Fracking Friday: Women’s Studies Talk on Ithaca

Here’s what I said to the Women’s Studies classes:

Ithaca is the story of how sudden change comes into a slow life. Book blogger Kerry Clare (picklemethis.com) gives a great synopsis of the book, something others can nearly always do better than the author:

“Ithaca is the story of Daisy Turner, whose husband has recently died, leaving her unmoored in a world in which she’d always felt so solidly ensconced. Unquestioningly so. Her husband had been everything to her, their grown son far away living his own life in Singapore, and now with him gone, the sole event on Daisy’s calendar (apart from the trip they’d booked months in advance to celebrate their 40th anniversary—what to do about that now?) is the Wednesday suppers, a longstanding tradition in which her husband’s academic colleagues and students and their families would gather together for friendship and conversation and Daisy’s famous soups. The suppers are all she’s got left now, and she constructs her weeks around them, too ashamed to let anybody know the extent of her grief and loneliness, that Arthur’s death has left her without any solid ground to stand on.

“But there is something to be said for unsteadiness, because too much steadiness is to have the world be sure, which it’s not, and something also to be said for how the process of reconstructing a broken life can bring forth growth and change and a new kind of resolve. As with those proverbial butterflies flapping their wings, it all starts with a small thing, Daisy invited by a friend to help harvest honey. The hives bought for his wife years ago, ailing from MS, with the hopes that their royal jelly might succeed where her medicine hasn’t, but it doesn’t and her health has only worsened. She can’t even venture out of her house these days, and so Daisy goes with Henry, instead of his wife, and on the way, she notices the signs protesting “fracking” in their area.

“Fracking. She doesn’t know the word, but she understands enough about its context—39 years of marriage to a geologist is some kind of education. Oil companies are planning to drill deep into the shale that surround their community for oil deposits—a proposition that promises to save farms from foreclosure and wreak environmental devastation, depending on who you ask. And then at the next Wednesday Supper, Daisy hears the term again, learns a young professor is teaching a night course on the topic. Uncharacteristically, Daisy decides to enrol, surprising herself, and everybody who knows her. Through involvement in her course, her community widens, the Wednesday night suppers becoming more interesting as her “frackivist” pal starts attending, broadening Daisy’s horizons. And Daisy starts asking more questions, about what changes are necessary in her life, about what she needs to hold onto and let go from the past, and of what possibilities are still before her? Never mind the complicating force of her attraction to Henry, her friend with the bee-hives (and the wife!), he for whom she leaned in close to hear something and he kissed her on her ear. He did. And she keeps encountering women at church who seem concerned she’ll steal their husbands—what if, unbeknownst to her, they’re onto something after all?”

*

Initially as I started to write it, I thought of Ithaca as being the story of a sort of marriage, between Daisy and Lee. I once knew two elderly women who had lived together for decades, not as a couple, but as a kind of family. I have long been intrigued by the question of what makes a family, how families are formed. I thought, at first, that perhaps Daisy and Lee had lived together for a long time, that Daisy had been widowed very young, that Lee had given a child up for adoption—and initially, I had thought the book would take place when Lee’s son came back into her life as an adult. I had intended to alternate chapters between points of view, Daisy’s and Lee’s. Over time, however, I became more interested in Daisy’s story, even though, arguably, Lee is the more interesting character.

The story is also concerned with Carmel who is a single mother, an apple farmer, activist and part-time student. There’s Jane, Henry’s wife, who struggles mightily with multiple sclerosis and who really only speaks for herself toward the end of the novel. Each of the women in the book deals with different and similar circumstances with different choices, and can be seen in terms of different pairs: how Carmel and Lee deal differently with unplanned pregnancies, for instance. How Lee and Daisy make different choices in the face of emerging second-wave feminism—but have surprisingly similar grief about their circumstances later in life.

Before the book begins, the very worst has happened to both Daisy and Lee. People who advise fiction writers say that the stakes need to be high for your characters:

A novel isn’t always like real life. In real life things often meander along. Many of us don’t live hugely exciting lives. And yet – probably many of us DO know what it feels like to have something happen that is completely game-changing. A dilemma that leads to a forked path. A moral issue so tough to resolve that real anguish is involved. A question about who you love most and what that is going to mean. A choice between complacency and courage, hesitation and action, growth or stagnation.

For Daisy, her husband has died. For Lee, a lifelong pioneering academic who gave up a lot in order to stay at Cornell, she has chosen retirement but has significant regrets about her choice. In both cases, the two women in later midlife need to renegotiate their roles and places in the world. What has defined them no longer does. But where there is a freedom in defining yourself at 20, there is a certain degree of terror and dislocation at nearly 60. Which was why fracking worked for me on a metaphorical level to describe the sudden upheavals that happen in our lives.

I realized after writing the book that many of the metaphors and ways the characters understand the world are characteristically female: of grief, Daisy says,

I moaned as I had in childbirth. They had shushed me then, they had offered me drugs to make me sleep or dope me up and I had said no then, fierce as an animal in my pain and I said no now, and moaned as any animal would, wounded and sore, infected with grief and aching in pain. …And something split inside me as it had at the moment Nick was born. At that moment, the moment he crowned and emerged into the world, what I remember was a sense of shock, of being ripped astern bodily, torn in the deepest place, splayed, rendered irreparably apart, destroyed, rescued, transformed.

There are several historical women whose names are invoked in this book as a kind of mantra for the main character, Daisy: Rachel Carson is of course well-known but the stories of Wilma Subra and Dr Theo Colborn can be found in the 2010 film Gasland, which was one of the first means for fracking to come to public consciousness. Wilma Subra, as Daisy notes, is a Sunday School teacher but she is also the president of an environmental consulting firm based in Louisiana. Dr. Theo Colborn, who died in 2014, was an environmental health analyst, and a pioneer in studying the health effects of chemicals that disrupted the endocrine system. She had taken an undergraduate degree at the standard age but returned to school to become an academic in later life when she became aware of the health hazards of chemicals. I wanted to reference these women not only as a tribute to them and for Daisy’s sake, but to point readers to these women so that they too could see themselves in them, to recognize that fracking is a feminist issue.

Daisy adds the name of Carmel’s mother to the list. Carmel’s mother, Jenny Lear, is fictional but the story of what Jenny did on 9/11 actually parallels what I did that day: as a deliberate act I later realized was political, I shielded my then-very-young children from the reality, left them in school for the morning and then took them to a farmer’s market in the afternoon.

Ithaca can also be classified as what is known as women’s fiction: an umbrella term for women-centered books that focus on women’s life experience and the emotional journey of the protagonist. Many people find women’s fiction to be a perjorative term, a sexist term – in a 2012 New York Times article[2], novelist Meg Wolitzer called it “a process of effective segregation and vague if unintentional put-down”–as there is no male equivalent. Wolitzer notes that women’s fiction novels often have book cover jackets with “Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.”  The first image I considered for the book was a 1960s map of Ithaca, New York but then as we were preparing for publication I considered different images for the cover of this book. As I reflect now, I cringe at what we might have done. What I like about the image we chose, beyond the fact that it wasn’t a gendered cover, was the way the lines, both geographic and political converge at Ithaca, almost like veins and arteries connecting to a human heart. They also for me illustrated the deep importance of physical place in this book, a book that is concerned with fracking.

My working title for this novel was actually Daisy Chain, but I settled on Ithaca for a few reasons. The book is set in Ithaca, New York and its place is indeed important, but Ithaca is also the object of Odysseus’ quest in Homer’s The Odyssey – it’s the home he tries to get to for ten years after the Trojan War. In my book, Ithaca symbolizes  but instead of being a story about a man trying to get back to his family and home, it subverts that so that it’s about a woman whose story is to find her true home within herself.  I also appreciate that in the Odyssey and in the poem Ithaka by 20th century Greek poet Kavafy that I quote from at the front of the book, the journey is a long one. In many ways, my Ithaca is a coming-of-age story—about a 58-year-old woman.  I wanted to observe that it’s never too late to come into your own and that sometimes it takes a long time. At the very end of the book, Daisy says: “I looked out the window and up in the sky and for a moment, north of the lake, I thought I saw a shimmering of light and I wondered about Carmel and her Northern Lights. And then I realized it was my city, my home, the lights of Ithaca reflected in the clouds over the horizon” and says, “all I could do was to walk up a path in the darkness toward the light in the distance, hoping and heading toward home.”

*

I was going to write about the shape of a woman’s writing life but the dog needed walking and supper needed finishing and there was a pile of clean laundry on the kitchen floor. I found a child to do the laundry and I thought about what I would write while I walked the dog, grated the cheese and made dessert. That has often been what my writing life has been like.

Years and years ago, I was on a work trip. I planned to come home and (hopefully) get pregnant for the first time. On that trip, I met someone and had an evening of intense conversation. I was working in communications for a nonprofit, but I wanted to write. Writing, I thought, would be authentically me. I told this man that. I told him that no one else saw me as a writer. So what? he said (with more profanity) “Write.”

Two sons and a daughter later, I was away by myself for a night when an idea came into my mind. I sat and wrote for hours and hours—and when I looked up, and my family was there to pick me up, I knew I wasn’t done yet. I still had three preschoolers so I gave up television to write at night until the story became a long story and then eventually a short novel. In my mind there is a very clear—but undefined—connected between having a daughter and writing fiction. Because when I met that person on the business trip and I said writing, I actually most deeply meant writing fiction.

A friend who is a visual artist is the person who helped me actually take up writing in a serious way because she got me past writers block. We both had very young children and she painted pictures that were fragmented in a sense . She said each segment was the length of a child’s nap. She was the person I came to lamenting when my first novel got stuck, when I was questioning myself and whether or not I could actually write. “That’s your material,” she said. “Write about being stuck, write about being afraid.” And I did. There’s a point in my first novel where fiction was about to meet fact and my characters were traveling in a desert and I was not at all sure that I was going to be able to line the fiction up for the necessary historical landing. I was really and truly stuck. And so, I decided, were my characters. I remember sitting sideways in the front seat of my car, with rain pouring down outside in the parking lot of the Waterloo Recreation Centre, writing about these characters who were stuck in the desert. It’s one of my favourite pieces of writing, not because it’s great but because it’s where it could have all fallen apart for me—and didn’t.

I have had a room of my own in which to write before, but today (in a different house) my desk is located in a corner of our kitchen. The kids sometimes steal my desk chair to sit at while they eat breakfast but no one else uses the desk or touches my work. I met with a kitchen designer recently because the counters were installed in the 1940s at midget height, and two cupboards have no insulation at all in them. We talked about our ideas for the kitchen, but I told her that I actually wanted my desk to stay in the kitchen. From my desk I can stir supper, see out a window, hear the washing machine beep, meet the UPS man at the door: I can be in the centre of things.

A friend talks of her feminist anger at sweeping but I’m not sure my creative life could be separated from my domestic life, nor would I entirely want it to be. (For the record, I would strongly welcome anyone who wanted to wash my dishes, weed my gardens or sometimes walk my dog.)

My writing life today involves a writers group I pulled together ten years ago. I had been at a couple of writers conferences where we had the opportunity to workshop our work, and I was hungry for that in my life, so I started recruiting writers of similar sensibility. We call ourselves the Hopeful Writers because our work, while quite different, has a sense of hope to it. And because we hope to be published. Writing is an act of hope.

It can be difficult to hold onto hope because writing as a career is an odd one in that a writer invents a universe and fleshes it out—and then waits and waits for other people to decide whether it is worth publishing. It requires very different skills: both authority and submission. I had a novel published in 2005 (and reissued in 2013) and wrote several other novels that were rejected by various publishers. I finished writing Ithaca in 2013 and sent queries to various publishers. One expressed interest in seeing the full manuscript while another—my publisher of choice—would reply within three months. I spent the next fourteen months obsessively checking my email for replies. Neither publisher in the end opened the file of my manuscript. Last summer, I decided I would self-publish the book. It took many of the months of waiting to come to terms with this: while self-publishing has been called vanity publishing, for me it took overcoming my vanity to do so. It also took a willingness to do the many tasks that are necessary to publish a book and to find professionals who would help me make it shine.

I had decided a few years back that I was not going to approach writing fiction as the job that provided my bread-and-butter. Instead it would be a vocation, something I took extremely seriously but something I did on the side. My rationale for this was partly market realities and partly that I didn’t want my enjoyment of writing fiction to be squeezed into a need to make a mortgage payment. I operate my own writing and editing company called Storywell, where I edit and write for a wide variety of clients, from nonprofits to novelists.

Another aspect to the writing life is that of promotion, something that also requires a very different set of skills. Normally a writer sits in a quiet place and works in a solitary manner, dreaming and then arranging words. Promotion involves revealing oneself, talking up one’s book, reflecting on one’s process and more extraverted revelations.

Sometimes people believe a fiction writer reveals herself more than she actually does in writing. I had a disturbing experience this past fall when a male acquaintance asked whether the relationship between Daisy and Henry in the book was based on him and me. If anything—anything!—he was most similar to Father Jim in my mind. But I’ve also had people ask how old I am, and whether I’ve been widowed because they believe Daisy’s story must be true, must be based on my own experience. And just as Henry was not based on my male acquaintance, neither have I been widowed or 58. My husband is not Arthur. I remember after I wrote my first book, which had a male protagonist, a friend said to me, “you have a fine insight into adolescent male sexuality.”

I don’t have particular experience as a teenaged male or a widowed woman. What I have is human experience. I was privileged to be raised in a home where we were raised to be human, to be people. We were three sisters and a brother, and we played with Barbies and dressed up as princesses and witches at Halloween—but essentially at the core, we were all respected and treated as people.

I liked this quote I saw online recently: “Destroy the idea that men should respect women because we are their daughters, mothers and sisters. Reinforce the idea that they should respect women because we are people.”

It’s hard for some people to believe that someone can actually write fiction and it’s kind of mysterious but I think at the core it’s a recognition that we are all human and that although our experience is distinct and varied and unique, shaped by so many forces, at some level, we are all people.

Truth can be far stranger than fiction—last summer as my grandmother lay dying, I was in her hometown, walking around dazed, and as I turned a corner, there was a Mennonite choir—and this was not Mennonite area—singing What a Friend we Have in Jesus, and as we walked by, they sang the line “who will all our sorrows bear.” It struck me that if I wrote that in a story, people would find it incredibly heavy-handed and unbelievable, but it happened.

Truth doesn’t always work in fiction either. Fiction writers go through life with people telling a story about something wild that happened to them and they turn to the writer and say, “you should totally write about this” or sometimes “whatever you do, don’t write about this.” But those are never ever things I want to steal and write about. What intrigues me much more are the little details. Like a friend who once told me that her mother would give her and her sister a wrapped hard mint at the start of church and they would save their mints and quietly unwrap them and then when it was time for everyone else to take communion and the minister would invite the congregation to take the bread, the two girls would solemnly eat their mints. That I would like to use. A big story, no.

The reader who thought he was Henry was mistaking truth for facts. The fact was that he was not Henry. His truth might very well have been that he was. That didn’t make it my truth. But the fact that we can find ourselves in fiction—whether that is a novel or a television show or a movie or a video—is part of the mysterious alchemy of story. I feel privileged to be able to tell stories.

Wednesday Night Supper: An Ithaca Quiz

A Women’s Studies professor approached me to tell me she planned to include Ithaca on her course curriculum this past winter because she liked the way the novel dealt with the diversity of different women’s experiences and because it looked at domestic details and concerns that are sometimes missing in literature. She also asked whether I would be willing to come to speak to the class about the book and about ‘the shape of a woman writing today.’ I was really happy to join the two classes during their last week of school.

What was perhaps most fun for me was that when I arrived at the university and made my way to the classroom, the students were busily taking a test: a reading quiz about Ithaca. I can’t tell you how fun that was for me–to think that people were engaging with the content on that level. It ranks up there with fan fiction (where people write other stories based on the characters and world created by an author) and having a book filmed.

I’m going to post the text of my talk on Friday but I thought I would give you a chance to answer some of the questions from the quiz. And I thought I would turn the quiz into a contest: send me your answers to susan@storywell.ca and if you get all the questions right, I will send you a section of writing that didn’t make it into the final draft of the book.

Good luck!

1. What does Daisy bring on her first trip to Henry’s cabin?

a) honey

b) a picnic lunch

c) her computer

d) a notebook

2. Before his death, Daisy’s husband worked as a professor at

a) Harvard

b) Cornell

c) Stanford

d) Each of the three at different times

3. Henry enjoys reading

a) plays

b) sonnets

c) nursery rhymes

d) fiction

4. Who convinces Daisy to buy the green laptop?

a) Nick

b) Henry

c) Lee

d) Carmel

5. What is the name of Carmel’s daughter?

a) Daisy

b) Lee

c) Aurora

d) Jane

6. Henry raises bees in an effort to help his wife’s multiple sclerosis?

a) True

b) False

7. Where did Carmel’s motehr take her children on September 11th?

a) Home to watch the Flintstones

b) Shopping

c) To the lake

d) To the cafe to watch coverage of the terrorists attacks on tv

8. Why is the main character originally nicknamed Daisy?

a) Because she picked every daisy in her mother’s garden

b) Because she once made a daisy chain for her mother

c) Because it was Arthur’s favourite flower.

d) None of the above.

Wednesday Night Supper: Stuff and Such

A few months ago, a friend told me she had seen a documentary about people who believed the mood of people making food could actually transfer into the nutrient quality of the food they made. We both raised an eyebrow but as anyone who has seen the movie Like Water for Chocolate knows, there is also something to the idea that we express ourselves through our cooking.

I had friends over a week ago and I made soup. But I was also in the midst of a lot of busyness and a certain amount of stress. I think the soup tasted a bit like that. I really do. I was using new recipes so I might be able to blame it on that, and it certainly tasted fine, but it didn’t sing.

*

I’m in the process of preparing to talk about Ithaca for two women’s studies classes at Wilfrid Laurier University at the end of the month. I’m looking for ways to make the process more sensory. (Maybe I should bring soup. Actually, maybe I should…) I found a recording of the poem Ithaka, an excerpt of which is at the front of my book. I thought I would share it with you here. It’s got Sean Connery reading it so you know it will be good.  Here’s another representation of the same poem for the visual learners in the crowd.

*

I was talking with someone about gaming today and he let me know about a video game called Pipe Trouble in which the participants get to be oil executives figuring out how to build a pipeline. The idea behind the game is to encourage participants to think about the issues and implications around oil extraction. I would be really interested to know if anyone has developed anything similar around fracking.

*

There’s going to be a free public lecture at the University of Waterloo on fracking in two weeks. I am hoping to be there. It will be a good introduction to the history of this relatively new technology. Details are found here.

Wednesday Night Supper: Observations on Being Stranded

Normally people pull carry-on luggage through the airport, talking on their Bluetooth devices, faces closed from their fellow travelers as they move through this liminal space. Sometimes there’s a group traveling together but they turn inward, laughing together and sharing food. Occasionally people get chatting if there’s a slight delay or a slight attraction. People browse through magazines, do one last check of their cellphones or laptops, repack their stuff and then board their planes where they do everything they can to ignore the physical proximity of their neighbouring passengers.

This all begins to break down when there is a significant delay, a flight cancellation, a long stay in the airport. Then a sort of community is formed, with different people taking on different roles. There are those who wail, those who complain, those who make jokes. Some wait in line stoically. Some still keep themselves apart from the rest. Some seek answers. Some push to the head of the line.

Me, the other night, I darted around watching all this. Because maybe that’s the role I play, observing. That was what I did on 9/11 fourteen years ago: watch for all the stories. And that’s what I did when our flight was held over so that we arrived home 22 hours late after a Sunday night on the cold concrete floor of the Las Vegas airport departure area.

I’ve already sent my complaint to AIr Canada about how the situation was handled, but there’s another more side to the story too. It’s the part where passengers became human and personalities emerged. During the initial fiasco when no one–including the staff–knew what was going on, people slipped into roles. I watched one woman began to shriek threats and thought to myself, “So that’s who will be playing that part.”

Eventually once the dust settled and we made our way back through security and to the same boarding gate, people began to settle for the night. The woman behind me pulled out her iPad and began Skyping with her sister, explaining the problems. I brushed my teeth at a bathroom sink next to others who were doing the same thing. Rituals that we each perform daily in the quiet of our own apartments and houses we managed to do side by side with strangers in a bright public place.

My very favourite part of the delay was walking around at 3 am, after I woke up from my makeshift bed behind a bench near the windows, and walked around. Many people had fallen asleep by that o’clock despite the bright lights, constant Muzak and occasional bells from the omnipresent slot machines. There were couples spooning on the floor, or leaning into one another, tilted back on their uncomfortable chairs. There was one woman sounding asleep with her body curled around the metal tube that divided both one seat from another and comfort from passengers. The very act of sleeping in the open on an airport floor was an entirely vulnerable one. The man who slept nearest me had plugged in his electronics beside him, ten feet from his body. I’m certain nothing was stolen from anyone because although people did what they could to find small places of privacy, we were at the same time in it together. When the man with the electronics didn’t hear the pre-boarding call, my daughter had me wake him up. I tried with words first but he didn’t stir in the least. It took three gentle touches to his back–which was slightly damp with sweat after more than a dozen hours in the airport–for him to awaken. But we weren’t going to leave anyone behind.

On the plane, there was much more courtesy than usual–people helping one another take bags in and out of overhead compartments, passing a camera bag over to someone who needed it, sympathetic in-it-together smiles replacing the impassive traveler face. Small conversations across shoulder-rests sprang up.

When we finally made it to our destination, we cheered and disembarked. My son was still wearing shorts so he went to the bathroom to change. As we waited, we saw among the now-larger crowd many of our fellow passengers. We hadn’t exchanged names but we knew that one couple still needed to get to the East coast which was still slowed by a massive snowstorm–we wished them luck. A woman smiled at me and waved goodbye. My seatmate on one leg was headed home to the funeral of a child in her community–I expressed my sympathies. A gray-haired couple who had stayed awake the whole time and pressed the flight attendant for details of how they could fastest get home now walked in a leisurely way through the terminal–they nodded at us.

Even after we were home, this community persisted–on social media–as different passengers shared horror stories and sympathy on Air Canada’s Twitter feed.

But it’s the beauty of the vulnerability of the people curled up on the floor of the airport that stays with me, that gives a sense of common humanity and that at least somewhat transforms the memories of our otherwise unpleasant journey

Wednesday Night Supper: The End of Country

When I was reading from Ithaca (the book) in Ithaca (the city), a woman who was there told me about a book she thought I would enjoy. It was the memoir of a man named Seamus McGraw whose family farm had been near Ground Zero for the new wave of fracking. She told me McGraw had come to Ithaca to speak about fracking and had been stopped along the way by police. When he told them what he would be talking about, they asked him: “Are you for or against?” “Yes,” was his reply.

And that is the way he tells the story in The End of Country. It’s a powerful, lyrical book that completely defies simplistic or even simple answers. It shows the massive upheaval caused by fracking–some of which is honestly wonderful and some of which is terrifying. It shows the painful ambivalence and uncertainty over fracking, over if–and when–to sell fracking rights. It shows neighbours who can no longer talk openly because of the inequities introduced by different financial offers. It shows unlikely allies and offers a sympathetic view of some of the salesmen that other books might vilify.

The End of Country has a bit of a mournful tone to it–like a train whistle in the country in the middle of the night–but it’s beautiful for that same elegiac quality. McGraw can write too. This book was a pleasure from beginning to end and it is the fracking book I recommend the most to date as the most readable and challenging.

Wednesday Night Supper: Ithaca Farmers Market

Farmers markets have always been a weakness of mine. There’s something very grounding about visiting a foreign place and finding out how people live in the most elemental of ways. What do they eat? What don’t they eat? What do they eat that’s new to me? What can I eat now and what can I bring home with me? I’m not sure everyone does this but when I know I will be visiting a new place–even for a day or two–I always check whether there is a farmers market on while I’m there.

Now that I think about it, I’ve really always done this– as a teenager, I learned to barter at a market in Mexico City. A few years later, newly married, Dave and I visited the riotous colours of a farmer’s market in Melbourne, Australia. We saw Very Unusual cuts of meat in a market in Florence. Those all sound–and were–exotic, but those places become less exotic and more accessible simply by the fact of visiting and eating the market. (It just occurs to me now to look up farmers markets for our upcoming trip to Las Vegas–the page has flashing lights but there are, indeed, several genuine farmers markets each week.) And markets don’t have to be exotic in the least–often the best food is the simplest, and often that food can be found with dirt still clinging to it at a farmers market.

The Ithaca Farmers Market has been ranked as #9 on the list of the 101 Best Farmers Markets in America. It began in 1973 and has always been intensely local: its 160 vendors all live within 30 miles of Ithaca, and work as a cooperative. They have a central market location but also offer smaller farmers markets throughout the city and area, five days a week during the summer.

I first visited the farmers market on our second trip to Ithaca. By that point, I was partway through writing Ithaca and I knew that Daisy–like so many other Ithaca residents–was a foodie who bought her produce for her soups at the market.

Like almost all markets, the Ithaca Farmers Market reflects its surroundings and its people. It is smaller than the farmers markets in our city despite its reputation. It’s quirky and communal and artistic. The displays at the market are works of art in themselves. The bulletin boards at the market are fascinating reading, layered with passionate and energetic announcements of all sorts. The market folks do great events–my favourite is the annual Rutabaga Curl which takes place on the last Saturday market before Christmas, the last outdoor market until spring. Legend has it that the Curl started out of cold and boredom–vendors decided to toss their half-frozen root vegetables down the empty wooden aisle of the market, and by the next year it was a tradition. I was disappointed that our December 2014 visit to Ithaca meant we would miss the Rutabaga Curl by only a week–but then was delighted when the market folks told me they would be giving away a copy of my book as one of the prizes at the Curl. It really was the next best thing to being there.

I didn’t take video at the market but I did take some pictures. The first few are from December, and then there are a few vibrant pictures of the market at the height of summer. I hope you enjoy them.

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Wednesday Night Supper: A Wee Downton Abbey Interlude

Our eldest purchased Netflix for our family as his Christmas gift to us and it’s been a well-used, much appreciated gift. We’ve watched movies together but we’ve also each chosen different shows or films that reflect our own interests. People had recommended Downton Abbey to me for the last few years and so I thought I’d give it a go. A month into the new year, I’m in season 4 already. And it’s not really possible for me as a writer to watch such a show, especially in such an immersive way, without thinking about it in a writerly way.

I’ve been wanting to talk about this show in some way and it struck me that it could be a very Wednesday night supper conversation–and probably is in some real life version of Ithaca. But a blog also struck me as a worthwhile place for this kind of discussion.

I’m intrigued by the wide appeal of this show. Watchers of this show–lovers of this show–go beyond the usual Jane Austen period drama swooning crowd to include a surprisingly wide audience. One factor in this, I think, is the ensemble nature of the show. The same could be said for Friends or Seinfeld. Viewers can likely find one character to root for, one to roll their eyes at, one to dislike in an ensemble. There’s also a sense of relationship between the characters in such shows that somehow draws the viewer in–I haven’t had a Downton dream yet but I had a recurring dream, back in the day, that I was an actor on the show Friends. When a writer creates relationships between characters somehow that allows the reader or viewer to feel included, to be on an inside track, to feel they are part of something. And perhaps they (we) are: without the audience and without feedback from the audience, is the act of storytelling ever completely accomplished? I don’t think so.

The dialogue on Downton is superb, both upstairs and downstairs. There’s achingly terrific subtext among repressed characters but there’s also lovely formal diction that achieves gracefulness in relationships, smoothing over potential awkwardnesses. I wonder whether it has any relationship to early 20th century communication patterns or not.

While the variety of storylines–each deliberately given similar weighting–functions somewhat like multiple narrators, the moral centre of the show seems to shift as the characters themselves change and grow (or don’t change and don’t grow). I would trace the shift from Lord Grantham to Bates to Lady Mary as the central point of view character in the show.

Sometimes I wish there were more writers (The show was conceived and is written by one writer). There have been storylines and minor characters that have exasperated me. E. M. Forster talked about ’round’ and ‘flat’ characters in his book Aspects of the Novel. A flat character is one that can be summed up in a sentence, while a round character can surprise us with change, growth or unexpected aspects to his or her personality. (Think for instance of the Cheerful Charlies). While not every Downton character is a fully realized rounded character, some of the flat characters are less credible than others, and their storylines seem to take away from the stronger elements. Sometimes rounded characters are given flat storylines too: while Lady Sybil’s growth as a nurse fit her character and showed her growth, her courtship with Branson was a one-note, less believable plot line.

Another interesting (to me) feature of Downton Abbey is its pacing. It moves through history extremely quickly, particularly in the first two seasons. (This for me was a reason there was no excuse for silly melodrama: there was plenty of real drama to choose from both in that period and also in the vast scope of time the author gives the characters). A full-length story can take place over the course of a single day–think James Joyce’s Ulysses or the television show 24–or can be a sweeping epic lasting centuries. The pacing of Downton Abbey includes what is not shown, which is often the emotional aftermath of a significant event. The viewer is allowed (or forced) to fill in his or her own blanks in such instances.

Finally, and related to pacing, is the issue of story arc. Actors and even the show’s creator have suggested that Downton Abbey likely has another couple seasons left in it, while viewers want it to go on forever and ever and ever. But I’m not sure we really do. Every story has an arc to it–where the action rises to a climax and then falls to a conclusion. You know the experience of watching a movie and knowing that the story is nearing its end. While there are sudden cliffhanger endings and what’s called in music a coda, for the most part, we’re actually more satisfied when a story has an ending to it, one that suits the story. It doesn’t mean every detail is wrapped up–better not to, I’d say–but the central issue of the story is resolved. For Downton Abbey, I think the question is the transition from the old world to the new, and I think when that story is told, the series will, or should, come to an end. I picked up some Jane Austen fan fiction this winter, which followed the grandchildren of Elizabeth and Darcy, thinking it would be nice, light reading. Gentle Reader, it was not. It was instead rather dull, trying to extend something beyond its natural lifespan. Yes, the reader wants to know more about the characters at the end of the book and the viewers at the end of a series, but that is the lovely legacy of a story, that we can continue to imagine what happens to these people who have somehow become very real to us.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series too.

Wednesday Nights: Ithaca Falls

Last week I had the pleasure of attending three consecutive book clubs offered at Relish Cooking Studios in Waterloo. It was a pleasure listening to people engaging with my book and eating good soup. They made Daisy’s White Bean and Tarragon soup and, even three meals in a row, it was delicious. People asked great questions and had good insights into the book.

I wanted to show you the waterfall nearest Daisy’s house in Ithaca. The top of the waterfall and the cliffs around it are the level of Ithaca on which Cornell University is built. It’s one of about 19 waterfalls in the area. Ithaca’s slogan is: Ithaca is GORGES. (Say it aloud.) It truly is. The gorges-ness of the area comes from the retreat of the last ice-age, when mile-high glaciers retreated north, leaving the Finger Lakes behind. The rock, though, is older than that. What was left behind by the glaciers was once the bed of a sea that covered the region a mere half-billion years ago. Today it’s shale rock. I have a few pieces of it sitting on my desk today.

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And here’s nonprofessional videographer me at the falls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO86N5PXuhk&feature=youtu.be

This is shale:

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You can see the porous nature of the shale rock here:

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Here’s the munitions factory, still standing on the top of the cliff:

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Fracking Friday

Someone once said to me that people who are inherently conservative see that the world is at risk of losing valuable parts, while those who are inherently progressive see value in what’s possible ahead. I’ve been thinking this week about the fact that the state government of New York has actually banned fracking. I’ve been thinking about all the grassroots groups that banded together across New York State to say, “not this one!” and that it actually worked. In my book, Daisy says the problems caused by fracking were in no way inevitable, unless people simply let big business act out of a pure profit motive.

And that is not what happened. The health commissioner who made the report said that for him it came down to the fact that he would not want to live in a community where the ground had been fracked, would not want children playing there, would not want to drink that water.

One cute headline I saw suggested that other states and countries need to adopt a ‘New York State of Mind’ when it comes to fracking. Because, the less-than-cute reality is that the battle over fracking is not over. Not at all.

I’ve found two new books on fracking: I’m currently reading The End of Country by Seamus McGraw. It’s a memoir of a Pennsylvania farming family that got a knock on the door and an offer to get rich quick by selling drilling rights for fracking. It’s  a book that embraces the pluses and minuses of such a decision.

The other I have not read yet. Fractures is a novel about fracking, written by Lamar Herrin.

Finally, there’s a giveaway of a copy of Ithaca on GoodReads right now. Please enter and tell your friends. I’d also appreciate it, if you’ve read the book, if you’d post a review either on GoodReads or Amazon. Or just plain tell people about the book. Word of mouth and your recommendations are how people will find out about the book. Thank you so much!!

Wednesday Nights: Cayuga Lake

So here’s how it often goes: we go off blithely on a trip and I fall in love with the place. I go home and can’t get it out of my mind and so, since my family is most unreasonable and refuses to move to satisfy my new love for a place, I begin writing about that place. I find imaginary people to populate the place and they get to live there, even if I can’t.

And then, usually, I persuade the family that we need to go back to that place again. This time, my senses are on high alert. I end up scribbling notes in the margins of my calendar or on gas station receipts. I breathe deeply to identify smells. I drive around neighbourhoods to situate things. I justify the purchase of meals my characters would definitely have eaten. I take photographs through splattered windows of moving cars. I write more marginal notes.

I’m probably not the world’s best travel companion.

And then I go back and with the help of my sensory research, I write and write some more.

One of the best compliments my writing has ever received–and to be honest, I hear this quite often–is that people either want to visit or move to the places I’ve written about, or they do go to visit, or they feel like they’ve actually been there. A place is effectively a major character to me as a writer.

Not all places capture my imagination in that way. It is potentially safe for you to invite me to visit you, without worrying that your home or town will be immortalized in prose. Sometimes I just go and enjoy myself as a civilian. I went somewhere years and years ago that is finding its way into the book I’m labouring on right now–and I’m kicking myself because I didn’t save the receipts from that trip, because at the time, I remember thinking that there was no way I could write about that place, that it was too foreign for me to find a foothold for a story. (Memo to self: save the receipts anyway!)

The more common experience I’ve had is that after writing and writing about a place, my third visit to the real place is marginally disappointing because (and this feels wrong to admit), I’ve come to both believe in and like the fictionalized version more than the real one. I don’t mean by that that the fictionalized one is idealized, but I come to have a sense of familiarity with it and thus a fondness for it that is missing in the real-life version. It’s always a surprise to me when that happens, though.

Here’s the second in my video series from our December visit to Ithaca. Rumo(u)r has it that if and when Cayuga Lake freezes over, classes at Cornell are cancelled. I like that idea. It is true that every summer, a group of Ithaca-area women participate in a swim across the width of Cayuga Lake as a breast cancer fundraiser. They call it Women Swimmin’. And the nearest of the Finger Lakes to Cayuga is under threat currently from another environmental hazard–a proposal to store methane, propane and butane in unlined salt caverns on the shores of the lake.

But here is the lake itself. Isn’t it lovely? And because I had never been here before in December, I didn’t know that it was a migration gathering point for lots and lots of geese. If only I’d had a receipt at hand to note that.

And here’s the lake in summer at sunset:

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