Sickbed Reading

In the middle of the night, head stuffed and aching, I wandered down to the kitchen and there was the latest Brick magazine on the counter, containing at least two major thrills.

First, the news that David Milne’s archive in the Art Gallery of Ontario will soon be online, with samples of what that means: This Sunday morning I picked two honey pails of blueberries and killed a rattlesnake and had a swim. It means access to pages of autobiography, illustrated letters, diary entries, pencil drawings, cancelled watercolours. How can I say this any other way? My heart leapt with joy. Milne’s paintings have been a part of my life forever, even longer than my intention, never acted upon, to ferret out his unpublished writings. Now here they are, or will be, suddenly available to everyone.

Then an exceptional essay by Colum Toíbín about Mary Lavin, an Irish writer whose stories about “solitude and widowhood” brought back to mind my fairly recent discoveries of two other incredible Irish writers, Molly Keane and John McGahern. Reading the novel Good Behaviour by the one, and the memoir All Will Be Well by the other, made life worth living last winter and spring. The Irish. How can anyone who writes not wish to be Irish?

My broken-up, wakeful night followed a similarly rewarding, semi-stupefied day in bed reading Artemis Cooper’s wonderful biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Perhaps people did sometimes wonder when he was going to leave. Yet whatever his faults, he had one gift so enchanting that it made up for all his shortcomings. He was genuinely fascinated by his hosts, and wanted to hear everything they could tell him about their families, their history and their way of life. Called simply Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure, the book immerses you in the life of this astonishing writer-traveler, whose mother informed him when he was a boy that Mary Queen of Scots had such white skin and such a slender neck that you could see the red wine slide her throat.

I am going backwards in the chronology of my sickbed reading, arriving now at James Wood writing in The New Yorker about Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time. The book itself was within reach, on the shelf next to my head, a gift from my daughter last Christmas or the Christmas before, and unread, despite my love of Out Stealing Horses. Liking one book by an author is no guarantee I’ll like any of the others, so I tend to proceed with a certain resistance, voracious yet reluctant. I dislike this about myself, this hanging back.

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Canadian Godot

I don’t drive at night. I barely drive at all. Then at times I feel the need to be brave.

A week or so ago I found myself on the road to Brockville, making the hour and fifteen minute journey from Ottawa to the Brockville Museum for an evening reading. A simple route, the 416 to the 401 to the second turn-off, and then down to the water.

It was pitch dark by the time I finished the reading and it was raining. An angel named Doreen guided me back through town. I followed her truck and it was a merciful sight. On my own it would have been like threading a needle in the dark. She indicated the entrance to the 401 with her turn signal and sailed off, while I turned right into the valley of death.

I had an apple. I had Leonard Cohen. I kept my mole-eyes peeled for the turnoff to the 416 and nearly missed it when I second-guessed the direction. The truth is that I can’t see when I drive at night and I can’t think. Numbers and directions shred in the hurricane of my doubts. Eventually Ottawa came into view, another merciful sight, only to disappear as I sailed on by.

And that’s when I started to rewrite Waiting for Godot in my head.

If Beckett were writing now instead of in 1948, the two tramps would be in a car on a very dark highway in the Ottawa Valley, not knowing where on earth they were or where on earth they were going, and all of this not knowing would be happening at 110 km an hour.

I was near Almonte by the time I found a turnoff. A service station; a Kitkat; a word of advice from the recent immigrant behind the counter, and I traced my way back to Ottawa on lanes narrowed by orange cones into bowling alleys from hell. When finally I got home, hungry, exhausted, nothing Mark said seemed other than patronizing and nothing I said was other than self-pitying.

In 1956, in a letter written to Desmond Smith, a Canadian interested in staging Waiting for Godot in Toronto, Beckett urges him to “see the thing primarily in its simplicity, the waiting, the not knowing why, or where, or when, or for what. The point about Pozzo, for example, is not who he is, or what he is, or what he represents, but the fact that all this is not known.”

The letter is a reply to the one he received from Smith, which Beckett characterizes this way: “I had a letter from Mr Desmond Smith asking me to explain the play to him. Canadians are queer that way.

I love Beckett. Canadians are queer. Imagine trying to eat a Kitkat without taking your hands off the wheel. Imagine discovering the next day a car seat covered in chocolate, and then going back inside and taking a long pitying look at the seat of those good black pants still hanging over the railing where you left them the night before.

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Liking Your Characters

I wrote this post for my UK publisher, MacLehose Press. (Their photo of a ball and chain was taken in the British Library, not as you might think in Ottawa.)

My natural inclination is to look for the flaws and weaknesses in people. Who knows why? The way I was raised, my years as a journalist, my interest in figuring people out. But you need more than a critical eye to be a novelist. That is, if you want a novel where characters reveal themselves over time.

The trick, I think, is to let the characters out from under the authorial thumb, to give them room. They respond to that, just as your friends and family respond when you stop being so hard on them.

Something happens to me, too, when I see a character from different angles and in different lights. More of my imagination, more of my sympathy is aroused, and I become less narrow.

In Alone in the Classroom I have a villain, Parley Burns, the disturbed headmaster. The notion that a headmaster might be insane engages every fibre of my being. My father was a school principal and I was terrified of him (not that he was insane). There is the mystery of what makes such a person tick. There is the greater mystery – this fascinates me even more – that hateful people are loved.

To reach any understanding of why, you need to have characters who bring out the best and the worst in each other. It’s like watching the weather, the way a person changes depending on whom he’s with.

Some weeks ago I watched on YouTube a panel of academics, critics, playwrights talking about Pauline Kael, the great movie critic whose work I read endlessly in my forties. I loved her old reviews, especially the ones a paragraph long; she was the nerviest, most succinct of writers. The playwright on the panel knew her personally and had sent her one of his plays to critique. To his surprise, she told him he didn’t like his characters enough. “You have to make them brilliant – even the dumb ones – smarter than you are. That’s what it’s about.”

I’ve been turning this over in my mind ever since. How can a character be smarter than the author? Well, it happens all the time. You invent a character, but not from nothing. You steal things. You overhear things and use them. You read things and make use of them. You work with ingredients you pick up here and there, and you open yourself to the character’s possibilities.

As you write you discover thoughts you didn’t know you had, and images arrive out of nowhere. It doesn’t happen unless you’re writing. You become, while you’re writing, smarter than you are. Then when you’re blocked, you are stupider than you are.

Pauline Kael wanted to fall in love when she watched a movie, to be seduced, transported, surprised, caught up. She wanted to rise to meet the characters. I think that’s what she meant when she said the playwright didn’t like his characters enough. Not that the characters have to be likable, not at all, but that the writer didn’t let them expand and blossom and surprise themselves, and in the process surprise her.

What I aim for is to be unsparing without being dismissive, tender without losing my edge. It’s the hardheaded writers I’m drawn to, hardheaded writers who double back on expectations. They’re the ones I can’t get enough of, Pauline Kael being a prime example.

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UK Edition of “Alone in the Classroom”

Alone in the Classroom has now been published with a great new cover in the United Kingdom by MacLehose Press, which published Late Nights on Air in 2008. For more details visit the publisher’s website.

“It’s a testament to the quality of Hay’s writing that the lack of a traditional ending tantalises rather than disappoints; and the villain, Principal Parley Burns, who moves through the school ‘like mustard gas in subtle form’, is one of the most memorable villains I’ve ever encountered.”
The Guardian, Laura Wilson

“Unforgettable characters”
Literary Review, Jessica Mann

“A highly accomplished and resourceful stylist”
The Spectator, Paul Binding

“Wise and able, and deliciously comic too … [Hay] is another cherishable novelist from a country with a preponderance of such talent. Alone in the Classroom is one to savour.”
bookoxygen, Elsbeth Lindner

“The narrative crosses the generations and should be read carefully in order to appreciate its richness and the author’s genius as a storyteller.”
Bookgroupinfo, Paula McMaster

 

 

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Femalefirst Interview

An interview in the online magazine Femalefirst coincides with the UK edition of Alone in the Classroom.

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Book Gods

Another bookshelf came down two Sundays ago as we were eating supper. A heart-stopping double thud, and we thought a tree had fallen. But no, another waterfall of books from the toppled shelves directly beside our bed. We stood appalled in the doorway, Mark and I and our tall son, who happens to be home for a few weeks.

“The book gods have turned against us,” Mark said. “Literature,” I said, “is putting its boots to me. Or Kindle. Kindle is on my case.” Our son, bending down to pick up the books, said evenly, kindly, “Or is it possible a shelf can take only so much weight?”

The gods. Mark is in the middle of reading The Odyssey. The other day I finished The Iliad in the great translation by Robert Fagles. The same day a friend came for lunch, heartbroken by the end of a love affair, devastated, ashamed, humiliated, incredulous at the amount of grief she feels. Where does it come from? Her shrink answered, “From your mother. Unresolved issues with your mother. That’s why you feel so abandoned.”

The Greeks knew better. The gods are responsible. They shoot an arrow through your heart and there is nothing you can do about it. The little shits.

On the other hand, our tall son was right: there is only so much weight a bookshelf can take.

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Events

Thursday, October 19, 2017. ALBERTA
Strathcona County: Fall Feast of Words
Strathcona County Library. 7:00 p.m.
hosted by Anne Nothof
for more information click here.

 

Friday, October 20, 2017. ALBERTA
STARFest, St. Albert Readers Festival
St. Albert Public Library. 7:00 p.m.
hosted by Diana Davidson
for more information click here.

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Spill

Yesterday about noon I was at my desk when loudness I can’t describe, except to say that it sounded ominous, made me look up as the wall spilled forward in an avalanche of books. I raised my arms against three heavily laden shelves the width of the room, against all their contents – books, papers, magazines – and against the shelves themselves and their twisted metal bracing. It was Samson bringing down the walls of the temple and I was the helpless Philistine.

I’m not hurt. But where is my coffee cup? Underneath the heap of books at my feet, that’s where. A puddle of milky sweetened decaf underlay the mess.

I rescued books, wiped them off, made stacks against the far side of the room, sponged the floor, set the wettest books out to dry on the porch. Then before self-pity got the better of me, I walked up to Bank Street and went to the Hitchcock double bill at the Mayfair. Rear Window and The Trouble with Harry. Several hours later I emerged quite cheered up by Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly handling their steamy-summer frustrations in 1954 and by John Forsythe and the young Shirley MacLaine still profiting in 1955 from early Hitchcock, for whom a corpse on a grassy hill provoked, not horror but bemusement, drollery, delight.

I walked back home and into my study that’s been on the edge for months, if truth be known. It was in a state of collapse. My study the nervous wreck.

The wall wasn’t heavy anymore. It had thrown off its staggering load, most of which were editions of my work or related to my work somehow or other, and turned them into coffee-stained rubble.

This is what I’ve been needing, too, I thought. A drastic sorting, tossing and emptying out of my brains.

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Honorary Doctorate

Carleton University awarded me an honorary doctorate on June 8. Not bad for a girl who barely finished university. In return, of course, I had to give a short speech to the graduating students, who charmed me with their shyness, giddiness, pride and astonishing footwear. Below is my convocation address.

Chancellor Chi, President Runte, graduates-to-be, ladies and gentlemen. Let me first thank the University and the Senate most gratefully for this honour, which was unexpected and totally gratifying. And let me extend my warmest congratulations to all of you who are about to graduate for all the good work you’ve done to get here. The stories of your lives are taking shape, each one unique.

Since I write stories, I like to think of each of you as the main character in the story of your lives. One thing I’ve learned about from writing and from life is uncertainty, about not knowing what comes next and how hard that can be. I also know that what makes a story and a life exciting, even bearable sometimes, are the things you cannot predict.

Here’s a story. In early May I went back to the town on Georgian Bay where I grew up to do a reading in the public library and also to learn more about a key figure in my childhood, my elementary school principal. He was an explosive bull of a man who waged a long reign of terror in that town, something tolerated and even encouraged by the attitudes of the day. Years later one of his former victims stood up publicly against him. That was the story I wanted to search out. But that isn’t the story I found.

First, I discovered that he was still alive, a gentle old man in his eighties.

Second, a boy I knew in those days, who suffered at his hands, spoke to me in his defence. Ross is now a man of sixty-two. He told me about his early years in school: how he didn’t really learn to read until he was in Grade 8, how as a result he spent a lot of time out in the hall, sent there by frustrated teachers, where he hid in the stairwell to avoid the terrifying principal. Years went by like this, and then he was in Grade 8 – “Remember,” he said, “I didn’t know how to read” – and Grade 8 was the grade the principal taught. There came the unforgettable day when the principal leaned over Ross and looked him straight in the eye and said, “Ross, are we going to panic or are we going to think?”

Until then Ross hadn’t known there were two options, or that the opposite of panic was not some unattainable calm, but thinking, which steadies the nerves and opens up worlds outside ourselves. The principal became his saviour, he told me.

Every life has lucky moments when you realize that the ditch you were in is part of a road. When what you knew, and were satisfied to know, becomes only one aspect of many.

Since that visit in May, I find myself frequently saying, “Lizzie, you can either panic or you can think,” and the words help me almost as much as they helped Ross. It’s a strange and wonderful thing to find help in such a roundabout way and from such an unlikely source as one of the prime terrors of your childhood. How often do we get advice from a bully about how to defeat him?

The thinking required isn’t rushed or on the spot. It’s a calm thinking-through to the end of a problem, and it’s both logical and intuitive. I remember the protracted, panic-stricken rewriting of my first novel. Over and over again my excellent editor would point out where I hadn’t thought through to the end some strand of character or emotion or action that I had set in motion. In rewriting a novel you’re trying to have the end complete the beginning. You don’t want the story to peter out, or lose its way in sensationalism or cliché, but touch upon a kind of truth that will leave the reader with many lingering thoughts. My editor was asking me not to panic, but to think.

Several years ago someone looked up from reading a story by the marvelous Alistair MacLeod and said to me, “Why do you even bother?”

It was an excellent and awful question. A fundamental question. Unanswerable, it seemed to me, except, perhaps, with a punch in the nose.

Like all excellent and awful questions, it never goes away. “Why do you even bother, when you’ll never be as good?” Faced with such a question, you can either panic or you can think. And under ‘panic’ I include everything from self-pity to infinite depression.

If we think about it, we know why we bother. We bother because working on something and making it better gives our lives meaning, makes us feel alive. Besides, a certain defiance is necessary if we’re to have productive lives. We can’t let other people tell us we don’t have what it takes.

So somebody in Iowa gets a better lab result. Somebody in Vancouver gets a better job. Somebody in Calgary gets a better scholarship. Somebody’s children one block over are more successful.

So what? If we think about it, we know that’s not the point. The point is to bring all of yourself to whatever truly interests you and then to surprise yourself with what you actually accomplish.

I said a few moments ago that thinking not only steadies the nerves, it opens up worlds outside ourselves. As a writer I work alone, but I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by books, I’m accompanied by the authors who wrote them. I’m surrounded by the place outside my windows, Ottawa, the Ottawa Valley, Ontario and restless Quebec, the world that extends north, east, west, south.

Creativity never comes from one person alone, no matter what the field, whether arts or science. It comes when you fully connect with your material, which has countless sources outside yourself, sources in the present and in the past that keep intersecting and opening up new worlds.

When I’m asked what advice I have for young writers, I say, Just remember that being uncertain is part of the creative process, it’s natural and unavoidable.

I would also add, Don’t be too hard on yourself. Putting yourself down is another form of panicking instead of thinking. Life becomes very narrow when you’re hard on yourself. You become the only thing in your mind – when it’s openness to the world that will get you through.

The stories I like best are the ones where the author, without ever turning a blind eye, is kind to the characters and sees them not as open or shut cases, but in all their dimensions. I’ve been suggesting, on this day when we’re celebrating your hard-won achievements, that you are the authors of the stories of your lives. Be kind to yourselves. Panic will make you feel that you’re alone, and thinking will remind you that you have the whole world with you.

Let me only add that I wish all of you the very best. Congratulations, again, and thank you.

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“Alone in the Classroom” Back on Bestseller List

The paperback edition of “Alone in the Classroom” is out and was on the Globe and Mail’s bestseller list for two months.

 

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