I keep peering up at the clusters of grapes hanging over the west-facing deck. We planted the vine to cover a cedar lattice over part of the deck, along with wisteria and a Montana clematis, wanting a green shade in the hottest part of summer. I wasn’t hoping for grapes, exactly, though some summers they ripen in early September, just in time for the visits of bears and raccoons. Last summer* I heard a strange noise on the deck after dinner and looked out the living room window just in time to see a young bear falling from the lattice, bumping the cart that holds the kitchen herbs, and pausing as if to ask itself if the grapes were worth another try. Last summer they would have been but I chased the bear away with a broom and then picked the succulent clusters. (I made jelly with lime zest and rosemary.)
Two days ago, I woke early, around 4 a.m., to hear one coyote, perhaps two, in the woods beyond my house. We heard the entire family several times over the summer, an intricately entwined song so lovely I held it in my heart for days. But this call was lonely. Was the family disbanding, were the young, so exuberant in that mid-summer song, leaving to find their own way in the world? A lonely song I want to banish from my memory but I can’t stop thinking about it.
This year the grapes are hard and sour. I don’t think they’ll ripen enough to do anything with and I suspect one night we’ll waken to a ruckus that will prove to be a raccoon family feasting among the wide leaves, their eyes shining in the beam of the flashlight. So let me just say it again. The grapes are sour. They suit my mood. It’s the time of year when it’s easy to feel as though I’ve not done enough as a writer. My novella, published in June, has had 3 reviews and of course I’m grateful for those but I suspect that will be it. We’re moving into the season of big releases and prizes and a quiet novella about two women writers and their influence on a girl in the 1970s isn’t exactly news. I’m glad that other books will find their way into the country’s important conversations, I truly am. Websites and newspapers, online festivals, radio programmes devoted to writers—it’s not hard to find the latest releases. Books can open our hearts like spring leaves, offer a wide and lovely place for our sorrows and our pleasure, for escape and revelation. I am an avid reader: 4 or 5 books a week! I buy them to give as gifts, sometimes with a jar of jelly tucked into the bag. I trade them. I trip over stacks of them waiting on the stairs for shelf space or new homes. The underside of this bright leaf is the knowledge that so few will discover my own novella.
A quiet novella is a kiss of death if you think of literary ambition as a living thing. Do I have ambition? This is a hard question to ask myself and maybe harder to answer honestly. I have never believed I would write a bestseller or be a regular on the prize lists but I did believe that I was writing interesting books, worth a little more attention than they were receiving. There was a time when I thought my reticence towards the hustle and flow of literary activity might be what prevented my books from finding publishers able to promote them with both money and enthusiasm so I dutifully wrote to every agent in Canada as well as some in the US and Britain to seek representation. I am a diligent writer and I thought I could find someone to help with the selling of what I wrote. Some were polite but said no immediately, one or two were mildly interested at first but when the completed manuscript I had available at the time proved to be, well, quiet, they suggested we wouldn’t be a good match, and several were silent. A couple wondered if I would be interested in trying my hand at more commercially viable writing. A few were downright rude. One young-ish and lively woman actually said yes but then wouldn’t send the manuscript out to publishers, telling me it simply wasn’t ready. It was a novel based in some ways on books 9-23 of the Odyssey, set in both coastal British Columbia and the west of Ireland, and the agent read it again after we signed a contract, telling me she had a brilliant idea: I should re-write the novel matching the narrative exactly to that of the Odyssey, scene by scene. I gently pointed out that that my book did echo the Odyssey in subtle (or maybe I should say “quiet”) ways, that I’d had no intention of mirroring the Odyssey overtly, and I wanted it first to be its own story. My manuscript was returned to me, our contract was dissolved, and I was on my own. I did find a publisher for that book and it garnered a few good reviews, an award nomination, and even generous effort on the part of several readers to interest two different film-makers in acquiring the rights. Obviously there’s no film (yet) and sometimes I feel remorse that I am not the kind of person who can advocate confidently for such things but that’s (my) life. Mostly I’m glad to have small publishers interested enough to take on my work though in the best of times they often find it difficult to create a happy buzz for their titles. And these are not the best of times. Sometimes I wonder if I am my own worst nemesis. Nemesis in Greek mythology was the goddess of divine revenge and retribution. She was remorseless to anyone showing arrogance or hubris to the gods. Maybe I am so afraid of hubris that I am the agent of my own shrivelling ambition. Think of me, a handful of green grapes in one hand, the other hand shading my book so that no one will see it beside me.
A month ago, I was so grateful for the shade of the grape leaves. I sat outside almost every day at 5’o’clock with a glass of chilled wine, the table cool, a few tree frogs chirping from time to time. I have to say I barely noticed the grapes, didn’t stop to consider whether they’d ripen or not. Now they’re what I see when I head out to the deck with my wine, clumps of sour green grapes hanging over the table. Mostly I think about the bear and whether it will come for such bitter fruit but sometimes I grieve a little for the silence surrounding my book.
In good times and in bad times, I’ve listened for coyotes year round. I’ve heard them through my open bedroom window, mating quite close to the house. I’ve heard them chorus in accompaniment to emergency sirens on the long highway leading to the ferry terminal, I’ve heard them on warm summer evenings singing, their throats ululating with joy. They were eating meat together, they were playing at the mouth of the den, they didn’t know where one of them began and the other ones ended. The sound early the other morning was not joyous. It was the loneliest sound on earth.
I live in a quiet small novel. There are wide green leaves overhead. I am grateful for the shade they provide and sometimes I pick a cluster of ripe yellow grapes, each a pure expression of late summer. Some years, as with this one, I try a grape, spit out its sour bitter flesh. I don’t really mind if the bear climbs into the lattice for them. It would make for some drama on these fading summer days. And listen, those coyote songs in the chapter that is June, rich and tangled as our own extended family, they’ve gone quiet, just a single voice, as plaintive and lonely as a night without stars.
*Actually, I think it was the summer before. But this year a young bear has already come up the stairs onto the deck so another visit is entirely probable.