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.

small packages

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As Christmas approaches, I’ve been shopping and making — and trying to remain true to my belief that good things come in small packages. With my family, it’s not difficult. We’ve never gone into the season with the sense that we had to go into debt or buy big electronic items or expensive bijoux. And it’s lovely to find the right thing, to know it as you see it, or to find the materials in your own surroundings. To plan the baking — white chocolate fruit cakes, savoury rosemary shortbread, gingerbread people with smartie buttons and silver dragee eyes. (I once tried to use a piping device to do fancy work with icing and failed miserably.)

I’m also having an interesting time discussing a new project with my friend Anik See in Amsterdam. Both of us have novella manuscripts which haven’t (yet) been able to find publishers. (Anik has published a novella, postcard, as part of her fiction collection, poscard and other stories; and I’ve published one, Inishbream, and have another, Patrin, forthcoming from the inspiring Mother Tongue Publishing in September, 2015.) Like John and I, Anik has a printing press and has designed and created some beautiful books through her Fox Run imprint. When she was here in September, on her way back to Amsterdam from three months as writer-in-residence at the Berton House in Dawson City, we continued talking about the idea (the madness?) of beginning a small imprint to publish novellas (and maybe some other forms not high on the lists of most commercial publishers). We’d probably begin with our work, my Winter Wren and Anik’s Cabin Fever, mostly because of logistics. We have them ready and we trust one another enough to work together in this way. She’s adept at page design, we have some sense of the market for these titles, and we don’t have illusions about commerical success.

Both of us love novellas. We love beautiful books. And we believe that there should be room in the literary conversation for this form. So we intend to try to expand the conversation, not with the intention of silencing any other voices but simply to ensure that the quiet ones continue to be included.  There are sure to be difficulties but is that a reason not to try? Nope.

Last night I finished re-reading Sheila Watson’s Deep Hollow Creek, written in the 1930s, before her extraordinary (and hugely influential) The Double Hook. It’s a hermetic story, set at Dog Creek in the Cariboo, in winter, and the language is precise and chilly, perfectly suited to the human relationships in the contained world of this novella.

As Miriam reached up the move the lamp Stella noticed the curve of her hip under the gold-haired brown wool of her Harris tweed skirt and the light bathing her braided hair as water bathes pebbles in the creek.

Nor in things extreme and scattering bright — no not in nothing — certainly not in nothing. Why, Stella thought, slipping from the literacy of the past into the literacy of the present, must the immediacy of the moment act itself out in the klieg light of a thousand dead candles.

She rose quickly from the end of the camp cot on which she was sitting and, going to the bucket, poured a dipper of water into the white enamelled hand-basin.

Is supper ready? she asked.

I think of a shelf of Canadian literature — or the literature of any civilized culture — missing this book and others, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling, Barbara Lambert’s Message for Mr. Lazarus, Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel, and so many others, simply by virture of their size, and it determines me to continue my discussions with Anik. Stay tuned!

let’s hear it for lean and intense

my novella, Inishbream, in Helene Francoeur's beautiful turbot-skin bound edition
my novella, Inishbream, in Helene Francoeur’s beautiful turbot-skin bound edition

It occurred to me, talking to John as we walked over for the mail today (ask me about community mail boxes! I honestly can’t take the fuss about them, the suggestion that it’s the end of civilization as we know it, the end of safety for seniors – there are seniors in our neighbhourhood, John included, and like us, they’ve never had home mail delivery; if they can’t collect their own mail, a neighbour will do it for them…), that my reading lately has been largely novellas. I’ve written two posts about them – Hetty Dorval and Deep Hollow Creek are, to my mind, both novellas – and I’ve spent quite a bit of time (for desperate reasons) perusing publishing websites to see who on earth might consider a manuscript comprised of two novellas. (Yes, mine!)

And once I realized that I was reading novellas, and thinking about novellas, I began to see them everywhere. Last night I read David Gilmour’s new book, Extraordinary. I hadn’t meant to. I liked his book about watching films with his teen-aged son but I haven’t much liked his fiction. I did read his interview in Hazlitt last September (http://www.randomhouse.ca/hazlitt/blog/gilmour-transcript) and found it utterly distasteful. He’s entitled to his opinion(s) of course but nothing he said about writing and reading made me think I’d enjoy his latest book. But when I saw it at the library yesterday, I picked it up, read the jacket copy, and checked it out. It took me an hour and a half to read it last night and I don’t regret the time spent at all. It’s good. It moves along so well and the writing is crisp and clean. And you know what? I think it’s a novella. It’s brief – perhaps 50,000 words – and is essentially a conversation between a brother and a sister. Each character is vividly drawn and the dialogue is convincing. It has a novella’s sense of time and place, that contained and concise elegance.

One of my favourite novellas is Joyce’s The Dead. It’s perfect. I read it once a year and each time I’m both moved and inspired. And more. Surprised to find a sentence I hadn’t remembered and how its perfect fit within the narrative made it so organic to the piece as a whole that it took a fifth or tenth reading to actually see it. I love what Ian McEwan said about The Dead in his wonderful piece on the novella in the New Yorker magazine (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/10/some-notes-on-the-novella.html):

I’d swap “The Dead”’s concluding pages for any fifteen from “Ulysses.” The young Joyce surpassed himself. I sometimes fantasize that on my deathbed, celebrated phrases from this novella will see me out: “I think he died for me”; “one by one they were all becoming shades”; “the time had come for him to set out on his journey westward”; snow “softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves”; “snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’ There could be worse final moments.

I’m looking forward to reading the Canadian poet Gillian Wigmore’s recently-published novella, Grayling. I think highly of her poetry.She writes deeply and beautifully from her northern landscape –

4. fraser (fort george)

meet the clang and stink of the black train bridge

dripping the rain into the broad brown river

can trees be proud?

the cottonwood aren’t quitters

they draw the river up their roots

reach high towards sky

travellers in metal cars untouched

by river life, rife and humming

down below (from “Five Rivers: Under Bridges” in Soft Geography, Caitlin Press, 2007)

– and I anticipate that she will bring that attentive eye and ear to prose as well. And I am full of admiration for Gillian’s publisher, Mona Fertig at Mother Tongue Publishing, who unapologetically advertises this new book as a novella. (From the catalogue copy: “A lean and intense tale that takes the reader to haunting depths.  A seminal and brilliant addition to a neglected genre.”)