The other night, Grace, a friend and former neighbour, invited me over for an evening of writing talk with some friends of hers. They were an inspiring, inspired bunch: women navigating the intertwined drudgeries and joys of life and art. Some have known each other for years; others had never met until that night. I talked, maybe too much (there was Prosecco involved). They listened, and asked questions of me and of each other. They were funny, warm, curious, passionate.
I don’t think I’ve ever carried all my books anywhere, before, but I took them to Grace’s. They were passed from hand to hand around the table and I felt like I was looking at them from a vertiginous sort of remove, even though I was even then describing their provenance in detail. Five books. Mine— products of Montreal, Mexico, Toronto; early love and lost love; spiral-bound notebooks and laptop screens. It’s only been 13 years since that first one, but it felt like a hugely long time as I sat there, watching it go around the table.
There was another odd moment, right at the outset, when one of the guests asked how I knew Grace. I said, “I used to live there,” and pointed out her living room window at the window of what used to be my living room, right across the street. I lived there for eleven years. I’ve been back, of course, to pick up the girls when they were too little to get to my place themselves; a couple of times, soon after the divorce, for Christmas brunch. I’ve been back to the street to visit Grace and my other wondrous former neighbours. These returns have always been difficult, but also predictable, manageable. For some reason, though, as I pointed at that house the other night, its presence was strange and sad in a way that felt old, new, tangled.
Later, when I was describing my first novel’s path to publication, I talked about getting the call from my agent. “Penguin wants it…advance of…” I’d started to cry, I told the women around the table. I sat at my desk in the dean’s office at the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design and my computer screen blurred and ran. I told them that I nearly hyperventilated on the streetcar ride home (which seemed to proceed in slow motion). And I told them that when I finally opened the front door of the house across the street from this one, my one-year-old daughter was standing at the top of the stairs in that denim dress of hers, with the embroidered mandala-shape on the bodice. That she cried, “I love you, Mommy!”, as her dad had urged her to. That her dad was standing behind her, smiling at me as he brandished a bottle of champagne above our daughter’s fuzzy blonde head.
I stopped talking and waved my hand around in front of my face, breathing the tears away. The women I’d just met sat there with me—funny and warm, curious and passionate, holding my books in their hands.
Last year, The Pattern Scars was selected for inclusion in an Aurora Awards “e-bundle”, along with some other pretty fine novels. The bundle is now available–and for a mere three weeks. Check it out! Buy it! Read, read, read!
Author Doug Smith provides some background:
“How would you like to own, at an incredible bargain, ten books that readers like yourself have already voted to be the best examples of speculative fiction published in Canada? Well, here’s your chance. I’m curating an ebook bundle for StoryBundle.com that contains winners and finalists for Canada’s premier speculative fiction award, the Aurora Award.
The Auroras are awarded annually by the Canadian Science Fiction & Fantasy Association (CSFFA) for excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy. The award started in 1980 as the Casper and was renamed the Aurora for the 1990 awards. Auroras now include eight professional categories and four fan categories.
One of my goals when putting this bundle together, aside from offering the best books possible, was to have a gender balance in the selected authors. Mission accomplished. The bundle includes five female and five male authors. You’ll also get a great mix of SF and fantasy, adult and YA novels, as well as a selection of short fiction. The bundle also reflects the long history of the Auroras, with titles spanning over twenty years of Canadian speculative fiction. Here’s what you’ll get in the bundle…
Starplex from Robert J. Sawyer, takes you on board a giant exploration starship crewed by humans, dolphins, and extraterrestrials as it embarks on a journey covering billions of years of time and millions of light-years of space. It was also a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Dave Duncan’s West of January is a rare standalone SF novel from a master writer of fantasy series. In it, astounding world building drives a thought-provoking tale of a strange, slowly rotating planet where the habitable zone shifts over a human lifespan.
Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird is the third book set in her Warchild universe about a galaxy spanning human-alien war. It’s a standalone novel, so don’t worry if you haven’t read the first two. (But you should—Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award and was an Aurora finalist.)
Susan McGregor contributes The Tattooed Witch, the first book in her fantasy trilogy set during the Spanish Inquisition and wonderfully infused with Romany culture of the time. In it, a young woman must turn to her dead mother’s magical legacy to battle the Grand Inquisitor himself.
Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars immerses you in the world of a young female seer able to see the future but not change it. A dark, literary fantasy with believable characters and beautiful prose, the book also won the CBC Bookies Award in 2012.
Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine is a much-praised novel that can be viewed as both fantasy and SF. It is challenging, memorable, with the beautiful prose one would expect from cross-genre writer who is also a poet. It also won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and the Crawford Award.
Sean Stewart provides an excellent young adult fantasy story with Nobody’s Son, in which the hero defeats the beast and wins the hand of the princess in the first chapter—and then learns what fairy tales never tell you.
The bundle also demonstrates the rich tradition of Canadian short speculative fiction, with an anthology and two collections. The anthology Blood & Water, edited by three-time Aurora winner Hayden Trenholm, gives us timely tales of battles over our most precious resource, fueled by climate change, population growth, and humanity’s natural aggression.
Gifts for the One who Comes After, by Helen Marshall, is a brilliant introduction to the work of one of the brightest new lights in short fiction. Gifts also won the World Fantasy Award and was short-listed for both the British Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award.
My own collection, Chimerascope¸ contains a mix of SF, fantasy, and horror, including an Aurora winner, seven Aurora finalists, and a Best New Horror selection. The collection was also a finalist for the Sunburst Award and the CBC Bookies award.
And if you are looking for still more pedigree, the bundle includes two CSFFA Hall of Fame inductees (Sawyer and Duncan), as well as a current nominee (Dorsey).
At StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get the basic bundle of five books in any eBook format worldwide:
- Blood and Water, edited by Hayden Trenholm
- Cagebird, by Karin Lowachee
- Gifts for the One Who Comes After, by Helen Marshall
- Nobody’s Son, by Sean Stewart
- The Pattern Scars, by Caitlin Sweet
If you pay $14 (or more, if you feel generous), you’ll get these five bonus books as well:
- Black Wine, by Candas Jane Dorsey
- Chimerascope, by Douglas Smith
- Starplex, by Robert J. Sawyer
- The Tattooed Witch, by Susan McGregor
- West of January, by Dave Duncan
The Aurora Award bundle runs for three weeks only, from March 30 to April 21. It’s a fantastic deal and a great way to pick up titles already voted by readers like yourself as the best of Canadian SF and fantasy. Click here to check out this great ebook bundle.”
When I was 14, baking in summer sunshine on a friend’s upper-floor balcony, I decided to begin writing a history of the relationship between Alexander the Great and his best friend/lover, Hephaestion. This wouldn’t be a fictionalized trifle: it would be academic, serious—and yet it would be shot through with creative re-imaginings and deft scene-setting. I could feel the scope of it, widening and widening behind my eyes. My heart was hammering. I drew a blank piece of three-ring paper out of my knapsack. With confidence and a flourish of underline, I wrote a title I can no longer recall. I believe I made it one line in (the line went something like, “Alexander the Great met Hephaestion, son of Amyntor, when they were boys, under the tutelage of Aristotle, at Mieza”). And that was it. I chewed the pen cap. I stared at the paper. I sensed a pall that had no chance against the summer sunshine.
The scope was wide, all right: it widened and widened behind my eyes and farther yet, to a place way beyond the confines of my skull. This was a big undertaking. It was scarily huge. It would require libraries and dry, dull texts that wouldn’t read at all like Mary Renault. I admitted this to myself, on the balcony, and wanted to cry.
Months later, I wrote the first of my many Alexander stories. Forget biography: fiction was how I’d always wanted to do this. And anyway, it was easier. Quicker. More fun.
Decades later, I toyed with the idea of writing something about Louis Riel, set at the insane asylum in Quebec where he was patient, for a time. “Toyed with” is, in fact, too glib a term: I read and scribbled and read some more. I researched. I bookmarked. Spent months plotting things out, after spending hours on the phone with my agent. Louis Riel. The story was breathtakingly exciting. The story was nauseatingly scary. He was a real man: he left letters, diaries, legacy; he left people who knew, admired, hated, loved him, and people who felt powerful things for him still. Who was I to attempt to capture any of this? How could I sacrifice the truth of what that sanitarium had really been for a magic-realist vision of how it never was?
I didn’t end up writing a word of this one. Even my attempt at that biography of Alexander and Hephaestion was more productive.
My forays into a fantastical Bronze Age, thankfully, were a delight. I did just enough research to capture some of the broad strokes, but the rest was imagined—and that was okay, because the story came from myth. Ah, myth: the ultimate in plausible deniability. Don’t like what I chose to do with this plot element? It happens to be consistent with a very old version of the myth. And anyway: it’s myth, people. It never happened—or we can never prove it did, anyway. I’m just the latest in a long line of interpreters, layering on my own images and personalities and twists. Sure, I might have kind of wanted to make a stab at actual Bronze Age historical fiction—but that would have taken a ton of research, and despite all of the research, I could have been wrong or lame about something, and people might have called me out on this.
I write fantasy, in part, because of a heady, addictive need to seek out wonder, to ask profound, elemental human questions via other worlds, using imagery both impossible and immediate. These reasons are easy to give—but there are others. Yup. Laziness and fear are also part of why I write fantasy.
Even without the historical fiction angle: laziness and fear. Take The Pattern Scars, which is narrated by a young woman of extremely humble origins who ends up living in the royal court. Readers have commented on how impressed they are that I chose to use the first-person point of view of a character who’s close to the great goings-on of the highest in the realm, but not quite there: someone who’s privy to some important conversations, but not nearly all of them. One reader might even have referred to this choice of mine as “brave.”
First of all, the “commoner in the court of the king” trope is exactly that: a trope. And it didn’t feel like a brave choice; it felt like a necessary one. I wanted more of that plausible deniability. Political decisions that shape history? Not sure I’m up to writing about that—so Nola wasn’t in the room when those decisions were made. Battlefield strategy? Oh god, no: she hears there might be some, at some point, but that’s about it.
There are narrative reasons other than lazy fear for my point-of-view choices, of course. I’m genuinely fascinated by the idea of thrusting regular people into situations that would normally be beyond them: fish-out-of-water characters, stand-ins for the reader, carefully or fretfully navigating strangeness, rather than striding about knowing everything already.
Lazy fear and narrative appeal are not, it seems, mutually exclusive.
I’m between books now, struggling to come up with what’s next. I’m giddy with barely-formed ideas, snippets gleaned from articles, photos, maps, the tangles and tangents of Wikipedia. I’m scared, because the business-y ground beneath my feet isn’t so much bedrock as it is sinkhole-ridden sand, and I want to make the right choice, for both market and me. So what is next?
What about historical fiction? I’m not 14 anymore, and the Internet exists now: surely I could essay a subject both obscure and possible to substantiate. A fresh new take on fill-in-the-blank; a “wow, I had no idea that was happening in Canada in 1877!” kind of thing.
Literary spins on historical fiction seem to sell, in Canada. They seem to do well, critically. Some of them even involve a whiff or two of fantasy—few enough whiffs, somehow, to keep these novels off the genre shelves. Part of me is eager to try a spin like this. It would stretch my writerly abilities, get me out of my comfort zone. It might garner me some attention outside the genre world—something I’ve never even seriously envisioned, but which might be kind of cool.
But what if someone calls me out on something? “Does she seriously think a working-class Victorian child would speak that way?” “The architecture of the workhouse is all wrong!” “Her grasp of animal husbandry is loose at best.”
I’m kind of trying, though. I’ve started to make notes on some of those exhilarating, mostly formless, historically-based ideas I’ve been having—but the impulse toward lazy fear is already kicking in. Too much work to do this “straight”, and the accuracy stakes are high; why not do the usual Sweetian thing? Historical fantasy, mythology-based fantasy, contemporary fantasy: in the past month or so, I haven’t had a single idea that hasn’t become infested with fantasy elements shortly thereafter.
I should probably start writing and see what happens. If research happens, maybe that’s fine. If fantasy happens, that’s fine too. I should stop trying to crystal-ball the market, and just follow that overthinking, overwrought muse of mine.
Alexander of Macedon, you persistent, provocative ghost, you.
A couple of days ago I did a guest Q&A at Alyx Dellamonica’s University of Toronto creative writing class. One of the students asked me what my trajectory had been—how and when I’d started writing; what I’d written. I talked about my first book, completed when I was in grade 8, whose beginning, middle, and end were shaped entirely by wish fulfillment and Portentously Capitalized Nouns. Then I mentioned what came after: something completely different in form and style—though still motivated by wish fulfillment—written when I was 15, 16, and 17. This was a series of stories (which I’ve referred to before, on this blog) about Alexander the Great. It started as one story, an assignment for my grade 10 English class—but it was so exhilarating to write that the others spilled out, mostly over successive Christmas breaks. I remember how fevered the writing of them was. Who should I be now? His first wife? His lover? His sister? How about Aristotle? Sure! Why not! (Thankfully, though I wasn’t smart enough to avoid taking a stab at Aristotle’s voice, I was smart enough not to allow the result into the final draft of the collection.)
After I finished The Book Of Portentously Capitalized Nouns, I was convinced it was publication-worthy. I was 14! And I’d finished something book-esque! Surely that made me a sensation waiting to be discovered! It took me awhile to internalize (thanks to the lovingly, brutally honest feedback of some grown-ups in my life) the fact that publication was not what this book was intended for. Having railed against, then learned this lesson, I never believed my Alexander stories were destined for bookstores. But I loved them with an abiding love, and I knew that they were better than what I’d written before, and that was something.
For 20 years, despite the abiding love thing, I mostly forgot about Alexander. In 2005, casting about desperately for my next idea, I remembered him. At last it was time to base a fantasy novel on Alexander’s life! Three novels, even! Yes!
But, after 40,000 words, no.
I mostly forgot about him again—until 2007, when Julie Czerneda and Rob St. Martin asked me to write a short story for their anthology, Ages of Wonder. An anthology about myths. About history. About…well, why not. Surprised and delighted that I could go back again, I wrote one more Alexander story, “To Play the Game of Men”, narrated by Bucephalus. His horse.
Back to a couple of days ago. When I got home from Alyx’s class, I discovered that an interview I’d done back in the fall with Speculating Canada’s Derek Newman-Stille was online. There was Alexander again, mentioned as Derek and I talked about the influence Mary Renault’s books had on us, as much younger people.
And just last night, out for dinner at the home of some friends, there he was again: Mr. Macedonian Conquerer, raising his golden, widow’s-peaked head in a conversation that started with long-range sniper rifles, moved on to Zweihänder swords, and ended up waaay back, with Alexander’s perfection of the phalanx.
There are salient, craft-related things to be gleaned, amidst the nostalgia. Like: Trying to write about Alexander without actually being in his head taught me a whole lot about point of view. And: I learned how to interpret a historical period I could never truly know. And: I found out what creative failure felt like, and I lived.
So it might not be too much of a stretch to say that Alexander made me the writer I’ve been, from 1984 to the present. And the beauty of his permanence is that I get to forget him, then remember, making the very old very new, all over again.
For those of you who are still with me: here’s one of the (shortest of the) stories, written when I was about 17.
Amyntas, to Macedon
…I know not what to think, Father, nor what to feel but this emptiness. I have just seen him, I think for the last time. Alexander barely lives.
The omens of late have been bad, to be sure. The first portent occurred shortly after we left Ecbatana, and the shadow of Hephaestion’s death. Alexander and his officers were taking refreshment in a room outside the throne room; Straton and I were nearby. We heard, as the officers did, the first terrified wails of the eunuchs in the throne room. We arrived shortly after Alexander did, and stared with horror at the scene.
There was a man upon the throne. He was bent and frail, with bony hands and wrinkled arms. A stream of unintelligible words came from his mouth as he rocked himself slowly back and forth. I remember that his eyes were bright, glittering with madness. And there he sat, on Alexander’s chair, while the eunuchs moaned and did nothing.
In Persia, it is a capital offence to sit on the Great King’s throne. We all knew this. Seers were called to interpret the event; they told the king that this was far more serious than simple disrespect. This, they said, was a symbol of disaster. The madman was tortured; it was thought that he might have been involved in a plot. However, no evidence was found. The creature babbled only that he had felt like sitting there, and knew of no reason. To prevent the bad luck that this confession suggested, he was put to death.
The portents did not end there. A second was observed as Alexander was sailing back to Babylon after investigating the irrigation of the farms downstream. He was apparently in good spirits, and had taken the tiller of his own ship. There was a wind over the floodlands that day; it caught the hat he was wearing and swept the band off, into a clump of rushes. These rushes happened to be growing beside a tomb. Alexander seemed to be concerned only at the loss of the diadem, which bore the royal colours of purple and white. As he worried, a seaman leapt off the boat and swam over to retrieve it. He discovered that he could not carry it back without getting it wet, and therefore tied it around his head. Again, the seers foresaw disaster. Alexander appeared untroubled; he had the man beaten, but later gave him a talent of silver for his efforts.
I suppose that we should have seen. But the Persian Gulf expedition was near, and Alexander had shown himself to be immune to both sickness and injury; we did not think of death. But then, as far as we could see, neither did Alexander.
He was stricken with fever after drinking at Medius’. There are rumours of poison, of course, but I doubt them. Medius is a good man, and a faithful friend to Alexander. In any case, the King fell ill. He had to be carried by litter to make the daily offering at the altar, but still he spoke with confidence, as if the sickness would soon be out of him. The plans for the expedition continued; Alexander only altered them by a few days. A week went by, and he worsened. Soon he could no longer make the offering once at the altar. Yet still he briefed his officers, still he spoke (though weakly) of the coming campaign. No doctor was summoned, for he had lost all faith in them with Hephaestion’s death.
He had been staying in the gardens, but on the tenth day of his illness, he ordered himself to be carried back within the palace. He called for his chief officers to stand before him, and for his junior officers to assemble outside the doors. But when all were there, and an expectant hush had fallen, nothing could be done. Alexander had lost the use of his voice.
He remained in the royal bedchamber after that, only able to whisper a word or two. Of course, we the common soldiers knew nothing of this. We had all seen him being carried about; he always smiled at us, or waved. We imagined that he would soon be well, for most of us had fallen ill somewhere in Asia.
But then, for two days, we did not see him. The officers would not answer our questions. The palace shimmered in the heat, its gates closed and Alexander within.
On that second day, we could endure no more. We rushed to the gates, crying loudly to see the King. We shouted that the death of Alexander was being kept from us and demanded to see him with our own eyes, whether he was alive or dead.
The officers appeared, listened to us, then vanished within once more. They were gone for quite a while. And then, at last, we were told to come in.
I have just discovered that it was Alexander who, with a nod, ordered us to be brought in. His officers were determined to refuse, but, even without his voice, Alexander is forceful. In we came, single file, through a door at the far end of the bedchamber. He was lying in the enormous bed, covered in a light white sheet. As the first man entered, he turned himself on the pillows, drawing himself up to meet us. We passed slowly and silently, though some wept quietly. And to every one of us he gave a sign, whether it was from his eyes or with a tilt of his head. Not one of us went unnoticed.
It is now night. Very few of us are sleeping. It is too hot, and the silence is oppressive. At any moment, we are expecting to hear the first wails from the palace. Peucestas and six of Alexander’s friends are spending the night at the temple of Sarapis, praying for him. I do not know how much that will do. Not that I have seen him, I do not believe that anything will save him. His body, compact and muscular only a few weeks ago, is now thin and frail. Only his eyes are still alive; they shine from the mask of his face, hopelessly defiant.
Father, I will be home as soon as he has died. I cannot stay in this strange land any longer, not without Alexander. What would we do? Who would lead us? He is the light that has driven us on, even in times of despair. Without him, his men will lose their unity and their purpose. I am already sure that there will be much bloodshed, for he has not named a successor. I do not wish to be caught up in the chaos. I want no part in the coming struggle for power. I want only to be home, away from the heat and cruelty of this place.
How long has it been since I saw your face? Nine years? Twelve? I cannot be sure. Much time has passed, that I know, since a young Macedonian king drew me away from my country. Straton and me both. We were but boys, so eager and confident of glory.
I must attempt to sleep now, for I will doubtless have need of strength in the coming days. Strange, that I do not yet feel grief. Only emptiness, consuming and cold.
I bid farewell to you, Father, but knowing that it will not be for long. Soon I will be home.
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.