today’s colour

Yellow-square

I haven’t posted any Today’s Colour for a while. Just haven’t been seeing things that way recently, but the other day, walking downtown for some breakfast, I notice freshly painted yellow lines in a parking lot. And in between those lines, a bright yellow car.

I take a picture but without a chip as it turns out. And so there’s no proof of anything.

Not of the lines or the car or the bright yellow hydrant nearby. Not even the mysterious metal pole next to it, in exactly the same shade.

Also no picture of the large yellow plastic bin on the porch of what used to be the town’s main library—a lovely Carnegie one—which is now home to a legal firm. Maybe the box is where you deposit gratuities. Or bribes. Or suggestions, delicately, or not so delicately, phrased.

There is no picture of the bag of salt resting in the doorway of a convenience store.

Today’s colour comes, instead, with a story. The Story of Yellow. Which begins in my bedroom when I was about seven or eight years old. Maybe I was four or five. Young enough anyway not to know what my favourite colour was when my dad suddenly appeared at my door hollering What’s your favourite colour??

Um….. um….

Welll???  (veins beginning to pop in his neck)

Yellow? (I have no idea why I said yellow.)

Turns out he was on his way to Canadian Tire.

The next thing I remember is my entire bedroom—four walls AND the ceiling—painted lemon yellow.

After that I was given yellow sweaters as gifts. A yellow sippy cup (so I guess I was younger than eight; we can only hope…), yellow toothbrush, hairbrush, bath towel, bathing suit. My first pair of jeans were yellow.

I grew up hating that colour. When I left home I turned my back on it, refused to be the yellow piece in a board game.

Then one day I came home to visit my mum and dad and my room had been wallpapered with pink and red roses. The ceiling was white. It was hideous and I loved it.

On a weekend in nineteen ninety something I painted the kitchen of my house yellow. The irony of this didn’t even register. The yellow tablecloth my mother had given me years ago, which I’d never used, I suddenly loved. I bought yellow tea towels, yellow bowls. I painted all the bedrooms various shades of pale pale jaune.

I have no idea what changed. I only know that it no longer bothers me to be the yellow piece in a board game.

Though if I had the choice, I’d probably pick orange.

Yellow-square

Pick a colour, any colour…

 

(at)eleven with teri vlassopoulos — bats or swallows

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

The idea behind the ‘(at)eleven’ Q&A series was to allow me to highlight books I like, written by people I know (because I am so lucky to know some lovely people who write), without having to worry about bias. Having said that, I don’t really know Teri Vlassopoulos, that is, we’ve never met in person although we’ve ‘known’ each other since taking the on-line Humber School for Writers mentorship program circa 2006, at which time a sort of group emerged.  Amazingly, the group (we keep threatening to name ourselves) is more or less intact and continues to inform, critique, support, and celebrate one another’s achievements—of which there have been a delightfully surprising number—not the least of which was the recent short-listing of Bats or Swallows for both the ReLit Award and the Danuta Gleed Award.

The other reason was to connect food to books. (I do believe there is a connection.)

A funny thing about The Group is how many of us are foodies. (Although, given that food is one of the world’s great tools of procrastination, I suppose it’s a natural love interest for writers.) In any case it ties in well with the small but important side theme, i.e. what food an indvidual book inspires.

My answer to the all-important question: what does Bats or Swallows make me want to eat?… follows the Q&A.

~

1.  Okay. My favourite question first: what literary character did you identify with as a child?

TV:  The first character that springs to mind is Leigh Botts from Dear Mr. Henshaw, even if our lives were vastly different. I almost feel embarrassed for identifying with a character that was, in many ways, sad when my childhood was not, but I guess as an only child there was a loneliness to him that I understood. And I liked writing fan letters too. Let’s also say Ramona Quimby and her cat-eared Q’s. (Beverly Cleary: she knew what she was doing.)

2. What were you reading at fifteen?

TV:  Girl by Blake Nelson, which I discovered when Sassy magazine published a few excerpts. Andrea Marr is a teenager in Portland who stumbles onto the local rock scene, wears a fish-printed dress, gets obsessed with rock star boys and has confusing and intense friendships. It was a bible of sorts.

3. What about themes… are there often recurring themes in your work that surprise you?

TV:  The surprise comes in retrospect when I read what I’ve written and realize that I’ve been working through an issue that I didn’t necessarily admit to myself was something I needed to work through.

4. Describe your work space, what’s on your desk?

TV:  Our apartment is tiny and I don’t have a proper desk, so I do the bulk of my writing on the kitchen table. I’m sure one day I’ll get sick of this arrangement, but in themeantime I prefer it. What’s on my desk depends on the day. Right now there’s a vase with a Christmas branch, my husband’s camera, a glass of water and a lone mechanical pencil. Soon: dinner.

5. What are your biggest distractions while writing: internet, chocolate cravings, a sudden need to learn another language, rain…? How do you deal with them?

TV:  THE INTERNET, UGH! I deal with it by telling myself that my writing time is precious and that I shouldn’t squander it. It sometimes works.

6. What’s the best advice you received (writing related or not) that you’d like to pass on?

TV:  I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg years ago and her comparison of writing to running was life-changing. “Like running,” she says, “the more you do it, the better you get at it.” It reframed the way I thought of the act of writing: an exercise that requires stamina and practice. This advice still reverberates with me, especially when I haven’t written for awhile and realize that I’ve gotten rusty.

7. The stories in Bats or Swallows explore relationships with family, friends, partners, for the most part from the perspective of young women. ‘My Son the Magician’ stands out for its POV of a mature single mother with an adult son. You nail the voice perfectly, BTW, but I’m curious – how did this one come to you?

TV:  Thank you! It was one of the last stories I wrote for the book and I was getting sick of young woman narrators, to be honest. I do a lot of thinking about my writing during my commute to and from work. The first sentence of that story came to me while I was waiting for the metro – I’m not sure why (I guess I was thinking about male strippers?), and once I had the hook, the rest of the story kind of poured forth.

8. There’s a sense of movement throughout the book. People physically moving from one place to another, from one person to another, distance, travel, road trips, moving on. Were you aware of this as you wrote or was it one of those things that become apparent only afterwards?

TV:  I write about things I want to read about, and travel—not necessarily big travel, but small voyages, physical and mental—is one of those things, so I was conscious about it at the time.

9. If you had to spend a long weekend with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?

TV:  Zoe from ‘Swimming Lessons’. We’d walk around Montreal and I’d show her my favourite places and try to introduce her to better friends. I’ve actually chosen to spend more than a long weekend with her because she’s now one of the main characters in the novel I’m working on.

10. Why short fiction?

TV:  Because I like reading short fiction; because it gives me flexibility to experiment with voice and style; because writing short fiction is conducive to a full-time job schedule; because I didn’t really think about it when I first started writing, it was just what I did.

11. Choices:

Breakfast or Lunch?  Breakfast! My love of breakfast is well documented (http://www.bibliographic.net/2011/02/26/scrapbook-4-in-praise-of-breakfast/).

Pen or Keyboard?  Keyboard.

Theatre or Film?  Film.

Dylan (Bob) or Dylan (Thomas)?  Bob.

Pasta or Pizza?  Pasta, homemade.

Bicycle or Canoe?  I have an irrational phobia of bikes and I can count the number of times I’ve canoed on my hands. I like walking.

Twitter or FB?  Twitter, as proven by @terki.

Coffee or Tea?  Coffee, although only on weekends because it makes me kind of crazy and this is not conducive to my day job.

Mountain or Ocean?  Ocean.

Party or Solitude?  Solitude.

Pie or Cake? — and *both* isn’t a choice ;)  CAKE! (With an extra slice for you for asking me such great questions. Thanks for the interview, Carin!)

Okay, Bats or Swallows. I’ve read you. Now what to eat??

My pick: gourmet burger made of  the best pasture-raised, sunshine-in-its-face-all-its-livelong-life, happy beef.
And a side of fries— travellin’ food.

~

Teri Vlassopoulos is a Montreal-based writer who’s first collection of short stories, Bats or Swallows (Invisible Publishing), was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best first collection of short fiction and the ReLit Award. She is currently working on a novel. Find her on-line at http://bibliographic.net
~
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted January, 2012.

(at)eleven with steven mayoff — fatted calf blues

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

From the start, food has featured large in my friendship with Steven Mayoff. We met at the inaugural Seawords workshop series on PEI, in 2009. A brilliant experience and a magical place where words and the business of words were the daily focus from early morning til night.

But it’s the food I remember most.

Oysters right off the boat, lobster, patios with beautiful watery views, roadside chip vans selling fresh-from-the-red-dirt spuds, mussels ten thousand ways, a tiny mom and pop diner on a Charlottetown side street that made the kind of perfect toast I haven’t eaten since I was a kid, and the giant bowl of cioppino Steve and I shared at one exceptional place he kept suggesting I try: The Dunes (officially now one of the top ten places I’ve ever eaten; and I’ve eaten a lot).

Food continues to find its way into most of our e-conversations, if only as a closing comment—and due to Steve’s powers of description, I can sometimes almost smell what his foodie-extraordinaire wife, Thelma, is fixing for dinner (especially hard on the days I’m having sauerkraut).

Despite the title, Fatted Calf Blues is not about food. But in my world, all good books inspire culinary thoughts at some level.

The meal inspired by Fatted Calf Blues can be found at the end of the Q&A.

~

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

SM:  As a kid the only literary characters I knew came from TV and movies, such as The Wizard of Oz or Winnie the Pooh. I actually walked around with a posse of imaginary cartoon friends (Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, etc.) like we were some kind of street gang. They were my confidants.

I didn’t do very much reading, although I do remember picture books about mythology and dinosaurs. And I remember being fascinated by book spines on our shelf and strange titles like Tropic Of Cancer and Nine Hours To Rama and unpronounceable author names like Kazantzakis. There was also a book about the Holocaust that had gruesome photos of shrunken heads and lampshades made of human skin. That certainly caught my attention.

The first books I remember actually reading were The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Catcher In the Rye in high school. Of those two, I’d say I identified more with Holden Caulfield: the loner, the outsider, someone with a rich interior life. Duddy was more of a go-getter, which is not how I saw myself, although the influence of Richler’s book is still with me. Salinger influenced me more with his short stories.

2.  Can you recall your earliest poem, story or finger-paint-illustrated trilogy?

SM: I remember making a finger painting when I was probably around 5 or 6 years old and having my sister, who was around 19, ask me what it was called. I’m pretty sure I said something like “Snakes of Love.” I knew it was a grown-up thing to say and my sister was both amused and shocked.

I drew a lot as a kid, mostly super heroes and later on rock bands. I didn’t start writing poems until my last year of high school. I had three published in the school literary journal. One was a description of a pair of construction boots “looking at the world through unlaced eye-holes” or something like that. Another was some kind of meditation on the contradictions of labels while trying to figure out my identity. I can’t remember the third. I was also into writing song lyrics as a natural outlet for being a frustrated musician. I didn’t attempt a short story until my late twenties.

3.  Are there recurring themes in your writing that surprise you?

SM: I’m surprised when any kind of recurring theme arises, because I don’t think that way. I’m not even sure what the recurring themes are. Alienation, I guess. Ummm…good hygiene? Seriously, I do notice things in retrospect that, more often than not, don’t surprise me. But I am a great believer in what Wayson Choy said: “I know I am a writer because until I’m writing I don’t know what I know,”

4.  Do you work to a routine, a schedule, a daily word count?

SM: The only real routine I work to is the urgency in my head that I have to get something done. How that happens is anyone’s guess. There’s no particular schedule I follow, except that I try to write every day, usually in the afternoon or evening. The idea of a daily word count makes me want to blow my brains out. I know the professional thing is to see writing as a job, but I’ve always resisted that. I worked at various jobs for most of my adult life, so I’m happy not to have one now. In one way I kind of envy writers who say they wake up and bang out so many pages or words first thing in the morning. Waking up is a long process for me.

5.  What is a favourite passage from any book?

SM: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” from Slaughterhouse Five. It’s a simple sentence (I suppose I should say “deceptively simple”) that leaves a lot to the imagination. It could be describing the most liberating experience or the most horrifying nightmare. Surprising how often those two things go hand in hand.

I’d have to say that sentence (as well as the book and Vonnegut in general) really influenced my writing. The whole idea of coming unstuck in time is a kind of madness where one discovers that linear time as we understand it doesn’t exist and everything – past, present and future – is happening all at once. That’s what fiction and the writing process is for me: a kind of madness where truth reveals itself, but not in any coherent way, until I begin writing and trying to make some kind of sense of it. I learn things about my characters and the situations they are in (and also about myself and what is important to me) as I slowly organize the events and give shape to the story.

6.  What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?

SM: When I was in high school I asked an English teacher what I needed to do to become a writer. He looked down at me soberly (he was a giant of a man with very blue eyes) and said: “You have to suffer.” That scared the crap out of me and maybe even deterred me a little, because I didn’t know what “suffering” entailed. I thought of that when I published my first book, Fatted Calf Blues, (I even thanked that teacher in the acknowledgements). In retrospect, I like to think he was really telling me to go live my life so that I’d have some experience to enrich my writing. I appreciate the fact that maybe he was just treating me like an adult and giving me the real information, thinking it would either scare me off or inspire me. And it did both.

7.  The opening story, The Most Important Man, sets the tone of ‘displacement’ that runs through the collection, personal discomfort, shown through discomfort with the physical space the characters occupy. This leads me back to the theme question: was this intentional, something you were exploring, the idea of ‘not fitting’… or did you recognize the thread only after the stories were written?

SM: To be honest, I didn’t realize there was a thread until you just mentioned it. While promoting FCB I was asked what the connecting idea of the stories was and I usually tried to bluff my way through and say all the characters were searching for some notion of home. “Displacement” is probably a better answer. Anyway, these things only become evident after the fact. I never or rarely think about them beforehand. But again, in retrospect, the themes of displacement and looking for a home are very personal for me, so it only seems natural that they would creep into my writing. I’m obviously attracted to those kinds of stories, so I have no doubt an unconscious part of my creative process preplans some sort of exploration of those themes.

8.   A couple of the pieces are written in either the voice or POV of a woman; what were the challenges with that, if any?

SM: I can’t think of any real challenges. I invest myself in my characters and try to be a kind of witness to their lives. I never think to myself something like: “what would a woman do here?” because I’m looking for the humanity in the character, although I do believe there are specific differences in the attitudes of men and women. Men might have more difficulty expressing themselves and women might be more open about their feelings, but people as a whole don’t voluntarily give out too much information without some prodding. So discovering any character’s voice or POV entails me searching for the right buttons to push.

9.  If the title story were made into a film, who would you like to see play Mavis Jean? (Any other casting ideas?)

SM: That’s a very timely question as I have just returned from the Screenwriters’ Bootcamp that happens every year in Charlottetown and is sponsored by the Island Media Arts Cooperative (it’s only open to Atlantic Canadian writers). I was in an adaptation workshop with renowned story editor, Ken Chubb (he was involved with the Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps and the CBC mini-series Dragon Boys). I’m trying to adapt the story Fatted Calf Blues into a screenplay and it has been a long process. After this workshop, I now find myself back at square one, although I have a better idea of how to go about it.

Mavis Jean: Hilary Swank, Tara Spencer-Nairn (also, Nancy Roberts, although she is older, would be interesting)

Milo: Michael Cera, Elijah Wood

Two-Gun Billy: Chris Cooper, Nicholas Campbell

Vesta:  I used to think Jackie Burroughs was pefect, but she’s passed away, so my alternative would be Toronto actor, Barbara Gordon. Or even Sissy Spacek.

10. Why short fiction?

SM: It has the expansiveness of prose, but matched with the precision of poetry. It is a kind of postcard portrait that allows you to glimpse life beyond its edges. Every short story should be a kind of map you might find in a mall that says: You Are Here.

11. Choices:

Coffee or tea?  Coffee. I do like a nice caffeine buzz.

Lyrics or prose?  Lyrics. My fantasy job is to be a lyricist in a rock band like Keith Reid in Procol Harum or Pete Sinfield in King Crimson. (I bet you will have to Google these). The next novel I want to write will have a lyricist as its narrator and a series of song lyrics to complement the unfolding story.

Ocean or river?  River. I live right by one and I think a river has more metaphorical mojo.

Pen or keyboard?  Keyboard. I find it more playful. I like tapping things. Also, it placates the frustrated musician in me. I’m the Elton John of hunt-&-peck.

Kundera or Beckett?  Kundera. His quote: “The present moment is unlike the memory of it.  Remembering is not the negative of forgetting.  Remembering is a form of forgetting.” from his book of connected essays, Testaments Betrayed, helped me get a handle on my novel manuscript, Blessing and Song (which I’m currently shopping around).

Scrambled or Poached?  Poached. On toast. I have it rarely, so it’s a treat.

Editor’s Note: Food and Drink inspired by Fatted Calf Blues

Beer Steamed Mussels (aka moules) and frites with an icy cold selection from

The Gahan House Brewery

~

Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and now makes his home on
PEI. His fiction and poetry have appeared in magazines across Canada and the
US, as well as in Ireland, Algeria and France. His story collection, Fatted
Calf Blues, won a 2010 PEI Book Award, was shortlisted for a 2010 ReLit
Award and was a Finalist for the (Maritime) 2011 CBC
Cross-Country Bookshelf.

His web site is www.stevenmayoff.ca

From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in April, 2011.