The Figgs by Ali Bryan

This is not a book review. It is a celebratory note to the talented/tenacious/prolific and delightful Ali Bryan. I am biased. I had the pleasure of getting to know Ali through the Writers Guild of Alberta mentorship program when she was working on Roost. My reaction to Roost-in-progress on first reading:  WOW—this story snaps and crackles with comedy, craft and clever footwork. A cinematic style, a story with the pace of a screenplay. I could well imagine Roost as a television series.

I read a very early draft of The Figgs and felt certain that June’s family would be as engaging, as quirky, as totally normal as Claudia’s cast of characters. I was certain as well, knowing that Ali Bryan is a quick study, that the writing would be even more polished, more definitive in its style.

 The Figgs delivers all of that. Dysfunctional families have become a particular sort of meme, a flavour of the past decade in books, movies, television series, and stage plays. The Family Figg is not dysfunctional; the characters are as “normal” as your neighbours, and as likely to shock and surprise you as your own kin. They have their moments, each of them, but as frustrating as they are to mother, June, from whose perspective we watch this story unfold, it is clear that they are her world—however much she has hoped that by now they would have moved at least a province, or perhaps a continent away from the family nest.

There are scenes that are comedic:  June on Percy, the rocking horse, attempting a perilous gallop up the basement stairs; the entire family storming the hospital to be present at the birth of their grandchild/niece or nephew whose arrival is as unexpected to them as it is to their son, Derek, the baby’s father; the baby shower with a cast of guests who are celebrating with the raucous gusto of a beer bash.  The same scenes are seeped in poignancy, and I found myself near tears both from laughing and from feeling all that’s going on in June’s heart and mind. This is signature Ali Bryan story-telling, this ability to combine comedy with tenderness.

Like Roost, The Figgs is fast-paced and has that same cinematic feel. Almost every chapter/episode brings yet another surprise, and there were moments when I had to curb my sense of disbelief.

This is a story of a family in crazy-making chaos, told from the perspective of the mother. There is a point, though, at which this becomes June’s story.  There is a point at which the story becomes focused on the loss of the mother-child bond. The absent mother of Derek’s son, an adopted child with a buried longing to know her birthmother, a birthfather divulging/grieving the loss of a son.  In another life I was a social worker: I counseled mothers who were “surrendering” (a long ago term for giving up their parental rights) their babies; I worked with adopting parents; in my last position I facilitated adoption reunions. There are moments in this novel where I wanted to intervene, and had to remind myself that the rapid succession of events was characteristic of the style and story.

By the end of The Figgs, through the magic of Ali Bryan’s pen, there is a sense that … Oh, just read the book.  I’m already guilty of some near-spoilers.

http://www.freehand-books.com/books/the-figgs

 

 

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Promotion; the key to selling books, and the pain and the shame

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I know I am not alone in my dread of promoting my own books. It’s not only the obviously shy or tongue-tied who cringe at the idea of sitting behind a table in a bookstore, trying to catch the attention of the people who pass by deliberately avoiding eye contact. Or reluctant to approach event coordinators with a bid to be on the schedule. Not alone, but there are also many authors who are comfortable with and aware of the necessity of self-promotion. I pretend to be one of those comfortable authors, but all the while my ears are burning and the voice inside my mind is my mother’s. Blame your mother? Why not?

I grew up in the days before building self-esteem became one of the cornerstones to raising successful children. Be polite, do not brag about anything, and generally avoid calling attention to yourself. Those were my mother’s tenets and while I raised my own children with the hope they’d be polite but not afraid to speak their minds, happy to talk about their achievements without being boastful (that’s this mother’s job), and comfortable in speaking out and promoting what they believe.  My librarian, fisheries biologist, and musician all live and work with a fine balance of humility and confidence. I sometimes take their strengths for granted and forget to tell them how proud I am, but that’s for another post.

So. I had a new book published in May of this year, a novel for young teens, Odd One Out. Another book produced with the artistry of my good friends at Oolichan Books.

There were a few glitches in the beginning—problems not uncommon or unfamiliar to my author friends. A rush to have copies of the book in time for the scheduled date of the launch resulted in a small print run, because there was a design flaw that needed to be addressed. In truth, this was not a “flaw” to my eyes, but my publisher has a finer sense of the aesthetics of book design. Then, once the “new” book was off to the printer, it seemed to take an inordinately long time for it to reappear and more unfortunately, to appear in bookstores and libraries.

But at last. at last, the library orders have been filled: Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Camrose, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Vancouver libraries have copies waiting for your reading pleasure and more particularly the pleasure of young people in your lives from ages 11 – 15 and beyond as well from the feedback I’ve had. If your local library does not have the book, you could request that they order it. What harm in that?

And the bookstores. Our beautiful indie bookstores who’ve had copies albeit limited since the very first run. In Calgary Owl’s Nest, Pages, Shelf Life; in Edmonton, Audrey’s Books. Beyond the province, I haven’t been gathering stats. Available from Chapters/Indigo’s Signal Hill store in Calgary. And available online from Indigo Amazon.ca. as an ebook.

The one thing I don’t hesitate to tell people about any of my books is that this is work of which I’m proud. Odd One Out is a book that I hope will find its way into your hands.  I hope you will enjoy it, but if you don’t?  Then I rest on my strong belief that once a book is out of my hands, the story no longer belongs to me. Your experience, your taste, your perceptions will be your judge.

My mom is long gone, although she is so much a part of who I am, but she won’t hear me saying to you—

Hey, buy my book, give it to a young person for Christmas, or borrow it from our awesome libraries. Their circulation stats for the book are gratifying and nothing pleases me more when I visit the library than finding a copy of one of my books that’s dog-eared, well-thumbed, and has your fingerprints on it.

 

This Author’s Thoughts on Book Reviews

book cover

 

I launched a new book this year, so I’m eager for reviews, and at the same time take a deep breath before I read them. I’ve known authors who simply do not read reviews of their books and theatre people who don’t read reviews of their plays. I’m just too curious to take that position, and I know from the reviews of my first four books and a couple of anthologies in which I’ve had pieces, that different reviewers bring different perspectives and I won’t always like them. I’ve been fortunate, though,  in that I’ve never had to deal with a review that was such a bitter pill it made me gag.

I’ve had conversations with other writers about the increasing number of reviews that lean more and more in the direction of a synopsis or précis of the plot with a concluding sentence or two  in which the reviewer tells us whether he/she is hot or not on the book in case we haven’t already gleaned enough clues from the tone of the synopsis. Some seem more promotional than analytical.

The book reviews that challenge my credibility are those that are so heaped with praise that they read as though they’ve been written by the author’s Grandma, or by another author with a debt to repay. The review of a fine book should tell us what makes it fine without declaring that it surpasses the discovery that peanuts make good butter, and will remain at the top of “The Best” lists for decades to come. There are such books and they are, and should be, held in high esteem. But a fine book that doesn’t quite achieve those heights doesn’t benefit in any way from gilding the lily.

The reviews that anger me are the ones that kick a book onto the freeway with the hope that it will end up as road kill. There are people who disagree with me, but when a writer has spent years on a work, and has sought a publisher to the point of fatigue, and has finally found a place with either a traditional publisher or through the arduous process of self-publishing, the book surely deserves more than a venomous panning.

Here are links to two reviews of Odd One Out:

https://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/vol23/no4/oddoneout.html

http://www.quillandquire.com/review/odd-one-out/

I admit that my knee jerk reaction to criticism is to go on the defensive (although I really did enjoy the criticism that the book was lacking in foul language in the Quill and Quire review). Fortunately, the exasperated voice in my writer mind tells me to get over it or put down the pen. I know that every one of my books is flawed in some way but strong enough that I don’t have to hover around and protect it.

Though I don’t know either of these reviewers personally, from the bit of bio on the review pages, they are people whose experience and “credentials” I respect. Both of these are fair and balanced reviews for which I’m grateful. Two reviewers, two perspectives, and I know that among my readers there will be opinions that run the gamut from road kill to peanut butter.

Isn’t one of the pleasures of telling our stories the interesting feedback they provoke? Don’t our stories belong to the reader once we’ve sent them out in the world?

So I raise a glass to good reviewers, and to their ability  to approach a book with a clear eye and give it an honest appraisal.

How do I feel about these two reviews? Both of them recommend the book. What more do I need?

 

What Shall I Call Thee

“you give a dog a bad name, and that dog is bad for life.”
——Eleanor Catton The Luminaries

Dogs are dogs but names do matter. I won’t take time, though, to speculate on how the naming of a child can influence his life, because I know for sure that the names we gave our children were exactly right, because they came so easily. But naming stories and books does not come easily for me. In fact, I’ve been known to put proposed titles out to committee, or to at least one other person who knows the work I’m struggling to name, and whose own titles are inspiring.

Stories have never been as difficult as books, because the very size of them makes it easier to find the phrase, the key word, the idea that set the story in my motion. In all of the books on writing I’ve read and used in my teaching, the only one I’ve found that discusses titles and does so with clarity and wise advice is Fred Stenson’s The Craft of Fiction, Thing feigned or imagined. And I go back to that book frequently, and refer other writers to it frequently as well.

Occasionally, a story or even a novel has its conception in the title, and there is nothing an editor can say to convince me that this “working title” should not be the one that graces the cover of the book, or the entry into the story. One story in particular in my short story collection, A Crack in the Wall, landed feet first in my mind as “The Way She Ate Oranges.” And so too did “A Crack in the Wall” which became the title of the collection because it worked as subtext in all of the sixteen stories. Other titles in the collection benefited from the fine eye of Dave Margoshes, with whom I worked on the final editing and the ordering of the stories. Who can argue with a man who has titled some of his own books such intriguing titles: Pornography and Other Stories; A Book of Great Worth; God Telling a Joke. Each of these are also titles of stories within the collections, but as titles for the books, arresting and maybe just a bit audacious.

It was Dave to whom I whined about not being able to find a title that would do my first novel justice. This was a book about a boy caught up in the child welfare system, a boy who was a chronic runaway. My several suggestions included “Running” (dismissed as having the potential to end up on health and fitness sections shelves in bookstores) and several others that Dave decreed all sounded like “lyrics from a bad Bob Dylan song.” Then he asked the critical questions, the same question that Corey claimed he couldn’t answer. Why does this boy keep running away? Back to my social work years and the familiar wisdom that a child is either running away from something or toward something. How obvious —Running Toward Home.

The Boy began with that working title and I never lost sight of it, nor did I even consider casting about for alternatives. Fortunately, Oolichan Books never questioned it either, nor did they question the title of A Crack in the Wall, or Delivery.

Delivery ran through a number of working titles; one of the worst, or so proclaimed my thesis advisor, Catherine Bush, whose wince when I suggested it said all, was “Alone With a Baby.” Well, yes. It did have different connotations as the story progressed, but even while I was considering,  I knew it had a pathetic ring that I did not want to prevail. Credit for the title, Delivery, goes to Catherine. Without her wise advice, I shudder to think of the yoke I might have lain on the shoulders of Lynn and BeeGee, the baby who is the heart of this story.

I had no intention of letting these thoughts on naming lead to the promotion of Delivery but because it is the only one of my books that has not been unabashedly dragged out of those doldrums where the sails of a boat droop after the first season, why not?

Delivery, like other of my stories comes from my earlier life as a social worker, and in particular the involvement I’ve had in adoptions. In this story, though, I chose a perspective other than that of the social worker. Several years ago, when I was working for a private adoption agency, my colleague was interviewing a young woman who was considering an adoption plan. The young woman’s mother who was waiting outside that closed door looked as though she was trying desperately hard to hold back tears. I sat down beside her and after a bit of casual chatting, asked her what support she would have should her daughter make the decision to place the baby with an adoptive family. She looked at me as though I was daft. “There isn’t anyone who can support me enough to make me believe this is the right choice.” Then she turned in her chair and stared straight into my eyes and said, “What would you do if your daughter decided to give away your grandchild?” I didn’t dare to say the words, but I nodded and nodded, and I think she knew that I would grab the baby and run.

That, in essence, is what happens in Delivery. This is the story of a grandmother who, on the morning of the day her daughter will “deliver” a beautiful baby girl to a family who are, despite a few visits, strangers, packs the baby in a laundry basket, straps her into the back of her car, and heads for the hills. In this case, those hills are mountains and Lynn’s destination is a small island on the west coast.

Comment from one of the jurors for the Alberta Book Awards George Bugnet prize for fiction in which Delivery was a finalist: “Domestic dysfunction never had it so good. This novel lactates with life.”

As an aside to this quote, I had the pleasure of visiting a book club comprised of the staff at a Starbucks where the average age of the readers was probably about 23. A young man, who said he was surprised by how much he liked the book and surprised too because he’d “never read anything where there was so much breast and breast milk in …” Here he seemed stumped, so I offered, “In a non-sexual context.” “Exactly!”

Why you should read this book?  Because it lactates with life!

http://www.oolichan.com/hegerat-delivery

 

 

 

 

Short Fiction: Be Still and Listen to the Heart Beat

Two quotes from Alice Munro in Robert Thacker’s book, Alice Munro Writing Her Lives have lodged in my mind during the time I’ve been reading this wonderful book:
“There is always a starting point in reality.”
“How can you get your finger on it, feel your life beating.”

Oh, to feel the heartbeat in a short story  when it insists on being written.

This seems like the right time for some promo for A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008), my first and only book of short fiction. In spite of having ventured into the territory of the novelist with Running Toward Home and Delivery, in spite of having trod new ground with a braid of non-fiction/investigative journalism, fiction and memoir in The Boy, the short story still feels like homeland. Perhaps because so many of my stories began with a memory, with nostalgia, with moments in my life that have taken on a new slant now that I’ve traveled a considerable distance.

A Crack in the Wall has a special place in my heart, because it is a compilation of short stories written over a period of fifteen years, some of them published in literary magazines, two of them broadcast on CBC’s Alberta Anthology, which was such a wonderful opportunity for Alberta writers to hear their stories in another “voice.” I will never forget the thrill of hearing “Pins and Needles” read by the inimitable Stephen Hair (Theatre Calgary’s own “Scrooge”). The collection claims my affection as well, because it is rife with the voices of my family and stolen moments from our lives. My eldest son, each time I had a story published, would ask, “Are we in it?” And my reply, so often, “Of course you are, because there are children and mothers and all that I know about being a mother I learned from you.”

So why should you seek out this “old” book? http://www.oolichan.com/hegerat-a-crack-in-the-wall

1. Because it’s published by one of our fine Canadian small presses, Oolichan Books, who have been so good to this author through the publication of three books, each one beautifully produced and designed.

2. Because short fiction has reclaimed its place as a gem in the crown of fiction.

3. Because you can finish a story in the time it takes to commute to your work, or to feel blissfully ready for sleep, or to simply escape life within the circle of a story.

4. Because these stories are dear to me, and whether you know me or not, you will know me better having read about the cracks in my own walls.

5. Because if you do know me well, you may find yourself between the pages. But if you ask, I will smile and remind you that I write “fiction.”

6. Because A Crack in the Wall is dedicated to “the memories of my mom and dad, Martha and Morris Harke, who taught me to be still and listen.” A lesson I’ve cherished, and I hope you will too.

7. And finally, if reviews matter to you:

“…a gifted and compelling storyteller, she deals in ordinary people who lead ordinary lives, but by some unobtrusive narrative magic, her people become extraordinary.”
—David Carpenter, author of Banjo Lessons, Writing Home, Courting Saskatchewan and so many more.

“Refreshingly unpretentious, A Crack in the Wall draws out detail with an easy momentum that avoids the excesses of myopic realism. Humour, as in the collection’s opening sentence (“The old cat hunkers on the counter next to the aquarium, more interested in the bloated goldfish now than when it was alive”) produces gentle laughs. Simple and precise, Hegerat’s style elegantly explores the inner lives of characters struggling against expectation and inevitability —themes that are at once maddeningly complex and mundane.”
— Jeff Kubik in “Alberta Views”

An Author’s Lament; With Promise of an Upbeat Sequel

Someone on the Writers’ Union forum posted a link to this interesting piece into a journalist’s journey into self-publishing yesterday. http://nyti.ms/1w2v6Gg — from “I Was a Digital Bestseller!  by Tony Horwitz from the NY Times, June 19 2014. Not a lot of resonance for me in the piece because journalism, actually making a living from writing is a different sack of cats from my quest to write fiction that will live on in the annals of Canlit. But this small excerpt from the article lit my fire: “FIVE months ago I published a short book called “Boom.” Commercially it was a bust. No news in that: Most books lose money and are quickly forgotten by all but their wounded authors.”

Absolutely true. Most authors know that their books will not only lose money, but they themselves will subsidize their ephemeral creation. Small regional presses are often described as “not for profit” businesses. Shouldn’t that be enough of a clue?

I’ve taught many introductory creative writing courses, facilitated workshops, mentored new writers, and I always make it clear that if anyone is there because they’re looking for the road to fame and fortune, they’ve come to the wrong person. I am not the guardian of that secret map.

After 20 years of courses, encouragement, publication in literary magazines, an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC, four books, and essays/stories in several anthologies – still no vacation home in Tuscany. As for fame, I’ve been shortlisted for a number of fine awards, and with that come validation and the chance to party in good company. But no reward to deposit in “income from writing.” Still, I count one of the greatest benefits of my writing life in the number of good friends I’ve made. In fact, it’s often our “woundedness” as authors that bring us together over coffee or wine for affirmation that what we do is not about the money. When one of us wins an award, scores a fine contract, we have the chance to celebrate, to be the cheerleaders, knowing that when it is our “turn” the cheering squad will be there for us.

Why, then, is it so difficult for so many authors to be their own cheerleaders? I know a few authors who don’t shrink at all from self-promotion. Who, when the opportunity arises, or they create the opportunity themselves, will hold the book aloft and shout, “I wrote this! This is a fine book! Buy it and both of us will be rewarded!” I am one of the other sort – the author who quietly enters book clubs with her bag of “car stock”, leaves it inconspicuously beside her chair, and at the end of the evening, if the group feels receptive, pulls the bag forward and mentions, just mentions, that she has copies of the book being discussed as well as copies of her other books if anyone is interested. Then goes home wishing she’d asked the host in advance for a table on which to display her books and a bit of help in promoting them.

A few weeks ago, I attended a book club appreciation night at one of our fine indie bookstores at which each staff member recommended a book for the fall lists the book clubs were putting together. I was delighted that The Boy was among those recommendations. Okay, I told myself, this is an opportunity you will not ignore. I plucked a copy of The Boy from the display and inveigled my way into every cluster of conversation going on in the room. Polite smiles from some corners, congratulations from a couple of others, and a few groups who simply looked annoyed at my intrusion.

Feeling rather humbled, and just a little embarrassed, I made my way back to my husband and the good friend who had come along to the event. They gave me the affirmation I needed: Of course you should introduce yourself and the book to everyone in the room! You’re the only author of any of the recommended books in attendance. Get over it! It’s your job to sell your books now that they’ve had their brief flash across the heavens.

So far, no invitations to any of the book clubs at that event, but a swift kick to remind me that unless I do more promotion the books of which I am exceedingly proud will dwindle to a shadow on a bookstore shelf, remaindered along with hundreds of other fine books that died too young.

I knew all of this, of course, because I’d met the indomitable Susan Toy just before Delivery was launched in 2009. She came to a reading that I was participating in and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Susan. I’m your sales rep.” “Really? I didn’t know I had one.” “Well you do, and we need to talk about how to promote your new book and the previous two and whatever else you have in the works.” A meeting a few days later, and Susan was off and running with ideas and contacts that took me to libraries all over central and southern Alberta, and as many book clubs as I could fit into my writing life.

Susan has moved on, although she continues to promote mine and the books of other authors from her exile on the beautiful Caribbean island of Bequia. But lately, I’ve been hearing her voice in my ear, and she’s telling me that the books will only die when I stop breathing life into them.

So to end this Author’s Lament, here’s the pledge I’ve made to myself (and to any authors I can influence as well) to rip up the DNR order on every single book. Stand by for Part Two: Utterly Uninhibited Authorial Promotion of Fine Books.

the haunting

Yesterday I had an email from a friend who just finished reading The Boy. She said she’d stayed up late, googling photos of Robert Raymond Cook. Don’t! I told her. He’s looking for people to haunt. I was only half-joking. I was forewarned about the possibility of a haunting. When I met Jack Pecover, author of an earlier book on the Cook case, it was clear to me that he was not and will likely never be free of his quest for justice for Robert Raymond Cook. He told me that Alan Hustak, author of a book about the last hangings in every province in Canada, shared his conviction that RRC was wrongfully convicted and that the two of them had discussed pursuing a posthumous pardon for young Cook. Just recently, I heard from Aaron Coates, who wrote the play “End of the Rope” about RRC, that for him this is a story that keeps on wanting to live.
When I met with Doreen Scott, head nurse on the ward where RRC was committed for psychiatric assessment before his trial, she told me she was sure Robert Cook was speaking to me from the grave. I laughed that off, said he might be speaking to me, but it was no more than obsession of the same kind that took hold of me when I wrote fiction. That the ghost of RRC didn’t hold any greater sway over me than the fictional character, Louise, who had set the story in motion when she began whispering in my ear long before I revisited the tragic story of the Cook family. In retrospect, I know that my obsession with the Cook story was far more significant than any obsession I’ve had with fiction. Herein lies the problem when a writer of fiction turns her hand to non-fiction. The tendency, in fact the joy, of stealing and embellishing story from real life that is an artful challenge in fiction becomes an ethical dilemma in non-fiction.

Was I haunted during the writing of The Boy? Yes, indeed,I was. Am I still in the clutches of Cook’s ghost? No. I’ve spent many months granting myself release from the story. In fact, it was not Robert Raymond Cook who haunted me. It was Daisy Mae Cook, his stepmother, mother to the five small children murdered as well. And Daisy was a gentler ghost than RRC. One of my greatest struggles in writing the Cook family story was in avoiding fictionalizing their lives. Daisy remains an enigma—since the publication of The Boy several people have come forward with conflicting portraits of her. But I will leave her for good with my one lapse into imagining:

(excerpted from The Boy, Oolichan Books, 2011)
Daisy, splashed by a blood-red setting sun, leans into the window. The air in the kitchen is soupy, not even the sigh of a breeze.
She lifts a corner of waxed paper covering the plate of sandwiches, pokes at a crust of bread. Mustard has dried marigold yellow on a protruding grey bologna tongue. She re-wraps, and presses the plate to the counter. Too late for the fridge? Lock the barn door when the horse is dead?
“Mommy?”
Kathy, cheeks flushed, kitty-cat pyjamas twisted, droops in the doorway between kitchen and bedrooms. Then Linda toddles to her sister’s side, blanket trailing, thumb corked between her lips. Daisy huffs the fringe of hair off her forehead. “Back to bed, babies!”
“Thirsty!” Kathy’s toes click on the linoleum. From the living room, the voices of her brothers are muzzled by the heat. “Bobby here?” she asks.
“Not yet.” Daisy scoops one pudgy girl onto each bare arm. She waltzes slow around the kitchen, sets the fly paper spinning. Then swoops over the grey arborite table. Linda’s diaper snags on the chrome edge. Daisy lifts, then bops her around the table, one damp print at each place. Deposits her finally on Daddy’s spot. Shifts Kathy to sit beside her baby sister. Lifting the corners of her apron, she fans a breeze for two flushed, up-turned faces. Reminds herself to take off the tatty apron. Berates herself that she cares. Touches her hair, self-consciously. Relives the plucking of a coarse strand of white from the red this morning. And feels that sting all over again.
From the living room, the opening music to 77 Sunset Strip snaps its fingers. Daisy winks at Kathy. “Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb!” she sings, tickles her fingers through the little girl’s hair. “Turn it down!” she calls to the boys. “Your dad will be here any minute.” Ray can’t stand the show. Kookie too much like Bobby, she thinks. So why isn’t Kookie in jail? And where is Ray? Where is Bobby, now that he’s been sprung?
Then loud voices in the garage, sharp as the edge of a shovel, the scuff of feet, the hard bark of a laugh, scrape of the door as it opens into the kitchen. Ray and Bobby, husband and stepson, drag the smell of grease and garbage into Daisy’s kitchen. She encircles the little girls, and calls the boys from the living room.