(at) eleven with ariel gordon: ‘stowaways’

I was introduced to Ariel Gordon’s work through her essay in Kerry Clare’s anthology of motherhood, The M Word. Strange, perhaps, to discover a poet via an essay but I think, very often, if you like someone’s work in one genre, you’ll also like it in another.

Ariel_Gordon-Stowaways_origIn any case, that’s what happened here. And happily so.

Turns out Gordon writes about some of my favourite things—the natural world and its intersection with the urban world is a big one. This is especially the case in Stowaways, which, in the chat below, she says was written while cheating on a Thomas Edison inspired manuscript. I love that kind of backstory.

It was my absolute pleasure to have the chance for this back and forth recently with Gordon while she was on retreat in The Pas, Manitoba, and to discuss not only her work, but a few general thoughts on books and writing and the mystery of why poetry isn’t more widely embraced.

As with all (at) Eleven pieces (and for no other reason than I like both food and books and like nothing more than when they find each other) there is a suggested-by-me menu at the end of the Q&A, tailor made for this book.

A million thanks to Ariel Gordon for her generosity in this exchange.

I sincerely hope no retreat writing time was harmed in the process.

And with that, here we go…


What literary character did you want to be as a child? 

AG—The first novel I read through on my own was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, followed by Frank Herbert’s Dune. I don’t think I wanted to be any of the characters. I was just so thrilled to be myself, plowing through books like it reading-on-my-own was a new technology or a dormant superpower. The character I probably identified with most strongly with was Valancy Stirling in L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. But that was mostly mopey-teenager wish-fulfillment: “No one understands me! I am not beautiful! I will go live in a romantical cabin in the woods all by myself!”

Also, it gave me my first example of a working nature writer. Though Barney Snaith was pretty immature/mopey, come to think of it…


I’m interested in how people come to various forms. How did poetry find you? Also, do you have any memory of one your earliest pieces?

AG—I don’t recall the poem so much as the experience of writing it. In junior high, my Language Arts/Computer Science teacher, Ron Lamoureux, used what I now know is a fairly standard CW exercise to get us writing. But back then, it was incredible. He turned off the lights! And played boisterous classical music! And told us to write!

It was great fun. Not being able to see the page meant that my handwriting was big and loopy and ran everywhere on the page. All I had to do was follow the images the music presented me with and write them down, even if I might not be able to read my handwriting later.

After a few months of similar prompts, he compiled a booklet of poems and we launched them in the school gym. I think I even read my poem! Out loud!

During that time, I was also working on a fantasy novel I started when I was 13, on the computer my father’s employers gave him for home use. He never used it that I could tell, but I immediately started working on my book. Of course, every year I had to spend a lot of time revising the previous year’s writing, but it was immensely satisfying. I filled notebooks with drawings of my characters and pictures I ripped from magazines that resembled what I thought the world I was creating looked like. I even tried to come up with my own language…

I kept writing that book until I was 19 and in my second year of university. At the same time, I started working for the student newspaper and taking creative writing classes. So I started writing short stories that were the same length as the articles I was writing, about a page and a quarter in Word.

Eventually, these became more compact and started to look more like poems. And then I started calling myself a poet.


Do you still enjoy the revision part of the process?

AG—Writing is re-writing. I like the rush of first draft, but I’m under no illusion (most of the time) that the finished poem (or article or essay) will look anything like it.

You might say that I’m in a long-term relationship with revision. Which is to say: it’s hard work but it’s work that I love, that I’ve chosen.


Are there books you like to go back and re-read? 

AG—Thanks to the home-reading program at my daughter’s school I’ve been actively rereading Asterix et Obelix  and Barbapapa  comics. Luckily, her teachers are also sentimental former French-Immersion kids! I also recently re-read some of the slim fantasy novels of my youth, including Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong. (More angsty-teenager wish-fulfilment, as it turns out, except in this case it involved massive talent going to waste because of misogyny…)

I re-read Robert Kroetsch’s early novels—The Studhorse Man and Badlands  in particular—every few years.

But other than that, there’s so much to read out there that I don’t often deliberately go back, especially over the last couple of years where I focused my reading on non-fiction as my writing practice expanded to include non-fiction. Which means that I’m the worst-read person in a variety of genres, given that I read fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Oh and comics.


I was speaking with a friend recently, someone who doesn’t read a lot of (any) poetry, but she’s a voracious reader in other forms. We talked about The Why of ‘poetry fear’, which she admits to having … and schools came into things, as in the way most of us are introduced to it… and the poems we’re introduced to. That feeling of dread rather than pleasure sticks in some way. We’re talking another generation of course; maybe things are different now. I’ve heard of excellent programs at the college and university levels but I wonder what kids are being taught in high school, poetry-wise.

AG—I had an English teacher in grades 9 & 10 who was at the very end of her career. And she made us pin down & analyze poems. Although it was obvious that she had great passion for poetry, she had decided what the correct meaning was of each poem and wouldn’t accept any other interpretations. She also didn’t teach any contemporary Canadian poetry.

More fatally, I gave her one of my stories to look at and she not only covered it in red ink, she gave me a lecture on the fact that none of her students, in thirty years of teaching, had ever become a writer. How the school system wasn’t designed to create writers.

Now this wasn’t much of a discouragement; I kept writing and found other teachers to share my work with.

But in first year university, when I was sitting in my 20th Century Lit class and we were starting our poetry unit, I put my hand up and said: “Deborah, I just want to say that I don’t like poetry.” Deborah being Deborah Schnitzer, who has published several books of poetry and experimental fiction.

She just said, “Oh, Ariel, you don’t,” in her amused, musical voice, and as it turns out, I was writing poems by the end of the year.

And later, when my first book of poems came out, my old English teacher showed up at the bookstore where I was working and very pointedly bought a copy of the book. It was like it was her penance…

My daughter is in grade four now and she’s already read and written poetry in her classes, so I’m not worried…


What about themes… are you ever surprised by a recurring theme in your work? Is there something you find yourself drawn to writing about without even realizing it until after you read the work? 

AG—I’ll answer this, but first, I want to get you to answer a theme question:

“What do you think are the themes at work in Stowaways? Were they on the surface or did they creep up on you, like the references to sound?”

(The reason I ask is that you have no idea how hard it is to talk about themes. They’re largely subconscious during the writing, unless the poet is working on a highly conceptual project from the get-go, but then the poet has to be prepared to sharpen them, acknowledge them, in the editing and, also, the promotion of the book.)


Yes, I get the difficulty of theme talk/identification, but mostly from a fiction pov, which is where most of my work lives. A friend of mine once said she only knows what her books are about when she reads the reviews. Haha!
I wonder how this is the same or different with poetry. In what way it might be harder to discuss themes, which I assume it is because poetry is just that much more bare naked. I’m thinking of the difference between, for example, a collection of short stories vs a collection of poetry… insofar as how they’re put together thematically. I suspect there are similarities, in that they are rarely ‘written’ that way at all. It just happens, or doesn’t, or there’s some (even tangential) similarity between pieces that readers and critics can feast on. And once arranged, there’s an alchemy sometimes…

AG—Part of the reason I asked too, was that I know what I think Stowaways  is about. I wrote the catalogue copy, for instance. But I’m always curious to see what other people think it’s about. Because part of publishing writing is about being in dialogue with the people reading it.

For me, the themes in ‘Stowaways’  are 1) the foibles of human nature and the way we butt up against nature, our own and the other kind, and 2) nature, the marvel of it, the way it’s there, no matter what we do; life, death, cycles, the real deal of it. The ‘How To’ section, for instance, is gorgeous in the honesty of its ‘human natureness’. 

AG—Thank you for that. (Sucking on your descriptions like they were small candies…)

The majority of the poems in Stowaways were written when I was cheating on what was supposed to be my ‘next’ book, a collection of poems on Thomas Edison. I conceived of it while editing Hump, my first book, but didn’t realize how much of a leap it would be from the first-person, experiential poems I had written to poems written from the point of view of a variety of characters that drew heavily on the technology and language of Edison’s era. I also had to set the ms. down for almost a year while promoting Hump, which may have starved it. TO DEATH.

So, as I attempted to revive the Edison ms, as I butted heads with what I knew and didn’t know and what I would have to accomplish in the poems, I would sneak off and write poems about my day-to-day. More mothering poems. Urban nature poems. How-to poems, which I based on wikiHows and were a way to force myself to write when I wasn’t feeling inspired. I also did an image/text collaboration with Darryl Joel Berger, a writer and visual artist based in Kingston.

The whole time I felt bad for not being able to force my way back into the Edison ms. I literally felt like I was cheating on my arts practice.

Then my publisher came to me and asked if I had my next book ready. Which was an enormous relief, even a compliment, but I was NOT ready for that question.

But it was asked, so I looked at the poorly-lit rooms of the Edison ms. and realized it wasn’t even CLOSE to being finished. But instead of confessing all of this to my publisher, I said, “Yes, I should have something. When would you need it for?”

And then I got to work. I admitted (to myself at least) that I couldn’t make the Edison ms. work with my current skill set and resources. And then I started collecting all my cheating poems, every dinky little poem I’d written when not putting my head down and running at the Edison ms. like a goat. Or a bison, because I like them better.

And holy shit, I had three-quarters of a book that seemed to hang together, thematically, even though the poems weren’t written with any larger project in mind. And I had six months before this new manuscript was due.

So I wrote more poems. I wrote every poem I could think of. And I was terrified they wouldn’t be good enough, because they were so very new, but my editor thought they hung together too…

To me, Stowaways is about living in cities and trying to figure out how to be both an animal and a human. Figuring out how to connect to the people around me AND the flora/fauna. They’re about how life and death our every day is, from rescuing the adolescent merlin that lived in the tree next to my house after he crashed-landed to figuring out how to be in a long-term relationship.

(Are those themes? I told you I was bad at knowing my own themes…)


Oh, I love this background. You could have called the book ‘Cheating on Edison’. Of course I’m going to re-read the poems now with this in mind and see if I can find the influences…

It’s strange how we do this, how we (think we) are focussed on one thing but really, our minds are building a whole ‘other’. (We could call it the Edison Syndrome!) It applies to any form, I think. The way someone spends five years writing a novel about the relationship between character A and B and then in year six realizes it’s actually about character D and K.  Fortunately, you trusted your instinct and ‘cheated’. Smart move. It wasn’t the Edison book’s time.

What didn’t the Edison project allow you to explore that brought your thinking to what became ‘Stowaways’?

AG—Trusted/distrusted, more like. But that’s completely par for the course in my writing life: I’m the most patient impatient person you’ll ever meet.

In some ways, Stowaways  seems like a natural bridge between Hump and the Edison ms. (though I STILL haven’t gotten it up and running again…): voice poems, long poems, poems that borrow and steal from instruction manuals. “How to Learn Morse Code” is obviously a remnant of the Edison ms., but I think I would have been attracted to it even if I hadn’t been Edison-obsessed. Just like I was attracted to “How to Survive Flooding.” They’re meaty subjects. I think “Apparent Magnitude: The Finlay 15P,” a long poem about comets, barn swallows, and the death/disappointment of one’s parents towards the end of Stowaways  is my formal apology to the Edison ms.

Maybe I’ll finish the Edison ms. some day. Maybe not. Maybe it’ll be my star-crossed ms.

The more I write, the more I realize that writing is about discarding writing. Not so much killing your darlings so much as leaving them behind.  (“I’ll think about you every time I turn on a light, dear one…”) The infuriating thing about the Edison ms., why I fought it for so long, is that I still felt that the poems I’d written had a lot of juice. It was like a weak battery: it would jolt me every so often.

What about you? What are you working on? Have you ever had a ms. go limp?


I see what you mean about the bridge between Hump and the Edison idea.
I haven’t read Hump, but one description calls it “a mash-up of pregnancy-and-mothering poems and urban/nature/love poems that functions as an anti-sentiment manifesto”. Which pretty much tells me a niece of mine will love it. I’ll include the poem ‘Primipara’ from Stowaways, which feels like a wonderfully twisted paean, brave in how it honours the work of mothering so honestly. (My niece is a ‘hood-dwelling, tough nosed, soft hearted boxer who is devoted to her twin 16 year old boys.) Can you tell me about ‘Primipara’… its origins. And why isn’t this word in common usage, given how many women are ‘it’? And I wonder if there’s a word for women who have ‘borne just two children’.

AG–I wrote that description. And given that one of my favourite expressions is “I like my tea as black as my heart,”  your niece and I would probably hit it off. (Or hate each other…)

“Primipara” came out of a co-worker announcing that what they thought was going to be their oops-third-child was actually going to be their oops-third-AND-fourth-child, three weeks before they were due. My daughter was two or three at this point. I instantly felt the tickle of an imminent poem. All I had to do, when sitting down to write, was try to imagine that happening to me, as someone who hadn’t necessarily wanted ANY children, and then go straight to best worst-case scenario I could think of. And then, because I’m sort of a jerk, I gave the finished poem to my co-worker to share with his wife.

But I wasn’t finished with the poem. I wrote an essay of the same name for Kerry Clare’s The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood anthology. (Which you may recall, as I believe you reviewed it for your blog…) The essay called “Primipara” also included the poem “Primipara”. The essay was about only wanting one child, about trading a larger family for my writing practice, about siblings and cousins and nieces and how my daughter would have none of them. Compared to the poem, it wasn’t at ALL fun to write. But it got me re-started writing non-fiction, which I’m grateful for.

I stole the title from a medical dictionary, which is what I do when I don’t immediately have a title for poems: I troll dictionaries. (I like RhymeZone and OneLook). And I’ve had to re-look it up, but I believe the term is “secundipara” for two. Also, the term “primipara” is apparently more complex than I’d first thought:

“A woman who has had one pregnancy that resulted in a fetus that attained a weight of 500g or a gestational age of 20 weeks, regardless of whether the infant was living at birth or whether it was a single or multiple birth.” http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/primipara

So it has more to do with the number of pregnancies a woman has had, not how many children she’s wound up with. So my co-worker’s wife would theoretically only be a tertipara. But then, I have no idea how many pregnancies she’s had…what an odd way to categorize someone, eh? I’m not sure why it would be at all relevant, medically.

Which is why I had to poem it.


To answer your question about mss that go limp… what I find happens more often is that great chunks are sliced out for the sin of pointless distraction and clutter. But of course that causes a domino effect, things need to be rebuilt with fewer sticks and sometimes it becomes obvious there are not enough sticks. I’m thinking limp is something different. It implies a sense that resuscitation is possible…  

AG—For me is more about the energy of a work. You can trim a dead poem as much as you want. It’s still dead.

The poems (or mss.) that still have a breath of life in them are the most frustrating, because they tantalize you for years. And you think, “Maybe if I try this. Or that.” And it still lies there, it’s mostly-dead eyes glinting at you.


Apart from the ‘commentary’ of the birds that runs through the first section of the book (although ‘apart’ isn’t quite right given how ‘part of’ the whole these voices are) the collection is wonderfully rife with sound. A thud, a purr, a daughter’s chirp; twilight screams, pipes clang and “trains clatter by & fat horses delicately cross tracks, hooves striking steel: Thump”. There are hums, roars, radios blaring, soft snores, sympathetic howls, “the river’s thousand tinkling chandeliers”, a click of shutters, sirens at Portage and Main, yodelling, squealing, noisy suckling, the clacking of chopsticks. All of which is presented so subtly that I was well into the book before it occurred to me that I was hearing (the soundtrack) as well as reading the poems.

In one of my favourite pieces, ‘How to See Deer’ you present what feels like the perfect balance of human and nature: “Boots on snow. Boots on snow. Birdsong.”  The heartbeat of it! So, the question is this: Is sound an element of your work that surprises you when you realize it’s there, or is it a more conscious effort to capture it? (And please tell me about the bird voices!)

AG—My work tends to be very visual and based in the urban-natural world. So: lots of movement, lots of colour, a fair amount of narrative. But I want to make the work as complete as possible, so I try to bring in the other senses. How things feel and how they sound are easiest for me, as I have almost no sense of smell.

I included the birdsong because it made me happy.

I included the birdsong because I realized that I had birds in the poems that weren’t making any sound. And they make immense amounts of noise. (I’m sitting here with the window open, writing these responses and I can hear probably 10-15 different bird calls. I can’t identify any of them, of course, but they’re part of the ambient noise, like trucks on the road, like wind moving through the trees, like the hum of the fridge.)

The inclusion of the phonetic spellings of the birdsong came from the bits of research I’d do on the creatures I was writing about. I really liked that people had figured out how to describe birdcall in words, which seemed to be similar work to what I was doing as a poet, describing things-in-the-world using words, using words to create images, textures, moods. I tend to use a fair bit of internal rhyme as well, so I’m always aware of vowel and consonant sounds and how they’re arrayed in the poems.

So I wanted to include the birdsong SOMEHOW. The reason they’re not in the poems themselves is that I didn’t want to be hooting and cawing at readings. I’m performative, but not THAT performative. I was worried I’d giggle instead of cooing properly, you know? (Although Yvonne Blomer, who did a book largely focused on birds called As If a Raven, published in the same season as me, managed it. It became my favourite part of our joint readings…)


One of the things I’d love to talk about more, generally, with poets is the fear readers have of poetry. The worry of not ‘getting’ something. I think it keeps it at arm’s length in a way that other forms of writing aren’t kept. 

AG—That fear is why I do so many readings, because I want to convince people that they shouldn’t be afraid of poetry. That It’s all just human conversation, that much of it is playful and fun. That they don’t have to worry about knowing terminology to “get it,” the way that you don’t have to know anything about music to listen to music or to appreciate it.

I think you convert people to poetry it one person at a time. One poem at a time, even. So I’m always glad when someone comes up to me after an event and says something like “Well, I’ve never been to a reading before, but that was great…” or “I came for X fiction writer, but I really enjoyed your poetry.”


You’ve been on retreat throughout this Q&A. How important is retreat to your writing practice?

AG—Essential. I tend to get more writing done, in terms of overall volume, in my everyday than while on retreat, but those weeks to myself are essential for shifting my thinking, for rebooting my tired brain. Also, I get to catch up on sleep…

For instance, this trip was three weeks and featured two weeks of writing. By the end of the third week, I looked in the mirror and realized that I hadn’t thought about lip gloss or bundling up the recycling or whether or not Anna needed a new pair of sneakers—all those points of contact we have with the world, all those daily tasks we wear like neckties—for quite a while.

Also, because I’m a poet I’ll probably never make a million dollars from my writing. So borrowing someone’s house in north/central Manitoba for three weeks or going to an ‘official’ retreat somewhere is my low-cost way of seeing the world.


Okay. My favourite question (and please forgive me if you hate it): What question would you like to be asked about the book that you’re never asked? And your answer.

AG—“Why are you SO brilliant and yet still SO unknown?”

More seriously, I have a hard time answering this question, because part of the delight in being interviewed is getting to see the work through the interviewer’s eyes, at least briefly. I also like noticing patterns in what people ask about, out of all the things they could ask about, you know?

I suppose I’d like to have more conversations about urban nature, about place, and how I’m sneaking up on eco-poetry in Stowaways. About making lowercase “p” political art. About humour as a defence mechanism.



Pen or keyboard?  Both.

Cake or cheese?  I like cake—deep dark chocolate in particular—but eat way more cheese.

Heat wave or deep freeze?  Deep freeze. You can always put on another sweater but you can’t take off your skin.

Chanterelles or truffles?  Neither: stinkhorns and lobster mushrooms and dead man’s fingers…

Haiku or Ghazal?  For most of my writing life, I’ve resisted forms, but lately I’ve been writing glosas. (Here’s one of them: http://scholars.wlu.ca/thegoose/vol14/iss2/35/)

Stage or Film?  Film, though mostly because film is more available to me…

Ocean or lake?  Grew up swimming in lakes. Still very intrigued by oceans, though the salt just kills me…

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500pxMatilda’s Menu for Stowaways:

Open-face tomato sandwich on crusty (toasted) Italian bread
Black Iced Tea
Yellow Pears drizzled with honey

(with a centrepiece of peonies)

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her second collection of poetry, Stowaways  (Palimpsest Press, 2014), won the 2015 Lansdowne Prize for ariel2Poetry. Current projects include creative non-fiction about Winnipeg’s urban forest, which is slated for publication in 2018 with Wolsak & Wynn and an anthology of texts about menstruation, co-edited with Rosanna Deerchild and Tanis MacDonald.

She can be found at http://janedayreader.blogspot.ca





(at) eleven with christy ann conlin: the memento

I dreamed of ghosts while reading this book.

But not in a bad way.

There are, after all, different kinds of ghosts out there and in The Memento   Christy Ann Conlin  introduces us to at least a few possibilities. Those that follow you home from a funeral, for example. Which is why you have mirrors placed beside your front door. On the outside. An old Maritime tradition.

The book has plenty of Maritime vibe, and tradition too. It takes place on the Fundy shore, in a house—correction—a grand old estate, called Petal’s End, one of those places you dreamed of being able to explore as a child… with a garden named ‘Evermore’ (a nod to the macabre?), several outbuildings, a 9780385662413carriage house,  even a room for nothing but arranging flowers. That kind of place.

It’s the summer Fancy Mosher turns twelve (a not insignificant number) and is given a letter from her beloved and deceased grandfather in which he explains that a family ‘gift’ has been passed along to her:  the ability to see the dead.

The story that unfolds is one of small town written even smaller. A place with very little privacy yet chock full of secrets because gossip isn’t the same as truth. And memories, well, they can be adjusted to suit any purpose.

Fancy lives from age three to nine with her grandfather, a gardener at Petal’s End. It’s a good life if you don’t mind that your mother’s  bit of a case and rarely around. And anyway, there’s Loretta, the housekeeper, practically a surrogate mother, the kind of woman who “…didn’t get annoyed—she got concerned.”

The family who own the estate, the Parkers, for whom Fancy and her grandfather and Loretta and others work… are rarely home anymore. (There’s a reason for that.) The staff are kept on regardless. The staff know things. The Parkers and the house and teacups know things. Especially the teacups. (In Maritime lore it’s said old teacups carry spirits within them, and I don’t mean gin.)

Everybody, it seems, knows ‘something’. But no one’s talking.

Or at least they haven’t been. Until now.

It was my pleasure to chat with Christy Ann Conlin about this genre-bending mystery cum ghostly folk tale cum literary work.

So without further ado, may I welcome the sparkling Christy Ann Conlin:


1.  What literary character did you identify with as a child?

CAC–Harriet, from Harriet the Spy, and Charlotte, from Charlotte Sometimes. As a teenager, with David, from The Mountain and The Valley, and Anne of Green Gables. All of these characters are outsiders, who either create fantasy worlds to retreat into, or as in Charlotte Sometimes, get lost in an alternate world. These are books which deal with identity and belonging and finding a sense of place. The characters are all outsiders and have to find a deep internal strength to navigate the world and community they are in, some successfully, and some not so successfully. I think these early identifications have really shaped my own fiction writing, my understanding of how we negotiate and map out our journey in life guiding and forming the journey of characters in my stories.


2.  Can you recall your first piece of writing? A poem, short story, essay in finger paints?? What was it about?

CAC–I wrote a story in grade six and the teacher told me it was terrible. I was devastated as it was my first attempt. I have learning disabilities and writing was so hard for me. I failed printing in grade four and it is one of my most humiliating memories. The messiness seemed to be a part of my hand, the death clutch on the pencil, and grinding it into the paper. So my effort in grade 7 felt heroic to me. Then I gave up but the next year had a grade eight poetry assignment I had to do. I didn’t understand what was being asked and I didn’t like the poems we were supposed to dissect.  My mother had always read poetry to me, as well as my grandmother, so I got out the poetry books and I copied these poems into what we could now call a scrap book. I did a drawing inspired by each poem, and decorated each page to reflect the mood, voice and imagistic world of the poems. And I also wrote a poetic response to each poem, and did a word list for each one. By word list I mean I extracted words which I felt were significant.  My teacher gave me 100 %. It was the first time I had ever done well in school and now looking back, I see it was the first time I not only found my writing voice, but found the creative confidence which is mandatory for a writer.  

But the years that followed were all about formal essay writing and I really struggled and finally gave up on writing. I fell into it by accident, when a friend suggested I write the story of my life because I liked writing letters so much. My own story was a cure for insomnia and I was soon drooling at the keyboard. Fictionalizing elements of my life, and then sheer abandonment of reality and entry into the realm of the imagination was what brought me to writing.

My school years were very difficult ones, and I found the public school system, certainly in a very rural area, marginalized those who were a bit different, creative or unusual. There was not much respect for eccentricity in the school halls and playgrounds. Imagination and fantasy can be lifeboats for those of us who are outside the mainstream.


3.  What were you reading at age fifteen?

CAC–Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. Flowers for Algernon. To the Lighthouse by Virgina Woolf. Doonesbury. Jane Austen. The Brontes. H.P. Lovecraft. Poe. Emily Dickinson. Charlie Brown. Ray Bradbury. Stephen King. Wordsworth. T.S. Eliot. S.E. Hinton and many, many more.


4.  Do you have a favourite passage (from any book)?

CAC–Many, but one that I’ve loved since high school is the final paragraph of Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe.

“Yet, as he stood for the last time by the angels of his father’s
porch, it seemed as if the Square already were far and lost; or, I
should say, he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town
he has left, yet does not say “The town is near,” but turns his
eyes upon the distant soaring ranges.”

I find this so heartbreaking, that we really can never come home again, even though we can see it, but there is also that sense of yearning for something bigger than what we have come from.


5.  Are there recurring themes in your work that surprise you?

CAC–No, not really. I am a bit surprised by what is now my life long rumination on our relationship with memory and the idea of sensory detail as portals into the past. I love that scent and sound, for example, can carry us through time. What does surprise me about my work is the ever present thread of humour, sometimes dark and sometimes whimsical and often pure hilarity. I think tragedy and comedy are twins.


6.  We think of a memento as being an object, usually received as a gift to remind us of someone, some experience, some thing, time or place. We assume it’s connected to a good memory—but it needn’t be. In the book, the gift is the ability to see the dead, passed down from a grandfather to his twelfth grandchild, Fancy Mosher, on her twelfth birthday… and much of the story’s tension comes from how this will manifest in Fancy and whether or not it’s an especially welcomed ‘memento’. Two questions: how did the title come to you? And, what is the significance of twelves?

CAC–The title seemed obvious as the book revolves around this inheritance of a gift the Moshers call the “family memento”, a euphemism for a dark ability.  Also, the book really is a memento mori, a piece of art which explores the concept of mortality, and our obsession with immortality. My novel is an exploration of memory and loss, of both embracing and letting go, but always a reminder that life and time pass with every breath.

The twelves come from a few things. Fancy’s mother says that twelve is a special number because Jesus has twelve disciples. This plays into the strange mountain religion mentioned in the book, the Holy Mother Mercy sect which is hinted at.

Also, The superstitions surrounding the red cardinal. The bird trills at dawn and dusk, twelve hours apart, a herald of day and night. Cardinal eggs have a twelve day incubation period. Cardinals don’t migrate, present for twelve months of the year, representing the cycle of seasons. There is a folk belief that if you see or hear a cardinal it carries a message for  you. It was irresistible symbolism for a writer, creating a mythology around this. I love the day being broken into two twelve hour pieces, the time of light arriving and fading, and the time of darkness arriving and fading.


7.  The play of children is cleverly mirrored in the way adults and families ‘play normal’ (and it’s the kids who are dealing with reality so much better, or at least trying to). Also, Fancy knows and senses so much more than she gives herself credit for but she has yet to develop the confidence to believe her own instincts. Is this something you were exploring… i.e. how much of Fancy’s ‘insecurity’ is a normal part of growing up and how much is imposed by family shame (her mother, especially), mythology and (other) dysfunctions?

CAC–I think most of the insecurity is imposed by her mother, her family, society, the Parkers. She inherits her family memento, secrets, and the legacy of shame and fear which accompanies it. I think these forces are what make her so close to the edge, to the mystery, to use a Flannery O’Connor term.


8.  The Moshers have been employed for many years at Petal’s End, a large estate owned by a family rarely in residence. The estate serves as an idyllic backdrop to the carefree aspects of Fancy’s childhood. It’s also the site of much weirdness. This juxtaposition of horror and normal runs through the book in different ways. (I’m thinking of the scene where they’re discussing ‘the Annex’ on the day of Fancy’s birthday, the tacit horror of it… then the scene shifts to Loretta bringing out the cake, singing Happy Birthday.) I can’t imagine the same story unfolding in a ‘normal’ house. Something about the space people need to hide from each other… I’m curious of course: what inspired the setting? (I’m in love with the flower arranging room, btw.)

CAC–Yes, juxtaposing beauty and horror, innocence and wisdom, trust and betrayal, youth and old age, life and death, love and hate…and on and on, these contrasts define this book. We cannot have one without the other.

I also love the idea of something simple, like fragrant air full of the smell of flowers, being more than that, the air being literally embodied by flowers which are alive. We have a saying where I am from, that hot humid summer air is “close”. I love that, how the air is alive, so intimate and engaging with our very being, in our personal space. The book is full of these sorts of normal and yet fantastical elements.

The estate and seaside, the setting of The Memento is a classic gothic element — a grand sweeping home of beauty and decay, from the outside almost a castle, and inside, a labyrinth of stairs and hallways, rooms and chambers, secret passageways, a mansion set in a parkland, with forest, gardens and statues and flowers. It’s a fairytale setting and we all know how the magical world of fairytales holds such an uncanny blend of innocence, beauty, horror and intrigue.

The actual manor home in the book was inspired by several grand estates, here and abroad. I had a remarkable experience in Ireland, in Drogheda, where I was with some friends and we found an abandoned mansion on a river, and behind the mansion, a sprawling parkland with a massive walled garden. There was a hole in the high stone wall and I climbed through and found a sprawling and intricate garden which brought to my mind The Secret Garden, except creepier in how long it had been let go. That moment stayed with me and was the genesis of Petals’ End, the haunted garden in The Memento.

I was also inspired closer to home by Prescott House, a Georgian Manor home at Starr’s Point, Nova Scotia, very close to where I live. I have taught creative writing workshops there in the sunroom, and have had students who remember when the elderly Prescott descendants would serve tea in one of the formal rooms. It feels inhabited by a living history. It’s now a provincial museum, close to the water and complete with restored gardens. There is another grand home, The Queen Anne Inn in Annapolis Royal. It is a house which calls to you from the roadside, which implores you to enter and discover her secrets. Fortunately, it’s an inn, so you can come in and be enveloped by the stories and history of the mansion!


9.  While paranormal events figure into the story, there is another kind of creepiness in all the secrets, especially those children are asked/expected/forced or threatened in some way to keep. You play off this alternate ‘fear’ nicely with the mystery and secrets of ‘the dead’. I’m wondering at what point they conflate in the minds of families over generations…  Is it possible that people tend to hide family truths behind family legends? And might that be one reason for those legends?

CAC–Sure, I think reality, when recounted inevitably takes on a life of its own, and becomes a story merely for the act of telling. And then when it’s passed along again, it takes on more shape and form. Each teller imbues the story with a sense of voice and detail. It’s an organic process and one which keeps evolving, based on the personality and time of the teller. I love this about the oral tradition.

And sure, family stories become a way of entombing the past, with clues and hints and maps that lead back to the past, if a bit of care and attention is paid. I think it’s part a hiding of a truth in a family legend, a part of a family truth which gets lost in the story.  We can search for what is hidden, and we can stumble upon that which was lost. And often, what we lose or secret away, is really hiding in plain sight – it is but for us to put the story in the right order, the words in the right tone, and the truth tumbles out.


10.  What is the one thing you’d like to be asked about the book?

CAC–That’s a great question, ha ha!  This is what I have been hoping someone would ask and no one has yet:  “Why did you take risks with narrative traditions and bypassed trendy and write a book that defies description—a genre-bending literary ghost story for adults for solitary silent read or by contrast, a story for reading aloud by fireside?

The simple answer is I’ve always loved books that read as a page turner and have a complex web of a plot which unfolds seamlessly, and transport the reader right into the story. I really wanted to do this in The Memento.  As I wrote, elements from different traditions came together, and rather than picking one and dropping another, they began to merge. This was the only way to capture the bridge and the co-existance of the past and the present and the future. This idea fascinates me and I wanted a story which embodied this in the actual narrative so the reader would experience this.

Have you ever walked into an old house and then walked out and thought, wow, that was like being back in the 1940s or the 1970s, or even earlier? And yet as you get in the car and Tweet a photo, you are back in your time. This captivates me. The same way that we travel in time with a scent or a sensory trigger.

I love Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Edith Wharton’s ghost stories, James’s Turn of the Screw, those old world books. Kazuo Ishiguro captures that world in Remains of the Day, the old and a newer world, and their collision.  In Jane Austen novels are very much concerned with finding a place in the word, and navigating rigid social parameters, especially for women. I find it interesting how this still continues in society, and wanted to create a thread from the old days to the new, the continuity and persistence of class and gender restrictions. In The Memento, the Parkers are aristocrats with the power of their upper class and the Moshers are in the serving class, and limited in that way. But both have freedoms which also come with their class.

I wanted that old style novel with exquisite language and setting and sense of place, where the world of the book is like a character itself, and yet a contemporary element, which threads through to reflect how old ideas persist and permeate reality.

There is a lot of play with sense of time, and timelessness, in The Memento, how the old world exists within modern society, and you can step in and out of it.

So, this is why some readers and critics have said The Memento reads like Jane Austen or Edith Wharton but as though David Lynch had a hand in the story!


11.  Choices:

Canoe or bike? These days, canoe, because of the contrast of silence and sound, movement and stillness. The thrill of the glide and being on water. There is a sleek elegance in canoeing. And on a lake or a pond there is only bird song, the splash of water, rustle of wind, and the sound of your own breathing if you are paddling hard. And you can stop and sit there in the canoe and feel the rhythm of the body of water as it moves whether on a pond or a river or a lake. We have a small canoe for our pond and paddling in the waterlilies is extraordinary.  In The Memento Fancy recalls being in a canoe on a lake with her mother, collecting waterlilies. This was drawn from my own experience of sunrise canoes.

Song or poetry?  They are one and the same to me right now, as I’ve been working with lyrics in The Memento, the fragments and lines of from ballads and lullabies uses as text in the novel. They become wisps of poetry in her mind.

A ballad used in The Memento which is poetry-to-song: Down By the Salley Gardens – a poem by William Butler Yeats published in The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889. The poem is really a reconstruction and restoration of an old song Yeats had heard. It was which was later put to the traditional music of The Moorlough.  I love the blending of song and poetry as they are one in the same in many ways…poetry is not always words or just words…

Afloat or ashore? At the edge of the shore looking out over the water, watching the reflection of the sky in the water, the sun and the moon, watching the wind ripple through the lily pads and wondering then about the forest behind me as I sit at the water’s edge.

Picnic or fine dining? The antique picnic wicker basket with linens and table cloth and carefully packed lunch carried to a special secret spot in a meadow or on a beach.

Fat book or skinny? A book size which suits the nature of the story.

Ice cream or cheese? Neither.  Lime or cherry sorbet served in an antique depression glass bowl.

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500pxFood and books. Is there anything better?

For that reason I like to offer my version of the menu inspired by the book.

Matilda’s Menu for The Memento:

baked ham

strawberry shortcake

freshly baked rolls

sassy lemonade

(no tea, thankyouverymuch)


Christy Ann Conlin. Photo Credit Bruce DienesCHRISTY ANN CONLIN’s acclaimed first novel, Heave (2002), was a Globe and Mail  “Top 100” book, a finalist for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and the Dartmouth Book Award. Heave was also longlisted for the 2011 CBC Canada Reads Novels of the Decade. Her novella, Dead Time, was published by Annick Press 2011 and received a starred review in Quill & Quire. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals including Best Canadian Stories, Room Magazine, Blood + Aphorisms, and Numéro Cinq. Conlin also hosted the popular 2012 CBC summer radio series Fear Itself. The Memento  is her first novel in fourteen years. Conlin teaches at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies online Creative Writing program. She lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in a big yellow century house at the edge of a lily pond with three little boys named Winken, Blinken and Nod, and her loving husband, Andy Brown, publisher at Conundrum Press.

She can be found at http://www.christyannconlin.com/


*Author photo: Bruce Dienes


(at) eleven with carol bruneau: these good hands

Carol Bruneau has done a couple of pretty exceptional things in the of writing These Good Hands,  not the least of which is introducing us to Camille Claudel, a sculptor living and working in Paris during the Belle Époque of the late 19th and early 20th century. Considered a near genius, possibly superior in talent to her mentor and lover, Auguste Rodin, yet in many camps her name remains connected more to the word ‘mistress’ than to ‘artist’ in her own right.

On this side of the ocean anyway.

Until now.97817708642706

Bruneau has been researching Claudel for years, travelling to France several times, visiting places the artist lived and the asylum to which she was committed by her family and where, after thirty years, she died. While in the asylum Claudel wrote to a number of people, but most of them never received her letters because of her sequestration. In Bruneau’s imagined version the letters are written to an unknown recipient, the identity of whom is gradually revealed as her younger self. It’s through these letters that we are privy to Claudel’s life in Paris at the turn of the century, the relationship with Rodin, the passion for her art. Bruneau alternates the letters with journal entries made by the nurse who cares for Claudel and who ultimately comes to understand the (by now) elderly woman in a way that changes her own life.

Bruneau’s obsession with the artist is contagious and it’s impossible, I think, to read this book and not want to see examples of Claudel’s work. Happily, the author suggested a couple of excellent links to appease my need to *see*… the Musée Rodin …and this one, especially wonderful because it focuses entirely on Claudel.

I’m so very grateful to Carol Bruneau for bringing Camille Claudel to North America. And for this opportunity to chat a little about the book… and a few other things too.


1.  What literary character did you want to be as a child?

CB—Lucy Maud Montgomery’s famous Anne, that’s who—I envied her spunk, her dreaminess, her over-the-top poetic sensibility, all quaintly subversive qualities, and I identified intensely with her love of place. This aspect of Anne was most inspiring, and was imitated/usurped/transferred into my earliest attempts at writing stories.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces? Poem in crayon, a narrated finger-painting?

CB—I vividly remember the magic, at age seven, of stringing words together, first in phrases, then in sentences, and the mind-blowing epiphany: THIS is how you can make a poem or, even more exciting for me then, a story! One of my first pieces was a poem about a hummingbird in rudimentary printing with a crayon drawing of a mutant orange thing with wings. What I remember much more vividly is the ‘novel’ I wrote in Grade Five—a blatant Anne of Green Gables rip-off, only my character was ‘Camilla of the Dingle Woods,’ named for the large park in the neighbourhood where I grew up. I wrote it with a cartridge pen in Schaeffer’s peacock blue ink on loose-leaf meticulously kept in a black binder. I worked on it every day one entire summer. Then it disappeared. I don’t know if someone inadvertently threw it out, or if, suddenly “growing up” in Grade Six, I decided it was embarrassing, and tossed it.

3.  What were you reading at fifteen? And can you recall something you got out of a book at about that time, or a special memory of where you read it… at the beach, under the covers, in the back seat on the way to Cape Breton, in class…

CB—Fifteen? Much of that year I was too busy being a teenager to read much outside of school. (Part of the problem was the Grade ten curriculum, which required us to read Lord of the Flies, Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea—all of which I hated.) But then we read Thomas Raddall’s Hangman’s Beach, and my imagination was captured—sort of a reprise of my Anne of Green Gables-esque fixation on setting—because much of its story took place a five-minute walk from my house. So I vividly recall walking along the shore of Deadman’s Island on Halifax’s Northwest Arm with one of my best friends, while picturing Raddall’s male protagonist doing the same. Deadman’s is the site of hundreds of unmarked graves of soldiers captured during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. It’s spooky and atmospheric enough without a swashbuckling drama playing in your head. Walking there with my friend that day—it was April, Nova Scotia’s cruellest month, grey, cold, bits of rotten ice on the rocks, and a garbage bag that may or may not have contained dead kittens—I felt myself seeing the place through Raddall’s character’s eyes. This was another epiphany for me, the realization that stories people read—and enjoyed—could be set so locally.

4.  These Good Hands is written in alternating letters by Claudel to… we aren’t sure whom (a younger self?)… and diary entries by a nurse at the asylum where she spent the last 30 years of her life. How did you come to choose this (very effective) structure? Was it obvious from the start that it would work this way, or did it evolve?

CB—Great question. The structure definitely took time to evolve. As I worked through numerous drafts I continued to fret over whom exactly Claudel (or Mademoiselle as she’s called in the book) was addressing. For a while I imagined her cornering Nurse as a kind of ‘confessor’ but this quickly became onerous—for Nurse and for me. Subconsciously I was thinking of Mademoiselle’s listener as a muted version of herself, but it wasn’t until my editor/publisher, Marc Côté, pointed out its possibility—the idea of Camille addressing her younger, relatively unscathed self—that I was able to direct and refine her narrative in this way. The technique of using Nurse’s journal entries, on the other hand, came a lot sooner, as the logical extension of her situation and her personality.

5.  Given the years of research, were you ever tempted to write a non-fiction account of Claudel? And what has the novel allowed you to explore that the non-fiction would not have?

CB—Writing non-fiction gives me the willies! Although I have made every effort to be as true as possible to the facts of Claudel’s biography, from the beginning my interest was in exploring her character and predicament in ways that only fiction allows or enables. It sounds arrogant, but I wanted to try and give her a voice, to get inside the character of someone so feisty yet so vulnerable and—in just about every worldly way—defeated. I was interested in writing about her art, but never in a documentary or critical manner. Because her work is heavily autobiographical, I saw it as a wonderful pathway into her psyche as I imagined it, and into her creative process. When I began this project in 2005 there was very little fiction about her published in English, although at least one non-fiction writer had published a biography in English. Ultimately, giving Claudel’s story a fictional treatment allowed me the poetic license to get beyond its tragedy. I never entertained the idea of doing a non-fiction account.

6.  Please tell me you have a background in art, or at least took classes to research the experience such as you’ve captured on p.33 and elsewhere throughout the book… because it’s all so vivid…“…pinching and pummeling a lump of clay, spitting on it as he worked to keep it moist.”

CB—Ha! Any background I have in visual art is strictly the product of research, observation and experience teaching writing at a visual arts school—in other words, flying by the arse of my pants. I have taken beginner’s classes in life drawing, weaving and pottery, but have little to no talent in these areas. But my sister is an artist, and my job at NSCAD surrounds me with artists, and though as a word-nerd I feel on the outside of art looking in, perhaps this has been a useful perspective for absorbing then using the details necessary to ‘sculpt’ Claudel’s story. I’ve been extremely lucky, getting to see artists at work and visiting the odd studio space not all that different from those Claudel would’ve been accustomed to—and I’m continually discovering and delighting in how the creative process itself crosses boundaries of form and media.

7.  To what degree would you say Claudel’s relationship with Rodin was motivated by her passion for her own art?

CB—I would say hugely, enormously—quite possibly completely. More romantic individuals might disagree.

8.  Why do think it is that Claudel’s story has been missed in North America? And how is she perceived in France? And why was it important to you to tell her story?

CB—It remains baffling to me how and why Claudel’s story has been so slow in crossing the pond. She is legendary in France, legendary not only for her tragedy—her mental illness and her sad affair with Rodin—but for her art. Perhaps in French Canada people are more aware of her? I don’t know. The first time I went to France I was—naively—shocked to see her picture posted everywhere, to the point of it appearing on buttons and fridge magnets. When I first heard of Claudel and began reading about her life, my initial impression was that she had been committed and confined to Montdevergues asylum quite unjustly. What I discovered over the course of three research trips to France—and getting a clearer sense of how she is perceived there—is that she was in fact seriously ill and, given the stigmas and mores of the times, her family had little choice but to put her away. More is the tragedy when you see her sculptures first-hand. Her work is brilliant, and I have no doubt that had she been able to continue her practice she would have outstripped Rodin not just in achievement but reputation. It’s galling to me how until recently her work has been under the radar, so profoundly overshadowed by his. Though I was initially drawn to her biography because of its tragedy, seeing and experiencing her artwork soon became the motivation to try and create a more expansive, ‘truer’ version of her story: to show her primarily as a brilliant artist who happened to be Rodin’s student, mistress and model—a fiercely talented, feisty woman who devoted everything to her work.

9.  Camille Claudel is  seated next to you at a dinner party. What single thing do you ask her?

CB—Depending on the party and how early in the evening, it would be why she didn’t ditch Rodin for Debussy. But, no, seriously: There is no suggestion or evidence anywhere that Claudel ever harmed herself or another person. So, depending on how much wine we’d consumed, I’d ask why she didn’t take her own life, or attempt to, as an alternative to those thirty long years in the asylum. I would like to know what enabled her to choose an outwardly hopeless life over death.

10.  It’s a visual book that lends itself to walking tours! I can see people wanting to retrace Claudel’s steps, your steps… (I found myself googling all sorts of things, places… and I loved following your photo threads on FB). If you were asked to recommend only three things to see, to someone travelling to France for the Claudel Tour… what would they be?

CB—I love this question. The first stop has to be 19 Quai de Bourbon on Ile St-Louis in Paris, to stand outside Claudel’s former flat, her final home before she was committed in 1913— to go there at dusk and watch the lights on the Seine and know that this was her view. The second stop is Musée Rodin, to see a couple of her pieces exhibited alongside his. (Or, if you prefer to skirt Rodin, visit Musée d’Orsay to see her mistress-piece, Maturity or L’Age Mur.) The third stop, and most vital, is Musée Ste-Croix in Poitiers, home of the world’s only permanent collection of Claudel’s work—where it’s displayed in its glory with no mention whatsoever of her famous partner’s.

11.  Choices:

Chardonnay or Pinot Noir?   Pinot Noir—unless it’s a hot summer day after a trip to the beach, and then chardonnay is good.

Morning or Evening?   Morning, before the world wakes up and gets noisy.

Brie or Mille Fueille?   Brie, brie and more brie—my favourite treat in the world is cheese.

Mountain or Prairie? (no, you can’t say ‘ocean’)   Mountain. (Flat places make me claustrophobic, unless they’re beaches.)

Urban or Rural?   This is a tough one. I love visiting large foreign cities and I love walking in wilderness, as in rugged, out-of-the-way places near salt water. (Sorry, but lakes just don’t do it for me.) As for day-to-day living, I must confess I’m a bit of a suburbanite, in the sense that I like living close to amenities but need lots of green space and close proximity to woods and seashore for daily dog walks.

Poetry or Song?   I prefer Song, as I’m surrounded by a musical family—but that said, I love lyricism whether words are set to music or not, and a song’s quirky lyrics will hook me as fast as a catchy tune, if not faster.

Dylan (Bob) or Dylan (Thomas)?   Bob—as in my response to your previous question.

Keyboard or Notebook?   A notebook (and pencil rather than pen) is my go-to device for portability and no-fail simplicity. I love the directness of hand-to-paper transcription of ideas.

First or Last Lines?  I struggle with writing both, but find the last lines of novels come more readily than the first lines. It takes a ton of tinkering and tweaking to get them right, either way.

Mittens or Gloves?   Mitts, with gloves inside them if winter is as bad as last year’s.

Baguette or Croissant?   Baguette, unless the croissant is an almond one (I’m thinking specifically of the almond croissants at Patisserie Patrice et Christof in Chartres, France, which are irresistible).


Because I believe food and books go together, I like to offer a tailor made menu for all @eleven books…


For These Good Hands, may I suggest:

Roast Chicken

Pommes a l’Huile

Bread and Cheese

Chocolate Mousse

au moins une bouteille de vin rouge

Bon appetit!

DSC_0139Carol Bruneau is a novelist, essayist and reviewer who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her most recent book, These Good Hands (Cormorant Books, 2015), is based on the life of French sculptor Camille Claudel. She teaches writing at NSCAD University.

She can be found at www.carolbruneau.com

(at) eleven with tracy hamon: red curls

This (at) Eleven series of Q&A’s began as a place to celebrate books written by people I know, or have come to know even in a small way (and usually with a food connection). Very occasionally it includes people I don’t know at all.

Tracy Hamon is such an ‘occasion’. I only recently discovered her work through Brenda Schmidt, who mentioned something about Red Curls  on FB, and I value Ms. Schmidt’s literary taste. Also, I loved the subject matter: an Austrian painter and his mistress living the Bohemian life at the turn of the (last) century.

While a collection of poems is a wonderful thing, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that this is not a collection of poems. Instead, it’s a sort of  ‘discovery’ shared… of the artist, the times he lived in, his inspirations, his work. And his effect on Hamon, who travelled to Austria to gain a deeper perspective of Egon Schiele, on his turf. In poems, yes, but also in narrative pieces from various perspectives, and in voices other than the poet’s.

It’s also a tribute to the muse, an often overlooked element in an artist’s career. And often a woman. In this case the muse was Valerie Neuzil, known as ‘Wally’.

We begin in the washroom of an airport as Hamon arrives in Europe. The piece is called ‘Modernist Movement’ and describes the woman whose job it is to sell squares of toilet paper in a room where “soap hangs like scrotum from a plastic mesh bag”. And with it we’re immediately there with Hamon in the centre of what feels like a strange new dimension, unsettling and yet we recognize something about it, and so begins the journey…

The first section of the book is from Hamon’s perspective. On a train“the seat cripples my back with right angles.”  She looks at buildings, rooftops, landscapes, trying to see through Schiele’s eyes, to find the things he painted, to understand what drove him, inspired him, to imagine the power and mystery of the relationship with his red-headed muse and mistress.

“Egon, I arrive at your door as one/ who watches, one who knocks/ needing to be among the why/ of what you do…”

The second part of the book is from Schiele’s perspective as Hamon takes us back to his childhood and early life, touches on events that shaped him, the loss of his father, his work with Klimt, society’s perception of him as debauched, his marriage to Edith and the end of his affair with Wally.

What might be my favourite piece, ‘Interview with Egon Schiele’, opens with a question: “What were you doing when they came to take you away?” which is then answered in the perfection of simplicity; he was watching a fly, sipping wine, “I was studying the stem of a tulip I had bought at the market.”

The last section of the book, the last word almost, is given so fittingly to Wally. I suspect she would be pleased.

Also worth mentioning is the cover (a painting by Virgilio Neto).

So, with many thanks to Tracy Hamon for taking this time, may I present, the author of Red Curls…

1.   What literary character did you identify with as a kid?

TH—Pippy Longstocking.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces of writing?

TH—I remember writing something “Poe” like, it was slightly dark, maybe a little mysterious, though I can’t remember much more. I must’ve read the style in one of my mother’s many magazines and emulated it. I seem to have the faint recollection of the piece being chosen for some children’s writing magazine, but then again, my memory is faulty enough (and my ego large enough) these days that maybe I just imagine my first writing would get singled out.

3.   What were you reading at fifteen?

TH—Probably Stephen King.

4.   I’m always curious about process. Where do you work best, do you have a writing routine, an ideal environment? And the all-important question: what about blocks… what’s your remedy for getting around/through them?

TH—I work best in my head. Getting the writing out of there and onto paper is sometimes hard. While I can write anywhere, I need quiet to do so. I can write on paper or on the computer, although if I start on paper, I’ll eventually have to type it in a Word program so that I can play with it. I take a lot of notes and I go back and use these a lot when writing.

I don’t believe in blocks—I either write or I don’t write and if I’m not writing I don’t worry about the not-writing. When I’m ready, I’ll write. I’ve been on a really long dry spell as of late, but I’m not worried. I’m doing more reading, but I’m also just too busy to write.

5.   Are there often themes in your work that surprise you?

TH—Not usually.

6.   How did Schiele enter your life in such an important way—was it the ‘red curls’ that drew you?

TH—My first encounter with Schiele resulted from a postcard sent by a friend. red-curls-cover3After I received the engaging card (Boy in Red Robe), I did some internet research and began thinking about his art work. As I read about Schiele and Neuzil, I grew curious about their relationship, and how and why their social situations and eccentricities (mostly Schiele’s as there isn’t much written about Wally) came to shape their relationship as a couple. The red hair connections were not the source of inspiration, but the bond that kept me writing—if that makes any sense.

6.  The love poem on page 48… for Wally, but for Klimt too? And the poem on the facing page: ‘Black and White Study for Transfiguration’, rising from the painting itself, yet the subject of the text is something else again. Can you talk a little about these two ‘shape’ poems?

TH—Part of the process in writing this book was to explore various ways of writing poems about Schiele’s (and in that one poem, Klimt’s) art, without each poem solely focusing on responding to the artwork. I was exploring perceptions (mainly mine) of how, why, and what I see in both poetry and art. So to do this, I started playing with form, using the shape of various poems such as the two you mention, to reflect the images within the artwork, but then utilizing the content of the poem to create another aspect of the story.

I was exploring the idea that images we perceive are often not necessarily the story behind the painting, and the juxtaposition of image and text can work with the historical drama inasmuch as the prose poems work to “frame” the poet and the model’s story. Klimt’s “The Kiss” frames a picture of Wally and Schiele meeting, and the two Schiele’s arising from the poem (albeit, slightly off kilter because it’s a poem and really hard to recreate those images with the space bar) mimic the paintings, but offer different stories than what is seen.

Of course, when writing about a painter and paintings, I needed to keep the writing fresh and this was also one way.

8.   What would have been different about this Schiele-inspired poetry, what would you not have known/felt/imagined had you not gone to Europe? And was there one moment when you thought: this is what I’ve come for.

TH—Without the trip to Vienna and Cesky Krumlov, the journey aspect into the book would never have been there, and I think the book would’ve simply ended up a collection of poems (not that there’s anything negative in that). The discovery element of research was vital to shaping my imagination to be able to create the poetry. Also it enabled me to write true to the era, and the locations, buildings, culture encompassed in seeing many of these places helped with the historical aspects and details.

I would have to say, it was when I arrived at Cesky Krumlov, I realized this is what I came for—much of that city, at least the old part, is exactly the same as almost 100 years ago. It was easy to spot locations of some of his paintings, the house he wanted to buy, etc. I could stand and stare at the same river he did, the same landscapes, and the same every day scenes. I can’t describe how it felt to walk in the world they lived in and the energy it gave to the writing—it was part surreal, but partly tangible.

9.   In the poem ‘Consent’, on meeting Schiele, we have the sense that Wally was in charge. “I tell him to invite me in.”  Her meagre belongings feel like simplicity, freedom, emblems of the Bohemian life. By ‘Death and the Maiden’ they’ve become tawdry… “I look down at my jagged pink dress, the bottom frayed from washing, my bare feet callused from months of walking the blunt edge of rumour.”  She has become the “pornographer’s muse”. So how does this vibrant, young woman slide from Bohemia to what feels like desperation and Shame? (Is there a touch of Elizabeth Smart about her, in that she was more in love with being in love, than with the man?)

(I notice also, in ‘Portraits of the Artist’s Wife’, that Edith goes from a “multihued, striped dress”  to a “light tinted skirt” . I like how you portray the emotional change in both women through clothing.)

TH—What I wanted to create in Wally was an inherent strength, which at first emanates from innocence in a bold bravado when she arrives at Schiele’s house, to a strength of self that comes from love, and from the experience of the era’s changing social and cultural morality. I wanted her to grow up in the poems, from a young fearless girl to a woman that wasn’t apologetic for her actions. I believed that she understood the consequences of her actions and Schiele’s behaviour enough that she could grow from her shame and come away with a strong sense of self. I felt she had the strength of character that she needed to move past the sense of betrayal she felt after the marriage of Schiele and Edith.

Edith I imagined to be quite the opposite of Wally. I saw her as a young woman with little bravado, yet someone excited by Schiele’s looks and talent, and I thought that being in love with a high energy artist would be electrifying in the beginning, but that somehow all those eccentricities and sexual exploits would begin to overwhelm her, making her more withdrawn after a few years. The hardest part was to write these emotional changes into the poems, and I must say, I’m glad you noticed.

10.  I was initially amused and puzzled, then a little shaken by the opening line in ‘Tourist’: “We were thankful for Starbucks.”  Talk about bringing the reader back to earth! The piece returns to the Schiele story but there’s a sense of requiring this abrupt ‘departure’ also, that to linger or allow sentimentality would be too difficult. The way it is sometimes when leaving a loved one, better to make the goodbye quick, clean and as painless as possible. Is this how you felt on leaving Vienna?

TH—No, not really. The first part of the research trip had been spent in Vienna and the second had been in Cesky Krumlov; however, we returned to Vienna before leaving as it was our departure point. I wasn’t really sentimental about leaving Vienna, although I think I was overstimulated by the end of the trip, and so we were happy for some comforts of home, which is what Starbucks did for us. Those small things that keep us sane!

To me the focus was on the relationship between two people, and my relationship with them. Sentimentality would’ve been over the top at the end of the book. I’m a romantic, but I’m not very sentimental. I wanted a little sanity at the end of the book. A small sip of reality to keep the reader sane.

11.  Choices:

Coffee or tea? Coffee

Summer or winter? Summer

Landscape or portrait? Portrait

Canoe or bike? Canoe

Tulips or Lilac? Lilac

Pen or Keyboard? Pen

Chocolate or Cheese? Cheese


Because I believe food and books go together, I like to offer my idea of food that the book inspires. The ideal menu for reading…
For Red Curls, I would suggest:

bratwurst and freshly made bread

linzer torte

at least one bottle of red wine

(and tulips on an oil cloth covered table)


Tracy-Aug-2013---high-res-(3-of-18)Tracy Hamon was born in Regina, SK and grew up traveling between Regina and her parents’ farm near Edenwold, Saskatchewan. Her first book of poetry This Is Not Eden was released in April 2005 and was a finalist for two Saskatchewan Book Awards. A portion of her second book Interruptions in Glass won the 2005 City of Regina Writing Award and was also shortlisted for two book awards in the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Awards. Red Curls was published by Thistledown Press in fall of 2014.

Shelley Banks photo credit.

My webpage is www.tracyhamon.com.

(at) eleven with barbara lambert: the whirling girl


I have a thing for Italy. For its food and the sound of its language, for its chianti and soave wines, for the way people yell at you to eat more (I adore people who yell at me to eat more); for what I imagine is the quality of the setting sun in the countryside and the voices from piazzas in the city as heard from a balcony.

I was in Venice once. I was ten. It’s not a romantic story, although I did paddle a gondola. I need to go back. In the meantime, the next best thing is reading and vicarious travel and Barbara Lambert’s The Whirling Girl  is one ticket to that chianti’d world.

In a nutshell: Clare Livingston, a botanical artist, has inherited a house and property in Tuscany from an uncle who leaves a cryptic message in his will.
A message that niggles and eventually works its way into the deeper spaces of her memory, to a place that touches on the painful, and seems so very incongruous with the quality of that setting sun…

She arrives in Tuscany, to claim her house, to wonder about the why of this gift, and with the idea of researching material for a book of flora (the descriptions of the images can be quite steamy) “Those stamens with their delicate stems… striations on the ovary at the centre of this cluster, and the almost-invisible hairs on the closed bud and on the poppy. But a distraction presents itself in the form of an ongoing Etruscan archeological dig and the people involved with it, which, ultimately, changes her life.

There is love. There is magic. There is history and mystery. There is food.whirling_girl_large

“…tagliatelle  with seafood bathed in saffron, and a noble white wine from Montepulciano… a sorbetto  of passion fruit.”

There is a most wonderful character in the form of Marta, a housekeeper, who is every matriarch that ever lived in any society. A woman who understands life, who has a whole lot to teach anyone who cares to learn.

There are unicorns. As metaphor anyway, insofar as representing that you either believe in something or you don’t; that not everything is provable. This is no small philosophy as Clare tries to unearth her uncomfortable past and to weigh the realities of the present.

Have I mentioned the humour? Lambert writes with a dry wit: “A word of warning, though. Never try to carry a fountain pen through airport security in Brazil. They’re terrified you’ll barge up into the cockpit and try to write a sonnet.”

Annabel Lyon calls this a fairytale for grownups  and I agree. It has just that quality. It’s a book of revealing history, in relationships and in society, the things we search for, what’s left behind, and why. It’s also about a small slice of Italy, a place its author clearly adores. At its essence though, it’s a book about the importance of finding something to believe in—starting with yourself.

But enough from me… I’m thrilled to present, by way of Eleven Questions, Ms. Lambert herself… to whom I’m so very grateful for taking this time.

So, without further ado, the extremely bellissimo  Barbara Lambert…

1.   What literary character did you want to be as a child?

BL— Bagheera, from The Jungle Book — the first story I recall my mother reading to me (the Rudyard Kipling original version). And now, reminded what a thrilling character Bagheera is, I can’t resist quoting two passages. (Substitute “she” for “he”, and imagine a tiny girl becoming that glorious powerful creature):

“A black shadow dropped down into the circle … inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.”

And here, “she” speaks for herself:

“I had never seen the jungle, they fed me behind bars from an iron pan till one night I felt I was Bagheera – the panther – and no man’s plaything, and I broke the silly lock with one blow of my paw and came away; and because I had learned the ways of men, I became more terrible in the jungle than Shere Khan.”

2.   What’s a favourite passage from any book, and why?

BL— I am currently reading the collected stories of Anton Chekhov, in 13 volumes, some already familiar to me (or so I’d thought), and many more that I’d never come upon. I remembered The Kiss as a brilliant “Chekhovian” example of a story in which nothing – and at the same time everything – happens. But I had forgotten the searing poignancy of the final sentence, summing up as it does the entire future of a young soldier, in one lethal blow.

“For an instant there was a flash of joy in Ryabovitch’s heart, but he quenched it at once, got into bed, and in his wrath with his fate, as though to spite it, did not go to the General’s.”

3.   Do you sometimes find themes in your work that you weren’t aware of?

BL— What an interesting thought. And looking over my answer to your first question, I’m wondering if those passages appeal to me particularly because in my own work I do seem to keep dealing with people who secretly picture themselves as capable of dropping down like black shadows, but who may never break the locks imposed by their need for safety, self defeat. Is this what The Whirling Girl is really all about? Art and archaeology, yes, and love and lies, as the jacket suggests: but at heart, the exploration of a character so imprisoned by secrets in her past, that in truth even I kept wondering, as her “Tuscan adventure” progressed, whether she’d ever be able to break free?

4.   My theory is that we write what we need to learn. Not directly, of course, but on some, perhaps, subconscious level. So, if that’s true, what do you think you were “exploring” in writing The Whirling Girl? (Of course you may well debunk this theory.)

BL— It’s hard for me to separate out what I needed to learn as a person from what I needed (and need!) to learn as a writer. At first I was going to talk about archaeology, here, as I certainly did need to learn a lot about that fascinating discipline. But on reflection, what I most needed to learn was to trust my characters, trust their true natures I mean: not merely to allow those characters go the way they needed to go in the story, but to look really closely at what their story was: and also, not let them bamboozle me into looking away from some things they wanted to hide.

There is one particular episode in my central character’s background that she really didn’t want to look at; and for a long time I didn’t look squarely at it, either. I changed it, made it less creepy. I suspect that, subconsciously, I feared that readers would also find this episode a place they did not want to go. I have to thank my brilliant editor, Marc Coté, for catching me out on that, giving me the courage to write my complex character Clare as she truly was. What did I learn? Well, aside from what a huge mistake it is to try to appease readers, I hope I have learned to trust the true needs of my characters – and to develop the kind of ruthless bullshit detector that a fiction writer needs, to tell the truth.

5.   We have to talk about the cover, from a Charles Pachter painting. How did it become “yours” … because it’s perfect.

BL— I’m so glad you think so. Choosing a cover (or just “okaying” one) is a crucial and hair-raising business. But I was lucky. Angel Guerra, of Archetype Design, has done many brilliant covers for Cormorant Books, and when my editor sent me a selection of Angel’s ideas I immediately fell for the detail he’d zeroed in on from Charles Pachter’s painting, “The Party”. There’s a theory that a book cover should not show images of people “full face” for fear or supplanting the reader’s own idea of what the character or characters might look like. (That’s why you see so many showing the back of someone’s head against an evocative scene of some sort.) But the secretive and dreamy and perhaps guileful expression on the face of the woman in the painting struck me as so revealing of Clare’s inner nature…. Plus the whole scene is so rich and compelling. I wanted to be at that party. I hoped that anyone who saw the book would want to be there too. So when I learned that Charles Pachter had given his permission for Cormorant to use the image, I felt very lucky indeed to have work by such an iconic Canadian artist grace my novel.

6.   I’m interested in how characters develop. How do you get to know yours? Do you outline, assign qualities and give them strict orders, or do you allow them to surprise you en route? If the latter, can you share one of those surprises?

BL— I suspect that the process, if I can call it that, goes back to before I was school age, an only child on an Okanagan orchard, where I spent most of my time wandering around under the trees “imagining”. I didn’t realize I was making up stories – or that later in life the imagining process might lead to writing. The people in the adventures I made up were not pretend friends though. I never imagined myself as part of that gang of bold girls who swung through the jungle on vines to rescue captured princesses in Indian temples, or out-rode and out-shot bad guys in the wild west, or captivated the hearts of desert sheiks, generally by astounding skill with very sharp scimitars – leaving the whole veiled dancing thing to shadowy others. Though now I do recall that those adventures would often involve a delicious moment when — veiled, or crinolined, or meekly aproned — one of those girls would throw off the socially demanded bonds, and flash a hidden six-gun or scale a mountain peak to rescue the handsome man who’d somehow foolishly come a cropper, thereby winning his stunned admiration and love.

So now your question has made me wonder if what most interests me about the men and women who inhabit my adult imagination is whether they are also packing hidden six-guns so to speak, in the form of suppressed emotions, histories, desires: and whether they are going to turn those powerful forces on themselves, to subvert their own desires, or if they will manage to call on them, at last, to free themselves?

Certainly, as a writer, the moments when a character does burst the bonds of what I’d scripted are the most exciting moments. One example in The Whirling Girl involves the young Italian, Gianni, whose imagination frequently leaps beyond the practical. He runs a sanctuary for endangered species. Clare – who is trying to resist falling disastrously in love with him — has not allowed herself to take his elaborate and fanciful plans too seriously, till, unexpectedly, he makes up a poem for her — of the names of all the butterflies in Europe that have gone extinct. And she is sunk. So was I.

7.   “Tonight a man who believed in unicorns would take Clare Livingston to a wedding that had happened seven hundred years before.”The Whirling Girl has a distinctly ethereal feel at times, the beauty of the Tuscan landscape, the heat, mysterious doings, the unicorns! Okay, the last is merely an in-joke between characters, but so appropriate in this enchanted tale. In the acknowledgements, you refer [tongue in cheek?] to long hours in a hammock… My question is this: how much effect did place have on the style and tone of the novel? [In other words, what would have been different were it not for that hammock…? Be it real or metaphoric.]

BL— I think place had everything to do with the style and tone of the novel. But there’s nothing metaphoric about that hammock. On my initial trip to Tuscany, day-long explorations of the countryside almost always ended with me settling into the gently gently-swaying netting outside the 500-year-old mill house where we stayed, in the valley below the ancient hill town of Cortona. Journal in hand, I’d begin to record the day’s adventures; and even then — well before I began conjuring up a novel set in that countryside — as I drifted off into a sweet rocking snooze, “she” began creeping into my thoughts – someone who (unlike me) might never have to leave this enchanting setting, Now who would she be…? Many pages of my Tuscan journals are tinted grassy-green where the book slipped from the writer’s hands and the scent of flowering lime trees drifted in, spinning magic in my dreams.

But as to unicorns, I must protest. The young man (Gianni) really did believe in them: as a symbol, at the very least, of the possibility — if we humans put all our energy and belief into imagining the seemingly impossible – that we can, by practical effort, save our expiring world.

8.   What was it about Etruscan history that compelled you to write this book?

BL— The Etruscans played no part in my original concept for the novel. But the longer I spent in Tuscany, on succeeding trips, the more fascinated I became by this puzzling race that once ruled almost the whole of Italy, and who — after their conquest by the Romans — disappeared almost completely from the historical record. When their culture did come to light again, little by little, it was mainly through the contents of their underground tombs. But what a culture! The twelve hilltop cities of the Etruscan League were architectural dazzlers looming over countryside made fertile by brilliantly engineered irrigation schemes. At the society’s peak, Etruscan merchant ships dominated the surrounding seas, bringing back riches to their avidly-collecting families. Indeed, it’s thanks to their love of finely-crafted objects that we know so much about Greek society of the same period; for the majority of the famous Attic pottery in museums around the world, with those finely-painted and detailed scenes, were discovered in Etruscan tombs, part of the furnishings the wealthy intended to take along to the “after world”. Those same tombs give us proof that Etruscan women were powerful and literate (a unique combo in ancient times) and stunningly dressed and be-jewelled (we are talking about the “elites” of course; though tomb frescoes do portray the clothing and accouterments of many levels of society in fascinating detail). The Etruscans were avid lovers of food and wine and dance, too, as so many frescoes reveal.

Yet here is a conundrum. This was a culture deeply steeped in religion and a sense of fate.

It was this split mind-set that particularly intrigued me, in relation to my novel. The Etruscans believed that their civilization would last just ten generations. And indeed that was almost exactly its span before it was swallowed by the Romans. How did one thing work upon the other? Did a priestly assurance that it would all end (and when) spur on the vibrant and uncannily beautiful art objects of every sort that they created: even the most every-day utensils packing a wallop of intriguing design? Did this ominous foreknowledge set them free to live with an artistic intensity not seen again until the Renaissance? Or is this theory “a load of codswollop!” (as one of the characters in the novel kept declaring, though in the end he got edited out)? In any case, an aspect of comparable tension between two very different cultural traits seemed to seep in and enrich what I came to know about my central character, Clare: an artist, and idealist — living an undermining life of secrets and lies.

9.   Marta is a favourite character, a sort of inherited housekeeper. She doesn’t have a lot of ‘stage time’ but, in her own way, is essential to the quality of life on the Tuscan property. This is true of so many matriarchs, especially those in patriarchal societies. What drew you to this quality? How is she different from Clare? And… how did she come to have her own blog on your website where she so passionately discusses tradition and food?

BL— Marta has always felt to me to be a downright gift. I don’t know where she came from. She just plonked herself down in the novel and everything she said or did felt right, what a gift indeed. So really, all I can say is that this is what drew me to her, and that through her I felt the novel was able to connect with some essential qualities of Tuscan country life. Also, thinking it over now, I liked that she was so much the opposite of the members of the quasi-aristocracy whom Clare, for better or worse, shortly becomes involved with. But how is Marta different from Clare? Perhaps, not very. They both have their shifty aspects, don’t they: and Marta’s canniness is certainly match for Clare’s secretive nature.

As to Marta’s blogging career: Not long after the novel was published, I was out walking – feeling a little blue, because I’d spent so long on the novel, and I just plain missed being in Tuscany. For that matter I missed the whole process of being immersed in the writing. I started thinking of an early scene, the one where Marta Dottorelli first appears, with a bag of nettles that she’s gathered by the roadside on her way. Marta starts making a pot of nettle soup. She insists that Clare sit down and eat it, which Clare is dubious about…. And as I walked, suddenly a voice popped into my head. “Don’t make me have to tell you how you got that wrong!” Marta’s voice. Complaining that not only did I, the author, know nothing about making nettle soup, but that I knew nothing nothing nothing about her life, and had absolutely no business trying to trap her inside a novel, and that she had not the least intention of staying there. Well. I rushed home and channeled that voice, setting up a blog (starting with her recipe for Nettle Soup) where right off the bat she sets things right about what life on a Tuscan farm is like, and how I have got everything wrong not just with her life but with Clare’s life. And since then, every now and then, a new recipe of hers appears, often with seasonal descriptions of her life, and always with something snarky to say about “that writer”. There are a number of her recipes up there now, at: http://www.barbaralambert.com/writer/author/books/161-Tuscan%2BRecipes/subject/11

10.  Which do you find harder to write… the first sentence or the last? What was the first scene [you wrote] of The Whirling Girl? And did you always know how it would end?

BL —Often a story starts for me with the final sentence popping into my head. And the question: Okay, so who is this about, what’s been going on? But with everything I’ve ever written, by the time I get to the end, that sentence has to go. The first scene I wrote of The Whirling Girl involved Clare driving up the Italian autostrada to Cortona to the property she’d inherited from her uncle. It gave me a huge amount of trouble, draft after draft. There seemed to be so much information I had to get in, right at the start. Eventually I somewhat resolved this by starting with her uncle’s obituary instead. But (a confession) when I do readings, now, from the start of the novel, there are still a few bits that seem superfluous, which I chop. As to whether I always knew how the novel would end — yes. But, in this case, not just the final sentence got cut, but – in a very last-minute edit — the final several paragraphs. A Wow moment.

11.  Choices:

Pasta or Pizza? Pasta

Chianti or Coffee? I refuse to choose.

Ocean or Lake? Lake (if it can be either Trasimeno or the Okanagan)

Thesaurus or Dictionary? Can’t live without either but the Thesaurus comes more frequently into play.

Primary or Pastel? Can I go with some rich in-between shades, like for example (quoting from the novel) terra rosa, ultramarine, moonglow, raw umber…?

Salmon or Steak? Salmon.

Poetry or Song? That’s tough. But I’ll have to say “song”.

Theatre or Film? Theatre.

Canoe or Bike? Canoe.

Cherry or Eggplant? Well I live on a cherry orchard, so…! On the other hand, I hear Marta’s got a bumper crop of eggplant this summer. I wonder…!

Florence or Rome? Florence.


 Matilda’s Menu for The Whirling Girl


Zuppa di Ortiche (Nettle Soup)

Pasta Puttanesca

Spiedini al Limone (Skewered Meat in Lemon Juice)

Insalata Verde

Melone di Vino Dolce (Melon with Sweet Wine)

Pan Forte

(But I’m a mere amateur. For the REAL meal to eat with this book,
talk to Marta…)

lambert571 highresBarbara Lambert’s novel The Whirling Girl was published in the fall of 2012. Her previous work includes A Message for Mr. Lazarus (2000) and The Allegra Series (1999). She has won the Danuta Gleed Award for Best First Collection of Short Fiction and The Malahat Review Novella Prize, and been a finalist for the Ethel Wilson Prize and the Journey Prize. Lambert is currently editor of Dr. Johnson’s Corner, an online gathering place for writers too in love with their own words. Further information about The Whirling Girl and Lambert’s previous work is available at: www.barbaralambert.com .

The Whirling Girl is available online at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!






(at) eleven with fran kimmel: the shore girl

They’re everywhere. A certain kind of young mother, single, unemployed, pushing prams, kids in tow as they walk and walk… yet something suggests there’s no real destination—that hours, days, years, are merely something to get through… until… what?  More kids maybe, another guy, another unfortunate choice. Because for some people life is a series of unfortunate choices or, worse, unfortunate events. Whatever the reason, they keep moving, these mothers, as if in the hope it’ll all somehow ‘become’ right. They’re recognizable—not by any expression of hope—but by their sadness, sometimes by the look of fear in their eyes. We worry about them for a moment but mostly do nothing. We wring our hands for the children: what chance do they stand?
and then we drive on by…

This is the impression we take. We of the narrow minds.

Fran Kimmel either doesn’t have a narrow mind or is just a lot brighter than many of us. Or more aware. Her book The Shore Girl, the story of Rebee Shore, shows the world of single The%20Shore%20Girl_1motherhood and their kids from the inside out, through a child’s eyes and [in dedicated chapters] through the eyes of everyone who is—by blood or choice—connected to her.

But there’s a difference: Rebee’s mother [Elizabeth, who prefers to go by Harmony] isn’t a pram pushing sort of mum. She’s on the run, rejecting her past and doing her best to dodge the present, which happens to include her daughter. From infancy into her teens, Rebee’s life alternates between moving constantly from van to motel to trailer to relative’s couch. “… Harmony gets restless. For her, a new place has a three-month expiry date, same as fruit bars.”

And if she’s not moving with her mother, she’s being temporarily abandoned by her.

In other words, the kid has every reason to be angry, to follow suit, to make a mess of her life. She has the excuses. But that’s not what happens. Rebee is one of those miracles who, instead of becoming resentful, learns through the very debris of her childhood that she has to be strong because her mother is preoccupied just keeping them alive.

“I thought how rage must hurt in the beginning,
but a person gets so used to it, she thinks it’s
a heat a body’s supposed to feel.”

She gets it.

It’s why she keeps a box of fingernail clippings, mostly Harmony’s, the various shades of nail polish reminding her of places they’ve stayed; it’s the only constant in her life, the only thing that reminds her of where she’s been and the only part of her mother that she can protect from disappearing.

“We rumble along the highway under a watery sky, past wheat rolled into giant soup cans, cows frozen in muck. I think about where we just came from. I can’t remember the colour of the walls or feel of the curtains or shape of the bathroom sink. Blank as water, like on a test day in a new school and I end up at the fountain, gulping, drowning… I slip off my runners and slide my toe across my bag until it touches my nail box. We’ll get to wherever we’re going tonight… I’ll wait awhile. Sprinkle the brittle bits on my blanket. Sift them like seashells.”

While often told from Rebee’s perspective, it’s very much Harmony’s story too, one that has her cemented in shame and anger.

All that and yet… The Shore Girl  is ultimately hopeful. It’s about connection, the small and unfathomable ways we touch each other and thereby save each other. About reclaiming what’s ours and how family comes in various forms. It’s about getting beyond what’s ‘normal’. About using the scraps you’ve been tossed.

Above all, it reminds us that our story is never obvious to others, nor is it entirely ours alone.


As is customary with the (at) Eleven series, a meal of my choosing—appropriate to the book—follows the Q&A, because… “Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”  ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

And now, without further ado, may I introduce Fran Kimmel… who I thank so very much for her time, her insight and her kind heart.


1.   What literary character did you most identify with as a child?

FK—As a young kid, I devoured Trixie Beldon books. I loved all her insecurities and her grumbling about chores and homework and brothers.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces? (Crayola poem, a finger-painting storyboard…?)

FK—Okay, here goes:

Across the shadow of the moon and ever so slowly gliding

Through the leafy-figured trees, a starlit shape was sliding

Up and down with swirling streaks, across the snowy hills

With patterns of rejoicing grace, and lacy moving frills

It’s so bad, it’s memorable. This poem won a contest in Grade 4 and I had to read it in front of the whole school on assembly day. I cried a lot beforehand, trying to get out of going on stage, but neither my teacher nor my mother would give in. I made it to the end without collapsing, but this marked the end of my poetry career.  (Likely a good thing)

3.   What were you reading at fifteen?

FK—Girl gets boy stories, killer gets caught stories, town goes berserk stories, world on verge of collapse stories. Lots of junk sprinkled with a hearty dose of the Bronte sisters, which I could not get enough of back then.

4.   Can you describe what was on the bookshelves, or on one specific shelf, in your childhood home?

FK—While my sisters and I usually had stacks of library books beside our beds, our family bookshelves were pretty sparse. I remember a shiny set of A-Z Encyclopaedias with more pictures than words, as well as a few volumes of Girl’s Own Annuals, leftovers from Grandma’s house. These were huge tomes from the 1930s, 800 plus pages, packed with illustrated stories and ridiculous amounts of sage advice about how to sit still,  take care of your stockings, or knit the perfect skating outfit.  Hah!

5.   A favourite passage from any book and why.

FK—This is such a hard question. Every week I read a new passage that blows me away. But here is a long-time favourite taken from Girls by Frederick Busch.

“The dog and I live where it doesn’t snow. I can’t look at snow and stay calm. Sometimes it gets so warm, I wear navy blue uniform shorts with a reinforced long pocket down the left hip for the radio. I patrol on foot and sometimes on a white motor scooter, and it’s hard for me to believe, a cop on a scooter in shorts. But someone who enforces the law, laws, somebody’s laws, fall down like that. Whether it’s because he drinks or takes money or swallows amphetamines or has to be powerful, or he’s one of those people who is always scared or because he’s me, that’s how he goes—state or federal agency or a big-city police force, down to working large towns or the dead little cities underneath the Great Lakes, say, then down to smaller towns, then maybe a campus, maybe a mall, or a hotel that used to be fine.”

This quiet, understated passage comes early on, page two. With these words alone, the reader is given everything needed to fall hard for Jack, the book’s main character. Such tension and bitter regret here, the unravelling of a life. You know Jack will get only halfway near the harsh truth, but you’re rooting for him already. My favourite passages and phrases are almost always deceptively simple.  The eight-word sentence, “I can’t look at snow and stay calm,” gives me shivers.

6.   Do you ever find recurring themes in your work, things that surprise you?

FK—I seem to want to write about life’s damages. (My husband grumbles, Can’t you try to be a bit funny?) And it does surprise me that loss keeps coming back again and again. I’m not sure why exactly, except that I’ve been forever interested in the fragile connections that hold us together and what happens when these connections are broken.  I think I’m drawn to what I don’t want to know about myself.

7.   The Shore Girl opens with the heartbreaking scene of Rebee as a toddler, alone in a motel room, thirsty for a glass of water and yet reluctant to disobey the parent who isn’t there. How do children like Rebee manage to find such resilience?

FK—I’m left speechless by what children are able to endure. I think that kids like Rebee are always on the outside looking in, which gives them a lot of time to observe and to reflect on what they’re observing.  They learn to somehow distance themselves emotionally (and physically) from the source of their heartache. Some of these kids – the lucky ones – are able to become stronger in the process. I’ve met some amazing women at book clubs who endured childhoods much like Rebee’s and they’ve gone on to lead brilliant lives.

8.   Rebee’s mother, ‘Harmony’, is a wonderfully drawn character, and the only one [of the central cast] that we don’t hear from directly. She’s alluded to, pined for, despised, misunderstood, tolerated, fallen in love with; she makes us want to give her a shake one minute and then breaks our heart the next. No matter what, she’s the ‘always elephant in the room’ There’s an expectation, a desire to hear Harmony tell her side of things, yet if she did, the book would be less. It’s the very absence of Harmony’s voice that creates the character; she emerges as both the problem and the appeal and the lack of her own platform is a kind of metaphor for her life, also her choices. The ‘silence’ fits her confusion and her abdication of so many things and, most importantly, it reflects for the reader some of the mystery, frustration and longing that Rebee feels. My question is this: how did you ever find the courage [read: wisdom] to NOT give her a platform? It surely must have been tempting to do otherwise. [and I’m guessing she probably kicked up quite a fuss!]

FK—Harmony did kick up a huge fuss. She was a powerful presence underneath everything else that went on in this book, and I was inside her head and heart all the way through. I feel a huge swell of tenderness towards Harmony, but if I had given her a voice, she would have taken over the book and the story would be hers and hers alone.  I wanted more for Rebee than that. It took me a ridiculously long time to figure this out.

9.   Was there any unexpected outcome in writing the book that you might share? (I’m thinking of characters that resisted where you wanted them to go or who walked on or off the stage spontaneously; something you discovered in research, elements that you cut/added because of info gleaned ‘en route’…)

FK—The book itself was its own unexpected outcome. I’d been writing short stories for some time and this, too, began as just that – a short story about Rebee and her fingernail clippings.  After I sold the fingernail story, I thought well that’s that, but then I’d wake up night thinking about her. I wanted to know what it would feel like to run across a girl like Rebee, a girl who stumbles out of a run-down van, bedraggled, and then just disappears again. Who would reach out to her? Who would turn away? I wrote and wrote, character after character, story after story. It wasn’t until a long way in that I started to see these pieces melding into a book.

In earlier drafts, I had a large section told from the town’s point of view after Rebee moved to Chesterfield. And a section by a crusty old neighbour named Gunther who I absolutely adored. But in the end, I cut huge swaths and whittled the writing down to this small band of characters who I felt told Rebee’s story best. On a side note, I didn’t intend for Joey to keep puking. No matter how many times I wrote that out, I’d turn around, and he’d puked again.

10.  In your opinion, what are some positives in the ‘new publishing industry’?

FK—Since the self-publishing industry has blown wide open, there is an infinitely large space for writers who want to go it alone. New spaces for writers is a positive. Some excellent books are coming online that might not have made it past the gatekeepers in the old publishing world.  This brings a crazy surplus of junk, too, but that’s a whole other issue.

And despite doom and gloom forecasts, small independent publishers are still alive and well in Canada. If I want to be assured of a good reading pick, I check out my favourite inde publishers’ new line up and am seldom disappointed.

11.  Choices:

Pen or Keyboard? Keyboard definitely. In a coffee shop, I’m one of those high-maintenance laptop users who pulls out the wireless mouse and huge portable keyboard and cushy wrist rest.

Tent or Trailer? Tent trailer.  I love the smell of canvas and all the zipping before bed, a solid floor beneath my feet and the half-aluminum door between me and the bears.

Poetry or Song? Leonard Cohen.

Theatre or Film? Film if I want to kick back and absorb. Theatre if I want to lean in and participate. I love both (but nothing coming out of Hollywood these days).

Prairie or Lake? Yellow fields and the big, open sky. Although prairie lakes are pretty cool too.

eReading or Paper?  Paper. I keep promising to buy myself an e-reader, but really, how serious can I be.

Salad or Cheese? I’ve become a bit more flexible since my tuna-salad decade, but lunch without lettuce doesn’t work for me. I throw in everything I can find, including lots of cheese.


Matilda’s Menu for The Shore Girl:

Peanut Butter on Graham Crackers

Choice of grape juice or bottomless pitcher of cool, fresh water

Wintergreen Lifesavers for dessert

(to be eaten in the dark)


Fran 2013 for CarinBorn and raised in Calgary, Fran Kimmel has worked all kinds of jobs including youth worker, career counselor, proposal writer, communications coordinator, and VP for a career consulting firm. Fran’s short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including twice in The Journey Prize Stories, and her first novel, The Shore Girl, was a 2013 Canada Reads Top Forty selection and winner of the 2013 Alberta Readers’ Choice Award.  Fran now writes and teaches in the small prairie town of Lacombe, Alberta, where she lives with her husband and overly enthusiastic Labrador retriever. www.frankimmel.com

The Shore Girl is published by NeWest Press.

(at) eleven with susan toy: island in the clouds

When I met Susan Toy through the Humber School for Writers online program some years ago, the first thing I learned about her was that she was obsessed with food and books. I’ve since learned that cats and coffee are a close third. [They may well be first…]

The other quality that made her stand out was a need/desire/talent for sharing information. I used to call her our ‘clipping service’. [For readers of a younger vintage, I’ll clarify: clipping service = google alerts with scissors and newsprint.]

We connected for all of the above reasons but also because she lived on an island in the Caribbean. And so had I for a short while. We traded some ex-pat joys and commiserations in between commiserations about our works in progress.

Her WIP eventually became Island in the Clouds, a murder mystery set on the island of Bequia, which Susan has called home for close to twenty years. It begins as all island mysteries should: with a dead body in the pool playing havoc with the pH balance. Toy writes with tongue-firmly-in-cheek, a pull no punches style that shows island life from an ex-pat perspective not afraid to laugh at itself while wringing its hands at the tribulations of island bureaucracy, customs and general shenanigans. The sounds, scents and sights of island life are always just there, not too far in the background. Ice-clinking is big here…

13456503Her protagonist, like so many ex-pats, is running away from a bad deal back home, but no one asks questions on Bequia; this is part of its charm. Days are made up of food and drink and gossip and oh yeah!  the need to make a living. But don’t be fooled by the palm trees and laissez faire vibe, there’s also a lot of nastiness going on and duplicitous friendships and, like any small town, everyone knows everyone else’s business, even if they don’t always talk about it. A lot of smiling through one’s teeth. Add island politics—and this is no small thing—and the result: when a murder is committed, the question is not so much who did it  but who’s willing to admit who did it. Everyone’s scratching someone else’s back.

If you’ve ever lived on an island, you’ll smile and nod your way through the familiar. If you haven’t, but think you’d like to, it’s a good eye-opener. And if you read it while on an island, even better. The mystery element is but a bonus in my view. For me, it’s all about the place.

As always, in my (at) eleven series, the Q&A is followed by a menu chosen by me of a meal the book most inspires. Or, put another way, the perfect nosh while reading, because food and books just go together…

“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

And now, may I introduce… Susan Toy, island reporter, on-line pal and oh-so-generous clipping service…


1.   What literary character did you most identify with as a child, or want to become?

ST—It’s a toss-up between Harry the Dirty Dog and Curious George.

2.   At age fifteen, what were you reading?

ST—Everything I could get my hands on from the library about Down Syndrome, because the daughter of a family friend who played with my younger sister and me when they came to visit had me intrigued. I thought I might like to work with Down Syndrome children when I grew up. Then, that summer at the cottage, I read through an enormous stack of Harlequin romances with a babysitter the same age as me who had been hired to look after the neighbour’s children. I know … weird. I didn’t really discover real literature until after that year.

3.   Do you find there are recurring themes in your work, generally, that surprise you?

ST—The main issue that comes up, and this is mainly in my short stories, is of being trapped in a situation and not being able to get out of it. Reconciliation is another.

4.   What is a favourite passage from any book, and why…

ST—Finally! Someone has asked me this question, and now I can tell everyone about this wonderful passage from Ivan Doig’s Dancing at the Rascal Fair:

“There in the gap, Herbert whoaed the horses.

What had halted him, and us, was a change of earth as abrupt as waking in the snow had been.

Ahead was where the planet greatened.

To the west now, the entire horizon was a sky-marching procession of mountains, suddenly much nearer and clearer than they were before we entered our morning’s maze of tilted hills. Peaks, cliffs, canyons, cite anything high or mighty and there it was up on that rough west brink of the world. Mountains with snow summits, mountains with jagged blue-grey faces. Mountains that were free-standing and separate as blades from the hundred crags around them; mountains that went among other mountains as flat palisades of stone miles long, like guardian reefs amid wild waves. The Rocky Mountains, simply and rightly named. Their double magnitude here startled and stunned a person, at least this one—how deep into the sky their motionless tumult reached, how far these Rockies columned across the earth.”

This is one of the best descriptive passages I’ve ever read, because Doig put the exact words to my feelings the very first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, when I moved to Calgary in 1978. This passage still causes goosebumps.

5.   What is the writer’s role in society?

ST—I attended a seminar led by Aritha van Herk in which she said that the writer translates or interprets for the reader.  That’s the way I think of writers—we are translators and interpreters of experience.

6.   Island in the Clouds  begins with a wonderfully candid description of, and introduction to, the ‘character’ of contemporary Bequia via the book’s narrator. In this way, we meet the island before we meet our protagonist. How important was ‘place’ to you in writing this story? And the accuracy of place… versus a fictitious island, for example.

ST—Place was the most important aspect of this novel. It was suggested by early readers that the setting be fictitious, because I was perhaps a little too accurate—and honest—about the island. But I knew the greatest appeal of this story was that it was about Bequia, so I never considered telling the story any other way.

7.   Some elements of island life, especially local politics, are not always shown in the best light. Islands are small places… how was the book received by locals?

ST—I’ve received mixed reviews, but mainly positive comments, mostly from foreign tourists and ex-pats who say that I’ve nailed the place and what goes on here. I believe I portrayed the general local population in a generally favourable light. I know a few (very few) local people have read the book, but no one has criticized me for what I’ve written. I was told that one foreigner thought I had been too harsh in my depiction of the police – until she was robbed and had to deal with them herself. Then she said I had not been harsh enough. (I gave a signed copy to one of the gardeners who works for Dennis, and he said, “Sue, I will cherish this for the rest of my life!” That choked me up!)

8.   What brought you to Bequia?

ST—We first came to Bequia as tourists in 1989 after a customer at the Calgary bookstore where I was working suggested it as a possibly vacation spot. We were hooked from that very first time, kept coming back every year, and before we knew it we bought land, built a house, and moved here permanently in 1996.

9.   Any challenges/differences writing a male protagonist?

ST—No. Geoff’s was the first voice that came to me when I began writing this novel and that seemed quite natural for the story I wanted to tell. The second novel in the series is about a woman, and I really don’t notice that much difference writing in her voice from writing in the voice of a man in the first novel.

10.  Your background is almost entirely industry-related so you were not unfamiliar with the process of editing, publishing and marketing. You also developed your own imprint and chose the self pub route.  I’d like to think you knew the ropes so well there were no surprises…[ but I’m guessing there were surprises]. Would you share a few?

ST—No real surprises as far as publishing, editing and marketing were concerned. In fact, I discovered that I enjoyed the publishing end of the business so much that I set up a new imprint, IslandShorts, and am now ePublishing short fiction, poetry and novellas by other authors. I will likely only ePublish from now on, with a limited edition print run to pre-sell, so I won’t be stuck with unsold stock, as I still am with the first novel.

I have to say though that the biggest surprise of all was how little support I received from colleagues in the business. NO ONE came forward to say, Here, let me help you promote and sell your book like you’ve done for me. All the promotion ideas were my own; all the attempts to get publicity were my own; trying to get distribution in bookstores and setting up events were as a result of my own efforts. That was extremely disappointing, especially as I had been promoting and assisting so many other authors all along (and still do), and numbered many authors, booksellers and librarians among my personal friends. The reason I didn’t receive equal support was clear to me in hindsight—I’d gone the self-publishing route, and there’s still a lot of prejudice about self-published books and their quality … even though everyone knew I’d done a very professional job on this book. Other self-published authors I met along the way have supported me, but not the traditionally published authors. So that was the biggest surprise of all, and I’ve kept quiet about it until now, but since you’ve asked … A big disappointment for me.

11. Choices:

Vanilla or Chocolate? Chocolate

Ocean or lake? Both. I’m a swimmer.

Atwood or Munro? Ummm … Neither. Joan Barfoot

Pen or keyboard? Keyboard

Poetry or song? Song, because I have a musical background, but I do prefer the poet songwriters, like Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon

Mango or papaya? Banana

eBook or Paper? eBook


Matilda’s Suggested Menu for Island in the Clouds:

Turtle soup, goat stew, tropical fruit salad and anything in a glass with ice.

Lots of ice.

And don’t be shy with the anything.


Susan M. Toy has been a bookseller, award-winning publishers’ sales rep, author impresario and publishing consultant. She has recently begun ePublishing short fiction, long-form creative author picnonfiction, and poetry under the imprint IslandShorts. Her eBook, That Last Summer, a novella set in Ontario cottage country in 1965, has just been released. She divides her time between Canada and the Caribbean island of Bequia and blogs at Island Editions.