Yes, this letter is long overdue. Please believe me when I say I’ve written a thousand letters in my head and have stacked them in my mind palace. They were all addressed to you. They were all about my early influences. The books which made me the writer that I now am. The letters rest still in that mind drawer in the 1980s storm porch/mudroom/laundry room.
It’s a blizzard here in rural Nova Scotia at Conundrum Towers, with the pounding snow now turning to ice pellets, soon to rain. They cancelled school. Sometimes if feels even more isolated here in Dog Fuck Nowhere than it normally does.
Yes, I made biscuits and brownies.
No, I did not manage a shower.
I have not washed my hair in days. I did brush my teeth.
The kids went out early and tobogganed. Now I’m here in my new writing space (what was the junk room in the tower), stealing a few literary moments. Of course the farmer next door has arrived to plough out he driveway so it’s very noisy, but fuck, it’s always noisy in one way or another, isn’t it? So…
My intention was to write to you about some of the research, in particular a selection of books I have consulted, for my new novel, The Speed of Mercy.
The Speed of Mercy Origins?
But today I’ll discuss some of the much, much earlier books which inadvertently shaped my writing, and introduced me to literature, and ultimately lead me to this new novel. Here’s a hastily pulled sampling from my shelves, yes, the books of men.
My first approach to literature in the education system was through the grand novels, plays, essays and poetry of men. It was Chekov and Tolstoy and Dickins and Eliot. It was Gogol and Shakespeare and Yeats and Blake and Shelley and Byron and Joseph Heller and J.D. Salinger and Kerouac, Amis, E.B. White, so many, so many, so many. Jeez, I know them by last name, like Cher.
The books in this stack are my beloveds, the ones which seduced me, which have stayed with me, literally, all these years. And yes, that’s how reading always felt, like a seduction. It still does. This has never changed.
But I did not read Jane Austen or Emily Bronte or Virginia Woolf or Margaret Atwood or Sylvia Plath in school. Those were books my mother gave me to read, and books I found on my own. Books outside of my formal schooling.
The Western cannon is comprised mostly of men, then and still, now. My reading and writing was shaped through the view of the world through the male world. I had a moment where I began to see that while many women can find themselves in the male experience (after years of enculturation and training), men simply were not interested in the writing of women.
Ethan Hawke, crisis at age fifty
I recently read an interview in the Guardian with Ethan Hawke, who apparently wants to be a famous novelist now he is an old actor. Like many of us GenXers, he’s rolled into fifty. But he says as a writer he’s going back to when he was much younger. He worries that he can’t discuss male sexuality in the times we are in. That to write of bad behaviour is to be perceived as condoning it. Honestly, the interview reads like a big fret, that he finally has time to write novels, but he wants to write about the things which preoccupied him in the 1990s, the age which led the way to the toxic nerd masculinity of today. Perhaps what was most off putting was his confession that he doesn’t read books because he’s too busy with his film career, his children and reading screenplays.
Henry James, never enough.
Ah, Henry James. I remember the first time I read The Portrait of a Lady. And Daisy Miller. And The Bostonians. Yup, Turn of the Screw. His essay, The Art of Fiction. It’s hard to underestimate the impact of James on my own work.
I also read Colm Tóibín’s novel, The Master, along with his book of essays on James, All a Novelist Needs. He bought James the writer to life for me, as James brought the world of his novels to life. It wasn’t until I read Tóibín’s fictionalized account of Henry James, that I considered the writing life of Henry James. I’m not sure why. I knew about his writing life in London and Venice, his expatriate life in the UK, and his long friendship with Edith Wharton. But it didn’t occur to me, until I was reading The Master, how much time James had on his hands. How much he complained about not having MORE servants.
Why I blocked this out earlier, I can only put to my desire to be a writer, but never considering the writer’s life, a life which needs time, plenty of time, uninterrupted stretches. This doesn’t work well with a sandwich generation family, a brigade of elders on one hand and a gang of children on the other, and living in a rural area where no one gives a flying fuck about the literary life. Most people think I’m unemployed, har har, and that I should get a job at the factory or on the farm.
My life far more resembled an unsuccessful Jean Rhys than it did James or Tóibín. Why it didn’t occur to me how often a writing life was, and often still is, the exclusive domain of the middle and affluent classes, I do not know. It is this affliction of writing, I fear, which has kept me at times oblivious, and at times in despair, but at the work nonetheless.
Goddamn you, Henry James
In the height of things as a single parent, with my dad diagnosed with a terminal brain disease and my mother going blind, I began to feel an enormous sense of rage directed towards Mr. James.
“Goddamn you, Henry James, with servants and time and travel, writing and writing and writing, Who gives a fuck that you feel you wish you had a bigger home, and more servants,” I would screech in the 1970s rental house at the end of the dead end street in the dead end town where we lived.
I worked in the gig economy, often unable to pay my oil bill. In Canadian winter, this isn’t ideal. I would turn the heat on when my child came home from school and turn it down when he left on the morning bus. I’m glad those days are in my wake now, knock on the wooden trim of this big ramshackle 1795 house we live in now, heated by a wood stove and heat pump.
Yes, I know how ridiculously naive this sounds. But I was something of a young romantic, a young idealist
When I have had trouble with my own eyes and arms, from this autoimmune disease, I felt such a sense of fury that James had a scribe no less, an amanuensis. And an inheritance to pay for all of this. I put my anger, my sense of deception, to the literary and social enculturation we are infused with as children, that the writing of men, is what we know, and if we long to be a writer, we, or me anyway, identify with the writers we know, for so many of us, men.
I assumed that same writing life would be available for me. Yes, I know how ridiculously naive this sounds. But I was something of a young romantic, a young idealist. I didn’t know how little one would earn from literary fiction. And I never considered the circumstances of James’s life, that he was affluent, and had no other job, nor dependants, nor partner.
I’ve had numerous conversations with writers about the so called writing life, the kind so widely shared with hashtags on Instagram, if this is relevant to the work created, if it warrants discussion at all, or if the writing exists independently. It’s an idea which preoccupies me now as my own writing is inextricably linked to the terms of my day to day life. I also believe our work is inherently influenced by the spaces we occupy, both physically and mentally. The architecture of our language and stories are directly linked with the architecture of our lives — the buildings, rooms and spaces we work/live in, and the lives we build, the shape of those lives. Art is not separate from these fundamental elements, from our circumstances. Art is directly shaped by these forces and it’s a rare privilege to think otherwise.
But this is for another letter, this discussion of how these elements impact literary creation, and even warrant discussion, BEFORE the writer is long dead and fodder for critics.
Stephen King, Father of us all
One male writer I admire and revere is Stephen King. (I read Carrie under my scribbler, when I was a kid. To this day I can close my eyes and feel the pages on my sweaty teen fingers). Mr King says in On Writing, if you don’t have time to read, then you have no business writing. I guess unless you are a movie star, ha ha ha ha ha ha.
My writing examines both male and female sexuality and gender roles. I write of bad behaviour on all sides. But then this is the joy of being an obscure literary fiction writer. And one who still manages to read books being published, not just the ones I read back in my salad days.
In my next letter, I will share with you Stack O’ Women, another hastily selected stack of books by women, the books my mother and my grandmother gave me, books I found on my own, the books which asked me to set aside the lens of men, and gaze through the eyes of women. And then to look through multiple perspectives, and see the world in this capacity, the universal experience through a rich and varied one, one of many genders and domains.
I will speak with you of the research for The Speed of Mercy. It’s the child of those two stacks. I cannot wait to introduce her to you.
With big sparklies,
P.S. I would love it if you preordered The Speed of Mercy. It’s a great way to support a writer, and to let the publisher know your readerly interest. Just click here!