So a friend in Montreal sent me Shelagh’s book, The Water is Never Blue, by post, which I am this weekend hauling back to Montreal completely unread (and yes, with plans to speedily remedy my appalling oversight), but in the meantime, I’ve been lucky to read Shelagh from other sources, and in addition Shelagh’s read to me–her lovely birthday gift chased with clafloutis aux cerises in a cottage in a woods.
Anyone who knows me at all well knows I lost my best chum, the queer writer Candis Graham, to an aneurysm some years ago. She and I–she in Ottawa, me in Vancouver and on Saltspring Island–shot handwritten letters to each other in a fever that began in the mid-80s, until we had towering mounds of hundreds. She visited me there after a Women and Words retreat; I visited her in Ottawa when I was there doing readings. During the last years of her life, as we switched to computers and she moved to Victoria, we weren’t as prolific with each other, but our love remained boundless, and she was, in 2003, best woman at my wedding. I miss her every day of my life–her stubborn optimism, her grouchiness about CanLit, her solid good politics, everything we talked about at such length, our trust and gifts, our perspicacious support no matter what circumstances we landed ourselves in. When life required that I had to start missing her instead of having her by my theoretical side, it was the details that did me in, how each of her letters was on yellow paper and began with a weather report and a description about where in her menstrual cycle she found herself. And I missed the big stuff too. I missed that she wouldn’t write any more of her stories that were so bang on and beyond her time. We passed our work by each other. We shared submission lists. We appeared in the same publications. We published in the same queer anthologies (usually from Women’s Press or, later, Second Story). We published first and second books around the same time.
You don’t replace a woman like Candis Graham.
But sometimes another writer shakes herself out of the Montreal chill, and says hello, and that is how it was this spring when I was at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival for the CBC Awards. Shelagh and I started gabbing, and that was pretty much it–three drunk hours later, not only had we shut down the awards ceremony, but we were fast (and dare I say it felt like old) friends. Like Shelagh, I don’t make friends in the writing biz easily (probably because I am shy and hide behind pillars), but this one seemed not just easy but gratifying. Shelagh and I had occasion to meet up again in July for my 60th birthday, and again we had more than one of those long, rambling talks writers need (so their loved ones don’t go mad). Though I’ll miss her this trip to Montreal, while she knocks around Ayers Rock in AU, we’ll meet again in November when I’m east to launch my new book, when Shelagh and I will be reading together along with Deanna Young and Michael Kenyon at Drawn and Quarterly Books.
Shelagh, me, Kari: at the cottage, 2014
You can find more about Shelagh’s toned, nuanced work by following her blog, and here are her blog tour answers:
What am I working on?
It’s been almost a year since my first book, The Water Here is Never Blue, hit the shelves. Since then I’ve been kept busy writing about that writing and dealing with the sometimes difficult and occasionally delightful journey that a book takes once it’s been launched. I haven’t had the wherewithal to start the writing of a new project, but ideas, images, and narrative threads have been dancing around, pairing up and shattering apart, percolating, and gestating in the background of my mind for months. In one week I will be in Australia, and there, in the Red Centre of that far away place, I will begin, in earnest, something new.
Something new, yes, but what exactly I am not certain. Fiction, yes, a novel, I think likely, but I also have the skeletal plan of a book of nonfiction, something that would be labelled “memoir” again. And, I also have a slew of essay and article and short story ideas that are all getting pretty impatient about being kept silent in the corners of my mind.
How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
I like to think my writing has a unique voice and that I write nonfiction that reads like a novel – hence the tag “creative” and “literary.” In The Water Here is Never Blue I set out deliberately to write about the politically tumultuous places and times covered (Guyana just after independence and Timor during the Indonesian invasion) from the perspective and with the limited understanding and wonder of the naive child I was at the time. I think I managed that. I think it was an approach that differed from what others may have done with the same material. I was both rewarded and punished for my choice, but it’s not one I’d change if I were embarking on the same project today.
Other writers, some reviewers, and quite a few readers who have sought me out have had nice things to say about my writing. It’s been described as very lyrical. It’s been said that The Water Here is Never Blue is a “highly original concept” and that it “glitters like a literary novel.” Linda Spalding wrote that it “is a unique story, beautifully told,” and Donna Morrissey that it is “multi-layered” and “told in the raw yet innocent voice of the narrator.” All very cockle-warming and pleasant and, dare I hope, honest. If nothing else, such praise inspires me to slog on with the next project.
Why do I write what I do?
I write because I always have. I write because I love playing around with words, shuffling verbs, making paper dirty with those 26 letters granted by my mother tongue. I write because when I don’t (and I’m proficient at avoidance) I start to growl and bare my teeth. I write because I believe there is value in illuminating the small wonders that we all experience and which bind us despite our infinite and sometimes monstrous differences.
How does my writing process work?
Writing, for me, is fraught with myriad antithetical impulses. I love it. I hate it. I dread it. I don’t want to shake myself back to reality when I’m rollicking along the sentences I’m building.
But, long before that stage, the actual writing stage, I begin with a concept – some philosophical conundrum or moral complexity. This is the fermentation stage and during it, because I find the farthest end of the abstract spectrum a bore, I start gathering concrete details that I think will help reveal whatever concept has me by the throat. My mind is never not thinking about the project. Sometimes that mental activity is going on deep in the background and sometimes it is in the foreground, but it never stops. Things seen on a walk, a word overheard or seen on a page, a flash of colour, a particular sound, a smell detected on a subway car, these are all building blocks to something that will be written. This stage usually includes a lot of ideas that start off as small bits and pieces but gradually gel into larger, more complex things – maybe characters, maybe narrative threads.
When the time is available, when the funds allow, when I can’t stand not writing any longer, I start off. I try to keep to a regular schedule, I commit to spending the allotted number of hours in front of the computer. I write longhand when I’m stuck but find things flow better on the computer. I try not to count words until I’m well into the process. The writing usually builds in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-back manner so that by the time I’ve finished a full draft it’s fairly polished. I’ve begun to realize that I produce more in the afternoon than in the morning, but on writing days I always make myself begin in the morning. I try to take Hemingway’s advice and leave off in the middle of something that is going well so that the next day’s start is made a little easier.