Saturday, March 19, 2011

Keep Talking!

Today a very irritating review of my novel claimed that I believe all children should be raised by their biological parents.
Considering that I was raised by two people who were in no way biologically related to me, I can say I wholeheartedly believe no such thing.
Here's what I do believe: children long for their parents, and in their absence, create fantasies of belonging and identity and perfect love. It’s the same kind of longing that happens when the person you're in love with suddenly dumps you. You're sure there has been some mistake. You hope against all odds and fervent declarations to the contrary that the person will come back and want you and love you again. But your longing doesn't mean the relationship was working or right or good for you. In the same way, a child's longing for her biological parents doesn't mean those parents should be or could be raising her.
One of my characters is adopted. His adoptive parents clearly love him and are very good caregivers. What derails him is not the fact of his adoption, but how this fact has been hidden from him, and how, when he finds out at age 14, his adoptive parents are utterly unable to discuss the matter with him. This part of the novel is set in the 1950s, when adoption was a matter of secrecy. It was a matter of shame for the mother who had “got into trouble,” and a matter of dark speculation for gossipy neighbours who nodded knowingly at each other and muttered about what was bred in the bone.  My character senses this, and in the silence, he imagines the worst. He doesn’t turn out the way he does simply because he was raised by two people who have no genetic connection to him.
The parents in my novel lack balance: the ones who effortlessly pour out their love and physical affection are poor providers, while the competent providers can’t say “I love you and I'm glad I have you.”  Some parents are unreliable and missing in action; others are overly rigid and all-too-present. If only they could be blended into one perfect parent! Or, more realistically,  since they're all part of the same family, if only they would stay in touch and keep talking, they could make up for each other's shortcomings.
Every Time We Say Goodbye is not about how all biological parents should raise their own children, but how the deep imperfections and imbalances in families can be overcome if everyone stays connected and keeps talking.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Should Writers Read Reviews of their Work?

At a reading in early March, Timothy Taylor (The Blue Light Project) was telling me about Mavis Gallant’s practice of never reading reviews of her own work. Her argument, it seems, was that if you are going to put stock in reviews and allow yourself to be elated by the positive ones, you have to also take to heart the negative ones. The thing to do is not read any.
Easier said than done, especially in the Google Age.  
But negative and positive aren't the same as good and bad. Bad: the Foamy Piece (works itself into a lather of praise without really considering the text). Also bad: the Review Formerly Known as Plot Summary. Good: the judicious, thoughtful, well-written critique, whether or not you agree with it.
Still, it’s not easy to read a negative review of your work. What if it clobbers you over the head? Knocks the pen out of your hand and pokes you in the eye with it? It's hard to write with a pen in your eye.

An editor suggested reading only reviews selected by my publicist, but added, glumly, that some helpful friend or family member would be sure to draw my attention to any negative review I missed.  Another friend suggested reading every review and posting them all to Facebook.
I came home thinking about praise and criticism and the Buddhist practice of equanimity. What good does Buddhist practice do if you don’t actually...practice it? So I decided to ride the waves: read all reviews and attempt equanimity.
 Last week, a mixed review of Every Time We Say Goodbye appeared in the National Post: .

Following my "Ride the Waves" policy, I immediately posted it on Facebook. Within three minutes, a colleague began to read the negative lines out loud to me.  When I said the review was very well-written and balanced (i.e. the reviewer had also praised the book), my helpful colleague informed me of a study showing how, when bad news is sugar-coated with good news, people miss the bad news. 
It was a good moment to practice equanimity.  And I'm sure there are plenty more opportunities ahead. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

20 Questions by Knopf Canada, 20 Answers by Me

20 Writerly Questions ( from )

1. How would you summarize your new book in one sentence?
Members of the Turner family in Sault Ste. Marie manage to connect to each other through three generations of secrets, silences and disappearing acts.

2. How long did it take you to write this book?

It was written in fits and starts (more fits than starts) over eight years.

3. How did you choose your characters’ names?

I googled popular names by decade, looking for ones that sounded like my characters. In the beginning, everyone’s name started with a D, which made all my early readers crazy.

4. How many drafts did you go through?

I completely rewrote two sections at least twice, but because all writing feels like rewriting to me, I don’t have a clear sense of distinct drafts, just countless changes.

5. Who was the first person to read your manuscript?

My dearest friend Susan Terrill.

6. If your book were to become a movie, who would you like to see star in it?

The entire cast of Mad Men. (I’d write extra parts for them!)

7. What’s your favourite city in the world?


8. Did you always want to be a writer?

Yes, from around grade 5, when I read Harriet the Spy.

9. What was your very first story about? When did you write it?

My earliest stories were for kindergarten Show and Tell. They featured the daring exploits of my brother Jason (one day he ate a brick, another day a dress.) I may have neglected to mention that they were works of fiction.

10. What was your favourite book as a kid?

Harriet the Spy and The World’s Best Fairy Tales.

11. If you could be any character from any book, who would you be?
Smilla from Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

12. If there was one book you wish you had written what would it be?

I wish I had the brain that wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude.

13. If you could talk to any writer living or dead who would it be, and what would you ask?

I’d like to ask the geniuses in the Writers’ Room of The Simpsons to marry me. “John? Al? George? Anyone?” 

14. How do you organize your library?

By genre: Non-fiction, poetry, favourite novels, Bhutan.

15. What’s on your nightstand right now?

Buddhism Without Beliefs (which is always on my nightstand) and The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

16. Where is your favorite place to write?

Near an open window, in the utter absence of leaf-blowers and lawn mowers.

17. Do you have any writing rituals?

I go through the four stages of writing: procrastination, bargaining, pseudo-writing (“Making lists: 13 minutes. Researching cocktails from 1926: 28 minutes”), acceptance.

18. When do you write best, morning or night?

19. What is the best gift someone could give a writer?
The Writer’s Ultimate Gift Basket would contain books, coupons for a maid service, good quality coffee, and sincere high praise.

20. What is the best advice someone could give a writer?
“Use a pencil.” I got this advice from Nino Ricci when I said I was having trouble with plot. His suggestion to write early drafts in longhand helped me to really think about the shape of the story (instead of merely polishing the sentences I already had).