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?
Here is an excerpt from an interview I did recently with Finn Harvor. He asked some really interesting, tough questions about the state of publishing, e-books, book prizes, and what it means to be a writer today. I did my best to answer them through my fug of fatigue. Check out responses by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Peter Darbyshire too!
CBT: Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel or short story writing? If so, how?
HB: I don’t think they’re having an effect on the writing — people who want to write will find a way to write. Anybody who writes with a notion of what will sell as his or her prevailing impetus — well, I don’t think that’s exactly artful, authentic writing, is it?
These are easy things to say, I realize, while you are in the throes of creation; it is more difficult have this same conviction when you are trolling for a publisher. Of the eleven stories in my second collection, seven had been previously published in respected literary journals, one had won the Journey Prize. I had some short story street cred going into the submission process. And now that it’s seen the light of day as a book, Mad Hope has been well-received by readers and critics alike. I am thrilled with my publisher — both the editorial and publicity/marketing support I’ve received have been stellar.
But the book’s road to publication was rocky. Before Coach House welcomed me back, I got a lot of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ from editors who professed to admiring the manuscript but not knowing how to sell short stories or finding the prose too ‘writerly’.
It can chip away at your soul, this pitching/pining, watching/waiting process, and hold you in its unhealthy thrall for protracted periods. To my mind, it is, quite simply, anti-art. Having said that, it seems to be a new fact of life as publishers are less willing these days to take leaps of faith and commit to authors (especially if they are being stylistically or thematically adventurous) for the long haul.
Those people who know me know that Deborah Eisenberg is one of my literary idols and an unofficial writerly mentor. I was first introduced to her work when I was studying at Literature and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal in the mid-nineties, and recently enamored of the short story form. I read one of her stories and had a ‘Oh! The beauty! Now I can die. /No point living (writing) any longer.’ moment. She was so good; she made things spark and spiral in my mind. She plumbed the depths and measured the breadth of her characters in amazing and elastic story shapes. How could I write anything that would even come close? I couldn’t. I was paralyzed by awe. But the problem remained; I still wanted to write. So I went back to her stories with a larger measure of humility and what I hoped was a craftsperson’s openness. I wanted to be transported AND to learn.
In 2006, I had the opportunity to e-interview Eisenberg about her most recent collection Twilight of the Superheroes. The interview (along with a review) was posted on the now (sadly, sadly) defunct, Bookninja. Here is an excerpt wherein she explores notions of causality and character. The story she is referencing is the excellent ‘Window’:
It’s true that I’m very interested in how it is that people come to be living their lives the way they are, and in that story pretty explicitly so. It’s partly what we were talking about earlier – that people, in my part of the world, at least, tend to overestimate the degree of control they have over their lives, and their freedom of choice. Though at the same time, people so rarely imagine and initiate alternatives! A paradox. I think often that “choice” is retrospective – that you find yourself doing something and you believe that’s what you’ve chosen to do, that your actions are the result of a decision, or at least that they’re rational in some way. Also, I believe that usually by the time you think “I need to make a decision about this” the decision has already been made. I believe that people can’t really know with any clarity why they’ve made one decision rather than another, because what really goes into a decision isn’t so much a set of factors that one can consciously sort out, but instead is a compound of all kinds of influences that are deeply buried and far flung, both inside and outside of oneself, over which one’s control is necessarily minimal – both because they’re hidden, and because they themselves have histories; I think of actions as a sort of compromise between factors and impulses one doesn’t know much about.
Later, when she came to Toronto for the International Festival of Authors, I had the great pleasure of meeting her in person (Imagine the state of my overwhelm; imagine the thrill!) and she was as gracious and generous as her work suggests.
I will admit, there are times I have to fight the impulse to hoard Eisenberg’s work; she’s that much of a treasure to me. And I’m that much of a pirate. But a couple of days ago, I discovered two (two) new Eisenberg stories available on line through the New York Review of Books. How could I have missed these? (Okay, the first was posted when I was on the brink of baby #2 and about to move house, and the second only a couple of weeks ago, but still.) I read almost all of ‘Cross Off and Move On’ a couple of nights ago on my i-phone, after a late night breastfeeding session — tiny little tile of light and text aglow in the night. Say what you will about these new reading gadgets (and the jury’s still out drinking bad coffee for me on this one) but one of the pleasures of having alternate means of absorbing fiction — along with convenience — has been the knowledge that I will get to experience the stories I love in a number of different ways. These new stories seem different to me — preoccupied by the ways in which our relations, both distant and near, lurk and glisten, loom and shrivel within us. Oh, and I just finished ‘Recalculating’ — wow — it treats time like silly putty, lets it stretch and snap back into itself. These stories are funny and dreamy and so very wise. If you are not familiar with Eisenberg’s work, please go seek it out. You can start with these incredible stories. I loved them, but then, I would, wouldn’t I?
I’ve written a post about Canadian books that have bolstered or challenged me as a mother. It’s up now at 49th Shelf. Go take a peek, but be warned, there are a lot of cool things to look at 0ver there — it won’t be a quick visit! An excerpt:
Two poems about breastfeeding, from two fantastic collections have been touchstones of sorts for me during those first beautiful – and, let’s face it, often marathon and mind-numbingly boring – breastfeeding sessions.
A Fortress of Chairs : Elisabeth Harvor’s poems are notable for their moody sense of the physical; I love how she finds sensuality in the everyday and explores the female body in a way that is both wanton and careful. The poem ‘Madame Abundance’ is a gorgeous, unsettling, sleepy meditation on what it means to nourish a baby – and how closely this action hews to the baby’s beginnings.
Joy is so Exhausting: This collection was a revelation to me. It’s a book whose tongue is out waggling at the world when not firmly planted in cheek. I adore its intelligent play and the way it worships words and excavates essential truths through mischievous humour. But in the context of this list, it is the prose poem ‘Nursery’ that shines. Structured around the back-and-forthing of a feed, and addressed to the narrator’s baby, the poem is an unpretentious meditation on what it means to be so essential, so connected, so literally and figuratively drained that your story becomes inextricably twined (and twinned) with your baby’s rhythms. And it’s funny!
Here’s a taste (81): Right: I’m no athlete but I could pitch for the La Leche League. Left: All soft skin similes would have nowhere to go but right back to you. Right: Imprint of my sweatshirt zipper across your chin, Frankenstein’s baby. Left: You thrash around in your sleep until one leg flaps flat and the other is packed with knees.
Read the rest here.