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.