Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers below. They’re not big ones, but I would have been irritated if I’d read something like this before I’d seen the movie. So, to those who care: Consider yourselves warned.
I was once Luke Skywalker’s wife. Yup: Luke’s. Not Han’s—when I was seven, Han did nothing for me. I had no idea who David Cassidy was: there were no feathery-haired blond boys in my life at all, until Luke ran across the sand of Tatooine, whining at Uncle Owen. I didn’t care about the whining. I didn’t know what bad acting was. Luke was my one and only 70s fixation—and he stayed with me well into the 80s, long past the time when I should have turned teenage eyes to Han, instead.
And yes: I married Luke. I added a few years to my age and made myself 16 (even in my fantasy I knew that 13 was a little young). I fast-forwarded my Empire Strikes Back soundtrack tape to the part right at the end, when Luke’s getting his mechanical hand and the Falcon is preparing to zip off and find carbon-frozen Han. I’d listen in the dark, squeezing my eyes shut, imagining our very own little cave-house on Tatooine. Imagining how he’d look in moonlit darkness. Imagining…well, whatever I could, at that point.
Oh—and I was a Jedi too. And my black robes were very flattering.
Every time I watched the movies, in the years after they came out, I felt echoes of the me who’d longed for the whiny farm boy in the white tunic, the impatient apprentice in the orange flight suit, the somber man in Jedi black. I remembered my yearning for fantasy and escape so well that I still seemed to be feeling it.
Fantasy. Escape. Love. Youth. From 1977 to 1983, Star Wars and I were all about these things (which a Jedi craves not, perhaps. I never said I was devout).
Now, 32 years later, there’s a new film featuring the old faces. Old places too, though they might have different names (Tatooine has double vowels; Jakku has double consonants. Good enough). Old faces, old places, and the kind of fantasy and escape that will always feel young.
Manuscripts’ worth of reviews have already been written about Star Wars: The Force Awakens since it came out yesterday. Many of them have commented (whether favourably or scornfully) on the myriad ways in which it hews to the 1977 plot. Yes: secret plans in cute, blooping droids; baddies on a giant, killer space orb; lightsaber duels and face masks; parenting and mentoring gone badly wrong. All of this is back, but it all seems new.
One thing I haven’t yet read about, possibly because of the moratorium on spoilers, is Han and Leia. Everything moves fast, and the new, understandably, gets more screen time than the old, so we don’t see that much of them. What we do see, though, is remarkable. [Here begin my own fairly modest spoilers.] I imagine that, left to the man who created them, Han and Leia likely would have tied some sort of galactic knot a couple of days after that second Death Star blew and the Ewoks stopped drumming on Stormtrooper helmets. (Yub nub!) Thirty years later they’d still be together—happy, if careworn, bantering like the cocky smuggler and princess with hair buns I bet they’d always have been, to Lucas.
J.J. Abrams didn’t go there.
Maybe they were married, at some point: we don’t find out. They were a couple long enough to have a son and raise him to almost-adulthood; at one point Leia says something like, “I lost you when I lost him.” She’s still a princess; she’s also a general. He’s no longer a general; he’s back to being a smuggler. They are iterations of who they were 32 years ago—but they aren’t together. There’s regret between them. Sadness. A mature, weary connection that’s probably too complicated to be called love.
When Luke gazed at the Tatooine sunset, in Star Wars IV, the 7-year-old me imagined love. When Han and Leia gaze at each other, in Star Wars VII, I see what I’ve learned about it. Marriage, children, divorce. Regret, sadness, connection. Things that work, for a time, then don’t.
When I examine this critically, I acknowledge that, in ascribing depth and complexity to incredibly brief interactions, I may well be projecting almost as much today as I did back when. That’s OK, though. Star Wars first hit me at a time when my critical faculties were nascent at best (see first paragraph), and I feel no need to employ them now (likely something Abrams was banking on, and something he will, in fact, take to the bank). I’m going with it emotionally, as I always have—and the emotions are older. The connection is as real as the escape.
Thank the Maker.
The Flame in the Maze is real. Here I am at its debut, on December 7th.
Yes: it’s in the world—and it’s the end of the story I started writing years ago, in The Door in the Mountain. I’d be hazy on the precise number of those years, except that I remember writing a particular scene by Peter’s bedside in the hospital, as he recovered from almost dying of necrotizing fasciitis. February 2011, that was—and I was already a ways into the story. And now it’s finally done.
I don’t write acknowledgements in my books—something I’ve mentioned before, on this blog. But I have to thank someone, here and now: Samantha Beiko.
When The Pattern Scars was released, it came out in limited edition hardcover as well as trade paperback. That hardcover was a thing of almost unbearable beauty. Part of what made it so beautiful were its endpapers, which, my editor/publisher informed me, had been crafted by one Sam Beiko. Some young thing, insanely gifted in the visual arts department, who’d ended up in lucky ChiZine’s orbit.
That was the end of 2011. In 2015, I discovered that Sam wasn’t only insanely gifted in the visual arts department: she was rich in words, too. She plunged into The Flame in the Maze: she commented and inquired; she recommended and annotated. She also identified a MAJOR chronological inconsistency I’d never noticed, and probably never would have.
The surpassing beauty of this new relationship ended up being its link to the past. Sam edited my words, yes, but she also took them and made them into an image—a map of this book, in all its twisty-turny permutations. I sent her a disaster of a Word file (with arrows and squiggly lines and small-caps text), and she turned it into this:
So, Sam: I acknowledge you, with delight and thanks. Let’s do it again, sometime.
My boyfriend dumped me precisely two weeks into the first term of our first year of university. We were both at McGill. I’d been so excited—because Montreal. My boyfriend. An apartment with a roommate I’d just met, and really liked. But he dumped me, two weeks in, and when I phoned home afterward my mother could barely understand me because I was crying so hard.
I went back to Toronto the next weekend. Hadn’t intended to be home until Thanksgiving—but no, there I was on a train in September, struggling against yet more tears because I insisted on listening to songs that I knew would make me even sadder. I listened to these songs on cassette tapes, played on a Sony Walkman. I didn’t yet have a computer, let alone a laptop (o unimaginable miracle thing). So it was just me, my Walkman, some text books and novels I can’t remember paying any attention to. I was raw and wrecked, and the only thing that even vaguely comforted me was staring out at fields and towns whose names I didn’t know, full of people I’d never know, who were nonetheless living their lives.
I loved that train. Through heartbreak and school stress and new love, in daylight and darkness, I loved the hours I spent speeding between Montreal and Toronto. (In the rain was best.) I did a lot of scribbling in journals, when I wasn’t scribbling out essays. I was pretty consistently consumed by the idea of my future self—the one who would have to be happier, or just as happy, depending on my emotional state at the time. I wondered, longhand and at length, about novels and children and jobs. About whether I’d still be yearning for things, both effable and not, when I was this future self.
And now here I am again. Across from me is my 16-year-old daughter, whose father was my first husband—that new love I scribbled about back in 1992. (I think, glancing surreptitiously and maudlin-creepily at her, that she looks a bit like me and a lot like him.) Her boyfriend’s beside her. All three of us are tapping away at silver laptops with bitten apples on them; all of us have earphones (theirs FAR higher quality than mine). It’s dark. We’re nearly at Dorval. My fifth novel will be in bookstores this week; the file that may become my sixth is open on my silver laptop, along with submissions by a couple of my writing students. There’s a magical little house back in Toronto, wherein lives a man who definitely loves me and some cats who might.
And yearning? The kind I used to feel on this route is an echo I can hear if all the conditions are right—if I’m listening to the very same songs I once knew would make me sadder, for example. But it’s not a longing for what’s to come. It’s for what was, of course, on those other days and nights between Montreal and Toronto. I’m looking back at the young woman who was looking ahead at me. It’s so dumbly, painfully Narcissus-istic, this reflection-seeking—but that’s where the yearning is now.
Sometime in 1984, my friend Katherine gave me a mixed tape. (I just can’t bring myself to use the current “mixtape” spelling. I am middle-aged and refuse to be taught this new trick.) Sides A and B were chock-a-block with songs by a Chris de Burgh, from Ireland. I listened. I loved. The epic, balladic sweep of some of them; the quiet intimacy of others. The shameless sentimentality of most. (Even at 14, I was pretty clear on this quality.) I loved them all.
As the years went by, I wore out many more de Burgh cassettes, both mixed and purchased. I listened to them so often, in fact, that warped tape sounds became an integral part of my memories of the songs. I’d re-spool the most stubbornly self-destructive of the tapes, light-headed with dread—because if the re-spooling didn’t work there’d be nothing for it but to buy the thing again, and there was only so much allowance to go around.
When I was in grade 10, “The Tower”—a beautiful, lushly scored, fairy-tale parable of a song—inspired me to try something new: fan fiction (though I didn’t know this term at the time). I took de Burgh’s words, his story, and transformed them into my own. Somehow I ended up giving the two typed pages to my grade 10 history teacher to read (such a browner, me)—and she, in turn, read them to her young daughter. This was a breakthrough moment in my writerly life: someone I didn’t know had listened to and loved something I’d written. (So thrilled was I that it didn’t occur to me until much later that Mrs. Whelan might have been embellishing, or even outright lying, to spare my feelings.)
Katherine and I realized the dream of our teenage lives in grade 11, when we saw Chris de Burgh at Maple Leaf Gardens. Apparently my sing-along gusto was intensely embarrassing to her, and possibly unsettling to those around us in the nosebleed seats. I was oblivious to all that. “Borderline”? “Spaceman”? “Transmission Ends”? I was transported; I had to sing.
Last night, way too many years after that Maple Leaf Gardens magic, Katherine and I saw him again, from our definitely-not-nosebleed-seats at the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. I didn’t know the first song, but I was in tears anyway, the moment he started singing it. Serious, streaming tears.
Another time he made me cry? When I was 14, lying in my bedroom—lit only with glow-in-the-dark-stars, once the other lights were off—listening as his voice rose to unbearable sweetness: And when you lie beside me / Soft and quiet in the night / I often listen to the rhythm of your heartbeat giving life… I had no idea how to deal with the intensity of my own longing. It was huge. It hurt. It hurt that I hadn’t felt anything close to what he was singing about; for some reason it also hurt knowing that I would, someday. Last night I cried because I was right, at 14, and because I was 14, once, and because his voice is still so sweet.
“The Lady in Red”, possibly his most famous song, was one of my least favourite. Still: when it came on at the 1986 Crescent Boys’ School semi-formal, I was wearing a red dress and my very first heels (2 inches at most), and my boyfriend wrapped his hockey-player arms around me and buried his face in my hair and sang along, in his tone-deaf way, and life just couldn’t have been better. Last night—yup. Tears, as I remembered.
And we met someone. Katherine was on my left; on my right was a young man named Sina, a doctor who came to Toronto from Iran six years ago. Just a year later, de Burgh performed in Iran with a prominent group of Iranian musicians. At last night’s concert, during the closing chords of another song I didn’t recognize (one of the sentimental ones, full of “I love you”s, both sung and projected, in a variety of languages), I heard Sina suck in his breath. Not just him, either—many of the audience members. “That last thing he said,” Sina told me, “was ‘I love you’ in Farsi. And did you hear? Did you hear how many Persians there are here, who understood?”
After de Burgh and his backing orchestra performed “Spanish Train”, Sina’s must-hear song, he turned to me and smiled a huge, dazzling smile and declared, “Now I can die happy.” Delighted, delightful hyperbole—and he told me I could quote him.
It was a pretty sodden, wondrous evening, all in all. A celebration of a precious and enduring friendship; a deep plunge into nostalgia, and the crazy-liberating joy of songs that aren’t ironic at all, and don’t care to be. An encounter with a person for whom these things matter too.
Life just couldn’t have been better.
I’ve only ever taken one creative writing course. When my stint as a creative writing instructor began at the University of Toronto, back in 2006, I was pretty sure this made me a fraud. I was terrified one of the students would ask me what I’d learned from creative writing courses—but none of them did. Now, many classes on, I’m breathing easier. (Until someone asks me how I feel about three-act vs five-act structure, at which point I get all tense and sweaty—for here is yet another student who quite reasonably likes things empirical and road-mappy, while I, beneath my scorn, am more than a little bit afraid of numbered acts.)
I can’t remember exactly when my own single creative writing class happened. I must have been in grade 7 or 8. I do remember that the teacher asked us to do a brief but all-senses-engaged point-of-view exercise, and that I chose to write a paragraph from the perspective of Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan, the 9-year-old girl whose body was found in a fridge in Toronto in 1983. Her story had moved and frightened me, and I felt compelled to try and be her, for a paragraph. To be terrified and in pain in ways I’d never been, myself. I remember feeling guilty, as the words flowed from my pencil—because surely I was exploiting her tragedy for my own really banal ends. But the words did flow. And when we were all done (I believe this was a timed free-write), we went around the circle of desks and read our pieces aloud.
I don’t recall anyone’s reaction. I do recall feeling tremulous, at first, then almost deliriously excited—because the act of saying them made my penciled words live in a whole new way. And then I felt guilty all over again: giving a murdered girl a voice that wasn’t hers, then delighting in my own voice, had to be some kind of tasteless, right? Why, even without the subject matter, delighting in my own voice had to be some sort of egotistical no-no. Right?
Thirty-plus years later, my read-aloud words are the voices of people imagined or long, long-dead. And I still love reading. I continue to think this love is unseemly, and I continue to enjoy indulging it, every time. Sometimes it’s intimidating: I remember one reading, right after The Silences of Home came out, when a woman at the very back of the room put her head against the wall and closed her eyes. I soldiered on, despite the sinking, “I’ve lost one” feeling. Afterward this very woman approached me and told me I’d melted her brain, “but in the best way.” Then there was the inaugural Nuit Blanche in Toronto, when I read from A Telling of Stars at 3:30 a.m. (Yes. A.m.) I sat in candle-lit darkness on a stage in the Heliconian Club, surrounded by a shocking number of people: shadowy people lounging on pillows and couches; really, profoundly appreciative people, who probably hadn’t come to see me read, but who gasped at all the right spots, and applauded for a very long time. I didn’t only read from my own work, that early morning. Each of the authors had been asked to come with a book or passage that evoked bedtime, for them, and I brought my battered copy of Goodnight Moon. I encouraged the audience to say the rhyming words, and they did. It was utterly magical. I was in control—and yet I was just one, reacting to and with the many.
I’ll be reading from The Door in the Mountain at the Eden Mills Festival on Sunday, September 13th. My slot is five minutes, at 3:30 p.m. I’ll probably enjoy every one of them.
I care deeply about my characters’ emotions. Some readers have opined that I care too much—that I describe emotion too lingeringly, in prose that occasionally verges on indigo. Jaele’s numbness—because it’s a self-defense mechanism, and just as important as the grief it keeps her from feeling. Nola’s helpless rage. Ariadne’s jealousy. There’s love too, obviously: all kinds of it, from unrequited to urgent to waning to steady to tortured. I try to be at least a little inventive about whichever emotion I’m attaching words to—because the path to writing emotions is hard, and littered with clichés.
Fear, though—fear is one emotion I might have treated with unwitting carelessness. I realized this in June, on a motorboat in Howe Sound. Or, in fact, a the day before, on the cliff walk near the Capilano Suspension Bridge. (I could actually go all the way back to the plane, but I’ve mentioned my fear of flying before, if in vague terms.)
How have I described fear, in my writing? A hammering heart. Blood pounding in the ears. (Though this can be anger, too.) Sweaty palms. A fluttery pulse. Sudden dizziness. A dropping-away of the ground beneath the feet.
And yet as the ground dropped away beneath mine, on that cliff walk, I felt none of those things. They were probably happening—the thudding heart and dizziness—but all I was really aware of was a strange sort of trembling in my chest and a desperate desire never to let go of the cables on either side of me, never to lift my feet. So I clutched and shuffled, camera swinging from my wrist, casting furtive glances at the splendour above and below me. My brain felt like it was splintering into pieces of wildly differing sizes, each with its own volume setting: My god that’s beautiful rock, striated—what a weird word, “striated”—trees growing out of it; I CAN’T I CAN’T; my god that’s beautiful water foaming down there, boulders, more trees, taller than any I’ve ever seen before; I can’t believe how high up can’t believe it, shouldn’t be so high up; LOOK ONLY AT YOUR FEET ignore everything that’s swirling around in your peripheral vision trying to pull you over and down; for CRAPSSAKE…
And then there was the motorboat.
“It’s pretty choppy out there,” said one of the girls who worked at the marina. “Really windy. Not the best day. Actually, we’re going to give you a bigger boat.” But my intrepid husband had a distinct spring in his step, as he made for the boat in question: he spent years making this trip to Anvil Island to count seals, and was eager to introduce me to their descendants. He never did. About half an hour out of Horseshoe Bay, as the far-too-wee boat pitched and yawed in waves that looked deceptively modest from shore but were, in reality, white-capped and vicious, I blurted, “I can’t do this!” in a warbly, wobbly voice that carried beautifully over the wind and motor noises. I could barely feel my fingers, which were digging into the vinyl seat beneath me. My hair and face were soaked. Mountains towered on our right, Anvil Island loomed not that far ahead, the grey ocean water churned—so beautiful, one brain-splinter noted, but another, louder one made a wordless noise that just wouldn’t stop. And that thing was happening in my chest again: deep in there, and all the way through, not just where my heart was. Supersonic shock waves. Dizziness that had somehow gotten lost on its way to my head.
I’d tried, in that half-hour. Thought: I can’t believe how much of a doofus you are. What’s wrong with you? I looked at Peter, just like I look at other people on planes—people who read magazines or watch movies or sleep (what the HELL is that about?) even as condensation spreads around that tiny hole in the window (the hole that’s obviously supposed to be there, but come on) and the seatbelt sign dings on, about 30 seconds after I’ve felt that surge that presages turbulence. I look at those people on the plane; I looked at Peter as he drove the boat, and urged myself to be that completely OK with things. But far above the ground, and apparently out on the ocean, I just can’t be. The wind, the water—much too big. Myself—much too small. I’m afraid.
The things I put my characters through! The danger, the drama—and their hearts hammer for a bit, and they wipe their sweaty palms on their skirts, and maybe their voices shake. I’m not sure I’ve ever come close to describing profound fear—probably because I’m fortunate enough not to experience it all that often.
Peter turned the boat around, in a wide arc that had us rising and hitting hard whenever the waves struck us broadside. He cut the motor in the lee of Bowyer Island. The boat rocked, but much more innocuously. The sensation in my chest ebbed, leaving me feeling hollow and light. My hand shook as I tore off the first chunk of fresh baguette; two chunks later, it didn’t.
I’m forgetting my nouns. Other things too (walking into a room for something—what?), but mostly nouns. I say “thingy” a lot, and roll my eyes, even as dread snakes through my gut. Maybe I’ve used “thingy” since I was 13 and, amusingly, just don’t remember. Maybe it’s a peri-menopausal symptom (someone—who?—told me about this). But it doesn’t really matter whether hormones are to blame, or whether it has ever been thus: I’m abruptly and acutely aware that I’m forgetting.
When I was young enough never to imagine aging in anything other than abstract, philosophical terms, I worked the Sunday shift at Edwards (why no apostrophe? Why, when the owner’s name was Edward?) Books & Art at Yonge and Eglinton. I’d score the upstairs, with its Edward-proscribed stool, and plant myself behind the counter, and I’d read. It was Sunday, after all: the customers trickled, at best, and tended to be browsers, not buyers. On other days I’d read fiction, but on Sundays it was all about the New York Times Book Review. Voraciously democratic, I read every review—every single one, whether the book in question appealed to me or not. I could feel things stirring in my brain, as I read: connections; shadows that weren’t quite ideas; ideas that I had to scribble down on the backs of the flyers we always had stacked on the counter. I gleaned strange and compelling tidbits from reviews of books I never intended to read because they were about politics, or physics, or a dead musician or actress. Words written about words got me all fired up to write words.
A few years ago, my parents gave me a subscription to the Sunday New York Times. Reading it continues to be a ritual, but it’s been devoid, for the most part, of the kind of glorious agitation I felt when I was 22. Because my Sundays aren’t just about sitting on a stool, in silence broken only by Bach or Vivaldi or possibly early Beethoven? Because I’m older, and not nearly as voraciously democratic about ideas as I once was? Because I’m older, and things don’t stir in my brain as they used to?
Today, though, I felt an Edwards echo. It’s spring, at last: everything’s Kodachrome green, and the cherry tree next door is shedding blossoms like snow, and we can sit on the porch again, with paper and laptops, coffee and maybe Baileys. I’m not writing, but I’m starting to think about thinking about it. All of this, and who knows what else, contributed to some sort of NYT-related alchemy.
I read every article in every section of today’s paper, except the ones about business and sports. (OK, so “democratic” I’ve never truly been, not even in the halcyon year of 1990.) Strange and compelling tidbits abounded, from the profound to the prosaic. I read about Kris Kardashian (who, pregnant and grieving for her friend Nicole Simpson, wore some of Nicole’s maternity clothing to O.J. Simpson’s trial, at which Kris’s former husband was defending him); Victorian death rituals (a paper band attached to the brim of a hat that had belonged to a four-year-old boy: “In affectionate remembrance Richard Nicholls Milliken Born Feb 11 1857 Died Dec 23 1861”); the connection between destructive factory fishing and World War II; DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie, who use social media to document police brutality, cities in flames, the places where black men have died: “Our demand is simple. Stop killing us.”
There were connections, too, as there always seem to be, when you read enough. From that article about Victorian death rituals: “I wished I had saved a lock of my sister-in-law’s long black hair. Not just because I loved her, but also because I am selfish. Will someone feel the same about me? Isn’t that what we all want: to be remembered?”
And from an article about Frida Kahlo, this quote from an art museum director: “This continues to hit a nerve with people. The paintings are Kahlo’s way of saying: ‘This is how I thought. This is what I lived. Remember me.’”
And, just now, logging on to my own website in preparation for posting, I enter my password and tick that box: “Remember me.” (No matter how many times I tick the box, WordPress never remembers me.)
Profound to prosaic—a thought, a hope, an idea, a thingy: remember.
Years ago, just after my second book came out, I attended a swishy Penguin event to welcome the man of that particular hour, David Davidar, to the company. (Not all that many years later, this is what became of him.) Afterward, because sometimes canapés just aren’t enough, my editor invited all “her” authors out for dinner. I ended up beside a young woman I’d never met before, who, before the appetizers arrived, had already made it clear where she stood on a number of issues. One of them was TV.
“I don’t even have one,” she said, in a tone that managed to be snippy as well as languid. “There’s simply not enough time to write—so why would I possibly waste my time on TV?”
I said something like, “I really enjoy TV”, in a voice that trailed pretty quickly into silence. Her self-satisfaction was intolerable, but it was also daunting; I didn’t have it in me to challenge her.
Now, ten years later, I will. Because (and this is both rationalization and truth): TV helps me with writing. And in a related “because”: Justified.
I’ve always said that I’m not really any good at plot, possibly because I pay too much attention to certain reader reviews. (“It’s a story that’s definitely more about people and character than about a fast action plot”; “The plot-minded part of my mind — ha — got bored because it felt like nothing was happening”; “Didn’t read until the end, wasn’t going anywhere”—I could, but won’t, go on.) The Silences of Home was tough, plotting-wise: so many threads and creatures and battles, which I’m still convinced I’m not good at, either. The Pattern Scars: different reasons, but same problematic plotting. Walking briskly down to the beach sometimes didn’t help. Sitting in coffee shops with a fresh notebook page in front of me often didn’t help. What did help, in both cases, was Law & Order: SVU. Yes. Because every night (thank you, syndication) I got to see how formula can work, and work well. And how characterization can be done deftly, or not, and what effect that has on plot. Part of my brain would be actively following the stories; another part would be quietly making associations and decisions about my own story. I wouldn’t be able to give any specific examples of these decisions, if someone asked me to, and I know this sounds like an authorial brand of truthiness, but: Trust me. I know it happened because I felt it happening.
And it’s not just about plot, whose requirements can be fulfilled even via not-so-great TV. Watching a good story provokes the kind of raw, emotional response that makes you want to tell a good story. Take Justified. My god, the heady joy of it: the language (especially the Boyd-Raylan banter), the crossing and double-crossing, the mayhem and murder, the inter-family vendettas that run so deep they’re practically chromosomal—but really, especially, the language. Your jaw drops, listening to it. It surprises.
I think that’s what this blog entry has been trying to say, o long-ago Penguin dinner companion of mine. Like any art, TV, at its best, is unexpected. It’s new. It hits you in the gut and the synapses and shakes you out of solipsistic creative doldrums. It can also make you want to drink bourbon. A lot of it.