There were sunsets that filled the room with golden-pink light

John is putting the doors back on the upper kitchen cupboards. Our old kitchen, our big untidy kitchen, with its woodstove dead-centre and the long pine table in the alcove. 32 years ago a friend made the cupboards. They’re yellow cedar, mostly, and the doors have inserts of birch veneer. Have they lasted well? Sort of. Yellow cedar is soft and it bruises. But when it’s washed, sanded, given three coats of minwax, it glows. Everything from inside the cupboards needs to be put back and of course I’ll do what I did when the lower part of the cabinets was restored the week before last: I’ll winnow. So the chipped cups, the jars of dried herbs and aging teas never used for various reasons? Out!

I am hopelessly attached to this kitchen. I know times have changed and there are reasons why people don’t tile their counters (we did because we bought the end of a line of 6×6 terracotta squares from Spain and we used them for any and everything…) but every inch of the kitchen holds a memory. I wrote an essay last spring called “The Sound of Forks and Laughter” as a way of justifying why I didn’t want anything to change:

Our kitchen could be made new. It could be made sleek and clean. But there were cats, there were dogs sleeping by the sliding doors, there were toys left around, there were books on the low blue table. There were sunsets that filled the room with golden-pink light. Cookies cooling on racks wherever I could find room. Jars of jams waiting for their labels. A big bowl with bread dough rising under a clean towel. A boy drawing cartoons in a large pad of paper, another boy building with Lego, a girl playing with a cat.

If the yellow cedar cabinets went, the light would change, wouldn’t it? Right now there’s a fire and my coffee cup is waiting. And a morning — oh, well, probably an entire day — of work is waiting.

kitchen

radio’s perfect at night…

…when you’re driving the dark highway home from the ferry and Bruce Cockburn is offering a playlist on the CBC. You tune in late, much later than you think, and first, just past Roberts Creek, it’s Ian and Sylvia Tyson singing “Four Strong Winds”, which has you thinking ahead, to Thursday (“Think I’ll go out to Alberta/ weather’s good there in the fall”) when you’ll fly to see your baby grand-daughter in Edmonton, those sweet harmonies part of how you came of age yourself. And then, just before Sechelt, it’s Joni Mitchell singing “Amelia”, with its beautiful high notes and its hexagons of the heavens, the strings of her guitar, and those geometric farms, which you’ll see as your plane descends after crossing the Rockies. Perfect at night as the moon appears, not blood-red or in full eclipse (you missed that while you napped in the car on the ferry), but shrugging its shoulder until the grey shadow falls away. Leonard Cohen sings of the future, the one that is almost upon us:

Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul…

Oh, and Sarah Harmer, as you drive home, home past Halfmoon Bay, makes it personal:

A raincoat and a French beret
The rolling hills of past mistakes
Like quiet under cloud

And I will long look to the churning sea
This call to arms means wrap them
Around the first person you see.

And then, just before the coyote crosses the road near Kleindale, Bruce has the good sense to ask Tom Waits to sing you the last miles:

Far far away a train
Whistle blows
Wherever you’re goin
Wherever you’ve been
Waving good bye at the end
Of the day
You’re up and you’re over
And you’re far away.

And when you arrive, the moon is waiting, full and silver as though nothing has ever happened and the world is still hopeful and waiting for tomorrow.

moon

“Where on the map”

One book released to the world and another finding its way into my daily life, another novella, The Marriage of Rivers. I began it some time ago but put it aside because I had the work of editing Patrin and then I also wrote a long essay. I’m never sure why some work agitates its way to the front of the line but it does and other writing goes quiet. But on a fall morning, this morning in fact, I woke excited about this novella again and there it was, waiting. I’ve finished the first half. And I like where it’s going, in actual terms and in narrative terms. In actual terms, here’s a glimpse of the main character (who doesn’t have a name. I don’t know why that is but maybe she’ll find one…) in country I’m thinking of these days, with that kind of longing you feel as keenly as anything.

across the Fraser River


“Ever since I could remember, it was my joy and the joy of all of us to stand on this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser. It is a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quality than before.”

I had the map I’d drawn for my thesis, rough but fairly accurate, and I was marking it with the places I’d identified in Hetty Dorval. I’d left my car at the Totem Motel and walked to the bridge. An osprey nest was unoccupied, though birds fished over both rivers, dipping and plunging. On the far side, the Lillooet side, a man was walking towards town with a dog beside him. I could hear the ospreys whistling as they fished, a surprisingly thin sound for such a big bird. There was such power in their wings which formed a kind of sail for the birds to ride the currents of air and watch for fish. Emissaries, beacons, gods of the sky. I wondered if they saw you, James, as you fell from your kayak and tried to fight the wild water, tumbling against rocks, your head thrust up, and up, their impersonal gaze casting over you as you drowned.

I made my mark on the map. Then I walked out the Lillooet Road, along its narrow shoulder, grass and pines above my shoulders, and everywhere the scent of southernwood, its blossoms just finishing. Dry air, a dry wind as I walked. Where was it Frankie Burnaby first met Hetty Dorval on the dusty highway, Frankie riding back from her home ranch in Lillooet to where she boarded during the week when she attended school in Lytton, and Hetty, recently arrived in Lytton from some mysterious past, out exploring on her mare. Ethel Wilson wrote of hairpin turns and the hills dotted with sage and it could have been anywhere along the road where the two met and witnessed the long arrow of migrating geese in the autumn sky. As I walked, I looked up, hoping for the same arrow. But saw only the blue vault and a few high clouds.

From a letter you wrote to me: Sometimes we head up to Keatley Creek to see what they’re doing. Man, what a place. Huge village – probably around 1500. When the creek meets the Fraser, the fishing would have been amazing. In a kind of funnel which would have dried the fish in no time. I love that place. And you can drive by and never know that it exists.

A I walked out the road, I thought how our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers – thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of morse code – dash, dot, long dash — countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depression where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current. Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds. A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and were changed forever by it.

afterglow

On Saturday, my publisher Mona Fertig from Mother Tongue Publishing and her husband Peter Haase travelled from Salt Spring Island to help me launch my new novella, Patrin. We met at a local restaurant and they gave me an unexpected gift: a bottle of sparkling Italian wine with a sweet card. (The plum gin was presented later, at our house, by the fire…) But why should I have been surprised? Everything about the process of publishing this particular book has been note-perfect. Mother Tongue may be a small company but Mona is also generous and thoughtful.

So the launch was wonderful. I’m still glowing. The beautiful Arts Centre in Sechelt filled with friends and well-wishers, the long tables laid out with food and drink, books, flowers, and of course a scattering of leaves in honour of Patrin Szkandery (whose name means “leaf” and who is told by a Roma woman in rural Moravia, “your name is your best prayer”).

Some lovely surprises at the launch: Jeffrey Renn, our actor friend, who came in the door with a huge smile. And Kathy Munro and Bill Mann from Whitehorse! (They should get a prize for coming the longest distance…) I’d love to post some photographs but John’s are blurry. I think Mona will send some photos later — the cake in particular was spectacular! But luckily my young friend Isabelle drew my portrait while I was reading and so I can show you what an author looks like, dressed for the celebration of her novella. (Isabelle must have thought my reliable black dress was too dull so she gave me some colour.)

me

P.S. Here’s Mona’s photo of the cake!

the cake!

“Don’t fear the voices”

Tonight is the launch for my novella Patrin. In the way that one does, I’m anticipating questions (not necessarily tonight but in the next while as friends and strangers read this book that takes place partly in the city of my birth and partly in the country of my grandmother’s birth) about the intersection of fact and fiction. Sometimes I write what I call fiction and sometimes I write what is presented as non-fiction. Each is embellished with elements of the other. How could it be otherwise? I think of myself as a writer first,  a citizen of language, and sometimes the world is so rich and dense with materials, with possibilities, that I feel dizzy with it. Joyous with it. And sometimes burdened by it.

For the past few years I’ve been working intermittently on pieces which hover between essays and stories. Some are just fragments of dialogue, overheard. Some are lists of findings, catalogues of family details. Some are sustained narratives. One is a wild patchwork of math and botany, genetics and animal behavior. I haven’t worried about the final organization of this material. Yet. But I know that at some point I’ll have to decide what it is.

I’ve been rereading Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock. It’s one of my favourites of all her books, though I have to say that on any random day, my favourite might be another book entirely. Maybe I mean that it’s the book that puzzles me and enchants me, in equal measure. Some of it seems to be pure memoir. Sometimes Munro takes a single fragment of factual material and meditates upon it, asking questions of it, giving it a life beyond its immediate presence. She writes, in her Foreward, about the genesis of the book. She tells us that she had been looking at family accounts, letters, recollections:

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can every be.

During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I doing something closer to what a memoir does — exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the centre and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and colour and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago.

I don’t know that any of those surrounding my particular self joined the Salvation Army but there are some individuals and occasions I don’t know enough about and perhaps never will. And maybe it’s time to explore the possibilities of those instead of waiting, waiting, waiting to find out the actual facts which I suspect will never be revealed. The land my grandmother bought near Grays Harbor, Washington, for instance — how did an immigrant woman living in Drumheller, a widow (I think) at that point, with at least 7 children, buy land in Aberdeen? My father told my son that she discovered the property was worthless and she took a shotgun with her to confront the man who sold it to her. Did she get her money back? My father said she shot fish to feed her children. Grays Harbor is a bay composed of many estuaries — the Hoquiam River, the Humptulips River, the Chehalis, all of them salmon-bearing rivers. In those years — this would have been the early 1920s at the latest — I imagine the salmon-runs were the old legendary runs, so many fish you could cross the river by stepping on a living bridge. I can smell those fish, can see that woman with her shotgun and her children. So a story, a fragment, and as mine as anything ever is.

Releasing one book to the world creates such space for the imagination. I have been sorting (in the most chaotic way) some of the material I have in my study and I keep hearing quiet voices. In Patrin, there’s a poem by the wonderful Czech poet Jan Skacel; its opening line is “Don’t fear the voices.” Patrin Szkandery takes the poem and its advice to heart. And maybe it’s time I did too. I look at this photograph, for instance — a baby who would have been my aunt if she’d lived. Julia Kishkan. She died before my father was born and I know almost nothing about her death. This photograph is anything but empty though. Her older (half) sisters, the curtain, the window, the cloth under the casket, and all those brothers and sisters who aren’t in the photograph. Julia’s parents, my grandparents, whom I barely knew but whose lives deserve my attention, now if ever there was a time. “Don’t fear the voices, there’s a lot of them.”

julia

late roses for a 30th birthday

It’s my daughter Angelica’s 30th birthday today. I was 30 when I gave birth to her, our last child. My memories of that autumn are happy ones. I’d bathe her in a plastic tub on the dining table with sunlight streaming in the big window. She loved her father to hold her on his stomach as he watched television — he’d pat her back and sing little songs to her. And her brothers were fascinated by her and quite impressed that she knew them well enough to bring them a special gift home from the hospital — a Playmobil gas station, complete with tiny parts that all had to be assembled in secret by parents and grandparents late into the night before they discovered it the next morning.

Having a daughter has been one of the great pleasures of my life (as is having sons, but the pleasures are different, something I’ll try to analyze another time). I’ve had access to a thread that runs from girlhood to womanhood and back. As a writer this has been so valuable. When I was writing my first novel, Sisters of Grass, Angelica was about ten. And when it was finally published, she was 16, nearly the age of the novel’s protagonist Margaret Stuart, who is a young woman living in the Nicola Valley in 1906. That period intrigued me — so much of the valley still retains traces of that time: names on gravestones, old buildings, a legacy of ranches and settlement. And Margaret Stuart is in turn fascinated with the cist burials she finds evidence of on the Douglas Plateau, particularly an incised bone drinking tube which would have been buried with a pubescent girl for her afterlife. Our family camped in the valley in those years and I felt as though I was seeing the world through a series of shifting transparencies, shapes visible now, and now, and now, and then fading as something else replaced them for a time. I know now that this was the awakening of the part of my imagination that allows me to write fiction but then I was in a constant state of wonder.

In the epilogue to the novel, I meditate on memory and the apprehension of those transparencies:

What secrets do the hills contain in their suede hollows, what mysteries are lifted from the stones in the unbearable stillness of morning? Which is the way where light dwelleth?and as for darkness, where is the place thereof? My daughter has rolled into the grassy hollow of the kikuli pit at Nicola Lake, closing her eyes as she imagines the life of its ghostly household in the time we nearly know as we sit on the shore of the lake. Looking up, she sees a fresh moon in the daylight sky, hears the girls singing wherever they might be — in memory, in photographs, crumbling bones under a cairn of boulders, a little necklace of elk teeth at what was once a youthful throat, in the heart, the imagination. You remind me a girl I once watched picking flowers. On the shoulders of the young girls, golden pollen; in their hair, a halo of seeds, ruffled by the breeze. If we are very quiet, they might sing to us, dry husks in the wind, dust of stars.

That line from Sappho is something I’d like to say to my daughter now. You remind me of a girl I once watched picking flowers. And here’s a bouquet of late “Mme. Alfred Carriere” roses, as sweetly scented as anything on earth, to say Happy Birthday, Angelica!

birthday roses

life lists

My son Forrest keeps a life list of water bodies he’s been swimming in — written down? I’m not sure. But certainly remembered, and recited when asked… Rivers, lakes, various oceans and seas. Ponds. I know people keep life lists of birds, species ticked off, trips taken to far-flung backyards where something unexpected has shown up, attracting twitchers with their binoculars and field guides. Maybe we all do this — keep lists of beloved things. Lately, for me, it’s been novellas. I recently read Kent Haruf’s last book, Our Souls At Night, and even though it’s advertised as a novel, I’d argue that it’s a fine example of a novella. It’s brief, very self-contained, and even its physical presentation is ideally suited to the novella form. Calling it a novella doesn’t diminish it in my eyes. It elevates it. I love novels and read at least two a week. But novellas appeal to the poet in my heart and mind. I’m drawn to the good ones for similar reasons to those so intelligently articulated by Ian McEwan in the New Yorker a few years ago:

The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity.

My novella, Patrin, is on its way to me now. Maybe it’ll arrive in today’s mail. I’m eager to see if it looks the way I hope it will look. I spent a lot of time working with the finished copy in a pdf and I love how the designer Setareh Ashfologhalai echoed some of the book’s themes in her page design. Dropped caps and little graphic elements. And I am so grateful to the publisher Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing for devoting time and attention to every detail of the book’s editing, copy-editing, proof-reading, and design.

Mother Tongue also published one of the titles I’d include on my life list of novellas. It’s Grayling, by Gillian Wigmore. I have it on my desk right now. I reviewed it last year for the Malahat Review and here’s what I said about it.

Gillian Wigmore, Grayling (Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue, 2014). Paperbound, 114 pp., $16.95.

Consider the novella. For decades the form enjoyed respectability, a place of honourGrayling on the lists of many publishers. No one apologized for the brevity of, oh, Death in Venice or The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Few lamented that a novella wasn’t as lengthy and complicated as War and Peace, that the printed volume didn’t include a family tree spanning centuries. The contemporary European literary tradition includes the novella as a matter of common sense: I think of the Peirene Press and Sylph Editions with their devotion to the marriage between text and design. There’s been a fair amount of spirited debate about the parameters of the novella. It’s generally agreed that the optimum length is somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 words, but there are exceptions. I’d argue that James Joyce’s The Dead is a novella, though at roughly 15,000 words, it’s short. Still, it has the dramatic tension, the scope, the unity of place and subject, and its language is beautifully condensed and elliptical—all qualities I associate with the form. In 2012, Ian McEwan wrote (in The New Yorker), “I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days).” Thirteen years ago I published a novella with a small Canadian publisher willing to include it on a list with several other novellas, printed as small books and priced accordingly. Recently I was told that, alas, a novella is no longer a viable form to market in today’s economic climate. So I was delighted to receive a copy of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling, with its gorgeous cover (by Annerose Georgeson) and French flaps enclosing a book perfectly sized to suit its contents. The publisher makes no apologies (and honestly, why should she? Do presses make excuses for slim collections of poetry?), but instead celebrates the form.

Graylings narrative is closely located within a specific landscape—northern British Columbia, near the Yukon border. The protagonist, Jay, has driven to a remote area along the Cassiar Highway in order to put his canoe into the Dease River; he is planning to paddle for several days to Lower Post where his truck will be waiting. With some hastily assembled gear and a single lesson on a parking lot, he hopes to fly-fish for grayling, a species of freshwater fish belonging to the salmon family, and native to the Arctic and Pacific drainages. Tiny graphic images of these fish swim along the lower pages of the novella, to remind us where we are and what we should be alert to.

The Dease is liminal space for Jay. Having recently undergone surgery for a testicular tumour, he is also recovering from a broken relationship. He has given up his job and his home. His journey down the river is intended to bring him not only to Lower Post but also to a new way of living. The river is a threshold, a crossing. He experiences it in his body as a pulse, a rhythm. “His mind went ahead, trying to imagine the current and the obstacles and the rapids he would encounter. His heart felt raw, beating harder than it should for the effort he exerted pulling the water and pushing the paddle forward through the air.”

When Julie pulls Jay from the canoe at a primitive campsite and warms his hypothermic body, the reader is as surprised as Jay. Who is she and how did she arrive in such a far-flung place? When she joins him on the river, she unsettles his balance. As she pulls one prize after another from her pack—wine, cheese, basil, fresh noodles, and even a bottle of single-malt—and engages Jay in discussions of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne,” it becomes increasingly clear that she is as mythic as the woman in that song. No tea and oranges, but coffee and croissants, and a perfectly ripe cantaloupe are brought from the bottom of her packsack. (“She lets the river answer that you’ve always been her lover….”) And of course there are the grayling, which Julie, who has never fished before, keeps pulling from the river and which Jay ties to the painter for a future dinner. “They’re beautiful—silver and blue and iridescent—and they have a tall dorsal fin that stretches out like a sail.”

Grayling begs for a map, perhaps printed on the endpapers, so that the reader wouldn’t have to balance a road atlas on a lap while reading. You want to follow the journey, tracing your finger across the blue scribble of river, pausing at certain turns. Here’s the Dease River Resort; this must be French Creek. This novella is riparian: “the hum of cicadas in the heat…red-winged blackbirds in the marsh,” and that small scribble of grayling swimming along the bottom of each page. And Grayling is a poet’s novella, written with the care and attention a fine writer brings to language, to timing, and to the unfolding of story across a wild terrain. Even its cryptic conclusion—those wolf-tracks mingling with human footprints; Julie’s packsack emptied of its surprises—is satisfying, in the way a poem can continue to play in the mind long after one puts it aside: a grayling on a hook, spinning the river’s length.