Green grapes and late summer coyotes

sour grapes

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.

green roof

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.

10 thoughts on “Green grapes and late summer coyotes”

  1. The Weight of the Heart is a beautiful, quiet novella, one that opened the hearts and minds of my upper-level university students in the spring, all who declared it their favourite book on our West Coast Literature reading list. We read seven excellent books, but yours resonated most strongly. And not because it was novella length! We sent your publisher a card thanking her and you for making advanced review copies available to our class, letting her know how much we loved the book. I hope she let you know. And the students felt somehow special to receive an ARC. I introduce a full section of first-year students to The Weight of the Heart this semester. In my small quiet way I try and open the hearts and minds of my students to the beauty in writing in this world sometimes not so beautiful. We do our best to keep hope and beauty alive. The state of reviewing in our country is abysmal, to say the least. The state of your writing — may that quiet beauty continue to resonate.

    1. You are such a generous person, Deborah. Thank you for responding to my post. We live in strange times. The things I sort of counted on in the past — more of a balance in the conversation between the books published by larger publishers and small ones, the space accorded books by newspapers and other mainstream media, etc. — are shrinking so that many of us feel edged out of that conversation. How lovely to know that your students read and enjoyed The Weight of the Heart. Thank you for letting me know and for your own willingness to consider books off the big literary radar. If you give me your mailing address (my own email address is in the contact area), I’d like to send you one of the keepsakes John printed when my book came out. In Before Times, it would have been tucked into books at the launch…

      1. Hi Theresa,

        Thank you for your kind and generous response. These are such strange and sometimes terrible times. I frequently pause and wonder how did we get here. So many ambiguous losses and yet we hang on to hope and attend to the beauty still everywhere present, a necessary lifeline….

        I would love to have one of the keepsakes John printed (whose poetry I thoroughly enjoy and teach). Thank you very much! Here’s my mailing address:

        Deb Torkko
        2021 Plecas Road
        Nanaimo, BC V9X 1R9

        And thank you for all your writing, which startles and delights and adds much needed beauty to this world.

        Huge gratitude,

  2. Theresa, what to say? I hear my own plaintive coyote cry echoed in yours – and to me, you are a wonderfully successful writer. You have actual publishers! You’ve been nominated for, and won, prizes! And as I learned above, your book is being taught at a university. To me, these are hallmarks of great success. Three reviews – I can only dream. Writing has always been an uncertain career suitable for lunatics – the best sort of lunatic, mind you – but now it’s far more dire, surely, than it has ever been, with so many publishers vanishing or swallowed into the big conglomerates, with so many diversions available at the flick of a screen – newspapers shrinking – how do we stay above water? A few books make their way through the noise, but most – thousands – do not. As you know from my blog, an editor told me he couldn’t publish my memoir because it was “beautiful but tender.” And also, my “lack of platform.” Two good friends of mine who are agents said no. So – why do we do this? Because I love to read your quiet, beautiful but tender words, and perhaps you mine, and there are so many others we love to read, who nurture us. We are leaving something of value on this earth, something quiet and thoughtful and lovely that was not there before. And I guess, right now, that’s it. And that’s surely, in the end, enough.

  3. Beth, yes, I love to read what you write. Your All My Loving is so true, somehow, to how we are sustained by our imaginations. Beautifully written, sweet without being artificial. And why don’t more people know about it? Ah, that’s the question. For myself, I have to say that mostly I think of my glass as being more than half full. I write what I need to and I love the work itself (mostly) and I know I’m lucky to have a group of small publishers who’ve taken the manuscripts over the years and made books of them. Lucky to have some loyal readers and for the books to have found interesting places to settle in the world. It feels now that the time it takes for something to disappear is just so brief. Like you, my husband John always says leaving something behind is important and he’s right (you’re right) I think. There’s not much more we can do. So mostly the glass is half full and the grapes are ripe and delicious. (And sometimes they’re not.)

  4. Absolutely, I understand that cry of despair – that “sometimes they’re not.” And we do read of unknown writers who are discovered, who have a lucky break and suddenly the world wants to read the words, and of course we dream that might happen to our beloved children sent out into the world to make their way. I always come back to one of my greatest heroes, Anne Frank, voted one of the “100 Most Important People of the 20th Century” by Time magazine – a 13-year old with a notebook, who chronicled the intensity of her days and edited with an eye to future publication. How in a million years could she have conceived that her work would change the world? And yet it did and she did. So – we don’t know where our words will end up. We just have to have faith that they matter. Oh – and thank you for those kind words about a book that about 37 discerning, kind people have read.

  5. I loved your novella, Theresa. I am still delighted that it arrived in my mailbox the same day your keepsake did. It doesn’t pay the bills, sadly, but you have a small but devoted group of fans and readers—and I count myself lucky to be among them. xo

    1. Thank you, Kerry! I said (and I mean it!) that mostly my glass is more than half-full but sometimes, well, it feels a little empty. And I can’t imagine (or desire) any other life.

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