours and make good progress.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered completing this book?
A: Finding the proper structure. It is much more difficult in a work of creative nonfiction. I’d written over a hundred pages when a writer-friend told me that I had no narrative through line. I threw everything out and started again. It took me a couple of years to figure out how to interweave the story of my caring for my mother with her life story and the history of the Istrian-Italians in the twentieth-century. Partly, it is finding the right rhythm. Also, the imagery and ideas are consistent throughout. I hope they gather resonance and meaning as the book progresses.
Q: What was the greatest reward?
A: Writing the book was cathartic. I grew to understand my mother and to forgive her.
Q: What do you like most about your chosen genre?
A: I love the scope and the flexibility of creative nonfiction. Memoir can easily contain history, biography, travel writing, reflection, exposition, and literary theory. There is no formula to this genre.
Still, I don’t have a chosen genre, per se. I’m drawn to new challenges. I’ve published a novel, a collection of short stories, a book of novellas, and a play. I’m not interested in repeating myself.
Q: Why did you choose this particular title for your work?
A: I didn’t. My title was “What Country is This?” taken from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
Q: What advice would you give to writers trying to get published?
A: Persevere. Don’t give up. But first of all, write for yourself. Your motivation can’t be publication or monetary success.
Q: What book would you tell them is a must to read and why?
A: I like The Writing Life by Annie Dillard because she makes you understand the full import of being a writer. There are lots of good “how to” books. I found Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writers’ Workshop: New Ways to Write Creative Nonfiction useful when I was teaching writing.
Q: Who is your favourite author and why?
A: I don’t have one favourite. I love different writers for different reasons: Alice Munro, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Marcel Proust, W.G. Sebald, Italo Calvino, Leonardo Sciascia, and Claudio Magris. Certainly, my favourites when I was 25 are not my favourites now.
Q: What book are you reading right now?
A: I recently finished Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Pathologies by Susan Olding. Both impressed me. Susan’s book touched me. [Editor's note: I promise I didn't pay her for this!] I’m just starting Elizabeth Hay’s Late Nights On Air.
Caterina says: I was born in Earls Barton, an English village famous for its Saxon tower and shoe factories. My father was a Barton lad, my mother an Italian war bride. I’m told that as soon as I could talk, I became my mother’s translator. I suspect that learning both languages simultaneously encouraged my later distrust of a singular approach or point of view. We immigrated to Alberta just before my eighth birthday. I grew up in Calgary, but most summers I visited my mother’s family in Venice. The contrast in cultures led me to understand at a young age that identity is not fragmentary but multiple. I’m also impatient with the traditional categories of genre, crossing boundaries whenever I can.
University brought me to Edmonton and – to my surprise - I still live here. After obtaining a Master of Arts in English, I began to publish short stories in literary magazines and, now and then, an anthology. I wrote when I could snatch an hour or two. I was teaching full time at MacEwan College on three campuses – I was in the English department from its beginning – and was busy at home with my two daughters. Soon after the birth of the second, I published my first novel, The Lion’s Mouth with NeWest Press. Next came a play, Homeground, which was professionally produced, a collection of short stories, Island of the Nightingales, two novellas, Whiter Shade of Pale/Becoming Emma and more stories and essays. I also wrote a docudrama, The Great Antonio, for CBC Radio. Despite a taste for nonfiction, I used to define myself as a fiction writer until I co-edited with Kay Stewart two collections of life writing by women. I became fascinated with how to express the complexity of lived experience, the jumble of the individual and the universal.
I eventually left the college, and over the years, taught literature and writing at almost every post-secondary institution in Edmonton. I worked as a freelance editor and also as a grants officer for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts. I was a writer-in-residence at both the University of Alberta and MacEwan College.
When I was eighteen, Robert Kroetsch told me:“It doesn’t matter what you’re writing now. What matters is if you are still writing thirty years from now.” When I was little, I told myself stories for reassurance and companionship. My motivation now is different: it is my way of exploring and understanding the world. But I continue to write because I’m compelled to.
I am looking forward to taking on the projects I had to put off when I was juggling my writing with teaching, child-rearing, and looking after either ailing in-laws or parents. I have been in the same house for 26 years and with the same husband even longer. And I’m still obsessed with multiple selves and cultures, with private memory and public history, with here and there.
You can find Caterina at her website, here.
Monday, May 11th, 2009
I’m delighted to present my first author interview with Shawna Lemay. Shawna’s book of essays, Calm Things, is currently shortlisted for the Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-Fiction, an Alberta Literary Award.
Shawna Lemay in New York City
Q: What inspired you to write this book? Why did you choose to use the essay form instead of poetry, since you have already written a great deal of ekphrastic poetry?
A: I’m fascinated by all the ways there are to write about art, to approach painting, to translate pictures, what we see, into words. So in many ways this was a natural progression, the move from poetry into prose. I had been reading a lot of travel writing beforehand, and I remember feeling very unsettled and wanting to reconcile this with the circumstances of my life, and also this desire to learn to be alone in my room, to sink into that, to learn how to be present in exactly the place I found myself. A good friend had travelled to Africa and had begun writing some excellent essays (A.S. Woudstra) and I started wondering what would it be like to write travel essays about home. Just looking at things with the fresh and curious eyes of a traveller.
As luck would have it, I had written one essay the summer before I began grad school at the U of A. I had signed up for Greg Hollingshead’s graduate seminar in creative writing fully intending to write short stories. Most of the people did write short stories but he was very open to the essay form, and encouraging. I remember him saying, ‘this is great material.’ The book really started in that class, then – my confidence in the possibility of writing a collection of essays came from that experience.
Q: What, if anything, do you feel distinguishes the personal essay as a genre?
A: I think it’s another possible mode of telling truths. The genre draws on other genres – poetry, fiction, journalism or reportage, and so for me, it’s the openness to these permutations, the possibilities inherent in the form, that distinguish it.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you encountered in completing this book?
A: There is some pressure, when you begin shopping your book around to publishers to revise the entire work, the single essays, into one larger book with a narrative arc. Originally the book had included essays on other subjects besides still life, and though I couldn’t envision the book as a single piece, I could see the sense in narrowing it to only those essays about still life. It was very difficult to excise those essays, but I’m glad I did, because one of them has turned into a much larger piece that I’ve been working on in the several years since.
Q: What was the greatest reward?
A: There have been many! Having written poetry for so long, my writing community is filled with wonderful poets – but the essays have also introduced me to others in the community that I might otherwise not have met.
I had long been interested in the idea of writing a short book, and had read an essay by Kristjana Gunnars on the topic in her book Stranger at the Door which solidified this yearning. There was a time in my life, when my daughter was young, that I sought out short books. Anything else seemed extravagant. So there was some pleasure in having accomplished this small feat without really setting out to do it.
Another reward is hearing so many people say that after they read the book they were inspired to paint or write, or head back to the studio.
And one last lovely reward – is that given the nature of the book, I knew that it would take a special kind of publisher to take it on. Palimpsest Press, it seems to me, is a perfect fit with the book. Dawn Kresan, publisher extraordinaire, did a superb job of designing it, so that the object itself, the book, is calm. It’s been a pleasure working with Dawn and Palimpsest.
Q: What do you like about writing essays, or how would you compare your experience of writing essays and poetry?
A: My experience of writing poetry is that it’s so much more intense – poems come out of the fire. One does a lot of preliminary work before coming to write a poem, but usually the poems I keep are written during one wild, mad, impatient day. After that, they’re revised and revised, but the bulk of the poem comes in one piece. I’ve found I need to be far more patient with an essay, to wait for various strands to appear, and then I need to work much harder to make the connections clear, though not too clear.
I think the form chooses us, and we write what we can, when we can. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that I wrote poems when my daughter was an infant and toddler, and then essays when she was in the early grades of elementary school. And now I’m writing a longer piece while she is 10 years old and so much more self-sufficient.
Q: Why did you choose this particular title for your work?
A: It’s the central question of the book, in a certain way. The Japanese call still life, “calm things,” I found out while researching the book. But for the French it’s nature morte, and for the Italian, it’s vita silente. So it has to do with perspective, about choice, how we choose to look at things, objects. It has to do with an approach to life, then, a way of understanding where we fit into the world through these every day, often overlooked, objects that in fact say so much about not only us as individuals, but the world from which they are plucked. These things that seem calm, still, silent, are at the same time, anything but. I could have easily chosen the title of another essay as the title of the book, “Precarious.” The book is very much about how to live as an artist, to live as creative souls in this most precarious world, this un-calm world, but I want the reader to come to that truth, through another, which is that it’s possible yet, to arrive at what is calm by attending to things, listening to things, and really, by receiving. As creative people, we receive so that we may send our creative energy back into the world in whatever form it may take – and this is the source of calm, the centre or core of it, that I hope resonates from this small book.
Painting by Robert Lemay
Q: What book would you tell aspiring writers is a must-read, and why?
A: I wish I’d come across Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, by Carolyn See earlier. Her advice is practical and given in a light, humorous tone. She talks about what to wear to a reading, how to deal with rejection, how to maintain a practice of writing, how to get published. She’s well known for recommending that writers send out ‘charming notes’ to writers they admire. She says that “the energy that accrues around messages is extraordinary, mystical, immeasurable.” She also says that ‘there is no better cure for a bad review than a thank-you note.”
I find Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing indispensable. She delves into writing via dreams, the depths, those places I need to travel. Reading this book, I always remember why I want to write – I’m reminded of the pleasure of language, of those magic words that spark and delight and resonate deep in the belly.
Q: Who are your favourite authors and why?
A: Helene Cixous, Clarice Lispector, Susan Griffin, Annie Dillard, Elizabeth Smart, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Kristjana Gunnars.
I think in every case it comes down to how they use language. I’m more and more obsessed with works in which the language is thickly poetic and so am constantly re-reading The Waves, and The Stream of Life.
Q: What are you reading right now?
A: Besides the aforementioned, I’m also about to read Anne Michael’s new book, and have been reading White Ink, interviews with Helene Cixous.
Shawna Lemay is the author of five books of poetry - Red Velvet Forest (Muses’ Company, 2009), Blue Feast (NeWest Press, 2005), Still (published by the author, 2003), Against Paradise (McClelland & Stewart, 2001),and All the God-Sized Fruit (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). Her book of essays about living with still life is titled Calm Things (Palimpsest Press, 2008). She has a B.A. in Honors English and an M.A. in English, both from the University of Alberta. All the God-Sized Fruit won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Stephan G. Stephansson Award. She lives in Edmonton with Robert Lemay, a visual artist, their daughter Chloe, and well-walked black Labrador retriever, Ace.
Shawna’s blogs are Calm Things and Capacious Hold-All. You can also find her at her web site.