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?).
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!
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 art (heart) piece by M. I love that it contains other smaller hearts and a piece of pirate gold! And that it is hanging out next to Joan Didion in her cool shades. Haven’t written for a long time — too overwhelmed by parenting and teaching and also a recent (and lovely) visit to lakeland around Waterloo, as part of their tribute to the book Lakeland by Alan Casey, this year’s One Book, One Community pick. I had a wonderful time; I got to visit Edna Staebler’s cottage and read with poet and recent Edna winner Jeffery Donaldson, plus spend time with Kim Jernigan (outgoing editor of The New Quarterly and one of my favourite people).
So — scattered sensibilities and now summertime brain. Plus this blogging thing is not a habit yet; I have moments where my thoughts cohere into brilliant combinations, really super sentences. Then something happens — say, a park visit, a phone call, a craving for coffee — and the sentence flees. I can see the back of it from my brain’s small window — a flash of eloquence, a well placed semi-colon rounding a faraway corner. Then, gone. So this is my attempt to rectify my delinquence in posting. It might be a bit of a ramble, so bear with me.
I’ve just finished reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion for my book club. I loved The Year of Magical Thinking but haven’t yet mustered the courage to crack Blue Nights (too sad for me in my current exhaustion and thin, thin skin) so was really looking forward to her earlier work (some of which I’d already read) and was not disappointed. I was definitely less compelled by the journalistic pieces, which often felt high brow tabloid-esque — but this, I know, is less a matter of quality than a function of the time and place they were written. I can (and do!) acknowledge how ground-breaking this work must have been when it first emerged. But I was more drawn to those personal pieces — really rigorous self-examinations — that felt like they existed outside of time. I wonder if this is because I can more easily trust a narrator passing judgment on herself than on others… One of my favourite essays was ‘On Going Home’, a perfect little riff on how it feels to revisit your childhood home as an adult, the weariness a person feels whilst wandering the rooms of her past. Here’s an example of how succinctly Didion captures moments that trouble a consciousness, that engender questions and also a kind of philosophical paralysis:
That I am trapped in this particular irrelevancy is never more apparent to me than when I am at home. Paralyzed by the neurotic lassitude engendered by meeting one’s past at every turn, around every corner, inside every cupboard, I go aimlessly from room to room. I decide to meet it head-on and clean out a drawer, and I spread the contents on the bed. A bathing suit I wore the summer I was seventeen. A letter of rejection from The Nation, and aerial photograph of the site for a shopping centre my father did not build in 1954. Three teacups hand-painted with cabbage roses and signed “E.M.,” my grandmother’s initials. There is no final solution for letters of rejection from The Nation and teacups hand-painted in 1900. Nor is there any answer to snapshots of one’s grandfather as a young man on skis, surveying around Donner Pass in the year 1910. I smooth out the snapshot and look into his face, and do and do not see my own. I close the drawer, and have another cup of coffee with my mother. We get along very well, veterans of a guerrilla war we never understood.
Also, I am reading next Wednesday at the Brockton Writing Series, at Full o’ Beans Coffee Shop, right here in my ‘hood. Would love to see you there!
I will admit to experiencing a bit of Mad Hope hangover. I’m happy to be meeting readers, whether virtual or, um, human. But life with two small children is busy and dervish-like and fulfilling and frustrating — and the children, thankfully, do not (often) truck with the literati. So there are two worlds spinning around and inside me. And sometimes they clash and sometimes they just whizz way too fast so that when I lie down in my bed at night — even though the baby is sleeping through the night (She really is! I’ve said it aloud a few times now to no discernible/deleterious effect.) — I can’t sleep. And in the day I often have the sensation of being asleep with my eyes open.
But the best kind of antidote to any kind of hangover has got to be the gals over at the Keepin’ It Real Book Club. They reviewed Mad Hope, in a live video, in 140 seconds. The review is fab (Feel the Mad Hope!), but their connection and banter also remind me of a wonderful pre-partner and kids period; time and space for long exchanges with close girlfriends, finishing and hijacking each other’s sentences, reading and talking about books in a manner I now know to be luxurious and productive and free. Go check out their vids!
In the last couple of weeks, Lindsay Reeder at Reeder Reads also showed MH some love, and I got the chance to hold forth on the short story form over at The Danforth Review and tell everybody about my favourite colour, how I want to die, and why I hate shrimp in the Proust Questionnaire at Open Book.
Also, here are some photos from the Indie Lit Night in Waterloo. That drink — cursed, beautiful thing — is called Mad Hope in a Glass and it was conceived by bookseller extraordinaire Caroline Wesley (of Waterloo’s Words Worth Books). The green thing on the side, perched next to the lime, is a gummy frog! And that’s me and Carrie Snyder, lookin’ like ladies on the lam from the fams.
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!
Two back-to-back events coming up mid-May — very exciting!
On the 15th, I’ll be in Waterloo, reading with my friends Carrie Snyder and Marianne Apostolides, fellow Coach House-er, poet Walid Bitar, the illustrious George Murray, and many other writers whose work (and selves) I’m excited to encounter. The event is sponsored by Waterloo lit journal extraordinaire The New Quarterly and indie book store Words Worth Books — I’m thrilled to be a part of it. If you’re a Waterloo-er, Waterloo-an, Waterloo-ist, Waterlooie!, please come and have a listen and a chat.
On the 16th, I will be reading again with Carrie Snyder (whose The Juliet Stories are so lovely) in Toronto at Type Books. Carrie and I will be joined by Daniel Griffin, author of Stopping for Strangers (by all accounts another fantastic story collection) and the evening will be hosted by none other than Kerry Clare, of the book blog Pickle Me This, and 49th shelf. I am deeply (madly, hopefully) committed to the short story form, so this feels like a particularly fitting celebration! Join us.
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
Andrew Wilmot reviews Mad Hope on his blog backlisted.
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Mad Hope is an exhibition of control. Birrell carefully weaves through the central themes of the book, using their commonality as a springboard rather than an anchor. More often than not, she succeeds, beautifully.