Favourite artist series, No. 1: Clive Holden

It’s less than a month to the release of my first novel, The Umbrella Mender.

As publication date approaches, I’m grateful for the friendship and support of a constellation of friends and family and well-wishers of all kinds. It’s an exciting, adrenal time.

I’m also glad for the work of artist and filmmaker Clive Holden, who knows exactly how it feels to be in this place. In art and in fiction, there’s nowhere to hide.


Clive Holden, EXPOSED
From Media, Mediated, 2012

What I’m reading: All My Puny Sorrows


Miriam has become a friend, so I will have to file this under an appreciation rather than an impartial review, but I admired her work long before I met her. She has an inimitable voice that is wise and funny and always unflinching. I’ve seen her described as the ‘queen of voice’ but I think the ‘queen of heart’ is more accurate. In spite of terrible loss in her own family, she has a furious and abiding love of life that is apparent in every word she writes.

This is a book I would have liked to devour in a sitting or two, but life circumstances prevented that. Shortly after I started reading it, my grandmother had a massive stroke. I read most of it as I sat by her, as I did every day after the stroke for a few hours a day, as she lay dying. That’s the kind of book this is. There is strength and courage in it, but there is an overarching acceptance of death that’s rare and beautiful. This is the book you want at a time of grief and sorrow.

All My Puny Sorrows searches for meaning and connection while giving these qualities over as it does. The questions she raises are answers in their own right while remaining resolutely open. It’s brilliant in conception and masterfully written. I was reminded of John Keats’ definition of ‘negative capability’ as I read, from a letter he wrote to his brothers in 1817:

At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.

Toews has been candid about the autobiographical nature of this book (her beloved sister, whom Miriam had been trying to keep alive, succeeded in killing herself). In the book, Yolandi and Elfrieda assume the sisters’ roles with Elf as a brilliant, suicidal classical pianist and Yoli (whom Elf calls ‘Swivelhead’) as the loving, self-deprecating, and devastated novelist sister trying to save Elf from her own despair.

The mood of the novel is somber and dark (how can a novel about imminent suicide not be?) but it’s punctuated with a wry humour that had me laughing aloud. How does she pull this off? She sees life for the grand parade of absurdity and beauty and tragedy that it is, and she can give this over on every page. Joy and humour coexist with sorrow and tragedy. There are no divisions.

I’ve turned the corner of so many pages that there is too much to quote here, and this will be a book that I go to for its wisdom. But this is one of my favourites:

My sister was a dark blur moving towards a rectangle of light. But now after hearing my mom’s survival dream I think maybe this is my survival dream and it’s not a nightmare. It’s the beginning of my own cure. Because to survive something we first need to know what it is we’re surviving.

Last chance for vampires

In 2008, one of Edvard Munch’s paintings went on sale for the first time in more than a 70 years. When it was first unveiled in 1894, the frank sensuality of the embrace it depicted caused a sensation. Munch called it Love and Pain and painted more than a dozen versions of it. That title gave over the paradox of love, and the ambiguity of the pose also made it a case study in subjective interpretation versus artistic intention. Is the woman consoling or dominating? Is the embrace a passionate swoon, or a needy one? Munch always insisted that it was nothing more than a woman kissing a man on the neck, but viewers saw what they saw and along the way the title changed. It became known as Vampire.


Last week I handed over the last major revision of my debut novel. It marked the end of six intense months of fierce love and unflinching scrutiny, neither of which the manuscript could do without at this stage. I can’t recall needing to hold on to both of those poles at the same time in any other relationship.

The only sane thing to do at this point in the process is to revisit a trusted literary mentor. Alice Munro’s introduction to her Selected Stories is a favourite of mine. For Munro, beginnings are often about an image or a snippet of a conversation. “The story I am working on right now owes its existence mostly to a long, straight path, a hard-beaten dirt path running between a double row of spruce trees. I know now who walked that path and where they were going, but in the beginning there was just the path.”

I love that image, and I return to it often. I especially like the elegance with which Munro shares her inspiration. She allows readers a peek behind the curtain, but the literary magic she’s wrought from that image remains intact.

Endings, writes Munro, are a different matter entirely. The thrill of the chase has settled into something more inherently anxious.

“Now that the story is free from my controlling hand a change in direction may occur. I can’t ever be sure this will happen, and there are bad times, though I should be used to them. I’m no good at letting go, I am thrifty and tenacious now, no spendthrift and addict of fresh starts as in my youth. I go around glum and preoccupied, trying to think of ways to fix the problem. Usually the right way pops up in the middle of this. A big relief, then. Renewed energy. Resurrection.

Except that it isn’t the right way. Maybe a way to the right way. Now I write pages and pages I’ll have to discard. New angles are introduced, minor characters brought centre stage, lively and satisfying scenes are written, and it’s all a mistake. Out they go. But by this time I’m on the track, there’s no backing out. I know so much more than I did, I know what I want to happen and where I want to end up and I just have to keep trying till I find the best way of getting there.”

I wish I knew how she knows that she’s found the best way (does she?) but I expect that forty years of experience has something to do with that. Throughout the many drafts of this novel, I tried new voices and rewrote scenes and considered titles. Writers sometimes talk about the point at which the story takes on a life of its own: it’s a thrilling and frightening and defining moment when characters you’ve created become real people.

Like real people, those characters sometimes behave in unexpected ways. But as long as the editing stage persists, those characters are, for all of their willfulness, still ultimately malleable. I can still make changes, rethink, reconsider. Once the world I made becomes a book and goes out in the wider world, I truly lose control of it. Readers bring their own expectations and experiences and understanding to the world in my novel. Even if I found a way of telling the story that felt right for me, and I called it Love and Pain, others may read it and think Vampire.

I was in the midst of this kind of wrestling match a couple of months ago when my fourteen-year-old daughter asked how the work was going. She has been a witness to many stages of this process, often from the other side of a closed study door. She’s familiar with the territory.

Last revision, I told her. It’s the last time I can make major changes.

Ah, she said. Last chance for vampires.

On literary beginnings

Two thought-provoking confessions on literary beginnings appeared on my radar recently, one by Richard Ford (“Where Does Writing Come From?” in the anthology Why I Write) and the other by Peter Carey (in his Paris Review interview, Art of Fiction No 188). They’re both impressively humble about the whole enterprise, considering their statures. It’s a humility rooted in a recognition of literary alchemy, and the role they see themselves playing in it.

In his essay, Ford considers the often-posted question where do your ideas come from? and comes clean about his beliefs. “Considering an actual set of mechanical connections that might have brought a piece of writing from nowhere, the ‘place’ it resided before I’d written it, to its final condition as the book I hope you’ll love, actually impresses upon me the romantic view that artistic invention is a kind of casual magic, one that can’t be adequately explained the way, say, a train’s arrival in Des Moines can be nicely accounted for by tracing the tracks and switches and sidings and tunnels all the way to its origin in Paducah…the true connections could never really be traceable because they exist only in that murky, silent, but fecund interstellar night where impulse, free association, instinct, and error reign.”

One of the ways that he underscores this idea of ‘casual magic’ is through a story of a reader’s compliment of his invented adjective ‘old-eyed.’ When he came across the manuscript for that book years later he was somehow not surprised to find that his ‘invention’ of the adjective was inadvertent: in one of the many retypings, he’d accidentally dropped the c in cold-eyed. Though he’d enjoyed the compliment at the time (“naturally, I was pleased to have written something that somebody liked”), the discovery of the true provenance of ‘old-eyed’ wasn’t remotely a problem. Quite the opposite, in fact. It put paid to the idea the act of creation couldn’t be reduced to “some problem of industrial design,” and that made it a very hopeful thing.

“I believe that there are important made-up things that resist precise tracing back, and that’s it’s a blessing there are, since our acceptance of them in literature suggests that for every human problem, every insoluble, every cul-de-sac, every despair, there’s a chance we can conjure up an improvement,” he writes. I love that.

Peter Carey is similarly guided by intuition. How reassuring to read that for this two-time winner of the Booker Prize, writing “is like standing on the edge of a cliff. This is especially true of the first draft. Every day you’re making up the earth you’re going to stand on.” His characters “begin with an image—a strong, symbolic picture—and then ask myself, What do you have to do to arrive at this point? What sort of person would do that thing—not just because it suits a story or suits something symbolically, but who would really, really do that?”

Wow, did that resonate. For at least three years before starting to write The Umbrella Mender, I carried around an image of a young woman giving birth in a silo, in my notebook and in my head. Who was she? How did she get there? The image lodged itself there when I was out for a ramble on the huge, rural property of a family friend and came across a dilapidated and roofless silo. In black-paint graffiti, there was a stick-figure drawing with the words ‘Caitlin’s Birthing Centre,’ no doubt written by a group of marauding teenagers.

But then again, maybe not.


The blog tour that ran itself

The blog tour that ran itself: this is ‘the next big thing’ interview that writers in the blogosphere are passing, hand to hand, like a baton. What’s the next big thing we’re working on?

Thanks to the talented novelist and short story writer Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, whose short works have recently appeared in Granta and The Walrus, and whose new novel All the Broken Things will be out in early 2014. Lovely to be part of this chain.

What is the working title of your book?

My debut novel, set in Moose Factory, Ontario, is called The Umbrella Mender.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

In September 2002, I began work on a PhD. For years, my great uncle had been pressing his memoirs on me and that term I accepted them. I spent far too long trying to figure out what he wanted from me: An edit? Help finding it a publishing home? I finally asked him straight out. Dr Barclay McKone, a pioneer in tuberculosis treatment in Canada and known in the family as Uncle Barc, said, I just want you to read it.

I was no more than a few pages into the memoir when I knew I’d leave the program at the end of the term. I didn’t know that another five years would pass before The Umbrella Mender would separate fully from the memoir and gain traction in my own imagination, but I did know it was an idea big enough for a novel, the one I’d been waiting for.

What genre does your book fall under?

The Umbrella Mender is primarily set in 1950, but I don’t think of it as historical fiction because it also takes place in 2006. I’m not crazy about the ‘literary fiction’ label, but it’s a story told with attention to language and image.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Oh, this is fun. I have actually thought about this, and it’s mainly because of the beauty of the north. Here’s a view from my window while researching there:


I can picture Sarah Polley as the young, searching, and conflicted Hazel, opposite Jay Baruchel as quirky, dark, and complicated Gideon and, even though he’s Salteaux and not Cree, Adam Beach as the sardonic, watchful Henry.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

The Umbrella Mender is a novel of reckoning: eighty-year-old Hazel MacPherson, once a nurse in the north during the TB epidemic and now silenced by a stroke, finds that she must make peace with the secret she’s kept for almost sixty years.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m represented by Shaun Bradley at the Transatlantic Literary Agency, who has contracted with Wolsak and Wynn to publish the book in fall 2014.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I had the first 40 pages of my novel by my 40th birthday. A friend said it would make a good t-shirt: 40 by 40. I reached the end of the story for the first time a year later.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Some novels that mine would love to keep company with: Alissa York’s Effigy* and Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. My agent compares my work to Wayne Johnson’s (Colony of Unrequited Dreams) and Stef Penny’s (The Tenderness of Wolves) in its evocation of wilderness.

(* This is a novel I wouldn’t stop talking about, so my dear friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer suggested I interview Alissa for the online magazine she was curating. I did, here.)

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

There were false starts and blind corners to the story inspired by my great uncle’s memoir until I discovered hobo symbols on t-shirts at the Junction Arts Fest late one summer in Toronto. I bought one and asked the artist for a legend. Here’s what he wrote:

This coded system of communication among hobos, begun in the 30s and sketched in dirt and on barn boards for each other, wouldn’t let me go until it gave me Gideon, a beat-generation hobo in the tradition of Kerouac. That’s where my novel really started.

There were serendipitous discoveries along the way that opened the story in ways I didn’t expect, such as the fact that the curious, beautiful lichen I’d photographed while in Moose Factory, usnea, known locally as Old Man’s Beard, was effective against gram positive bacteria including TB, and was a traditional native remedy for it. I love it when that happens.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The story of tuberculosis is a fascinating one. Part of human existence from time immemorial (there is evidence of the disease in Egyptian mummies), it had dramatic effects on society. Ancient Greeks coined a term for the creative fecundity it seemed to visit on sufferers, spes pthisica. During the TB epidemic in 1800s North America, young men in the eastern US colleges were routinely encouraged to leave their studies and take up the farmer/rancher lifestyle, thought to promote health and offer a cure. Pasteurization of milk came about because of bovine TB, which could pass to humans.

So 1951 was an exciting, optimistic time to be a medic: for the first time in the disease’s long history, they could speak of a cure. Streptomycin, discovered in the late 1940s, arrested the disease. Health Canada undertook summer surveys of northern communities, where tuberculosis had begun to decimate native populations: in some communities, the rate of infection was nine in ten. The imperative to find and heal indigenous sufferers was intense, and the young, idealistic Hazel goes north to be part of that pioneering force, but her year on Moose Factory leaves her with secrets she keeps for almost sixty years.

Here’s a short excerpt from the opening chapter of The Umbrella Mender:

My mind starts down a known pathway. He is there, as always. For the first time in all the years since, I’m charged with the certainty that more time wouldn’t have bought greater happiness. We couldn’t have expected more of each other. It would be untrue to say that I never raged against the injustice of it all, that I never wished that things could have been different, that I never tried to close myself against the million natural shocks that repeated exposure brought. But these were momentary lapses in faith and nothing more; even in the depths of my misery I never tried to bargain away the fact of his existence and will not do so now. I remain unrepentant for all that happened.


And now over to my dear writer friends, who will tell you about their Next Big Thing. I hope you’ll visit their sites, too.

Terri Favro

Wayne K Spear

Claire Cameron

Diana Fitzgerald Bryden

Eva Stachniak


Message for tagged authors:
Rules of the Next Big Thing

***Use this format for your post
***Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)
***Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:
What is your working title of your book?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.
Be sure to line up your five people in advance.