the novella

I’ve always loved the novella, even before I knew what it was, how it differed from a full-length novel, a short story. So it was marvellous to find this piece by Ian McEwan in the New Yorker.

This is so right, so true: “Let’s take, as an arbitrary measure, something that is between twenty and forty thousand words, long enough for a reader to inhabit a world or a consciousness and be kept there, short enough to be read in a sitting or two and for the whole structure to be held in mind at first encounter—the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures.”

As a reader, I appreciate the entry into that world, so complete and contained somehow. And as a writer, I treasure the making of that world. It seems to me that the writing of a novella is a bit like musical composition, developing a theme and modulating it over time, space, keeping the language concise and taut, then introducing lyrical variations on the main theme.

The first long piece of fiction I wrote was a novella called Inishbream. I wrote it when I was 23, trying to find a form to contain the music, the landscape, the weather, and the human interactions of the period I lived on a small island off the west coast of Ireland. The Barbarian Press published it in three states — all of them gorgeous —  in 1999, illustrated by the great American wood-engraver John DePol. Here’s one image from the book:

And then in 2001, Goose Lane Editions published it as a lovely small trade edition, with John DePol’s images on the cover and the titlepage.

Last week I began a new novella and have been immersed, again, in the pleasures of the form. I see it as a companion piece to Winter Wren, a novella I finished last year. I don’t have any illusions about their “marketability”.  But I wouldn’t trade the daily exhilaration of sitting at my desk and finding my way into a cosmos contained in less than 100 pages for anything.

Jar of sunlight

A damp wet day with the sky hanging over us, heavy with rain. But every time I go into the kitchen, I see this:

A few weeks ago, I had a large container of quartered lemons in the fridge, left over from a party. What to do with them? I love preserved lemons so I used Paula Wolfert’s recipe, coating the quarters with salt, squeezing additional lemons for the juice needed to cover the lemons in the jar. I used the optional Safi aromatics — cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaves, coriander seeds — and put the jar on the counter so I would remember to turn it daily so the juice could bathe the lemons. It takes 30 days for the lemons to reach the right state of preservation and when that time is up, I’ll use some of them for Moroccan chicken, lively with lemons and cracked green olives.

Quite by chance, today I also read David Malouf’s beautiful poem, “Wild Lemons”, from his 1980 collection of the same title. (His book about Ovid in exile, An Imaginary Life, is one of my favourite novellas.) Here’s a short passage from the poem:

                                        I lie down
in different weather now though the same body,
which is where that rough track led. Our sleep
is continuous with the dark, or that portion of it
that is this day’s night; the body
tags along as promised to see what goes.
What goes is time, and clouds melting into
tomorrow on our breath, a scent of lemons
run wild in another country, but smelling always of themselves.

The year after

A year ago, I published a memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Of all the books I’ve written, this one is perhaps the most personal. I trace significant moments and patterns in my life set against a larger arboreal canvas. Trees are the equivalent of Cicero’s architectural spaces. In thinking about them, their natural history and the human history associated with them, I discovered that they have guided me and sheltered me in ways I hadn’t even realized. I write this at my pine desk, looking out the window to a cascara, some firs, an arbutus, several cedars, a mountain ash. Every view from every window of my house is framed by foliage. In some of those trees, I see my children at play, building a fort, or simply climbing for the challenge of reaching a half-way mark. At the back of the house is a copper beech I planted to commemorate my parents and the little bits of grit at its base are their remains, still not completely washed into the soil.

In many ways, the past year has been shaped by this book. I travelled a little to read from it – Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, Kootenays, even to Alberta. I read from it in Brno, Prague, Olomouc, Ostrava, Ceske Budejovice, meeting fascinating people along the way and hearing their stories of trees. I saw the spruces lining the road leading to the house my grandmother was born in which in turn have led me to the work of the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek – he photographed the Mionsi Forest in the Beskydy Mountains just above my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomne. All of this is contained in my current work-in-progress, in some ways simply an extension of Mnemonic. Maybe that’s the best way to look at my writing in general: a single ongoing work.

The other day I saw a child walking with his mother near Sechelt. He was trailing a huge maple leaf while his mother pushed an infant in a stroller. It reminded me of the day a young neighbour showed my children how to run with a maple leaf against her face like a mask. She raced along the trail with such energy and joy while the sun filtered through the bigleaf maples, part of this grove of trees, children and parents, the living and the dead held together by the intricate lattice of memory.


Think of those two “c”s with little hooks over top. (I hope that’s the right way to describe that particular diacritic…) And that’s the name of the wonderful Czech garlic soup. I’ve been thinking about it this afternoon as I plant next year’s garlic. It’s a soup I had almost daily when we spent a month in the Czech Republic last winter. Martina in Brno said, when I asked her how it was made, that it’s a soup you can make when you have almost nothing in the house. Water, or stock. Onions, if you like. Garlic. Fried bread. Potato cut into little cubes. Maybe some cheese or ham. Some caraway seed. I had many types. I think my favourite might have been the two bowls I had at the lovely Brasserie Avion in Roznov. I’d intended to have soup, then something else from the inventive menu. But that first bowl was so satisfying that I had another. The fried bread came on the side, crisp and hot, and you put in as much as you liked, offering some to the others at the table.

Yesterday I woke with such a vivid scene in my mind that I sat at my desk and wrote the first thousand words of a novella I’m calling Patrin. Part of it takes place in the Czech Republic and part of it in Canada, two brackets of my grandmother’s life. It’s not about her, exactly, but something of her life will echo in its pages. This morning I wrote a little more and am filled with that excitement that the beginning of a book produces. I’m trying not to think of the other two projects I have in the works but I do believe that they won’t go away and might even be better for waiting.

Today I planted four varieties of garlic —  Chesnok Red, Leningrad, Georgian Fire, and Northern Quebec, all purchased from a late summer Farmer’s Market in Sechelt. Last year I grew Russian Red, bought in Grand Forks, and a porcelain variety from Gabriola Island, bought at Coombs on our way home from the Pacific Rim. They did well, producing 80 good-sized heads, enough for John and I to use this winter. Here’s a bowl of them, against the Japanese maple:

It’s definitely fall here on the west coast. Last week we picked a big bag of chanterelles and made some of them into soup for the freezer. This morning I noticed that there’s fresh snow on Mount Hallowell. Yesterday there were chum salmon in Angus Creek, undulating in the tea-coloured water, a sight that always moves me to tears. And several days this past week, we saw skeins of geese flying very high on their way south, their scribble telling of northern waters, the prospect of long dark nights, our hemisphere turning to winter.

Time to make Ceznecka with the summer’s bounty, a few red potatoes tumbled from their soil, and the scent of garlic to remind me of my grandmother’s country.

the great migrations

Every fall, around Thanksgiving and for a few weeks after, these rough-skinned newts (Taricha granulosa) take to the Sunshine Coast Highway, heading for…well,where exactly? We find them on the pavement, looking to the other side of the road, sometimes unable to move because the sun has gone away and their bodies have cooled. They use a skin secretion to protect themselves against predators, a potent toxin, but I’ve never noticed anything like this when I pick them up to warm them a bit before letting them go again across the highway. We watch for them when we walk over for the mail most days and are sad when we find them flattened by cars. They have the most beautiful faces and brilliant orange bellies.

It takes Pender Harbour, in rain

On Saturday, we hosted a party near home to celebrate Forrest and Manon’s recent wedding. Our west coast friends and family weren’t able to travel to Ottawa and we wanted them to share some food, a glass of sparkling wine (Sumac Ridge’s lovely Stellers Jay brut), and to meet Manon and her parents. We invited around 60 people — almost all of them people who’ve known Forrest since he was a little boy, who attended Pender Harbour schools with him or else were classmates of his at Lester Pearson College of the Pacific where he did the International Baccalaureate programme in the late 1990s. 40 of them were able to come — some from Vancouver or Gibsons or Sechelt. Angie came from Victoria. And Manon’s parents Gerry and Nicole Labelle came all the way from Casselman, near Ottawa.

Our friends Jeffrey and Shana from Powell River prepared the most wonderful food for the event. (Jeffrey ran a small bistro there for a few years, Bemused, which was where we met him in the first place!) Here they are, putting out the appetizers (smoked sablefish on cucumbers, topped with borage flowers, prawns and aioli, heavenly wild mushroom terrine, and a delicious chanterelle cream for dipping), while Manon and I talk:

And here’s the room at the Pender Harbour School of Music, waiting for our guests:

There were a few speeches, all of them loving. Here are some friends listening while Forrest welcomes everyone and says he can’t imagine being married without a celebration in Pender Harbour, in rain:

Afterwards everyone feasted on brilliant little tourtieres topped with tiny potatoes, each holding a fresh cheese curd (homage to Manon’s Francophone roots), little paella cakes topped with prawns, salads of roasted squash and beets and micro-greens harvested by Jeffrey before dawn (he said he wore a headlight), platters of cheeses (applewood smoked cheddar and a beautiful Naramata Bench Blue from Poplar Grove), and glasses of wine (more of that Stellers Jay brut or else Okanagan merlot and Pinot blanc). For dessert, there were homemade truffles and macarons.

The young’uns have gone south, to San Francisco. Our fridge is still stuffed with leftovers and there’s an entire mushroom terrine in the freezer for a winter meal.

Edge of the world

Yesterday we went in our little boat down Sakinaw Lake. Manon and Forrest are here from Ottawa and it was such a beautiful day that a picnic at the bay beyond the end of the lake seemed like a good thing to do. Sakinaw is a long narrow lake with a fishway connecting it to the ocean at its western reach. Sockeye and coho salmon make their way through a flow control weir and into the lake, spawning in several locations each fall. When our children were small, we regularly visited the bay, sometimes to collect oysters and clams, once the gift of five yellow plates on a Thanksgiving weekend (only two remain intact!), and we always stopped at a cliff face to marvel at pictographs there.

Pictographs can be found in all sorts of places in B.C. and had, still have, important commemorative and ceremonial functions. They are records, burial markers, boundary markers, and have significance beyond what we might to able to determine. This particular group of images — fish, crayfish, prawns — has always seemed to me to be an inventory, a list of marine life common to our area. It speaks to the notion that when the tide is out, the table is set. And how lively these animals still are, after perhaps a hundred and fifty years! The pigment is red ochre, bound with animal fat or fish eggs; it’s extremely durable.

Here is the end of the lake as we approached it.

And here is the bigleaf maple, a study in arboreal architecture, against the October sky.

The tide was high, but heading out, so while we ate our picnic — baguette, pate, cheeses, apples, dark chocolate, accompanied by robust red wine — , the music was of water, herons, kingfishers.

And this was our view, in the distance — little islands, and the larger Texada beyond:

This bay has always seemed haunted to me. A place where human beings have sat in their privacy for centuries, a small relict of an older time. In the immediate past, our family and our dog Lily, children perching on rocks and unearthing tiny crabs to watch race back into the darkness of the boulders. And poking around the area above the high tide line, I found the remains of a midden — dry earth dense with clam shells. And this little ring of bone (vertebra?), light as air, an echo of other picnics, other feasts in sunlight, while above the maples turned gold and the mergansers muttered on their log.

Lower elevations in fall

Last evening we were out for a walk around the Sakinaw loop, a route that takes us down Sakinaw Lake Road to the lake itself, then along a trail through the woods to our own driveway. It’s a walk I love in all seasons. In spring the bigleaf maples all along the road produce their chartreuse flowers, sweet as honey, and bright with warblers. There’s a section of ditch where masses of maidenhair ferns grow, too, the delicate fronds held aloft by black-laquered stems. In summer the maples create deep and welcome shade. We often gather bags of maple leaves from this area to mulch our garden and often there are rough-skinned newts hiding in the leaves, waiting for the day to warm up enough for them to make the great trek across the road. Sometimes we find them frozen in place if the sun’s vanished before they make it to their destination but holding them in my palms for a few minutes usually revives them. There’s always a day in late fall when I smell fish and know the coho are in the creek that runs down off Mount Hallowell to enter Sakinaw Lake, a long length of water fed by many such creeks, some of which are home streams for coho. There’s also a race of sockeye salmon native to the lake — alas, almost extinct. The coho run is the hinge of the year, beginning in December, usually around the Solstice, and continuing into January.

On our walk last evening, we were just about to take the trail through the woods when we heard loud crashing ahead of us. We stopped, expecting a bear. Instead, we saw a bull elk, maybe the same guy who visited earlier our place earlier in summer. (It’s more usual to see them up the mountain, as we often do when hiking there, but the field guide says they move to lower elevations in fall.) He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. And he was beautiful. John, who was wearing his glasses, counted five points on each antler. The full complement is six, so he was maybe a three year old. But huge.  Deep brown with a golden rump. He stood absolutely still for a few moments, watching us, and we did the same. We could hear his cows in the woods, moving about. Then he trotted off into the trees and all that was left was his smell, and the smell of his harem, as pungent as horses.

Home, listening to Bach

We arrived home late yesterday afternoon from the Ottawa wedding and attendant celebrations. It was wonderful to gather our family together – Brendan and Cristen coming from Edmonton, Angelica from Victoria – to help Forrest and Manon get married on a bright Saturday, to feast with them and their friends and Manon’s family on Moroccan food (from Chez Fatima in Hull: extraordinary, every bite), to dance the night away, and then some. A sweet memory: watching Manon and her father begin the first dance, “The Tennessee Waltz”, and then to have my son reach for me to join him, and them, on the little dance floor. Such a lovely song, though I need to give some thought to how I would alter the lyrics, which don’t apply in this instance:

I remember the night,
And the Tennessee Waltz
Now I know just how much I have lost
Yes, I lost my little darlin’
The night they were playing
The beautiful Tennessee Waltz.

No loss in this marriage but the gift of a glorious daughter-in-law, a wide-reaching extended family to enrich our own, and again that feeling that life doesn’t pass but accumulates, person by person, moment by moment.

And now I’m home, listening to Casals play the cello suites, perfectly suited to this autumn morning, the big-leaf maples glowing golden in the woods beyond the house, a few roses still, last night’s big moon still in the sky.

A few images of the wedding: