The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, November 29, 2007


by Tricia Dower

Ta da! Behold the cover of my almost-a-book. Although I wasn’t involved in its design, it is absolutely perfect. Absolutely my vision of the little girl in the title story. That someone was able to translate my words into that perfect image thrills me.

My sister, Lili, said, “Our parents are so proud, I’m sure.” Well, I don’t know how aware they are — they died in 1995, five months apart — but I do think of them often, especially my mother’s unrealized dream of writing.

Both of our parents sacrificed to earn Dad's degree from Rutgers University. For him, eight years of night school after working all day. For her, eight years alone with two daughters, feeding us hot rice and milk, squeezing the life out of a nickel. When he graduated, we had a big party with a sheet cake — the expensive one with cherry filling. Everyone praised his determination and hard work.

Mom said she wanted to go to school, next, to become a teacher or a writer. Dad felt his degree was sufficient to support the family. He regretted the stand he took, later, as illness became her career and she turned into a ‘silent girl,’ depression, pain and medication leaving her uncommunicative.

Surprisingly Dad died first. No need for my sister and me to speak at the funeral. The church was full of those he touched with his love and generosity. Many testified about how he’d been there for them throughout their lives like a second brother, uncle, or father.

Five months later, we wondered who would speak for our mother.

The night before that funeral, Lili found an envelope of poems, articles and stories as well as rejection slips from Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal. Into the early morning I compiled and edited some of our mother's work for the eulogy. I’d been aware over the years that, from time to time, she emerged from her defeated state to write and attempt to get published, but I hadn’t seen some of the pieces. A few were corny: Yankee Doodle went to town/He went as an equestrian/ Yankee Doodle found a crap game/And went home a pedestrian. Others moved me with their promise: How beautifully clean is this morning/Washed in the rain, dried in the sun.

As I read her poem about the child she lost between my sister and me, I saw my daughter wipe her eyes. Her son was just over a year old at the time and I figured that was why.

“No,” she said, later. “I was thinking about what she could have been.”

I’m not trying to be my mother’s voice in my writing, but her unfulfilled life has guided me for years. For her sake, I am trying to be all I can be, to let my own voice be heard. Absolutely.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Au Lit, On Dort and Eye of Cat

By Anne Chudobiak

So I went to the QWF awards gala last week. It had a mainly unsettling effect, perhaps because it coincided with the first real storm of the season. When I left to go out to the Lion d’Or, the snow was light and fluffy and charming. On the trudge home, it felt more demanding. Was this rain? sleet? hail? The next morning, it was simply unbearable. When had it gotten so cold? Who was responsible for this ice? It was giving me a headache, or maybe that had something to do with all that red wine, but whatever. All I wanted to do was eat potato chips and watch Miami Ink—until March, maybe April.

But of course I had things to do, things that I couldn’t put off any longer, like that letter to my daughter’s teacher, the one where I gently, artfully suggest that she might want to keep a closer eye on the girls in the schoolyard. A gang of hopscotch-taggers was going a little Cat’s Eye, by some reports.

This wasn’t really a letter that I wanted to write. The whole concept of bullying made me sad, especially where it concerned my daughter, and trying to express those concerns in a second language only made it harder. No wonder Esme was having trouble! Her teacher and I hadn’t read the same books. How could we ever understand one another? Had Madame Atwood's Oeil-de-chat been as widely read as the original? Why had I never gotten into the habit of following the French-language media here in Quebec? If I had, I wouldn't be in this awkward position of not knowing which books to reference in my pointed letters to elementary school teachers.

I decided in the end not to mention any novels. It was too dangerous. No one was ever more shocked than me by what English-language authors managed to find additional success in French translation. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, seemed inordinately popular here, judging by her constant presence on prominent display in at least one local book chain. I also remembered a long year where the only thing that anyone in the entire province seemed to be reading was Arthur Golden’s Mémoires d’une Geisha, but maybe that wasn’t unique to Quebec.

I focused instead on making my letter friendly and accessible. It was crucial that my information be well received. I led with a sincere compliment and closed with a nice salutation, before putting the letter in Esme’s backpack and sending her off to her fate. I hoped that the hopscotch-taggers wouldn’t choose that day to up their game. At least grade-one girls weren’t known for physical violence.

I spent the day waiting nervously. What if the teacher wrote back that I was a parent-roi? I’d learned that term from her, at a parent-teacher night. She’d said that we’d probably all read about the phenomenon of overly pushy parents making needless demands on tireless educators in that famous exposé in Le Devoir. I hadn’t. When was the last time I’d even glanced at that paper? 1999? To make up for lost time, I now try to use the term “parent-roi,” as often as possible. It makes me feel more in step with Quebec society. “I’m not trying to be all parent-roi, but I think that something’s amiss on the hopscotch court. By the way, my daughter adores you. Cordially, Anne.”

When Esme was returned to me that afternoon, I dove into her backpack, looking for my reply. What I found surprised me. My letter was still tucked inside her agenda, apparently unread. I wanted to ask Esme how it had happened that the letter I’d taken such care to write had been overlooked, but she was too busy, telling me about the great day she’d had, playing outside with all of her friends.

“Friends,” I said. “What friends? I thought that you didn’t have any.”

“Sure I do,” she said. “Lots. I have lots of friends. Marguerite et Catherine et….”

“What about the hopscotch-taggers? The ones who made you cry?”

She stared at me blankly.

I discreetly removed the letter from the agenda. I wouldn’t throw it out—I would keep it in reserve—but clearly I couldn’t send it either. Had I really threatened to pull Esme out of the school? How drastic was that? What planet was I from? Or was I simply more of a Quebecer than I gave myself credit for?

Viewed in that light, this wasn’t a gaffe, but a milestone, worthy of celebration. A subscription to Le Devoir might do nicely. It would be wise in future to keep on top of these trends before falling victim, moi et mon enfant.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


by Steve Gajadhar

Anyone else noticed the increase in all things sci-fi lately? The Western world is chock full of all things alien: UFOs, alien abductions, and paranoid theories of alien-government collusion a la the X-files. Besides most of us being partially wacko, this speaks about something intrinsic in all of us, a sort of a priori need for beings from above. Be they angel or alien, humans like the idea of celestial beings, perhaps even need them to justify and judge our terrestrial scurrying.

The scientific community seems to need aliens as well. In the 1960s Frank Drake and Carl Sagan first made a scientific case for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, the famous Drake equation.

N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which me might hope to able to communicate;
R∗ is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

The equation tries to allow for a mathematical estimate of the number of intelligent species in the universe at any given time. Sagan and Drake were mostly ignored, and their probing of the fringes of science was left for those on the fringes of science to enjoy. By the 90s, as our understanding of the nature of the universe grew, so too did mainstream science’s acceptance of the idea of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

I believe in the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds. The sheer scale of the universe insists upon it. Each galaxy has a conservative estimate of one hundred BILLION stars in it – some are like our sun, some aren’t; some have planets, some don’t – and there are BILLIONS of galaxies in the visible universe. Certainly life exists or existed elsewhere, it simply has to. We are not a 1 in a 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 fluke. I also believe that we will never meet or discover any intelligent life forms other than those already present on earth, at least not in any near future human generation. So I guess you could say I don’t believe in our version of aliens. While we’re at it, let’s throw out all that abduction mumbo jumbo and conspiracy nuttery. It makes for good sci-fi and great TV, but it should not be a serious part of our day to day lives. Does it seem reasonable that a highly advanced civilization capable of traversing the immense distances of interstellar space would somehow find us, come here, and then never once say, “hey earthlings, howz it?” I know if I had come all that way I might want to do a little more than abduct some people, mutilate a couple cows, and do a late night fly-by of Phoenix.

So intelligent life exists, but I postulate that we will never know for sure. Two things help me reach this conclusion, distance and time. The universe is big. Really big. Like really, really big. Like so big no one knows for sure. The detectable universe – the parts whose light have reached the Earth and are therefore visible to us – is something like 45 billion light years across. And then there are the bits we can’t see and don’t even know how to detect. So ya, it’s big. The star nearest to us is Proxima Centauri, a mere 4.2 light years away. Seems close when compared with 45 billion, doesn’t it? Well it’s not, and the challenges inherent in near light speed travel (1,079,252,848.8 kph is the speed of light, we can muster 39,665 kph) might put it permanently beyond us. In a couple hundred years we might be able to craft generation ships, load them up with families willing to undertake the few hundred year journey to Centauri. We better make sure something is there before we go.

Time is finite, the great equalizer. In addition to the vast distances within our own galaxy, we can’t forget time. The universe is something like 13.7 billion years old. The Earth is somewhere around 4.5 billion years old, and life on earth started about 3.7 billion years ago. Modern humans are 32,000 years old, and modern localized space faring humans are not even 50 years old. Let’s say we continue to develop and manage not to destroy ourselves with stupidity (not guaranteed by any means) for another 1000 years. For us to find or be found by other intelligent forms, we not only have to be relatively near them, we need to exist at the same time as they do. The probability of this has nearly as many zeroes behind it as my last number. In the interests of blog size, I’m going to skip von Neumann probes, the Fermi paradox and other theories that offer similar conclusions to mine. I suggest googling them if you’re interested.

So why are so many people - atheists and religious people, lay people and scientists – fascinated by beings from the heavens? I don’t know. Maybe I am too. Perhaps we need imaginary beings (for they might as well be imaginary if we never see them, never know they are there) to ground us, to normalize us. Human beings are exploratory by nature. We see it, we want to go there. We explore and we strive. We strive to fill up the unknown with ourselves or our ideas. If we can’t go there, or are afraid to go there, we invent something that can and does. The sea monsters of the old world. The Wendigo of Native Americans. The angels and demons of religion. The aliens of secular Western culture. We fill up the unknown with our imagination until we can fill up the unknown with ourselves, then we populate the next unknown with a new set of imaginary beings.

Aliens are out there somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away, asking important philosophical questions about the underpinnings of the universe and wondering if they are the only species able to contemplate the wonder that surrounds them. E.T. is phoning home, but it’s hard to believe there will ever be anyone on the other end to pick up. I hope we both keep trying to make the connection.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Culture Crawling in the ‘hood

By Tamara Lee

Last weekend, the 10th annual East Side Culture Crawl took place in my Vancouver neighbourhood, when for three days the local artists open up their doors—home or studio—to show and sell their works.

It's actually been going on a bit longer than that, but it was sort of under the radar, and much more intimate, back in the day. Nevertheless, what I love about this event—even as it grows to near-unmanageable crowds of outsiders nudging, coffee-in-hand, to get a closer look, asking the same questions over and over and no doubt at times exhausting the artists—is the array of artworks within just a few square miles.

Across the alley from me is Kathleen Murphy’s Kamu Studio, where she creates elegantly simple pottery. I cooed over her new red decoratives for a suspiciously long time, then finally chose one of her bottle vases for a friend.

I then made my way a little further up the street to the more craft-focused Onion Studios, where Christina Norberg’s pretty and fun papier mache works caught a lot of attention.

After looping around the 'hood past derelict warehouses and refurbished old homes, through a few more personal and public studios, I finally ended up over at Paneficio, where the artists run the gamut from painter/printmaker/muralist Richard Tetrault to the furniture sculpture of Arnt Arntzen .

The Arntzen piece shown here is one of his newest, dubbed a wave coffee table, made of sycamore, a steel conveyor belt, steel and glass. At $8500.00, it is easily the most expensive but also one of the most amazing pieces I’ve seen at the Crawl.

As I walked home, I passed our local café, stuffed full of folks from other neighbourhoods demanding their no-fat-soy-light-foam-decaf-lattes, while the locals congregated on the street to chat and watch Goby Catt perform a spiffy jazz set from his balcony. Some of us lamented about how things have changed, and how two and a half days is just not enough time any more to see it all. Thankfully, though, I don’t have to go across town to have a second look.


(Images: Goby Catt and band mate swing on the balcony; Arnt Arntzen's wave coffee table, the impeccable detailing of which I wasn't able to capture, unfortunately)

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Cautionary Tale

by Melissa Bell

I'm not happy.

I just found this out yesterday morning. Because it turns out I've been unhappy for so long I've just accepted it as "normal", and that when I start to get happy again, my life will change.

Allow me to explain.

When I took my Mom to our family doctor for a recommended B12 shot, I thought hey, while I'm here, maybe I should get a shot as well, given my recent foray into veganism. And how could it hurt anyway? Our dear Dr. G. thought it might be a good idea to get some blood work done before he started handing out injectibles, all willy-nilly. I reluctantly agreed. I've been living such a healthy lifestyle lately. Actually to the point of downright boring.

And then my tests came back indicating an under-active thyroid. Like dangerously under-active. As in "Melissa, if you'd gone another year without getting this checked out, you would be seriously ill."

Who knew? Not me.

The list of symptoms for hypothyroidism is extensive and varied. Even the most common symptoms, however, one could always attribute to something else – which is what I did. Here's a sample:
- Fatigue (heck, I write – I stay up late a lot trying to get things done; who wouldn't be tired?)
- Depression (I read the news like everyone else does – aren't we all depressed?)
- Dry skin (it's nearing winter; I'm a little flaky, so what?)
- Intolerance to cold (maybe a red flag if I lived in Jamaica - but I don't)
- Puffy, droopy eyes in the morning (I'm XX years old and I'm tired from late-night writing binges – isn't that just the way it goes?)

The list goes on. So it turns out I've probably been hypothyroid for some time. Here's how my experimental diet of a vegan nature put me seriously a risk:

Turns out there are certain foods that are reputed to be "goitrogens". That is to say that they can suppress the thyroid's activity. And these foods are the ones that also tend to be labeled as incredibly healthy so there's no reason to not consume them freely: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, turnips, kale, flaxseed, tofu, spinach – and others, but that's enough for now. Now before I go any further on this and because I don't want the CWC to get any legal letters for handing out unsolicited medical advice, all of the above is just information that I've managed to piece together for myself over the past day or so. Do your own research. All I'm saying is that there I was, thinking I was eating right and helping my body out, and what I was doing was possibly and innocently causing it further damage. I had no idea I had a pre-existing medical condition that by upping my intake of those reputably ultra-nutritious foods was hurting me severely rather than helping.

I asked my doctor if there was anything I could have done to prevent my condition. He said no, absolutely not. It just happens. You either get it, or you don't. I got it.

And so I'm not happy. Apparently. The slide into hypothyroid depression/unhappiness has been so gradual that, according to my doctor, after a month of taking the prescribed medication, I will be feeling so much better that he will become my second best friend in the world.

So looks like I've got myself involved in another interesting experiment I'm looking forward to. Because, my friends, while I might not have been the cheeriest bloke at the bar of late, I've just been chalking it all up to external circumstances. I can't wait to see what happens next. Like being surprised by something suddenly showing up when you never realized it had gone missing in the first place.

Hmm. I'll keep y'all posted, you know that.

Happy Thanksgiving to our south-of-the-border readers. Hope you're all feeling fat and funky on this fine Friday – enjoy your long weekend!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Bra Humbug

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

— Robert Burns, from the poem To A Louse
he wrote after seeing one on a lady’s bonnet at church

If the most humbling experience for a woman of a certain age is buying a bathing suit, the second most is getting fitted for a bra.
I did that last week for the first time since I was, oh, thirteen and didn’t really need one. Somewhere in my late teens, I settled into a 34B and have bought that size off the rack ever since. A recent weight loss got me to thinking I might have crept back closer to training bra range so I trekked on over to the Bay’s lingerie department, to one of their bra fitting experts.

“Hmm,” she said, “34, still. As for cup size…C, maybe D.”

What! An image of a woman from my church when I was a kid popped into my head. This woman’s bust kept you at such a distance you had to shout if you wanted to converse with her. “How can that be?” I said. “I’m wearing a 34B now.”

“Hmm,” she said again, not wanting to deliver a tutorial on Continental Drift, I suppose, or suggest the possibility that mine might be a generous B. Even bra manufacturers are guilty of downsizing to make us feel better. (How can zero be a dress size?)

My choices would be limited, the woman said, because Cs and Ds typically don’t come in 34. (Yeah? Tell that to Jennifer Lopez, Cheryl Tiegs, Kate Winslet and Drew Barrymore. I checked out the Celebrity Bra Sizes site.) We found a few. “Here,” she said, “try a 34B just for fun.” I slunk off to a change room while The Little Drummer Boy pa-rum-pum-pum-pummed in the background, putting me into a right foul mood. It isn’t even December. I bought the Cs, the ones with the $5 mail-in rebate tags.

On to yet another humbling experience: sitting for a portrait, something I did the day after getting my new bras. Something I needed to do for my book jacket. I’m embarrassingly old for a first book. What if browsers flip to my picture and decide they don’t want to read something by a dinosaur?

The photographer gave me a pep talk about pondering the unique qualities the years have carved into my face and said he would try to capture the real me. I wanted him to capture the me I’d like to be.

The session was almost fun. I winnowed down dozens of proofs to seven which I e-mailed to my writing group, my kids, my sister and a friend in Toronto, asking their preference. I went with the one my sister says looks like Diane Keaton. Anyone but me. Now, if Diane Keaton wears a 34C, it’ll be perfect.

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving to our south of the border friends!

Which twin has the Toni? (Only fellow dinosaurs will remember that ad campaign.) Diane Keaton, bottom right. Me, above, as I’ll appear on the jacket of my short story collection, Silent Girl.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Essay, and My Crisis of Faith

by Andrew Tibbetts

The best book I’ve read this year is 2007’s The Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace and series editor Robert Atwan.

Both editors get to introduce the collection and both celebrate the impossibility of nailing down an exact definition of the literary form, ‘the essay’. They celebrate rather slyly by pretending to struggle with the concept. For show, they launch a wild goose chase through the history of the form and it’s sibling forms -- the article, the opinion-piece, the memoir, the personal history, the note, the occasional piece, the creative non-fiction piece, etc. -- taking pit stops at Montaigne, Orwell, Didion, et al, (but strangely, no mention of Emerson). They pretend to be rather apologetic about the crop of disparate entities they’ve gathered. But don’t be fooled. They love the ambiguity, the uncertainty, the fuzzy boundaries, and the chaos. And so do I!

I haven’t gotten excited about fiction lately. And I’m a fiction writer, so this is a serious crisis of faith. I’ve stalled on the few short stories I’ve been writing for several years. I have a computer folder full of versions of each-- fragments, outlines. I’ve tried to come at the things from several different angles. As an experiment, I’ve tried to tell these tales in the style of other authors I’ve enjoyed. I’ve tried to tell these tales as if they were true. But therein lies the crux of the matter. I’ve lost my faith in their truth. They seem dull. Thin. Useless. Besides the point. It hurts me to write this.

Fiction writers claim that by making things up they can access a truth deeper than the merely factual. That sounds good, doesn’t it? But these ‘essay’ writers have found a way to access deep truth through the specifics of the real world.

Mark Danner’s “Iraq: The War of the Imagination” began life as a book review for The New York Review of Books. Danner sifts through the mountainous minutiae of leaked memos, newspaper reports, accounts of conversations between major players and reflections by hundreds of opinion-sharers -- the stuff of modern engagement with current events, a headache of information-- and he pulls out a thread that unravels the entire mess. He paints a view of flawed human nature that is as grandly tragic as a play by Euripides.

In Wallace’s introduction he makes a case for a criterion he used to help him select the pieces for this anthology: service. These pieces are useful. They provide a service. In the discourse around art, this concept has been anathema for some time. Art for art’s sake -- remember? What these pieces do is trump the distinction -- there needs to be no lessening of utility due to increase of artistry. In fact, I defy you to find a short story in this year’s The Best American Short Stories that boasts language as beautiful as Jo Ann Beard’s in her ‘essay,’ “Werner.” Her playful turns of phrase, her scintillating compression, her masterly control of tension and mood are as abstractly elegant as a Mozart string quartet. And she pulls off this feat of gorgeous writing by telling us what really happened to a real guy this one time. So, on a simple level her piece is a useful story of ingenuity and survival.

The specifics of the world are the gateway to the universal. Non-fiction writing is tied to the real world by a fascinating cord that gives it life-blood and keeps it breathing the same air as the reader. It turns out our imaginations are not constrained by the real, but sustained.

What in the world am I going to do with myself?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Out of the Neckhole

By Anne Chudobiak

The Quebec Writers’ Federation is holding its annual awards gala tomorrow. For most people with any interest in the event, the question is: who will the winners be? But I find myself struggling with another question, whether or not to attend.

Initially, there was no doubt. I had a great time last year, and I would have a great time this year, too. All I needed was someone to have a great time with! And maybe a new dress.

My difficulties began when I checked in with my friend Angela. I’d gone with her the year before, and she’d watched in horror as writers were dragged from their dark corner tables to stand on stage. “Next year,” I’d said, “this could be you!”

And it’s true, it might. Her debut poetry collection is up for a first book award. This means a lot of things, most of them good: recognition and possibly money. But it also means that she has to go to the gala early, for pre-ceremony drinks. She was planning to attend with a fellow nominee. They were going to give each other strength. “I could meet up with you after,” she told me.

No problem, I thought. I hadn’t even asked my friend Krista yet and I happened to know that she had a deep-seated writer crush on one of the nominees. Surely, she’d appreciate the chance to ogle him under the guise of supporting the arts. But Krista, I soon found out, was off to California with her boyfriend.

That’s when I really started to worry. I have this superstitious belief that there is a limit to how many people you can serially invite to the same event, and that limit is three. I would have to choose my next invitee very carefully. If I was smart, I wouldn’t invite anyone else at all. Why tempt fate?

But then a Googling Italian brought me back in touch with another friend, Alisha. It had been months since I’d last seen her, when I found this comment under a picture I’d posted of her on this blog:

Francesco R— said...
Alisha P—? The Alisha P— that was in KCVI in Kingston? I can't believe! I an an italian that was in Canada for one year during 1990 with my sister... the story is too long, but anyone would care to listen to it? Perhaps Alisha?

I contacted Alisha to let her know about her Italian, and the topic of Angela’s gala came up. I asked her if she wanted to go. When she said no (butoh class), I should have abandoned all hope, but instead I went ahead and bought a ticket: if I couldn’t find anyone, I’d go by myself. Where was the harm in that?

I wanted to go all the more because I had a dress in mind. I’d seen it in a window of a local store. It was the perfect colour and I could wear it again for Christmas and New Year’s and well, forever. But up close, it wasn’t as attractive, not the least because the price tag said $660. I showed this to the saleswoman, but she seemed unfazed. “Yes? It eez cute?” she asked me.

I decided my tastes were too expensive for my own good, and that it would be better for me to continue my shopping at a discount store, where nothing would break my budget. I found such a place on the corner of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Joseph. The windows were plastered with sales signs. Everything was reduced. I loaded up on outfits and headed for the changeroom, where I met my next challenge: a sequined purple number that liked me more than I liked it. I tried rolling it up over my shoulders. I tried sliding it down over my hips. Nothing worked. I was stuck. I sent out an SOS.

Before the saleswoman could use the necessary force, I had to leave the shelter of the changeroom. It was too small for the two of us. I stepped out with my arms over my head, as though in surrender, and bent forward, so she could get a better grip. I could hear the fabric ripping as she pulled. “I don’t want to hurt you!” she yelled.

“Please,” I said. “Do what you have to!”

Out of the neckhole, I could see other shoppers staring. Why did this have to happen in a store that also carried menswear? I tried to pretend that it was Saturday morning on Chabanel street, where manufacturers open their showrooms to the public, and bargain hunters try stuff on out in the open. According to that scenario, at any moment those people might get naked, too. And if it was a bridal gown manufacturer, then they might need some help from the staff. This was a very normal situation, nothing to worry about.

“I’m going to count to three,” said the saleswoman. “One, two…”

I was so grateful to be freed from the sequins that I bought a dress, a more cooperative patterned silky thing. I don’t know if I’ll wear it tomorrow, or if I’ll even go (I’m not sure that I want to tempt fate a second time! I knew when I did it that "serial inviting" has potentially serious consequences), but there’s always Christmas and New Year’s and, well, forever to consider.

Come to think of it, an ill-fated expedition—to a store, to a gala—is an expedition no less. I just might have to go tomorrow night and see what happens. I wouldn't want to miss anything, good or bad! Either way, it's something to write about, n'est-ce pas?

Monday, November 19, 2007

Plugging away

by Tamara Lee

About a month ago, the CWC was given a kindly boost from Maria Schneider over at the Writer’s Digest. She added us to her 20/20 Project on her blog, The Writer’s Perspective, and we’ve been remiss in mentioning it here until now. (One thing we at the CWC can admit to is being a bit shy about self-promotion). But we are ever so grateful to Maria, and hope our readers will visit her blog, and the other blogs she has included in this very generous project of hers.


While we’re at it, remember to keep an eye on Descant's blog, where our very own Andrew Tibbetts can be caught moonlighting.

And our lovely Melissa Bell is blogging about yummy things over at


Still on the subject of blogs, as part of my attempts to streamline, I have recently started up a new (temporary) blog, called Write-Proof-Edit, for my freelancing stuff. Although it’s mostly a place for prospective clients to more easily peruse some of my online writings, it’s also an opportunity to foster my interest in photography, since I’ve been trying to improve for a while.

Ideally, I’ll only post my own photos, but Blogger’s new uploading perimeters have been rather finicky so I’ve had to resort to a couple of old (uncredited) favourites from my stash. My current post, though, is inspired by a photo I’ve just found hidden away in some nameless file (taken this past spring) of one of my favourite New York landmarks.


Finally, as I mentioned last week, I am still plugging away at the Magazine Writing class, and have found myself so immersed I’ve barely had a chance to relax and consider how to explain what I’m learning.

The course is taught by Canadian journalist Daniel Wood, and is well-regarded in Vancouver, since a large portion of those who take his class leave with proposals often accepted by magazines and periodicals across the country. Daniel offers insider tidbits for the aspiring Canadian creative non-fiction writer, such as what the top editors are currently looking for, where to watch out for potential story ideas, and how to manage our ever-increasing idea files.

So far it’s been primarily a course on proposal writing and organising for newbies. Since this is where I am most needing help, I am thrilled. A few of my classmates, though, are frustrated because they were hoping to work on their writing proper. But for me, learning to make those effective first steps is more important than the writing, since the writing will, as it always has, come in time.

I have been able to glean a bit about how to improve my creative non-fiction writing, though. Apart from the obvious advice to read the greats of the genre (Joan Didion, John McPhee), Daniel tries to pack as much into a class as possible. The barrage of bits and pieces can seem as though one is not getting much from the class, but the careful note-taker will be able to reflect later on all the spurious information and see that there is, indeed, something there.

Me, I’ve been struggling to find a focus for the story ideas I have. It seems what I have so far is either overly ambitious or not compelling enough. While listening to others’ proposal ideas this week, it occurred to me—one of the few who identify as a writer in class—that I am guilty of over-thinking. As I started to relax and have a bit of faith that there is a story nugget in amongst the slough of notes I’ve taken, I started to make some progress. Not a lot, but enough to allow me to cut myself some slack and head back in there to keep chipping away.

This week, I will be sending Daniel one, maybe two, proposals for critique. Hopefully, I’ll be able to report back in a couple weeks that I have finally found a story worth pursuing.


(image: by t. lee; evidence of something going on)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Midway Through the Month of Remembrance

by Melissa Bell

The moments can come at you from anywhere, and out of the deep, dark blue from nowhere, and you are powerless to do anything but let the memories and the vast wave of space between then and now crash into you, and then hope that it pulls away quickly.

It is the longing for the remembered joy that sticks its pointy little knife into the brain and jabs away, jabbity-jab, reminding you that life goes on, and that time is a bitch, and no matter who you are or how much money you have, or how successful you have become, you can never, ever, ever go back to what once was. I would like to suggest that you are able to look this fact in the eye and stare it down if you are attempting memoir.

Nostalgia. As a word desconstructed, it is the pain of returning home. Although home doesn't always have anything to do with it.

Last week I was driving around, running some errands, when that song by The Proclaimers, the one about walking 500 hundred miles, the one that drove me and my friends to murderous distraction with its frequent airplay, came on the radio. I hadn't heard that song in years. But there I was, instantly, somewhere back in time in a bar (a bar!) with Christine and Milo and Bob and Eric and it wasn't the specifics that the song evoked, stinging the back of my eyeballs with tears, and making me want to laugh and tear my heart out by the roots. I could not tell you at all what I wanted in the moment that it came on the radio. It wasn't a desire to return to that time for real. It was something vaporous and sad-making and I wanted it to go away, and yet I had to smile as I turned up the volume and tried not to miss what I hadn't noticed had been missing until I was just then reminded that what was once so good was now so gone. And now so gone for good.

Oh my.
This human experience is such a challenge sometimes, isn't it?

Saturday, November 17, 2007


by Antonios Maltezos

Entry 9

My brother lives in California with his family, so we have to play catch up over the phone every now and then. The last time we spoke, he asked me what was up with my writing. “Hey, what’s up with the writing?” was how he put it. Whenever he asks me this question, I find myself doing a quick mental scan of my recent accomplishments, if any, and breaking everything down to one basic paragraph he can swallow. He isn’t an idiot; he simply isn’t as interested as I’d like him to be. He has a great sense of humour and a wonderful eye for the absurd, so I value his opinion. But this is the guy who would agree to read a story of mine, and then proceed to skim as if he were holding a foinking shopping list in his hands. I’d had to keep watch out of the corner of my eye.

“Yah, man! I liked it! I liked it!”
“What did you like about it?”
“No. It was good. It was real good.”
“You didn’t read it. You skimmed.”
“No. I did. I read it, man.”

He skimmed, but I’d always get him good by snatching the story from his hands and reading my favourite parts out loud, pausing at the particularly brilliant parts. I’d hound, I’d have to hound for praise.

“Did you get that part? Fucking good, no?”

“Huh? Wait, I didn’t get that part.”

At these moments, I’d feel my spirits sink, damn, but I’d fight on, relentlessly. Where was he going to go? California. I’d start reading from the beginning again so he’d get the full effect since we’d already reviewed some of the more difficult parts. Mostly it was torture for him, but every now and then, I just knew he was surprised by my attempts to get at some meaningful stuff. Hey, this wasn’t comic books after all. He understood that. Good enough for me. I convinced myself my brain operated on a different level from his, and that getting him to see my brilliance was always going to be a chore.

So when he asked me what was up with my writing, I tried to give it to him as painlessly as possible.

“I started a journal on the Canadian Writers Collective blog. It’s called Journal of a Wannabe Novelist.”

The sound I heard coming out the receiver end of my portable phone was like a busting gear, and then I realized that he’d stifled a guffaw, the spit needed to guffaw properly going down his windpipe rather than flying out of his mouth as spittle.

Now, I’m not the type of guy whose feelings get hurt easily. I’d probably describe myself as a masochist rather than a sensitive guy. But his freaking stifled guffaw actually hurt slightly. You know why? Because I knew there wouldn’t be enough time for myself to explain what I was trying to do with the journal, what my novel was about, how much work I’d done already, and how much sacrifice. I just let it go. I may have said, “Fuck you, you little prick,” and then just moved on to another subject.

“So how’s the weather?”

Why do some people find shame in not having yet realized their dream? Is it so wrong to admit you’re a wannabe, and that you’re caught up in the throes of some great personal challenge? Is it that? Is it because it’s personal and we’re taught from a young age to be ashamed of all things personal, and therefore private? Gimme a freaking break! Is that why it’s taken so many years for me to even admit that I’m a writer… OKAY, a wannabe writer? Even today I’ll say it in a whisper out the side of my mouth.

“I’m actually a mumble, though I get my pay checks by doing pointless other work.”


“I say, I’m a mumble, been a mumble wannabe since seventh grade and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.”


“Been widely published over the internets.”


“I say, magazines come in internets, now. It’s a huge thing.”

(Pretty obvious I didn’t get much novel writing done this week, huh? I’ll have to make something up if my brother calls.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

An Anti-Wrinkle Cream in Time

By Anne Chudobiak

This has been the kind of week, where I’ve been filled with a sudden desperate need for anti-wrinkle cream, but haven’t had the time to make it to a cosmetics counter. There is probably a correlation here. Anyway, this morning, to curb the negative effects of aging and to encourage the good, I skived off to do what I said I wasn’t going to do anymore: drink coffee with writer friends. This had an unexpectedly uplifting effect, in part because the novelist was looking to get his passport application signed. “We can’t do that,” the poet and I told him. “We aren’t considered professionals!” But it would seem that the rules have changed. Writers and waitresses, dentists and doctors: everyone can now serve as a guarantor. This news should minimize even the most pernicious of Canadian frown lines.

p.s. Please excuse the picture. I tried to include a better shot of another cup of coffee, but Blogger wasn't biting. I don't know why not.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Of Silent Girls and Goddesses

by Tricia Dower

Three years ago, following a visit to Colin’s point of origin on this planet, I started a story inspired by Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, and set it among the ranches of southern Alberta. A documentary on CBC’s Passionate Eye provided the locale for my second Shakespeare inspired story. Story by story, a collection grew around modern-day counterparts to Desdemona, Kate, Miranda and others.

I’m thrilled to announce that the collection has been accepted by Inanna Publications and Education, Inc., the feminist press out of York University. They will describe my collection in their spring 2008 catalogue comme ça:

Silent Girl takes us into the remarkable and poignant lives of fictional daughters, sisters, friends, lovers, wives, and mothers through a story collection inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. Set in twentieth and twenty-first century Canada, Kyrgyzstan, Thailand and the United States, these insightful stories portray girls and women dealing with a range of contemporary issues such as racism, social isolation, sexual slavery, kidnapping, violence, family dynamics and the fluid boundaries of gender.

Founded in 1978, Inanna publishes one of Canada’s oldest feminist journals, Canadian Woman Studies. Their publications are widely used in colleges and universities. In 2004 they began publishing a prose and poetry series and I’m excited to be part of this relatively new venture.

My characters drew me to Inanna. We fit there, they told me.

The press takes its name from the Goddess Inanna, ruler of the ancient Sumerians who created the first known written language. Among their literary works are the hymns and stories of Inanna. According to these, she descended twice: first from Heaven to Earth to rule her people; second, to the underworld, the domain of her sister Ereshkigal. The second descent was to confront her darker, shadow self. It led to her death and resurrection. She was the goddess of fertility, love, the family and sexual desire, of both truth and deceit, of both war and healing, the goddess of the prostitutes, artisans, musicians, singers and scribes. Kind of a Peggy Lee Cause I'm a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I'll say it again kind of goddess.

Next steps: editing, design, printing and promotion. Should be fun and easy with such a multi-tasking goddess in charge.

Image from:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

This Post Could Be Bound in a Nutshell and Call Itself King of Infinite Space Were it Not That it has Bad Dreams

by Andrew Tibbetts

Christopher Booker’s sixth basic plot is tragedy. This narrative arc is a real downer. Things start out pretty well. In fact, somebody-in-particular has it made: a king, a prince, a salesman with a happy family. But human nature isn’t perfect and that somebody-in-particular has a flaw: jealousy, ambition, lust. Just by being themselves they start to screw things up. Things get bad. Then worse. And by the end, we’re talking bummer: catastrophe, death, dishonour.

I don’t buy the theory that our appreciation of tragedy comes from empathy. Oh, we may shed a tear or two, but we like the mighty to fall, it’s enjoyable. It’s a favourite story from high art - Oedipus, Othello - to supermarket tabloids - Lindsay, Lohan. It makes us feel better about our own lives, maybe? Tragedy is “I told you so” blown up to epic proportions. And while, “I told you so” over a friend’s ill-conceived haircut is pleasant, “I told you so” over the collapse of a kingdom is grand entertainment.

Not much Canadian Literature identifies as tragedy- even the low-level supermarket checkout kind we have to import from America. Partly this is because we don’t have kings; for a good fall, you have to set yourself up first, and Canadians don’t like to do that. In fact, that might be an element of our national character. We avoid tragedy by never letting ourselves get too big for our britches. Many of us had years of helpful training at the hands of relatives and school teachers- ‘don’t be a show off’, ‘who do you think you are?’, ‘look at that Andrew Tibbetts prancing around like the Queen of friggin Sheba’- sigh. And a common point of pride is that we aren’t as loud as our American neighbours, not as showy, not as temptingly pedestalled.

(If we did have a Canadian Tragedy, the main character’s flaw would turn out to be that he or she was too nice. Can’t you picture it?)

The other problem is our tendency to be resilient. I would have said The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is our best tragedy, but when Duddy pops up in later Richler novels - is it just the one? Barney’s Version? - he doesn’t really seem ‘fallen’. Maybe in Canada we’ve stopped believing that ‘flaws’ will necessarily ruin your career. Or maybe we’ve seen one too many ‘comeback tours’. Or one too many Hollywood sequels. (In fact if the Ancient Greeks were working now we might be deluged with Oedipus II: Rex Harder, Antigone III: Revenge of the King, or Medea’s Hair Salon in which “a woman fallen on hard times returns to her home town to open a hair salon. And finds true love”.)

Maybe the days of tragedy are gone, the simple days when a man who was down stayed down, when a woman who had murdered her children to spite her ex never did manage to put the past behind her and move on. Tragedy is when the past won’t be budged and what happened can’t ever be undone. Perhaps we creatures of self-help and self-definition don’t have the stomach for that.

Perhaps we’ll find more congenital ground in Booker’s seventh basic plot- Rebirth.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Reunion Tour

by Steve Gajadhar

The Weakerthans are one of my favourite Canadian bands (I can’t say favourite, cause there’s just so much darn good Canadian music out there). Couple this with the fact that –as far as I know – the CWC has never reviewed an album, and I have a blog post. This week I’m going to offer up my review of The Weakerthans latest album, Reunion Tour.

Reunion Tour gets an 8.5 out of 10 - score first, in case you’re lazy like me - but this 8.5 is based on Reconstruction Site and Left and Leaving, the band’s previous tour de force records and a couple of the greatest albums, Canadian or otherwise, ever recorded.

John Samson is the front man, and THE man behind The Weakerthans. This isn’t meant as a slight to the other members of the band, only a statement of fact. Samson is a lyrical genius, and though his delivery can become monotonous, the writer in me focuses more on the words and less on the voice. The tracks on Reunion Tour feature a bus driver, Virtute the cat, a medical oddity (perhaps Winnipeg’s own David Reimer?), a young business man at the point of ruin, interpretations of 2 Edward Hopper paintings, a curler, and other obscure characters and dim moments of memory.

‘Tournament of Hearts’ is the highlight for me. I can almost smell the dust under the lounge tables every time I hear it. Samson showcases the fun of two Canadian pastimes – curling and drinking – and yet also illuminates the escapism behind them using allegory to compare the rings of the house to the circular nature of Friday-at-the-club behaviour. Besides, any song that squeezes in a “hurry, hurry hard” is a guaranteed gem. The other tracks are no slouches, and every one has a line or phase that makes you rewind to listen again in awe.

“My confusion-cornered commuters are cursing the cold away
As December tries to dissemble the length of their working day
And they bite their mitts off to show me transfers, deposit change”

"Why, why can't I draw right up to what I want to say?
Why can't I ever stop where I want to stay?
I slide right through the day, I'm always throwing hack weight”

“The full moon makes our faces shine like over-ironed polyester
Then disappears behind the clouds
And leaves me under empty rows of night windows”

Samson uses his lyrics to render longing and melancholy into the tangible and familiar, and he does so in such a way that leaves you feeling happy instead of sad; introspective instead of depressed. And for me, an expat, Samson’s lyrics freshen the paint on my memories of Canada.

I did only give this album an 8.5 and there are a couple of reasons for this. One is the experimental track, ‘Gump Worsley,’ the idea is nice, but I feel spoken word is for poetry readings not rock records. ‘Gump’ breaks the record into halves and that leads to my other gripe: the second half of Reunion Tour doesn’t sustain the quality established in the first half. Imagine listening to a favourite record while having a few drinks. The second half of Reunion Tour is where you fall asleep and spill rum all over yourself. Reunion Tour needs more of the gear changes of Reconstruction Site, or at least an upbeat track to pop the clutch on wakefulness.

As with all great works of art, Reunion Tour only gets better with each helping. There are layers within layers here. Meanings tucked away in the word choices Samson makes - and he knows his words, having championed the last two Canada Reads winners - and the sentences he leaves unfinished. So go get Reunion Tour. It’s an album that deserves to be listened to and The Weakerthans deserve to be recognized by a real Juno instead of Gord Downie busting into a Samson refrain during a Juno performance.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A freelancer walks into it...

By Tamara Lee

Freelancing is hard. Gratifying in many ways, but it’s very difficult to keep momentum. For the past two years, I have been freelancing semi-full time as an editor, and working on my writing side projects. Now, it is time to really amp it up, but I’m a bit exasperated by the prospect of putting the glaring spotlight on business-building.

So there has been much online researching, forum-lurking, how-to book-perusing, and advice-seeking. And I can now say I know it boils down to a few things:

1-The self-marketing never ends.
2-The work-seeking never ends.
3-The overwhelms will never end.

One has to get into some kind of Zen-state about this whole enterprise, because as daunting as that list is, there is another list:

4-The self-discovery never ends.
5-The learning never ends.
6-The possibilities never end.

When Number 1 begins to scare the bejesus out of us, it’s time to soften it with Number 4. And when number 2 starts to exhaust us, it’s good to refuel with Number 5. So that by the time Number 3 starts to monopolize our thoughts, we can startle it with 6.

Like many freelancers, among my character flaws is that blasted thing called impatience. I recently read something very useful, though: Instead of comparing ourselves to the successes of others, compare ourselves to ourselves last week, last month, last year. The idea being, seeing our own progress precipitates more progress.

Nice one. That should get a sticky-note and front-and-centre on someone's bathroom mirror.

Currently, my baby steps include taking a magazine writing course. Essentially, trying to get Number 5 and Number 2 to shake hands and make nice. The class has been rather informative so far, if a bit nerve-wracking. (How is it that, someone with as much education as I’ve amassed still manages to feel awkward and misplaced in a classroom setting?)

Next week, I’ll share a little of what I’m learning, once I feel I have a leg up on this thing. Right now, I’m caught in a learning curve that still feels rather foreign.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Feeling Pukey

By Antonios Maltezos

I suspect I’ll eventually stop talking about the distractions, but from where I’m sitting right now, that seems impossible. Woke up this morning with what feels like a hangover except I haven’t had a drop of booze in over a week. I’m thinking it’s my turn with the gastro that’s already afflicted two of us here at the Chez Maltezos. The way Zoe described it, her teacher was blue about the face all Tuesday morning until sometime in the afternoon when she had her event. You know how children tend to tell the best parts first? Apparently, her teacher ran out of the classroom, abandoning the children mid-lesson, mid-sentence it seems to me, so she wouldn’t pull a Linda Blair right there in front of them, scarring them for life. Her violent retching heaves could be heard throughout the school.

I gave Zoe the third degree once I’d heard of the excitement. I wanted her to backtrack, try and remember if she’d come into close contact with this teacher. Poor kid was stammering because she knew where I was going with this. My wife and I are very strict when it comes to hand washing and keeping the school germs at school.

She then told me about this boy that was laughing while the teacher was in the washroom.

“Dad, I got so mad. I told him he was an idiot.”

(Oh, oh) “Well that was nice of you, sweetheart. So did you help her when she got back to class?”

“Maybe there was some contact when I helped her with her coat. Dad, she was so sick, she had to go to the emergency.”

So here I sit, after four days of helping with the puke duty. Dad! Dad! Apparently I’m the only one immune to the nausea associated with wiping up other people’s puke. Dad! Dad! Eek! Dad! So here I sit after four days of this, the novel, the journal, on hold but not forgotten, thinking I should slowly be making my way to the can.

Friday, November 09, 2007


by Melissa Bell

No, I haven't screwed up the year. 20,007 is my current word count for this year's NaNoWriMo. So far I've managed (oh but barely) the self-imposed 2500-word daily quota and that's why I'm popping in so late/early with a phoning-it-in blog post. Jeez. 3 a.m. as I write "jeez".

I'm working on something a little different this year. More of a memoir. My memories of my mother. I want to remember what I can of her life, the things we used to do together, the times we have had. Her own memory is not what it once was. Once an incredibly capable and creative woman with boundless energy who always looked like a million bucks and who was a wonderful well-read hostess and cook and wife and mother, she slips further and further away with each passing day. Sometimes it feels like it's with each passing hour a little bit more of her life crumbles into mental dust and then is gone, never to come back again. And sometimes I think she pretends that it's all still there, even when she knows it's not, but I cannot know for sure. We are each going on our own journey through this very dark and shadowy part of her life. I can't lead her out of it. I can really only follow her and try to keep her safe.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Taking on the Novel

by Tricia Dower

This afternoon, my Victoria writing group will be sharing our nascent knowledge of how to approach a novel. With a whip and chair? Wearing beekeeper hats and asbestos gloves? Or staring in trepidation at a blank screen? Three of the group are already into the process; another woman and I are thinking about it. We agreed to come prepared with helpful ideas. Having none of my own, I did some research.

A bazillion people want to give you advice, some of it simply (although it’s never simple) about writing well: hooking the reader, developing interesting characters, bringing a setting alive, avoiding clichés, evoking all senses, writing believable dialogue, and so forth. The suggestions I find most practical address structure and discipline. I’m used to the rhythm of short stories and the relatively rapid reward of finishing one. A novel, I suspect, requires more endurance and a deferral of gratification. If I should embark on one, here are some things I'd try to do:

  1. Be sure the story I want to tell has sufficient scope, conflict and complexity to support a novel for the reader and market I have in mind.
  2. Capture in first one sentence and then a paragraph the essence of the novel I want to write.
  3. Decide on structure. Some recommend the Basic Three Act Structure described here.
  4. Make a plan. I’m anal enough to love this suggestion. I can see it letting me put off writing indefinitely. The plan should cover the who, what, where, when and why of my story. It will describe the plot, internal and external conflicts, and outcome; identify point of view and tense; profile my main characters; and include anything else I want it to. I’m unlikely to stick to this plan but I like the delusional comfort of having one.
  5. Complete major research before starting to write — easy! I love research. Learning new stuff puts the zing in my writing zang. But, once I’m into my novel, I’m to avoid getting distracted by any additional research and save it for the editing stage — hard! Sometimes I can’t go on without knowing the precise colour of the berries on the shrub outside my protagonist’s bedroom window.
  6. Turn my plan into a detailed outline: what characters appear and what events occur in what scenes in which chapters? If there’s a subplot, in which chapters will I introduce and resolve it? More anal indulgence. Supposedly, an outline will allow me to see what the novel is about without actually writing it —sort of like making a dress pattern and pinning it onto a mannequin. My chapters can be long or short. They can end with a shift in character viewpoint or after each climactic scene, depending on the rhythm and pacing I want to establish. The wild and crazy part of the planning, I guess.
  7. Find devices to keep everything straight: my choices range from bubble designs and step sheets to flowcharts, chronologies, character charts, index cards and spreadsheet software. Lacking the patience for tools that require a manual, I’ll probably go with index cards until they fall on the floor in a Derrida-inspired design.
  8. Start writing and don’t stop. (Here’s a slogan for Novelists Anonymous: One Scene at a Time.) If I manage 500 words a day without listening to my internal editor, I’ll have 60,000 crappy words within 120 days.
  9. Revise, edit and proofread. Inflict it chapter by chapter on my writing group for their comments —hey, it’s their job, and I can’t imagine a more talented, supportive group of readers. Revise, edit and proofread some more.
  10. Remember what William Somerset Maugham said: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
I’m following Tony’s Journal of a Wannabe Novelist every Saturday here at the CWC. To the rest of you novelists: what’s your best advice?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My Work Feeds Me

by Andrew Tibbetts

I’m completely out of money but for the dregs of my laundry change bucket. It’s temporary but I am hungry. When I put my gym membership card back in my wallet I saw my Starbucks card and remembered I’d put fifty dollars on it some time ago! I headed over there for a sandwich and a juice. In a line-up that was full of men I had a hope of impressing, instead of the usual Church Street crop of impossibly gorgeous guys half my age, I saw the kindly young woman at the cash crunch her face, tilt her head and tell me I had a two dollar balance. Oh, I said. You could get a cookie, she said. Okay, I said, something with nuts for the protein. She gave me a breakfast cookie and I put back my juice and sandwich. Everyone in line had gracefully turned away, intrigued by the wallpaper or the ceiling or the floor or their fingernails.

I walked a few doors down nibbling my cookie, feeling very sorry for myself. I stopped at “This Ain’t the Rosedale Library,” my favourite bookstore. The Guardian calls it “the best independent bookstore in Canada.” I looked in the window. There displayed on the bottom rack but clearly visible without bending, were the two periodicals I have pieces in this season, sitting almost beside each other, smiling at me. I finished my cookie in a fog of pleasure and pride, staring in at this new peak in my literary career.

On the way home, I gave my fist full of nickels to a homeless woman. I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t unhappy. And I had a home to go to- one with a computer all set to work on the next piece, which turned out to be this one.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Wo bitte geht es hier zum Grizzly

By Anne C.

If I like Author X, I will like Author Y: this is the basic premise behind, which provides a graphic rendering of authors with comparable je ne sais quoi, so that readers can expand their libraries on the basis of their known favourites. This sounded good to me until I plugged in A.L. Kennedy’s name. According to the resulting literature map, her work is most akin to that of Helge Sobik, the author of such books as Barbadospractical Travel and Wo bitte geht es hier zum Grizzly, which seems to be set in Western Canada. Am I to conclude that a shared interest in our humble country and its Kanada-Stories somehow unites these two authors? Is the literature map more about geography than anything else?

I studied Sobik’s various author photos for more clues. In one, he is wearing a beautiful scarf, which I must admit I found unsettling. I’ve been spending a little too much time over at The Sartorialist, where it was recently pointed out that a scarf, especially a big one, can be clichéd. Ever since then, I can’t go out into the November cold without feeling bombarded by stereotypes and platitudes from passers-by. Perhaps Sobik wears his scarf as a reminder to keep his writing as fresh as a spring day.

But seriously, German speakers and other generally cultured people, let us know, who is this Sobik and why might we like to read him?

Pictured, me, committing more than one fashion faux-pas, last winter in Somerville, Mass.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A spot of Mark Haddon bother

By Tamara Lee

Mark Haddon bothers me.

He is broadly talented, as both an artist and a writer of several genres. And he can walk the funny-tragic walk in his novels like few others. (Richard Russo is one of those few, so he kind of bothers me too.)

I’ve recently finished Haddon’s A Spot of Bother, although initially I was rather reluctant to enter into a world of a man described in the blurb as ‘going insane.’ Haddon’s world of the insane, though, manages to be simultaneously comedic and unnerving, much like his fantastic debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, is both amusing and sad.

And this talent is why I love-hate Haddon.

As I read Bother with my writer’s eye (apparently there is only one in the idiom), my envy grew. Haddon interweaves several main characters’ lives, nicely segues POVs and characters’ miscues and reluctant growths—in some cases that fear of growth is quite literal and horrifying. Teetering ever so dangerously close to melodrama and yet, by way of brilliant internal monologue, never quite succumbing.

Eventually, I had to close that writer’s eye and just read for the pleasure of it.

The tragicomic novel is the kind of read I have been gagging for lately, and I couldn’t wait to get that tiresome sleep over with so I could waken and see what else the nutty family Hall was getting up to.

Haddon is humorous without a bing-bang drum roll, and perceptive without a spotlight illuminating his every insight. This subtlety is best captured in the character of George, the complex-riddled patriarch. Haddon creates a bumbling, lovable malcontent we ache for, even whilst we laugh at him.

‘He lay down and rolled into the shallow drainage ditch where the grass dipped before going under the fence. His coat was green. If he lay still they might not find him.

It was snug in the ditch, and surprisingly comfortable. Interesting, too, to find himself looking at nature from so close up, something he had not done since he was a small boy. There must have been forty or fifty species of plants within his reach. And he knew the names of none. Except the nettles. Assuming they were nettles. And the cow parsley. Assuming it was cow parsley.’

Hilarious, right? Well, okay, you have to read it in context: the inside/outside, private/public theme, and how it all goes horribly, amusingly wrong for this so-called proper British family. George would be mortified to learn he is so unforgettable. Especially as he considers how to properly kill himself.

‘If he drank enough whisky he might be able to summon the courage to crash the car. There was a big stone gateway on the A16 this side of Stamford. He could hit it doing 90mph with no difficulty whatsoever.

But what if his nerve failed? What if he were too drunk to control the car? What if someone pulled out of the drive? What if he killed them, paralysed himself and died of cancer in a wheelchair in prison?’

A Spot of Bother is the kind of novel you read knowing the film rights have been sold, and with any luck will be produced by capable folks. Folks who will be able to capture the inner hell of the characters where all the best funny dwells.

Several critics have booed at the novel’s predictability, at its occasionally obvious direction in plot and crises. I think such criticism is missing the mark, as it were. This deceptively ordinary novel about seemingly ordinary people consumed by rather everyday problems reveals just how extraordinary personal growth can be.

Now, before you think this review is all flowers and candy, I do agree Haddon could have tweaked the cliché knob a bit, though the device is pointedly, poignantly, used. But that is a mere niggle.

In the end, I was left wondering, How often is a writer’s sophomoric effort (nearly) as good as his great debut? (Michael Chabon, you’ll get your angry love-letter from me one day, too, you.)

And soon enough, I’m sure I'll head back to the novel with my writer’s eye, maybe even both of them, to see if I can find out just how Haddon does it. Curses.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Sunday Lite

by Melissa Bell

Hi. I'm NaNo-ing. So seeing as it's Sunday and you've maybe got some guests coming over for dinner, or maybe you might just want a healthy snack for yourself to go with a DVD or a home repair project, here's a wonderful recipe for hummus which I have adapted from The New Canadian Basics Cookbook by Carol Ferguson (with Murray McMillan). I don't know who Murray McMillan is. Murray, if you're reading this, I'm sorry. I will do a google and maybe you'll be there.

I have amassed a number of lovely cookbooks over the years – most of which I just like to look through and fantasize about the recipes – but The New Canadian Basics I return to again and again and I actually try the recipes out. And this book doesn't even have any photos (aka "food pr0n") included, so you gotta know its content is solid. Trust me, please. This recipe is so much better, and way cheaper, than buying the pre-made hummus at the store.

In a food processor* combine 1 can (19 oz) drained and rinsed chickpeas, 2 cloves of garlic**, 1/2 cup tahini*** (1/4 cup if you want less fat), 2 tablespoons lime or lemon juice, 1 generous teaspoon of ground cumin, a couple of shakes of hot sauce (I used Crystal [thank you, Pia Z.!] – one of the best hot sauces ever, I think, and they seem to be up and running again since Katrina – but Frank's or your fave hot sauce of the moment will do fine), 2 tablespoons olive oil, and some salt and pepper to taste. Whiz it all up in the processor with maybe a couple of tablespoons of water to get it to a spreadable consistency. And that's it!

This made me one of those medium-sized take-away containers full of the stuff. And it cost me under a buck because the No-Name chickpeas were on special for maybe sixty-seven cents a can. That leaves you tons of splurge room for some awesome organic gourmet chips for dipping. :-) Or try it as a spread on toast or sandwiches instead of butter. Loads healthier!

Have a great Sunday, friends!

*You really should use a food processor. A blender just isn't right for this recipe. It might burn out your motor. I think that might be what happened to my last one.

**Don't get too crazy with the garlic when you're using it raw like this. Two cloves are enough. I know, I know – you're thinking "But I love garlic! I must add more!" Don't. Please. Or if you do, you've been warned.

***Tahini, or sesame seed paste, can be found almost anywhere these days. But if you find yourself in a tahini-free zone, peanut butter (the peanuts-only kind) can be substituted. I've done it in the past and it works just fine. Unless you're allergic to peanuts. If you are, then wait until you can get some tahini.

Friday, November 02, 2007


By Anne Chudobiak

A few posts back I mentioned my plan to read A.L. Kennedy’s novel Paradise en route to Toronto. Although I did start the book on the train, I finished it at home, which later seemed to me like a missed opportunity for some kind of life-literature synchronicity: Paradise climaxes on a cross-Canada train journey, beginning (dramatically, of course) in Montreal. There are lots of little jokes that couldn’t possibly be funny unless you’ve already had reason to travel at least parts of the Quebec City-Windsor corridor. The main character has trouble, for example, even pinpointing the not ironically named Central Station in order to begin her trip:

And after half an hour I’m sure I must be close. The summery day has exhausted me, left me sticky beneath my shirt, and I have toured this block at least a dozen times – this block where the map says the station has to be. I have followed a railway-looking sign into a shopping mall and out again. I have scrutinized offices, tower blocks, shops, a statue and a Catholic residence. I have looked for trains. I have listened for trains. Nothing.
You can’t hide a whole railway station.
Why would you try?

In time, she realizes that the station is buried underground, a fact that continues to stymie me. I can get to the train station, but I can’t tell you how it’s done. Kudos to the Scottish Kennedy for capturing a particular-to-Canada reality. Talk about verisimilitude!

At another point in the book, she explains how a recovering Montreal alcoholic acquired a speech impediment, “running across the Place Dupuis and falling unluckily and waking up in a hospital with a ragged hole through the floor of his mouth and a very much shorter tongue.”

And I thought, “Place Dupuis? Where’s that? Maybe she made it up. It sounds like a plausible name for a place in this city. Why not?”

But no. This week, I received a letter from the government of Quebec, summoning me to the very real Place Dupuis, where I can apparently renew my health card and driver’s license in one fell swoop. I will be very careful when I go not to run.

Pictured: Massage chair in the Panorama Lounge at the also "buried" Union Station, Toronto