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    Monday
    Apr072014

    A Conversation with Fellow Atlantic Canadian Author, Jennifer Hatt

    Collaboration, creativity, time, family, and the future... read on for my conversation with Jennifer Hatt, a Nova Scotia writer, publisher, and creator of the "Finding Maria" series, a Nova Scotia love story based on true events. You can read more about Jennifer and her work at www.FindingMaria.com

    A big thank you to Jennifer for tagging me in this blog-hop - my first ever!

    Jennifer: You've had a most interesting career path. What led you to write a children's book, and this specific story?

    Me: I think a lot of new mothers think about writing a children's book. It's an overlooked genre for many adult writers, but once you become a parent, suddenly you're immersed in it. You very quickly come to find favourites, and with a writer's eye, it's natural to start identifying what you liked about the story, what made it work, and to start wondering if you could achieve it yourself. 

    It's not only an overlooked genre, it's an underappreciated one. I've heard so many people say that anyone could write a children's book; "it's only a few words per page", etc. But, like so many other things that appear simple, it's deceptive. It's by no means easy, and I definitely discovered that when I tried it out. My first attempt, "The Luckiest Mommy", died on the drawing board. I just couldn't get the rhythm of the words to work like I wanted to, and the story that I wanted to be sweet and evocative instead became cloying and heavy-handed. After that, I did a lot more thinking about children's literature, and a lot more observant reading. 

    This particular children's book, The Great Crow Party, wasn't actually my idea. My best friend from graduate school, Heidi Van Impe, asked me to collaborate with her on her vision for a children's book about crows. Heidi, an artist living on the west coast, creates her paintings and mixed media works based in and through a profound connection with nature. She'd had the idea of the crows celebrating in the party tree, and had already created some collages. With her plotline idea, I began writing the poem. It was way, way too long. It went through a few different editing processes, back and forth between me and Heidi. We wanted to preserve the story, so we decided to leave the poem a bit longer than the normal for a children's book, and instead aim it for a slightly higher age group, 6 and up.  Because of the art placement, Heidi was the one who handled the layout and creation of the book itself.

    Jennifer: Creative collaborations can pose their share of joys and challenges. How has the process been for you with The Great Crow Party?

    Since it was Heidi's vision, I tried to defer to her on most matters during the creative process. The thing that caused me the most issue was the poem's length. We went back and forth about it a lot. I was willing to cut more, but we both wanted all the characters and their stories to remain in there. At one point, we just decided to leave the poem as-is and then see how it shaped up in layout. Heidi ended up cutting out some parts that she needed to trim. That was the only time that posed a challenge. As a writer, you do feel a certain ownership, and in an ideal universe I would have done the cutting so I could stitch up the holes, so to speak. However, I think it was unavoidable, and I had no problem with her doing it. We were both involved in our own things, four hours time difference with every communication, etc. and she had to make the call. In the end, we were both very happy with it. 

    Jennifer:  Balancing work and family is always tricky, especially for writers working from a very busy household. How do you manage it?

    Me: I think the short answer is that I mostly don't! I'm always moaning that I don't have enough time to write, which of course isn't true, or at least is only as true as you make it. I could get up earlier, I could manage my time better, I could write in the evenings after the kids are in bed. That's absolutely true, but also isn't, and comes down to what you have the will to do. I have some medical issues that result in a lot of fatigue, and being up at night with the kids doesn't help. So there are certainly times that I should be working that, instead, I'm just trying to stay awake. Even leaving that aside, it's hard to sit at the computer while the kids are around. You're always getting interrupted. Last year for my birthday, my husband made me a writing room. It's beautiful, and I love it - and I haven't seen the inside of it for months. The time that I get to work is piecemeal. There's a paragraph here and a sentence there and a blog post here. 

    For me, first of all I fight the fatigue. When I'm having a good day, I try to cram in as much as I can, which partly makes up for the days I'm not. I try to keep the mid- to late-afternoon as a time the kids can expect to entertain themselves and leave me be for a bit, even though I'm still right there at the kitchen table. I find that's the best time as my daughter is just home from school and my little man wants to hang out with her. Even if they just end up watching tv together, it's a chunk of time I can normally rely on having. 

    Jennifer: What writing projects are in the works for you now?

    Me: I have several ideas for novels, and I work on them with various levels of success. I am my own worst critic and worst enemy, so it's not unusual for me to have quite a bit of work invested in something and then decide it's all garbage, or that it's not working and has to be completely scrapped and re-done. I'm always second-guessing myself. Even with my website, I'll post something and then wonder, "Should I have? Should I have put that? Maybe it's not that good." 

    I've always wanted to be able to write funny, and I always thought I couldn't. In the past few years, I've really been drawn to writing personal-type essays, and I was shocked when I found that people thought they were funny, too. I find that so fun and exciting. So I do a lot of essay-writing. They come more easily than fiction right now, and if people find them funny, that makes my day. 

    I have a partially-finished coming-of-age novel set in Newfoundland that I recently decided was garbage and has to be completely scrapped and re-done. I have a fantasy novel in the beginning stages. What I'm trying to do right now is to channel my inner Diana Gabaldon (I should be so lucky), as she once said that when she tires of one thing or hits a wall, she then works on another until she hits the wall on that one, and so on. It's an intriguing and ambitious way to work, but I think it's the way to go. 

    The first step is to take myself and my writing more seriously, which is hard to do when you're a stay-at-home mom and are prey to feeling out of the loop. But slowly, surely, I'm making my own loop. It feels good. 

     

    Thank you, Jennifer Hatt, for the great questions and for including me in the blog-hop! Now it's my turn to ask questions of two more authors:

    Angela Yuriko Smith is a professional writer with extensive experience in newspapers and online publications. Her work has been featured internationally, including a live interview on NPR. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Community News featured in the story. An American, she currently lives in Australia with her husband, and maintains her blog dandilyonfluff.com.

    Rebecca Graf lives around Milwaukee with her husband and three children. She worked as an accountant for twenty years before pulling out of the corporate world and focusing on writing. She has been writing online for five years. Currently, she writes for various online sites as well as writes her own stories. She is the author of the children’s religious series, The Redemption Tales, as well as an adult paranormal/suspense trilogy, the Connections Series. www.rebeccagraf.com

    Thursday
    Mar272014

    Spring

    It's almost spring. But winter is cruel.

    Winter has its fist curled, and doesn't want to unclench. The warmth comes up through the ground, the sap starts to run, the air starts to lift, and Winter says, No. Not yet. And the snow and the cold comes again, covering the crocus buds and freezing the sap in its race, and the teeth snap close to the neck, again. Bears go back to sleep. Deer watch the grass being covered up again. The birds cling tight to the branches, because it's not over yet. The teeth are snapping. The cold will not leave.

    Persephone is rising from her bed, but Hades is loath to let her go. She wants to come back; it's time. But Hades pulls her back into his cold fire embrace, saying, No. Not yet. And the breeze that blew with her movement stirs the grass on the surface, before it disappears. She is still underground. Because it's not time. Not yet.

    April is, indeed, the cruellest month. The land is dead, brown and muddy and lost, and beneath the soil the necessity pushes. It pushes and pulls and forces the growth, the sleepy, sickened buds to fight their way from their graves, again and again. The green comes through, and meets nothing but cold, and the darkness of rain, and the cold nourishment of snowmelt. The green shivers, and fears, and cannot remember the sun. It's not here, not now. Not yet.

    Perhaps Persephone waits until Hades is asleep. Perhaps she has to push her way out of his arms, firm and cold, because her time has come and he cannot stop her. He can delay her. He can threaten and plead. But he cannot stop her. She is going, she is coming, and she is bringing the green. Her gown is made of the chinook, and her fingers are filled with seeds. She breathes and she sighs, and she says only one word: grow.

    And it does. The earth dries, and the sun comes out, and then comes the warm and the growth, the yellow and the green. The trees awaken and push their leaves through their skin, hundreds of thousands of fingers stretching from idle hands. The flowers uncurl, forgetting their prisons, taking everything they can get, crying out in their release. It's the time of eating and drinking, planning and celebration all at once. The heat is in everything. There is no escape from the sun. Everything is sound and noise and openness and colour. Everything is alive.

    Except that beneath it all, beneath the soil, waiting just beyond the border, is the next cold. The cold will come back. Hades waits on his throne, pomegranate seeds on his open palm. Persephone will return to him, and he will knot his hand in her hair. The silence will return, and the snow. The heat is so fragile. The cold is there, beneath it all, a breath away.

    The growth is only for a short time. Winter is always waiting, and all the seeds are under its foot. It only leaves while it must. It will come back, and it likes the silence.

    Even in the middle of Summer, it waits. And it will say, No. Not yet. But soon.

    Monday
    Mar102014

    Whoops

    In an attempt to change something on one part of my site, I accidentally deleted a bunch of stuff, including the Twitter link. 

    Yeah. I feel like kind of a doof right now. Especially since it took me over a week to notice. 

    On the up-side, the site now has a minimalist quality that may appeal to some. Clickety click!

    Sunday
    Mar022014

    Updates

    The site has been updated to include a sample of my column, "My Whistle Stop Life", which runs monthly in the New Glasgow News. I may soon include other columns, depending on interest. The column appears in a text file instead of a weblink as the site now requires a subscription. 

    The link is under "Writing" at the top. Hope you enjoy and thanks for reading!

    Sunday
    Feb092014

    Guilt, Windows, and Communion Wafers

    I was raised Catholic. I say that with the confidence that, upon reading it, most people will have an instinctual understanding of what that means, just as they would automatically have a fairly correct idea if I were to say "I was homeschooled until I was 18" or "That Stephen Harper really knows how to lead a country".

    I sort of had the best of the Catholic experience, though. Even though I went to Catholic school, I didn't have any mean nuns as teachers (at least, not unusually mean - this was the era of the strap, after all), and I didn't experience anything improper, and I wasn't there long enough to have much of the more burdensome guilt laid on my shoulders. To me, Catholic school was wonderful. I took cello lessons with one of the meaner nuns (though, as I said, that wasn't saying much), we wore uniforms, we stood for prayers every morning, and we were taken to church every week. My grandmother's house contained icons, holy pictures, and those little wells to hold holy water were nailed to various doorjambs. I remember once the Legion of Mary came by, and we all kneeled on the carpet in the front room and said the Rosary together, like it wasn't no thang.

    We were Catholic. Very Catholic.

    I say "were" because when we moved away, and weren't in our old church anymore, and no longer were in a province where the schools were parochial, and my older siblings had grown to the point that they could choose whether or not they attended mass, we experienced a rather sharp decline in devotion. I began to go to a school where people wore their own clothes and, even in grade 6, talked about orgies and drinking and cursed with real curse words. The first time I tried to hang out with a group of kids and they were cursing with their sex and drinking words, I stormed away from the swingset with an indignant, "I don't have to stand here and listen to this!" To these comparatively sophisticated tweens, I must have been a holdover from another era, some religious oddity who still wore a blue ribbon in May and had decided her new home meant she ought to reinvent herself with a disastrous perm. I'm sure I was mocked, but most of the kids were nice enough not to show it. I remember one nice little girl even saying to me, referring to my accent,  "I don't care what the others say. I think the way you talk is neat."

    My new school had its benefits. For one thing, it had computers, large behemoths with the thick monitor attached to the clackety keyboard, its data stored on cassette tapes. That was cutting edge, and something I hadn't seen before. Remembering it now, I realize that it probably sounds like Laura Ingalls Wilder writing about the new threshing plow that meant her father wouldn't have to use a scythe anymore.

    But it wasn't my old school, and I did miss it. I missed going over to the church for various masses, confessions, or lectures, since getting out of school at all is a treat, even if you're just going over to the other building where you spend most of your time. We used to be taken to Confession every Wednesday, waiting our turn in the pews, asking one another in whispers what we were going to say this week, before going up to one of the small confessionals to kneel in the dark and tell all our little, childlike sins. 

    The church was there for all our milestones. The school participated in them. It was a moebius strip of obligation and commitment, back and forth between the two buildings, with the convent and glebe between them, holy servants getting you on one turn or the other.

    In first or second grade, we had our first confession. This was necessary, as we had to confess all our sins before we took our first communion - a much, much bigger deal. We prepared for it for weeks. I remember being very disturbed that, for our first time, we would be sitting on a chair on the altar face-to-face with the priest, instead of in the warm cave of anonymous darkness that was the confessional. The idea that the priest, who knew me, would then know all of the bad things I'd done, was paralyzing. I was terrified to confess. 

    I'm sure you're thinking, what in the world do a bunch of first graders have to confess? Even if it was actually second grade... unless there is an enormous moral drop-off between first and second, the same question applies. But you see, I was different. I had a giant sin to confess. It had weighed on my shoulders for quite a while. And I knew that before I accepted Holy Communion for the first time, I had to remove that black mark from my soul (that's how the nuns told us to think of sins - as black marks). I had to face the music. I had to tell the priest about the number 7.

    In kindergarten, the classroom had had shelves and drawers on one wall, where the teacher stored supplies, including these little plastic letters and numbers. They were red, and bumpy on one side, smooth on the other. They were about the size of my five-year-old thumb. I used to like to play with them, running my fingers through the different numbers, taking them out to make strings of digits, numbers in the millions and trillions that I didn't know and couldn't guess. When you're five years old, it's important to know your favourite everything, and my favourite number was the number 7. I don't remember why. It doesn't matter. My favourite colour was red, my favourite supper was salt fish and potatoes, my favourite book was The Wait-For-Me Kitten, my favourite letter was E and my favourite number was 7. It just was. 

    It's funny how, when you grow up to be a cranky, grownup person, these things become not just unimportant but almost unknowable. Whenever one of my children ask me what my favourite colour is, I have to stop and think about a colour, or what colour I told them the last time, so that I can be consistent. I just don't care about these things anymore, unless I'm painting a room. And I no longer have favourite letters or numbers or Sea Wees.

    (I do still have a favourite word, though. It's "plethora".)

    One day, because my favourite number was 7, I looked around to see if anyone was watching me, and then I slid that red plastic 7 off the shelf and into my pocket. I'm not sure what I was going to do with it. Maybe just admire it, that perfect conflation of two of my favourite things. 

    But then I had to tell the priest, the following year or so later. Bad news. My past crime had come back to haunt me.

    It is no exaggeration to say that my legs were trembling as I walked up the few steps to the side altar where the priest was waiting. I thought my life was over. I knew it was confidential, but would Father really be able to resist telling everyone I was a criminal? Shouldn't they have to be told for their own good? If I saw the teachers locking up their school supplies after this, I'd know he blabbed. 

    I don't remember the rest of what I told him. I think I confessed sometimes fighting with my siblings or being mad at my parents, not paying attention in school, missing mass when there was no good reason. I had decided I would have an easier time confessing the theft if I slipped it in between some milder sins, so I sandwiched it between "missing mass" and "taking the Lord's name in vain" (by which I meant saying, 'oh my god'). Until I said it, I'd been staring at the floor. But as I came to the big whammy, I turned my head and let my gaze wander up to the icons on the walls. I couldn't even look in the priest's direction.

    "I took something that was not mine."

    My voice went up on the end, like I was trying to convey a nonchalance I didn't truly feel, or like I was going to go on to give details of the daring heist. I sat there, frozen, waiting for the pronouncement. The priest told me I'd done well, and gave me a Hail Mary and an Our Father for penance. He didn't even say I should return what I stole. I stood up, overwhelmed with relief, and made my way back to my pew.

    Once I was there, though, kneeling with my hands clasped virtuously in front of me, I started to think.

    A Hail Mary and an Our Father... that's it?

    I'd been told stealing was a pretty bad thing. It breaks one of the commandments, for starters. But the priest hadn't even reacted. It was as if... as if...

    As if the minor sins of a bunch of first (maybe second) graders didn't really matter very much at all, and we were doing all this, not for forgiveness, but because it was just something they said we had to do before we did the next thing they said we had to do.

    I looked around, shocked, but no one had detected my blasphemous thought. I buried my head down to my clasped hands, and said a fervent Hail Mary and Our Father, and I threw in a Glory Be for good measure. I pushed those doubting thoughts right to the base of my mind, where they were sat on by my big, fat sense of guilt. 

    And then we moved, to the bright lights and big city of Halifax, and kids were cursing and smoking and talking about sex, and all the enormous computers in the classroom couldn't tell me why I'd had to come to this ring of outer darkness. My indignance, my devotion, and my faith meant nothing in the storm of secular naughtiness. If this was how people were here, then what did it mean that I'd come from someplace so different? Was I different? How was I supposed to act? Did I put my faith in a place that made seven year olds have panic attacks over theft so petty it can't even be called petty theft, or a place where twelve year olds knew the term "orgy"? 

    Perhaps my question was answered when I was playing outside in the playground behind our apartment building one day and I saw something odd in the top window of the building across the courtyard. It turned out to be a grown man, naked and urinating out the window. To say that this was a shocking sight is a vast understatement. It was one of those sights that make you question everything you ever knew about the world.

    If a grown man could urinate out his living room window, then what was the point of anything? Something broke inside me, but it was actually helpful, like a patch of ice breaking so the puddle can evaporate. I understood things a little better, thanks to the gross perv in the other building.

    I was in a very different place now, so different that it was as if the old place didn't even exist anymore. That moebius strip had protected me from the other world that existed just outside its boundaries, and now I was out there, and I wasn't equipped. I wasn't ready. There was only one thing I could hang onto out here, in the raging wind of dirt and godlessness. 

    And that was the fact that it really, after all, hadn't been a big deal that I'd stolen that number. That living in Halifax, and growing acclimatised to its differences and recognizing its positives, and being outside that little strip was just the thing I had to do now, until someone told me the next thing I had to do. And eventually, I'd be the one telling me the next thing I had to do.

    I don't think I've ever fully let go of my Catholic guilt, or all the other lessons I was taught back then. And I still support the idea of school uniforms. But now, at least, I do see the advantage of stepping outside the comfort zone, and of accepting things as they come.

    Let's face it - seeing a man pissing out a window is bound to change you.