The Life of a Book

Yesterday I had an email from a woman who attended a presentation I did for a librarians’ regional professional development day.  She said she was compelled to read my latest book, The Boy, after hearing me speak, and went on to recommend the book to her book club. And now she was wondering if I would join the book club for a dinner meeting. Only six woman in this book club and they live in different towns, but they would be happy to come to Calgary for dinner if they could entice me to be their guest.

I sent an email to a few of my close writing friends to tell them about this offer.  Is this why we write? I asked, only somewhat facetiously, in the subject line. Yes! each one of them replied.

When The Boy was finally out of my hands, contract signed, all but a copy-edit to be done, I took the advice I would give to any other writer and moved on to the next project. Fortunately, I had the first draft of a young adult novel I’d begun in one of the UBC summer residencies, and completing that novel was the perfect distraction.  Around the time that I was ready to send out the new manuscript, The Boy was released and I was into  busy months of readings and presentations.  And then …  winter,  no project in mind, no clear sense of “what next”, but the sobering realization that there were more important things needing attention.  While I was caught up in about ten years of writing, books, completing a degree in creative writing, ridiculously, I seem to have moved  into a new demographic. And with that stage of life come the inevitable challenges and losses. People who matter, a shifting in priorities.  I’m sure that I will deal with all this through fiction sometime soon; it’s the best way I know to make sense of it all. For now, though, I’ve been relieved to be not-writing, and quite sure that the reason I’m relieved rather than fretting over my lack of creative energy, is that The Boy is enjoying a life longer than what I’d anticipated, and there is such pleasure in watching this book grow into the world.

My previous three books had the predictable life of small press books by a new author.  Variously labelled “domestic fiction”, “regional interest”, “quiet stories about ordinary lives”, their publication nevertheless thrilled me. Still, who doesn’t dream about brilliant reviews, national awards, becoming the new literary darling?  I’m old enough, cynical enough, to roll my eyes at the suggestion that there is fame and fortune in writing, and yet …  when I teach creative writing and talk about fame and fortune, I always mention that part of the fun of it all is imagining what one would wear to the Giller gala. And shouldn’t we be having fun?  But the life of all but a few celebrated books is a short one, and perhaps that’s what motivates us to write the next and the one after that.

The Boy is an odd hybrid of fiction, non-fiction, memoir, and I was nervous about how it would be reviewed.  I was nervous, too, about how it would be received in the community, because it centers on a mass murder in Alberta in 1959.  That story belongs to the towns of Stettler and Hanna and to the many citizens there who knew and cared about the murdered family. The book has been graciously received; some fine reviews, and a generous response from the community. Since January, I’ve had a steady stream of invitations to visit book clubs and libraries.  The life of The Boy has extended far beyond my expectations. Shortlisted for both the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell book award and the Wilfred Eggleston Non-fiction award in the Alberta Book Awards.  Both of those prizes will be awarded in June, but meanwhile, to be on shortlists with the likes of Suzette Mayr and Cathy Ostlere (City of Calgary prize) and Alice Major and Andrew Nikiforuk (Alberta Book Awards list) is a prize in itself.  Last year, 2011, was an outstanding year for Alberta authors and for me, one of the pleasures of writing is the community to which we all belong.

After the minor hoopla of the book awards, I expect that The Boy will crawl up onto the shelf beside my other three books, Running Toward Home, A Crack in the Wall, and Delivery.   I’m fine with that. Why do we write?  For readers. For the little book club willing to drive to Calgary to take an author out for dinner.

A book has a life. So too does the writer have a life. Both finite, which is hardly an epiphany, but in my several months of walking and ruminating—more on life, than on books, to be honest—it’s become important to me to remember this. Being a writer is a significant part of my life, but far back of being a wife, a mother, a sister, a friend. For now, I’m not writing much at all, and I’m good with that.