May 14, 2013 by Jen
All of you who live in Vancouver know about the protests outside Pidgin, a new restaurant opposite Pigeon Park in the Downtown Eastside. You also know that activists stole the sidewalk sign from the iconic Save-On Meats (which is so absurd to me because the place is called Save-On Meats, for crying out loud, not Whole Organic Yuppie Foods), all in the name of anti-gentrification.
The DTES was my grandfather’s home for the 39 years he lived in Vancouver alone. It was where we shopped for meat and clothes and fire-sale shoes. It is the neighbourhood I return to again and again in my fiction because it is, to me, the geographical genesis of this city. It’s where we all come from, or where we all end up.
The protests, at first, made me angry, then I felt sad. Why? Well, you’ll have to read my feature essay at Hazlitt to find out! I promise you, it’s worth it. I make fun of undergraduates reading The Communist Manifesto. Also, locavore foodies. Come on, it’s too easy. You know it.
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March 27, 2013 by Jen
I read a news item today about how the Ministry of Children and Family Development is failing children in care in British Columbia. This is not the first time a report has been issued criticizing how our foster care system consistently falls short with children who have been removed from their family homes.
How do I know this? One of the things people don’t know about me is that I worked in social services for many years. When I first left school, I worked for an employment program for individuals on income assistance. As I was writing The End of East, I worked for an agency that provided support to families who adopted children with special needs. While these two jobs appeared to not have a lot in common, one connecting thread was foster care. Many of the people who were struggling to survive on income assistance were once foster children. Most of the children available for adoption in Canada are currently waiting in the foster care system. Vulnerable children in care often grow up to be vulnerable adults. I saw it all.
Listen, I’ve sat in meetings where Ministers promised to leave no child behind and where Ministers admitted that occasional deaths of children in care were unavoidable. They promised to do better. They promised money. They promised results.
It never got better.
I always say that it takes a good seven years, sometimes more, to start writing about any one event in your life. It’s only now, exactly seven years after I left social services to focus on my writing, that I’m writing a novel about the children who are removed from their homes and who are delivered–stunned, scared and confused–to foster homes populated by people who may or may not understand them. Children are especially good at accepting change; after all, their whole lives are built around incidents entirely beyond their control. But how does a child rationalize an upheaval of the most elemental aspects of his existence–home and family? I remember what it was like when I was a little girl and my father was dying of cancer. I spent hours sitting alone in my room, running the facts of his illness around and around in my head, trying to understand why he was sick and why I was the only kid I knew who was going to lose a parent like this. No matter how I juggled all the different pieces around, my father was still going to die and I still didn’t understand why it had to be him.
The idea of saving anyone, much less children, is problematic. We’re all human, we all have choices to make and none of us is perfect. But the foster care system is there to be a last stop, an emergency safety net when children are in immediate danger. Arguably, this is one of the most important functions of government. Not adding amendments to how we file our taxes. Not increasing the size of our garbage bins. Our government is supposed to make sure we leave no one at risk. Not the homeless man who freezes to death in January. Not the elderly woman who lives alone and can’t read her medication labels. Not the child whose parents have left her alone for days at a time while they binged on meth. The pages in our tax returns are proliferating, but we haven’t been able to guarantee the safety of the people who need help the most.
A mom I met during my time in social services once wrote an essay that ended with one hugely influential idea. We’re not here to tell our children what to do or whom to love. We’re here to walk with them, witness their successes and failures, and keep them safe. When they need it–if they need it–we hold them up. It’s not about saving. It’s about allowing loved and loving adults to emerge safely, in any way they want.
It breaks my heart that our government, the ones who should be catching us when we stumble, can’t even do this. What a waste. The children they lost could have been the ones to ensure, really ensure, that every infant, toddler and schoolkid in our province survives, flourishes and contributes. What a waste.
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February 15, 2013 by Jen
I’ve wanted to post something for a long time, but I was waiting for something good to occur to me, something that spoke to my writerly existence, but also to the bigger world beyond my office window. Yes, I am aware that there’s an outside world. I read about it sometimes. Hee.
Last week, I watched the Grammys. I love awards shows (but only the big ones; I don’t watch the technical Oscars, for heaven’s sake). They’re like high school and holiday work parties and cheap voyeurism all rolled into one. For me, they’re just a happy, empty, chip-fuelled time. I like to gawk. I don’t always want to think. And last week I wasn’t, quite happily.
Until Chris Brown and Rihanna happened.
I knew that they had gotten back together. I even knew they would probably show up at the Grammys together, but still I wasn’t prepared for seeing them together on television, moving around, holding hands. I wanted to cry.
And then Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp happened. And I really did cry.
Listen, I’ve spoken in public about gender-based violence, written about it at length in all of my books. Clearly, it’s an issue that’s important to me. But it’s not just important. It’s deeply, painfully personal too. I was once young and insecure about how much or how well I could be loved. I once chose a man who wasn’t interested in loving me very much or very well and yet I was still grateful to him for showing any interest in me at all. I thought I needed to earn him, to prove that I was worth his time. I tried to be cool and worldly and urbane, terrified that he would find out I was just the opposite: skinny, underwhelming and sensible enough to contribute regularly to my RRSPs.
Soon after I met him and we spent the night together for the first time, I found myself in an emergency room, lying on a narrow bed, being asked questions about bruises and consent that I didn’t even know how to answer.
I saw him only once after that, when he came to my door to collect a few things he had left. He asked if he would see me again. I said, I don’t think so, and shut the door in face. Half of me wanted to open the door again and run after him. The other half wanted to throw a steak on his face and release a trio of starving mastiffs.
Rihanna and Reeva are famous. They have famous partners. They’re also beautiful and rich. I was never any of these things, but I see me when I read about them. Women who have been subjected to abuse aren’t stupid and they haven’t made bad decisions about what they wear or how they act. They are caught in a relationship that makes them feel loved in a way they believe will not exist with anyone else. Their partners make them feel whole, sometimes. And it’s for those moments they accept the punching and the yelling and the violent sex and whatever else happens. But acceptance is not the same as asking for it, or deserving what they get. Acceptance is when you grit your teeth and breathe through it. When you say, it’ll get better. When you understand that this is what your relationship is but you don’t know how to change it.
I know that young women push at the limits of their sexuality and relationships. It’s what we do instead of bungee jumping or street racing. Yes, please do ask yourself questions about whom you should be with and how you want to be loved and go out and put all of that into practice. Please do. But do me one favour: know that you’re whole and lovable and complete without a partner, that you should be grateful for your family or your friends or your job, not for the man who tells you you’re perfect except when he’s in a rage. You’re perfect anyway. Without his input.
I understand Rihanna. I understand Reeva. But that doesn’t mean I want to watch.
November 16, 2012 by Jen
I often think that I have something really earth-shattering to say about the publishing industry, and that if people would just listen, I could solve everyone’s problems. But then, as my half-baked ideas are still forming themselves in my head, John Barber from The Globe and Mail goes ahead and writes exactly what I was thinking, except more thoughtfully, more concisely and with a far better eye for business matters.
Listen, I never claimed to be good at the big ideas of commerce. I don’t fill out my own tax return. It takes me days to fill out a passport application, for the love of Pete. My sister is a PhD candidate in business. I must continually disappoint her.
I have been thinking very hard, however, about television. Wait, before you stop reading, this is totally relevant to publishing, I swear! Ten years ago, people were calling for the death of television, particularly scripted shows that cost a lot of money to produce. People were watching sensational reality series (I admit, So You Think You Can Dance is a recurring event on my PVR, but it’s a dance show and is therefore cultural, right, RIGHT?) or they were sitting in front of their laptops every night, cruising through YouTube. No one watched excellent shows like Boomtown, and the shows died.
But then, scripted shows made a comeback. Mad Men. 30 Rock. Little Mosque on the Prairie. People wanted good stories and were willing to sit down and watch them, to make them destination viewing. That’s not to say that reality shows have disappeared since then or that YouTube isn’t still growing bigger and bigger. But what’s happened is that there’s a two-tier system, with advertisers willing to pay for the highly-viewed top tier, and no one paying much at all for the also highly-viewed lower tier.
So my question is why can’t publishing do the same thing?
Yes, there are thousands and thousands of writers out there willing to disseminate their work for free. And, yes, the quality can be patchy. After all, there is no publisher acting as a literary gatekeeper. This is fine. This is what sharing and living in the online world is about. We are looking for connection, as writers who are looking for readers, or readers who are looking for other readers who share their bookish obsessions. That’s why reading and writing are flourishing online. It’s just that no one is getting paid.
But there can also be another stream of writing that plays a very similar role to shows like Boardwalk Empire. These will be the books that provide the stories people crave. Salman Rushdie might be the most active author ever on Twitter, but he doesn’t write books for free. And nor should he. His are the stories that the world will always want and will always pay for. He will always need a publisher. And the publisher will always need him.
What I’m saying is that both kinds of writing–the free and the not-so-free–can exist together. YouTube didn’t kill the television star. And the people who make it a point to watch The Vampire Diaries every week at the same time, can also be the very same people who spend two hours watching grainy, laughing baby videos on their smartphones (yes, I’ve done this and I am not ashamed). I’m reading Carnival by Rawi Hage right now. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes look for online erotica too. Shh. Don’t tell my mother.
Yes, the two writing worlds will collide, and do sometimes already. E.L. James accepted a publishing deal from Vintage after she had self-published online. Margaret Atwood publishes writing on Wattpad. But that’s good too, because cross-pollination means that writing is flourishing and that writers can use any medium they choose. Which is not to say, of course, that most writers wouldn’t take a big advance from a big publisher if they were offered one. Because most would. Because food costs money.
But what writers and publishers need to do right now is produce the best stories they can and trust that the people will come. We are all paralyzed with fear at what might happen next. No more. Books that are well-written, well-edited and well-designed will become destination reading, as long as we focus on giving readers the very best writing we can. Free reading is great, but a book you’ll have a lasting relationship with might just be worth paying for.
October 25, 2012 by Jen
Just this past weekend, I was at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference, which brings together new and established writers for workshop and panel discussions and socializing in the hope that we can all learn from each other. It’s usually pretty daunting for me to try to teach anyone anything. Often I feel that my career as a writer has mostly been spent careening from one crisis to another and that all my decisions have been reactionary.
“What?” I said, in response to kindly feedback from Mary and June. “I need to give my main character a name?” Yes, this conversation totally happened and, yes, it was only when prodded that I named poor Sammy in The End of East.
But as it turns out, my experiences in writing and publishing needed to be passed on. I’ve always said that the publishing process can be very opaque. A lot of the time, no one tells you anything, and you are left flailing in the dark while your book is forlornly making its way through editing, marketing and sales. I don’t want any other authors to feel like this ever again. So I ended up with a lot to say. And I learned a lot from these new writers who are just starting to organize their careers. I was impressed with their professionalism, their openness to new ideas and, most of all, the quality of the writing that I read in my Blue Pencil sessions. Without exception, the samples were polished, thoughtful and individual. If only I had approached my early career with such clear-eyed vision. Imagine what I might have done!
November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to those in the know, which I am not because I just heard of this four weeks ago), and now is the time to start that book that has been sitting in your head, growing in imaginary size. Write it! Love it! Proofread with abandon!
If you’re the type of writer who needs a bit of outside motivation (as I am, because I would never have written a damned thing if I hadn’t declared to everyone I knew in Grade 5 that I was going to be an author; I never thought that they would all remember and hold me accountable), then I have some friends who might be able to help you.
Mary Novik will be Writer-in-Residence at the West Vancouver Memorial Library during NaNoWriMo, and will be offering free consultations Click here to register.
So now you have no excuses, right?
September 26, 2012 by Jen
W.H. New’s collection of poems, YVR, won the City of Vancouver Book Award, which is exactly how it should have ended. I was a student at UBC when W.H. New was teaching, and he was a bonafide legend. I’ll admit I never registered for one of his classes because I was–no joke–afraid of him. Or more specifically, I was afraid of his reputation. What if he thought I was dumb or silly or lazy? What if W. H. New thought that I should drop out immediately and become a moderately successful cat lady, instead of the author I desperately wished to be?
In my view, it was better to avoid that scenario altogether. And so, I deprived myself of a learning opportunity because of anxiety. Never do that, kids. That’s my tip for the day.
In all seriousness, I wanted to congratulate Dr. New, but my son had begun running in circles in the lobby like a wild thing, so I had to leave before the ceremony was finished. Too bad, because I was deeply honoured that my book was on a shortlist with YVR. And I wish I could have told him so.
So this post is really just a way for me to tip my hat to W.H. New and to tell him that I wouldn’t have had the award ceremony conclude in any other way. Congratulations.
September 13, 2012 by Jen
All right, I know I’ve moaned in the past about how nobody ever notices my books and that they seem to languish in obscurity, blah blah blah. Well, scratch that, because I’m finally on a shortlist! And the City of Vancouver Book Award one at that. I’ve said to my friends many times over the years that the Vancouver award was the one I really, really cared about. I think about this city all the time when I’m writing. It might be obvious to say that I write about the Chinese Canadian community or immigration, but my real muse has been and continues to be the city of Vancouver. I’m not even saying that to suck up to the members of the award jury. It’s totally true.
My grandfather owned a barber shop on the corner of Main and Keefer. My father attended VanTech. My mother bought her first winter coat at Woodward’s. I graduated high school when the Canucks were making their historic 1994 run for the Stanley Cup. It doesn’t get more Vancouver than this. It doesn’t get more Vancouver than me.
No other city is so full of opposites and contradictions, beauty and human despair. No other city has a history so full of grit and industry and sin. And in no other city does a bear hitch a ride in a garbage truck before climbing out and surveying a downtown street.
I love Vancouver. And maybe, just maybe, it loves me back.
If you want to join in on my weeklong celebrations (the announcement of the winner is next Thursday the 20th), come see me read this Sunday the 16th at Guilt & Co. with Sophie B. Watson. I’ll be cheery! Infuriatingly so. Huzzah!
September 5, 2012 by Jen
This past weekend was my wedding anniversary (12 years–yes, I am that old) and, although my husband and I have been consumed by parenting matters in the last two years (and I mean consumed, as if our son is a black hole and we are the teeny, tiny celestial debris caught in the inexorable vacuum and I’m totally not exaggerating), I remembered that, without our marriage, my writing life would have looked very, very different.
We were married while I was working on the first draft of The End of East, a time when I had no idea if what I was writing was worth reading. I didn’t even know if it was going to be a novel or a long poem. I just kept writing in circles and backward and forward. It seemed as if the manuscript kept growing but wasn’t actually going anywhere. Despite this snail’s pace, my husband never once told me to stop and get a real, full-time job instead of the part-time ones I collected that were designed to bring in some money while I focused on writing that long poem/novel/exercise in frustration. He read my bits and bobs and believed they were good. He humoured me by pretending he was Eleanor Wachtel while I pretended I was a famous writer who had just published THE BEST BOOK EVER. And he told me, over and over again, that my books would have a life in the world some day, even as rejections came in and I considered going back to school to become a social worker (no kidding–can you imagine).
Now, as my writing has shifted again to another, less prioritized place, he’s back at his cheerleading. When you’ve spent a long day tending to a cranky, dirty toddler who has already peed on you twice by nine in the morning, you don’t really see yourself anymore when you look in the mirror. You’re a reaction, and not just a reaction, but a reaction to an unreasonable, verging-on-psychopathic two-year-old. Some evenings, when I fall on the sofa with a tall glass of bourbon, my husband takes my hand and tells me I’m still a writer, and a good one. First, I cry. Then, I sleep. And for that, I’m so, so thankful.
Without him, I would be toiling away at a job in an office I hate. I would be working on manuscripts that could never be finished. I would still be dreaming about being a writer and loathing myself because I wasn’t one yet.
With him, I am exactly as I am. A real writer, with a home, a tyrant of a son and a whiskey glass that is always lovingly refilled by the man who gives me everything he has.
Category The writing life | Tags:
July 19, 2012 by Jen
For a long time, my life–both personally and professionally–was about writing. When I was at home in my sweatpants, I wrote. When I was out yapping on the radio, I was talking about writing. When I was reading Donna Tartt or Jeffrey Eugenides or Nancy Huston, I was secretly wishing I could write like them. I never got away from it. Words and the construction of sentences and narrative arcs became a part of every meal, every shower, every dog walk. And I liked it that way. After all, if I hadn’t lived like that, I never would have published three books in four years.
But these days, things are different. I didn’t write for a year, not just because my son was an infant, but also because I was tired. Like bone-shivering, cotton-mouthed tired. Yes, my son was wearing me out, but I felt like I didn’t have any words left, that they had all been shaken out of me in my push to put work out in the world. And so I took a break.
It felt good, part of the time. I moved, started renovations, watched a lot of bad television (anyone who lives on the West Coast who says they didn’t watch The Real Housewives of Vancouver is totally lying; everyone watched at least two minutes and loved it but then wanted to rinse their eyes out with bleach afterward). I was a mom. Like a real mom who bakes rhubarb bread and embarks on extensive Google searches about sleep regressions.
I was also terribly, terribly grumpy.
It’s no secret around here that my post-partum funk was more than just lack of sleep and general weepiness. In many ways, I was mourning my previous writerly life, even though I didn’t really want it back. At least, not all of it. But in the absence of my old, all-consuming writer persona, there was nothing. I had no replacement. There was just a wide open space and a cold wind whipping through the emptiness.
Sure, I could have just embraced the mom thing. But being a mom isn’t an identity that has anything to do with the woman who is the mom. It’s all about the child and how that woman dresses or feeds or disciplines him or her. It can be rewarding, but at some point, when a mother looks into the mirror, does she see herself anymore, or just the yogurt stain on her sleeve and the messy ponytail her toddler has been yanking on all afternoon?
Even now, while I am in the middle of writing a new novel, I feel very unsure. Am I writing because I want to, because I’m committed to making this writing career work? Or am I writing because I need to do something, and it’s the only thing I’ve been doing for the last seven years? I don’t know, and I worry that this uncertainty will show in my work.
One day, I might switch everything up and disappear into the real world. I might stop writing and start landscaping or making shoes or grooming dogs. Seven years ago, I would have never thought that I would be questioning my writing life. But I am. For the first time since I was ten years old, I am.
Category The writing life | Tags:
July 3, 2012 by Jen
As many of you know, I’m in a writing group called SPiN. This July marks our tenth anniversary (I know, crazypants, right?) and I’m just chuffed that we still like each other! June and Mary and I managed, somehow, to publish all three of our debut novels, which is a feat I’m enormously proud of. After all, when we met, those novels were quivering new manuscripts and none of us knew if even one of them would ever sit on a bookstore shelf.
So, in celebration of all things SPiN, we wrote a guest blog post on Gail Anderson-Dargatz’ website about what keeps us together. Think wine, words and cookies.