On Yearning

This blog is also currently posed at http://thinairwinnipeg.blogspot.ca So after I launching two kids and a book in two years back in the early 2000s, I went through a bit of publishing dry spell.  Then this year, with two books coming out within six months of each other, those in-the-know told me I should start developing my “online presence.” Unfortunately, turns out coming up with a “presence” really sucks. My fiction is never remotely autobiographical. I have no marketable “persona” other than ones that have been blogged to death ― working mom, harried volunteer, opinionated artist. Other than the stories I tell, there is nothing particularly remarkable about me or my life. I ended up calling my blog “Writer in the Middle,” with the tag line: I’ve lived in Winnipeg my whole life. It’s an unassuming, middle-of-the-continent kind of place that sometimes yearns for greatness — which is why it suits me, I guess. It kind of made sense given that I’m a mid-career, mid-life writer who lives in a place that as far as many are concerned, is neither here nor there. But probably the key word is yearning. Pretty much all my stories involve a pervasive, sometimes senseless yearning. In Your Constant Star, my YA novel that came out this past spring, the three young protagonists collide like electrons, attracting and repelling each other as each seeks something they can’t really name.

Your Constant Star, cover

Your Constant Star, cover

Faye, adopted from China by a couple from Winnipeg, wants to understand what may never be understood ― why is she so pissed at her doting parents? What makes her long lost friend, Bev, tick? How can her birth country be so brutal and so beautiful at the same time? Bev, unexpectedly pregnant and determined to give her offspring what she doesn’t have, just wants to feel something ― to give a shit for once in her life. As for Mannie, Bev’s self-sabotaging baby-daddy and hero is in own mind, he just wants to come to the rescue for once in his life.

Boy-Lost-in-Wild

The interconnected Winnipeg stories in my other new book — Boy Lost in Wild, launched this fall — similarly explores our common ability to yearn. No matter what their age or circumstances ― from a sixteen-year old Iranian “sandwich artist” who defies her secular parents by wearing a head scarf, to a Ukrainian octogenarian who remembers the 1919 General Strike ― these Winnipeggers are united by their search to figure out who they are, and where they belong. No matter who we are, to feel alive, is to yearn. So I write about yearning, in all its forms. And hopefully, my stories are also about mercy. For yearning means we all walk around with a nagging sense of the unattainable and unrealized, of who we want to be and who we really are. For most us, if we’re lucky, we come to understand that being neither here nor there is a pretty good place to be.

So you’ve heard of a bar hop…

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Many thanks to the fabulous Margaret Buffie, who has been paving the way for YA writers in Manitoba since her first book and who kindly asked me to participate in this Writing Process blog hop.

What am I working on?

I’ve got two things on the go right now. I’m cleaning up the manuscript of Bear City, a literary who-dun-it set in Churchill about fifty years from now, and I’m percolating ideas for my next novel, 25.

In the future world of Bear City, Churchill has some experimental farms nearby, but no polar bears. This flirtation with science fiction was a new challenge for me (social realism is not just my comfort zone, by my strength as a writer) and I found the research involved (I now know far more than I care to about what scientists, futurists and journalists are predicting might await us!) terribly fascinating. It also bent my imagination into contortions I hadn’t quite dared try before.

In the end, I finished the book still not bored with some of the things I was exploring (I was barely able to touch on, for instance, the incredible and all-encompassing urbanization of our planet that is going on right now). It got me thinking back to an experience nearly a decade old.

In 2004, I was invited on the Governor General’s Leadership Tour, a quadrennial event meant to bring together Canada’s “future leaders” and foster their growth as individuals and professionals. It gave me the opportunity to fly around our Arctic with Canadians ranging from professors and senior account executives to artistic directors and Crown attorneys. We met Desmond Tutu. John Ralston Saul drank dry Merlot with us. We debated values (civilly, of course) and presented milquetoast group projects to Adrienne Clarkson. You get the idea. The whole thing was excellent fodder for a burgeoning writer, and I knew one day I’d have to put it through the juicer. So in 2014, 25 was born.

Like Bear City, its plot will revolve around highly topical subjects — the emergence of global megacities, developed vs. developing world concerns — while its emotions will plumb the old, undying standards — romantic longing, envy, the underdog.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I guess my work has a hard time finding its genre.

My first novel followed the lives of three teenage protagonists and was published as a book for adults. My second followed the lives of three teenage protagonists and was published as YA (though some reviewers disagreed with this!). My third book, a collection of short fiction following the lives of youthful protagonists over one Winnipeg summer, received Canada Council funding as a YA collection, but will be published for adults this fall.

The novel I just finished has a teenage narrator and other than the fact it’s set fifty years from now, it’s mostly a literary character study with a who-dun-it plot. Who will publish it, and how they will market it? I’ll keep you posted.

Why do I write what I do?

I was pondering this recently and the only word I came up with was “mercy.”

Unlike many writers, I wasn’t a real bookworm as a kid. I didn’t grow up in a “literary” household. Books were never my refuge or my escape as a young teenager.

But as I grew older, and began truly noticing the world around me, I began to write. Eventually in my professional life, in the non-profit sector, I wrote about people who were struggling, who were fighting to find their potential, who were doing their best despite having been dealt a shitty hand. And I realized that sometimes the only way to really express the complexity of human beings, to mourn for and to celebrate all we are, is through stories.

So I write a lot about young people who are lost. I write about failure, and the mystery of resilience, about being a romantic in an unforgiving world. And the only reason for this I can think of is that fundamentally, for me it’s all about expressing mercy, for our selves and for each other.

I spend much of my time writing speeches and news releases, hanging out with my fabulous family, buying and selling stuff on Kijiji. Writing fiction is my way of diving into the mess of life, of leaving my heart beating on the floor.

How does my writing process work?

Right now I work three days a week for the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, and so I write fiction on Mondays and Fridays.

I’ve always got something on the go in one of three stages:

1. research, reading, and note-making for a story idea — this is always fun and can be done anytime, anywhere, ideally a good few months before you actually begin the manuscript.

2. “whole-brain-first-draft” work that requires a solid four hours in a quiet place, usually somewhere my kids are not.

3. refining and editing a manuscript that can be done while sitting outside a ballet class or once the kids are in bed.

To be honest, I don’t have a lot of time to focus on the “process.” A story nags at me until there’s enough shape to begin. Most of the time, I’ll write my ending scene while still a third of the way through the book — then I just have to figure out how to get there!

Stay tuned for upcoming blogs from the following fine writers who hopped on the blog-wagon with me!

Image  Maureen Bush is the author of five books for children: The Nexus RingCrow Boy, andThe Veil Weavers, in the Veil of Magic series (Coteau Books), and Feather Brain, andCursed! (Orca Books). She loves to write fantasy, playing with what might be, just as she loved to read it as a child. Learn more about Maureen and her writing at http://www.maureenbush.com

will pic  Originally from Virginia, Will J Fawley holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was Assistant Fiction Editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His short fiction has recently appeared in Sassafras Literary Magazine and his poetry has appeared in Literati Magazine. A participant in the 2013 Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program, he was mentored by Duncan Thornton as he worked on his first novel. Will lives and writes in Winnipeg. Learn more about Will and his writing at thewildestedge.wordpress.com.

maggie2011x200 Margaret MacPherson has been writing for newspapers, journals and magazines for the last 30 years. Over the last decade, she’s also published seven books, ranging from Canadian history to award-winning novels. Margaret has an MFA from UBC in creative writing and is currently Writer-in-Residence for the Greater Edmonton area. Learn more about Margaret and her writing at margaretmacpherson.com

Hometown book launches are like wedding receptions…

I’ve always felt like book launches in your hometown are like wedding receptions (although this one at McNally’s did not have free booze). People from all different areas of your life come out to help you celebrate: old friends; your parents’ old friends; co-workers; that cousin you’re always supposed to do lunch with; that mom from your daughter’s dance class you’ve gotten to know; your nine-year-old son’s best friend and your eighteen-year-old niece. It’s especially nice when you have a bustling, nurturing, thriving independent bookstore to do it in. You feel like your cup runneth over, and you should.

Thanks to all of you came out, and said nice things, and bought a book. You managed to push Your Constant Star to the top of the Young Adult list, ahead of that other YA title with the word “Star” in it (as in, The Fault in our Stars, soon to be a major motion picture, don’t you know) for this week.

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If anyone reads this they wil never want to read again…

Perhaps the most problematic thing about launching a new book out into the world is that people will inevitably tell you what they think of it.

For instance. I recently discovered this review of my last book (Where the Rocks Say Your Name…2006) on Goodreads.

 I have to read this for a project.
OMF if anyone reads this they wil never want to read again its soooooooo boring if you read it tell me how long it took u to because everytime i open it i fall asleep. p.s gr 10 english sucks especially with teachers that don’t like u.



THIS BOOK SUCKS
 ITS BORING
 OMFING GAWD
 OMGWTFBBQ

I think I get the gist of what he’s trying to say, but am way too boring to know what “BBQ” stands for. If you know, I’d appreciate it if you could fill me in.

Come on, Literary-Types! Help me flog a dead horse!

Dead Horse

A really nice early review of my upcoming novel (Kirkus Reviews, Your Constant Star) claimed that “by definition,” it is not YA fiction.

Specifically, the reviewer said:

Still, authentic teen characters, closely observed settings and a moving plot do not a YA novel make. These protagonists have little room to act. Choices adults made in the past largely determine the course they set and drastically limit the choices they wrestle with now. Though teens have far less freedom of choice in life than in literature written for them, YA fiction by definition places the reins in their hands.

I’d never heard this definition before, but I guess it does explain a few things.

My first novel ― Where the Rocks Say Your Name… ― has teenage protagonists but was marketed as literary adult fiction. After my day-job boss read it, he cornered me in the hall and said: “it doesn’t even have a happy ending!” I told him I thought it was a hopeful ending, but he was still pissed. So I guess you could say I’ve never been accused of generously handing over the reins to my young characters.

My story collection coming out this September has mostly teenage protagonists and I successfully pitched it to the Canada Council as a collection of YA literary short fiction. But when the manuscript was completed, my YA publisher thought the stories were more for adults, and my current regional publisher is publishing it as an adult literary title.

And I guess if you go by the Kirkus reviewer’s definition, an adult collection it is.

I find this very interesting. Because I also keep hearing about “cross-over” authors. What the hell does that mean? You don’t have to be “grown-up” and worn down to enjoy the book? You can be “grown-up” and worn down and still enjoy the book?

If any of you aren’t too sick and tired of this debate, please weigh in. Is the Kirkus definition of YA your definition? Do you have a better one?

The novel I just finished has a young protagonist who is not exactly “free” to choose what awaits him in the end. When I picture my ideal reader, they are of no particular age. Will agents and publishers see this as making it inherently harder or easier to find a readership?

Please. Just don’t bring up why I’m forty-fucking-five and still telling stories about teenagers. That’s a whole other post.\

The Perils of Research

So after getting through much of February by day-dreaming about new book ideas and impossibly far-flung research destinations, I casually asked my kids over the weekend: “How about we go to Shanghai next year?”

My seven-year-old daughter immediately said, “No way.”

I wasn’t exactly expecting this. We’ve already traveled to Europe twice for their dad’s writerly endeavors, and had been up to Churchill for mine. They seemed to have a good time. I asked her why.

“Because there’s way too many Chinese people there!” she said.

Okay. Apparently, it’s possible to be raising a loving kid without having a fucking clue that they’re also a racist.

“How about Tokyo?” my nine-year-old son suggested helpfully. “I’d go to Tokyo.”

This was just confusing. “Why Tokyo and not Shanghai?”

“Japan isn’t as poor,” he said.

So just like that, over a bowl of Kraft dinner on a Saturday afternoon, I discover my children are racist elitists. And of course, it must be my fault.

I started researching my latest novel when they were still in diapers, so the poems of Confucius and coffee table books of Maoist propaganda posters have been lying around the house for as long as they can remember. But to them, I’m pretty sure these things fell into the category of boring grown-up shit that had nothing to do with them, like prescription drugs and printer cartridges and CBC radio.

They took little notice of the books, or even my own book, which they knew I was tapping out somewhere in the background, usually when they weren’t around. It wasn’t something I’d ever read to them before bed, like their dad’s novels, which have enough Ice Trolls and Bug Bears to give them a plausible excuse for lying awake until after midnight.

No, the kids couldn’t give two shits about what I was reading. It’s what I was saying. In conversation. On the phone. Over coffee. To their father, after the little darlings had already turned their reading lights out and were supposed to be sleeping the sleep of the pure.

Because my kids are master eavesdroppers. My daughter will come and relay some school-related gossip, and when I ask her how she’s knows this exactly, she’ll inevitably say something like “I heard Mme. So-and -So telling Mme So-and-So.” Which I suppose is how good Immersion teachers are rewarded for helping their students pick up the language.

And I suppose racist, elitist offspring are how writers are punished for boring their friends and relations about everything they’re researching. How many times have my kids overheard me go on about China’s punishing one-child policy, the tens of thousands of abandoned baby girls, the fact that China is the only country where female suicide rates (weapon of choice? agricultural fertilizer) are higher than men’s? I know far more than I ever really wanted to about how harsh life is for millions upon millions of Chinese families, and I guess, by extension, my kids do, too.

My daughter didn’t mean, of course, that she doesn’t like Chinese people. She meant why would we want to go to a city that’s already so overcrowded its workers must leave their children back in poor rural villages for the grandparents to raise? My son has heard many times, without even have to use his “eagle ears,” as he calls them, about the brutal and precarious lives of the people who make his Converse runners and Nerf guns. Why would we go there on vacation?

I’m not sure I can explain it to them when I can barely explain it to myself. Because a heart-wrenching, epoch-defining challenge like modern Shanghai fires up my imagination like nothing else? Because my idea of writing is about diving in instead of looking away?

It all sounds trite, truly worthy of those fledgling, cheeky eye rolls of middle childhood.

So I tell them I also need to research Los Angeles, which has Disneyland. Maybe we could stop there on the way to Shanghai.

“Everybody goes to Disney World,” the seven-year-old points out.

I concede that Disney World is bigger and better, but add there’s a much greater chance of their Dad and me even remotely considering the idea if it’s LA and not Orlando. They agree that beggars can’t be choosers.

Now we just have to win the lottery.

Perils of Predicting the Weather

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It seems Manitoba broke a few records lately… see the-5-coldest-places-on-earth.

For my family, it meant I spent a lot of the Christmas holidays hibernating under a faux-fur blanket, telling myself this is what keeps our housing prices low and whining that it was inhumane to make me go play Barbies in our drafty back room. For quadriplegics like my Dad, it meant not leaving the condo for nearly three weeks because his van’s electronic ramp and -40 C don’t get along. But for polar bears at the Winnipeg Zoo, it was party time.

I’ve got two books coming out this year, both set in Winnipeg, but neither take place during our infamous winter. Your Constant Star begins in mid-March, when one of the protagonists observes that calling her school vacation “spring break” is like calling a dentist chair a “waterside recliner.” As the story progresses, things gradually give way to road grit and slushy bus shelters and the distinctive April-in-Winnipeg smell of soggy Red River gumbo and last year’s dog shit.

The other one, Boy Lost in Wild, is a collection of short stories that all take place during the dog days of a Winnipeg summer. The stories are tenuously linked, (let’s play find the connections!) but our city’s fickle August, teetering between sudden thunderstorms and stubborn heat, between harsh yellow noons and late violet sunsets, is really the only recurring character.

But I just finished a book set in Churchill fifty years from now, where the only bears left in Manitoba are in a Winnipeg sanctuary much like the one that’ll open this summer. And that means I’ve spent the last year literally trying to predict the weather. And by extension, the future, I guess.

I read books that go out on a limb, predicting everything from who’s gonna go to war with whom, to who’s going to invent the magic bullet that might save our asses, and I read books about how and why we’re so profoundly sucky at predicting anything at all.

In writing my own book, I had to take wild stabs at how we may be using the Internet, social media, and surveillance technology as we near the end of the century. I tried to imagine the kinds of debates that may be dominating our politics and our dinner tables. It was a bit of a stretch for a social realist writer like me, but kind of fun in its own way.

In the end, I feel pretty certain about one thing when it comes to the weather. As far as climate change goes, most other places on earth will be hit harder than Manitoba (we do have a distinct possibility of droughts that would leave those of the 1930s in the dust). But our sub-arctic will almost certainly become more hospitable (i.e. warmer) to everyone other than a few over-adapted coastal species.

Even now, though, nothing happens in isolation. We can no longer plead ignorance about a damn thing. It’s all there, a relentless plethora of global content at our fingertips — the horrors and dramas and comedies of the day.

In the next fifty years or so, how will we handle the challenges, both the ones many of us see coming down the pike and the ones arriving out of left field? How will they change us, if at all?

I’ve got two kids who will still be raising their own kids fifty years from now. And If I’m lucky, and medical interventions continue apace, I may even be still around to see for myself.

I heard once that when Margaret Laurence was old and dying, she looked back on The Stone Angel, and said “I got it right.” And I guess my question is: did that make her feel better or worse?