An Interview with Dianne Harke, author of: Incognito, The Astounding Life of Alexandra David Neel. (Sumeru Books 2016)

incognito-front-cover

BJH   First of all, Dianne, I congratulate you on piecing together the story of the life of this fascinating woman. I appreciated your Author’s Note wherein you provide the rationale for the term “fictional biography” which to me, speaks to the care you’ve taken in recreating the “elusive” Alexandra. I believe that Alexandra David Neel would approve of you as her biographer and have no difficulty at all with your careful handling of “the invisible line between fiction and non-fiction.”

DH    Thank you for your kind comments. Not so sure that Alexandra would approve. I imagine her appearing in one of my dreams to give me a right rollicking about something that does not meet with her approval. So far, so good, though.

BJH   A woman who travelled incognito all over Asia, spent several long periods in Tibet, and lived as a hermit in a cave in the Himalayas—when and how did you first encounter the life of Alexandra David Neel?

DH    Can’t pinpoint an exact year, but know that somewhere in my early 20s, probably, I came across a reference to her book, My Journey to Lhasa. Promptly bought a copy and read about her amazing trek. At that time, I was doing a fair bit of reading about Buddhism and fancied myself to be as intellectually cool as Beat Generation icons like Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg. When she died in 1969, I also read an article that highlighted her achievements.

BJH    I know that you have spent many years on the research and writing of this book, and I, as many other authors will as well, understand how we become enthralled with a character or story and arrive at a point where interest become obsession. Is it fair to say that it was obsession that drove you to persevere with this story? Did the interest develop over time, or did you know from the earliest research that you would have to write this story?  Were there times when you tried to put it aside?

DH   Obsession is the correct word. My early research was driven mainly by curiosity. Who was this woman? Where did she travel to and why? But, as time went by the hidden Alexandra became my focus. The biographies I read didn’t seem to delve deep enough into her psyche so I started to formulate my plan for a work of historical fiction.

BJH   “Ever since I was five years old…I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by and set out for the unknown,” —My Journey to Lhasa, Alexandra David Neel.

Does the quote speak to you on a personal level?  Do you identify with her wanderlust?

DH   Another excellent question! Well to be honest, I am certainly not as intrepid or brave as Alexandra, nor would I be comfortable packing heat as she did. I do enjoy traveling, but coming back to a home base seems to be almost as important to me (at least now) as going off on trips to unknown parts. People and their stories are my keenest interest so if following the road takes me in that direction that would be my ideal. Walking several sections of the Camino pilgrimage path on two occasions was like that. So many interesting people, so many stories!

BJH   This is the portrait of a woman on a deeply spiritual journey in search of revered teachers of Buddhism and the Tibetan language.  Did it become, vicariously, such a journey for you as well?

DH   Yes, it certainly did become that kind of journey. Over the years, I became more and more interested in knowing more about both Buddhism and Tibet. Did try to learn some Tibetan and to practice it with a Tibetan speaking pen pal, but really haven’t progressed much. In both Edmonton and Nelson, I have done drop in meditation sessions at Buddhist centres and have appreciated the calmness but really don’t profess to know very much. Reading seems to be my number one way to make this journey. The teachings and books of Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia top of my spiritual journey booklist.

BJH   The numerous sources you acknowledge with gratitude, speak to impeccable and eclectic research. You have had a long and successful career as a librarian and consultant. How did this experience influence your approach? How did the people you contacted respond to your interest in Alexandra?

DH    My research skills have certainly been honed by my training and work life as a librarian. I took copious notes from books that I had collected over the years and also spent many hours at the University of Alberta library.

Several binders and a bulging brocaded bag of folders soon filled up. I also travelled to France with my husband and spent a few hours at the Alexandra David-Neel Museum in Digne les Bains. Walking in her footsteps into the room in which she wrote and died was truly moving, and eerie. I told the staff there about my project and later my publisher made arrangements to buy the rights to some archival photographs.  They were very cooperative, although there were a few bumps because of our limited French and their limited English.

BJH   What different formats did you eventually amass?  Could you describe the process of sorting, culling, organizing what must have been a formidable mountain of material?

DH   From binders, and handwritten notes, I progressed to a number of computer files. Because Alexandra lived for so many years and had so many distinctive parts to her life, the chronology fell into order quite nicely. The problem was figuring out what to leave out and also how to prevent it from turning into a dry, discursive account. By interweaving the first-person chapters with the third-person accounts, I hoped to achieve some sort of balance.

BJH   The voice in which you’ve written the sections that are headed “From the journals of Alexandra David-Neel”, has the ring of authenticity and intimacy. It feels as though you were inside the skin of your subject and writing her perception of her world and the life she was leading. I thought, at first, that these were the actual journals.  The narrator in the other sections has the same eloquence of voice. This is what writers hope they will accomplish, this sense of being the character. Was it difficult at times to sustain that voice, or did the research provide enough of both the insight and the language to guide you?

DH   It was difficult at times, yes, but when that happened I would just do my best to “channel” Alexandra. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was a practising Spiritualist who communicated with long-dead people and pets, so perhaps there was an inherited disposition at work. Going back to the stacks of books and the voluminous pages of notes really helped as well.

BJH   The description of the land through which Alexandra travelled has that same authenticity. Have you been to Tibet? Any plans to go there?

DH   No, I haven’t been to Tibet, although I have read many books related to this fascinating country. The current political situation is upsetting. I have a Tibetan Buddhist monk pen pal (who grew up in exile in India) who is currently attempting to do educational and environmental work in Tawang province very close to the Tibetan border. The Chinese government, without consulting with local residents, is planning to go ahead with a number of hydroelectric projects that would destroy sacred cultural sites and habitats for endangered species. Police fired on peaceful protesters last year with two deaths recorded. I am also bothered by the vilification of the current Dalai Lama by the government, so yet another reason that I won’t be travelling to Tibet.

BJH   Authors usually have a particular intent, a vision, for the work they are producing. Can you describe briefly what your intent was?

DH   In brief, my intent was to introduce more English readers to this remarkable woman and to show myself that I could actually finish writing a work that had been started years ago. I also didn’t want to disappoint the very patient publisher who, after reading the first few chapters on Wattpad, had offered to publish the book – the best incentive for any writer!

BJH   What other writing have you done?

DH   I have been a scribbler for a long time. This is my first book, but over the years I have had shorter pieces published in newspapers – a children’s story and several columns in The Edmonton Journal and an essay in The Globe and Mail. One of the pieces previously published in The Edmonton Journal has recently been included in Lotus Petals in the Snow – Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women (The Sumeru Press).  I have also done some contract writing for Alberta Education (related to school libraries) and have written two radio plays for Alberta School Broadcasts (in the way, way back). Some book reviewing for school library magazines and a vitriolic clutch of letters to the editor on topics near and dear to my heart complete my oeuvre, such as it is.

BJH   And the tired old question that must come at the end of any author interview: Do you have another project in progress?

DH   Thank you for asking. Yes, I do, but details will be sparse. For some reason, I harbour very old-fashioned superstitions about talking about projects too much before they are complete. Don’t want to jinx things. A truly silly idea from a deeply flawed person – forgive me, please.

Now for the sparse details. If/when this project is finished, it will be a work of fiction set in contemporary times that features the appearance of a long-dead American literary icon (female). Time is a series of metaphysical spaces rather than a process in this world. No zombies or vampires, just some quirky fun

BJH   And another that seems to be expected these days—What are you currently reading?

DH   I have two daily reading rituals. To ease into the day, I adjourn most mornings to my poetry chair. This time features poems from three collections. Staying Alive – Real Poems for Unreal Times (a truly magnificent anthology edited by Neal Astley) Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins, and New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver. I read the poems aloud – the plants seem to thrive on these words – and keep this book stack on shuffle. Which book today? Which random page to begin at? Oh, the excitement never ends!

To ease out of the day, I adjourn to the bedroom no later than nine (having given up the CBC TV news – induces glumness and troubling dreams) to read books taken out of our local public library. Usually have two or three on the bedside table. The one currently in progress is The Wonder by Emma Donoghue, a very fine work of historical fiction inspired by almost fifty cases of so-called Fasting Girls in the British Isles, Western Europe, and North America between the 16th and 20th centuries. Highly recommended! Coming up next is Carol by Patricia Highsmith. An article some time ago in The New York Review of Books has piqued my interest in Highsmith. Read The Talented Mr. Ripley some years ago and was very impressed.

I am, of course, terrifically curious to know the identity of that “long-dead American literary icon. Looking forward to hearing more. Thank you, Dianne. For persevering in your quest to reveal some of the mystery around this amazing woman, and for this chance to talk with you about the book.

For information on the publisher who produced this beautiful book:

http://www.sumeru-books.com/

Available from Chapters Indigo: https://tinyurl.com/z4vx4n7

Even better, check with your local indie bookstore to see if they can order for you.

And of course, always a good idea to contact your local public and suggest a title you’d like them to order.

Finding the Pony in the Pile

 

After four years during which my muse found the pen too heavy to lift,  in the past two months it seems she’s stretched and yawned and decided she was too young to retire.

So “we” opened my file labelled “edit new work” wherein rest stories that never made it to completion for one reason or another. Some of them, when I read them now, are not and clearly never will be worth the candle.

But I came upon one that I felt had “good legs” and so I found the flaws, asked a friend to read and offer her criticism and ended up with a story that pleased me.  I went to my list of past submissions and publications for some hint as to where this story might find a friendly editorial eye. To my surprise, “You Must Remember That” had already found such an eye. It was published in 2010 in the Antigonish Review.

Lessons learned: keep files up to date; and (I believe the essence of the quote is from Aritha van Herk) “We never really finish a story. We just abandon it.”

A second surprise on this sifting of stories—there were two (one fiction and a personal essay)  that I had no memory of writing. Only the memory of churning them in my mind years ago, and telling myself that one day, when the time was right, I’d find a way to put them on the page. Completion and editing now done, stories kicked on to magazine slush piles. Mission accomplished.

Rather than give “the muse” full credit for this return to story, partial credit is due to  Queen Elisabeth II. Netflix series “The Crown”, numerous newspaper and magazine articles on HRH’s long reign, and Theatre Calgary’s beautiful staging of “The Audience”  reminded me that I too have a QEII story and it has nothing to do with highways.

I wrote “The Queen is Coming” in response to a call for submissions from CBC’s Alberta Anthology, a program that was a gift to Alberta writers.

The theme was “Alberta’s Centennial.” I normally avoid writing to “themes” because most often the result is a heavy-handed story written without real inspiration or passion. But when several friends who are dyed-in-the-wool royalists began to go gaga over the upcoming royal visit, I decide to translate my eye-rolling into a story.

A helpful CPL librarian helped me dig through archived news of HRH’s visit in 1951for background, and in particular to find out what Her Majesty was wearing. It was the hat I was after. I even stood on the corner of 9th and Macleod and drank in the spectacle.

“The Queen is Coming” had the honour of a CBC broadcast, and was also included in a lovely collection titled The Best of Alberta Anthology for 2005.

Because it’s been gathering dust now for 12 years, it’s time for an airing:

 

The Queen is Coming

 

My mother phones at eight o’clock in the morning on March 27. “Charlie! The Queen is coming for the Centennial. I want to go to the party,” she says. “You sound sleepy, dear.”

I’ve given up reminding her that I work nights. I do data entry at a bank. Suits me well, and I’m free to ferry Ma to medical appointments and funerals – pretty much her only outings these days.

I’d cruelly hoped, when I heard about the pending royal visit on CBC radio this morning, that Ma would be having one of her bad days. That the news wouldn’t penetrate the fog.

“You know I hate crowds,” I tell her.

“You’re fifty-seven years old,” she says. “You should get over these little fears of yours.” She sighs. “This will be my last chance to see her.”

My mother’s obsession with the royal family began in 1948 when she and Princess Elizabeth were both pregnant. I was born two days after the little prince. If the royal had been a girl, I would have been named Ernest, for my father.

“The tickets are free,” she says. “All you have to do is get in line.” I imagine her head trembling as she speaks. “I hope I can find my hat.”

In Ma’s royal album, there is a picture from 1951. The two of us standing on Ninth Avenue, Ma in a dark wool coat, matching felt hat with a brim and feather. Me, buttoned into a heavy brown coat cut down from Ernest’s overcoat just a few months after he died in a streetcar accident. I’m clutching a small Union Jack in my chubby fist.

The Princess was wearing a mink coat that day, and a matching hat that hugged her head.  Ma had a milliner fashion a replica of that mink cloche hat out of a piece of fur no has ever identified. My sister, Annie, swears it’s cat. The hat has only ever been worn for royal viewings.  Four in all.

I grudgingly agree to get tickets to the Saddledome reception. But I oversleep on the morning they go up.

Ma is surprisingly cheerful. “Never mind. I’m not sure I could have endured the program. They say it will be hours long.”

“Right!” I say in jovial response.  I’ve had nightmares about chasing her runaway wheelchair down ramps. About the accidents to which this proud woman is now prone and the mortification of both of us.

“We’ll just go down to the public viewing,” Ma says. “Maybe she’ll do a walk-about.” She’s getting excited now. “Wouldn’t it wonderful if Charles was coming?”

“Don’t know why he isn’t,” I say. “He’s fifty-seven. He probably loves riding around with his mother.”

“He’s busy,” she snaps. “He’s getting married again, you know.”

Ma loved Diana, is sour on Camilla, but says at least Charlie Windsor isn’t going to remain an old bachelor for the rest of his life. And he has those two fine sons. I, on the other hand, allowed a childless marriage wash up on the rocks ten years ago.

The weather in the week leading up to the Queen’s arrival in Calgary was cold, grey, fiercely windy. Not the sort of climate to which a responsible man would expose his frail eighty-two year old mother.

But she insists.  My sister, Annie, insists. “For gawd sake, Chuck!” she snarls over the phone, “I offered to take her myself, but she wants you.”

I slump in my chair, thinking about the hat I retrieved from the top of the closet. . Even after my heroic attempts to fluff it up, the old relic looked like road kill. I winced when Ma settled it over her scant curls and peered into the mirror. “Oh, Charlie,” she whispered, “I look so old.”  But I, standing behind her chair, was staring at my own reflection. A fat, balding, man who would never be mistaken for a prince.

Even though it’s a morning in May, Ma is bundled into her black winter coat, feet encased in fur-lined boots, hat perched over her freshly-permed hair. A policeman stands in the middle of Ninth Avenue, diverting traffic. Despite his shouts, I creep forward, waving my “handicapped parking” sticker. He shakes his head, but points to a loading zone around the corner.

I push Ma’s wheelchair to a curbside spot in front of the Palliser Hotel. Huddled into my windbreaker, I wish I’d worn my own winter jacket. But then, just minutes before the entourage is due, the sun breaks through. Ma twists in the chair to look up at me, her face tiny beneath the fur. “They say she never wears a hat twice.”

Suddenly there’s a limo approaching, and as it glides by, a smattering of applause from the crowd. A blur of face, a wave. Finished in seconds. Ma doesn’t blink. “That’s not her,” she says. “It’s that Clarkson woman.”

The Governor General, Ma tells me, is going ahead to stage the receiving line for the Queen and Prince Philip. It’s the way things work.

I’m eyeing the corner of Ninth and Macleod a block away, thinking that this is where the cars will slow. This is why the crowd is thickest there. For the better view.  I hope my mother doesn’t notice that I haven’t chosen the best vantage point. Haven’t even tried.

She turns again, and motions for me to listen. I crouch beside the chair. “You look at her face, Charlie. She’s so… serene. How can that be possible with all the stress the poor woman has been through?”

I choke back a snort. “She has a bit of hired help, Ma.”

“Oh, not that,” she says. “It’s the children. The way they live their lives. What a disappointment that must be.”

I feel heavy, leaning there on my haunches, the weight of my own dull life hovering over Ma and me. “I guess that’s just something that comes with being a mother,” I say.

“No dear,” she tells me softly, without taking her eyes off the street. “Elizabeth has had bad luck with her Charles. Aren’t I a lucky old woman to have raised a decent man like you?” She turns now and the smile takes twenty years from her face.

I can see cars approaching, people waving and cheering in the next block.  Too fast. They’ll be past us in a flash. I crank Ma’s chair around, bounce it off the curb and race down the street, Ma gasping and waving her arms.

“Make way!” I shout. “The Queen is coming!”  At the corner, the crowd parts to let us pop up onto the sidewalk just before the second limo in the procession slows, and glides past.  Under a big-brimmed white hat, a smiling face turns to Ma, a gloved hand makes an elegant salute.

Ma grabs my arm. “She smiled right into my face!”

I bend, press my cheek to hers. “Of course,” I say. “She recognized the hat.”

END

An afterword from the anthology: ” The Queen is Coming” is about the relativity of the child-parent relationship and explores how grace inspires grace.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

9780889823051

 

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?

 

One Woman’s Island

 

HPIM3640

My good friend, Susan Toy, dedicates a large amount of time to promoting books and authors, and offering advice on “the business.” She also finds time to write and publishes her work and that of others under her own imprint, IslandCatEditions.

Susan is a splendid cook and an inspired one.  A recipe she created for Cinnamon Buns and kindly shared with me has won me many compliments. When I told her I was serving Susan Toy’s Cinnamon Buns at a coffee gathering last week and that I would give her acknowledgement but not divulge the recipe, she laughed and said I was to make sure everyone there knew that the recipe, along with several other of her “island” recipes is in her latest published ebook, One Woman’s Island.

( Some I will try but I will pass on Goat Water Soup.)

After several years of being on the receiving end of Susan’s promotion, I’m delighted to be able to shine some light on her writing.

In 1989, Susan and partner, Dennis, visited Bequia Island, a small island and part of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, and were so enchanted with this bit of “paradise” that they bought property, built a home and moved to Bequia in 1996. In the ensuing years, Susan has returned to Canada for several extended visits to Calgary, and more recently has bought a holiday home (she refers to it as “the trailer”) in Ontario.

As soon as I began reading One Woman’s Island, (and the same recognition occurred when I read Susan’s first mystery novel, Island in the Clouds), I could clearly hear Susan’s voice in the narrator, Mariana, who is looking for time to sort out her life. Six months on Bequia is a compelling choice.

The characters, the  island setting which emerges as a character unto itself, and Mariana’s introduction to Caribbean culture have resonance for me because I have heard so much from Susan about this place. The resonance, I think, would be there for anyone who’s dreamed of living in paradise.

There is a community of ex-pats—mostly Canadian and American—to whom Mariana is initially drawn, but with whom she becomes quickly disenchanted. Susan pulls no punches when it comes to the hardened judgement most of the “visitors” express freely about the “locals” and island culture. She also skilfully gives glimpses of the shrouded feelings of the locals toward these visitors on whom their tourist industry relies, creating a livelihood for many in this struggling population.

Mariana’s overflowing compassion is entirely believable, and so too is the reaction of her fellow ex-pats and the local community.  And so the story unfolds, with mysterious deaths and nefarious characters.

Just a tip:  Should you ever have the good fortune of visiting Bequia and meeting Susan Toy, stay away from swimming pools. She enjoys disposing of bodies—only a literary predilection we will assume—in convenient pools.

If I have one quibble with the writing, it is a small one.  I find reading dialect distracts me from story, even in this case where Susan’s many years on the island and finely tuned ear give her the skill for re-creating the voices of the local characters. There are places where a bit less, without entirely removing the beautiful song of the Caribbean voice, might make for smoother reading.

If you are seeking an escape, the island of Bequia, even enjoyed from your comfortable chair at home in your own personal paradise, would be a lovely bit of travel in any season.

If you have an interest in ethnography and sociology, there is plenty for pondering.

If you’re looking for a recipe for Rum Punch, you will want to try Dennis’s creation.

And of course, there is the recipe for the cinnamon buns which I brazenly now refer to “Betty Jane’s as told to her by Susan Toy.”

For availability, check IslandCatEditions website.

https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/islandcateditions/

One Woman’s Island is available through the Calgary Public Library’s electronic resources and I am sure through other libraries as well.

Well done, Susan!

Gone to Grass

“Gone to Grass”

I learned this expression from the lovely Jean McKay when we were at Sage Hill in 2004, attending Robert Kroetsch’s novel colloquium. It is, in fact, the title of one of Jean’s elegant books which also include The page-turner’s sister and Dragonfly Fling whose cover bears the comment, “Jean McKay is one of North America’s finest writers” from no less than Annie Dillard.  This is all sidebar but important because if you have not read Jean’s book, do try to find them. It may be devilishly hard, but worth the effort.

“Gone to grass” is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of the back list of my books and those of many of my writing colleagues. It grieves me that while there are some literary comets that blaze for light years , too many of our books are more like shooting stars.

As many of you know, I have had the benefit of former bookseller and publishers’ sales representative, Susan Toy, in the promotion of my last three books, and while she was promoting those, she always shone the light on the first two as well. Susan closed down her business, Alberta Books Canada, when she left Calgary but she continues to be a fierce supporter of her Alberta friends and a whole new community of authors she has gathered online.

As many of you also know, I am totally dismal when it comes to promoting my own work, and I miss Susan’s help. She is one of those people who rarely go through a whole day without that light bulb flicking on over her head. I can hear her say, “I have an idea!” as I write this.

I’ve asked Susan if she would please go back to work for me for a short while to help get Odd One Out into the world, which she has graciously agreed to do. But not without coming back within hours with, “How do you like this idea?!”

Do stay posted for the Go Read Me Campaign! she will blogging about sometime soon. Now, Susan, compares this project to Crowd Funding, but it will feel to me like begging and I will blush but will not apologize.

Meanwhile, go in search of Jean’s books. http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/author/jean-mckay  I’ve found them listed on both Amazon and Chapters/Indigo, but you may need to buy a used copy. And if you find Gone to Grass please let me know because someone borrowed my copy about 10 years ago and didn’t return it. Which is why, if you ask to borrow my copy of the other two books, you’ll have to read them at my house.

Was the Artist Paid?

During the years that I’ve had my nose to the writing stone, I’ve learned that not only is the artist frequently underpaid or not paid at all for time spent engaging formally with other artists and audiences, but that there is a common and puzzling opinion that artists—who from this point I’ll refer to as writers, because I’m not qualified to speak from the perspective of those engaged in the visual or performing arts—should simply be flattered to be invited to speak to the craft and have an opportunity to promote our work.

The nudge I needed to write about the poor starving writer came from the list I looked through yesterday of the panels at this weekend’s When Words Collide conference in Calgary. This conference has had a steady growth in attendance and is a wonderful forum for connecting readers with writers of genre fiction.  One of the panel topics this year is “If Artists Starve We all Starve.”  Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend the conference but I hope to hear from people who will be there as to the commentary, given that panels most often simply reach a decision to respect differing opinions.

Early in my writing career, I was flattered when I was asked to read from newly published work or to talk about the craft in various venues and never asked if there was a budget for paying the artist, or even the offering of an honorarium. I was called up short by another writer who told me that each time I went out as a member of the writing community and neither asked for nor received an honorarium no matter how small, I was discrediting the value of time and energy spent by other writers as well. I can hear her voice clearly: “Betty, I tell some organizations that even if they can only afford to pay me five dollars, I will come and spend some time with them. When I’m asked by organizations that do have a budget but offer nothing for my participation I tell them to find someone else and hope that they will get the same response from a lot of other writers.”

The expectation that writers will go happily to any venue where there is an audience and the possibility that people will buy their books, seems to rise from the notion that we are only artists when we’re bent over the computer writing/rewriting/editing/querying publishers.  The rest of it is … well, just getting out there and selling our books. The business part of the job for which we are compensated by book sales. That we should be grateful for any opportunity to promote ourselves and our work. Every writer I know who visits a book club, reads in a school or at a library, or is a participant in a conference, spends time preparing for those appearances and most often gives far more than she takes away from the experience.

I don’t know a single author who doesn’t have a not-so-funny story about “payment” for appearances. On the other hand, every author I know also has stories about warm welcomes and generous gifts of appreciation. I have a fine collection of coffee mugs and book bags imprinted with the names of schools or libraries – I treasure these honorariums. I’ve also had bottles of wine, bouquets of flowers, and gift certificates. I have a friend who wins the prize with a $5 Tim Horton’s gift card as an honorarium.

But I’ve also traveled on my own dime, and mooched off friends or family to be part of an event for a handshake and a thank you.  I’ve attended book clubs where not a single member has bought a book and my payment was cheese and a glass of wine. I shrug those off, as most authors do, and take my payment in the knowledge that at least some of the members of the discussion group read my book.

All of this sounds terribly whiny, perhaps even surly, but I am tired of the level of “volunteerism” expected of artists. I want readers to know that although some of the events they attend pay the author participants fairly and treat them as honoured guests, this is the gold standard and often the compensation the artist receives is many rungs below the bronze level.

Perhaps I’ll lobby for a yearly” Take an Artist to Lunch Day.”  Meanwhile, though, I simply ask that whether you are a reader or another author at a literary event that you ask the question—and I dare you to do so publicly.  WAS THE ARTIST PAID?   Did someone at least buy her lunch?