Funny, how intense is the nostalgia generated by Decembers and epic franchise movies. Lord of the Rings, for example: Whenever I watch the first installment of the trilogy now, and catch that opening glimpse of Frodo in Peter Jackson’s Shire, I remember my sister grabbing at my hand in the theatre as both of us teared up with relief and recognition. Later, as Aragorn led the Fellowship out of the Mines of Moria, without Gandalf, I remember grabbing my sister’s hand and pressing it against my belly, within which my second child was performing a complicated underwater percussion solo with her feet. I tell said daughter (now 14) this, every time we watch the movie as a family. It is, for both of us, eye-rollingly predictable (“Here it is! This part right here! You went nuts right here!”), but tough: it has become part of the experience of this movie. Memory forever layered with image.
Sometimes the nostalgia is even more complicated: a movie remembering another movie that I remember; a tangle of personal and meta. So it was with The Force Awakens, last December, and so it was this December, with Rogue One. (Mildest of spoilers ahead…) Somewhat unexpectedly, I found that Rogue One did nostalgia better than its holiday predecessor. A mere day later, trying to figure out how it pulled this off, I’ve come up with the following: because the Big Three cast members weren’t—with one brief, CGI’d exception—involved, many of its call-outs to canon are fairly subtle, in some cases almost peripheral (that little Imperial box droid zipping along in the background; a brief appearance by that snub-nosed dude and his creature buddy, who would, only a short time later, though in a different movie, take exception to Luke in the Mos Eisley cantina; blue milk!). This makes for a story that relies more on its own merits than it does on immediate, unquestioning love for familiar faces. (I must admit, though, that that first shot of the back of Grand Moff Tarkin’s head made me giddier than I could ever have expected. I didn’t even need the CGI’d face. The hair was enough.) No lightsaber until the very end. Minimal use of Force—though there was early use of the Force theme. And that’s really why I think I liked this movie better than last year’s. The music.
Which is weird. I love the original trilogy John Williams soundtracks with the intensity of those two unlikely Tatooine suns, and Williams also did the score for The Force Awakens—so why did this music, by Michael Giacchino, hit me harder?
Something about familiarity accompanied by change. A woman dipping back into a place adored by a girl. Memory satisfying transposed.*
You know from its second frame that Rogue One is going to be the same old Star Wars experience, but different. “A long time ago”: the words are there, and the notes of the familiar fanfare are already sounding in your head—except they don’t sound. There’s no fanfare, no crawl. The (literal) tone is set.
Giacchino’s soundtrack evokes Williams from the outset, in sweep and orchestration, just as Williams’ soundtracks evoked Mahler and Holst. Listen: the skirl of oboe from Return of the Jedi! The familiar fanfare for two notes, at which point it’s inverted. Piccolo and harp. Syncopations and muted trumpets. The timpani rolls. Snippets of the Imperial March. The same dreamy violin line that accompanied the final scene in The Empire Strikes Back—but only for a moment. There are so many such moments: fleeting, delighted recognition, followed by newness. It should have felt like a giant tease, but it didn’t.
I would have been well content with Giacchino’s music alone. That’s saying something (see my comment re: Tatooine’s suns, above). This new music was enough.
But then the end. The cargo ship from that galaxy far, far away, in 1977. The gleaming white corridors; the desperate Rebels; Vader advancing. The princess draped in white (“Computer-generated face,” my brain told me as I teared up, “and super-weird, but I don’t care”)—and, at last, at last, the other music. The first. Echoes of Mahler and Holst and Williams and now, like a melody inverted and transposed, Giacchino.
*All of which puts me in mind of South Park’s savagely brilliant take on nostalgia, during its mostly excellent, if horrifying, 2016 election season: the “’member berries.” “We all want something new, but that makes us remember the things we love. We want to ‘member. ‘Member Chewbacca?”
When I was in Greece 30 years ago, my classics classmates and I stayed in double rooms in hotels and got up at the crack of dawn to pile onto tour buses.
When I was in Greece last month, my family and I stayed here, at the Villa Calista on Crete.
The photos almost capture the splendour of the place. What they don’t capture at all, of course, is sound—in this case, the relentless screaming of cicadas. The place was otherwise so quiet: pretty much just wind and distant bleating and the mewing of invisible kittens. (The kittens were apparently at the bottom of the little olive orchard; while we saw their mom, and she bonked Elder Daughter Emma affectionately, we never did see them. Luckily, there were hordes of visible cats absolutely everywhere else.) But the cicadas. The metallic, grindy shrieking that swelled in waves, from olive tree to olive tree, as if each group felt compelled to be more stridently impressive than the others. “No way,” I thought as I stood by the pool for the first time, sweaty, breathless because it was so damn beautiful but also because the drive from Heraklion had been so nerve-wracking. “I will never get used to this sound.”
But I did. It faded, somehow. Became part of the beauty and the solitude. (It faded for real at night, when things went very quiet indeed.) We didn’t forget about the cicadas, though. In fact, we sought them out: stood with our noses inches away from olive trunks or branches, speaking in coaxing or frustrated tones. “Here, cicada cicada. Come on: show yourself…” The closest we came to an actual sighting was at ancient Aptera, where a couple of them bumbled out of trees and into Younger Daughter Stella, who didn’t seem quite as eager to meet them as the rest of us were.
We ferried to Santorini, after our idyllic days in the villa. And lo: there were no cicadas. Actual, daytime quiet—except for the irritable braying of nearby donkeys…
…and the patter of kibble as it went into the bowl that fed our resident feral kittens…
…and, as it turned out, a bunch of adult cats who obviously got wind of the kibble news.
When we left Greece, I figured that would be it for cicadas and us for a good long time.
Only it wasn’t. This guy was lurking on our porch the week after we got back.
Because we’d never actually seen one of his Greek brethren up close, we had to Google it to be sure—but yes: a cicada. A single, silent cicada.
I took more pictures than I probably needed to. But come on: look at that face!
We relocated him from the porch table to the rose bush, thinking this might deter predators (like our cats) and provide him with sappy sustenance.
We checked in on the rose bush the next day: no cicada. “He’s moved on,” we said cheerfully. “Yup: he’s off finding a more appropriate home and he’ll be just fine.”
One morning a week later, I went out to throw some recycling in the bin beside the porch. I turned, took a step back to the front door, and felt something crunch beneath my shoe. It was a significant crunch. I glanced down—and there he was: our lone cicada, flattened, oozing a yellowy-green liquid.
After all the shrieking on Crete and the silent, surprise photo shoot in Toronto, this was not how the cicada story was supposed to end. I was supposed to glimpse him, before my foot descended—was supposed to cry out joyfully and pluck him up and deposit back on the rose bush. He might disappear again, of course, but he’d be back: the porch of the Magic Bungalow was obviously his chosen place.
I’m possibly a little too upset about how the story did end. Stupid messy, abrupt, arbitrary smoosh, when the story had such a coherent and pleasing arc. Stupid story about a stupid bug. Get it together, me.
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.
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.
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.
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.