My friend, the novelist and poet Lisa Pasold, tagged me in the The Next Big Thing writing chain letter. The idea is you answer the questions below and tag another five writers you admire. This was a good exercise for me since I haven’t thought about my manuscript in a while and sometimes when something’s been in a drawer for some time you forget about why you cared about it in the first place. I’ve been working on a novel for the past year, and while that’s provided (and continues to provide) a whole slew of issues and things to fret about, it also caused me to forget about this short story collection that I sometimes feel almost pretty good about. So, thanks, Lisa.
What is the working title of your book?
What genre does your book fall under?
Where did the idea come from for the book?
This is a hard question for a book of short stories, since each story has its own origin. I mostly get ideas from things people tell me, which I then shamelessly appropriate and build stories around, or from uncomfortable situations I can’t do anything about, so I go home and try to write my way out of them. A few catalysts:
- A friend who looked through a window at night to see a guy eating a pie from the middle, with a spoon.
- Listening to Born in the USA with a friend; when “Glory Days” came on, she said “When I was in Grade Four I used to listen to that song and think about Grade Three.”
- A woman who came to my apartment a week or so after I moved in and asked to borrow twenty dollars.
- The true fact that women have no real control over our fertility; the true fact that every person who takes a pregnancy test is really hoping for a particular result, but not necessarily the same one.
- Living in a largely Hasidic neighbourhood for six years.
- Monogamy and its alternatives.
- People I care about who’ve had cancer; trying to think about cancer differently, or imagining someone who could.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie adaptation?
I’d like Lily Tomlin to play the narrator of the title story. Besides her, I’d probably get my friends to play the other characters. Or have Lily Tomlin play everyone. Just a bunch of Lily Tomlins lurching around being all lanky and amazing.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
“There is no rest, really, there is no rest. There is just the joyous torment, all your life, of doing the wrong thing.” – from an interview with Derek Walcott. Okay, that was two sentences.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The book is represented by Natalie St-Pierre at the HSW Literary Agency, and will be coming out with a small, brave press in 2014.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About a year and a half, though some of the stories were already written when I started seriously working on the book.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Montreal is a pretty big inspiration in a lot of the stories, even though it might not always be obvious from reading them. The city enables a certain kind of social lifeworld that I find really interesting – a mix of Neverneverland and a genuine, earnest longing for something worth caring about. I think my main task as a writer is to try to engage with how we live as accurately as possible, so working to capture what I see as “how we live” has been really tightly tied to my life and the lives of my friends here. People inspire me, is what I’m trying to say.
I realize that’s pretty vague, so more precisely, some things/persons that inspired me before and while I was writing are my old neighbourhood Outremont; women; Greg Hollingshead; Moving Day; Alice Munro; George Saunders; Amy Hempel; CKUT 90.3 FM; the Manitoba Museum; Brasserie Beaubien; my writing group. I listened to this song obsessively (it really gets going one minute in, wait for it), and a line from it is probably going to be my epigraph.
And this, always and forever:
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
People encounter each other, say some things, don’t really understand what the other person means, part ways, come home and look at something in their house, think about it for a while. A rat dies. Maybe you’re into that sort of thing.
The five writers I’m tagging
I’m bad at year-end lists because I can never remember what happened when. I’d be a terrible witness at a crime scene. But a few books, or reading experiences, stand out for one reason or another. Here’s a brief what, where, when, how and sometimes why.
Aliens & Anorexia by Chris Kraus. I was reading this on the patio of a sports bar near my house. They make great coffee, this sports bar, and if there’s not a soccer game on tv it’s a nice place to read. A man sitting near me checked out the title.
“Aliens and anorexia.”
Then he checked me out. “But you’re not anorexic.”
“Well, it’s fiction, it’s not a how-to guide.”
I also read Kraus’s I Love Dick, which I wrote about here.
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. At first this felt like reading a compendium of Wilde witticisms. I didn’t realize that so many quotes attributed to him were actually things his characters said. I hope no one does that to me: “I’m so fucking high.” – Anna Leventhal.
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. I had never read this before! Don’t ask me why. I was, as I’ve mentioned earlier, somewhat pious about Rushdie as a young person, and he remains one of my favourite writers. I read the first chapter many years ago, and thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever read. So amazing, in fact, that I didn’t read the rest of the book, until this fall. I read most of it in a chair in my studio in Johnson, Vermont. One of the nicest things anyone gave me this year was a 1993 paperback copy of the book, published by the Consortium, an anonymous publishing group that came together to bring out the book in paperback in spite of the fatwa. My friend, the one who gave me the book, said he doesn’t give a shit about Salman Rushdie. I’m glad he doesn’t.
It was hard to find something to read after Satanic Verses, but I went for Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill. It felt a little cold and surface-prickly after the vast heated expanse of SV. In that same armchair in Vermont I also read Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, the Queer Ultraviolence anthology, and a bunch of short stories by Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, and W. Somerset Maugham. Rushdie and Grace Paley were how I would rev myself up to write. The studio next to mine was called the Grace Paley studio. I was jealous, and also relieved, that it wasn’t mine. The building itself was called the Maverick Writing Studios. Every time I’d unlock the door I’d think “I’m not afraid to get mavericky in there.”
Herzog by Saul Bellow. I had also never read Bellow before. What a fucking revelation. I read this mostly on the beach in Cuba, when I should have been reading Hemingway or Graham Greene or something more topical. In Cuba I also read The Free World by David Bezmogis, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Leguin, and Atonement by Ian MacEwan. That’s more or less in order of how much they affected me. I’m just now reading Mr. Sammler’s Planet, also by Bellow.
Blood & Guts in High School by Kathy Acker. I am still not sure what’s up with this book. It’s very shocking, but I don’t think it’s shocking for shocking’s sake. Or, if it is, that there’s a politics in that – something about upsetting the bourgeois standard of decorum and self-care. Disease as resistance. Rage as aesthetic.
People Park by Pasha Malla. I read this at a cottage in the Eastern Townships. A startling, sprawling, ominous book that hasn’t received as much critical attention as I thought it would, maybe because people don’t really know how to handle it yet. I interviewed Malla later, at the launch. It was about 400 degrees in the bookstore – everyone was sweating. It was hard to breathe. When I introduced him I got so physically nervous I thought I sounded like I was going to cry. We talked about masculinity, violence, the failure of community, Simpsons references, the grotesque.
I tried to read Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, on a friend’s recommendation, and I just couldn’t. Maybe because I had recently reread The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen and couldn’t handle another lecherous professor/manic-pixie-dream-girl student relationship. I rarely let a book go, but this one will have to wait. Til patriarchy ends.
Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. I actually whispered “holy shit” to myself several times while reading this, out of recognition as much as admiration.
Why I Write by George Orwell, an essay collection. A slim book, I read it mostly at work and on the metro, along with Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy. It was one of the few nonfiction books I read this year.
A guy who regularly eats lunch at the cafe/bar where I work loaned me We Need a Modern Galileo by Gil Adamson when he heard I was a writer. The next week he asked to borrow my bike. I said no, because that’s not how it works. I didn’t read it for a while because it felt like an obligation. When I did, I was startled by its strange, sharp, astute prose.
I reread Watership Down for maybe the hundredth time, and cried approximately every three pages. I started to write something about sentiment, aesthetics, catharsis, but it’s not there yet. Sometimes I get sad because I know I will never write anything that good.
I am pleased to be considered a Weird Canadian, which I guess is what it means when Weird Canada reviews something of yours:
Change and perseverance. Preposterous and indispensable. Anna Leventhal’s “Moving Day & Other Stories,” a specular collection from the ordinary out-of-the-ordinary, the familiar fantastic, might well have been titled The Montreal Trilogy.
My friend Logan Tiberi-Warner and I have started a pop culture blog, because we think the internet needs more pop culture blogs from people who are like five years behind the times and really only like Star Trek. My first post is about Cloud Atlas:
I read the book in a seventy-two hour binge (it’s a long book, okay) because it was extremely delicious and kind of like obsessively watching Olympic figure-skating, in that I was completely in awe while it was happening and could have cared less the next day. It’s great writing (if your definition of “great” is “highly entertaining,” which I’ll admit mine sometimes is), but the message – in a nutshell, In Every Age of Darkness There Is A Pinprick Of Light – is, let’s be honest, banal. This is not a hugely profound book. It’s about as profound as Terminator II or Aliens or The DaVinci Code, which YES HAVE MOMENTS OF GREAT PROFUNDITY but aren’t really going to break the mould of humanity’s understanding of itself. This isn’t Tolstoy, people. So the movie, in taking on the message, which I’ll shorten to IEAODTIAPOL, as a guiding aesthetic and narrative principle, loses some actually quite engaging and interesting storylines and characters in favour of A Very Important (If Pretty Unoriginal) Message: Slavery is bad, be nice to people, do unto others, and so on.
Read the whole thing here!
I spent the month of October doing a writing residency at a fairly large institution in Vermont’s Northwest Kingdom. If you’ve never done a writing residency, the theory is that, freed from the constraints of everyday life, you will be able to take your work to a new level of intensity, to really, like, hear the whisperings of your soul, catch the bigger fish, whatever your preferred metaphor is. Residencies help you do this by taking care of your daily needs and giving you a room of your own. Your only job is to write, or paint, or sculpt, or do whatever it is you think is your calling. The residency doesn’t really care. It’s like a benevolent but indifferent parent, which is a comparison that will recur with some ominousness.
This residency, like everything else in Vermont,* is fancily rustic, or rustically fancy. You sleep in a small monastic room in a house heated by a pellet stove; you eat delicious food prepared by a chef whose only job is to make food, every day, for you and forty-nine other supplicants. It’s kind of like camp and it’s kind of like Club Med and it’s kind of, very slightly, like being institutionalized. You’re free to barely dress yourself and wander around completely spaced out or clutching your head in agony, because everyone else there is doing basically the same thing.
The first night, one of the residency’s founders gave us a half-pep-talk half-lecture about the artist’s life, and how it’s important not to get too overwhelmed with self-important woe at the difficulty of our creative tasks. It was kind of a “first world problems” lecture – I believe he actually pressed a burdened hand to a furrowed brow and sighed dramatically, to illustrate the mindset we were to avoid. Because, after all, look at us! Living in the shadow of rolling copper hills; eating local organic greens and delicately prepared fish garnished with some other kind of fish; working in well-appointed studios; mashing out our kinks in a yoga studio with heated floors. No schedules, no chores, no responsibilities other than to our craft. To be anything less than constantly joyous would make us total ingrates.
I tried to take this admonition to heart, to remind myself not to be crabby or self-pitying (my two preferred mindstates), to approach my work with an open, joyous heart like some kind of literary yoga instructor. But after a while it started to feel a little fake and even a bit insulting. Because either you take your work seriously or you don’t. Given the amount of time and money and logistic coordination needed to participate in something like this, it’s safe to say we all take our work pretty seriously. And if you take your work seriously, its difficulties can’t be negated by really excellent prime rib. People who do other kinds of difficult, rewarding work that they care about are expected to have hard, frustrating times, to feel bad and useless and like they’re not achieving what they hope to. So it’s normal for us to feel that way too. If my goal was to write decorative sentences to make the world a prettier place, it would be easier, maybe, to feel light and joyous and positive about it all the time. But that’s never been the point. If art matters, and I’m saying if, then feeling bad about it sometimes is a given. (It doesn’t work the other way, though – feeling bad about your art doesn’t necessarily mean that it matters. I would know.) How depressing would it be to feel good about everything you wrote?
I didn’t feel bad all the time, of course. It’s truly wild to live surrounded by people who are doing basically the same thing as you, where you can say things like “I’m working on a novel” and not feel, every single time, like Brian from Family Guy. Like the bumper sticker says, a bad day at a residence is still better than a good day at the rest of your life. Which is partly true and partly bullshit. In daily life you have lots of things to succeed or fail at, to feel okay or stoked or totally miserable about. In residence you have one thing, and that thing is probably the thing that’s the most important thing in the world to you. So a bad day at a writing residence is bad on a big, deep, horrifying existential level, the kind of state where you think, Okay, clearly even under these ideal circumstances I still suck at doing the one thing I care about and am supposed to be good at, so I guess I will just throw myself in this (very shallow) river right now. Which is exactly how we were told not to think. But having your every need met does actually breed a kind of hilariously infantile mindset.
David Foster Wallace writes about something like this in the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – the one where he takes a luxury cruise and finds himself turning into the sort of demanding, pucker-lipped, perpetually unsatisfied velour-swaddled person he would otherwise ridicule:
But the Infantile part of me is insatiable – in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability. In response to any environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering, the Insatiable Infant part of me will simply adjust its desires upward until it once again levels out at its homoeostasis of terrible dissatisfaction.
Where DFW charts the terrifying upward spiral of desire in an atmosphere of “total comfort,” I simply observed that, not permitted (or not able) to do anything for myself, I became totally physically and emotionally dependent on the institution’s care, to the point where I almost cried when the pot of coffee I’d been waiting for was whisked away in front of me to be taken to a board of trustees meeting. The staff guy, who has surely seen way too much of people like me, told me another one would be ready in ten minutes. “Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you come back then?” he said. “I’ll just wait here,” I said, like a huge asshole who hasn’t had any coffee.
Lest this be mistaken for some kind of veiled critique of the social welfare state or something, I should say that most of my time there was amazing, and I did actually do some really valuable work and maybe even heard the whisperings of my soul now and then. Anyway I’m back to making my own coffee and worrying about inane things and working on my novel at my desk, at home, joyously and crabbily.
*In Vermont even the things that are falling apart are doing so in a quaint, picturesque way. My friends who live in New England call it “tickety,” as in “tickety-boo”: “This organic maple ice cream shack shaped like a log cabin and festooned with bunting is so tickety.”
A few days ago my friend and I took a canoe out into a small lake. We stopped paddling and just kind of drifted around for a while, talking about writing and what kind of old people we thought we’d be. We started talking about Girls, which she likes less than I do, and about Sheila Heti and how her writing about female friendships in How Should a Person Be? inspired Lena Dunham in her own explorations, and has thus fostered a lot of talk about female friendships as a valid or invalid topic for writing and other kinds of storytelling. I’m glad that the subject of female-centric work is being talked about, and that the complexity of relationships between women is being taken more and more seriously as a subject. I started thinking, though, that it seems a little shallow to credit Sheila Heti with popularizing girlfriends as a genre or locus for writing. I have been reading about female friendships forever – many of my favourite writers have mined this territory for much of their careers. The first full-length story I published was about a friendship between two young women – you can read it here if you want.
I don’t think these things are easy to write about. I just finished The Satanic Verses, and I’m pretty sure that, despite being over 500 pages long and having some pretty good female characters, it would not pass the Bechdel test. I know it’s not trying to be a representation of women, and I like it a lot for other reasons, to the point where I actually feel quite depressed about having finished it. But it’s still weird to think that with everything Rushdie can do, he can’t – or won’t – write a friendship between women.
I’ve started compiling a list of writers who write almost exclusively, or very insightfully, about relationships between women, or specific books that deal with them. I’m trying not to include books about sisters because then the list would just be way too long, but there might be a couple on there. I’m also not including movies because there’s a billion of them, and also I have very boring taste in movies.
- Margaret Atwood’s best books (Edible Woman, Cat’s Eye, Robber Bride)
- Amy Hempel (esp. ‘In The Cemetary Where Al Jolson is Buried’)
- Mary Gaitskill
- Grace Paley
- Ghost World
- Alice Munro (esp. ‘Child’s Play’)
- Miranda July (esp. ‘Something that Needs Nothing,’ ‘How To Tell Stories to Children’
- Miriam Toews
- Amy Tan
- Barbara Kingsolver
- Meg Wolitzer (esp. The Ten Year Nap)
- Margaret Laurence
Please add more in the comments, with specific books or stories if you’d like. (I’m not just looking for books where there are women in it who are friends, but ones that specifically address the complexity, depth, and weirdness of women’s relationships with each other.)
I wrote a short story set on Moving Day, which here in Montreal is the day that replaces Canada day – apartment leases come up on July 1st, so once a year a giant citywide game of musical chairs goes on. Rental rates are exceptionally high in Montreal – we’re a city of tenants, not owners. So Moving Day is kind of a civic holiday, albeit an incredibly stressful one, with furniture and garbage instead of cake and fireworks.
The premise of the story is this: What if, on July 1st, if you didn’t own property, you had to move? It’s kind of a jam on institutionalized instability, but also flexibility and adaptation… ugh this makes it sound very dull. Anyway if you want to find out for yourself, my publisher Paper Pusher is offering free shipping on it right now.
They are the best! And getting mail is the best too!
The Roberts Street Social Centre and Anchor Zine Archive in Halifax, where I did a two-week residency, is moving, or closing. It’s really sad to think about this place not being around anymore, although I realize that, like zines themselves, its strength is in its minorness. Spaces that appear in the cracks, like weeds, are more tenuous and vulnerable than institutions with a lot of financial and state support. But they’re also more adaptable and more resilient. They’re always going to be getting hassled by landlords, police, the city. But they’re also always going to grow somewhere else. I thought a lot about marginal places when I was there, and I’m thinking about them again now. I made some observations while I was there, which I called to myself The Tour of Unfinished Business, or Structural Curiosities of Halifax.
1. From the roof of the Archive you can see the Staircase to Nowhere. It sticks straight up into the air looking all Escherly. It’s part of a firefighter training station, and it’s for drills where they practice running up and down stairs, saving people. I never saw this happen.
2. The Archive used to employ a hamster to cut the grass. They would plop the top part of its cage down on the lawn, just the wire part and not the plastic bottom, and let the hamster go at it. They’d move the cage over every half hour or so. One day someone stole the hamster, leaving the cage. Who would do such a thing, the archivists wondered. “Stole” is probably a kind guess.
3. The Overpass to Nowhere no longer exists. It was an unfinished structure that used to go, or not go, over Seaview Park, which itself used to be Africville, the former black community over one hundred years old that got absorbed and then razed by the city. You could sit on the edge of the Overpass to Nowhere and dangle your legs and look out over the harbour. When it became clear there was no intention to finish the overpass, the city tore it down. The Overpass to Nowhere therefore no longer fails to cross Africville, which is not there.
4. The Lilac Forest is not really a forest. It’s not even really a grove. It’s maybe five or six clustered lilac bushes in Seaview Park, which is what Africville became, remember, after it was levelled by developers. The lilac bushes suggest the yard of a house that must have existed and is now gone; a yard is meant to be a gesture toward the outdoors, like an accessory a house wears that recalls some other life. In this case though it is the gesture that has overtaken the gesturer. What is a yard called when it’s not attached to a house? The yard, like the community, has been absorbed.
5. The Archive is barely an archive at all. It’s a collection of book-shaped material, most of it flimsy and cheap – photocopies, staples, newsprint. This material might be a kind of congealing of an ephemeral state, relationship, or idea. The Archive stores it and also lends it out, which is why it’s barely an archive. What archive lets you take a one-of-a-kind book with you in your backpack? Nevertheless, the Archive succeeds at preserving what seemed at the time like momentary concerns – things people once took seriously, and still do, if they remember.