My UBC Hat Trick

 

http://oolichan.com/oolichan/hegerat-odd-one-out
Now, I am a pitiful specimen of a Canadian, because I do not love hockey; I don’t watch hockey, I know very little about the game or the lexicon therof, and my interest in the Calgary Flames involves periodically asking the true fan in the house how “our” team is doing. But there’s a hockey term that always makes me smile—“hat trick.” Although I’m sure there is no one out there who needs a definition of hat trick: the scoring of three goals in one hockey game by the same player.

So, I’m calling the publication of my newest book, Odd One Out (Oolichan Books 2016), the completion of my UBC hat trick. I’m borrowing this is as a literary term. The game has been a long one beginning with the publication of my MFA thesis, Delivery, a novel, (Oolichan Books 2009) the year after I completed the MFA Creative Writing through UBC’s low residency program. For literary purposes I’m going to say the game has three periods, and can go on for even longer than a cricket match—in my case, for seven years.

In the second period, The Boy (Oolichan Books 2010), a hybrid of investigative journalism, fiction and memoir was published.

This spring, 2016, Odd One Out, a novel for teens, will be out.

Each of these three books owe huge thanks to the exceptional mentors I had access to at UBC. The gracious and talented Catherine Bush was my thesis advisor and guided me through the final draft of Delivery.

The irascible journalist, Terry Glavin, was one of the instructors who drew me to apply to UBC when I was struggling with non-fiction, with writing the story that ultimately became The Boy. Not only did Terry teach me how to “construct literature from the found materials of the known world,” he baptised me in the belief that TRUTH MATTERS.

I had no intention of writing for young people until I took a summer session course, Writing for Children, with Glen Huser. As in all writing courses, there is that basic requirement— write! And it was in the ten days in the summer of 2007 that I began to think about a boy named Rufus, to hear his voice in my mind, and to get a sense of what was troubling that poor kid. The kind and generous Glen Huser, in my estimation one of the finest Canadian authors of children’s book as well as an outstanding teacher, read the first draft of Odd One Out and helped me find the right sized boots I needed to write for a teenaged audience.

I’ve noticed a recent surge of discussion about the value of the MFA in terms of a writer’s skill and success. I will go on record, as I have many times, in saying, “No! One does not need a university degree to be a good writer.” But what’s troubled me lately is that many of the people who are making that same declaration are doing so with a kind of reverse-snobbery that gets a tad offensive. Don’t apply to graduate programs if you feel they’ll be of no value to you, but please don’t peer down the length of your nose at those who have taken that path for their own personal reasons.

I applied to the UBC MFA Creative Writing program and was accepted on my second try (this for those of you who are inclined to toss in the towel after first attempts). My motive was simple. There were important things I didn’t know and felt sure I couldn’t accomplish without the help of some wise people who would hold my feet to the fire in my efforts to earn a degree. I didn’t need any more letters to tack onto my name, I didn’t need a new community of writers, although I’ve been ever grateful to have met so many gifted and supportive people. I was at an age when I wasn’t looking to gain extra credibility in order to teach. I wanted to be immersed in that academic world just long enough to find answers to my questions.

Am I glad I made the decision to apply to the MFA program? You bet I am. Would I have continued to write and to publish without the degree? Of course I would have. I am determined, tenacious, and thick-skinned and not particularly humble when it comes to believing I have a gift and a responsibility to use it.

Thank you UBC for helping me tighten the laces on my skates. Hat trick.

to FB or not to FB

(warning: I get a little preachy in this one)

There have been many times when I’ve declared that I am giving up “something” for Lent, but the seriousness of that commitment was measured in how long my fingers were able to stay out of the chocolate chips.

Typically, for a long spell in my adulthood this was a measure of the depth of the “I believes” that spilled from my lips during church services. From baptism through adulthood I’ve identified as a Christian, a Lutheran to be specific. The Lutheran liturgy is so indelibly printed in my mind that I suspect that in my dotage when I’ve lost oh so many other words, the Apostles’ Creed will be one of the easily retrievable files in my memory.

But this year, the forty days of Lent seemed to be calling on me to look closely at what matters most in my life, and the amount of time and energy that I squander on distraction.

When I first signed on to Facebook, it was with the notion that this might be a place to promote my writing, keep up with news from friends and family, and re-connect with people from “back when …” It has been a good way to re-connect, to keep abreast of what’s happening in the writing community, encounter some new people. But scrolling through endless newsfeed sometimes three, four, more? times a day has come too close to resembling an evening spent in front of the television, too lazy to change channels or fast-forward through commercials. I never was a TV junkie. How then, did I become hooked on the overwhelming flow of information about the lives of not only people I know, but those I’ve become connected with through “mutual friends?”

Yes, I do love seeing the photos of the adorable children of my friends, and those of my talented photographer friend, Margaret, who captures gorgeous images I would not otherwise see, and there are jokes, cartoons, wise sayings that amuse or touch me. There are political rants, some of which I am in agreement with, others that make me sit on my hands so that I won’t break the rules my parents taught me about never getting into arguments about politics, religion, or how much money anyone earns or how much they spend.

I want to be clear, though, that I appreciate the enjoyment other people derive from their own postings and those of others, and it’s not for me to decide whether the minutiae of life belongs on Facebook, or look down my rather long nose at anyone who loves social media. As with any human discourse, it’s all about respect. Being non-judgmental has always been hard for me, but I’m getting better. I hope.

So what have I been doing during this season of Lent? For the first time in my life, I have attended every Thursday evening Lenten prayer service, attended every Sunday worship, looked long and hard at whether I can “produce fruit out of season”, finally understood what the withered fig tree in Mark 11 means in contemporary life, pondered why people need holy places, and given a lot of thought to what the world’s religions share rather dwelling on the differences.

As for the time I would have spent on Facebook? I’ve made a point of talking with friends over coffee or lunch rather than checking to see what they’ve posted on Facebook or waiting for email. And probably most significantly, I’ve been reading voraciously. Even more voraciously than usual; at least five books a week, re-reading some of them as well, learning from all of them. From the short-listed GG and Giller lists, from twice weekly plundering of the new and notable displays at Fish Creek Library, from recommendations by friends. From beautiful fiction like Connie Gault’s A Beauty, Claire Holden Rothman’s My October, to Raziel Reed’s controversial, brilliant, funny, heartbreaking YA novel, When Everything Feels Like the Movies, to Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. The photo is a mere sampling. Forty days? At least twenty-five books, I think.

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Only four days left in this Holy Week. Am I counting them, eager to get back in the loopy loop of FB? No. What’s been good has been counting each of the days of Lent as part of the journey. And of hearing over and over again that paying attention to God means the practice of compassion and justice. To quote Marcus Borg: “Within the church compassion is to be the primary virtue in our relationships with each other…. among other things, compassion means inclusiveness and inclusive caring. Justice is the social or systematic form of compassion.” — from The Heart of Christianity

What a pity that the “Christians” who make the news regularly haven’t read Borg, nor do they seem to remember that Jesus was a fearless activist who crossed every social and political boundary he encountered.

So if I do re-appear on Facebook, apart from blog posts like this one that automatically show up there and on Twitter, and if I forget what Ma and Pa told me about not arguing about religion, maybe you’ll forgive me if I forget to sit on my hands when I encounter Christian bashing. I’m fresh from some dedicated contemplative thinking and prayer. I’ll simply be trying to make the point, as compassionately as possible, that there are fanatics in every religion, and a whole lot more of us who are working hard to walk in the way of compassion and justice, and most important of all — love.

Besides, I have photos of spring flowers to post. Would I deprive anyone of those?

Waiting for the Parade

This being the day of the Calgary Stampede’s kick-off parade, here’s Charlie and his mom once again.

The story was first broadcast on CBC’s Alberta Anthology and  published in print in The Best of Alberta Anthology for 2005  in celebration of Alberta’s centennial.

 

The Queen is Coming

by Betty Jane Hegerat

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 is 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 covering 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.”

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?

Summer Stories

My garden is my sanctuary from the time blue buds on hepatica dare to appear under a dusting of snow and until the last trees finally begin to drop their leaves—the laurel leaf willow and the burr oak that seem to hold onto hope until late October or longer.

This time of summer, when every plant and tree has reached the peak of its perfection, has always been the best of all. In any corner of our garden, I can find a place for a chair and a bit of loveliness to contemplate.

I know that spring and summer are also the seasons of many of my stories. Rarely do I write winter and in particular the dark months.

Will there be a story from this summer? Or is this endless succession of warnings— “Weather Alert! Conditions are favourable for severe thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail, and funnel clouds” —about to become the cliché for prairie summer.

This summer, my garden has been less of a sanctuary and more the scene of mad dashes into periods of sunshine to weed and dead head and clean up the damage from the latest deluge of rain and hail.  And yet, I’ve been in awe of the mild spring that began in April and carried straight through to summer, the explosion of roses, day lilies of spectacular size, the early harvest of vegetables and a Calgary landscape more lush and green than any I can remember.

Here’s a pictorial of the Seasons in My Garden https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

Next summer may arrive even earlier and bring weather more extreme but even so, as I watch my garden mature into its late summer beauty, I hold tight to the hope that the cycle will remain essentially the same. I’m hoping too, that the fall garden will provide its own sanctuary.

As for story, I’ve written weather many times, and I suspect that will not change.

Here’s a short excerpt that seems fitting in this summer 2016.  “Storm Warning” was published in AlbertaViews 2002 July/August issue, the 15th anniversary of the Edmonton tornado, Jackie Flanagan reminded me the day she called to tell me that “Storm Warning” was a finalist in the AV Short Story contest. “Storm Warning” was also included in the collection A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008)

Storm Warning

Always, when she smells a storm, Jess’s heart races and she’s whirled into the eye of the tornado. She was driving cab on the south edge of Edmonton the day piles of coal black clouds rolled toward the city, bulging and heaving, gathering an eerie jaundiced light. When the car began to buck in the rising wind, Jess turned it around, driving furiously toward the edge of the storm. She hesitated when she saw a man at the side of the road braced against a mileage sign, his hair, his jacket, the legs of his jeans plastered to him. A glance at the sky in the rear-view mirror and her foot hit the brake. She pulled onto the shoulder, backed to where he was standing and flung open the passenger door. Both man and door were almost ripped away by the wind before he pulled himself gasping into the car and heaved the door shut.

Jess put her foot to the floor, instinctively heading for home. They were silent except for Brian’s ragged breath until a tight black funnel came spiralling out of the clouds.

“Jaysus! Is that what I think it is?” His voice was muffled in the thick heat.

Brian’s family loves to tell the story of how Jess saved him

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

reunion: who are you? Who was I?

reunion;  (OED)   the act or instance of reuniting; the condition of being reunited; a social gathering especially of people formerly associated.

Google “school reunion” for more advice than I hope you will ever need:  6 Reasons High School Reunions should not exist; 5 Reasons to attend your high school reunion;  school reunion ideas, quotes, songs, invitation wording. Apparently high school reunions thrive in spite of the “6 Reasons” and in spite of reunion horror stories. Mine is not a horror story; simply the story of a woman who, for the most part, stays afloat by living in the Now.

I had an email today from a woman I haven’t seen in more than fifty years. As soon as I began to read the message I had a clear visual of my kind, funny, red-headed, preacher’s kid, best friend.  I met Joyce when we were ten years old. We’d moved to Camrose from a small town where I didn’t really have a best friend because I was a townie and all my “friends” arrived in yellow busses that rolled into town in the morning and departed at 3:00 in the afternoon.

I lost track of Joyce and other best friends when we moved to Edmonton six years later. So many different schools, so many partings with best friends, one would think I’d embrace the idea of “reunion.” Ten, twenty, thirty years of catch-up just might rekindle friendships and stir the pot of precious memory.

The invitation to the 50th anniversary of the class of 1966 at Camrose Composite High School arrived in February of this year. I was puzzled to receive it, because I’d only attended the first half of grade ten in Camrose. In 1966 I’d graduated from Bonnie Doon Composite High in Edmonton. When I questioned the enthusiastic woman who was head of the organizing committee, she said it mattered not. They were including everyone who had spent any length of time in grades 10, 11, 12 even if they’d moved away before graduation. A friendly inclusive gesture.  I left the invitation simmering in my Inbox; when the reminder came in May, I put off replying. The closing paragraph of the reminder: Don’t forget to pack yearbooks and conversation starter memorabilia and items that scream the 50’s, and 60’s. I didn’t have a yearbook nor do I keep memorabilia.  I let the date slip away.

I attended one high school reunion and it dispelled any notion I had of fun and renewed friendships. At this point in my life, connecting with people I haven’t seen in ten years is a  pleasure but in the context of a long life, not a reason to make of it a huge celebration. In 1976, high school graduation felt like the distant past and I allowed an Edmonton best friend to talk me into attending the ten year reunion of graduates from Bonnie Doon. Compared with Camrose Composite High School, Bonnie Doon was huge. For reasons too ill-conceived to ponder, home room classes were determined by academic achievement. I attended all the core subject classes with the academic bright lights. Many of them were also athletic bright lights and on the school council and beautiful. The combination of brains, beauty and success in every possible activity struck me as unfair in 1963 and still strikes me as an unfortunate glitch in evolution.

I was bright, but an ordinary looking teenage girl, totally lacking in athletic ability and morbidly shy. I suspected that it would be the most successful and happiest ex-Dooners who would attend the reunion, but never validated that prediction because there were few people I recognized and even fewer who remembered me. Apart from a half dozen people with whom Carolyn and I chatted, I felt as personally connected as I would have at a play or concert or wandering through the grocery store.  To be expected—name tags.  I was asked not once or twice, but far too many times — What was your name before you were married? Having morphed from the shy kid to the introverted adult with a sharp tongue, my answer to the question?  My name before I married is the same as it is now—Betty.  I convinced Carolyn that we (I) had stayed long enough to have made our understated appearance. She had her infant daughter with her and baby had definitely had enough. That, I told myself, was the last school reunion I would ever attend.

Joyce caught up with me because she did attend the Camrose reunion. She was in the 1966 graduating class. She’d gathered a mini-history of what I’ve been up to for the past 50 years from a few Camrose people with whom I’ve visited when I’ve done readings in that city.  I had a ripple of regret as I read her email, because I wondered how many other long ago “best friends” I’d missed by staying home. I found the invitation and scanned through the long long list of recipients and recognized so few names (although I make allowance for those girls, who like me, hadn’t kept their surnames when they married) that I imagined myself drifting uncomfortably from one corner to another wondering why I was there. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so. Perhaps I would have reminisced and laughed and been saddened by the list of classmates who have died or suffered misfortunes. For all of them, I offer up a prayer of peace.  For all who are doing fine and are happy in their lives, I wish them well. I do this comfortably from a distance because age mellows memory, and what’s left in my memory of the time in which I knew these people makes me grateful that we survived those harrowing teenage years.

I’m delighted to have had this “reunion” with Joyce and I hope to hear from her again. I’m sure the weekend was a wonderful chance to feel eighteen years old again and to marvel over the distance all those who attended have traveled. Will I go to the 60th reunion? Or reunions of any other people with whom I was formerly associated? I suspect not.  Although imagine the fodder for writing?  Every former student a walking short story.

 

 

 

 

Dear Mr. Green,

Among the many things on my mind this week:  the relentless rainstorms; my sadly bedraggled garden; the unlucky visitors to our city who are sloshing through deep puddles on the Stampede grounds with their Big Pickle Dogs, Mac and Cheese Burgers, Poutine Stuffed Corn Dogs and other innovative food offerings; and short stories.

Although I’ve held tight against every twitch of my brain that wants to lead me into a story, I have been thinking how much I love the form. When I began writing, the idea of writing a novel was both terrifying and laughable.  What story did I have that would demand 350 pages in the telling?

I already knew the gargantuan task involved in the writing, and also in the search for a publisher. But in each short story class I took, we were urged to finish the work and “get it out there,” the “there” being to literary magazines. In 1997 we had far more possibilities in the form of magazines, many of which ceased publishing years ago.

Those submissions, the comments offered even on rejections, the lucky strikes that got our work between covers sustained many of us as we carried on and grew stronger in the craft.

By coincidence, the Stampede, a  beguiling old lit mag called “Green’s” published in Regina, and a story written from the perceptive of my own snooty indifference to the Calgary Stampede, came together. The story, “A Short Ride on Lightning” was published in the Summer 1998 issue of “Green’s.” The communication with Mr Green over some editorial suggestions – most of them good – was probably the lengthiest editing process I experienced with any of the other lit mags I managed to finagle my way into in the years that followed. My favourite comment/complaint: “Do we need a passion (yup, Mr. Green corresponded from his manual typewriter which did not have the option of italics) reference to their relationship? (does she live with him?)?

My reply:  “In response to your question about the “passion” reference, I think it is necessary that there be a strong attraction between these two. If they were only casual friends, why would he care if she rides off with a cowboy?”  He bought it.

To Mr. Green and the other publishers who have since folded, thank you for the opportunities and the honour you bestowed on us. To Anne Burke, whose magazine, “The Prairie Journal,” is still going strong since back in the days when I first began writing — a special recognition and thank you!  And to all my writing cohorts — send those stories out!

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A story just for the short of it

I had a pleasant conversation with one of my Calgary writing colleagues, Rona Altrows, earlier this week about the epistolary form in fiction. To my amazement, she reminded me of one of my “postcard” stories from several years ago. Rona even remembered the title, but why would that surprise me?

I went back to reread “Poste Restante”, published in FreeFall in fall 2011.  The story takes me back to the light on the cobblestones in Salzburg, 1977.  It also makes me yearn for Viennesse coffee and strudel. I’ll make do with the memory, but give the story its moment back in the sunlight.

 

Poste Restante   

Salzburg Oct. 19, 1977

At a sidewalk café, butterscotch light spilling across cobblestones, me with coffee and strudel, you with pretzels and a mug of dark beer, we open mail from home. A whiff of my mother’s hand lotion rises from the page.

Hope you kids are having a grand time. Remember to look up those names I gave you, I’m sure my cousin Ilsa is still alive even though nobody’s heard from her in years. And that little restaurant Daddy and I found in Frieberg in 1963. The man’s name was Otto. He’ll remember us because his wife had a sister over here and living in Red Deer no less.

Now my news. Henry and I are buying a house. We’ll get married eventually, but for now I think it’s best if we just live together. Your sister’s not talking to me. When did you say you were coming home?

My nieces have decorated my sister’s letter with rainbows and hearts.

I wish we could afford to take three months like you, but with the kids, a week in the tent trailer at Sylvan Lake is all I can count on. Mom doesn’t have time to babysit these days. She’s living with Henry. Not even two years since Dad died.

The pages of the letters crackle as I fold them into the envelope.

“Anything new at home?” you ask.

“Nope.” I fork up a bite of strudel. “Where’s out next poste restante?”

“Venice.”

A month away.

 

 

 

I Talk to the Trees

A rambling round about way of arriving at the topic of trees I know and love.

I’m not writing these days. For at least thee years this has been a relief, a time to crawl out from under the obsession that’s driven me for years. Time to admit that my life is not going to be measured by the number of books I’ve written.

But that raises the question – then what will I do that brings me joy and makes me feel like I’m worthy of the air I’m breathing?. (Really this is not so dark a time as it might sound.)  It’s summer. I’ve always enjoyed gardening, but did not become avid – yup, there’s that obsessive streak again – until the tree house, swing set, climbing dome, sandbox and badminton net made room for a different type of backyard creativity.

I love my garden.  Everything in my garden:  vegetable beds, sweeping curves of perennials, hanging baskets and pots. This spring I leapt into the labour of “down-sizing”, making this yard more manageable, because I sadly and simply don’t have the strength or energy required to cultivate the messy English country garden look. Just a bit of neglect and such a garden turns into a simple mess.

The result of my “gardening hard” to dig out plants, create space around the ones I love and put down bark mulch to showcase them and to attempt to thwart the weeds, is a pain that anyone could have warned me about. My back hurts. Big time. That sciatic nerve problem which I could have avoided with a bit of common sense and patience.

Yesterday I wandered around, trying out different postures and activity that didn’t make me wince and stoop and hold my back like a very old crone. I rose up out of exactly that position to discover that if I looked up, I was under the umbrella of a Burr Oak we planted some fifteen years ago.

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Our yard, when we bought this house about 35 years ago, was blessed with a forest of poplars much like every other home in this area. An attempt by the builders to create the “well-established” look when the houses were new and raw. Poplars grow at the rate of — maybe 10 feet a year?  At least that’s what seemed to be happening a few years later. We began to take them down. Three removed because they were simply too much of everything; too many leaves to rake, too much shade, too much crowding. Two others taken down by summer storms.

In the last fifteen years we’ve begun adding trees because when I walk through the neighbourhood or meander through a nursery, I spot trees with brilliant colour and texture and they beg for a place in our garden. This is how we acquired two oak trees – saw them at a nursery and the helpful person there assured us that they were slow growing and it might be unlikely for them to reach their full potential in our lifetimes.  Fifteen years later (we’ve lived longer than the garden centre employeed expected), the tree in the sunniest location is easily 30 ft tall with a wingspan of 20 ft.

 

Other acquisitions that I love: Amur Maple, Dreamweaver columnar crabapple, and a funky little Sumac on which we took a risk because it really shouldn’t thrive in our zone. Sumac has procreated and there are now two children and a newborn.

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I thought I would write about trees this morning, but the longer I sit here with my eyes on the forest outside my office window, I know that there’s nothing original for me to add to the canon.  In fact, I think Joyce Kilmour pretty much covered it, so long as one doesn’t have an aversion to rhyming couplets.

 

 

 

Joyce Kilmer 1886-1918

TREES

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose lovely mouth is prest

Against the sweet earth’s flowing brest;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray.

A tree that my in summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who ultimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.            .

 

Neither can I think of poem or song without thinking of the Smothers’ Brothers wonderful wackiness on trees and other things. The tree skit is very short.

And such a wistful post calls for a humorous ending:   http://tinyurl.com/jakgp63

 

Promotion — from the klutz’s perspective

I had just finished reading from my third book, Delivery, when a woman came over to introduce herself as my sales representative, the person who had  traveled about selling the new books from that season’s catalogues of several publishers as well as my own, Oolichan Books. Susan Toy worked for the Kate Walker Agency at that point and had won awards as “top sales rep of the year.”  As I got to know Susan it became clear that her love of books, authors, audiences, and her enthusiasm and personality made her a worthy recipient of that distinction and many other accolades as well.

Susan asked if I would meet with her over coffee and surprised me by bringing along Randal McNair, my “new publisher.” As well as having less than a clue about what went into selling a book once it was out in the world, I had also been oblivious to the transfer of Oolichan from Ron Smith to Randal McNair and the physical move of the press from its long time home in Lantzville, to Fernie.  Susan had been busy arranging for as many Oolichan authors as were available to meet their new publisher.

At that meeting, Susan suggested another coffee date to discuss an “idea” she had. I was to learn that Susan’s creative mind never stopped spinning new ideas, some brilliant, others that were original but not quite where I was willing to go. The one we laugh about still was her plan to promote author readings at adult birthday parties and my reaction. Am I the sort of person who would even be comfortable, never mind enjoy, being the entertainment at a party?  Dress up in a clown suit?  Burst out of a cake with book in hand? Those were the images I conjured, not really what Susan had in mind. Nevertheless, that idea led to others that were both appealing and successful.

The idea over the next latté, went straight to the heart of my resistance at promoting my own writing. Some authors are comfortable with promotion and do a stellar job of reaching new audiences and creating a “platform” (a term I also learned from Susan) for their books and their identity as authors.  Susan had decided to leave her position as a sales representative and launch Alberta Books Canada whose services would involve seeking promotional opportunities for Alberta authors through Susan’s many contacts with libraries, booksellers, book clubs, writing groups and a long list of other connections.  I was ready to sign on before my coffee was cold.

Over the next five years, I traveled with Susan to bookstores, libraries, conferences, book clubs, wherever she saw an opportunity to sell my books and build that platform.  Surprisingly, I did so willingly, even enthusiastically, because I was always in the cheerful company of my promoter. I learned a vast amount about the industry from Susan and that knowledge still guides my decisions about choosing the most beneficial ways to reach new audiences, and reinforce my connection with readers I met in my Alberta Books Canada travels.

Susan is not only a tireless advocate for books and authors but also a fine writer. She and her partner, Dennis, have owned a home on the beautiful island of Bequia in the Caribbean for many years and divide their time between there and Canada. When she felt it was time to close shop on Alberta Books Canada, she retreated to the “Island in the Clouds” to write the mystery that would be given that title. I took out my author inscribed copy just a few days ago, because Susan has a new book that will available soon, and I wanted to immerse myself in “paradise” in prep for One Woman’s Island. In the interval between these two novels Suan published a novella, That Last Summer, and has gone online with her never ceasing promotion of authors and their books, new and backlist included.

Particularly now, with a new book and the knowledge that if I don’t do some promotion, it’s not going to be read, I’m missing Susan.  Not that I want to ride my skateboard to any teen birthday parties,  but her ideas are always welcome. But I know,  distance not withstanding — Susan is currently back at her “trailer” in Ontario– Susan is still on my small team of She and Me and there will be ideas.

Meanwhile, I owe her and want to give a well-deserved shout-out to her books.

Visit my good friend, Susan, via her books and through her websites — buy the books and consider providing her with reviews and interviews and anything else that she would like to offer on her blogs. She’s gone international with her recommendations and promotion, but I know that Alberta Books Canada is still alive.

https://islandeditions.wordpress.com/

https://readingrecommendations.wordpress.com/

https://readingrecommendationsreviewed.wordpress.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1316805.Susan_M_Toy/blog

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