It’s finally here!

Spring that is!  And with it, crazy blossom-seeking folk, a month of short stories (!), and the Luminato Festival…  Chad Pelley, over at Salty Ink, is featuring an excerpt from a short story a day, and Steven Beattie also continues his take on a story per May day at That Shakespearean Rag.  Up with the short story!  ‘Dominoes’ from Mad Hope, will be featured today on Salty Ink.  Thrilling fact: ‘Dominoes’ is also featured in Spanish translation on the Chilean website 60watts.  The Hart House Review also recently reprinted the story in their beautiful journal — the review is available for sale at fine book stores near you.

May is good, but June will be all…  Luminatoed!  I am very excited about this year’s festival.  Am hoping to check out Ronnie Burkett’s new work, The Daisy Theatre.  I am a recent, but fervent fan!  And I will be reading and having conversations with readerly folk as part of the Literary Picnic on June 22nd in Trinity Bellwoods Park.  Hope to see you there!

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David Birrell: On Google Searches and Missing My Dad

 

Google searches are a strange form of crystal ball.  I have used them to ‘research’ ex-boyfriends, old friends, new acquaintances, artists and writers I admire…  I use them to seek out surprising facts, find out ‘whatever happened to’, stumble upon unexpected connections, affirmations, confirmations.

And, as a writer, I am prone to the self-Google.  What am I hoping to learn when I type my own name in that little window and press return?  A surprising fact, a ‘whatever happened to’, an unexpected connection, an affirmation, confirmation?  Yes, I am hoping for all of these, which is odd, considering most of what appears in this type of search is curated to a certain degree — reviews of my books, texts of interviews I have done, reader response on goodreads, feedback from students on Rate My Teacher.  None of it is terribly surprising in the grand scheme of things.

Tomorrow is the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death and last week it occurred to me, for the first time, to Google his name.  I thought there might be something archived in a news site — he was a local union leader when his factory shut down; there was coverage — or through an organization related to his employer or the community in Scotland where he grew up.  But there was nothing save a reference to his obituary.  Not the text of the obit itself, just a mention that the text existed.  That he had existed and someone had taken brief note of that.  And it bothered me a little, it did.  Why is this, when I know my dad would not have cared a whit?  I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have had time for facebook, might have used email grudgingly, would have insisted on flipping through an encyclopedia rather than ask the internet.

Or maybe not…

In the picture above I am about the same age my oldest daughter is now.  I feel sad my two girls have never known their grandfather.  But I cannot imagine what he would be like if he were still living.  Life has layered over itself so many times now since he died.  We are all different people; we have not moved on so much as accumulated around our younger selves.  Imagining my father alive, now, is an exercise in sci fi, not my genre, and even if it was…

I have written before about the recursive nature of grief and loss — how it doubles back and devastates without warning.  How it surprises you, how it surprises me — still — fifteen years on.  Every year, around the anniversary, I wake up wondering why my entire body aches, why there is a mournful, stolid creature squatting on the bridge of my nose, why everything feels foggy and futile.  Part of that sorrow is simply a rearing up of the trauma associated with the sudden death of a loved one, but part of it, I’m sure, is the sadness, the resignation of knowing that I cannot find my father in any crystal ball — I don’t know who he is anymore.

It doesn’t matter that my dad doesn’t exist on the internet.  I know that.  (There is a plaque in his honour next to the elevator in the Steelworkers Hall in Toronto; people can read about him in those empty moments that precede their important journeys up or down.  He would have liked that, I think.)  Still, I want there to be google entries for him beyond a dry reference to his death.  So I’ve made one here.  Here is the full text of his obituary:

BIRRELL, David Dryburgh

September 27, 1942 to March 30, 1998

‘Whatever mitigates the woes or increases the happiness of others, this is my criterion for goodness; and whatever injures society at large, or any individual in it, this is my measure of iniquity.’  — Robert Burns

Through his active involvement in the United Rubber Workers and United Steel Workers of America, Dave helped bring justice and comfort to the lives of his co-workers.  Dave died suddenly at work.  He was much loved and will be terribly missed by his wife Jenny, daughters Heather and Julie, sister Rena, mother-in-law Joan, sister-in-law Pat, brothers-in-law Rob, Brian and Andy, nieces and nephews Betty, Margaret, Katherine, Rory and Caeili.  He lives on in the hearts of his family and many special friends.  Friends may call at the Turner and Porter Yorke Chapel, 2357 Bloor Street West, at Windermere, near the Jane subway from 5-9 p.m. Friday.  Funeral Service will be held in the Chapel on Saturday April 4 at 3 o’clock.  Cremation.  Donations to the Steelworkers Humanity Fund in memory of David Birrell, 234 Eglinton Ave. East, Suite 700, Toronto M4P 1K7.

I want to tell you, also, that at his funeral, a group of working men stood and sang ‘Solidarity Forever’ and that my sister and I recited a bit from The Water Babies, in French.  That he and I used to sing Pretty Peggy-O together at parties:  ‘The captain’s name was Ned and he died just for a maid…’  That I’d never seen him more furious than the time I insisted on wearing jeans for a performance of Cats — a super special family occasion!  That he could never remember that I was studying ‘creative writing’ but that he once told me he was so proud to have a poet in the family.  That he quit school when he was 16 to work in a coal mine in Fife, Scotland.  Also:  he drove my sister to swim practice and he smoked and you know, maybe he would have used the internet…  He loved my mother.  I can’t fit him on here.  People aren’t really meant to fit on here.  And a google search will only ever give you fitful, broken answers.  Still, here I am typing away, tossing this out into the web, hoping somewhere it will stick.

 

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CBC Bookie Awards

Mad Hope has been nominated for an ‘Overlookie Bookie’ as part of the CBC Bookie Awards.  If you are a person who is okay with survivor-style book-boosting, then please go vote in this and other categories for books you deem deserving.  If voting for stories feels weird to you, then put your lit-loving energies into buying or borrowing books that turn your readerly crank.

Scroll down to end of list to find Mad Hope (I kind of like the idea of Mad Hope at the bottom of the list — like, we need it, but we sometimes don’t remember until the last minute to scrawl it down, y’know?).

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Irma Voth

I just finished reading Irma Voth by Miriam Toews.  I absolutely adored this book.  It is lovely and funny/sorrowful and it’s about sisters and the shifting boundaries of the self and the ways in which art imitates and improves life and is sometimes absolutely inadequate and often the solution to everything — at least for an important moment.  And, oh, it asks so many good questions.  Here’s an excerpt:

 

I was rejoicing silently in my heart.  I had asked a good question, I had asked a good question of someone I was trying to be friends with as opposed to myself.  A question that had breath attached to it, that had left my own body.  Jorge told me not to ask questions, he hated them, he could always tell when I was about to ask one and he’d put his hand up and say no, please.  Please.  Was I betraying Jorge by asking a good question of Wilson?

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HB and KK at UT!

Winter keeps on keepin’ on around these parts, despite some deceptively sunny skies.  But I’m really looking forward to coming out of hibernation in April with a reading and q & a at the University of Toronto with my pal and writing compadre, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer.  Please come and see us if you have the time and inclination.  We would both be so happy to see you.  The reading is on Wednesday April 3, at 6:30 pm.  It’s in the Jackman Humanities Building, 170 Saint George Street, in Room 100 (Ground Floor).  And admission is free!

 

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It’s official…

I am really bad at blogging.  Kerry Clare, blogging guru, and general lovely, says you should blog like no one’s reading.  And she’s right.  But blogging does not come easily to me.  I am not and have never been a blurter (not a word synonymous with blogger, and with a more negative connotation than I intend; I mean someone who is willing and able to share their thoughts easily, spontaneously — in conversation with one or many…) and it is boring to repeat, but I am very tired of late.  And when I am tired, I hang back and listen.  And sometimes I daydream or look pensive (this is a defense and a front and a refuge and seldom means my thoughts have anything approaching depth or breadth).  So maybe my poor blogging output is simply a function of exhaustion.  Or maybe this is not the ideal platform/medium/springboard for me.  Or maybe it’s just February and springtime really will put a new spring in my blogging step…

However.  If anything could and should get me in sharing mode, it is the intersection of some of my most time-consuming preoccupations — motherhood, sense-making through sentence-making, and community with other lady writers…   Here’s the scoop:  Truth Dare Doubledare: Stories of Motherhood will be published in April 2014 by Goose Lane Editions.  The book, an anthology of essays conceived and curated by the aforementioned Kerry Clare, examines the choices we make as women around ‘to mother or not to mother’ and the many options that fall somewhere in between.  I am thrilled to be a part of it.  You can read more about its conception here.

Also: a really kind and astute encounter with Mad Hope, over at Marita Dachsel’s All Things Said and Done.  And rob mclennan asks me about my process, routine, and writerly concerns as part of his 12 or 20 Questions Interview series. ( I find I can’t do any kind of kind of interview, or have any kind of conversation these days without mentioning coffee.  I really love coffee.)

I am writing this from Montreal, where I am visiting an old friend, the poet Sarah Venart, a writing pal from my Concordia days.  Our kids are making believe and mischief and wreaking havoc (Princess Grizzly Bear!) and saying and singing ridiculous things.  And we’re doing a lot of sofa sitting.  It’s kind of fabulous.

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Listening to Strangers

(…) People need to talk, and often the willingness to sit and listen is the greatest kindness one person can offer to another.  One of the first lessons of childhood is to be wary of strangers, and while this is good counsel to guard against the world’s very small nefarious element, it also teaches us to block out the large majority of those who just have something on their mind they’d like to say.  We are taught to be suspicious, especially of anyone who might not look like us or share out beliefs.  By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have perfected the art of isolation, of being careful, of not listening in the name of safety.  But the truth is that we need to hear other people, all people, especially in those moments when we don’t know exactly where we’re going ourselves.

— Ann Patchett, in What Now?

 

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Quit your day job! Don’t quit your day job!

October has been a whirlwind of bookishness.  I had a wonderful time reading and discussing on two panels at the Vancouver Writers’ Fest and then the good fortune to participate as a delegate at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors as part of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in partnership with the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the British Council.  But more (much more — I have some scribblings I am trying to make sense of, and lots of ideas competing for brainspace) about those events soon.  For now, an excerpt of a continuing discussion I have been having on goodreads as part of a virtual book club meeting dedicated to Mad Hope.  Thanks to Lori at The Next Best Book Club for making it possible, and Coach House Books for allowing Mad Hope license to travel — eight copies given away internationally!  It’s been great talking to people about the stories.

Lori:  Heather, at what point did you realize you were a writer? What did you see yourself becoming when you were a kid?

Joe:  To add to Lori’s question: Once you knew you were a writer, how did you pursue it? Did you go to college? Do you have an MFA? Or did you just write?

Heather:  You know, children really don’t see professions or careers or jobs in the same way we do as adults…  By this I mean I don’t think they have the same notion of what is required to “have a job”.  For example my friend’s daughter always wanted to be either a lamb or a “stirrer” when she grew up because, well, she liked lambs and she liked stirring the cookie or cake mix.  And my daughter is fascinated by the “workers” she sees doing the renovations on the house across the street because she sees worth and excitement in lifting and hauling and building things.  As a child, I think there were many things I could see myself doing, and they changed by the day…  I’m not sure I ever saw writing as a job.  It was just something you did; telling stories, or writing about how you felt, that is.  I did win a writing contest run by OWL Magazine (a children’s publication) when I was about 10, and I’ve saved the note and book I received from the editor, so obviously it was important for me to have some recognition for my writing early on….

I had a hard time once I’d graduated from university with a Liberal Arts BA.  I couldn’t think of ANYTHING I really wanted to do.  I worked for a year as an educational assistant in a grade 4/5 classroom, because I had always worked with children.  It seemed like something you should do as a matter of course.  But then I felt like I needed something more.  Maybe I was missing that sense of play and possibility that hovers around you while you are still a student.  In any case, I decided to apply to grad school in Montreal at Concordia University — an MA program with a dual focus in Literature and Creative Writing.  I took an evening course in Creative Writing and worked on a portfolio.  I was writing mostly poetry at the time.  I didn’t get in to the creative writing program initially, but had checked a box on the form re: being considered for the straight up English degree.  So I began my grad studies in English Lit and eventually made it into the combined program.  At that point in my life, the structure and legitimacy of writing ‘school’ was important.  I come from a working class background — my dad quit school when he was 16 to work in a mine in Scotland — so while my family saw post-secondary education as prestigious, they also wanted me to find a job and security and a better life for myself.  I felt the expectations of my family pretty keenly, and going to school for something I loved (instead of scribbling away in a garret) was a way of compromising and buying some time I think…  Plus it provided me a community, some much needed deadlines, and an excuse to live in Montreal!

So that was my path (or at least part of it).  But there are so many paths to becoming a writer!  And I have two pieces of advice for aspiring writers:  Quit your day job AND Don’t quit your day job.  There are times when having a full-time job absolutely stifles creativity.  And then there are times when the uncertainty (and poverty) of NOT having a regular job absolutely kills the creative impulse.  And:  although non-writing work can be time and energy consuming it is also LIFE, and writers should make it a point to be engaged in it…  I have learned so much about myself and other people through my work as a mother and a teacher.  I don’t think of it as sacrifice; it is its own reward.

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Short Fiction: Master (Mistress?) Class

I will be teaching Short Fiction: Master Class at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies beginning September 20th.  If you have some experience writing short fiction and are jonesing to improve your craft, please come join us!

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Word on the Street and The Next Best Book Club

I am very pleased to be reading not once but twice at Toronto’s fabulous Word on the Street Sunday September 23rd.  I’ll be at the Great Books Marquee at 11:30 for the early risers, and then at the Toronto Book Awards tent reading as part of Diaspora Dialogues sometime between 2 and 3:30 (specifics to follow).  The Word on the Street is one of my very favourite festivals for its September sunniness (fingers crossed) and carnival atmosphere.  I hope to see you there!

If you’re not in Toronto, or you think you might want to chat about the stories in Mad Hope with other readers, consider joining The Next Best Book Club on goodreads for their October discussion of the book.  I will be on hand to answer questions electronically too!

 

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