My Other Book

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.

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Daisy Jane and Soup in Bracebridge

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.