Marnie Woodrow

Theatre On A Theme

News:

My new short play At A Meeting of The Society For Individuals Who Believe Themselves To Be The Reincarnates Of Famous People was produced as part of Everybody To The Theatre Company’s new Theatre On A Theme show entitled “LOVE.” It was my second produced piece with this amazing young company out of Ryerson Theatre School in Toronto and I loved what they did with it. The title alone could have scared them off, but these are some intrepid theatre folk.

I recently “graduated” from 12 weeks at the Playwrights’ Junction with Playwright-in-Residence Matthew Heiti at Sudbury Theatre Centre and have been (ironically enough) working like a madwoman ever since on a new play about (among other things) apathy. I’ve hooked up with the amazing Lisa O’Connell and her talented gang at Pat The Dog Theatre Creation and had my first professional read-through of my other full-length script at the end of February. I was lucky enough to have a KILLER cast of stage and screen veterans.

As part of my theatre education, I’m reading a play a day for the next 30 days. I figure at that rate I should be able to address some of the holes in my self-education by oh, say 2020. I’ve got a stack of amazing work from a wide range of English language playwrights and although I’m only on day 4 I am having a blast. It’s in keeping with that amazing Samuel Johnson quote: “I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.” Good to keep in mind.

 

 

Ghosts

It had been my plan to give up meat for one year starting in January. To more fully embrace a dietary path I have been partially committed to for a year now anyway. Cooking vegan has been a joyful adventure and my imagination continues to brew feasts. In January, I said, I will remove meat from my diet for one year. Our favorite restaurants are vegan anyway, so no problem, in January.

But then we went to see, as part of Sudbury Indie Cinema Best of Hot Docs, Liz Marshall’s powerful documentary, The Ghosts In Our Machine. It follows the life’s work of vegan photographer Jo-Anne McArthur as she documents cruelty to animals. I have seen Vegucated, and Food Inc, and Fast Food Nation, but The Ghosts In Our Machine managed to bring home what I am doing/participating in by eating meat. I am participating in the cruelty machine. My little ice cream habit, for example, is helping to keep dairy cattle trapped in tight quarters, slaughtered as soon as their contributions to industry are spent. Ice cream isn’t meat, you might think to yourself. It’s fun and festive food until you think about how milk and cream are harvested. I will continue to crave ice cream but I can no longer eat it. Solution? Buy an ice cream maker and enjoy almond milk ice cream knowing I am not adding to the cruelty of the world. There are solutions everywhere for the “problem” of how to live without meat, which isn’t a problem at all. When we wonder how wars keep raging, we can also look down at our plates and the violence that contributes to our dinner. Little innocuous rectangles of meat in the grocery store do not tell the truth. I would not kill an animal with my bare hands, so I have no business eating one. This struggle has been going on in me for years, but more potently since I embraced vegan cookery and its thrilling versatility and flavour.

“Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not find himself at peace.” –Albert Schweitzer.

I have no plans to preach. This will be a mostly silent journey aside from great conversations with my partner and anyone who is interested in the experience. I feel no need to blog each step of the way because my life has been predominantly meat free. My emotional connections to certain food items are deep and it will be a long process, saying goodbye to meat that I have “enjoyed” all my life. Real “foodies” eat meat and other myths. Bacon is for me now the screams of pigs en route to slaughter in a crowded truck. It always was, but I kept eating bacon, abstracting. The comfort food of roast chicken, the sausage penne to please the boys in my life, just can’t be done anymore. I will be reading Eating Animals and Vegan on Main Street and educating myself slowly and quietly. Nothing bad will happen to my health; it is a myth that being vegan is hard work, dangerous or ineffective in terms of changing the fate of factory farm animals. I never feared for my health when I think of a life without meat; I fear for my morality and mental health if I keep eating it, knowing what I know now. Courting conflict inside myself is of no interest: it is why I stopped drinking alcohol, too, because the inner conflicts were too numerous and frankly, too much work. I like things simple.

The film shows, through making connections between the fur industry, animal laboratory research, dairy farms, pets, and pigs, cows and chickens that we do not need to eat animals to survive in 21st Century western society. We haven’t needed to eat meat in forever, but because it signifies prosperity, wealth, and vitality in so much messaging in our society, we keep buying the bland little rectangles in the grocery store and abstracting for sanity’s sake.

I’m really looking forward to this journey, which is not about doing without, becoming inconvenient, or limiting choices, but rather, exploring the good feeling of a life less invested in cruelty, unconscious or conscious. Mindfulness is my goal for all areas of my life. That is never too much work.

 

Play Thing

In Ian MacEwan’s novel, Atonement, we meet Briony Tallis, the playwright, director and general chief of operations of a play. She is very much in charge, and very frustrated by the limited ambitions of her “cast” members, recruited visitors to the estate on which she lives. Fellow playmates, literally. When I first read the novel I was reminded of childhood skits, as we called them, the carefully-planned and passionately executed pageants in basements and bedrooms. We sometimes went so far as to tape record them, using sound effects records borrowed from the public library. It all got very elaborate and we loved every moment of it. Then I discovered plays at school, much more organized and lorded over by a teacher/director and likely a senior student or two. We continued to do skits at home but the demands of the amateur theatre were great: between painting sets and hauling them to the theatre and sewing costumes and memorizing songs, lines and dance routines there was little time for playwriting.

I began writing plays when I was about 18 or so and recently found a packet of them in a box of keepsakes. (That’s the paper-hoarder’s euphemism for things she ought to have thrown out instead of dragging them around for 20 plus years.) They are painstakingly typed on my second typewriter, well before computers took hold of writing life. One features a group of lesbians dealing with the fact of their friend’s death, another is set in a haunted diner. Very ambitious stuff for a young thing, but then that’s the fun of being young. The whole point of it, in fact: audacity and naivete. I sent the one play off to Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre and was encouraged by the nicest rejection letter ever. I wrote a terrible mess of a play called Flesh Canvas about a very depressed young woman who takes far too many baths and self-harms and oh, it was the most depressing stuff ever, but my friends were too kind to let me down and they read it aloud at school. I was not present for that and am grateful to this day: I missed the repressed snickers and raised eyebrows it rightfully would have provoked. But the writing one does in one’s younger years (I’m only 44, for but sounding ancient just now) is kept for a reason, and when I came across this collection of plays (the depressing one mercifully destroyed) it made me think: why haven’t I written a play since?

It isn’t as if I fell out of love with theatre. In fact, I think the fact that I fell MORE in love with it kept me from trying another play. The old Tolstoy complex a friend of mine suffered from: he said if he couldn’t write like Tolstoy he wouldn’t be bothered and so he wrote nothing. In the time between my fledgling efforts and now I did write some scripts and a few episodes of a TV show, but to me a play was a mysterious and impossibly difficult form I would leave to others with more innate theatrical gifts. Thus forgetting that I have my own innate theatrical gifts and something else on my side: age. I am finally old enough to write a play, I decided recently, spurred on by the touching sight of my truly awful plays in the package aforementioned. I didn’t think too long about how and why and when and all that, I simply started, in a notebook, while waiting for my friend, Maria Vacratsis, to meet me at, yes, a play we were seeing together. I really hadn’t planned to write a play but then it started going along without need of permission and after Maria and I said our goodnights I continued writing in the car, poetically lit by the streetlamps outside the Factory theatre. Maria is a bit of a Muse for a lot of writers, I’m guessing, but she’d make a face at such a claim.

At some stage I let the thing fall to the side writing-wise but then I kept thinking about it. And so I am working on it now again without thinking too much and with the appropriate terror that accompanies handing it to anyone to read. What it needs is a workshop and it will have one soon. In the meantime I’ve started work with Playwrights’ Junction playwriting workshop at Sudbury Theatre Centre, a talented group of 7 other writers led by playwright and novelist Matthew Heiti. (The fact that he does both too really inspires me.) We will all work together for 12 weeks and present our new work to the public at the theatre in January 2014. Pinch me…

Then, probably because I was having so much fun, didn’t another bloody play leap into my head. Luckily this time it was shorter, on a theme proposed by a new Toronto theatre group called Everybody To The Theatre Company. The theme was/is Failure and well, I felt instantly inspired. Not because I see myself as a failure but because people who are brutally hard on themselves, as I am and always have been, think they have tasted failure more often than not. Whether it’s real or not doesn’t seem to matter. But in any case I found myself having FUN again with my writing and the play, which is seven minutes or so in length, is about someone who fails to win a contest for something he feels passionately about.

The play is one of a number of short pieces called Failure for Theatre On A Theme on Friday October 18, shows at 7 and 9 p.m.  at the Unit 102 Studio at 376 Dufferin Street, Toronto. Tickets are $10 and seating is limited. The exciting new company Everybody To The Theatre will perform each of our pieces in these two back to back slots and I am really very excited to meet these folks. Not only because they have made a particular dream of mine come true, but because they are making their own dreams come true too.

I think the essential word here is play.

Life Is Short and Other Urgent Memos

I am almost always reading something, and if I’m not reading, it’s pretty much a warning sign that something isn’t right in my world. My gratitude at being able to read has never abated, not since I finally mastered the art in grade one, with assistance from what they then called Special Ed. If I were ever to get a tattoo, it would make sense to have the word GERONIMO emblazoned on my (insert body part) because that was the word that unlocked it all for me. Since then, I have been reading like a demon, always grateful to the teacher (Wendy Baird) who caught my dyslexia and whisked me into training with the passionate and no-nonsense Mrs. Mangoff. And, as mentioned, when I emerge from the darkness of a non-reading patch, my gratitude is massive not only that I am able to read, but that I want to again.

Michael Chabon is one of my favourite writers and the publication of a book by him is a major event for me. So I saved Telegraph Avenue for a reward. I shelved it and told myself that as soon as I had a full draft of my play completed, I could read it. This system works well for me, especially since it helps to train me out of my instant gratification tendencies. “Instant gratification takes too long,” as Carrie Fisher once said in Postcards From The Edge. I’m working on that. As well as on a tendency to digress. I am on page 192 of Telegraph Avenue and holding, and I admit that I have re-shelved the novel in favour of other books just now. It took a lot of mulling and soul-searching to shelve the book I had waited so many months to read, and I questioned my decision mightily. I was enjoying aspects of the novel very much, as Chabon writes like no one else. I was loving the characters who were former Blaxploitation film stars and loving the setting of an indie record store in a soon-to-be-gentrified hood in Oakland, California. The characters of Julie and Titus were sweet and I yearned for their return to the pages. But I just found the novel hard to run to after a day of work, and I was not ignoring the phone and putting off other tasks as I had expected to with a novel by one of my favourite writers. This is not to say I think it is a bad book or that I won’t pick it up and start all over again. In fact, I know it will and I know from experience that sometimes a book will speak loud and clear to the soul another time. That it might just not be the time to read it, and you are doing both yourself and the author a favour. It isn’t that I am afraid to admit to not liking a book by a beloved author either. I have my authors I follow like a disciple and have had that experience before wherein the book just did not do it for me. Not just then or maybe not after re-reading it. It’s not unlike the sinking feeling you can have when writing something and the groove is just not there, the tone is wrong or the execution is labored and although you do not get to give up, sometimes you have to leave it aside and move on to something else and come back to it later. And sometimes, heartbreakingly in some cases, the thing is just not going to fly. There is stick-to-itiveness and then there is life is too short.

I moved on from Telegraph Avenue to Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In contrast to the Chabon in every way, it is 115 pages long and thus qualifies, I believe, as a novella. And yet because it is Marquez, you can go on an entire journey with him in 115 pages, following a 90 year old man as he falls in love for the first time in his life. I chose it because I am interested in reading novellas just now because of a project of my own I am working on, and because I have long been fascinated with what divides a novella from a novel. I still don’t know, and whether a novella is just a long short story or not remains unanswered. Still, as a form the novella fascinates me and is pleasurable to work with. I also chose the Marquez because he was one of the favourite authors of my friend Braz King, who passed away last month. He and I should have been able to have a rousing discussion about whether Memories of My Melancholy Whores was excellent or thin, and whether a novella is just a long short story feeling more self-important than usual. But I was too slow to get to the novella and more cruelly, cancer took my friend at the age of 47 and the conversations we will have about Marquez will be all in my mind, on walks, and as I re-read Love In The Time Of Cholera, which I try to do every two years or so, along with Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a couple of other personal literary bibles. The magic of my friend seems to be that we are all still feeling hugely connected to him, a testament to how present he was in his short life.

I have moved on to reading Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey for pure interest’s sake and also because I am obsessed and always have been obsessed with the person who follows this professional path. While Last Night is more interested in the club DJ, I am enjoying everything about it except its claim that “98% of DJs have a penis” and its garish red and yellow cover which I suppose I could cover with one of those handy dandy book-cover contraptions. Or, I could take a page from the school days of yore and make a brown paper cover for it. But life is too short and come to think of it, the Chabon has a glaring red and yellow cover too. Maybe I should only read books with cream coloured covers or purple jackets or ?

The next fictional works I read will be Jim Nason’s I Thought I Would Be Happy and Jennifer LoveGrove’s Watch How We Walk. Both are great stories I have already read in draft form and the emergence of these two novels in book form is a thrilling event. LoveGrove’s is about a girl growing up in the Jehovah Witness faith and I remember thinking it was unlike any “coming of age” novel I had read before. Nason’s novel is about a man struggling with the concept of happiness as he deals with the aftermath of a head injury that changes his life just enough to make it impossible to live the same old way. Both books are here on my desk and I admire them like treasures, symbols of two writers devoted to what they do with passion. I’ll curl up with each one and re-enter the unique worlds of their creations and know that each writer knew that life is too short to give up on a story you truly believe in.

Peaches

She had not peeled a potato in over ten years. Even the purchase of a new peeler that everyone told her was the Porsche of peelers did not spark her to action. The canning equipment sat dusty in the pantry; the pantry was now the mud room and graveyard for mismatched phone chargers and dustpans without handles. Boots, most of them left-footed for some reason, choked the side-door entrance to the kitchen. There was a bottle of perfume on the kitchen sill and a pepper mill in the bathroom. Also the business card of a young woman who had said she would come help her put things back together but the dog had gnawed off the last two numbers and Belle was not one for emailing. There were two people who could text message her and expect a reply; no one else had her cell phone number.

She had been the Queen of Scalloped Potatoes in her family and was equally famous for her jam; notorious for her spinach soup and a celebrated maker of macaroni and cheese with jalapenos for the boys when they came home.

Now the peaches were coming in and the markets were popping and she should want to cook and bake. She would ordinarily have flown into a panic of pesto when the basil bloomed but not this year. Not for some years, who was she kidding? It was a lost language.

And then Aaron called to explain that all he wanted, all he really fancied at this point, was a dish of canned peaches. Not from a tin, but the bottled variety, perhaps with a smidge of brandy smuggled in. Only Aaron could slide through a crack in the fortress, she realized as she went to market and bought up a basket of perfect Red Havens.

Alone in the kitchen, she gazed at the brandy bottle and at the peaches and tried to remember what to do with either. One memory fresher than the other, yet just as unwelcome. But Aaron. She could hardly turn down a request sent by text that likely took a good half hour to type. And he was part of that other time when things were luscious and promising, when life was fecund, not fallow. The field metaphor, the playing field back in the game insinuations: she’d walked away from it all, and with it went cooking and wisecracks and all of it. But tonight she was peaceful as the aroma of the peaches began to fill the kitchen. As she began to warm to the idea of just one more effort, if supposedly for Aaron, lying in hospice with his simple request and his big grin. There was no delaying such an ask, you got to it and delivered. It had once been the way of her life to be that prompt and that decisive about everything but not lately. Not for a long time and she had no idea why, what had caused it. Divorce was not the end of the world, and people lost their parents every day. It was something else.

She canned the peaches while listening to Pablo Casals, the window open and the neighbour’s cat in full August voice. Aaron would have no more such mundane evenings at home. She eyed the brandy then dumped it down the sink after sloshing a half-snifter into the peaches. A near miss in the name of love: she had been sober for nine months.

The next morning Belle hurried into a clean shirt and drove down to the hospice where he waited for his peaches as if he had set a stop-watch by her reliability. This pleased her and then she felt ashamed of her own ego under the circumstances. They sat in the dining room overlooking a bird-covered bright-green lawn as he nibbled at the peaches.

“Red Havens,” he noted as if tasting a vintage Cab. “Fabulous.” She caressed his thin hand and held her breath against the aroma of the brandy wafting between them as he sipped the syrup, smacked his dry lips.

She wished someone else had been chosen but that was never how it worked. She leaned in and kissed him full on the mouth and he grinned. A first, and now of all times, his dancing eyes seemed to say.

“I love you,” he said, swatting at her as she stood to go. She kissed him again with less force, then drove home feeling spied into and sad. The kitchen was scrubbed, David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” poured from the stereo speakers and her daughter sat waiting at the table with a bushel of tomatoes from the farm stand.

“Peel,” her daughter directed. “There’s three more bushels in the garage. I’ve been doing without your pasta sauce for long enough now.”

The text message came about an hour later. She winced at the effort it must have cost him. “Now get on with it, you. One basket’s worth doesn’t count.”

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2013

Pie

They said he was dying but he was trying not to and his sister brought him a home-baked pie that smelled fantastic and hurt his mouth to eat but it was worth it. There was Dylan playing in his house New Pony they always said they both loved it and across the city she was baking pie after pie because she’d always said she’d love to die while in the midst of making a pie.

They were no longer together but he was in her food, all his little tips and tricks and his favoured flavours and she only missed him when she cooked which wasn’t often. But when she cooked she missed him and turned the one cookbook to face the wall till whatever she was making was done. And now he was dying across the city and they had an awkward talk on the phone where it was clear there was nothing that could be said, not really and when they hung up she wept and he turned on The Clash instead and tried not to admire his housekeeper’s ass while he was also simultaneously trying not to die.

Blueberry pie of all things for their first at-home dinner date did he not know she was allergic to all antioxidants and now he was in a bed with cancer and she was roaming around making more pies, every flavour even those she didn’t care for. She thought of selling them from the trunk of her car on the side of the road just to see what would happen because of course she was the last person on earth to take a chance like that. He was exactly that sort of person which was why she had grown irritated and he had learned to despise her even as they agreed they were the best kissers in the known universe. And for the first four years they were together he begged her to make him a pie, any kind and she’d refused saying she was sure she would die making a pie so she was putting it off till later life. You say that like you know when it will matter whether you die or not, he teased but still she wouldn’t give in. He ate store boughts and frowned and heated them up so the house would fill with almost-pies and she’d come home from work with a plan for cupcakes or scones all the while pretending not to be a pie person. I’m a cake girl, she lied.

And now what? She could not look at a little tin of cumin without thinking of the day he taught her to make stuffed squash and even the smell of onion frying was a torment so it was best to stay out of there, out of the room they had spent more time in than any other.

When she heard he was dying she tried to call but she could not make her fingers press the right numbers. And it shocked her but didn’t when he called first and said he felt she wanted to talk. That by now she knew because he had asked a friend of a friend to tell her. How had he always known how to find her? She had not wanted to stop talking completely all those years but somehow rifts and ruptures required such silences, she had no idea why but he did not believe that bullshit so he called sometimes and hung up on her when she protested. You don’t get it, he said once and he was right but the pattern of being wrong suited her by then.

What are you doing? she asked this time and he said I’m trying not to eat pie and she heard something completely different and cried in a torrent right into the phone.

Peach, he added. Which was his old name for her when they still got along and still wanted the same things—a boy and a girl and a Boler camper they could pull behind their car. Peach pie, he said firmly and tried to move on to an actual subject.

I hear you’re back in school, he prodded. What are you studying?

How people pie, she said without meaning to and his laugh made her cry harder.

I love you, he said. I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Thank you for loving me.

Listen, she said. I made you a pie. Can I bring it?

I don’t think so, he said quietly. She heard his sister shouting instructions at a nurse in the background and Dylan, always Dylan on the stereo and a dog barking and she smiled.

Love you too, she choked out.

Who does?

I do.

Good, he chuckled before coughing a little. Have a big piece for me, Peach.

 

(c) Marnie Woodrow 2013

Laughter In The Rain

Summer is my absolute favourite time of year and music is one of my passions, so jetting off to the Northern Lights Festival Boreal in Sudbury for an afternoon and evening of live music was something to look forward to. The chance to see and hear Caracol, one of my favourite singers, and the always-enchanting Serena Ryder rocking it out was too good to pass up. In spite of a grim weather forecast and the eventual downpour it was an amazing experience and a festival I would attend again and again. The venues are super intimate, with ass-on-the-grass seating in most cases (some chairs were available, as in the Main Stage area) and excellent sound. With delicious coffee from The Wandering Bean coffee truck in hand we roamed around checking out the numerous vendors as well as the music of Sheesham and Lotus and Son, had a delicious vegan curry from Leblanc Foods and then parked ourselves at the Main Stage for a continuous banquet of sound. Enter the rain, but never mind. Umbrellas, more coffee, the eventual purchase of a sweatshirt as the cold front blew in: this is what outdoor festivals are all about. OK…they can also be about idyllic warm evenings with the sun setting in the distance but such was not our lot and we really didn’t care.

I think my favourite discovery of the festival was New Country Rehab, a Toronto-based quartet headed up by a vocalist who plays fiddle while he sings. I marvel at anyone who can do two things at once, and while there are plenty of singers who play rhythm guitar, there aren’t many who fiddle as they croon. I really loved the tunes they shared from their new CD Ghosts of Your Charms and highly recommend it as a road trip must-have album. Sheesham and Lotus and Son played a second stint on the Main Stage after a beautifully intimate turn under the CBC Radio tent earlier in the day. The Silver Birch String Quartet from Laurentian gamely battled the winds and the unusual placement in the roster of going after New Country Rehab, thrilling the crowd with a 25 minute Philip Glass piece. Rain, rain, more rain, and we huddled under our umbrellas next to a hardcore Serena Ryder fan who was likely about 13 years old. He showed excellent tenacity as he braved the elements. Never did catch his name but he was who we followed in when we wanted to nab great seats at the main stageJ FRONT ROW.

By the time Caracol came on we were soaked to the skin and our teeth were chattering but she warmed us right up with All The Girls, one of her English tunes. She sings in both English and French and although we did not get to hear our personal favourite, we had a ball and many excellent photos were captured.

Serena Ryder is someone you ought to see in concert, because while her records are killer, she is amazing live on stage. It’s a great joy to see someone doing exactly what they were meant to do in this world and her Shirley Basseyesque turn on her song For You gave me goosebumps on top of my goosebumps. She is a generous performer whose warmth blasted away all memory of wet clothes and blue lips as she sang most of her new album Harmony and a few favourites from previous records. She said goodnight after taking a photo of the audience for her Twitter feed and the Janette Piquette image of her playing drums bathed in hot white light will soon be gracing the living room wall if I have anything to do with it.

 

Thrill of the Find

Finding copies of your own work on the internet in free-for-the-taking form is just a fact of twenty-first century life. In addition to snagging a paperback copy from an actual store or e-store, you can find my work in the form of Googlebook, or simply as an uploadable zip or PDF file. You can borrow it from someone else or buy it used. None of which benefits this author financially, but it still gives you the chance to read my work.  I used to feel like complaining about this phenomenon, and did, but losing battles of any kind no longer interest me. Writing does, and it always will.

I’m still a good old fashioned paper-copy book buyer. I buy new, and I too buy used, haunting the stacks at Allison The Bookman in North Bay with my bookworm-partner-in-crime. The store just celebrated 40 years in business (we missed the party) and is going strong in downtown North Bay. The criteria for used books is (1) out of print (2)rare crazy edition (3)author is not Canadian which of course means he or she is automatically rich and successful. (Snort.) When I’m in Toronto I shop new, mainly because I have access to great independent bookstores (there are some left) like Type and Book City. They have great stock and smart staff, so leaving the shop with that happy feeling—and an armload of book-happiness—isn’t difficult at all.

On a recent trip to my hometown, Orillia, I got to see the spanky new public library. It’s a thing of beauty and I really wished I could partake of the bounty, but alas, I was there to look and look only that day. And to use the (free) internet to catch up on business. If you get the chance, visit the branch. It’s filled with light and air, jammed with books and bears no resemblance to the airless building where I nevertheless spent MANY happy hours of my childhood and youth becoming “well-read.”  Back in the day, when the card catalogue was something the librarian appeared to have memorized.

I’m a card-carrying member of the West Nipissing Library system now. Last week I experienced the thrill of the find. The random, no reason-for-it-wasn’t-looking find that is the heart of soul of book-loving thrill of the find. There was time before an appointment, the library was close and open, and I wandered in. I headed for the English fiction section, since a recent attempt to read Marie Claire Blais in French proved challenging without a dictionary. (Bit rusty, the French part of my brain.) And scanned along, happy to be surrounded by books, the heart rate thrumming a little faster as a result. “An Arsonist’s Guide To Writers’ Homes in New England” popped out at me. Not literally, although the coral red cover and snazzy spine are proof that book designers have a very important role in the choosing process and always have. Brock Clarke. Never heard of him. This is not something that has ever stopped me from buying or selecting a book. Ever. Because there was a time when people said “Ernest WHO?” in book shops and libraries; when people could not distinguish between Margaret Atwood and Margaret Laurence. I opened the jacket flap to see if the copy writer for Chapel Hill Books would lure me further, although based on the title alone, I was IN.

Several happy hours later, the dark and laugh out loud funny world of Brock Clarke reinforced my gratitude for libraries, the random nature of book-loving and the concept of being wide open to what you are meant to find, both in life and on bookshelves. I had really needed a good laugh, something unlike anything I had ever read, something only one person could have dreamt up, and I found it in “An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England.” Because what is more terrifying to a writer, whose life is built of paper, than a fire? As it happens, the writers’ homes in this novel are historic, and not much mention is made of burning manuscripts since those are safely stowed in archives (another passion of mine). In fact, the houses Clarke “burns down” with his imagination are all still standing in the real world. That alone made me grin: his audacity riding just this side of dangerous. Had he chosen to “burn down” notable places of religious worship the book would have raised well, holy hell.

It was a delicious few days of reading. Completely by accident, finding his work, and I now have several other books by Clarke to look forward to. Next to me on the sofa my partner was lapping up “Mary Coin” by Marisa Silver. We bought it new after hearing the author on Writers and Company on CBC Radio. That’s another thrilling way to find books, by letting Eleanor Wachtel lead you to them.

Reading: Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan

Listening to: Essential Bob Dylan

Next month: a new (unpublished except here) short story.

 

The Joys of Nipissing

I first came through North Bay on my way home from a writing assignment. Pretty sure I was up here in early childhood with my parents, who were Kinsmen club members. The first thing you notice is how amazing it smells, how crisp it is. How friendly. Welcome to North Bay was uttered 5 times in 3 days.

Something about the blue sky and rocks really spoke to me. The water of the lake, the beach, the ability to go hiking into the most amazing terrain just moments out of town. The mix of university town amenities and small town nice. I fell in love.

So I decided to leave Prince Edward County, where I have been for 5 plus years and follow the call of my heart. And nothing about the decision has been a mistake.

Everything has been pretty damned amazing since I drove up Highway 11. The things that just were not working dropped away like scales and all in 24 hours: all one can ask for if you think about it. Still getting used to the dangers of moose and deer dashing into the roads at night, but I am also excited and able to work on my writing will full focus for the first time in years. I decided to give myself that gift. It hasn’t been without enormous personal cost, but then people are often just surprising. That’s part of the reason I write fiction, after all, to see what people will get up to. Sometimes they are awesome and sometimes they are just doing the best they can and they don’t come across so well in the moment.

Very much looking forward to having my atelier back. My daily rhythm and my music and my silences as needed. Away from Gellhorn’s nightmare at last. It’s been way too long and has cost way too much to do without it in every sense.

Listening to: The Letter, Natalie Merchant

Sage Advice

“You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday,” she wrote in “I Remember Nothing,” published in late 2010. “If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”

“I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you,” Ephron said. “If your husband is cheating on you with a carhop, get Meryl to play you. You will feel much better.”

–screenwriter, director, essayist, playwright and novelist Nora Ephron, excerpted from interviews included in the LA Times obituary