Tag Archives: fiction

Olive Kitteridge, or, honestly, how many horrible people can you fit into a book….

n244191Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, tells the life of a difficult woman and her life in a small town in Maine. Olive is unlikeable, changeable, with a horrid temper, but who is given to flashes of wisdom. Her husband is weak, happy, bland. Her son hates her.

All other mothers in the book are a. alcoholics, b. mentally ill, c. homicidal, or d. all of the above. All men are grey, uninspiring, whiny, kind, have lovely hands. All children are desperate, given to dying in horrible ways like anorexia, or car accidents, or are homicidal and stab a woman 29 times.

Huzzah, I say. Bring it on. Life is often dark and cheerless in small Maine towns. I know, having been raised in a small Massachusetts town. It can be claustrophobic, everyone knowing your every slip-up, knowing your parents for years, guessing at your sex life or job history or minor problems.

But not EVERYONE in town needs to be gassed. I understand this book has been made into an HBO miniseries, something that makes me wonder if, like the characters in the book, we all enjoy watching other people’s hardships in an overwhelming surge of schadenfreude. I can’t imagine watching the series. Dickens did hard lives, and did them better – because in his stories he remembered what is, for me, the necessity of these hard luck stories – the possibility or sniff of redemption. Or growth. Or light.

True, Olive does get to feel lust returning at the very very end of the book (spoiler alert), but even that is so muted as to have all the joy sucked right out of it.

The book is well-written, though given to occasional flights of phrase that my editor self wants to pluck out with tweezers, and it’s been nominated for many prizes, including the Pulitzer!!!, reinforcing my hypothesis that you can only win a prize if you write about totally dysfunctional families in towns filled with them and IF you throw in a storm or two.

To add to my irritation, my copy was printed in tiny light grey type that made me strain to read it, so I got a tiny eye headache to add to my feelings of frustration.

Do read this book – it’s worth a read – just don’t read it if you are depressed or recovering from a Christmas holiday season crowded with dysfunctional drunken relatives.

As for me, I think I’ll pass it on anonymously. Perhaps it will find a home with someone who is overly cheerful.

The really bad thing about good used bookstores

Went to Doull’s bookstore today.
Now, bear in mind I am moving in a few months and this is one of my bookshelves…and I have seven. Seven! Many of which I am selling to friends so I can get matching ones for my living room. They are all full.

So I walk into the store, ostensibly to buy textbooks for my son for school. He wanders off with one of the staff, who knows where everything is and constantly astonishes me by this since his store holds 1000’s of books, in piles and heaps and shelves and more piles.

I’m trapped at the door. Already I’ve found three books I really want to read, now. I pry myself away, vowing to get more than three feet in today, and in search of mysteries as my brain can’t handle much more these days…

Twenty minutes later, my son and I pile up the finds. Nine for me, twelve for him.

I ask the genial owner, he of the white beard and twinkling blue eyes (always my downfall) if he would take some of my discards. He looks a bit shamefaced. “We’re only offering store credit,” he says. “Had to do some roof work.”

Somehow I don’t think that will be a problem. If I didn’t force myself out of there I’d need another seven bookshelves and I wouldn’t have anywhere to sit in my place!

It’s a treasure trove, and fun to share with my son, who is so well read and still wants more more more, just like his mum. We already have two huge totes full of books to move to his student digs in a few weeks.
Well, at least our places are well-insulated.



Rob Ford, parenting, enabling, and bad guys who write their own characters.

Goshens I am sick of the Rob Ford debacle. I wish someone would have advised him that he should have stepped down the minute he mentioned drinking and driving (he’s just said he told other councillors caught for DUI that it was okay and helped them “move on”). Breaking the law as an elected official is a bit like abuse by priests. Yes, it’s terrible whoever does it, but it is more terrible when people in a position of trust do it.
It’s just f#%^king wrong, as Mr. Ford might say, in front of kids.
It’s particularly wrong when those people enable others in positions of trust to commit the same crimes.
It’s all completely disgusting and in the middle of it all, there’s Mr. Ford’s mum saying that Robbie’s only trouble is his weight problem. And his brother saying he should have done his drinking in the basement. The guy has an addiction problem. Someone should get him to get help. I can’t believe the complete denial of the problem – it speaks to the covering up of addiction problems generally. Why can’t we admit there is an alcohol problem, that abuse of alcohol causes innumerable evils in the world, and that people addicted to it need help?

When writing bad guys in fiction, it’s important to make them nuanced, with good parts and bad. But sometimes when I write these characters, they take over the narrative, and do more bad things, badder things, more heinous crimes than what I originally planned. It’s like the character takes control of my pen or keyboard and commands me to make them more evil. Occasionally, they get out of hand and I have to go back and rewrite them, give them a better balance, erase a few missteps.

If only Mr. Ford could do the same thing.

Knitting stories together

I’m a terrible knitter. I struggle through easy patterns, drop stitches with gay abandon, restart projects after unpicking them all the way back, and eventually end up with something approximating what I started out to do. Almost.

One of the first scarves I knit was for my son. I was knitting while I was distracted by the television and the centre part of the scarf ended up widening and widening. I eventually caught myself and started dropping stitches and shrinking it back. My son graciously says that it’s perfect as it is because he can put the wide bit up over his nose if he needs it in the cold.

The point of all this knitting talk is that knitting is a lot like writing. You start out with a pattern, it may or may not work out the first few times, you have to unpick and start over, rerolling the yarn into a ball, trying not to tangle the threads. Then you start bravely again, maybe with new needles or a simpler approach, gradually working toward the ending of the piece, which may or may not look like what you wanted it to be.

My mother-in-law knitted wonderful things for my kids, but she’d send them to me wrapped up with a note that the yarn she’d used was made of “100% unknown fibres” and she didn’t know what would happen when I washed the items. I remember thinking that if I was going to spend time knitting, I’d want to knit with good yarn, so that it would feel nice on the needles, and so that the final product had half a chance of looking pleasant.

Now, when writing, I try to use the right words, struggle to get the metaphors bright and meaningful, use phrases carefully to try to create beauty. As with knitting, I’m not good at following a pattern – I prefer to make things up as I go.

Sometimes, it’s all a mess and I have to give it up and start over. Sometimes I tuck it away and pretend it never happened. But gradually, with practice, I am creating things that are worth showing to other people, giving away, even if imperfect.IMG_3911

Writing close to the bone

I’m currently writing a piece that is about a woman, looking at the body of her husband, and her conflicted feelings about the death of some one she had to care for for years.

It’s kind of about my mum, but not my mum. I have no idea how she felt when my dad died. I’ve never had to provide ongoing care to someone other than my kids, and they grew up. So I’m wandering in her imaginary head, putting thoughts in there that probably never existed there. She’s no longer around to object.

Still, it’s oddly cleansing to do it.

My family never talked about anything like feelings. We weren’t really supposed to have them. We weren’t supposed to love or care or talk about how we felt about anything.

A lot of the time it was pretty lonely, and I’m still learning valuable life lessons about interdependence and letting go and allowing myself to ask for what I want out of life and relationships. I still don’t talk about feelings much, except perhaps with my galpals, and maybe not even then.

But the feelings go into my writing. They make me write dark or funny or bitter or sweet (not too much of the latter, mind). They make me have to write. So maybe it’s a good thing we didn’t talk about them much. I have a rich, untapped vein, ready for the mining.

So off I go, making up vicious thought, killing off people or having them kill. Playing with their hearts and minds to rehearse what normal relationships might feel like, what malign ones might do to a person.

Some things won’t see he light of day – too dark, too personal. But when I write close to the bone, that’s when my writing is best. Tis a conundrum.

Fiction is good for you, says Andy Straka


I’m so happy! Another new author I just have to get to know. Here’s his blog – I’ll explore more deeply once this 3daynovel thing is over…

On the HUNT!!! Mystery authors needed…

I am thrilled to have been made the chair of the 2015 Bloody Words Mystery Conference to be held here in gorgeous Halifax, NS. I think EVERYONE should come. Halifax is a glorious city, the conference is full of surprisingly nice people who have vented their anger at red lights and cell phones and traffic through fictional murdering, and the information and meetings with agents and writers and all is beyond compare.

And did I say how lovely the Halifax area is?

Check out Nova Scotia Webcams and have a look. In the next few weeks the tall ships are coming, so you can see them sailing around. You can see Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse on the cam, the shores all over, resorts and gold courses and ski hills and a lobster cam and a parrot cam.

If you come to the conference, you can even cadge a ride on one of the tall ships. But that’s in the future…

One of the big responsibilities of the chair and his/her bloody gang is lining up the guest speakers – especially the Canadian and International guests of honour. So I’m planning to read mysteries by the zillion, looking for those wonderful souls who write thrilling and day-stealing mysteries and who might be good conference speakers. I need suggestions! We all have favourites and tend to read them most, and I’m working on broadening my reading, but I can use help, guideposts to good places to hunt. Would love your help, dear reader…

Leave me a message with your favourites, or if you are already in Halifax, bring suggestions to our table at Word on the Street in September.

And keep your eyes peeled for Bloody Words 2014 in Toronto. It’ll be fantastic, too.

Revisionist history, or embroidering around the edges of life

Sometimes, being a fiction writer has its disadvantages. Too much imagination has led me into all sorts of trouble. It’s just too easy to imagine alternative endings to various stories, and you know, some people just don’t like that.
I got into trouble last night at a church event, in fact. We were discussing the oncoming Holy Week events and the reading of the Passion this Sunday. One of my friends will “play” Judas.

So, of course I had to open my mouth. I always felt sorry for Judas. I mean, here he was , sort of set up for doom, I said. If he hadn’t done what he did, poor Jesus would end up wandering around at age 50, thinking to himself, “there was something I was going to do, but what was it again?” (like many of us in our 50’s).

I was chastised for sacrilege. Probably fair enough. But still.

In my defence, I have to say there’s a part of me that is always questioning things. I feel sorry for Mary, for example. I mean, she gives birth to this magical kid, and honestly, how does she cope with it – the staring from the villagers, the toilet training, for heaven’s sake? Did Mary have to bribe him with the equivalent of Smarties? Was the young Lad a good kid, or was he a bit cheeky? All of these practicalities aren’t dealt with, and unfortunately, my mind fills in around the edges with scenes. I suppose , if I were good, I’d just leave it alone, but I don’t have that kind of mind.

The same thing happens in all sorts of settings. I go to the coffee shop and overhear part of a conversation and embroider a life around the speakers. I read about a famous person and want to know about the other parts of their lives.

I believe part of being a writer is being endlessly curious about people and things – why does water behave that way? How do you make material out of loose wool? Can you balance angels on the head of a pin? How many?

Often it’s purely mental play. Some people do crosswords. I make up stories.

But perhaps I should learn to keep my wonderings to myself. Lest I offend the hearer.
Alternatively, I could write under a pseudonym. Any good ideas for one out there?