“The seventeen stories in Elaine McCluskey’s latest collection, Rafael Has Pretty Eyes, follow characters who have reached a four-way stop in life; some are deciding whether to follow the signs or defy them; others find a sinkhole forming beneath their feet.Set in the Maritimes but transcending regional boundaries, McCluskey’s stories are experimental, sometimes provocative, and often about those living on the margins. Smart, compassionate and unsparing, Rafael Has Pretty Eyes explores the absurdity and interconnectedness of a life adrift.“
Purchase your own copy, directly from the publisher or your local independent book shop.
On Sunday November 13 at 5:00pm EST, Margaret Nowaczyk returns to Junction Returns with her latest book, A Memoir of Genetics, Mental Health and Writing, Chasing Zebras from Wolsak and Wynn.
“From leaving Communist Poland to enduring the demands of medical school, through living with a long undiagnosed mental illness to discovering the fascinating field of genetics, plunging into the pressures of prenatal diagnosis and finally finding the tools of writing and of narrative medicine, Margaret shares a journey that is both inspiring and harrowing. This is a story of constant effort, of growth, of tragedy and of triumph, and most of all, of the importance of openness. In the end, Dr. Nowaczyk invites us all to see that “life is precious and fragile and wondrous and full of mistakes.” And to keep trying.”
Register on EventBrite. PWYC. Tickets are $0-20 and all proceeds to the author. You could win your own copy from the publisher.
“A boy and girl promise to meet at midnight on a bench halfway between their apartments, and run away together, only the boy never comes. Twenty years later in Montreal, she meets someone who reminds her of the boy and wonders whether it could really be him. A brilliant anti-war story that wakes the reader in hope and love, and helps understand just how useless, meaningless and absurd war really is.”
“In the early 1990’s, Caitlin Maharg, grieving the loss of her parents, leaves everything she knows in Canada for Northern Ireland to pursue her love of poetry while living in a cottage by the Irish Sea. Feeling like a child again in a distant land still affected by the Troubles, she is haunted by the secrets her parents’ deaths unearthed. In her longing for emotional closeness, she befriends Andy Evans, a well-known poet with a roguish charm. Their attraction soon leads to a love affair. Flouting the paisley headscarf of respectability, she plunges into a relationship that gives her an entry to the literary world, but at a price. Filled with insights into grief, longing and creativity, The Most Cunning Heart is a novel about how a quiet heroine learns to navigate deception, love and loss.”
This is a PWYC event. Registerand you might win a copy of the book from the publisher.
The end of last season was a rush. We were all racing to the summer and the relaxing sunny days ahead. If you missed our event with Anna Dowdall on May 5, you can check out the video of our event here.
APRIL ON PARIS STREET was released by Guernica Editions in October 2021.
“In April on Paris Street, a Montreal private investigator of half-Abenaki heritage takes a case that looks like old-school damsel in-distress rescue but that then turns into something unnervingly different. The narrative weaves working class Ashley Smeeton’s personal story (trying to connect with her Abenaki relatives, the death of a grandmother she’s hardly known, an ill-considered fling with a handsome vaurien) into the story of the privileged young woman, Mirabel Saint Cyr, whose fashion mogul husband hires her.” It is a gorgeous novel that takes the reader on a journey through Montreal and Paris.
APRIL ON PARIS STREET is filled with incredibly complex and duplicitous characters. The story itself feels like background to the lively characters. It is much like an Agatha Christie novel, where you can imagine each character having a novel to themselves. You also mention the Orient Express at one point. I wonder if you’d talk about any literary or creative influences?
How can I deny the influence of Agatha Christie and why would I want to? Utterly without pretension and highly accessible, her books are genius. But my influences are probably a real mix of this and that. I love Ursula Curtiss, and my first book, After the Winter, meant to read fallaciously like mid-century romantic suspense, is a tribute to her. Then there’s Rebecca West, for the admirable subtlety of her female characterizations. Lucy Montgomery is probably partly responsible for my love of immersive setting. And if Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins can have all over the place “run on” plots, why can’t I? And, finally, there is nothing UK screenwriter Sally Wainwright has done that I haven’t wanted to imitate.
The women you write are strong and determined, even when others think they’re indecisive or weak. Creating a book filled with very different multi-dimensional women must be a challenge.
Can you talk about characterization and how, as a writer, you approach character development?
I’ve been drawn to writers whose female characterizations are considered ground-breaking or at least in some way unusual. In crime fiction, it is so easy to fall into sexist gender tropes. There is a prevalence of female victims in books by both male and female writers. I cracked a Canadian hard-boiled crime story recently, saying I’d stick with it if the first female character wasn’t a hooker. Not only was she a hooker, but she also didn’t show up until page 81. In some ways what I do is almost elementary. I try to create female characters who don’t stab each other in the back; don’t talk about men all the time; take centre stage in the book; have a wide range of human preoccupations, and whose behaviour can be very unexpected. In crime fiction, this latter element is part of how a writer can misdirect the reader. You hit the nail on the head in your question, and the depths and strengths of women in my books are part of the reveal. My three novel endings one way or another are meant to be feminist repliques to commercial crime fiction with its voyeuristic female victims and typical endings.
There are several doubles in the novel. Some we cannot mention, but near the beginning of the novel, there are two women named Mira, thugs described only as Thug One and Thug Two and other paired characters who work together to bring the story to the page. Can you talk about this in APRIL ON PARIS STREET, and how doubles work to amplify the tension and conflict in the writing?
A probing question. I’m not sure I can answer it fully. I have had a lifelong obsession with doubles. Maybe I am a little double myself, one way or another? But…having dumped all the doubles I could think of, related to form, plot, setting and character, into April on Paris Street, I guess I can stand back and say, almost as a reader, that they add to the uncanny feeling of the story, of things not being ever quite what they seem. Maybe almost philosophical, as if I want to portray an uncertain world of ramifying and duplicating realities, even of eternal returns. However, I hope I’m not as nuts as Nietzsche, although everybody should be a little bit crazy once in a while.
Ashley is a working Private Investigator, and the Saint Cyr case is not her only job. In many novels with a PI as the lead character, we don’t get to see other cases they are working on. I couldn’t help but wonder if the ones in APRIL may appear again in a future novel. Can you talk about your choice to include such detail with the other cases?
It was part of my need to embroider motifs of doubleness wherever I could. The other cases are like mini plots, reflecting on and modifying the main plot and the theme, ie, betrayal where you least expect it. The neighbour’s wrong un boyfriend isn’t such a wrong un. The overworked pediatrician’s husband on the other hand exemplifies the double life. Etcetera. My second book, The Au Pair, explores a theme of tragic plagiarism and I also work in snippets of another plagiarism case, with comic overtones, to foreshadow the direction of my main plot. I do this type of thing almost automatically. I’m like a bower bird sorting my objects and colours, only they are themes and variations on themes. I could easily use these in future books! April on Paris Street ends with Dominique of the bright green eyes gone missing in the mysterious east (end.) Maybe Ashley will be hired to look for her.
You do such a fine job of describing in vivid sensual details the surroundings in the novel: the cold, the wind, the darkness. How does physical space play a role in your storytelling?
Thank you for your kind words. The “place” of the story is the world I need to wander around in as I write. Again, it’s not a deliberate choice as much as a natural predilection. Even as a kid, I always preferred books that built a very complete world, in both its natural and human-made aspects. The interplay between setting and character fascinates me, as it is subtler than the tango between character and plot and captures the impalpable via mood. In crime fiction in particular, setting’s menacing and unknown aspects are a gorgeously ambiguous interactive frame for the unfolding story. Place, in my estimation, is what contributes magic to stories.
Paris and the Parisian Carnival really come alive in the book. Have you spent time there? Have you gone to Carnival? Have you been to a masquerade party? I’d love details on the research.
I was raised in a French-Canadian community and participated in many local Carnavals as I was growing up. I once won a prize as a Pierrette on skates. I love Paris, who doesn’t, and have spent much time there, in modest hotels in sketchy parts of the city. And I did spend five days in Paris, just researching Carnaval. I went to the research centre of the Archives Nationales de Paris, the archives of Le Figaro, a Musée Carnavalet special exhibit, and there were relevant collections at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and the Musée Bourdelle too.
Ashley meets her father’s family for the first time in APRIL ON PARIS STREET and it is a complex relationship, given she didn’t grow up with Abenaki traditions and culture. How much will you dive into this with her if she appears in the next novel?
I don’t know! But probably quite a bit if she is to feature in a future book. However, to keep things fresh, I might invent a mysterious and just discovered half-sister, who dies in problematic circumstances perhaps. Just to add a wrinkle. That, by the way, is a contrivance of my first book, After the Winter. No matter how detailed my characterization, I like to place my rounded characters adjacent to fairy tale and fable plot elements. I’ll never write social issue novels, although I adored reading them when I was younger.
From Guernica Editions: Anna Dowdall was born in Montreal and recently moved back there, which surprised no one but her. She’s been a reporter, a college lecturer and a horticultural advisor, as well as other things best forgotten. Her well-received domestic mysteries, After the Winter and The Au Pair, feature evocative settings and uninhibited female revenge, with a seasoning of moral ambiguity and noir. She reads obscure fiction in English and French and thinks Quebec is an underrecognized mise en scène for mystery and domestic suspense.
We are so excited to share the news that Sarah Campbell is joining Junction Reads. The best news? She will be our Social Media Coordinator and I cannot be more thrilled to have her join the team! Look out for more posts with recommended reads, reading events and other bookish things.
Sarah Campbellis a writer, a Roots Of Empathy Instructor and a lover of all things pop culture. When she isn’t reading she also writes book reviews for 49th Kids (kids.49thshelf.com.) Most recently, she has been published in the Quarantine Review. She and her husband, their two sons and dog Bingo live in Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow her at Pink Fish Reads.
“Our life is March weather, savage and serene in one hour. We go forth austere, dedicated, believing in the iron links of Destiny, and will not turn on our heel to save our life: but a book, or a bust, or only the sound of a name, shoots a spark through the nerves, and we suddenly believe in will.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson
March is a month full of promise. Nature is changing. The sun shining through a window might actually mean it’s warm outside. It’s when I start thinking about my summer reading list. Here are two more books you might consider adding to your TBR pile.
March 6 at 5:00pm EST.
Home of the Floating Lilyfrom Silmy Abdullah is “set in both Canada and Bangladesh, the eight stories in Home of the Floating Lily follow the lives of everyday people as they navigate the complexities of migration, displacement, love, friendship, and familial conflict. A young woman moves to Toronto after getting married but soon discovers her husband is not who she believes him to be. A mother reconciles her heartbreak when her sons defy her expectations and choose their own paths in life. A lonely international student returns to Bangladesh and forms an unexpected bond with her domestic helper. A working-class woman, caught between her love for Bangladesh and her determination to raise her daughter in Canada, makes a life-altering decision after a dark secret from the past is revealed. In each of the stories, characters embark on difficult journeys in search of love, dignity, and a sense of belonging.” From Dundurn Press.
The Marriage of Rose Camilleri by Robert Hough. “When Rose Camilleri and Scotty Larkin meet, neither expects to spend a lifetime together, navigating a sometimes turbulent marriage and scraping through the process of raising a family. When he first enters the bakery where she works, she is a new arrival from the tiny island nation of Malta, fond of rabbit stew and Hollywood cinema. He is a thoughtful printer’s assistant recently released from juvenile detention after stealing and swiftly totalling a stranger’s car. Even after years of marriage and two children together, Rose struggles to shake the idea that perhaps she should have held out for someone as voluble and optimistic as herself. But while some marriages are weakened by trauma, Rose and Scotty’s union is strengthened by the act of survival, and they find their own kind of happiness along the way.” From Douglas & McIntyre
Register on Eventbrite. You can win a copy of the book courtesy of Douglas & McIntyre. PWYC. All proceeds to the author.
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On February 6, I sat down Lindsay Zier-Vogel to talk about her debut novel, Letters to Amelia. Published by Book*hug Press, it is part epistolary, part historical and all love! We talked about letter-writing, motherhood, and Amelia Earhart. What I felt so deeply in our conversation was love. Lindsay’s passion for letter-writing; her love of history, and her experiences as a mother are all bound up in this gorgeous novel and I hope you will all get a chance to read it.
The novel opens in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. You also have your own handbound books there and I urge people to go and see them. Can you talk about your experiences with the TFRBL and how it influenced the writing of Letters to Amelia?
I just love that library! I spent quite a bit of time there while I was doing my Masters and before I knew who the characters were in Letters to Amelia, or what the plot was, I knew I wanted it set there. I’m so grateful to John Shoesmith, the outreach librarian at the Fisher, who took me on tours of the backend of the library (deeeeeep into the sub-basement!) and answered all of my very practical questions about the realities of working in a library.
The letters between Amelia Earhart and Gene Vidal feel so real and authentic I had to look up whether they were in fact fictional. There must have been a lot of research that went into writing these letters. What inspired them? Were there other writers or biographers who were particularly influential?
I looked at a lot of Amelia’s archived and digitized letters that are housed at Purdue University to get a sense of her handwriting and the physicality of the letters. I originally hoped Amelia’s books and many articles would provide an entry into her written voice, but I found them to be quite formal and highly edited, lacking the personal quality I was looking for. Eventually, I found a collection of letters she wrote to her mother from when she was four years old until her disappearance—Letters From Amelia: An Intimate Portrait of Amelia Earhart by Jean L. Backus—and reading these letters unlocked her voice for me.
The heartbeat of the story for me is love, particularly motherlove. Amelia Earhart is this fearless, grounded, big dreamer and Grace is so afraid she won’t be able to raise a fearless dreamer. How did your experience as a mother affect/influence the story?
The story really took shape when I was very pregnant with my second child, and though I had taken many running starts, I began writing the book as it currently exists when she was a newborn. It was so helpful to be just on the other side of pregnancy to be able to write about the experience, something I couldn’t have done when I was deep inside the reality of it with my first child.
“I found a collection of letters (Amelia) wrote to her mother from when she was four years old until her disappearance…reading these letters unlocked her voice for me.”
I love when I read a novel and am introduced to characters so vivid, they could have their own novel, or short story: Patrick (a priest for 30 years); Jenna and Eric and their pregnancy dreams; Pat and Mike in Newfoundland. Do you create sketches or profiles for tertiary characters?
Patrick and Pat and Mike came very clearly, very quickly in early drafts, but it took a few passes before I really figured out Jenna and Eric’s stories. My writing group is in love with Patrick and they are petitioning for fan fiction about Patrick. I ended up cutting a lot of Patrick scenes and they’re still in mourning about it.
Grace takes an Internet dive into all the theories/conspiracies behind Amelia’s disappearance. Do you have your own theory? What are your thoughts on this obsession?
I, like Grace, prefer to focus on Amelia’s deep, rich life, rather than focusing on her disappearance. She was such a remarkable human and is so much more than her death. It’s pretty rare that someone truly disappears, which I think it what fuels the obsession with finding out THE TRUTH (all caps!), and I also think the impossibility of ever finding out what happened also fuels that often-obsessive search. My theories vacillate depending on the day. Some days I think she crashed into the ocean, some days I think she and Fred landed on Nikumaroro, though thinking of her agony is often too much for me to bear.
“People often say putting a book out into the world is like birthing a human, but for me it feels more like sending a kid out in the world—it’s so exciting and a little terrifying, but mostly just so wonderful.”
Have you written any more letters to Amelia since completing the novel?
I have! One! I wrote it the day the novel came out—on September 7, 2021. I took a picnic and the book to the lake, and sat on the edge of the water, where Amelia fell in love with flying and wrote her another letter.
At the heart of the novel is love and reading Letters to Amelia it’s all I felt. Love and a strong connection to you as its author. How did it feel putting the final touches on LTA and then seeing it in print?
Holding this book in my hands is truly a dream come true. Seeing the words (my words!) in print is surreal and still just so thrilling. As soon as it had a spine, and those beautiful end papers, it stopped being just mine, and now exists out in the world. People often say putting a book out into the world is like birthing a human, but for me it feels more like sending a kid out in the world—it’s so exciting and a little terrifying, but mostly just so wonderful.
Lindsay Zier-Vogel is a Toronto-based writer, arts educator and the creator of the internationally-acclaimed Love Lettering Project. After studying contemporary dance, she received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto. Her writing has been widely published in Canada and the U.K. Since 2001, she has been teaching creative writing workshops in schools and communities. Her hand-bound books are housed in the permanent collection at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto. As the creator of the Love Lettering Project, Lindsay has asked people all over the world to write love letters to their communities and hide them for strangers to find, spreading place-based love. Lindsay also writes children’s books. Because of The Love Lettering Project, CBC Radio has deemed Lindsay a “national treasure.” Letters to Amelia is her first book.
I sat down with Hollay Ghadery on November 7, to talk about her beautiful memoir, Fuse. It is a collection of memories expressed like short stories, that bring together Hollay’s life experiences and her sometimes raw and always honest reflections on mental illness, addiction, motherhood, family, and growing up biracial. It is truly one of the most poignant and self-reflective memoirs I’ve ever read. I was in tears at many moments while reading.
You talk about how these “truths all came tumbling in and they didn’t come in a manner that made sense” Were there any essays that didn’t make it into the book, or moments that didn’t find space in an essay?
Yes, there definitely were. Sometimes, the stories didn’t make it in because ultimately, I realized they weren’t my stories to tell. They belonged to family members or close friends. Other moments didn’t make the cut because they were not closely linked enough to my thesis—which is saying a lot because my thesis, in many ways, casts a broad net. Then there were stories that are mine but I am not yet ready to tell. Maybe I never will be. Not including them doesn’t make the stories I did share any less valid, nor does not detract from the momentum of the book overall. At least I don’t think so. I told the stories I did tell honestly. As for the stories I didn’t…well, I don’t owe anyone all of me.
The essays in FUSE are so deeply intimate, there are moments when I can feel the courage it took to bear so much pain. Did you know with each essay how deep you were going to go? Were there moments when you questioned whether you were sharing enough or not enough?
I often didn’t know until I got there. At times, I had to prod myself to go deeper—to not settle at what Adele Wiseman calls “secondhand epiphanies.” Of course, many of the experiences I discuss are common, and experienced by millions of other people, but the precise way in which each individual feels the shared experiences is unique. I wanted to tap into the current of shared experience while also exposing what makes my experience worth telling. This was tough, both in terms of craft and personal vulnerability.
“I wanted to tap into the current of shared experience while also exposing what makes my experience worth telling. This was tough, both in terms of craft and personal vulnerability.”
The book is dedicated to your family and you mention in the foreword how afraid you were readers wouldn’t see how much you love them given how honest you are about your experiences growing up. I really felt the love, but I wonder how has the experience been for you and your family?
My immediate birth family has not read the book, so there’s little to report on this front. I know they haven’t read Fuse because they would find the experience too unsettling and I can appreciate that. There’s a large part of me that’s relieved, because no matter how much love I put into the book, I know my parents in particular would feel raw. I’d feel raw having them read it too.
My husband read the book long before it was published and was supportive, and my kids are proud that I wrote a book, but don’t have any interest in reading it at the moment. The stories they are in I have read to them, and they were comfortable with their inclusion.
Members of my extended family have read the book and have been wonderful and supportive. I’m grateful for them.
Motherhood is a strong theme that runs through the book. Both your relationship with your own mother and your experiences as a mother of four. As a mother, I was so moved by the moment with Nuala in bed when you say, “It’s strange how I’m an endless comfort for them and I’ve never been one for myself.” So many of your the moments with or about your kids I think about how hard it is to be a mentally healthy role model when we’re in the midst of our own crises. Do you hope when your kids are older they will read FUSE?
I do, yes. And I think they will. I hope they will see how much they mean to me, and how much I try to get better for them. I also hope they’ll see how none of us are infallible, and it’s not only okay not to be okay, but it’s absolutely normal to not be okay.
You recently published a piece of flash in Sledgehammer, and I laughed that when you shared it, you mentioned your husband Matt is not the man in the shower. Do you feel this conflict with fiction that is also very intimate in subject matter? That with your essays being out in the world, people might think that your fiction is also truthful?
I’m absolutely certain some readers will think my fiction is based on my life. I have been delighted to have people tell me they feel like they really know Matt and I after reading the book—that they have a sense of who we are. And they probably do!
My fiction is fiction, though. Of course, there are parts from my real life that I draw on to inform some (not all) of it.
It’s more typical for people with a confluence of challenges like what you’ve experienced, to go under, and remain quiet. Whether it is the stigma, loneliness, fear of judgement or myriad other reasons. How do you remain solid while remaining so exposed? Does the vulnerability not overwhelm you?
It can be overwhelming, but what overwhelms me more is not talking about it. I’ve seen what silence can do. I’ve spent most of my life being quiet. I’m terrified of that. It almost killed me. I can handle the stigma.
“I’ve seen what silence can do. I’ve spent most of my life being quiet. I’m terrified of that. It almost killed me.”
The essays are not structured chronologically. How did the essays come to you and how did you decide the order in which they appear in the book?
The essays were triaged: which one felt the most urgent to tell (it was the title essay, Fuse, for the record), and which came later on, when things felt less desperate (Monster was the last essay I wrote, after the book was already accepted for publication).
The order was another matter. There was some moving around and earlier editors and readers helped with some of that. For me, the order reflected my trying to establish the issues first, and then explore them further as the book progressed.
I’d like to say the process of ordering the book was very intentional on my part, but it was really…a feeling. The final order of the book was done by instinct more than logic. Like with memories, how they jump around but are connected. I tried not to overthink it too much and ordered the chapters in ways that felt organic.
Hollay Ghadery is a writer of fiction and non-fiction and a writing consultant with River Street Writing. Hollay earned her BAH in English Language and Literature from Queen’s University, as well as her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Her short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and reviews have appeared in literary journals across Canada, including The Malahat Review, Grain, Understorey, The Antigonish Review, The Fiddlehead, and Room. FUSE is her first book of non-fiction. Hollay lives in small-town Ontario with her family.
On October 24, I sat with Jessica Moore, author of THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN, a book of narrative poetry that carries the truth throughout on a wave of emotion. We discover while reading, what lies beneath the grief, the loss and the trauma.
We got to talk about the before and after grief, the ocean and the binaries of before and after.
Although it moves like a prose story, it’s told in fragments of memory. And the words are italicised, capitalised or in quotes and we’re never quite certain who’s speaking. Can you talk about this abstraction of voice throughout?
I like this, “fragments of memory.” It feels true. The way memory surfaces like shards of glass caked with dirt. There’s something intensely satisfying to me in reading, and creating, works in fragments.
And yes, this is a work of many voices. Almost kaleidoscopic. The most consistent interlocutor is ALL CAPS, boisterous, bold, sometimes crass, bit of a know-it-all, foil to the narrator’s lyricism. Sounds like a sailor. ALL CAPS knows the narrator intimately (even interiorly). This voice helps nudge the story along and won’t let the narrator rhapsodize or obfuscate for too long.
Other voices include: the boat builder, the mother, story, transgression, the mysterious “we,” and layers of the narrator. I think this story would have been impossible to tell in just one voice. There is something in this about memory, and repressed memory, and fragmentation / abstraction. And also, the book is an accompaniment of the boat builder’s discovery of events, and the narrator’s remembering of events in her own life. If it were all told in one voice, it would need to be an omniscient and distant voice looking back on all of it. But this story is one that unfolds in tandem with the writing, and reading, of the book:
I: I’m following you, I’m trying anyway, sorry about the times when I try to take the lead
Story: only one of us can lead
I: I was never any good at ballroom […]
Story: Remember: what haunts you wants a form that is like none other
In the book, you speak of how cautious you are with words. “I hold his story like a child with a hot bowl of soup in two hands.” The power is evident and then there are also moments where you use French and you speak about how some emotions are better conveyed in other languages. As a translator, how do you approach writing poetry in English when you know there might be a more potent expression in French or vice versa, if that’s ever the case?
As a translator, I am exquisitely aware of the space between languages—the shadowy corridors between French and English—as well as the space between thought and language, or idea and word. I am enamoured with that liminal space, before or behind words, and try to cultivate a consciousness of it. It’s not often that I would rather use a word in French than one in English, but for this book I allowed myself that luxury whenever it came up, since French (and language in general) has such a prominent place in the story. I love, for example, the words grisaille [greyness, but also gloominess, and seems to almost contain a drizzle in it] and miroitant [shimmer, or gleam, but also contains within it the word miroir, suggesting a mirroring], more than their English counterparts, and so I inserted them into the part where the boat builder swims to look in the eye of the whale.
I was very conscious of holding not only the boat builder’s story, but also my mother’s story with this book. Over and over, the book asks the question, Whose stories do we have the right to tell? I grapple with this throughout, returning again and again to the affirmation that this story is mine as well, this is the way I lived it, absorbed and inhabited the stories of others.
On the power of language: words can be everything and nothing. I was especially interested in this around the trial, when the director of the boat school, Kameneff, was charged with (and eventually convicted of) pedophilic abuse. When interrogated about the abuse on board, he tended towards benign words like “affection, jeu, sensualité” [affection, play, sensuality].
Words, sometimes all powerful other times empty balloons. They give nothing back.
I was also very curious about the wielding of words in the writings of Foucault, who influenced Kameneff. Words can be so innocent. In The History of Sexuality Vol. I, Foucault describes the case of a “village simpleton” named Jouy who is found taking girls into the ditch to play a game called “lait caillé,” curdled milk, involving money in exchange for sexual favours. When Jouy is caught, he’s sent off to a mental hospital. In Foucault’s argument—which has nothing to do with protecting children, everything to do with his larger theories around surveillance and control (the State has no business in matters of sexuality, mental hospitals are no better than prison—both built with an intent to control and survey)—the caresses in the ditch are described in words such as “inconsequential” and “bucolic pleasures” and the little girls are labeled “knowing,” cunning, shrewd.
Someone always gets thrown under the bus and here it’s little girls, the ones you toss a few coins to for caresses the older ones won’t give. Caresses is a sweet word. Language is everything.
“Over and over, the book asks the question, Whose stories do we have the right to tell?“
The book speaks to the binaries with which we see things, the black and white, the before and after. You repeat: “nothing so horrifying as something different in the shape of someone you know.” This speaks to the horror of the boat-builder’s experience on École en bateau and how it threatens to erase the “rapture” of those times, but also to your own personal grief and trauma. Was this a theme you wanted to explore before this story came to you or was it born out of conversations and experiences in life and with the boat-builder?
My first instinct is to say that the subject of binaries arose quite naturally from this story—and I was so delighted when I learned that, because of the placement of their eyes, whales and other cetaceans can see two completely separate realities at once, leading some authors to suggest that they may be able to get beyond binary thinking. But I realized recently, on a night walk with a friend (which we started taking during lockdown last year), that I’ve been thinking about binaries for over twenty years. When I was 22 I was convinced that balance was not to be found at the precise midpoint between two extremes—was not equal measures of war and peace, for example, or rapture and pain, but lay in something quite apart, wholly other, which the end of the book gestures to without ever quite reaching:
Suddenly I am like a sky something boundless and wild borderless, fluid
I love thinking and talking about binaries and the beyond—anytime anyone wants to take a night walk!
I am fascinated by the weight of stories—which is a large part of what this book is about, as well as memory, inherited trauma, binaries and the ocean—but I did not enter the writing with any intention of bringing these themes to the surface, or of exploring the way I personally have felt the weight of inherited trauma as a result of abuse, or my own separate grief. They arose through the quiet process of tending to the work of creation, as truths often will.
Throughout the book the binary of before and after is also explored. That after a death or trauma, there is an invisible line we cannot cross. That going back to the happiness, the good times is a betrayal, sort of. It feels important we be able to remember the good, even though we are haunted by the bad. Can you talk about that and how has writing THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN impacted you personally?
I suppose I’m seeking a place where we can hold both, side by side:
And how, I want to ask, can we hold two truths— just hold them, side by side, without explaining, denying, justifying, negating—two truths as though we had heads with one eye on each side
…as though that might gesture to something beyond the toggling back and forth we usually do, either / or, this or that. Some other truth, some other possibility beyond binaries.
In my book, “the author of the book” is based on a real person who was on board the École en bateau at the same time as the boat builder (he wrote a novel, which the boat builder mailed to me, touching on what happened at the École). He spoke most arrestingly about this before and after—for ten years, he said, he remembered only the rapture of that time, the unbelievable freedom and adventure. Then, as part of his process of healing, he had to open “Pandora’s box” and do his own reckoning, at which point he entered ten years of horror eclipsing all the rest. He is one of “those who’ve lost that luminous / before, and now have this, this always-two so hard to hold.”
Then, after years of waiting, the author of the book witnessed Kameneff’s trial and conviction. “His nightmares stopped after the trial / and haven’t returned.”
The greatest impact for me in writing this book was the chance for more healing in my relationship with my mother. I was terrified to be telling parts of her story which had impacted me so deeply, terrified of how it might hurt her. The conversations we needed to have before the book’s publication were painful, but we were both brave and stayed with it, and she was supportive of the book becoming what it needed to be. My editor suggested inviting my mother into the creation of the book itself by asking her to author the brief description of the École en bateau, which (although my mother had nothing to do with the École) felt to me like a brilliant and subtle—almost secret—way to bring her in. It meant she was not just being written about, she was part of the process of creation.
“Underneath all this, I sense a lostness—a blindness that also seems to be to be grief, bereft of a connection with nature—which can be examined on the level of language, as well as on many other levels. What would it look like if, within language, we saw the trees and lakes and rivers as sensate beings?”
The Ocean, plastic and whales: It’s hard to not talk about the ocean, the plastic island, the pollution, the melting arctic. In THE WHOLE SINGING OCEAN, the ocean and the whales who inhabit it, feel like they’re stuck in the confluence or conflict of human seeing, looking and maybe even seeking. The DJ playing whale music at an art gallery with two plastic water bottles on his table and then on page 108, you share hope in discovering organisms might be evolving to be able to better digest plastic yet we turn off videos of the melting arctic. Do you see this as a conflict of desire v. empathy or is it really just greed and love converging, leaving people so confused they just choose to not see?
When I stop and allow in the fact of what’s happening to the oceans and reefs and whales and all the marine creatures, it’s just heartbreaking. Your question returns me again to binaries—I can feel myself toggle back and forth between alarm or consternation at small gestures, such as people using takeout cups instead of bringing their own, and a more complacent (willed ignorance?) place where I, too, buy takeout cups and single-use plastics. This is on the minute level of the larger terrible thing. “Who wants to hold horror / in the mouth too long”? asks the book. We still have to live, and living in constant outrage or despair would only wreck us. The waxworms that seem to be able to digest plastic did fill me with hope when I first learned about them, but there are still all the whales and dolphins and seabirds dying ghastly deaths because of our plastic waste.
It’s important for me to remember that the vast, vast majority of waste comes from industry, not individual consumption, and that to change things at a level that would truly make a difference for the oceans (and the rest of the natural world) means looking to policy, seeing from a wider view. But there is still part of me that sees something terrible in individual choices to participate in disposable culture, in that they are a symptom or evidence of the same kind of thinking.
Desire vs. empathy… greed and love converging… I think it is more about the systems and structures that are in place, the logic we live within, the options that are presented to us. This includes the madness of the pace of our lives and the confines of capitalism. Plastic makes everything extremely easy and convenient. I have experienced vastly differing logics—for example, Nelson, BC, where there’s a tacit disapproval if you come to the coffee shop without your own mug—I found it so reassuring to be inside this logic—and New York City, where everyone eats takeout all day in their mad rush from one thing to the next, where every bagel comes with plastic cutlery and a thousand paper napkins.
Underneath all this, I sense a lostness—a blindness that also seems to be to be grief, bereft of a connection with nature—which can be examined on the level of language, as well as on many other levels. What would it look like if, within language, we saw the trees and lakes and rivers as sensate beings? I’ve learned from writings by various authors including Robin Wall Kimmerer that Anishinaabe and many (most?) other Indigenous languages refer to animals and plants and even stones and waters as them, rather than it, meaning all of these elements are seen as beings in much the same way humans are beings. I think this points to a terrible impoverishment in English (and other Germanic, and Romance, languages). It seems to me that if our language reflected it, we would be oriented to care for the natural world differently. More deeply.
And, yes, I certainly experience a kind of willful not-seeing at times (“I skip past videos of the Arctic ice melting”)—if I let it in, all the time, I would be drowned in panic. If I think about what my kids inherit. But it feels important to choose moments when I can consciously, deliberately allow it in. Feel all the feelings about the oceans and the polar ice and all of it. There’s that saying, “don’t worry, pray,” which I have found helpful—turning anxiety into deliberate intention—but of course we can’t stop there. The next step then is to turn that sorrow/rage/despair into action—here’s where I, and the narrator, feel at times like “becoming a warrior, running away”—i.e. becoming a full time activist, because what, truly, is more important?
Within all this, it feels so vital to remember to love the world:
I never want to look at the world and see only trash & shattering
someone needs to keep vigil keep valiant keep a veille
light treetops catching light
winnowing shadow river river
never let this be obsolete
Jessica Moore is an author and Booker-nominated literary translator. The Whole Singing Ocean is her most recent book. Jessica’s first collection, Everything, now(Brick Books 2012), has been called “a powerful journey through love and loss – serving, ultimately, to unsettle any notion of a boundary between them.” The book is partly a conversation with her translation of Turkana Boy(Talonbooks), a poetic novel by Jean-François Beauchemin, for which she won a PEN America Translation Award. She is a former Lannan writer-in-residence and Banff International Literary Translation Centre alumnus, as well as a former VP for the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada. Her translation of Maylis de Kerangal’s moving and unusual story of a heart transplant, Mend the Living, was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize and won the 2017 Wellcome Book Prize. Jessica lives in Toronto, near the shores of Lake Ontario, that inland sea.
On October 17, I had the great privilege of sitting down with S.M. Freedman to talk about THE DAY SHE DIED her latest novel. The Day She Died is centred on Eve, who, on her 27th birthday crashes her car into a window. The novel follows her, brain-injured and lost, as she navigates her life through half-remembered truths and the outright lies she’s told her self. A story about intergenerational trauma and deciding whether life is worth living.
Here is a follow-up to our discussion. Thanks very much to Shoshona and to our audience members for adding to the discussion with their own questions.
Talking about a mystery novel is very challenging. The potential for spoilers talking about any novel is scary, but THE DAY SHE DIED feels different. There is a chronological present-day narrative and chapters in the past, with revelations timed so perfectly the suspense, the uncertainty, the anxiety is intensified throughout and it’s all plot. Your decision to move back and forth from past to present, makes sense when you think of Eve’s brain injury and her trying to remember, or forget. Did you outline or map out scenes/timelines before you sat down to write, or did the plot come as a natural exploration of story?
You’re right, talking about a mystery novel is so challenging! I’m constantly checking myself to make sure I’m not giving something away. Regarding whether I plotted out the story or just let it flow, I did a bit of both. In general, I tend to jump from character to character or timeline to timeline in my writing, a method I find valuable for building suspense. My brain just doesn’t work in a linear fashion. With each book I write, I become more disciplined about plotting my stories ahead of time. I usually have a detailed outline for the first third of the book, and I know approximately where the story will end. This gives me a guidepost to work toward when I get to the messy middle.
When you plot a novel, do you start at the beginning or the end? Most mystery novels begin with a death, and THE DAY SHE DIED is no different. Did the plotting change where you, as a writer, started the writing?
I start with an overall idea of the story arc, and where I want the story to end. Then I get into the nitty gritty of filling in the details. I’ll work out as much as I can ahead of time, but I always discover plot points or details along the way, and they sometimes take me in unexpected directions.
Eve struggles throughout the book with remembering/forgetting/revising her memories. As a reader you’re never quite sure what is a secret being remembered or rewritten so that it can be forgotten. It’s a psychological journey and a study in the effects of trauma. Can you speak about the research that went into understanding this on a deeper level?
Eve spends her life in survival mode, essentially wiping her canvas clean and repainting prettier pictures to cover up her trauma and guilt. An enormous amount of research was needed to map out Eve’s psychology, including what kinds of medication and treatment she would have been given. I also had to learn about traumatic head injuries, and I spent a long time researching near-death experiences to understand what Eve might have gone through during the car accident.
I tend to jump from character to character or timeline to timeline in my writing, a method I find valuable for building suspense.
The legacy of trauma is another important theme in THE DAY SHE DIED: There are three generations of women at the heart of the story, Eve, her mother Donna and Button. About half way through the novel, Button, Eve’s grandmother talks about her faith and learning at the knees of her own grandfather, a rabbi. She says Eve grew from “those roots of belief”. Although she’s speaking of faith, as a reader, I can’t help but think it is the unspeakable experiences of Button and perhaps her own grandfather that may have nourished the soil. Can you talk about how you placed trauma in the novel and its effects on each of the characters?
That’s it exactly. Intergenerational trauma is a huge factor in this story. Button was born in the Warsaw Ghetto, and though her life experiences aren’t explicitly written on the page, they informed her parenting of Donna. Donna also has a legacy of trauma, and those experiences fuel her work as a lawyer. Her focus on protecting abused children doesn’t extend to her own daughter, and her disconnect sets up Eve to be a victim, continuing the cycle.
Quicksilver is used throughout the novel as both metaphor and a physical space in the novel. Was this an idea that came to you as you sat down to write or did you know ahead it was a perfect metaphor for the mind and memory?
You know how some ideas come to you, and afterward you can never figure out why or how? It didn’t start out as a deliberate metaphor. I wanted to create an atmosphere that was dripping and foggy and secretive, where even the air was weighted with sin and guilt. I kept imagining these tangled dripping quicksilver plants along the riverfront. Then I discovered Dutch artist M.C. Escher’s reflective spheres. I became fascinated with the concept that silver could be painted as a reflection rather than a colour. So, the silver became both a metaphor for hidden secrets, and a mirror reflecting Eve’s guilt back at her.
Eve spends her life in survival mode, essentially wiping her canvas clean and repainting prettier pictures to cover up her trauma and guilt.
You were a private investigator in Vancouver for years, also an actor and graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Can you talk about how your experience as a P.I. and as an actor influences the development story/character and what part it’s played in your writing in general?
My training as both an actor and a private investigator has influenced my desire to dive deep into research. I’m always digging for another layer, especially in terms of character development. I love weaving the tapestry of a character, blending good with evil, kindness with cruelty, humour with grief. I blend and mix and add layers until the character becomes a real person.
From her website: “S.M. Freedman studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and spent years as a private investigator on the not-so-mean streets of Vancouver, before returning to her first love: writing.
Her debut novel, The Faithful, is published by Thomas & Mercer. It’san International Amazon Bestseller, reached the Quarter Finals in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and was selected by Suspense Magazine as a “Best Debut of 2015.” The sequel,Impact Winter, was published in 2016, and she is currently working on the third and final instalment in the series. The Day She Died was published by Dundurn Press in April 2021 (audiobook by Tantor Media) . Her next novel, Blood Atonement, will be available from Dundurn Press in Fall 2022. It tells the story of a woman who, when other Fundamentalist Mormon Church escapees are killed, must determine if her alter personality is the murderer, or if she’s the next victim.
She lives in Vancouver with her husband and two children. She’s a proud member of Sisters in Crime, Crime Writers of Canada, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America.“
November 7 with Hollay Ghadery and November 21 with Wayne Ng. It’s a Guernica kind of month.
I hope you know that nobody is the boss of you, but you, but let me take a moment to tell you what you should be doing in November. You should be reading books. Specifically, Hollay Ghadery’s memoir, FUSE and Wayne Ng novel, Letters From Johnny. As I sit here, in my writing and reading space, I am watching the leaves get blown from their trees and I am comforted by the piles of books beside me. Like a blanket, they’re going to be there for me when I need them.
Hollay Ghadery’s fiction, non-fiction and poetry has been published in various literary journals, including the Malahat Review, Room, Grain and The Fiddlehead. In 2004, she graduated from Queen’s University with her BAH in English Literature, and in 2007, she graduated from the University of Guelph with her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. She is the recipient of the Constance Rooke Scholarship in Creative Writing, as well as Ontario Arts Council grants for her poetry and non-fiction. Hollay is the force behind River Street Writing—a collective of freelance writers who create exceptional content, and provide creative consultancy services for personal and professional projects.
FUSE, published by Guernica Editions, draws on Hollay’s “own experiences as a woman of Iranian and British Isle descent, writer Hollay Ghadery dives into conflicts and uncertainty surrounding the bi-racial female body and identity, especially as it butts up against the disparate expectations of each culture. Painfully and at times, reluctantly, Fuse probes and explores the documented prevalence of mental health issues in bi-racial women.”
“Wayne Ng was born in downtown Toronto to Chinese immigrants who fed him a steady diet of bitter melons and kung fu movies. Ng works as a school social worker in Ottawa but lives to write, travel, eat and play, preferably all at the same time. He is an award-winning short story and travel writer who continues to push his boundaries from the Arctic to the Antarctic, blogging and photographing along the way.”
Letters from Johnny, also from Guernica Editions, is “set in Toronto 1970, just as the FLQ crisis emerges to shake an innocent country, eleven year old Johnny Wong uncovers an underbelly to his tight, downtown neighbourhood. He shares a room with his Chinese immigrant mother in a neighbourhood of American draft dodgers and new Canadians. In a span of a few weeks his world seesaws. He is befriended by Rollie, one of the draft dodgers who takes on a fatherly and writing mentor role. Johnny’s mother is threatened by the “children’s warfare society.” Meany Ming, one of the characters by the rooming house is found murdered. He suspects the feline loving neighbour, the Catwoman. Inspired by an episode of Mannix, he tries to break into her house. Ultimately he is betrayed but he must act to save his family. He discovers a distant kinship with Jean, the son of one of the hostages kidnapped by the FLQ who have sent Canada into a crisis.”
You can register on EventBrite for both of these readings. They are PWYC events and proceeds go to the authors. I hope you’ll join us. All registered attendees have a chance to win a copy of the books from Guernica!