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.
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.
It is so gratifying to see this book finding its readers. A bit of an embarrassment of riches in the last week or so, but an embarrassment I’m happy to endure… Also, the Mad Hope blog tour has made recent stops at Open Book, The Rusty Toque, and Grace O’Connell — drop by for a visit!
From Bella’s Bookshelves:
No book is perfect, of course. But Heather Birrell’s latest, a collection of short stories called Mad Hope (published by Coach House), is so good, the writing so strong and skilled, I kept thinking,These stories are perfect.
— Steph Vander Meulen
From The National Post:
(…) a collection of 11 stories that beautifully illustrate the fragility of existence. Death is a recurring character, as is birth, motherhood, grief and resilience.
The book could be described as a collection of fictional reflections on the search for truth in grief, yet the stories are never dreary. They transport the reader to emotionally corrosive places, yet are alive with a sense of levity even within their darkest passages.
— Rachel Harry
And from The Winnipeg Free Press:
Toronto writer Heather Birrell has tapped into our dark Canadian psyche like a country witch with a crooked divining rod.
Her sublime stories are drawn from the margins of society but they are sure to capture a wider audience. Mad Hope, her second collection, is a sure-footed and mature exploration of modern life.
Mad Hope is best read during the clean light of day. You don’t want to miss any of the nuances, dense language or caustic political commentary.
Read it one story at a time. This collection requires quiet concentration as each tale resonates like a tiny, perfect novella. Mad Hope is hopeful yet realistic, wordy yet sublime. It contains everything a demanding reader wants from her short fiction — wickedly accurate, open-ended portraits drawn from life.
— Patricia Dawn Robertson
Mad Hope will be hopping from blog to blog this month, visiting with book enthusiasts and reviewers. The book has already landed at the Book Fridge and Bella’s Bookshelves, and will also be making appearances at PickleMeThis, Bookside Table, Grace O’Connell, Reeder Reads, and The Keepin’ It Real Book Club. Stay tuned for more updates. And if you’re interested in a little Mad Hoping on your blog, please let me (or Coach House Books) know!
Birrell is a writer with audacity, flair and vision. Mad Hope hosts a sense of whimsy, a keen eye for details and precise crafts- manship. Birrell has an exceptional knack for the short story. Where the cast of characters in I know you are but what am I? (Coach House, 2004), sought meaning, Mad Hope captures the sheer madness of it all.
— Sandra Webb-Campbell
There’s a voyeuristic quality to Heather Birrell’s stories. The Toronto author seems to have mastered the art of writing about universal themes and subjects — marriage, family, motherhood, death, sex — in a manner both familiar and unsettling. Her prose is dense with detail yet fluid, carrying the reader into the inner workings of her characters’ carefully constructed lives. That’s where the sense of peeping comes into play: these people are so wonderfully accurate, so blatantly human, that to bear witness to their hurts and despairs, ecstasies and triumphs, elicits the same discomfort one feels overhearing the neighbours having an afternoon romp or catching a friend giving her child a smack on the bum in a moment of anger or frustration. Birrell peels back the layers of civility to expose the dark and messy bits we all hide, but she does so with such finesse that we are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the intimacy of it all.
— Dory Cerny
Read the rest of the review in the May issue of Quill & Quire, on newsstands now.
I had such a wonderful time at my book launch. The Dakota Tavern is underground. People slowed a little as they came down the stairs. They blinked and squinted as they adjusted to the room. The lights made everything all blurry and starry, which was exactly how I felt. My friend Kathryn interviewed me on stage, the good folk from Coach House sold some books, we all drank beer. It was perfect.
You will come out to this tomorrow night! Please help me celebrate Mad Hope’s emergence. I would love to see you!
My story ‘Frogs’ is now available from Kobo as a free e-single! The full ebook is up, as well, and there’s a link in the free download to purchase the full version. You can find it here. Enjoy the story and please pass it along to anyone you think might be interested.
On Wednesday night I had the great pleasure of launching my second collection of stories, Mad Hope to the wider world, along with a collection of super-talented writers: playwright Karen Hines (Drama, Pilot Episode), poets Susan Steudel (New Theatre) and Walid Bitar (Divide and Rule), and novelist Tamara Faith Berger (Maidenhead). They are wonderful books all — seek them out! The Dance Cave felt gritty and nostalgic, and when I visited the bathroom my nerves and the graffiti (unabridged, unedited) were almost strong enough to make me stay, but there were people and books mingling on the other side of the door. And I like to see people and books mingling. We are going to be celebrating more Mad Hope on April 24th at the Dakota Tavern. Maybe you will join us?
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