Greetings, friends! So after some early flailing, the Beer Magic Novel seems to have kicked into gear. It’s about 16k at the moment and I can feel the momentum building (I miss it, when I’m not working on it). BUT it also hasn’t yet reached the critical threshold of, “I’m pretty sure this novel’s not gonna die,” so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.
For indeed, it is mid-December! It is time for all the yearly wrap-up posts!
Without further ado:
Some Things I Read and Loved in 2017
(In roughly the order I read them.)
Green Grass, Running Water—Thomas King
I’m only counting fiction here, but I read this shortly after King’s The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. And I’m glad I read them in that order: King’s meditations in the latter helped me appreciate the former even more.
I loved the voice in Green Grass. I loved the blending of conventional novel structure and oral storytelling principles. It’s funny and honest and heartbreaking, and please just read it.
Strong, sassy women and hard-luck, hard-headed men, all searching for the middle ground between Native American tradition and the modern world, perform an elaborate dance of approach and avoidance in this magical, rollicking tale by award-winning author Thomas King. Alberta, Eli, Lionel and others are coming to the Blackfoot reservation for the Sun Dance. There they will encounter four Indian elders and their companion, the trickster Coyote—and nothing in the small town of Blossom will be the same again. . . .
Kiss of the Fur Queen—Tomson Highway
This one—we start with champion dog-sled racer Abraham Okimasis, and then follow his sons from early childhood to adulthood. It’s immersive and beautifully written and painful—and again, I’m head-over-heels in love with the voice, particularly that of eponymous Fur Queen.
Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis are all too soon torn from their family and thrust into the hostile world of a Catholic residential school. Their language is forbidden, their names are changed to Jeremiah and Gabriel, and both boys are abused by priests.
As young men, estranged from their own people and alienated from the culture imposed upon them, the Okimasis brothers fight to survive. Wherever they go, the Fur Queen–a wily, shape-shifting trickster–watches over them with a protective eye. For Jeremiah and Gabriel are destined to be artists. Through music and dance they soar.
The Stone Angel—Margaret Laurence
Do you sense a theme here? The Stone Angel gets assigned to a lot of high school English classes. Mine missed it, but I’m glad I waited until adulthood. Basically, Hagar Shipley runs away to the woods and remembers her life—and pals, it’s devastating. Laurence’s characterization is superb. And it’s those little, tiny details that hit with the most weight.
In her best-loved novel, The Stone Angel, Margaret Laurence introduces Hagar Shipley, one of the most memorable characters in Canadian fiction. Stubborn, querulous, self-reliant – and, at ninety, with her life nearly behind her – Hagar Shipley makes a bold last step towards freedom and independence.
As her story unfolds, we are drawn into her past. We meet Hagar as a young girl growing up in a prairie town; as the wife of a virile but unsuccessful farmer with whom her marriage was stormy; as a mother who dominates her younger son; and, finally, as an old woman isolated by an uncompromising pride…
The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter—Theodora Goss
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention this novel. It’s a well-curated collection of Victorian literature’s girl monsters. On one level, it’s a terribly fun romp. On another, it’s a very intelligent dance with Victorian literature. Of course, this is all up my alley.
Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ death, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.
But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde, and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.
When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.
A Green and Ancient Light—Frederic S. Durbin
I picked this up from the library on a whim. Early on, it says: “I won’t tell you my name or that of the village where I spent that spring and summer when I was nine. I won’t because you should realize there were towns just like it and boys just like me all around the sea…”
It’s a vague world, and yet complete. In a nutshell: boy, grandmother, and faun try to both protect a downed fighter pilot and find a long-lost door into Faery.
When I finished, I could only think, “This one is part of me now.”
It was that kind of book.
Set in a world similar to our own, during a war that parallels World War II, A Green and Ancient Light is the stunning story of a boy who is sent to stay with his grandmother for the summer in a serene fishing village. Their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane, the arrival of grandmother’s friend Mr. Girandole—a man who knows the true story of Cinderella’s slipper—and the discovery of a riddle in the sacred grove of ruins behind grandmother’s house. In a sumptuous idyllic setting and overshadowed by the threat of war, four unlikely allies learn the values of courage and sacrifice.
Bonus Short Story: “The Last Sailing of the Henry Charles Morgan in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841),” by A.C. Wise.
This story is told through the registration notes that accompany museum artifacts; in this case, six pieces of scrimshaw. Look, I work at a museum. I’ve read these notes. Wise nails them. It’s an inventive form of storytelling and it is wonderfully, wonderfully creepy. This is the winner of the 2017 Sunburst Award for short story—and it’s easy to see why!
And that’s all I could fit into this one post! What about you? What did you read and love this year?
What I’m Listening to this Week
Oh my goodness, I’ve been obsessed with Purcell’s “Cold Song” this week. Actually known as “What Power Art Thou?” it’s from the King Arthur opera. This is the point wherein Cupid wakes the “Cold Genius,” or the spirit of winter.
Look at the way the vowels punch the same note repeatedly. It should be a half-note or whatever, but it’s been split into repeated eighths—because he’s creating the effect of shivering!!!!
I love it. I’m so down. I want to work the emotional resonance into a story somehow.
It was late 2011, and I was at a Thai restaurant with Blythe and my old roommate Gavin, discussing how we’d produce Hapax-the-Podcast. At some point, conversation turned towards the museum, and their nighttime Christmas celebrations.
It got too busy down in the brewery, according to Blythe. It was really a two-person job, those nights. But no one else was Smart-Served, so.*
*SmartServe = certification you need if you want to sell/serve alcohol in Ontario.
So I was twenty—and I wanted to look cool—so I said, “I’ve got my SmartServe.”
It was meant to be a one-off. One night, help out, thanks and see you. But from the moment I stepped into the brewery, I fell utterly and completely in love with it.
When I was a kid, I did what my parents called “deep dives.” For months—years, sometimes—I’d delve into various pet passions, but way more intensely than you’d expect.
Wolves, man. I knew absolutely everything about wolves.
Ancient Egypt’s Eighteenth Dynasty.
The Phantom of the Opera.
I was that seven-year-old walking around the ROM’s Egypt collection taking notes on a clipboard. And you know what? I think I’d almost forgotten how happy I was just learning. Drinking in knowledge as quickly and deeply as I could, for no other reason than—it caught my interest.
Looking over the past few years—I think beer was the last thing I dove into just because.
Oh, I’ve had other interests. Remember last winter, when I was all into the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood? That was awesome, but I wouldn’t characterize it as a “deep dive.” I read some books and watched some documentaries, but I don’t know nearly everything.
And I know an awful lot about the nineteenth century, particularly 1800s Toronto. But there’s a slightly mercantile edge to that. I really enjoy learning about them, but half my mind is always storing away tidbits for later use in day-jobbery or writing.
It’s less spontaneous. Less innocent, somehow.
Learning about beer served no obvious purpose. I just liked it. Learning about it made me happy.
After that first night in the brewery, I did what I always do: I wandered off and buried myself in books. For eighteen months, more or less, I learned everything I could. When a regular spot opened in the brewery, I was waiting.
I wrote a blog. I sampled a lot of beers and developed my palate.
Beer became my thing.
But I didn’t just learn the difference between ales and lagers, IBUs and SRM, Vienna malt and Fuggles hops. In the brewery, you had to lead tours and guide tastings. Gregariousness was the order of the day. You had to set strangers at ease; keep conversation going; think on your feet.
But something else happened, too. Have you guys noticed, beer is a hot topic right now? For the first time in my life, I knew about a COOL THING. I had this vast storehouse of information that people actually wanted. And I was becoming confident enough to share it effectively.
Then beer crossed over into my writing life.
I often think that the skills I’ve learned at the museum and at conventions reinforced each other. Panels are like stationary tours; tours are like a moving panel. And I figured out something very cool:
Beer is an excellent party trick.
Many people like beer. Many people have favourite beers. Many people know enough about beer to hold a conversation. For me—still shy, under it all—it’s a brilliant ice-breaker. Like Concerned Children’s Advertisers said in the early nineties, “Everybody’s got a thing!”*
*Canadian Nineties Kids got these PSAs on TV. If you have not heard the jingle for “Don’t You Put it in Your Mouth,” you have not truly lived.
I keep coming back to the joy I felt, all those hours I ploughed through histories of brewing and beer style guides. Back then, beer wasn’t anything professional. It wasn’t a party trick. It wasn’t even my thing. Not yet. It was neat, and that was it.
We all need passions like that, I think. Loving something for no obvious reason, pursuing our own interests down rabbit holes. It adds depth and richness to our lives, the way love always does. I think sometimes we’re reluctant to pick things up just because – we can’t justify the time, we don’t see how it’s useful, we’re afraid how it might reflect on us.
But we never know where it will all lead. After six (!) years of studying beer, I know my life would have been much poorer without it.
Everybody needs their thing. What’s yours? 😀
What I’m Listening to this Week
There’s quite a lot happening in “The Gallant Weaver.” I could go on about the soprano lines echoing each other, or the beautiful solid chords in the lower voices, but I’m also exhausted, so have a listen for yourselves!
It is that time again! This weekend, I will be in Ottawa for Can-Con: the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature. This is one of my very favourite cons, and I’m excited for stellar programming, good friends, and lively conversations.
What’s my schedule for the weekend? I’m glad you asked!
8:00 pm: Alternate History Live Challenge (Charlotte Ashley, Anatoly Belilovsky, Me, Mike Rimar, and Matthew Johnson)
9:00 pm: The Fantasy Author’s Guide to Beer (Me)
3:00 pm: Writing Games: It’s Big Literature Now (Geoff Gander, Kate Heartfield, M. Elizabeth Marshall, Me Moderating)
7:00 pm: Readings (Me, David Nickle, Kate Story)
8:00 pm: Asexual Identities (Andrew Barton, S.M. Carriere, Dianna Gunn, Kelsi Morris, Me Moderating)
IDK, we should probably get the organizers some coffee and pastries.
In Ottawa that weekend? Come say hi, and hang out with cool people! Also, today is Canadian Thanksgiving, and I am thankful for all of you!
What I’m Listening to this Week
This piece kind of reminds me of high school. But also, it fits the feel/mood/emotion of the novel. I have always loved how the solo voice comes in with the main motif around 2:45—and promptly catches at 3:05.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in Toronto’s green spaces: the ravines, the parklands, the rivers. Partly, it’s novel research. But also, it’s keeping me grounded. Rooted, if you will. (Terrible pun. Sorry, not sorry.)
Over the past few months, I’ve realized something. When I move through the urban streetscape, it’s a very visually oriented experience. Yes, traffic rumbles and horns honk and the stoplights all have auditory signals, but I’m mostly relying on my eyes. And it goes without saying that this is my experience: someone differently sighted will have an entirely different way of interacting with the city.
But in the ravines and along the ponds, I rely on my ears much more. Rustling leaves and sudden splashes, birdsong and squirrel yells—that’s how I put together the thousand tiny dramas unfolding all around me. Sight comes later: you hear a plaintive warbling, then spy the baby bird in a hollow tree. Catch the whisper of a cattail blowing the wrong way, then notice the frog chilling in its shadow.
Really, though, it’s all the senses working together. Except taste. As lovely as the ravines are, it’s probably not a good idea to lick anything you find in them. Digression aside, the trees become a sort of tapestry around you, with eye, ear, nose, and touch all working together to create a living, holistic picture of what’s happening.
It humbles you. To become part of that scene, you need to become part of the scenery, too. And so, you must become quiet. You must become still. You must get outside your own head and worries and actually notice the chipmunk and squirrel staring each other down in the branches above.
I’m not articulating this well, but—it’s like moving from first-person to third-person. We aren’t the centre of the universe, in the woods. We’re one more drama, one more set of noises. And when you start to let go of all the preoccupations—when you actually listen—the details start emerging more and more quickly, like stars coming out in the evening. First one, then another, and another.
Lurking frog. Dragonfly landing on water lily. Fish cruising in its shadow.
And it occurs to me that writing can be the same way. Writing isn’t about us, the authors. It’s about the stories. But I think, like people blustering through the woods, scattering birds and breaking branches, we sometimes get so caught up in ourselves that we can’t hear what the story is doing. We can’t become part of it because we are so focused on ourselves: the Writer.
So we need to become quiet, still, and get outside our own heads. Actually listen to the story: that sure little voice inside, persistent as birdsong.
For me, if I can get into the headspace I find in the ravines—calm and open, joyful and humbled—I think the writing should start to pick up. I hope so, anyway.
What I’m Listening to this Week
“Jauchzet dem Herren,” by Heinrich Schütz. We’re doing it in choir soon, but it’s been in my regular listening rotation for a few years. I like double-choir pieces, where one choir answers another or follows the first like a round. Seeing how they fit together is immensely satisfying, and you get this super exciting building effect from the echoes.
I have a friend from Stonecoast visiting this week, which means there has been lots of gallivanting and little else. So not much musing today, just updates.
I’m a Sunburst nominee?
So last Monday, I posted about this strange, transitional sense I’ve been having. And the minor crises of self-esteem. Then I opened Twitter…
…and found the awesome and talented Kelly Robson congratulating me.
Having “La Corriveau” on the longlist was a huge honour; I honestly never expected it to go any further than that. This is likewise a huge honour—look at that list! Go back and look at the longlist! There is serious talent there!
It’s very humbling. And I’ve always been fond of “La Corriveau.” If nothing else, the historic Marie-Josephte Corriveau was a remarkable woman: I hope I’m doing her some justice.
The Sunburst winners will be announced sometime this fall.
Starting in September, I’ll be producing the Apex Magazine podcast!
This was unexpected, but delightful news! I’ve missed working with sounds—as everyone predicted when Six Stories wrapped up, I love podcasts too much to quit them entirely. Not only is Apex a wonderful team, it seems like the perfect balance: I’m just producing. That cuts down on time and workload, but still lets me keep a toe in the pool.
At the moment, I’m busy cultivating a stable of narrators. So yes, you’ll be hearing more from Blythe. I’m also excited to bring some new voices to your ears, too!
And that’s about it for the week. Things continue to tick along. We shall see where we end up.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sometimes, the hardest thing about finishing a story is leaving the world. I was very fond of Heartstealer and Skarland. This piece brings me right back to the northern woods and autumn hearths…
“But where do you get your ideas?”
So I was coming home from the pub and I saw this bike propped against a tree:
It looked like he’d been stolen, stripped for parts, and abandoned. Such terrible sadness pervaded; I wondered about his owner. I saw him flying down Toronto streets, strong and fast and free, so proud to be carrying his rider—who in my head is now a twenty-something woman at U of T.
“I was a good bike,” he whispered.
Then I continued on, and I noticed it was a full moon. And isn’t it cool, how you can see the “seas” on its face—those plains of basalt called maria. Gazing up at the moon, I thought about what moons look like from other planets’ surfaces. I mean, our moon is pretty big and bright—like a silver dollar—but what if it was little? Or a vibrant colour? Or lumpy?
Also, I could totally see how the maria look like a face: two eyes and a gaping, slightly horrified mouth. The human brain always seeks patterns, which is neat. Except in Chinese tradition, it’s a rabbit. And I could see it two ways: either a rabbit on his side, or a rabbit with exceptionally long ears.
While looking at the sky, I also saw the Big Dipper, which made me think of an Indigenous Canadian myth in which Robin, Chickadee, and Moose Bird are hunting the Great Bear across the sky. It’s an eternal hunt that plays out through the seasons, year after year, and that kind of Cosmic Dance is very humbling and thrilling all at once. Plus, it’s a cool story.
So I kept walking and I saw a big orange cat padding by on business. When she reached certain front steps, she stopped and rested. Then a little grey cat came trundling along, rounded the corner, and—
Both cats noticed each other at the same time.
They froze. The little grey cat kept one paw in hanging in mid-air. A great tension filled the night: the little grey cat hesitating, the big orange cat staring imperiously.
But then the little grey cat trotted towards the other, they bunted heads, and the night was calm once more.
By this point, I was nearly home. Because it is summer, many of my neighbours were sitting on their porches, cigarettes burning through the night like fireflies. Harsh young voices barked from the main street: a counterpoint to the low, constant murmurings of Italian.
“Did she really?” an older woman said. “I never thought—shows him, eh?”
And an Alice Munro-esque situation sprang into glorious colour: mundane tragedy become epic in proportion, repressed emotion and women breaking free.
And then I was home.
“But where do you get your ideas?”
A ten-minute walk, a starry night, an open soul.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Have you read Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books? They’re cool—I devoured Arrows of the Queen growing up. Anyway, Misty is also an accomplished filk musician; her books have a folk music tradition all their own.
“Battle Dawn” has always been my favourite: I fell in love with the driving rhythm the first time I heard it. And that voice…!
Another addition to the new novel’s playlist.
I turn 26 on Wednesday. On the one hand, I know that’s nothing. On the other, this tweet feels scarily accurate:
So, 26. Aging aside, there’s been a strange shift in the wind, lately. It’s nothing I can quite put my finger on, but it feels like change is coming, thunder rolling in the distance.
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
– “Kubla Khan,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
My twenties have been relatively comfortable thus far, all things considered. Yet it somehow feels like a chapter is closing. One age ending; another beginning. I don’t know—maybe it’s just birthday feelings.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. I had an interesting conversation the other day about writing at different stages of life. Generally speaking, I agree with Theodora Goss’s theory that to write a certain story/novel, you must first become the sort of person who can write that story/novel. Kelly Robson echoes similar thoughts in her wonderful essay “On Being a Late Bloomer.”
Those thirty years didn’t just make me a writer. They made me a good writer. That paralyzing self-doubt morphed into a keen sense for quality in my own work. When I write something that stinks, I can usually smell it. I’ve been reading for more than forty years, so I have thousands of great books and stories banked for information and inspiration. And best of all, I have a lifetime’s worth of unplumbed material to draw on—I’ve seen the world in all its glory and ugliness.
– Kelly Robson, “On Being a Late Bloomer,” Clarkesworld
Point is, all stories originate from somewhere inside of us. If it isn’t in there somewhere, we can’t pull it out. We can fake it—manufacture a piece with a shiny veneer that crumbles at a touch. But you can’t write the story – not for real – until conditions are right inside you.
Which is why young writers’ works have such a short shelf life. I’d write things, return to them a year later, and immediately see the delta. “I don’t write like this anymore,” I’d say. It was the same feeling you get from examining old photos.
“That was just five years ago—why do I look so young?”
Of course, there’s another implication to all this. If you’ve changed enough, it can make it hard to return to old worlds, old stories. Occasionally, I get asked if I’d ever write another story in the Hapax universe.
And you know what? I don’t think I could. I wrote Hapax at nineteen.
- I still had two parents.
- I’d never been in love.
- I’d never really grieved.
- I had never even considered working in museums.
- I hadn’t met my dearest friends and collaborators.
- I hadn’t failed very much.
- I hadn’t gallivanted around the Antipodes by myself for two months.
- There are hundreds of amazing books/stories I hadn’t read.
I’ve changed enough that the world doesn’t fit anymore. Sure, I could resurrect characters and pick up the mythology (I will say that Hapax’s theology still pleases me), but I wouldn’t write the same sort of story. It’s like leaving Narnia. Once the door is closed, it’s closed.
Of course, 19-year-old KT definitely couldn’t have written any of the short stories I’ve done over the past few years. She couldn’t have written Six Stories or the Creepy Play. Of course not—I wasn’t yet the person who could.
So when I think about falling into a new stage of life, part of me is excited. Or at least, curious. After all, look at all the growth in the past seven years. Where will I be in seven more? What sort of stories will I be able to tell then? By the time my twenties draw to their close, what person will I be?
I don’t know, of course. Perhaps that’s part of the fun—or at least the journey. There’s a lot of stories I haven’t told yet.
But just you wait.
What I’m Listening to this Week
An unexpected piece. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” floated through my head early last week, and it’s been on repeat ever since. Obviously, I’d heard the song before—but I’d never really listened to it.
Yes, I can be a ridiculous sap. But those gentle, lilting broken chords and the velvet richness of Elvis’ lower register—
It’s a lullaby.
Well. That was an immensely busy and stressful week. I would be glad it’s over, but I sense more busy and stressful weeks on the horizon. On the other hand, I did find out that “La Corriveau” has been long-listed for the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, putting me in very much esteemed company. Congratulations to all the long-listers!
So amidst the madness, I’ve been thinking about the various necessities we have in our lives. Not just food/shelter/clothing—but the things that keep us sane and stable enough to handle very busy weeks…and very frightening administrations… The things that help us live, rather than survive.
This whole pondering really started when I came home after a bone-crushing day, noticed my floors were filthy, and immediately wanted to cry. On the flipside, cleaning them made everything so much better.
So what do I need?
Some Semblance of Tidiness
I am not Martha Stewart, nor was meant to be. I live in an Edwardian garret with a cat that delights in destruction. My baseboards are dusty. There’s a few weird stains around.
That’s fine. I don’t need things pristine. I need them neat. If the floor gets a semi-regular mop, the laundry stays done, and the cat litter is monitored, I feel 1000% more human.
This one is tricky. Sleep has long been a challenge for me. The thing is, I can survive on very little sleep. Short-term, five hours is fine. And by “fine,” I mean, “it’s really not, but I function well enough to pretend it is.” And then, I keep doing it, because everything is so fine—
And then we get into trouble. I can’t do long stretches as easily anymore. Besides, when I finally get enough, it feels so good, I rather want to keep doing it…
Have you heard of forest-bathing? It’s a Japanese practice that basically involves being around trees. Just wandering and breathing. There’s something similar at play for me. Every so often, I need to get out. Away from artificial lights, away from computer screens, away from the constantly-pinging network of communication.
Fortunately, Toronto has plenty of wild pockets, if you know where to look. An afternoon in the ravines, and I can handle the world again.
Other People’s Art
Same thing, basically. Creation begets creation, but sometimes you need to refill the well. And more importantly, sometimes you need to connect to what makes you create in the first place. Sometimes you need other people’s art because you are a person too, and I think we all need some art in our lives.
So it’s a lot of reading. Music. Periodically, I go to the AGO and walk around getting drunk on light, colour, and lines.
I’m a weirdly social introvert. Absolutely, I need alone time. In fact, not getting alone time leads to jangled nerves and jittery anxiety.
Too much solitude doesn’t lead anywhere good. And while I’m lucky to have friends across the world—well, it’s not exactly easy to nip down to the US on a whim. Seeing people face-to-face is important to me. Having a drink, seeing a show, talking a walk—I need my friends and family, and I need that time with them.
Flip side of the coin. I need alone time. I need writing time. When I don’t get it—or when it feels threatened—the gnawing little panic starts up. Really, it’s the same sort of feeling you get when you hold your breath too long.
You can hold it for a time—and sometimes, you have to—but eventually, you have to breathe.
So if I feel caught in a tailspin, I’ve learned to check this basic list. Is one of my necessities going unfulfilled? Is there a way to meet that need?
Moreover, four things on this list relate to nourishing the inner life. Which I suppose makes sense, if we’re looking beyond mere survival. And the cool thing about one’s inner life is that it is unique to you.
We all need food and water. Not all of us have similar internal needs. So what about you? What necessities are in your life?
What I’m Listening To This Week
Lots of Phantom and Wicked, for some reason. Specifically, this song. Occasionally, my cold, cold heart does a little shudder and flip—catch me right, and I can be the sappiest sap who ever sapped.
When I was a wee sprogget of 16, I went to tour a university. They had a creative writing undergrad, you see, and I’d somehow wrangled a one-on-one with one of the instructors. She seemed distant, impervious to my earnest charm.
Until I asked brightly, “So, do you teach genre fiction as well, or is it all literary?”
She recoiled like I’d slapped her. “Oh, no,” she hissed. “We only teach literary fiction.”
And so I did not attend that university.Through my late teens and undergrad, I similarly avoided anything smacking of “literary fiction.” Meandering vignettes of people sitting on park benches, pondering the banality of existence? Dysfunctional families in the woods? Giants of the literary canon deriding my chosen genre as nothing more than space-faring octopi?
To hell with all that. I was a speculative fiction writer. I was interested in telling good stories.
Have I mentioned that I was incredibly arrogant through my late teens and undergrad?
In any case, I took a half-credit Science Fiction course, which is probably one of the best moves I’ve made. We started with Darko Suvin, forged ahead from Weinbaum to Gibson, and highlighted LeGuin and Tiptree along the way. My final paper contrasted notions of bodily autonomy in “Boojum” (Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear) and “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler).
Quite a literary analysis, if you think about it.
Then I did my Stonecoast MFA. We’ve talked about it before – that was when my authorial voice started to change. And there—I learned that perhaps “literary” didn’t mean what I’d thought. Perhaps it wasn’t just “the opposite of genre fiction.” So what was it?
It was introspective. It was character-driven. It was devastating. It was lyrical and elegant.
Literary was an approach.
And literary could still have magic and spaceships.So I’ve been undergoing another reading regimen. In some ways, I still feel like an interloper: scuttling across the border to see what I scavenge and bring back to my fantasy. But startlingly, I sometimes recognize myself in the small villages, the bitter-dark humour, the pervasive loss, the tension between things beautiful and grotesque…
Of course, humans like to classify things. We like to label ourselves. That’s what we do. And genre markers are a useful common language for markets, authors, and readers.
But I’m feeling my way towards a strange, interstitial space. Not terribly surprising: I’ve always been fascinated by the liminal. It’s the place betwixt-and-between, where we gleefully borrow principles, turn them inside-out, and blur the lines as we cross them.
That’s what I’m writing towards, I think. It feels right.
What I’m Listening to this Week
Have I done Carmina Burana before? I guess it doesn’t matter; it’s what I was listening to this week.
It’s an Orff cantata, using poems from a medieval manuscript called – appropriately – Carmina Burana, or, “Songs from Beuern.” The “O Fortuna” movement is the one everyone knows.
Two main things. 1) I love the contrast between driving whispers and orchestral cataclysm. It’s the Wheel of Fortune going up and down, you know? And 2) Those lyrics. They are. The most. Metal. Lyrics. EVER.
I’ve been looking for this video for years:
If you’re not keen to watch the whole thing—this is a film about the HMS Speedy, a schooner that sank in 1804 carrying many prominent members of Upper Canada. She wrecked attempting to enter the Newcastle Harbour, near modern-day Brighton, Ontario. The surrounding peninsula is now a provincial park where I spent many idyllic childhood summers.
Plus, The Wreck of the Speedy was the first piece of museum theatre I ever encountered.
From ages 2-16-ish, Presqu’ile Provincial Park was the happiest place in my world. It wasn’t backwoods camping, but there were outhouses and forest trails and fossils to find in the bluffs.
But my favourite thing was the Lighthouse. Sure, the Nature Centre was pretty cool with its live turtles, taxidermy birds, and light-up map of Lake Ontario. But I was always impatient to get back on my bike (left unlocked, obvi) and keep cycling down the road to the Lighthouse and its Interpretive Centre.
History, man. History.
The Interpretive Centre is attached to the 1848 lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It houses artifacts dredged up from the lake; there’s a documentary about the 1920s entertainment scene; you can Go for a Dive! at a series of video monitors.
But the best thing—the best thing—was this movie.
I’m not sure when it went in. Maybe when I was seven or eight? Anyway, I was entranced. Like, hanging-over-the-railing entranced. Like, I knew the history better than the interpreters. Like, I totally had the entire script memorized at one point.
First of all, a sunken ship that’s never been found is pretty cool. (Although I learned in adulthood that they found it ages ago.) But also – that video made it real. It turned names into people, dates into tragedy.
For those late to the party, my dayjob is thus: my co-creator and I use theatre and its associated techniques to educate people in museum settings.
Explained badly: I pretend to be dead people to teach you a lesson.
So here was this…this play. Filmed, yeah, but still a play, smack dab in the middle of the artifacts, maps, and dive footage. And it punched me in a way nothing else did. Of course, as a wee one, I couldn’t articulate why. But having worked as a museum theatre professional for a few years—sure. Let’s take a look.
We start with a chaotic opening. Storms! Shouting! Ship going down! It grabs one’s attention right away—it’s a bold choice to start with something this distressing, though some details escape if you don’t have background context.
Then it’s an interesting format: monologues from various crewmembers and passengers interwoven with our guide/host—Captain Charles Selleck, the one sort-of-witness. Selleck’s character makes this video work: we need an anchor, an emotional hook to hang our hats on.
Now, whoever wrote the script does a decent job weaving historical facts with human drama. Name-dropping runs rampant (who’s Richard Formaldi?), but there are some gems of interpretation:
“Never enough money. Never enough material. Never enough men!”
Succinct, informative, and charged with emotion. BAM.
A wide range of characters speak their piece: the low-class seaman, the beleaguered captain, the officials and judges. This all predicts the 21st century emphasis on diversity of voices and perspective.
But I realize now, one voice is missing.
The whole reason for this voyage was to transport a prisoner and attendant court participants to Newcastle for trial. A Chippewa man named Ogetonicut was accused of murdering fur trader John Sharpe. Ogetonicut’s brother had been killed by a white fur trader a year prior, and Ogetonicut had been promised a trial…that never happened. This all gets rather glossed-over in the video.
And Ogetonicut never gets a monologue of his own. We never hear the prisoner’s perspective: his rationale for his actions, what he thought of the Speedy’s dilapidated condition, how he felt as the water closed in. It’s a glaring weakness in an otherwise strong piece.
Because it is strong, otherwise. For a tiny interpretive centre in a relatively small provincial park, this was insanely well done. It showed me what museum theatre could be, long before I even knew what museum theatre was.
This is how I know it worked. After the video—after the display cases and gift shop—I’d go to the Lighthouse itself. And I’d stand on the point and stare hungrily at Lake Ontario, imagining the Speedy lying on the cold lake bed. There, I would promise myself that I’d find it someday. I’d finish the story begun in the interpretive centre.
Obviously, I didn’t find the Speedy. But in a strange way, I am finishing the story begun at Presqu’ile. Too often, I say that I never envisioned myself in museums—that it was all a very happy accident.
Then I remember this video, and realize—no, no.
It was all inevitable.
PS. I’m at the SFWA Nebula Conference this week. Find me. Frolic. Come to my Beer Talk on Friday evening.
What I’m Listening to This Week
I finished the final (for now) edits on Sing to the Bones. To set the mood, I listened to a lot of Western/cowboy music while editing. I stumbled across this piece entirely by accident, but it is very beautiful.