over the dark water —

— the bridges outlined with light as I look out on a sleeping Amsterdam. My body is on home’s time, 6:28, when we’d be eating by the fire; not tucked into a billowy white bed at 3:30 a.m. (that’s time passing as I write).

But look! The cover of my forthcoming book was waiting in my email box, designed by Setareh Ashrafologhalai:


where on the map

From The Marriage of Rivers, a novella-in-progress:

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.

the two rivers meeting
the two rivers meeting

small packages


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!

from Winter Wren (an unpublished novella)

winter wren

Some days he simply dreamed. Didn’t eat or rise from his bed except to use the toilet. If someone entered the room, he turned to face the other way. He kept his eyes closed and dreamed. It was a long path to dream down, to the past, where he was lithe and loose-limbed, a boy at home in the world. Tom, his father called, Don’t forget the tiller, and he paid attention, on those treacherous waves, murres and puffins with their curious beaks low in the surf, terns and kittiwakes wheeling above the boat.

            That trip to Klukwan, how long ago was that, when his father photographed the Whale House, photographed the blankets hung on a line, fine Chilkat blankets of spruce bark and goats’ wool. He saw so clearly the man in the Raven of the Roof hat, the dancers in their Snail House regalia, his father coaxing an acquaintance to act on his behalf to purchase them. He saw the Rain Wall with its hole for the chief to enter his quarters, the Raven Pole (he’d peered into the faces carved in the Raven’s feet), the Black Skin Pole. But the man knew their worth and wouldn’t help. He had other plans. His wife, who spoke no English, glared at Tom’s father and shook her finger fiercely. Still, his father photographed those events – the dances, the potlatches; and somewhere there were prints. The Museum, probably. But he didn’t need to look at them; there were times – this was one of them – when those days were as vivid as light. He walked the grey streets of Klukwan, smoke in each chimney, fish smell rank in the air, watching the sun come up, while his father still slept in the tiny cabin of their boat. The river steamed, full of salmon, and boys as young as himself crouched above them with spears and nets. And sailing back to Juneau, he watched the glacial creeks, dark and silty, swirl into the green water of the fjord. Fountains of water which his father said were humpback whales, so close the spray wet his face like rain.

Some days he dreamed of the War, how he tried to help the horses who screamed in the mud, their guts hanging out, flies already at work, he dreamed his way back to the terrible smell of gangrene and mustard gas. Some days, dreaming, he was already dead, a medic leaning over him and touching his wrist for the pulse; suddenly he sat up, asked for a smoke. For a moment he had entered heaven, then returned to earth, which he’d always regretted.

Some days he still sat on the porch above the ocean, a younger man with hands unspotted and strong, looking towards the salal where the little wrens hunted for spiders, rewarding him with their song, as plangent and lovely as anything he heard at the Royal Theatre in the days when he studied violin and thought he might pursue music as an occupation. He tried to capture the notes, the staff hastily drawn onto a blank page and his few years of theory helping him to figure out a time signature, pitch, the run of notes (16ths), a rest, another bar. He heard harmony, almost, the bird its own counterpoint, but realized it was another wren, further away. He was there on that porch at the end of the day, listening and transcribing, when a nurse appeared at his bedside to say that if he didn’t eat, then she would seek a doctor’s order for an IV.”

“They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it.” (Kirsty Gunn)

A few posts ago, Sarah of Edgeofevening left a comment about Kirsty Gunn’s novella, Rain. Something I’d written about the novella I have recently begun (The Marriage of Rivers) reminded her of Rain. I’d read Gunn’s The Keepsake but not Rain — so I ordered it immediately. It’s a wonderful book, brief, lyrical, and also dense at the same time. Dense with weather, with emotional tension, and with an almost mythic dread. It’s the size it needs to be for its plot — quite simple, yet as inevitable as rain. And as lasting in the mind and heart. (I’m listening to rain now, a welcome sound after a long dry stretch; it patters on the metal roof and the way it smells, mixed with woodsmoke — because you need a fire on a wet morning — is something I’d like to bottle and dab behind my ears.)

In a talk given at the International Conference of Virginia Woolf Studies at the University of Glasgow in 2011, Kirsty Gunn commented on her writing process:

“What I know I am writing – are sentences. That’s what I am really confronting when I am at work on a piece of fiction –  not the idea of story at all, but rather the sentence that sits on the page before me. And in the end, more than any cultural doubts about the relevance of fiction’s form and content, it’s my own inability ever to leave the sentence behind…That makes me wonder sometimes how I might get any books finished at all.

Those sentences, for me, are the fiction. They are its stuff and scent and touch and ballast. They are the ground of the story and the air that blows through it. They are, these lines of words, the present tense of writing, and each one holds me in the now of making, these sentences – various, textured, new – full of smoothnesses and bits, what is known and unknown, the lovely and the shocking…So they keep me sifting through their endless possibilities, while out there somewhere is the idea of the project to which they belong, the book with its title, the story with its name…Nevertheless it is, for me, these sentences of mine that, ok, along with “the overall sense of a shape keep one at it.”

That shape is important, of course. I share with Woolf the sense of it being a kind of act of faith to “keep at it”, to keep finding the sentences that will move the fiction to find its place in the general scheme of things, be true to one’s idea of aesthetic and of form. For without that – significance – sentences would be all I would have…”

This is true of my own work. There’s a sentence, which carries with it a music, a rhythm, and that leads to the next, as a phrase of music suggests another. And those sentences will speak to one another as much as to a reader  — who at that point is unimagined in any case; or the reader is a listener, is myself, listening to the rush of words and trying to find out where they are going in their headlong play along the paper, or screen, as water moves from its source in earth, or glaciers, down a course, finding its way through a landscape, over rocks, through fields, meandering and creating oxbows, plunging over mountainsides, accumulating the taste of soil, of wild sage, of fish in its dark depths, the bodies of the drowned, a broken paddlewheel, an astrolabe dropped over the side of a canoe. Until it is itself a river.

IMG2009-0063-0007-Dm1-229x297In her talk, so appropriately given at a conference of Woolf studies, Kirsty Gunn commented that at “the beginning of writing all of my books and short stories is one sentence that starts to play over and over in my mind and that I then “capture” on the page: ‘Up in that part the water smelled rivery….'” When Rain begins with that sentence, you know you are in for a wondrous read and you’re not disappointed. You follow, with your nose as much as with your eye, your ear, until you’ve “passed the little bay at the end of the first beach but already the air was touched by the promise of our destination.”


“I am no philosopher, he thought, fumbling for a cigarette, but if continuity is anything, it is in this. Bright pictures in the dark of the mind, each an echo of something, but still unique.”

The “he” in this passage is Claude Monet and it is nearly half-way through the day described so wonderfully in Light, a novella by the late Eva Figes. Monet has been up for hours, before dawn, “the dark just beginning to fade slightly, midnight blueblack growing grey and misty, through which he could make out the last light of a dying star.” He is in pursuit of light and the reader follows him, his extended family, the servants, and a lunch guest, as the light shifts and changes, highlights at one moment a willow, at another the opening bowls of water lilies in the pond he created for them.

The relationships in the novella are complicated. Monet and his wife Alice have children from previous marriages. Suzanne, one of Alice’s daughters, recently died and the two grandchildren are staying at Giverny, cared for by Marthe, an unmarried daughter. Another daughter has fallen in love with someone who Monet dismisses: “It’s absurd,” he said, “since the boy has neighter money nor prospects.” The widowed husband of Suzanne is contemplating marriage with Marthe. Monet’s son and step-son have their own agendas. The servants keep the house running during the intense heat of the day and the mercurial nature of the painter who must be placated and obeyed. All of this is both subordinate to the light but also illuminated momentarily by its changing qualities.

I’m so glad I found this novel (thanks to Sarah at Edge of Evening —  http://edgeofevening.wordpress.com/2014/06/20/midsummers-eve/

So many things conspire in these pages to make a perfect narrative. The language, the canvas (Sarah calls it “circadian” and I think that’s perfect), the sense of a world about to change (it’s 1900; and even the Abbé Toussaint who arrives at the end of lunch says, “I believe the Church must come to terms with science, if it is to survive. To me the theory of evolution is the greatest miracle of all.”), a gardener kneeling on the path to plant out new seedlings and deadhead the old, and the stately passage of the sun across the sky from dawn to dusk make for an elegant and beautifully controlled story.


“I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held.”

I’ve never been to Dog Creek though I’ve thought of it many times as we’ve driven Highway 97 from Cache Creek north. In 1934 (one account says 1935) the young Sheila Doherty went to teach school in Dog Creek, then (as now) a remote community on the west side of the Fraser River. She lived in Dog Creek for two years and wrote of this time in her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, though it was published much later in her life, after she’d achieved a kind of fame after the publication of her second novel, The Double Hook, in 1959. By then she’d married Wilfred Watson and taken his surname.

I read The Double Hook as many of us did, as an undergraduate (in the last century), and it changed the way I thought about novels. Its language, both lean and mythic, led the reader into a hermetic world from which one emerged, dazed and somehow enlightened. Its structure was (is) perfectly balanced between darkness and illumination, between violence and redemption. As Sheila Watson wrote in The Double Hook, “…when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too.”

But it was many years later before I found Deep Hollow Creek — and no surprise there because it wasn’t published until 1992. I read it later in the 1990s, a chance discovery on the shelves of the Sechelt Public Library. It’s a brief perfect book. 111 pages in the New Canadian Library edition I bought at Russell Books in early March. I’d call it a novella, that enigmatic form beloved by maybe too few of us these days (or so the publishing world would have us believe. We can’t market them, they say. We can’t sell them!). Every word counts in Deep Hollow Creek and there are just enough of them for the young school teacher Stella to enter the place  that is Dog Creek and tangle herself in the dense stories of the few who live there.  “If I hadn’t come here, I doubt whether I should ever have seen through the shroud of printers’ ink, through to the embalmed silence. The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.”

Deep Hollow Creek anticipates The Double Hook but to my mind it’s more satisfying. This is personal, of course. I think both books are works of sheer genius but somehow the symbolism of The Double Hook is used with a lighter hand in the earlier book. The place — Dog Creek — seems first of all to be a real place. Stella unravels the water-rights, the systems of hay crops, the genealogies of horses and dogs, the bitter disputes between families. And it all rings so true, even those grouse among the jack-pines: “…red-eyed, speckle-coated fool-hens…unconcerned, waiting for their necks to be wrung without the trouble of a shot.”

I am trying to find a way to write lean essential stories myself and it’s a gift to have this book to serve as a talisman, a compass. “I have always taken the compass as a thing to be held. Yet the hand falters measuring the fleeting body of flame.”


An argument for the novella

As a writer who loves the novella, I am always interested to read what others have to say about the possibilities of this strange and lovely form. Most recently there’s this:


Although I wonder why the default suggestion seems to be that they are a perfect size for ebooks, I am glad to know that novellas inspire panels at literary festivals, debates online and off, and much discussion about length and the parameters of plot. I wish publishers weren’t so afraid of them. I have two out now, as a single manuscript, making the rounds. How would we market these, seems to be the lament — and although I understand it in some ways (a small book in a culture driven by excess and hype), I have to wonder where that old bold spirit went, the one that motivated publishers to take on unlikely titles and market them in the same way they would market anything: as necessary and vital books, not as something to apologize for. Years ago Jan and Crispin Elsted made a beautiful book of my novella, Inishbream, with wonderful wood-engravings by John DePol:



And Goose Lane Editions published a lovely trade edition of the book a couple of years later. I never felt that the manuscript was treated with anything less than respect as a work of literature rather than a abbreviated version of a real book. And for the New Year, my wish is that I find an equally congenial home for Winter Wren and Patrin.

It’s a perfect time of year to re-read James Joyce’s elegant example of the novella, The Dead. In his essay on the novella in the New Yorker last year, Ian McEwan wrote about The Dead: “A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing at the aunts’ annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity.”

Marsh marigolds

Yesterday I finished the first draft of the novella I began on October 19th, 2012. As I was writing towards the end, I still wasn’t sure what would happen. There were a few possibilities, one of them more dramatic than the others, but I found myself choosing a direction which is sort of open-ended. In some ways, I prefer novels which let me wonder a little.

This morning I came to my desk and began to read from the beginning. Because there are shifting time periods in this novella, I want to be sure I have them straight in my own mind. If they are in the right order, then the echoes which resonate from them will make more sense to a reader. And I don’t like printing out more drafts than I really need to — it’s hard to justify the waste of paper…

The novella is set in 1978-9. Mostly. There are also sections set in 1973. And even a very few sections set in the 1960s.  It’s certainly a work of fiction but I loved revisiting the Victoria of my early twenties, which is where some of the novella is located. I was new to writing, new to the notion that someone might actually be a writer as opposed to almost anything else. The culture of my family had no precedence for this so it was hard to think that it might be where I was heading. But significant teachers and friends helped me to find my way —  Robin Skelton, the painter Jack Wilkinson, Rona Murray, a few others. One of the most interesting things to me is how I tricked my subconscious into letting me write poetry in the voice of my character Patrin Szkandery. Her poems aren’t mine exactly but it was great to at least have the opportunity to write something brief and lyrical in a morning instead of, well, a novella.

And part of the novella takes place in 1979 in what was then Czechoslovakia. I’ve read everything I could find about that period and hope I’ve got the details right. Time will tell.

But this morning I am floating. In a day or two I’ll print out this draft and then I’ll know just how much more work I need to do to make this little story as fine as I want it to be but for now I’ll float. Like these marsh marigolds coming into bloom in the bathtub pool…


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.