Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Room with a view

I recently read The Unquiet Mind of Hilary Mantel, an article about two-time Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel. When she writes, she looks out on a view of the sea, where, as the interviewer says, "there is no sign of human life; nothing except waves and clouds." I think that must be the perfect view for a writer.  A view like this is not blank; sea and sky constantly change. This summer, I spent some time on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Islands I watched being hammered by waves disappeared in fog on the following two days. Ships passed. Whales sent up spouts of spray as they swam by. Storms rolled in. But the expanse of it, the way it literally opens perspective, has to be good for writing.

Hilary Mantel. Portrait by Leonie Hampton.

In the interview, Mantel says, "...of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there...." The interviewer, Sophie Elmhirst, follows this remark with the comment that Mantel "can sound arrogant." To me, though, this is just a writer talking about how much fun she's having. 

I've felt that little hit of pleasure -- especially while revising, when I have a better handle on what I'm working with -- when I know that some small thing has a resonance that maybe no one else will even notice. But I know.  

Mantel also says that "...to be a novelist is to relish uncertainty, to be shot with doubt." I think that explains why so many writers are almost superstitious about discussing something they're writing before it's done. You don't know exactly what's going on or why and you don't want to know. Part of the fun of writing is discovering what you're doing through the writing.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A crush on Uncle Leslie

Margaret Laurence looking untouchable.
I got a nice email this morning from a woman who read Shelter and said she'd developed a crush on Uncle Leslie. I felt the same way about him when I was writing the novel. Uncle Leslie has integrity. There's a moment in the novel when Maggie turns to him for fatherly affection and he has to overcome his uneasiness about the appropriateness of the situation. He knows it would be suspect to an outsider. But he also knows she needs him. I didn't really write any of that, but I was thinking it, and admiring him.

I fell in love with all of my characters at different points when I was writing. I was thinking about that this morning and wondering whether that needs to happen when writing a novel. I was really pleased when an editor told me she thought Emil was "hot." I thought so, too. Same thing with Vern. And I loved Rita when she first appears. To me, she's so capable and competent and untouchable, in a fierce, independent way. I heard Eden Robinson say once that her characters sometimes go off and do their own thing. Rita was like that. I had ideas for her and her role in Maggie and Jenny's lives. But at some point I realized that she had ideas of her own. Then, as the people you love best do sometimes, she began to frustrate the hell out of me. She becomes emotionally self-destructive, and stubborn to boot. Her untouchability becomes a liability and she won't listen to reason (from me or anyone else). Still, I love her. But I hate her a bit, too.

Friday, 28 September 2012


Flora's Fountain bookstalls. Photo by Damitar Mazanov.
I got these three old guidebooks through Abebooks. I like to imagine they came from one of the bookstalls near Flora's Fountain in Bombay. The One and Unique Pocket Guide to Bombay was published in 1966, but has 1967 stamped over that date, so I guess we're to assume it was updated, by the stamp if nothing else. It's organized by itineraries. The first says: "So you are in Bombay. Let us go exploring this City. May be, you are a stranger to the city; may be you have friends or relatives to take you round. Be warned, these well-meaning folks may be of no help to you to know about the places and things in their historical context." But I'm in good hands, redolent of old basement and damp cardboard or maybe monsoon mildew. We begin at Churchgate Railway Station.

The Fodor's Guide to India has underlinings in red ink and smells just like the Bombay guide. Through the underlinings, I'm following the curiosity of some other traveller, back in 1969, when Ravi Shankar and the Beatles helped make India the place to visit. This one has maps. I love the blue of the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. The guide calls Bombay, a "city that belongs to itself."

I'm glad that some people can't bear to throw away a book.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Annie Dillard's website

Annie's Dillard's Summer 1936
I remember reading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life a long time ago"The new place interests you because it is not clear. You attend." She's a master craftsperson. Each sentence is a perfect object. Not surprising that she is also a painter. I remember being impatient with the book. I wanted practical advice. It felt overwrought to me. It felt like it broke its own "rules." But I go back to it now and admire each of her carefully wrought sentences. It rings true.

She writes about the disappointment inherent in writing. She quotes Thoreau: "The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or perchance a palace or temple on the earth and at length the middle-aged man concludes to build a wood-shed with them." And Henry James: "Which is the work in which he hasn't surrendered, under dire difficulty, the best thing he meant to keep?"

Searching the web for something the other day, I came upon her strangely refreshing website. Crotchety, private, and scolding, about The Writing Life she says, "The Writing Life" (1989) is an embarrassing nonfiction narrative fixed somewhat and republished by Harper Perennial 1998

Thursday, 23 August 2012

The self-critic

A manuscript page from James Joyce's Ulysses.
I once talked to a writer who told me that she read her novel over from the start on each day before she began writing again. If I did this, I would never write another word. When I think of my approach to writing, the word "headlong" comes to mind. I pitch forward, trying not to look back until I come to what I think is the end. Then I begin re-writing. I have an obsession with completing things. The doubt that would overtake me if I had to re-read my early drafts would be paralyzing. Here's a good article from The Guardian about the self-critic.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Daphne du Maurier

From Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier: "The moss smelt rich and deep, and the bluebells were earthy, bitter. I lay down in the long grass beside the bluebells with my hands behind my head....I wondered why it was that places are so much lovelier when one is alone. How commonplace and stupid it would be if I had a friend now, sitting beside me, someone I had known at school, who would say, 'By the way, I saw old Hilda the other day. You remember her, the one who was so good at tennis. She's married, with two children.' And the bluebells beside us unnoticed, and the pigeons overhead unheard. I did not want anyone with me. Not even Maxim."

I just finished reading The Scapegoat by du Maurier, too. The plot seemed implausible (two identical-looking men switch lives) and at first I didn't think I was going to like it. But her details are so rich and the characters so convincing that I was borne along and ended up loving it, and believing it. I didn't realize that she also wrote the short story, The Birds, that was made into the Hitchcock film. To me, she has the introspection of someone like Virginia Woolf, but she also has this compelling sense of suspense that sweeps me through her books and makes me want to to re-read them, more slowly.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Singing at the top of her lungs

Everything we learn about good writing says not to use cliches. I agree with that for the most part, although sometimes a writer goes to such lengths to avoid cliche that the writing calls too much attention to itself. Here are a couple of examples from Shantaram, a novel I've been trying to read:

Prabaker took the money and slipped it into his pocket with a movement as swift and fluid as the tentacle-grab of a squid.

Maybe if I was more familiar with the tentacles of squid, I'd get that.

I tried once more to find the words for the foliant blaze of her green eyes. I thought of leaves and opals and the warm shallows of islands seas.

From this, I get green. More importantly, I get a 936 page novel that's trying my patience as a reader. But certainly I've committed my own share of simile sins and metaphor mishaps.

My point is that once in a while, a cliche fits. Especially for a first person narrator, who sometimes thinks in cliche, like we all do. A cliche is also shorthand. It can stand for something. Or it can be so hackneyed that it's meaningless. This one, "singing at the top of her lungs," still works for me. To me, it evokes a fierceness, a bit of recklessness maybe. I associate it with singing in the car, letting loose. That's what my character does anyway, flying along the road, gravel scattering. Her singing, though, speaks for itself in the scene, I hope. I don't have to say she's trying not to let the bastards get her down, or that she's trying to keep her head above water.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

There will be no blogging

There will be no blogging where I'm heading today. After driving up through the scorching dry heat of the valley, the water will be a cold shock at first. I'll swim out till I can't see the bottom. Stay there till everything stops. 

The loons will be on the lake, not lifting off the water until the canoe is just a few feet away. Fish will be jumping, but I won't catch any, because I never catch any. When the stars come out, so do the owls. In the woods at the end of the beach, they send their messages back and forth through the night. 

Early early morning, the birdsong is so loud and wild, I think my tent has been picked up and dropped into a jungle. Then the crows start up. Forget about sleeping.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Summer reading

From Rattlesnake Island on Okanagan Lake
There are certain books I can open and find sand between the slightly wrinkled pages. Books I've read on beaches. Opening them instantly evokes memories of summer, lying in the sun lost in the story, occasionally looking up when someone runs by spraying water, moving the towel every now and then to follow the sun or find some shade, getting up to go for a swim, coming back to the towel and the book and the spots of water dripping from wet hair onto the pages.

When I look for a book to read on the beach, I open it up and read the first few sentences. As a writer, I feel a little guilty doing this. I know that there are many books worth reading that take a little patience. But in the summer, I don't have that patience. I want to drop immediately into another world. The setting is important. I like a sense of place that's stirring, maybe a bit disturbing. That desire must come from my history with Nancy Drew mysteries, which gave me some of my fondest, earliest memories of summer reading, on a lawn chair under the trees in the backyard in Winnipeg, thunderheads building after days of relentless heat.

I found The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott a few days ago in the amazing secondhand bookstore in Penticton. The first sentence is a whopper: Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but also in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south. Novels don't begin with sentences like that anymore. When I read it, I didn't even completely make sense of it. I just knew that I was there and wanted to stay (for 518 pages!).

Other great books I've read in the summer: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; Lord of the Flies by William Golding; Fools Crow by James Welch; The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston; House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momoday: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I went on a du Maurier jag and read several others. I loved Jamaica Inn too. And will read these two beauties this summer: The Scapegoat and The Flight of the Falcon. The bookstore had these lovely old copies for $4 each. I love the Nancy Drew-esque cover on The Scapegoat.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012


We rode Green Mountain Road through the Penticton Indian reserve yesterday. The road winds and climbs gradually and the vegetation changes every few kilometres, through the dry hills dotted with sagebrush, past open, swampy meadows, along a creek, running fast with all the rain we've had and then into forest. Wildflowers everywhere and I thought of Maggie and her obsession with naming the flowers she sees. Not surprising, I guess, that it's an obsession I understand.

I saw flowers yesterday whose names I didn't know. This yellow one is a Columbia lily (I found out). The red one, below, is a Scarlet Gilia, which I've never seen (that I can remember.) I thought at first it was a columbine. I also saw blue flax, brown-eyed susans, yarrow, lupines, wild roses, thimbleberry, corn flowers, mountain avens and forget-me-nots. Knowing the names tells me that I know this place. It's like knowing the street names of a city, or knowing which restaurants you can still get breakfast at on a Sunday at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Early July, I can look for the Columbia lily on this side of Green Mountain Road.

Monday, 25 June 2012

A tree is just a tree

It's almost as difficult to write about nature as it is to write about sex. One person's sexy is another's disturbing. Or dull. Or saccharine. Or ridiculous. I like Michael Ondaatje's writing, but some of his descriptions of sex just make me feel his pain. Like this one from The English Patient: "Their bodies had met in perfumes, in sweat, frantic to get under that thin film with a tongue or a tooth, as if they each could grip character there and during love pull it right off the body of the other."

It's the words that are the trouble. Cloying or crude, there seems to be no middle ground. Descriptions of nature, too, seem to veer too easily to cliche. The moon is always a pale wafer, trees are towering, rain slants, sun beats and sand sifts. It's tough to capture it without resorting to verbal acrobatics that call too much attention to the writing.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Writing in restaurants

My niece emailed me a link the other day to Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling. Then playwright Dave Sealy called it "an excellent set of guidelines" on Facebook, so I had a closer look. I like this kind of thing, for some reason. It gets me wondering about what my own set of rules would include. The first rule would be "always be suspicious of rules."

But I like their rule number eight: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time. I sometimes get questions from people who are working on a book. They want to know how to get it published. My advice is "finish writing it." No one will publish an idea, even a fantastic one. If you're Margaret Atwood, you might get a nice advance for an idea, but you'll still have to write the book. That's why rule number 7 is also good advice: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front. I like to have a general idea of an ending when I begin writing. That way I can write towards it. While writing Shelter, my ending changed because the middle changed. But not much.I knew the core of it from the start.

Rule number eleven is Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone. When I'm revising, I leave home, leave the computer, leave the familiar. I take a thick pad of yellow newsprint and a medium ballpoint pen and I head out. Sometimes I go for a drive, a productive place for me. Sometimes I go to the Bench, my favourite lunch spot in Penticton, or the Elite, a pretty good breakfast place downtown and a good place to stare out the window. David Mamet (king of dialogue) has a book called Writing in Restaurants. In the title essay he says, "In a restaurant one is both observed and unobserved. Joy and sorrow can be displayed and observed 'unwittingly,' the writer scowling naively and the diners wondering, What the hell is he doing?" Being in a public place does something different to my writing. I take the section I want to revise and I start over. I write anything, stuff I'll never use. Writing on the yellow pad frees me up, makes me feel less committed. One sentence leads to another. I have faith in that.

In The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio & Dorianne Laux, there's a chapter called "Stop Making Sense." I'd add that to my list of rules. Too much control over your story takes the fun out of it. I once had the pleasure of meeting with Timothy Findley to talk about a story I'd written. He asked me a question about something in the story. When I couldn't explain it, he said, "Someone once told me there are always chairs tipping over in my writing. I can't explain that either, but it must mean something." My unconscious mind understands things I don't. At 2 a.m., at 7 a.m., my unconscious trips along, throwing up dreamlike associations that I try to trust. 

That's why I disagree with rule number two:  You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different. Maybe they're different, maybe they're not. If I pay attention to what's fun for me as a writer, it's usually the same as what I like as a reader. I just heard a CBC interview with the band, Rush, who have a new album out. They talk about trying to live up to big ideas, constantly reaching, trying to push yourself. It has to be fun.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Good places to write

This good place is by the Chilcotin River in Farwell Canyon.
 I've started a new blog called Good Places to Write (after trying to do it as blog page and then realizing you can't keep the old posts). I'll invite writers to contribute their favourite places to write. My first guest writer is the funny and talented painter and poet Brenda Schmidt. Brenda often writes about nature, as do a lot of my favourite poets. But she does it in a way that is never dry, always quirky and unexpected. Her insights are sharp, often lonely. Her photographs and paintings are amazing, too. I hope you'll check out her post.

People often ask me how I get writing done. I have a full time "day job," like a lot of writers, and I also have the regular pleasures and duties in my life that call me. I've found two things that really help me get work done. The first is simple. I get up when my son gets up for school and I start writing as soon as he's out the door. In the morning my head is slightly foggy, still halfway in the dream world of sleep, a semi-altered state of consciousness that seems productive for me. I usually write until about noon.(It helps that my day job allows me to set my own schedule, more or less) Sometimes I have other obligations before then, but I try very hard to keep that morning time slot clear. I also try not to check my email first thing. Email is a great time-sucking, soul-destroying distraction that can lead me off into all kinds of directions and before I know it the day's half gone and I've accomplished very little of any kind of work. Not that I have strong feelings about it! Recently, I read that many companies are trying out a zero or minimal email model as a way to boost productivity. 

The other thing I do, and this comes back to the Good Places to Write blog, is go on writing retreats. These can be formal, juried retreats run by arts organizations for a minimal fee. I'll post some of these. But sometimes, I head out somewhere on my own, somewhere far enough away from home, preferably without email access, but not expensive. I consider $50-$75/day not too expensive. I might just take two or three days. If I can find a week somewhere, I'll do that and look for a cheaper weekly rate. The change of scenery is good for my writing and I almost always manage to write about a normal month's worth of work in those few days. (don't forget it can be used an as expense on your taxes).

Friday, 1 June 2012

Look for the trees

That's my canoe, on one of the most beautiful lakes I've ever seen. Scientists are discovering that being surrounded by nature is good for us. Dr. Esther Sternberg talks about this on CBC. Does it have to do with the calming influence of blues and greens or the comfort of patterns that we recognize in nature? Whatever it is, an "unscientific study" (below) suggests that some of us have more access to that calming influence than others.
How to spot income inequality from space: look for the trees

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Singing and Writing

A few years ago, I started taking singing lessons from a very talented and gentle teacher named Tracy Fehr. I'm not one of those people who are told, "Oh you have such a beautiful voice, you should really take up singing..." Quite the opposite. Well, maybe not quite the opposite. No one ever told me my voice was bad, but I assumed it was. Although I knew I had a good ear for music, I grew up in a household where the family refrain was "The Greenslades can't sing." I'm not sure where this came from. Both my grandfather and my father loved music. Both could carry a tune and were partial to opera. My father had an enormous collection of CDs and albums; it was an obsession for him, almost as all-consuming as his obsession with collecting books. Sunday mornings our house reverberated with the sounds of Mozart's Horn Concertos or Beethoven or Schubert, his favourites. My mother would sometimes turn it down a bit, saying, "I can't hear myself think." At the time, his music habit was on par in my mind with his cigar-smoking habit, one of the annoying things my father did that I couldn't wait to escape.

When my grandfather died, I inherited many of his record albums. Alone in my own apartment, my favourites became Mozart's piano concertos, music I listen to now to help drop me almost automatically into the world of my writing. I think my father would have made a fine tenor or baritone in a church choir, something he would have loved. And I've discovered, with Tracy's help, that I have a serviceable alto voice. My favourite singing is when I have the harmony part with my soprano friend, Heather. We both like old, sad songs, full of round "o" words like home, road and gone and "ah" sounds like night, wild and mine. These are good, open words to sing.

Singing has led me to pay attention to the beauty of plain, serviceable nouns and verbs in writing. When I'm editing, I go through my writing and strike out extraneous adjectives, articles and prepositions. Plain words are evocative. Moon, ripple, rise, pool. I don't want to fancy them up. I like the rhythm of them in my sentences. 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Der Duft des Regens

I received the advance copy of the German edition of Shelter in the mail today. The cover is quite different from the other editions. And the title translates as Scent of Rain. Interesting, because the original, working title of the novel was Hard Rain. Yeah, it came from the Bob Dylan song and yeah it's a bad title; that's why I came up with another one. Titles are hard. I like multi-word titles, like  the title of my friend Sean Johnston's book of poetry, The Ditch was Lit Like This. That is a fantastic title, in my opinion. I also like By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.

But Shelter started to seem to me the only title for this novel as I wrote it. In fact, I hadn't quite realized what an obsession the theme of shelter is to me. It's true I have recurring dreams about dwellings, which should have been the clue. Usually I'm in a dilapidated dwelling, a house, an apartment or a makeshift camp in some abandoned building. I'm often trying to fix a leaky roof. Sometimes I'm hiding in an attic. It took me most of my adult life to recognize how important security is to me.

The headings in Shelter, which some reviewers have complained are obvious or unnecessary, (and I can't say they're wrong exactly) worked for me as guideposts as I wrote. Food, Water, Fire: the other three survival necessities, after shelter. But it was interesting to me as a writer that, without even thinking about it, the Food section was full of references to meals and eating. The water section, too, had rain and rivers and the most primal experience of water, the womb.

It's a strange experience to let go of your book and let someone else give it a title. And to not be able to read the translation. I did work with the translator, Claudia Feldmann, and the questions she asked me were so nuanced and meticulous that I felt confident in her work. (She asked me, for instance, about the expression "horseshoes up the whazoo" and what the "bodily function" reference was in "Ginger #2").

Friday, 18 May 2012

New York, New York

The Bronx is up and the Battery's down. I always liked this line when I was a kid, though it made no sense to me. Maybe because it made no sense to me. I just returned from a whirlwind trip to New York. That song was in my head throughout the trip, although I probably haven't heard it for over thirty years. Here's a link to it, so it can bug the hell out of you, too:

Now I know what the line means. There's uptown, downtown and midtown. It's a geographical orientation. We stayed in midtown. Between Park and Madison Avenues. We did most of the things the sailors in this video do, except no dates. The Battery is Battery Park where we caught the Staten Island ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. Everything here seems iconic. The cold wind blowing across the New York harbour. The guy selling iphone cases who used to be a teacher and dispensed all kinds of life advice. Central Park, the breakfast room at our hotel, the view from the Empire State Building. The Fulton Street subway station. Isn't there a song about that? There should be.

Now I know what the line means. But is that better than not knowing? Yes and no. It's always better to know something you didn't know before, isn't it?  I don't know. I once made the mistake of teaching one of my favourite poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I should have been a pair of ragged claws. What does that mean? I don't know. But I feel it. And I don't want to talk about it.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Driving and writing

I've been taking a lot of road trips lately. Driving is a creative time for me: something about the warm cocoon of the car, the hum of the wheels, a wide open road past the windshield. New perspective, maybe that's part of it. It's good to get out of my routine every now and then. But sleeping in hotels, or other people's beds (their guestbeds, I should say) is not that conducive to the unbroken time I need to gather my thoughts and transpose my ideas onto the page. And if I don't write the ideas down, it's not that they're gone exactly, but I tend to get stuck. One idea inspires another, so unless I can write it out and move along to the next scene, my mind stays with the first idea, maybe afraid to lose it.
Keremeos orchard
So it's the road itself where I'd like to be able to write. I'm pretty sure there's a law against it. But on my last road trip, to Vancouver on the Hope-Princeton, a route I know very well, I came up with an idea. I tried speaking the story. I used the recorder on my iphone. This isn't a new idea, obviously, but I'd resisted it before, because I've always found the physical act of writing important; it opens up ideas for me in a way that just thinking about them doesn't. Even taking notes doesn't do it. It's the sitting down, putting one word after another, building something that does it. I don't paint, but I'm thinking that that might be a good analogy. You can't really see what you're building until you do it. What you've done engenders more. You can build on it.
But the other day, I noticed that something different happens when I'm speaking a story. Besides the fact that there's lots of dead air as I search for words and re-think ideas, I also became even more aware of the tug of the story. I always pay attention to that when writing. I try different spots, casting and re-casting and waiting for that tug. It's the tug that takes me deeper into the story. And it seemed to me as I was talking out a scene, it became very obvious when the tug was missing. For instance, I was writing about the day that my narrator's friend and her brother-in-law come out to the farm to help make apple cider. The brother-in-law, William, develops a crush on the friend, Cheryl. But Cheryl's boyfriend shows up and demands that Cheryl come home with him. William is depressed by that and goes off like a dog to lick his wounds. The scene was unraveling well in my mind and then I spoke this: "William went on a bender for three days." Suddenly, nothing. I'd snipped the string of the narrative in my imagination.
I thought about it for a while. These kind of manipulative plot-moving sentences kick me right out of the story. It's no longer even the narrator's voice. It's the author's voice coming in and saying here's what happened, let's move along. But I've lost the immediacy of the story. I'm no longer on the farm, sitting out at the picnic table in the yard; they're arguing, trying to get Cheryl to stay; it's a sunny day, the smell of apples is in the air; William is sulking. There's a place for those kind of sentences, for sure. They can be a reprieve for both the reader and the writer. Like you see in the old comic books: Several days later... You don't always want to blow-by-blow everything.
But they can also be the things that really cause a writer to stall in her storytelling. You've just tossed yourself out of the world of the story. For me, how much better to stay down there (I think of it that way, up in the authorial ether or down on the ground where the story's taking place), where William has made his third trip to the outhouse in half an hour and Bridget can smell the alcohol on his breath.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

On the road in Peace River country

This week I've been travelling with the BC Book Prize, the Peace leg of the book tours. We've been to Dawson City, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson, Hudson's Hope, Chetwynd...we've been everywhere, man. I've never been this far north. We're mainly travelling the Alaska Highway. In Hudson's Hope, we were only a couple of hours from the Northwest Territories and 300 miles from the Yukon border. The highlight of the drive so far was today, the road from Fort St. John to Hudson's Hope. What a breathtaking view of the Peace River valley!  I don't use exclamation marks lightly, but this view calls for it.
Rae Mate and Bryan Pike
My travelling companions are Bryan Pike, our driver and the executive director of BC Book Prizes, and Rae Mate, artist and children's book illustrator. I have to tell you about her book, called Pussycat, Pussycat, Where Have You Been. The book starts with that short little rhyme (4 lines) and builds on it, telling the story of where pussycat travelled. Rae calls it the hero's journey and a love story. It's beautiful, a real instant classic in the category of Goodnight Moon. There is a spiritual depth to this little tale that just captured me. And the illustrations are stunning. It's the kind of book that, even as an adult, I want to own. Here's a photo of Rae Mate reading at the Dawson Creek library.
Rae Mate
You can see some more photos and read blogs from the tour on the BC Book Prize website. And here's a link to more about Rae Mate's book:


Thursday, 29 March 2012

Writing on the road

It's hard to write when I'm away from home, but it's also hard not to write. Sometimes I feel like I'm only half here: the other half is in (at the moment) a community hall in rural Manitoba. But it's not an unpleasant feeling, except that I'm pulled and want to be there. I've been reading old issues of Chatelaine magazine from 1967, research for the current novel. What strikes me, besides some of the quaint ads (for the "every half hour cocktail party" (???)), the neat clothes (culottes!) and the fact that we used to call couches "chesterfields," is that we haven't changed much. Yeah, we've changed on the surface; we can choose from a shelf of about 600 varieties of tea (as a tea drinker, I notice this) and we can Skype from India to Penticton and all that, but our human obsessions remain essentially the same. We're not so advanced as we seem to think we are. We recycle our dilemmas. We work with the same seven notes, rearranging them in different patterns.

A friend who grew up in India read Shelter and said something like "the landscape is different, jobs are different but the human problems are 100% the same." I get the sense of that reading The Odyssey or the Ramayana. (I don't mean to put Shelter in that class!) Old but familiar tales, familiar at the root, ringing with recognition. I'm not sure if that's cause for hope or despair.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Ramayana

There are many, many versions of this Indian epic, the Ramayana, from comic books to plays. The back cover of this version says, "One of India's greatest epics, the Ramayana pervades the country's moral and cultural consciousness." I've only read two versions, R. K. Narayan's short prose version (which I loved) and a graphic novel version from the perspective of Sita by Samhita Arni. And I've just begun this one, my third. A hefty near-700 pages, it's a translation of the Sanskrit text by Valmiki, probably written between 750 and 500 BCE. The translation is by my friend, the talented and witty Arshia Sattar, who I met at the Sangam House writers' retreat.

In the introduction she writes,"the question that looms large over the Ramayana is that of the relationship between myth and history, ie. is the Ramayana a true story?...Early Orientalists [found that] Indians seemed to mix up their human heroes with their gods...Most scholars of epic believe that an epic grows around a core legend or tale that probably did occur. Thus it is possible some king (perhaps not named Rama) did exist, that his wife was abducted and that he fought a war to get her back." 

And that gives you a taste of the plot. Like the Odyssey, this is a story of complex personalities and relationships, twists and turns of fate and human weakness and, above all, dharma, a word that roughly translates as "duty" or "right." And if ever there was a use for the shorthand WTF, it comes at the end of the Ramayana.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Ethel Wilson's Swamp Angel

I first read this book a long time ago; I can tell by my name written on the inside cover in rounder, more careful handwriting than I have now. And I found a folded note inside that reads: Damon, Just gone for a walk. Help yourself to a cupcake. Slap some icing on it (them) L. And a phone number in different ink (not my writing; I never crossed my sevens). The note, written by my long-time friend Laurie who lives in Winnipeg and is still with her partner, Damon, suggests that either I lent this book to her, or I borrowed it from her, kept it and eventually wrote my name in it, thinking it was mine. Then again, I rarely write my name in my books unless I'm lending them.

The book smells like an attic and someone has written in it, in ink GUN=SELFHOOD, POWER. That was neither me nor Laurie because neither of us would do that to a book we loved. Whoever did it also underlined "Burrard Inlet," "Stanley Park," "Lion's Gate Bridge," "golf course," "New Westminster" and "outraged endurance," but then the underlinings peter out and past chapter nine, it's clean. I feel an instant dislike for the person who did the underlining. It's as if the book was mined for uppercase meaning then abandoned once it'd given up its goods. That's probably unfair; it's not like I've never approached a book in such a businesslike way. Just not this book.

Skagit River at Sumallo Grove


I remembered little of this book except that I liked it and that it traveled into the firs and pines of the BC deepwoods and that it made the familiar a little exotic and I liked that. Re-reading it tonight, I was delighted to find that when Maggie leaves the home she had loved but now hated, she stops at Hope and reflects on the two roads forking into the interior of BC and she chooses the Hope-Princeton. I always choose the Hope-Princeton too, though it's a home I love that I'm heading to. And she stops by the river, which she calls the Similkameen. And the Similkameen does run along that road, but first you pass through the wilder transition from the coastal rainforest -- the huge cedars and salmonberry undergrowth -- where the road runs along the Skagit River. That's the river I always stop beside (at least when the road in is passable, which is from about May to October).

I was re-reading Swamp Angel because Shelter has been shortlisted for the BC Book Ethel Wilson Prize and when I heard, it reminded me of the book and of the writers like Wilson and Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy and Adele Wiseman and Margaret Atwood, who I read when I was in my early twenties, those iconic McClelland and Stewart New Canadian Library books. I envied Margaret Laurence her cigarettes and coffee at her desk overlooking the Otonabee River and I wanted to do that. I don't have the river or the cigarettes but I spend my days writing at my desk looking out on the hills around Penticton and I feel a kinship to those writers who wrote things like "'I shall be all right. Just set me down near the river.'" (Ethel Wilson, Swamp Angel, 1954)

Friday, 2 March 2012

Ancient Indian technology

This is an interesting article about using ancient technology for cooling in India, like jalis (stone window screens) and stepwells. We visited stepwells in India on our tour and were told that they were a communal water system and gathering place, but we all puzzled over why they were so elaborate and deep (and would require so much effort to gather water, as opposed to the rope and bucket system.) Here's a photo of one:

 What I learned from the article is that they also acted as a kind of air conditioning. Makes sense. Just as you might go into a restaurant or movie theatre to escape the heat, you could take your time descending the steps to collect water at these way-stops, which were built by the ruling family. The stepwells also had a number of small rooms overlooking the well that could be used as "motels" by passing travelers.
My clever fellow travelers
The jalis are not just practical, but beautiful. Here's a 16th century-ish one and the modern update below it.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Back to India

The g group (Sef taking photo). Note the lovely Taj saris.
I was just thinking about one part of my trip that I wasn't sure about when I left home. I'd booked a tour through G Adventures, a Canadian company that used to be called Gap Adventures. It was a "Golden Triangle" tour, ie. Delhi, Agra (the Taj Mahal) and Jaipur (the pink city and Amber Fort) and it was for eight days. I was a bit apprehensive because I've never been on a tour before; I pride myself on being an independent traveler. But I wanted to see these India highlights and the logistics of doing it in a relatively short time seemed overwhelming. I'd heard about this tour company before ( a friend of mine traveled in Nepal with them) and I knew they used local small hotels, local guides and transportation and they try to be responsible travelers, ecologically and otherwise.
I'm taking photo.
 I got a great deal on the trip. It was around $650 for the 8 days, plus another $200 for the privilege of having my own room. I figured I'd be one of the older travelers in the group (because of the type of tour it was) and that was true. We were a group of 15 people and the average age was 26. This turned out to be a really nice part of the whole experience. Everyone was gung-ho, catching autorickshaws everywhere and jumping on the Delhi metro to go to the markets; the spirit was infectious. Sometimes I felt like the mature aunty ("you guys go ahead and swim; I'll take pictures.") That was at the one somewhat luxurious place we stayed and everyone was psyched about the promised swimming pool. I was still wearing every piece of clothing I'd brought with me--Delhi and area was cold! But it turned out the pool had no water in it, so no swimming for anyone.

I was touched by how respectful everyone was. I never felt embarrassed by my traveling companions; I hope they felt the same. There was a sense of curiosity, which seemed mutual among the Indian people we encountered. A funny thing that happens at tourist spots is that Indian tourists want to take photos of themselves with foreigners. We did the same.

I found a kindred spirit first in Jay from the UK, who had also chosen to have his own room. Jay's family roots are in Gujarat, so he found he was picking up Hindi pretty quickly. We tried to expand our Hindi vocabulary a little. The two Sarahs, from the UK (actually Hong Kong now) and Australia, were lots of fun. One night after supper we went hunting for an Anokhi textiles store, but as it got dark, we had to give up. The next day, it took two autorickshaws to track it down, but we finally found it and madly shopped. I only had a half hour; had to get to a movie.
Joe and David at Agneepath!
The blockbuster Bollywood movie experience was one of the highlights of Jaipur. We had to get tickets the day before. On the day of the movie, we joined the throngs waiting to get in then found our seats just in time. No previews or trailers, just lights down and right into the action, as cheers went up from the crowded theatre. As soon as a big Bollywood star came on screen, everyone cheered again. If a character said something cheeky, there were raucous hoots of approval. Something touching: more cheers. Love scenes: whistles and laughter.
After the show, all ten of us clambered into three rickshaws and made a speeding convoy weaving through the crazily crowded streets. Jay taught me how to say "Slow down" and "I have a son" in Hindi.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Light pollution

When I go outside at night and look up at the sky I have a pretty good view of some familiar constellations: the Big Dipper, Orion, Cassiopeia. I live in small town British Columbia. The nearest big city is a five hour drive away. But still, light pollution here is bad enough to obscure the dimmer riot of stars and the fuzz of the Milky Way that I remember seeing as a kid in southern Ontario.
About half an hour from here, hidden in the desert-dry rolling hills, is the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory. Last August, I went there to watch the Perseid Meteor showers. The plan was that I'd meet my son and two other friends there. But it was so dark that I lurched among the hushed bodies wrapped in blankets on the grass, then gave up and rolled into my sleeping bag on my back and looked up. Every time a meteor flashed across the sky, a gasp of awe rose up from the crowd and then the whispers, "Did you see it?" It was a moonless night. I can't remember when I've seen so many stars. Even my 14 year-old son and his friends were buzzing with excitement when I found them.

The sad thing is that there are places in the world where it's no longer possible to see the stars. The problem is worse in cities, obviously, but an article in the Telegraph in 2010 says that according to astronomers, "eight out of ten people in the English countryside cannot see the stars at night because of light pollution." It's troubling to think that there are children who could grow up never experiencing the overwhelming humility that comes from gazing at a starry sky.

There are actually now "dark sky reserves," places named for having exceptional night-time darkness. These are some of them:

Canadian Dark Sky Preserves and Reserves

  • Torrance Barrens Dark Sky Reserve, Ontario
  • Point Pelee National Park and Dark Sky Preserve, Ontario
  • Cypress Hills Dark Sky Preserve, Alberta/Saskatchewan
  • Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve, Alberta
  • Fraser Valley Dark Sky Preserve, British Columbia
It's not only the stars that suffer from light pollution. Brenda "Birdschmidt" probably knows about the organization called Fatal Light Awareness (FLAP http://www.flap.org/index.php) that's trying to get the lights turned out in city buildings to protect migrating birds. Below is a photo of some of the birds killed from hitting lit windows.