I think Daisy Jane would like this a lot. I hope you do too.
I got to go to the beach last week. A warm, humid Atlantic beach. It came about as a combination of deadlines that could be pushed off, an airline voucher about to expire and the generosity of my parents who let me spontaneously bunk in with them at their ocean-side hotel for a few days of bliss.
All the things I usually love about the ocean were there – the humid scent of salt and fish, the sound of waves crashing, the changing tides, seabirds swooping. But there was one thing more this time.
They appeared around three o’clock on my first day there, and I imagined they might be high school boys, sprung from class at the end of the day, or perhaps college students, balancing mind with body. They were all male that first day, and all clad in wetsuits.
I had heard that the water was so unseasonably warm that Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish had popped up along the coast, and indeed, as we walked along the shore, my dad and I saw bright blue jellied bladders stranded by the last high tide.
But these surfers stood at the shore, board in hand, eye on the horizon and then they stepped out into the surf.
Twice I was brave enough to actually let the waves wash over my ankles. Only twice.
They walked out against the waves, with the final crash of water against shore apparently the hardest barrier to break through. At a certain point, they climbed astride their boards and swam out with them. Sometimes waves crashed over their heads and I held my breath until they emerged in the next trough. Other times, they rode atop the crest of a wave and over it as they took their boards out to sea.
And then, perhaps a hundred and fifty metres off shore, they rested there, sometimes near other surfers – one time I counted more than a dozen of them – and sometimes on their own. The waves were high and choppy; the television said the waves were ten feet high most days.
Suddenly after having let a lot of waves pass them by, a surfer would suddenly be up—and then just as quickly be down again. Or perhaps the wave would take them far along its spine. One time I saw a surfer ride a wave all the way to the shore.
Their bodies were slim and compact. Many of them stood on the shore – especially the older ones – and stretched out every muscle before they headed out into the fog and spray.
I could not take my eyes off them. I wondered how they chose one wave over another, and believed it had to be by instinct and feel.
I could not decide whether they had more courage or foolishness than I did—and concluded it was likely both.
More than once, I saw an older person walking the shore approach a surfer to ask “what it’s like out there today?” On a quiet beach, they were our bright stars, our deep fascination.
Besides hanging out with my parents and breathing in sea air, I was on this trip to sort out a novel I’m writing, and which has been plaguing me for more than two years. I know what happens in this book and have written a lot of it. The challenge with this book is one I’ve never faced before: how to tell the story, and more specifically who tells the story. It has made me think of one of those hedge mazes or labyrinths, and I feel like I’ve been walking the edge of the maze for a long time, looking for the hidden entrance.
One sunny afternoon last week, I planted myself on a beach chair in the middle of the beach, while the surfers bobbed about and then flew across the water just off shore, and I both let my mind go and made it work hard, drawing notes in the sand with a twig and making notes on a sand-dusted pad of paper as I sorted the questions out. And I think I did it, too, even if it took a badly sunburned back of my neck to get there.
I realized, too, the parallels between the surfers and me. Just as nothing was really stopping me from crossing that space between shore and sea other than a lack of bravery and folly, nothing more stops any of us from crossing into the place of story—and yet only some of us do it. The rest of us sit on the shore and marvel at them, wondering how they dare, how they do it. For the surfer—or the writer—those stretching exercises are necessary and so are the quick falls into the sea when the wave doesn’t take you as far as you thought it might, instinct or no instinct. There are sharks in the water. There are jellyfish. There are always mouthfuls of saltwater and moments of panic at being over your head.
But there is also the glory of feeling a wave rise beneath you, knowing that it can carry you far and that you can ride it out, not in control of it, but letting it take you where it will.
This has been an exciting year of reading for me. For the first time ever, I kept a list of the books I read. The year began with a book I listed only as “stupid Jane Austen takeoff” and ended with one of my favourite books of all time. I read at least 64 books. I discovered and devoured three mystery series. I read newly published books and old chestnuts—both of which made my top 10 list. As I look through the long list of books I read, there are books that were good enough to make that top 10 but didn’t—it’s been that rich of a year of reading. I read, for instance, Go Set a Watchman – and was one of very few reviewers who actually really enjoyed the book, although more as a book that requires a coming of age for readers of To Kill a Mockingbird than as something brilliant.
What was most exciting to me this year in this list of books was that there were books that literally changed how I read, that demanded within their structure to be read a certain way. That feels remarkable. I read through the three mystery series the way one reads mysteries: devouring them the way you do a bowl full of potato chips. But there were three books on the list that made me read differently.
There’s sad reading news, too: for the last five or so years, I’ve been part of what I call The Book of the Week Club, where I review books for our local paper, The Record. I have been paid in review copies of books, some I might never have otherwise read. With the retirement of the books editor this month, the paper has decided to review its book page, likely having the reviews come either from a newswire or at least a more central group of reviewers. I’m sorry to see that happen both for readers and reviewers.
But without further ado, on to the list. My numbering system – other than the top two or three books—is pretty much random. Assume all 10 books are great, not that 7 is worse than 5.
10. S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst – This was the first book that made me read differently. Abrams, the creator of Lost, had an idea for a book and worked with writer Doug Dorst to develop it. The premise is somewhat complicated: The book itself is a dark and somewhat boring book called The Ship of Theseus but it appears to be a copy that has been marked up with marginal notes by two different readers, who have also stuck bits and pieces – letters, maps, postcards, etc – into the pages of the book. In fact the entire creation (book, marginal notes and ephemera) has been composed by Abrams and Dorst in an elaborate story within a story. I first heard about this book when a friend on social media asked if anyone knew how to read the book – the marginal conversation notes take place between two characters who read the book multiple times, with some notes being newer than others. A thorough reading might involve reading The Ship of Theseus straight through, then reading the first set of notes through and then the second set after that, reading the bits and pieces as it seemed appropriate. Perhaps people have invested in the book to that degree. I found myself drawn to the marginal notes and abandoning the original novel itself. I’m not sure the idea is entirely realized but it was innovative and enjoyable enough to merit making it to this list. It becomes a kind of love letter to books and words – and the notes we collect and keep. In a digital age, this book celebrates artifacts. I borrowed my copy from the public library and would recommend that approach to this creative reading experience.
9. The Life and Culinary Times of Sir John A. Macdonald by Lindy Mechefske — It turns out that our first Prime Minister was quite a foodie—food author Mechefske deftly weaves in Macdonald’s culinary history to his political and personal history, from the simplest of Scottish fare early in Macdonald’s life to more exotic and glamorous meals later on. Each chapter ends with a recipe taken from an early Canadian source, many of which could be reproduced today. In my review of this book, I said, “This book is eminently readable—would that all history were written like this!—and interesting, offering both the clearest example of 19th century Canadian politics and very human insights into a very human architect of our country.” This is a small, quirky and highly enjoyable book.
8. The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston – Johnston is a local writer who writes about locations familiar to many southwestern Ontario readers with one critical element added to revise everything: in this alternate reality there are dragons. The dragons are drawn most especially to carbon—cars, factories, bonfires—but they don’t hesitate to polish off people or to destroy everything in their wake. This young adult novel is brilliant, witty and extremely well told. The book is not what the reader might expect in any way, whether the expectation has to do with dragon stories, or teenaged protagonists. It’s a story about community and friendship, sacrifice and finding a place in the world. It’s also a story about how we tell stories, the various versions of reality we present to various audiences. Highly recommended. (PS there’s a sequel!)
7. High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver – This book is not new but somehow despite the fact that Kingsolver is who I would like to be when I grow up, I missed reading this book of essays before. Kingsolver wrote this book in 1995 when she was quite young and her insights into writing, nature and humanity are just breathtakingly lovely, at turns passionate and humourous. It made me wish that I could sit down with her over a cup of coffee even if I never could be her.
6. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – This summer I decided I needed to read some classics I had missed reading before. Some of the classics felt dated or just didn’t appeal to me, but not so The Age of Innocence. The word I would use to best describe this book is exquisite. It’s a stunning portrait of New York City high society in its Gilded Age, a world Wharton herself knew well. This was a book that enveloped me in its world and characters, with their constraining conventions inhibiting but never destroying their passions. Apparently the 1993 film adaptation, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, was well received but even watching a trailer of the movie convinced me that it could never live up to the subtle brilliance of this novel, for which Wharton became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921.
5. The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey – I used to say that I read murder mysteries only when my life became out of control—mysteries had the comfort of a solution by the end of them, unlike much of life—but in the last few years, either my life has fully spun out of control or I have learned to appreciate mysteries for their own merits. This year I enjoyed three series of mysteries: the Guido Brunetti mysteries of Donna Leon which are set in Venice and are both terrific and still being written; Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels which I actually don’t really recommend as they are fairly crude, reflecting the underbelly of an area of Italy dominated by corruption and Mafia; the novels of Josephine Tey. I discovered Tey in an article about the Golden Age of the detective novel. The article referenced Agatha Christie, of course, and Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, all of whom I had read extensively—but it called Tey something like the queen of the genre. I had never heard of her before but I headed off to the library to discover her books. Her canon is small—only nine novels—but while all of these books involve the same world of characters, they are remarkably unique, lacking the murder mystery’s formula. English murder mysteries, I have come to see, often have a flawed or wounded detective in them—think Lord Peter Wimsey’s shellshock. Tey’s lovely Inspector Alan Grant is more human than most in that in some books he is very capable and robust while in others he struggles with mental and physical health issues as an occupational hazard. The book I chose to include on this last falls into the latter category: to his enormous chagrin and frustration, Grant has become claustrophobic and takes a medical leave of absence to attempt to recover. Of course, on the train to his beloved Scotland, he discovers a body, but his involvement in the case and his parallel recovery are anything but formulaic and at times have a lyrical quality to them. If you have never read Tey’s books, I urge you to do so. My only disappointment was to reach the end of her books far too quickly.
4. Awakening at Midlife by Kathleen A. Brehony – This year I turned 46 and my oldest child graduated from high school. I found myself exploring issues about midlife in my own writing and journal writing—as well as in my daily life – and so I thought I would do a bit of reading on the topic. I was fortunate and deeply happy to discover Brehony’s writing. A licensed psychologist and Jungian psychotherapist, Brehony approaches midlife as an important stage in adult development, noting that we are wrong as a culture to believe that the end of adolescence involves the end of personality development. So much of this book resonated with me and elevated the struggles and challenges people face at this time of life—in a way that was so opposite to popular culture’s description of a midlife crisis as involving fast cars and tattoos. The book won’t be for everyone but I found it deeply insightful.
3. The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow – As readers of my annual list will know, Erin Bow is a writer in my writers group as well as being internationally acclaimed for her powerful, intelligent young adult novels. I’ve had the privilege to read this book from its earliest drafts to its final spectacular published version. I say that all of her novels are terrific, whip-smart, tremendously dark but still hopeful, and laugh-out-loud-funny, but this particular book is one that makes me fangirl her writing. The Scorpion Rules is set in a world where the children of world leaders are hostaged together with their lives being forfeit if their countries go to war. This world is run by Talis, an artificial intelligence who is perhaps the best character you will read in fiction this year or even decade. Trust me on this one and get it for your kids or for yourself. It’s a great read—with a strong sequel in the works.
2. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone – In a normal year, this would be my favourite book of all. It still could be. It was the bestselling book in the year of its publication (1961) despite being a massive 776 pages long. The book is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, lovingly researched by Stone who not only had all of Michelangelo’s nearly 500 letters translated and read extensively from the many biographies of the artist, but also lived in Italy and learned to sculpt stone from a Canadian sculptor. As I read this book, it felt like a neverending story in the very best way. The book begins with a 13 year old Michelangelo and traces in great detail the rest of his life. It is the opposite of a thriller and has no narrative arc to it. Instead, as a reader, I felt as though I was living a parallel life as I climbed into bed each night and read a bit more of Michelangelo’s life. I found everything about the book fascinating and most especially both his passion for sculpture and the agonies and ecstasies he faced particularly at the hands of his patrons. The insights into the artistic life—both its process and the challenges of supporting an artistic life—are remarkable. I did not want this book to end. It was a library book I picked up serendipitously from the same shelf as a book I planned to take out, but it is one I can see buying and reading and re-reading often.
1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I read this novel in May and declared then that this would be the best book I would read all year—and, with the possible exception of the Michelangelo book—it absolutely was. Technically, this is a science fiction book but please, please don’t let that put you off reading it. My warning about the book, however, is not to read it if you are getting sick (as I did) or if you are on a plane. The book begins with the start of a massive, global pandemic which wipes out 99% of the world’s population in a stunningly short time, and then picks up twenty years later with the tiny percentage of the population that has survived. As you might imagine, the beginning of the book is fast-paced as crises tend to be. I read it at that same pace. What intrigued me most about this book was that once the dust settled, and the world as we know it ground to a halt, many of the people and events glossed over in those first few pages of the book were revisited. I found myself going back to those first pages and paying much more attention to what happened and what was said than I did on my first read. And that was the supreme value of this book: it forces the reader to pay attention and to have a sense of wonder and appreciation for things that are or could be potentially ephemeral. What is further interesting is the fact that where most books celebrate the loss of the beauties of the natural world, this book honours lost technology and culture, showing us the near-miracle that is air travel, email, telephone, film, antibiotics, etc. The reader will find herself or himself paying attention to tools we too often take for granted. One of the fascinating issues in this book is the question of what survives: this can refer to the people who survive the pandemic but also the artefacts. Much of the later world of the book centres around The Traveling Symphony, a Shakespearean company of actors whose motto comes from a line in Star Trek: because survival is insufficient. Other bits and pieces of culture survive and come to play significant roles in the story. This is neither a gory apocalyptic book nor a hopeless book, despite its dark subject. It affirms culture and humanity and new life. I hope you will read it.
Let me know what your favourites for the year are–and what you think of these books too.
Last week, someone contacted me to ask if there were any book club questions floating around out there for Ithaca. While I have visited with a variety of book clubs–all of whom have asked terrific questions about the book–I had to admit that I don’t think that there are.
So, here’s where you come in. Whether you’ve been part of a book club or not, would you send me your questions about the book in the comment section of this blog. They could be your own personal questions about the book (although let’s avoid spoilers) but ideally they would be questions that might start discussion at a book club.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the US and this Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. As much as I still can’t quite believe it when I hear Bing crooning in the grocery store, I think it might be true: Christmas is almost upon us.
More than a dozen years ago, I found myself thinking about Christmas throughout the year as I wrote a novel that imagined the wise men and what would make them go off in search of a star.
The result was my first novel, Seeker of Stars. A number of kind people have told me it is a book they return to each Christmas season.
If the book is new to you, I invite you to meet Melchior and the unmoving star he seeks.
On Sunday, my husband and I drove through dark clouds and brilliant sunshine and the remaining golden leaves of the rolling hills of southern Ontario and up into the granite of the edge of the Canadian Shield and into Bracebridge where Bracebridge United Church had invited me to their soup supper to speak about the writing of Ithaca. They prepared six different soups and had more to sell in mason jars. I perched on a stool and shared my experience with them. One of the women in the audience was a widow and she gave me a copy of an article she carries with her for when people ask her how she’s doing.
Here’s what I had to say to them:
This week is Bring Your Child to Work Day in our city anyhow. I am not bringing my kid to work, though, because my work is tricky one to bring anyone into. My desk is located in the corner of our newly renovated kitchen. I have a computer, a dictionary, a jar of pens, and a stack of files. I sit there and type. Or write in a notebook or on graph paper. It really isn’t the world’s most exciting job.
And yet, people think that it is. I’ve come here today to talk about the writing process of my book Ithaca, which many of you have so kindly read.
I thought I might share with you some of the quotations I have on my bulletin board to give some insight into what inspires me:
At the top left of the bulletin board is a quote from Oscar Wilde who said, “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” Then Dostoyevsky, with one of my favourite quotes: “Beauty will save the world.”
Just below that is a Rainer Maria Rilke quote: “Try to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually without noticing it live along some distant day into the answer.”
I have a Starbucks cup quote cup out and stuck on board, that says, “There are many times when dancing is the most unsupportable, ridiculous, unexpected and necessary action. Life should be spent finding those moments and tap dancing through them”
I have a ribbon that says, “I color outside the lines.”
A Lord of the Rings quote from Frodo who says, “I will take the Ring tho’ I do not know the way.”
There is a French quote from Jean Cocteau that says, “Writing is an act of love. If it isn’t, it is nothing but scribbling.”
Paul Anster, “To write a work of fiction, one must be free to say what one has to say.”
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint Exupery.
Finally, and I think this is appropriate to Ithaca, I have a lovely poem done in clay by the poet Mary Oliver, which says, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones, knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes, to let it go, to let it go.
So, what does all this tell you about me and my writing process?
Writing is an act of telling the truth
This is not the same as the idea that writing is autobiographical. I am not a widow. I’m not a blood donor. It was only this summer that I finally hosted my neighbours for a soup supper. I’m not a faculty wife who only graduated high school. The autobiographical elements in Ithaca are the moment when Henry accidentally kisses Daisy on the ear – that happened to me once, as an accident, and it was unexpectedly intimate. I also have similar feelings toward my children as Daisy does toward her son. Our kids are in the process of beginning to leave the nest and I hope that I can do as Daisy did in letting them go without holding them back.
But I have had experiences of grief, and in fact this book was a kind of anticipatory grief of the death of my grandmother, who died last summer and to whom the book is dedicated. As I wrote this book, I studied grief and writing about grief – although maddeningly it didn’t make the grief any easier when the time came. One thing I learned about grief is that it is different for each person and different with each loss. That gave me the freedom to allow Daisy’s grief to be unique. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion was one of the books I found helpful, although it was less magical than I had thought it might be.
We are conditioned to be nice, especially in the church but also in our families and in society. Often we have secrets and stories we are not allowed to tell. I actually wrote two novels set in a village loosely based on one in Quebec where my sister has a summer home. Although the books are sympathetic and I think would make people want to come there, my sister was horrified that I had written about that place and asked me not to publish them.
Writing is an act of hope and beauty
If I have a life verse from the Bible, it is Jeremiah 15:19: Therefore, thus says the LORD, “If you return, then I will restore you– Before Me you will stand; And if you extract the precious from the worthless, You will become My spokesman.”
I love that idea of finding the precious from the worthless, and extracting it. I suppose you could look it as that’s what those who frack do – pulling the oil from the shale – but I also think it is a question here of figuring out what really matters and writing about it. I write for and about non-profits and charities as part of my business. I help organizations and individuals tell their stories well. I edit novels and memoirs for people, and help them be their best selves in their writing.
But I also try to separate the precious from the worthless in my own writing – to find the beautiful. Ithaca’s inspiration came from several places. In the spring of 2011, we got a puppy, and my sister had just had a child with a disability. The puppy was too young to put in a kennel and my sister’s cottage was out that summer, so we had to find a place we could visit that allowed dogs. A friend suggested Ithaca, New York – halfway between Toronto and New York City – as a place that welcomed dogs. We went and loved it. As we drove around to state parks to hike the trails, we saw signs that read “NO FRACKING.” Months later, I looked up the word, which I didn’t know – and learned about the proposed drilling for oil in the beauty of the Finger Lakes region. Fracking was also a metaphor, I came to see, for the enormous upheaval that happens periodically in our lives – and the jury was out on whether or not this was a good thing or a bad thing.
That fall, as I walked with my dog around our older neighbourhood, I got glimpses into people’s lives as they often washed their dishes at a kitchen window or sat at their dining room table as a family or marking papers or living their lives. I saw evidence of their lives – lives that had not been purchased completely at Home Sense for their tastefulness and for being on trend – but things that had accumulated over years and years of life, of Christmases and babies and vacations and work. I began to see both the beauty of such collections and the potential weight of them in people’s lives when the upheavals came. That, I think, was when Daisy walked into my mind.
I knew from the start that she was a widow and that she hosted a weekly soup supper. I thought initially that she had lived with Lee for years and that the story would take place when Lee’s adopted son came back into town. I started to get to know these two women and to write about them. I wrote chapters from both their points of view, but fairly early on, I found myself surprised to be much more interested in Daisy rather than the more overtly interesting Lee. The story became Daisy’s story, a kind of coming of age story.
In terms of publishing this story, I wrote it from the fall of 2011 until the spring of 2013, and sent it off to two publishers who were interested in the book. And then I waited. One said that they would be back to me within 3 months and the other said “as soon as possible.” 14 months later, neither had even opened the files. Because the book was in part about fracking, I wanted to get it out into the world as quickly as possible before fracking was either old hat or even banned altogether. People call self-publishing vanity publishing but for me, it was a kind of “overcoming vanity” publishing – because I believe that publishers know what good quality is and I was afraid that mine wouldn’t be a book worth publishing. Although, as I say, it was never actually rejected. I hired a cover designer, a book designer, a proof reader and editor and made the book the best we could make it.
Writing has to be playful
Like the quote about the need for dancing, I think that writing really needs to be playing with words and with ideas. Many of the best ideas come from discovering something and wondering what if, or having two ideas collide together. This week in the news came a story that a US couple’s son was determined to be not the man’s son but the son of his never-born twin brother, whose cells had been absorbed into his body when the twin died before birth. That is a story that would frighten me to tell, but I can completely imagine it capturing the interest of a certain kind of writer, and then them playing with that idea.
For me, my first book came about when, in 2002, my church’s worship leader asked if I would write a series of short dramas for Advent that year – one based on Mary, one on Joseph, one on the shepherds and one on the wise men. I had three preschoolers at the time so I actually figured Mary, Joseph and yes, even the shepherds would come quite easily, It was the wise men that stumped me – so I thought I would try to tackle them first. I went off to Crieff Hills Community – a wonderful retreat centre run by the Presbyterian Church of Canada where I have gone for years on writing retreats. I stay in what they call the Hermitage – a former milk house, with thick stone walls – and which contains a bed, a shower, a toilet a microwave, a bar fridge, a sink and a desk – all in the smallest space.
I had written short stories as a child and again in high school, but although I studied English at university and had worked in communications, I had not written fiction in a number of years. I walked around the Crieff property that summer evening and wondered how I might write this story. I was neither a man nor wise and the story seemed strange to me. And then, a little boy walked into my mind, a boy who was fascinated by stars, and I had found my way into the story. That’s often what it takes – it’s almost like a key to a door, or finding the way into a maze – I sat down and began to write this boy’s story, and by the time my family arrived the next morning, I was about 30 pages into his story and I knew that it was not done yet and that it was going to be more than just a five-minute skit for church. It became my first novel, Seeker of Stars.
The novel I am working on now had an interesting start as well. And it also involves my dog – who really does earn his kibble. Two and a half years ago, we moved to a new neighbourhood in our city. Very near our house is an old cemetery and it has great paved paths in it for walking. I love walking the dog in the cemetery and I love seeing the unusual names on gravestones, seeing the different lengths of lives – husbands who died at 36 and whose widows lived to 98 – there was one lady buried last year who was born in 1911 – and near her grave is a small stone of a little boy also born in 1911 but who died in 1914. A cemetery is full of scope for the imagination, as Anne of Green Gables would say. But one marker caught my eye in particular. In a cemetery with mostly oblong stones of various materials, some urns, a few angels and some portraits of Jesus, there is one statue of a young girl holding a laurel wreath – but she marks the grave of a 70 year old woman with a terrific name – that I won’t tell you because she’s in my novel and it’s a work in progress. I decided to look up her name online one day and found out that when she was about my age, she built a castle in our city, a castle that burned down only a few years ago. Her story captured my imagination and I began to play with it. It took me a very long time to find my way into the story, especially because she was a real person and that stumped me for a while, but I’m writing her story now.
I also play with others, but I have to find the right people. I remember years ago talking with a non-writer friend at a Bible study who asked what I had been doing that day in my writing. What I had been doing I made the mistake of telling her – and that was, in the midst of my Quebec novels, I had a character who had begun an affair with one of his colleagues at school, and I was trying to figure out how they would face one another in the workplace afterwards. She looked at me, aghast, as if I had confessed that I was having an affair with a colleague. So, it’s important to find people who understand how this process works. Almost eleven years ago, I wanted to find such people, and I approached a couple of writers I knew and asked if they knew of others. We formed a group of six of us and we have met monthly ever since to discuss and critique one another’s work. We call ourselves the Hopeful Writers and they are a very important part of my life.
Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about soup here. Yesterday, my husband and I joined with our small group at church and made three big vats of soup for the young adults at our church. We tripled our recipes and made the soups. Then we had to test them. One of the soups was too sweet so we had to tinker with it – adding spice and salt and a bit of lime juice until it was better. Making soup is very different than making, say, a cake. In a cake, you need to get your measurements just right or your cake will turn out flat or uneven. Soup is usually much more art than science. It’s more playful. It also reminds me more of community – in part because soup is a comforting meal on a cold night, and in part because like a community, it takes a bit of this and a bit of that to make. I love that people have resonated with the soup theme. Just this week, a woman who was widowed a few years ago told me that she found this book very comforting and she said she thought it was because of the soup. I thank you, Mary and everyone else here, for welcoming us tonight with warm bowls of soup and community, and for welcoming Daisy into your midst too. I hope you will tell your other friends about this book if you enjoyed it, and I hope it will continue to simmer in your minds and hearts like a good soup does.
I once fainted while driving in Toronto traffic after having blood taken so ever since I’ve always been a little reluctant to have that procedure done again. A few years ago, though, I delayed and delayed and delayed my routine bloodwork by almost a year. And I thought about it almost every single day.
I’ve been reminded of this waffling recently, well, over the last six months really. People have asked me repeatedly whether I–like Daisy Jane in Ithaca–host weekly soup suppers in my home. And until today, I hadn’t. But just like the bloodwork fiasco, pretty much every week I’ve evaluated my schedule to decide when I should invite the neighbours to come to supper.
To be fair, our family is an active one, with lots of activities taking place in the afterschool-supper-early evening timeslots. My other excuse was The Dog. The Dog likes to greet people with enthusiasm. The Dog generally settles down again within five minutes, but not everyone likes being greeted with the whip of a wagging tail. Not everyone likes dogs, even. So, yes, that has been a delay. Someone has a sniffle and I’d rather not plan a meal only to cancel it. Oh gosh, there have been both valid reasons and worried excuses.
We have new next-door neighbours. A few weeks ago, I was telling my husband that we really had to do the soup supper soon, but when??? He suggested we do it the weekend they moved in, as a kind of welcome to the ‘hood. That was this past weekend. Initially the weather forecast called for rain on Sunday–and my solution to the dog issue was that we could hold the party in our decent-sized backyard, and keep the dog inside, but that wouldn’t work if it rained–but eventually the weatherman decided it would be sunny both Saturday and Sunday. I went to the market on Saturday and found beautiful bunches of asparagus and long green leeks. One of my kids suggested vichyssoise–potato-leek soup–and I had seen a recipe for asparagus-lemon-parmesan soup that sounded delicious.
What I should have done was go around on Saturday and invite all the neighbours to Sunday lunch. What I did instead was “hem and haw” as my mom would say, until 10:30 on Saturday night when I began sweating leek circles in butter, and grating fresh parmesan into asparagus. I finished two pretty large vats of soup just before midnight.
Was I committed now? I was not. Honestly, it was not until after church at 11:30 in the morning that I began knocking on neighbours’ doors with invitations to a spontaneous soup lunch. I sent my husband out for bread and butter, and sliced limes into water, and found paper bowls and plastic spoons and set them all out on a table in the backyard.
I had said to come for 12:30, but 12:30 came and went–and my butterflies increased their fluttering. The reality is that I have met and talked with all of these neighbours on a variety of occasions–even the new ones. But to break bread and soup together is to cross a line, to build a different kind of relationship with the people who share our block. And I don’t mind saying that I felt some degree of resistance to it, even as I wanted to encourage community around us and with us. In the end, I decided that I didn’t need to make such a big deal out of it–I didn’t need to wait for the perfect time. The house didn’t need to be totally clean. The Dog could come out and be the life of the party–until the one child arrived with her healthy fear of dogs firmly in tow, and then The Dog could go have a break. Two of my three kids had to leave as the lunch started–oh well. The neighbours are the people who see your underpants hanging on the clothesline. It could be a small deal and that could be good.
And it was. They began arriving at 12:45 and they began meeting each other, talking, finding common ground. Little kids played in our backyard (something that made me very happy). Kids asked for extra chives on their potato leek soup. We talked about stuff. People said we should do this again. They said we should definitely do this again.
One of my other pre-soup worries was that I would feel like Daisy when she felt like she was too much the hostess, that she wasn’t able to enter into the conversation, but that didn’t happen. There was no tinkering that needed to happen along the way so I was able to eat and talk.
So I say too, we should do this again.
A couple of weeks ago, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for a while: I paid for the privilege of making soup.
It was a sunny Tuesday evening when I pulled up in front of the cooking studio and went in by myself. Inside were about 25 or 30 other women and two men–a group of Soup Sisters and a pair of Broth Brothers.
Soup Sisters is an international organization that began only a few years ago when Calgarian Sharon Hapton decided to celebrate her 50th birthday by inviting a group of friends to help make vats of soup that would be distributed to youth and women’s shelters in her city. The birthday party quickly became a movement that spread because like Sharon Hapton and like Daisy Turner in Ithaca, there are a lot of people who believe in the power of soup as a nurturing and nourishing gesture.
Most of the other people attending the Soup Sisters/Broth Brothers night in Waterloo had come with friends, but the organizers kindly placed those of us who were on our own in the middle of the long table at which we sipped wine and ate hors d’oeuvres. Very quickly people began talking to one another and making friends.
We were then invited to watch the owner of the chef studio review knife skills with us. I learned that essentially I have always been doing everything wrong. That was my main takeaway from the lesson, because once I got a knife into my hands, I forgot most of the techniques she had taught us.
There was then a short presentation from representatives of two local shelters who talked about their work and the difference that receiving soup made. Operating on slim budgets with relatively few staff, having soup arrive each month meant a significant reduction in both their operating costs and the time available for staff to do other essential services.
We were then invited to wash our hands, put on aprons and join the soup group that was listed on our name tags. Each group was set up at a different station around the room, with a Soup Sisters volunteer at each station to make sure we kept all our digits and to encourage us as we chopped and stirred. I ended up with the two Broth Brothers and eventually the young male dishwasher who was working on site. I hadn’t expected to talk rugby at a Soup Sisters event, but we talked rugby as we peeled and chopped carrots, celery and onions for the twenty litres of Hamburger Soup we made.
One tip I do recall from the evening was that adding a pinch of salt after each ingredient is added to a soup is a better approach than adding a spoonful of salt at the end. It layers the flavour into the soup and ends up requiring less salt and having less of a specifically salty taste than it would if salt was a late addition to the pot.
While our soups simmered, we tidied up and then went back to the table for more wine and conversation while the Soup Sisters volunteers served us salad and bread and then a bowl of soup, made by one of the groups.
After we finished eating, we went back to our stations, taste-tested and then ladled soup into large vats, and labeled the containers with our names, the names of the soup and the ingredients we had used.
Soup Sisters is a nonprofit organization and the $55 registration fee covers the cost of the cooking studio rental, the ingredients and the food we ate. The price had initially seemed slightly steep to me–I could make soup in my own home for less–but I hadn’t counted on the sense of community and the convivial pleasure of the evening. The conversation around the table was excellent, too. I decided afterward that the kind of people who would be attracted to such an event would be people who had an interest in the world and making it a better place. Then too, making and eating soup together really does create community.
Such evenings happen monthly in 23 communities across Canada and one so far in the US. Spaces are limited and often competitive. Since March 2009, more than half a million servings of soup have been made and distributed across Canada. I was part of the making of 75 of those litres.
If you are able, I recommend you become a Soup Sister or Broth Brother for an evening too.
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, 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
1. What does Daisy bring on her first trip to Henry’s cabin?
b) a picnic lunch
c) her computer
d) a notebook
2. Before his death, Daisy’s husband worked as a professor at
d) Each of the three at different times
3. Henry enjoys reading
c) nursery rhymes
4. Who convinces Daisy to buy the green laptop?
5. What is the name of Carmel’s daughter?
6. Henry raises bees in an effort to help his wife’s multiple sclerosis?
7. Where did Carmel’s motehr take her children on September 11th?
a) Home to watch the Flintstones
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.