Monthly Archives: May 2017

Who Are These People I Made Up Anyway? Part 7: Mrs. Och

Mrs. Och was such fun to write, but tricky too, because how would being immortal affect your moral compass and your ability to love and value life? Here she is after an alarming visit from the Prime Minister of Frayne, asking about Julia’s invented identity, the housemaid Ella.

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From JULIA VANISHES

She takes the revelation about Julia’s true identity better than the others. Living forever might somewhat inure one to surprise.

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From JULIA VANISHES

JULIA VANISHES ends with Julia officially entering Mrs. Och’s employ but unsure whether she can trust her.

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From JULIA VANISHES

In JULIA DEFIANT, Julia is repelled by Mrs. Och’s vampiric habit of taking the energy and life force of mortals to sustain herself – wondering if she does it because she needs to, or just because she likes it.

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From JULIA DEFIANT

Julia’s relationship with Mrs. Och is tense from the beginning and deteriorates from there. When Pia tells Julia that she is Mrs. Och’s dog, it hits a little too close to home.

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From JULIA DEFIANT

NEXT WEEK: My favorite character – the villains are always the most fun – Julia’s nemesis, Pia.

Who Are These People I Made Up Anyway? Part 6: Frederick

Frederick is the brilliant young assistant to Professor Baranyi working in Mrs. Och’s house. Initially smitten with the meek new housemaid Ella – the identity Julia has adopted to uncover information – Frederick stands up for her repeatedly and is the most personally betrayed when her true identity is revealed. I think he is also the moral center of the trilogy, functioning almost as Julia’s conscience at times. Here are five quotes to give you a peek at Frederick.

  1. That moment when you get busted sneaking around the basement but luckily it’s by a guy who probably has a crush on you…
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From JULIA VANISHES

2. That moment when you try to mine him for information and he completely falls apart trying to lie to you…

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From JULIA VANISHES

3. That moment when he finds out who you really are…

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From JULIA VANISHES

4. That moment when you’re working together and it seems like in spite of everything you’ve done you might still be a good team…

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From JULIA DEFIANT

5. That moment when you think maybe you’ve lost him…

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From JULIA DEFIANT

NEXT WEEK: The formidable, terrifying, immortal Mrs. Och (I love her so)

Dear Fellow Canadian White Authors, Can We Talk?

This has been a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week for Canlit. I’ve been leaving ranty screeds on Facebook pages belonging to writers I barely know or have never met and I feel like a jerk but I also can’t seem to shut up. So, even though there is no reason for anybody to ever listen to me about anything, I’m going to put some thoughts right here on my blog, where at least I’m not taking up anybody else’s space. And this post is going to have PARTS because I’m drafting something brand new these days and am very into sectioning everything up.

PART 1: THE RECAP 

For those who haven’t been following the yuck, here it is in a nutshell. Write Magazine came out with an issue devoted to indigenous writing. The editor, Hal Niedzviecki, thought it would be funny or clever (I guess?) to write an op-ed for this same issue declaring that there should be a “Cultural Appropriation Prize” for person best able to write from outside their own experience and claiming that the whole idea of cultural appropriation is ridiculous, because artists gotta art & wut is context? People were pissed, he resigned, and then other people were pissed. Sound familiar? Then at midnight a bunch of white editors on twitter started raising money for this “cultural appropriation prize.” Grossness upon grossness, except of course lots of people apparently thought that was pretty funny and /or totally fine. These are not peripheral cranks but influential people in Canadian media. You can read about it all here (only just realized one of my tweets is in a screenshot in the article, ha!). Scaachi Koul’s brilliant, scathing take is here, and if you want to close your eyes and listen to people with pleasing voices, a succinct recap followed by Jesse Wente’s emotional response is here.

PART 2:  WHAT THE HELL…?

I was reading about all of this, repeatedly picking jaw off floor, and then I checked Facebook. I read all these posts and comments by my fellow white Canadian authors and got really sad. The most common response I saw was along the lines of “I didn’t agree with his article BUT … censorship is bad / he should be able to say what he thinks / what about artistic freedom?”

So… can we talk? A few responses…

“Censorship is bad”

Agreed. Censorship is totally bad. Good thing “censorship” in no way describes what is happening here! (also p.s. criticism and / or having standards are not censorship). More on what did happen below.

“Freedom of expression! He should be able to say what he thinks!”

He did say what he thinks. It sucked. Freedom of expression extends to the many people who were appalled by his shitty, rude, profoundly stupid article. You can also say what you think! You will definitely NOT go to jail, yay freedom! But if the thing you want to say involves completely ignoring the way indigenous artists have been silenced & stolen from and it is all about YOU and how YOU should be able to do whatever you want, then possibly some people will think you are a brat, and they might even say so, because … you got it… freedom of expression!

“Hal Niedzviecki And John Kay Have Been Pushed Out Of Their Jobs For Stating Their Beliefs And This Is Very Bad”

I’m not cheering for anybody to lose their job, but in an issue that was meant to be spotlighting indigenous voices, Hal Niedzviecki wrote an op-ed gas-lighting those authors. This was a misuse of his position, undercutting the entire purpose of the issue. Re. all the editors raising money for this “cultural appropriation prize” on twitter – there is a reason that we call these people Gatekeepers. They are the people who decide what gets published, who choose to put certain voices forward rather than others, etc. These people, who wield a lot of power in Canadian media, are demonstrating zero understanding of what cultural appropriation even means or why it matters that we should be making room at the table for authentic indigenous voices rather than just writing about them through our own white lenses. Nothing is going to change as long as they are running the show. I’m pretty sure these guys will be OK. A lot of other people are not OK. I am not shedding tears or staying up nights worrying about Hal Niedzviecki. I’m just not.

“What About Artistic Freedom! We should be able to write what we want!”

I have so many thoughts about this but for starters, yes, of course. We do enjoy artistic freedom, lucky us! When I hear white people say this as if their artistic freedom is actually being threatened, I am reminded of nothing more than a toddler in a public sandpit hoarding all the toys and screaming blue murder when asked to share. Not everything is yours. This blows my mind every time I hear it. Parents, you all know what I’m talking about. Didn’t anybody ever fucking teach you that NOT EVERYTHING IS YOURS?

You can write whatever you want. You really can. Let’s start with that. One more time: you can write whatever you want!

Also and relatedly: We live in the world! We don’t make art in a vacuum. We are in this sandpit together. I’ve used this analogy on Facebook and Twitter and will repeat it here: I think that being an artist is partly like being good conversationalist. We try to communicate, to entertain, to tell our truths as best we can. But however awesome we think we are, we shouldn’t dominate the whole conversation and bring everything back to us. We should make room for other people to talk, we should listen to them and not interrupt them or undercut them or ignore them or start telling their story for them. If there is somebody at the table who is trying to talk about their experiences and you barge in with your periphery impressions of their experiences, that’s rude. Why would you do that?

People struggle with the term cultural appropriation. White writers can and do write about non-white characters; that is not a bad thing and it isn’t what cultural appropriation means. I keep seeing people say, “Oh so I should only write about 47-year-old middle class white women named X, snark snark”. No, that’s not what it means, so stop being a jerk. See Karen Bass’s well-received (and meticulously researched) thriller, The Hill, in which one of the main characters is Cree. It’s about being careful and respectful and you can only do that if you are also a good listener.

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Not everybody is going to agree on every point, there isn’t a manual or a set of rules, but I’m stunned that it’s controversial to say that indigenous lives and stories should not be used as props or exotic color, romanticized or reduced to poorly understood stereotypes by non-indigenous authors. There is a long history of this happening and that’s why there is a term for it – cultural appropriation! It still happens. Just because something grabs your imagination doesn’t mean you have to claim it. There are stories beyond our experience that really are not ours to tell, and if we are halfway decent people with any sense of what is going on outside our personal bubbles, we might want to pass the megaphone for a sec, try to make space at the table, cheer on and support indigenous artists who are trying to tell their own stories.

“It’s important that we should be able to have this discussion freely so that we can learn from it.”

I have a queasy feeling that when people say this, they really mean that they don’t want people to get mad at them for not caring. This is not a brand new, radical discussion. It’s old. It’s been happening for a long time. And what exactly are we discussing here? Whether it’s OK to keep shitting all over indigenous people? Is that really up for discussion? Hal Niedzviecki says that he wanted to encourage (white) people to write outside their own experiences. OK – many of us do, though there are plenty of places we should be very careful of going. But when he said “cultural appropriation” he immediately made it about something else. If you say you don’t “believe” in cultural appropriation, you’re saying that indigenous people have not been silenced and spoken for and had their stories plundered. He put forth a horrendous falsehood, and he’s backtracking all over the place, but he doesn’t get to redefine that term.

PART 3: PAYING ATTENTION

I’m basically a screw-up and the farthest thing from a right-thinking, right-acting paragon. I hope that I know how to listen though. I hope that when I screw up, friends (and strangers, if I screw up publicly, like in my published writing) will tell me so, and I hope that I’ll know how to listen to them when they do.

I am never sure how to be a good person. Listening well is pretty much the only skill in my limited playbook. But along those lines, I do have one possibly helpful and very easy suggestion for white authors who are freaked out or confused by the idea of cultural appropriation and are privately or not-so-privately having a meltdown about it: Twitter is an amazing place to eavesdrop, listen & learn. You can follow a whole bunch of indigenous authors and activists, you can follow the links they share, you can sit back and listen, reserving judgment, shelving your anxiety, and just take it all in as the nuances become clearer, along with what is at stake. (Side-note, though, don’t barge in or demand that people explain things to you, just listen). We don’t need to keep talking about whether cultural appropriation exists or whether it’s OK to do it: it does, it isn’t, let’s move on. It would be nice to stop free-speeching about whether we can free-speech all over somebody else, drowning them out, and to support indigenous authors for a change. That was what the issue of Write Magazine was supposed to be doing.

Every author knows how hard it is to get that foot in the door, to get your shot, to get your story out there. That’s true for all of us, but so much more so for indigenous authors trying to be heard in a white, white landscape. Imagine how those authors felt – here was their work appearing in Write Magazine. They tweeted about it, told their friends – this was supposed to be their moment. Instead it’s all white people yelling “why can’t I write what I want, why why why, me me me!”

I have no real idea of how to respond to this debacle, but I guess one easy way to start might be reading / supporting / talking about indigenous authors. I realized that my faves are the Big Names – Eden Robinson, Lee Maracle, Louise Erdrich, and most recently Tracey Lindberg – so I asked for recommendations on Twitter. Here’s a start:

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If you want to talk more about this – if you disagree or if you agree or if you are confused or mad or worried or sad – I’m up for having this conversation. It can get heated, but that’s OK. Public or private forum, either one is fine. Reach out and I’ll reply.

Hugs and kisses,

Your White Canadian Author Friend Who Was Yelling All Over Your Facebook Page Last Weekend (sorry about that)

Who Are These People I Made Up Anyway? Part 5: Bianka

A friend pointed out to me that most of the central characters in JULIA VANISHES have lost either a parent or a child. I drafted the novel while my first child was a toddler and I was pregnant with my second child, and that wasn’t deliberate, but I think on some level I’m always writing out my worst nightmares. Bianka lives out my nightmare more vividly than any other character in the books.

Here Julia realizes that Bianka, the young mother hiding in Mrs. Och’s house, might be more than what she seems.

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From JULIA VANISHES

One of my favorite scenes involves Julia spying while Bianka turns an owl into a cat. A reader asked me if Strig would be in JULIA DEFIANT. No – the little owl-cat doesn’t travel to Yongguo with them – but he will be in the third and final book.

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From JULIA VANISHES

In Julia’s world, spells must be written – a witch with a pen is armed and dangerous – and I had a lot of fun with how this works.

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From JULIA VANISHES

The evolution of Julia and Bianka’s relationship in JULIA DEFIANT was a dark and bitter joy to write. Could you ever trust or be friends with someone who once brought harm your child? Bianka recognizes threats to Theo’s safety and well-being on all sides.

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From JULIA DEFIANT

My deepest, most terrible fear is not being able to take care of my children. I actually am not sure how or why I wrote some of this…

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From JULIA DEFIANT

NEXT WEEK: Frederick, the brilliant young student working in Mrs. Och’s house.

Who Are These People I Made Up Anyway? Part 4: Gregor

In my first draft of JULIA VANISHES, Gregor was two separate characters – a haughty aristocratic connection who brought jobs to Esme and her crew, and a once-famous thief sunk deep in alcoholism. In revision I merged the two characters, and here is where he enters the story with Csilla, his partner in crime and in matters of the heart:

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From JULIA VANISHES

Gregor and Esme have a complicated past as revolutionaries, but since Agoston Horthy’s rise to power they have stuck to petty crime.

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From JULIA VANISHES

It took me a while to figure Gregor’s character out. It was writing this scene between him and Julia – after she’s been attacked by the Gethin and he comes to get her from Liddy’s shop – that brought him clearly into focus for me.

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From JULIA VANISHES

In Yongguo, Gregor has to play the part of an aristocratic scholar as part of their scheme to infiltrate the Imperial Library. The scholarly bit is a stretch for him:

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From JULIA DEFIANT

His revolutionary hopes rekindled in Yongguo, Gregor gives sobriety another try:

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From JULIA DEFIANT

NEXT WEEK: Frederick, the brilliant young student working in Mrs. Och’s house, who befriends Julia posing as Ella the housemaid.

Who Are These People I Made Up Anyway? Part 3: Esme

This week: Esme, the Crime Boss who took in Julia and Dek after their mother’s death. Here are five quotations to give you a snapshot of who she is and her relationship with Julia.

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From JULIA VANISHES

As substitute mothers go, she’s not exactly maternal, but you’d want her on your side.

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From JULIA VANISHES

The scene ending with this interaction was a late addition to JULIA VANISHES, but it’s one of my favorite Esme moments:

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From JULIA VANISHES

Esme is just as unflappable and in control when you take her out of the Twist and plop her down in another country on the other side of the world:

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From JULIA DEFIANT

What it’s like to be part of Esme’s “family”:

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From JULIA DEFIANT

Next week: Meet Gregor, Esme’s colleague, the ex-aristocrat, drunkard and conman who set up the job at Mrs. Och’s house for Julia.