The Green House, Chapters 1-4 (Revised)

[Dear Reader: Having refined my intentions for this novel based on a lot of recent thinking about life and art, I have restructured and revised the first few chapters of The Green House. The two chapters I previously posted became three – 1, 2 and 4. I created a completely new chapter, which is now Chapter 3. I don’t intend to publish any more of this manuscript online. I will be completing it in the autumn and winter, following my three-week trip to Germany (see my other site in upcoming weeks for blog posts about that). I thought you might be interested in witnessing the revision that is, for me, part of the (somewhat tortuous) process of creating fiction, which is why I am including the revised sections of The Green House here. If you are not interested in that part, you can read Chapter 3 and the first sentence of Chapter 5, and wait for the book to be published. At which point you’ll probably just have to read it all again, unless your memory is better than mine. Thanks for all your words of support so far. They have spurred me on.]

Chapter 1.

It turned out that the best part of their relationship was over by the time he’d suggested they get married. They’d been arguing about everything ever since – from who should officiate at the wedding to where they should go after the small reception. 

They’d ended up at a run-down motel in the Muskoka Lakes, two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto and a world away from how she’d always imagined her honeymoon would be. She knew better than to place any faith in convention, romantic or otherwise, but she found herself disappointed nonetheless.

After three years of squandering themselves down to the verge of bankruptcy, indulging their whims and appetites in celebration of their love, their honeymoon was like a hangover. It rained and rained, and they bickered over every cent they spent on touristy options that would allow them to stay indoors. On that day back in November when he’d gone down on one knee to present her with an engagement ring, which of course he’d put on their credit card, they’d agreed over a congratulatory joint that it was time that the two of them grew up. But it seemed that neither of them was keen to do it. At least not with one another.

Their final argument took place high above Lake Joseph on the first sunny day since they’d arrived. After talking to some guy at the front desk of the motel, Emil had decided they should take a leap from a sheer granite cliff that dropped twenty meters down into the deep blue lake. It was perfectly safe, he told her. All you had to do was jump out far enough to make sure that you were clear of the rock face. 

She was having none of it. Online she’d found stories of people who’d been killed or worse at the exact spot, and she said she didn’t feel like being married to a paraplegic. He’d insisted she come up with him to scout the situation, promising that they wouldn’t jump that day but only on the next if she agreed and if the sun was out again.

That’s not how it turned out, of course — in part because the moss up top was slippery from the week of rain, and in part because in the split second in which she might have reached out to grab him by his shirt, that’s not what she had done. She’d been afraid she would fall, too.

 At least that’s what she’d said. They’d never found his body, not the divers who’d entered the deep waters of the cliff, nor the search dogs they’d sent out along the trails, both up on top of the cliff where they’d been standing and down below, along the shore. 

No sign of him. Not anywhere.

Sarah had decided she would stop reading there and, despite the temptation to continue (she loved to read her work aloud), she respected her earlier decision; it had been based on her conviction that writers should always leave readers hungering for more. She closed the book, took a breath and looked up. 

After a few moments of silence, during which it felt as though the audience were holding its collective breath, the hall erupted. A few people yelled “More! More!” and “Keep going!” 

Someone near the back called, “You can’t leave us hanging!” 

“Or ‘leave Emil falling,’ more precisely,” someone said, closer to the front, causing a murmur of laughter.

She smiled and dipped her head to acknowledge their approval. There were maybe fifty people in the lecture hall; as was usual at her readings, about three quarters of them were women. She nodded at a few fellow authors she recognized from conferences and Writers’ Union meetings.

That’s when she realized that Constance Browning was in attendance. She was sitting about six rows from the front and off to Sarah’s left, next to Jayda Banks – a Black poet in her fifties who was highly regarded in the literary community and who Sarah was also flattered to see because she didn’t know her personally. Constance was beautifully dressed in a beige suit with a watery pastel print scarf at her neck, and she was looking directly at Sarah, her eyes meeting Sarah’s, smiling as she applauded. Sarah had admired Constance since she’d read one of her books in high school; her appearance here, when she hardly ever showed up anywhere, aroused an almost bashful pleasure in Sarah. She hoped the bashful part of it didn’t show.

“Thank you,” she said into the mike, addressing everyone in general but meaning Constance in particular. 

When at last – it seemed like several minutes but it was probably just one or two – the applause began to ebb, Toby Abrams, a bookseller and the designated emcee, joined Sarah at the podium. She asked if anyone had questions. 

A few people raised their hands. 

Toby pointed at a woman with short blond hair about half way back who appeared to be in her mid to late thirties: close to Sarah’s age in other words. From the demographics her publishers accumulated, Sarah knew that this was a typical fan of hers: White, middle aged, urban, middle class, probably with a university degree.

“Where did you get the idea for this book?” the woman asked. 

This was a question that came up regularly at readings. Most of Sarah’s stories emerged from the fabric of her life, and when she’d been promoting her previous books she’d answered similar inquiries as accurately as she could, recounting real-life incidents and explaining how she’d woven them into imagined events to create the scaffolds of her manuscripts. Among the members of her audiences, there were often would-be writers who apparently believed that the acquisition of certain rituals or tricks – ones to which only successful writers like Sarah Elliott might be privy – could lift their own fiction from obscurity. They ate up her responses, which often turned into wide-ranging discussions involving half the audience. Indeed, over the ten years since her first book had been published, Sarah had established a reputation for being a “generous-to-other-writers” writer, largely on the basis of the thorough and articulate answers she patiently delivered at readings, talks and conferences, and online as well, when she was asked about her work or about the writing life in general. 

But the spark that had become The Borrowed Knapsack – her newest novel – had been the rage and embarrassment she’d felt in the wake of a relationship in which, for more than a year before it ended, she’d invested too much hope and a stupid amount of money. When she’d started writing this manuscript, which — ironically — a couple of reviewers had already described as her most tightly-plotted (meaning most traditionally fictional?) work to date, she’d been seething, seeking vengeance. Surging rage had propelled her half way through the first draft. 

She was still furious and ashamed about everything related to Wyatt; she was not about to talk about him to anyone, certainly not to the media or the reading public. But knowing that her readers would be suspicious or disappointed if she didn’t give them something concrete, she’d decided that when the inevitable question arose, she’d talk about the incident that had spawned the scene she’d just finished reading, rather than talking about the relationship from which the novel itself had emerged.

“Well, that’s another story,” she said now, her voice well-modulated. “It wasn’t an incident that happened to me directly – I was really just a bystander – but it had a dramatic effect on me. The memory has haunted me ever since, but when I started to work on this”— she raised her copy of The Borrowed Knapsack — “I didn’t focus on the memory itself the way I usually do, but on the feeling the memory gave me.” She looked across the audience, noticing that a couple of people were writing down what she said. “The incident really has nothing to do with the book, but I can tell you about it if you like.” 

There was a chorus of “Yes!” and “Please!” (What else were they going to say?) so she replaced the book on the lectern and, in a confiding tone, continued.

“All right then,” she said. “So, my dad was invited to speak at a conference in Prague in the summer when I was ten. My mom decided to go with him, and they arranged for me to stay with some friends of theirs — the Thistles, also academics — who had a cottage in Muskoka. My parents probably figured it would be a great little holiday for me, but I barely knew the Thistles, and they didn’t have any kids, and the weather was cold and wet. Mrs. Dr. Thistle was working on a paper, and I was told that she must not be disturbed. Mr. Dr. Thistle read books and listened to music on head phones and, rain or no rain, went out by himself for walks. I’d brought along a few things to do — books and pencil crayons and whatnot — and I was allowed to help with the meal preparation and the dishes — but most of the time I just sat around, quite bored. I considered it a catastrophe that they had no television.”

She heard small chuckles from here and there and felt the audience settling in to listen, as though she were still reading from the book. She let her mind go back to the time she was describing.

“A few days after we got up there, I woke one night to the sounds of a man and woman yelling at one another. The noise was coming from somewhere outside, at the front of the cottage which faced the road. My small bedroom windows looked out on the lake, so it was all too muffled for me to make out many words. But the tone was clear: it sounded like the people who were yelling wanted to kill one another. I was terrified — too scared to even get out of bed. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Thistles — yelling didn’t seem to be their style — but in truth I’d never heard adults raging like that at one another so I couldn’t be sure. I remember pulling my bedclothes up over my head and then trying to peek out from beneath them. After five or ten minutes, red and blue lights started pulsing high up on the trees outside my window, and then the yelling stopped. Suddenly it was silent.

“Then I did get up, and I tiptoed down the hall. I found the Thistles in their housecoats in the darkened living room, silhouetted against the big front window. They were standing next to one another – almost touching but not quite. The cottage across the way — a much bigger place than the one we were in – was all lit up, and there was a police car, lights flashing, on the road that ran between us and it. Behind the police car was an ambulance, its lights flashing too. I couldn’t see any people out there. I asked if everything was okay, even though it obviously wasn’t, and the Thistles whirled around like I’d scared them half to death. When they recovered, Mr. Dr. Thistle said that everything was under control and that I should go back to bed. So I did.

“I have no idea how I ever managed to fall back to sleep! The next morning I asked the Thistles what had happened. Mrs. Dr. Thistle said that the woman who’d was staying across the way had had an accident, and had been taken to the hospital.

“‘Unfortunately,’ she added.

“‘What kind of an accident?’ I asked.

“‘We’re not sure about that,’ she said, looking at her husband.

“‘What about the yelling?’ I asked.

“‘The yelling?’ Mr. Dr. Thistle asked, as if he himself had heard nothing of the sort.

“‘They were probably just worried about her,’ Mrs. Dr. Thistle said at the same moment, and again they exchanged glances. “Sometimes people shout when they are in distress,” she added in a quieter voice. 

“‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘They’re just renters. Not anyone we know.’

“I tried to get them to say more, but I got nowhere. The next day some other friends of the Thistles showed up in a boat — they were staying across the lake, and they had a couple of kids my age. The sun came out, the lake got all blue and sparkly, and the rest of the week turned out to be a lot more fun than the first half had been. I was either too busy or too worn out to think much about the night-time shouting match until the day before my parents were coming to pick me up. Two cops showed up at the door around dinner time, wanting to talk to the Thistles. I remember being scared that it had something to do with my parents, but it turned out that the man from the cottage across the way had been found dead in the lake that morning by some other cottager out fishing. He’d turned up near the bottom of the cliff I’ve described in the passage.” 

Sarah took a sip from the bottle of water on the lectern.

“Not ever knowing any details about that memory was the worst part,” she went on. “When I asked my parents what they’d learned about it after we got home, they said they knew nothing; after all, they’d been away. But surely the Thistles had told them something? They must have known more than I did.

“A few years ago I was thinking about that week in relation to something else I was writing, and for about the third or fourth time I tried to find information about the incident online. But I couldn’t find anything. I asked my parents about it then, but if they’d ever known any more details, they couldn’t remember them.

“Clearly it must have been some terrible domestic-violence situation. But there are still so many questions. Did the man fall from that cliff, or jump? Or did he end up in the lake some other way? And did he drown, or die from other causes? And what happened to the woman?”

Toby leaned in toward the microphone, smiling. “And so it goes,” she said. “In the hands of an imaginative writer, a few questions became the beginnings of a novel.“ She scanned the audience. “Are there any other –” 

But that wasn’t the point Sarah had intended to communicate about the writing process. 

“It wasn’t anything about the events themselves,” she said, leaning back in to the lectern. “It was partly the setting, but it was mainly the emotions – the dread, the fear of not knowing what had happened. That was the important part for me: I attached those same feelings and that same place to an entirely different story. I think inspiration isn’t taken from the surface of a recollection: it comes from beneath it, from the fissures between the facts.” She stole a look at Constance Browning, and was pleased to see her nodding. 

“Letting yourself sink into a feeling you had in childhood is a really good way to evoke feelings in your writing,” Sarah concluded, delivering one of her trade-mark nuggets of writing wisdom. “Our emotions are less complicated when we’re young.”

Toby invited another few questions. The first few were fairly straightforward and then a woman who looked to be in her sixties near the back wondered why Sarah’s main character had said she didn’t want to be married to a paraplegic. “Sounds a bit ableist to me.” 

Sarah nodded, took a breath, and then responded. “It’s not intended to promote ableist thinking,” she said. “It’s just the way she talks. It’s the way people talk. We let down our guards in private, under stress. We use words we might not use at a lectern, for example.”

“But don’t we have an obligation to set an example?” the woman asked. “As writers?”

“I think our obligation is to tell the truth,” said Sarah. “Even when we’re writing fiction. If people talk that way, characters talk that way.”

“Did you think about that, when you were writing it?” The woman wanted to know.

“I did,” Sarah answered. She realized she was keeping her eyes away from Constance now – reluctant to see how she was reacting to this exchange. Or to know how Jayda was responding.

Someone near the front turned around and said to the woman at the back, “If we are setting examples all the time, there will be no conflict. No story. Crime writers couldn’t allow their villains to murder anyone, for God’s sake.”

There was some uneasy laughter. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the woman. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m wondering where you draw the line. What if she’d said, ‘I don’t want to be married to a fat person’? Would that be acceptable to you?”

A few people volunteered their opinions. Sarah stayed out of it, and Toby managed to wrap the whole thing up before it could go off the rails. She said that people could purchase a copy of The Borrowed Knapsack and Sarah’s earlier novels, as well as books by a few other local authors, at the sales table in the lobby outside the lecture theatre. She expressed gratitude to Sarah for agreeing to stick around to sign books if anyone wanted her to do that. Toby concluded by saying that since the whole area had to be cleared in half an hour because of another event that was happening that evening, everyone who was so inclined could re-assemble in The Half Horseshoe a couple of blocks away.

It was more like forty-five minutes before Sarah finished signing books and as she headed out, still escorted by the diminutive Toby Abrams, she was surprised to find Constance Browning and Jayda Banks waiting the exit doors, leaning against a bank of air conditioners.

“We figured you’d be going to the pub,” Constance said. “We thought we’d walk over with you.” She added, gesturing at her companion, “I’m sure you know Jayda?”

“I know who you are, of course,” Sarah said, extending her hand to shake Jayda’s. “We’re Facebook friends, aren’t we? But I don’t think we’ve met.”

Smiling warmly, Jayda said with a trace of a Caribbean accent, “I loved the reading.” 

Jayda sounded much friendlier than she’d seemed in other contexts where Sarah had seen her, which had been mostly online and mostly in situations where Jayda been discussing political issues or her own writing, and looking somewhat fierce. She was wearing a pale green top and black jeans under her overcoat, and her long braided hair was pulled up on her head where it rested like a crown.

Sarah indicated Toby. “I imagine you both know Toby Abrams?” 

They did. 

Even though they had never met before either, Constance had not bothered to introduce herself to Sarah. Sarah decided that this was perhaps because she assumed that everyone knew who she was, which was probably true  — she was famous by Canadian standards, and had been for more than a generation. Or maybe she’d just forgotten that they hadn’t met before. 

Constance was taller than the other three women by half a head — a full head taller in Toby’s case. She must have been five nine or ten, Sarah though. She was wearing a full-length camel coat over her suit, ankle-high leather boots and a crocheted cloche hat that matched her scarf. Now in her mid sixties, she’d lost none of the unique Browning aura that made it seem – even when she was in the middle of a crowd – as though she stood alone, isolated by the magnitude of her talent. 

“Shall we?” Toby asked, pushing open the door to lead them out into the chilly late-October afternoon.

Chapter 2

There was a stiff breeze and they put their heads down and walked quickly. Leaves scurried about their ankles. When they reached The Half Horseshoe, they paused together just inside the door to gather themselves again before heading down to the lower level. There, several tables had been pushed together by those who’d arrived before them.

“I’d hoped we’d have a moment to chat on the way over,” Constance said as they went down the stairs behind Toby and Jayda. “Perhaps we could sit together.”

“I’d like that,” Sarah said, her curiosity piqued, “but first I have to hit the washroom. Can you grab me a seat?”

“I can,” Constance said, giving a small wave to a couple of people who were pointing at empty chairs, inviting her to sit near them.

Sarah touched up her makeup, fluffed her hair and double-checked as much as she could see of her outfit in the washroom mirror; she was wearing a dark green turtleneck, a short plaid skirt and high brown leather boots, the most expensive pair of footwear she’d ever owned. The turtleneck was way too hot and itchy, but it suited both her body and the season. 

When she came out, she saw that Constance had found a seat near the middle of the group and thrown her coat over an empty chair beside her. Jayda was across from Constance, and Toby was sitting at the far end of the string of tables. There were pitchers of beer and a lot of glasses, and it appeared that several conversations had already taken root. There were about twenty people all together.

Sarah carefully lifted Constance’s soft camel coat and placed it, along with her own puffer jacket, on an unoccupied chair behind them. As she sat down, a woman across the table, to the right of Jayda, said, “Great reading, Sarah. I’m really looking forward to getting into The Borrowed Knapsack.”

Sarah vaguely recognized her; she was a writer, a thin woman about ten years older than Sarah, with beads threaded into her hair. She thanked her, settled herself into her chair, and poured herself a beer. 

The woman to Jayda’s left said, “I though you also handled the questions really well.”

Sarah raised her glass, directed it down the line of tables as if to toast, and said, “I have Toby Abrams to thank for that.” The beer tasted cheap and a bit flat, but its immediate effect was welcome. She took a deep breath and felt herself beginning to relax.

“I’m kind of glad I’m not doing any readings at the moment,” Constance said, as a young server leaned in and put a glass of white wine down on the table in front of her. “There’s so much political correctness these days, I’d be incredibly apprehensive about finding a passage that was safe enough to read.” She rummaged around in her purse, pulled out a credit card and handed it to the server.

“You couldn’t go wrong if you tried, Constance,” Jayda said, laughing. “Your characters are paragons of humanity.”

“So are Sarah’s,” Constance said, punching numbers into the credit-card machine. “But that didn’t help her today, did it? I hope that my characters are human as well as humane, and humans don’t always say the right things.” She pulled off a copy of the receipt and handed the machine back to the server.

“True enough,” said Jayda.

The beaded-haired woman said, “It’s ironic that writers have to worry about not being woke enough. When it came to issues surrounding cultural appropriation, the literary community was on it decades ago. Not that anyone wants to turn back the clock, but the ship we launched seems to be running over a lot of writers these days.”

“Just because we were early out of the gate doesn’t mean we fixed anything,” Sarah said. “Not even in our own community. But it’s a minefield now, for sure,”

“Tell me about it,” said a good-looking guy with messy blond hair sitting on Constance’s far side. “Sometimes I feel like I need to play the gay card just to avoid being put in the basket marked ‘young White males’.”

“Christian,” Jayda asked him, her face the picture of mock alarm. “Are you saying you’re not gay?”

He laughed, then said, serious again, “It’s just always there. You can never just be you without dragging your demographic along behind you. It affects the writing as much as it does what happens when you’re trying to get published.”

Jayda nodded and sighed. “It’s a hard time.”

“But I still hope we’re moving in the right direction,” Sarah said. “Inside the community, I mean.”

Jayda shrugged. “Depends on the day.”

“Are you tired?” Constance asked Sarah in a clear attempt to change the subject.

“Not yet,” Sarah said, taking another drink of her beer. “The adrenaline’s still going.”

A young woman had approached from farther down the table, and now she pulled up the chair behind Constance – the one in which Sarah had deposited the coats. Perching her butt on its edge, she first expressed her appreciation for Sarah’s reading, then asked Constance a question about Fire in the Trees – one of Constance’s earliest books and the first one Sarah had ever read. It was a good question, and Sarah was keen to hear the answer, but at that moment, the woman to Jayda’s left leaned across the table to ask Sarah for advice about finding a publisher. 

In no time, it seemed, it was almost six o’clock and several people had left — including Toby, with whom Sarah had earlier walked to the foot of the stairs in order to thank her again for all her work. A few of the others were deciding whether to order something from the food menu or find another place to eat. 

Sarah had at least an hour’s drive north through the city, so she extracted her wallet from her handbag, pulled out a twenty, put it on the table for the beer, then started to get her things together. Constance was also reaching for her coat. She asked Jayda if she was ready to go, and Jayda looked up with a smile and shook her head. “I’ll grab a bite with these guys and catch an Uber home. But thanks.”

As Sarah followed Constance toward the exit, the older woman said, “We still haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“That’s true,” said Sarah. “Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere?”

“I have my car,” Constance said. They were approaching the pub’s glaze-windowed exit doors, and the older woman gestured to the south. “I’m parked on College. I imagine you’re somewhere closer.”

“I’m in a lot, a block or so the other way,” Sarah said, pointing north. It was dark now but the wind was still blowing leaves and litter around outside. Snow was in the forecast. “I could give you a lift to your car?”

“I need the exercise,” Constance said. “But thanks.” She paused. “Maybe we could meet for coffee sometime.”

“Sure,” Sarah replied, turning from the doors to look at Constance. “That would be great.” Clearly Constance had something specific she wanted to discuss. Sarah wondered what it was.

Constance was looking evenly back at her. She had lovely grey eyes with dark lashes, and a faint brushing of aqua on her lids. The lines that age had added around her eyes and mouth didn’t diminish her attractiveness. Sarah had noticed before how the appearances of people who were intelligent and engaged were somehow enhanced rather than diminished as they got older. Their lines added gravitas, she supposed.

“How about Thursday?” Constance asked, now rooting around in her handbag for her keys. “That’s the next day I’m in town.”

“You don’t live in the city?”

“I’m out in Ajax, near the lake,” Constance said.

“That sounds nice,” said Sarah. 

“It’s a lovely spot,” Constance said, nodding. “Why don’t we meet at the AGO? I’m a member, and they have wonderful pastries.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario was right downtown, difficult to get to on a weekday afternoon. If it had been anyone else, Sarah would have insisted they meet somewhere else — Ajax itself would be easier for her to get to than the AGO. But this was Constance Browning.

They agreed to find one another near the coat check at three p.m. on Thursday, and exchanged cell-phone numbers in case there were any changes. Then they headed off, in opposite directions, into the early night.

Chapter 3.

As she drove north on Avenue Road, Sarah thought about the hug she’d shared with Toby Abrams when the bookseller had left the pub. She’d seemed happy enough, and as warm toward Sarah as ever, but there was no way of knowing for sure. It would be nice if someone invented a pair of eyeglasses that allowed you to read how people were actually feeling, rather than having to guess from their behaviour. Maybe the glasses would measure the other person’s temperature, in the way that mood rings were supposed to work. Not that she thought that mood rings actually did work — some other technology would need to be involved — but something along those lines could come in very handy. On the other hand, if the person you were looking at figured out what you were doing, they’d probably sue you for invasion of their privacy.  

There might be a short story in there somewhere.

Surely Toby would have been pleased with the number of books she’d sold. Several people had bought copies of Time on a Leash and Miss Carr Gets a Chill in addition to The Borrowed Knapsack, and she’d sold at least fifty of the latter. Toby had also sold a few of the books she’d brought along by other Toronto authors. She’d probably regretted not having more of Constance Browning’s books on hand, but who’d have  expected that Constance would show up? 

Sarah felt like she’d imposed on her relationship with Toby to make this happen, and it wasn’t a favour she’d ever be able to ask again. She’d done it in part to prove something to her publisher, who had expressed pessimism at the viability of holding a reading on the university campus on a weekday afternoon. Toby had given it her all, offering to act as emcee as well as bookseller, and bringing along one of her staff to work the sales table. She’d said she was happy to do it: supporting local writers was part of what she considered to be her mandate. 

Sarah was happy about the turnout, which had been even greater than she’d hoped when she’d originally courted Toby to do this favour for her. A couple of Sarah’s friends taught at the university, and some of the younger people in attendance must have been their students. The review in The Star on the weekend had probably helped as well. Not that it had been all that glowing, but it had mentioned the reading, which might have helped to get people out. The response to her reading had been warm; word-of-mouth might lead to more sales at the bookstore later.

But booksellers were generally reluctant to host and service readings that weren’t on their own premises these days, even for “one of their favourite writers” as Toby had frequently called Sarah. It was a lot of work to schlep the books and set up the table and organize the necessary systems for collecting income from the sales — there were still people who wrote cheques when they bought books, for god’s sake. And others who paid cash, which meant that you needed to be able to make change. Such events usually lost money. Sarah really hoped that Toby had covered her costs and more. 

Maybe she’d send flowers to Toby’s shop tomorrow, as a token of her gratitude. Would that seem over the top? She’d already bought her lunch. But flowers were a good thing. You couldn’t have too many flowers. The other people on Toby’s staff would notice them, and so would customers. 

She’d do that.

As she crossed Lawrence Avenue still heading north, Sarah realized she was both hungry and exhausted. She had been happy enough to leave the group at The Half Horseshoe — no matter how friendly a gathering was, since the pandemic she always reached a point after a couple of hours when being alone seemed preferable to company.  But as her thoughts turned toward her destination, her reluctance to reach it also grew. Her mom had been unable to attend the reading because of a later-life learning class she was Zooming in on, and she’d be full of questions about everything she’d missed. Sarah didn’t feel like reliving it all again just yet.  

Maybe she should grab a bite somewhere before she got back to the condo. 

Sarah’s father, Sterling Elliott, had died early in the pandemic – not directly from Covid, but probably because of it. He’d been taken to Emergency by ambulance one morning in December, 2020 after slipping on a patch of black ice on the sidewalk, and had died of a massive heart attack while awaiting treatment for a broken hip. At first, Sarah’s mother, Fannie, had been furious with him: clearly, she felt, he had not made enough noise to attract the necessary medical attention during what must have been an agonizingly painful episode (“Mr. Suck-It-Up really learned his lesson that time,” she’d said sardonically at one point), but her rage had soon merged with guilt (“If I’d been with him, this never would have happened…”), then morphed to grief and an immobilizing depression. She’d lost interest in everything, including eating, her personal appearance, housekeeping, even making video connections with her friends. She’d spent entire days watching CNN, which only intensified her sense of hopelessness. Bringing in anyone to help had been impossible because of the pandemic, even if she’d agreed to let Sarah try to find someone, which never would have happened. Sarah had spent so much time driving from her place to her parents’ apartment uptown to bring in groceries and pick up after her mother that she’d finally put most of her stuff into storage and moved into their guest room. 

She’d been on the verge of moving from her own apartment anyway when Covid hit: after the thing with Wyatt had gone south she’d no longer wanted to be there. She’d been wondering about actually purchasing a place in spite of the insanity of the market: it felt to her as though doing so would be a way of announcing to herself that she was not waiting for the ideal partner to come along before she started building a strong and lasting future for herself. 

A tangible statement of that nature would have been reassuring in one sense — releasing her from the clutches of what was certainly futile expectation — but it would also have meant relinquishing some part of the anticipated life trajectory that, to women of her age and demographic, came almost as a birthright. Owning your own house meant that from here on in, falling in love with someone and planning for a future together was always going to involve a discussion about real estate. It put you in the same category as those who were divorced:  nothing could be spontaneous; legal documents would always be involved. Buying property was acknowledging the onset of middle age.

In the year and a half since she’d made the temporary move to her mother’s place, she’d been so busy with the editing of The Borrowed Knapsack and doing all the other things a working writer had to do, in addition to doing what she could to help Fannie get back on her feet, that she hadn’t had much time to think about what she would do next. She was going to have to start weighing her options again soon. 

Fannie Elliott was in her mid-seventies and full of energy, and Sarah had no concerns about leaving her on her own. It was time that both of them got on with their lives and, if the truth be told, it would be good for Sarah to finally face the fact of her father’s death and her mother’s widowhood from her own personal perspective. She’d had some trouble doing that with her focus on her mother.

To her credit, Fannie had called upon internal resources that Sarah hadn’t even known she had possessed to pull herself out of her grief and the accompanying slump, and now she was ready to move forward on her own. A week or so ago, she had actually raised the subject of Sarah’s move herself, letting it be known that when Sarah was ready, she’d be happy to help her look at houses. She’d even offered to act as a co-signatory on a mortgage if Sarah needed her to do that.

“It’d be fun,” Fannie’d said. “If you get a place with a back yard, I could even help you with the garden. I’ve missed having flower beds to weed and fresh-from-the-garden vegetables to eat.”

“You’re asking me to take up market gardening for you?” Sarah had asked, half-joking. “You do know that writing is a full-time job?”

“I respect that,” her mother had replied. “But you’re between books now, aren’t you?”

“I won’t be forever. I may already have started something new.”

“I’m not talking about acres: just a cute little pocket garden, as it were. I’m just saying I could help.“

Sarah had turned and leaned against the counter, indicating with a sweep of her hand the open living-room-slash-kitchen area, the view of the city through the windows. “It’s occurred to me that I might be smarter to live in a place like this, that maybe I should buy an apartment instead of a house. Less upkeep. It’d need to be downtown, of course. Not way out here in the boonies.”

“No way,” Fannie had protested. “You’ve got to have a yard. It’s good for the soul to be able to get into the fresh air without having to take an elevator.”

At least Fannie hadn’t mentioned how good a yard would be for any children that Sarah might decide to have. Although Sarah’s father had occasionally thrown out comments relating to biological clocks, Fannie had never raised the subject of kids with her daughter — despite the fact that she would probably have traded her soul to have a grandchild. Sarah was no more going to make that happen just to make her mother happy than she was going look for property that would accommodate a garden.

Sarah turned into the parking lot of a pho place north of Finch where she’d eaten once or twice before. She was pulling into a parking spot, and telling herself to try something besides the pork vermicelli for a change, when her phone rang.

It was her mom.

“Where are you?” Fannie asked.

“Just about to grab a bite. I’ll be home in less than an hour.”

“Can you pick something up for both of us?” her mother said. “I’m ravenous.”

“It’s almost seven-thirty! I figured you’d have eaten long ago.”

“I’ve been on the phone wth your sister,” she said. “I’ll tell you all about it when you get here.”

“Is she okay?”

“She’s fine. But she’s got lots of news.”

“That’s great!” Sarah said. “Vermicelli bowl okay?”

“Lemongrass and pork,” Fannie said. “And get a couple of spring rolls, too. I’m starving.” 

If there were mood-gauge glasses, Sarah reflected as she got out of the car, her mother would use them on her. And that wouldn’t be so good.

Chapter 4.

Constance merged onto the 401 from the Don Valley Parkway heading east, and pressed down on the accelerator. The tiny stretch in the arch of her foot felt good, and drew her attention toward a glimmer of optimism in the grey-woolly cloud of pointlessness that normally characterized her thoughts. 

While even one bright spot was welcome, over the past several years of increasing desolation, she’d experienced such glimmerings — sometimes they were sharper, more like “sparklings” — before. She had even occasionally (as in this case, if she were honest) taken to engineering their appearance herself, rather than just waiting for them to show up unexpectedly in the post or by phone or email. They made her feel good for a moment, in the manner of a first infusion of good scotch into her system, but she knew better than to put much faith in them. After a time they’d burn themselves out or scatter beyond her reach. 

Constance considered it a sign of health or at least of life that she hadn’t entirely given up on hope: she still sought out those little sparks, or worked to make them happen. Perhaps she was “hopelessly addicted to hope,” as some song had once said – or should have said. She believed hope to be an essential attribute of a certain kind of writer – the kind she was herself. But, given their temporary nature, seeking or engineering such bits of optimism was not enough: you had to do something that would breathe them into viable life, and do it quickly before they vanished. And that required energy. That she had summoned enough of it today to get herself properly dressed and out into the city was worth celebrating of itself: it had been months since she’d done that. But now she had to figure what she would do next. She needed to make a plan.

About half an hour from home, snow began to fall and Constance’s thoughts turned to the winterizing Bart still needed to do before their annual parting glass (which would probably feature the aforementioned scotch: Laphroaig or something like it, hers straight up, his demeaned through the addition of ice and ginger ale). That’s when they would do their bi-annual settlement of accounts, and she would hand him an envelope with a few hundred dollars in it – money that he would use up over the winter as he cleared her snow on his own schedule and paid himself at whatever rate he found appropriate. Before then, the last of the garden pots and tools would need to be stowed in the shed behind the house, and he’d want to bring the snow shovels and brooms out into the front and back verandahs. She’d thought he was intending to dig up some of the glads and dahlias and wrap and store them for the winter, but he hadn’t mentioned that again since they’d talked about it in early September; maybe he’d forgotten about them or perhaps he’d changed his mind.

There used to be a final raking to do at this time of year as well, but a couple of years ago the two of them had agreed that they should leave the organic detritus for the comfort of insects over winter. Long ago, when she’d first bought the house, there’d been storm windows to put in each autumn as well, but the royalties from her books had been steady and substantial then and early on she’d installed all-season windows.

With the amount of snow coming down, increasingly as she left the highway and headed south toward Ajax, it looked as though it was too late in the season for raking anyway. Bart Samoil, an unkempt man with a raggedy long beard and ponytail who resembled either a leftover hippie or a lumberjack or possibly even a homeless person depending on the day and context, and whose strength in his late fifties exceeded that of most men in their twenties, worked his several odd jobs on his own timeline, getting to her place either when he could or when he felt like it – she was never sure. In an ideal world, he’d have done the final work of the season at least three weeks ago. Now the ground had grown cold and this new winter was not likely to retreat again. But he was as irascible as she was, and she let him have his way in most matters, out of fear of losing him.

As she pulled into her driveway, she was pleased to see that the timers for the living room and bedroom lights had functioned properly. Especially now, with the snow falling through the darkness onto the trees and lawn surrounding it, the two-story house with its grey-green siding and white porch posts and shutters looked occupied and inviting. Her heart did a little turn of satisfaction at the sight of the little nest she’d created for herself. If anything, the bouts of imprisonment during the pandemic had affirmed the rightness of her long-ago decision to purchase property this far from the city.

She gave a small grunt of discomfort as she reached into the trunk of her car for the few things she’d picked up in town: they included a new queen-sized bedspread and two brightly coloured pillows for the couch in the rental suite downstairs. The suite had been empty since a month or so before the first lockdown started, but she’d posted the unit again on Craig’s List earlier in the week: she couldn’t afford to leave it empty any longer. The house needed new shingles and a few other repairs and updates, and her writing income had been waning for too many years. She told herself that it would be nice to have the sounds of another human in the house, and might even prove practical if she should take a tumble down the stairs or in the shower. Not that she intended to do those things: she may have some arthritic moments, but she wasn’t old enough yet to lose her balance and be unable to recover.

She went up the steps to the verandah, unlocked the front door and stepped inside, stamping the snow off her shoes. She felt a moment of relief at being home again. She’d been worried about going to the reading and had nearly reneged on her arrangement with Jayda to attend. For almost a decade — probably since around the time that her agent had stopped pretending to represent her — readings and writers’ gatherings had left her in despair, even physically nauseated. After attending one, it would take her days or weeks to recover enough that she could write again. The pandemic had provided a welcome reprieve from such encounters — it had been more than two years since she’d felt obligated to go anywhere, especially to an indoor gathering. But now she had, and this time she felt almost certain that a connection had been forged that could be constructive, even beneficial, to her future. 

She surveyed the inside of her head and found the bit of optimism she’d noticed in the car. It was safe until Thursday, when she and Sarah had agreed to meet for coffee and after that, who knew? It was in part up to her what happened next, and she had two days to think about it. It hadn’t even occurred to her to make such an arrangement with Sarah until the moment before she’d done it, just as she hadn’t realized that talking with the younger writer might be a brilliant idea until half way through the reading. But she had done it, and she was pleased. This itself could be seen as a corner for the better, turned.

It was almost seven thirty and she was ravenous. After hanging her coat in the front closet, she pulled a leftover serving of tuna casserole from the fridge, along with some romaine lettuce, a cucumber and a tomato. But before she started turning the assembled food items into her evening meal, she was distracted by the sight of one of her notebooks on the table – the one most like a traditional journal, although it was far from a diary. She sat down at the round kitchen table, pulled the notebook toward her, opened it, picked up the ballpoint pen that she kept inside it like a bookmark, and started to record her thoughts.

Chapter 5.

Sarah had arrived fifteen minutes early and was, not for the first time, admiring the serpentine pale-wood -framed access ramp inside the doors of the Art Gallery of Ontario — a work of art in itself — when Constance materialized at her side.

[….]

_______

Note: Publisher and agent inquiries are welcome

The Green House, Chapter 2, Scene 1

[Note: If you want to start reading this novel from the beginning, go here.]

As Constance merged onto the 401 from the Don Valley Parkway and headed east, she pressed down on the accelerator. The tiny stretch in the arch of her foot felt good, and that feeling in turn directed her attention toward a glimmer of optimism in the grey-woolly cloud of pointlessness that normally characterized her thoughts. 

While even one bright spot was welcome, over the past several years of increasing desolation, she’d experienced such glimmerings — sometimes they were sharper, more like “sparklings” — before. She had even occasionally (as in this case, if she were honest) taken to engineering their appearance herself, rather than just waiting for them to show up unexpectedly in the post or by phone or email. They made her feel good for a moment, in the manner of a first infusion of good scotch into her system, but she knew better than to put much faith in them. After a time they’d burn themselves out or scatter beyond her reach. 

Constance considered it a sign of health or at least of life that she hadn’t entirely given up on hope: she still sought out those little sparks, or worked to make them happen. Perhaps she was “hopelessly addicted to hope,” as some song had once said – or should have said. She believed hope to be an essential attribute of a certain kind of writer – the kind she was herself. But, given their temporary nature, seeking or engineering such bits of optimism was not enough: you had to do something that would breathe them into viable life, and do it quickly before they vanished. And that required energy. That she had summoned enough of it today to get herself properly dressed and out into the city was worth celebrating of itself: it had been months since she’d done that. But now she had to figure what she would do next. She needed to make a plan.

About half an hour from home, snow began to fall and Constance’s thoughts turned to the winterizing Bart still needed to do before their annual parting glass (which would probably feature the aforementioned scotch: Laphroaig or something like it, hers straight up, his demeaned through the addition of ice and ginger ale). That’s when they would do their bi-annual settlement of accounts, and she would hand him an envelope with a few hundred dollars in it – money that he would use up over the winter as he cleared her snow on his own schedule and paid himself at whatever rate he found appropriate. Before then, the last of the garden pots and tools would need to be stowed in the shed behind the house, and he’d want to bring the snow shovels and brooms out into the verandahs front and back. She’d thought he was intending to dig up some of the glads and dahlias and wrap and store them for the winter, but he hadn’t mentioned that again since they’d talked about it in early September; maybe he’d forgotten about them or perhaps he’d changed his mind.

There used to be a final raking to do at this time of year as well, but a couple of years ago the two of them had agreed that they should leave the organic detritus for the comfort of insects over winter. Long ago, when she’d first bought the house, there’d been storm windows to put in each autumn as well, but the royalties from her books had been steady and substantial then and early on she’d installed replacement windows, double-glazed.

With the amount of snow coming down, increasingly as she left the highway and headed south toward Ajax, it looked as though it was too late in the season for raking anyway. Bart Samoil, an unkempt man with a raggedy long beard and ponytail who resembled either a leftover hippie or a lumberjack or possibly even a homeless person depending on the day and context, and whose strength in his late fifties exceeded that of most men in their twenties, worked his several odd jobs on his own timeline, getting to her place either when he could or when he felt like it – she was never sure. In an ideal world, he’d have done the final work of the season at least three weeks ago. Now the ground had grown cold and this new winter was not likely to retreat again. But he was as irascible as she was, and she let him have his way in most matters, out of fear of losing him.

As she pulled into her driveway, she was pleased to see that the timers for the living room and bedroom lights had functioned properly. Especially now, with the snow falling through the darkness onto the trees and lawn surrounding it, the two-story house with its grey-green siding and white porch posts and shutters looked occupied and inviting. Her heart did a little turn of satisfaction at the sight of the little nest she’d created for herself. If anything, the bouts of imprisonment during the pandemic had affirmed the rightness of her long-ago decision to purchase property this far from the city.

She gave a small grunt of discomfort as she reached into the trunk of her car for the few things she’d picked up in town: they included a new queen-sized bedspread and two brightly coloured pillows for the couch in the rental suite downstairs. The suite had been empty since a month or so before the first lockdown started, but she’d posted the unit again on Craig’s List earlier in the week: she couldn’t afford to leave it empty any longer. The house needed new shingles and a few other repairs and updates, and her writing income had been waning for too many years. She told herself that it would be nice to have the sounds of another human in the house, and might even prove practical if she should take a tumble down the stairs or in the shower. Not that she intended to do those things: she may have some arthritic moments, but she wasn’t old enough yet to lose her balance and be unable to recover.

She went up the steps to the verandah, unlocked the front door and stepped inside, stamping the snow off her shoes. She felt a moment of relief at being home again. She’d been worried about going to the reading and had nearly reneged on her arrangement with Jayda to attend. For almost a decade — probably since around the time that her agent had stopped pretending to represent her — readings and writers’ gatherings had left her in despair, even physically nauseated. After attending one, it would take her days or weeks to recover enough that she could write again. The pandemic had provided a welcome reprieve from such encounters — it had been more than two years since she’d felt obligated to go anywhere, especially to an indoor gathering. But now she had, and this time she felt almost certain that a connection had been forged that could be constructive, even beneficial, to her future. 

She surveyed the inside of her head and found the bit of optimism she’d noticed in the car. It was safe until Thursday, when she and Sarah had agreed to meet for coffee and after that, who knew? It was in part up to her what happened next, and she had two days to think about it. It hadn’t even occurred to her to make such an arrangement with Sarah until the moment before she’d done it, just as she hadn’t realized that talking with the younger writer might be a brilliant idea until half way through the reading. But she had done it, and she was pleased. This itself could be seen as a corner for the better, turned.

It was almost seven and she was ravenous. After hanging her coat in the front closet, she pulled a leftover serving of tuna casserole from the fridge, along with some romaine lettuce, a cucumber and a tomato. But before she started turning the assembled food items into her evening meal, she was distracted by the sight of one of her notebooks on the table – the one most like a traditional journal, although it was far from a diary. She sat down at the round kitchen table, pulled the notebook toward her, opened it, picked up the ballpoint pen that she kept inside it like a bookmark, and started to record her thoughts.

© Mary W. Walters

The Green House, Chapter One

It turned out that the best part of their relationship was over by the time he’d suggested they get married. They’d been arguing about everything ever since – from who should officiate at the wedding to where they should go after the small reception. They’d ended up at a run-down motel in the Muskoka Lakes, two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto and a world away from how she’d always imagined her honeymoon would be. She knew better than to place any faith in convention, romantic or otherwise, but she found herself disappointed nonetheless.

After three years of squandering themselves down to the verge of bankruptcy, indulging their whims and appetites in celebration of their love, their honeymoon was like a hangover. It rained and rained, and they bickered over every cent they spent on touristy options that would allow them to stay indoors. On that day back in November when he’d gone down on one knee to present her with an engagement ring he’d put on their credit card, they’d agreed – laughing over a congratulatory joint – that it was time that the two of them grew up. But it seemed that neither of them was keen to do it. At least not with one another.

Their final argument took place high above Lake Joseph on the first sunny day since they’d arrived. After talking to some guy at the front desk of the motel, Emil had decided they should take a leap from a sheer granite cliff that dropped twenty meters down into the deep blue lake. It was perfectly safe, he told her. All you had to do was jump out far enough to make sure that you were clear of the rock face. She was having none of it. Online she’d found stories of people who’d been killed or worse at this exact spot, and she said she didn’t feel like being married to a paraplegic. He’d insisted she come up with him to scout the situation, promising that they wouldn’t jump that day but only on the next if she agreed and if the sun was out again.

That’s not how it turned out of course — in part because the moss up top was slippery from the week of rain, and in part because in the split second in which she might have reached out to grab him by his shirt, that’s not what she had done. 

Sarah had decided she would stop reading there and, despite the temptation to continue (she loved to read her work aloud), she respected her earlier decision; it had been based on her conviction that writers should always leave readers hungering for more. She closed the book, took a breath and looked up. 

After a few moments of silence, during which it felt as though the audience were holding its collective breath, the hall erupted. A few people yelled “More! More!” and “Keep going!” 

Someone near the back called, “You can’t leave us hanging!” 

“Or ‘leave Emil falling,’ more precisely,” someone said, closer to the front, causing a murmur of laughter.

She smiled and dipped her head to acknowledge their approval of her writing. There were maybe fifty people in the lecture hall; as was usual at her readings, about three quarters of them were women. She nodded at a few fellow authors she recognized from conferences and Writers’ Union meetings.

She realized that Constance Browning was in the audience, off to her left, about six rows from the front. The older woman, beautifully turned out in a beige suit with a watery pastel print scarf at her neck, was looking directly at her, and she was smiling as she applauded. Sarah had admired Constance since she’d read one of her books in high school and her appearance here, when she hardly ever showed up anywhere anymore, aroused in Sarah an almost bashful pleasure. (She hoped the bashful part of it didn’t show.)

“Thank you,” she said into the mike, addressing everyone in general but meaning Constance in particular. 

When at last – it seemed like several minutes but it was probably just one or two – the applause began to ebb, Toby Green, a bookseller and the designated MC, joined Sarah at the podium and asked if anyone had questions. 

A few people raised their hands. 

Toby pointed at a woman with short blond hair about half way back who appeared to be in her mid-thirties. 

“Where did you get the idea for this book?” the woman asked. 

This was a question that came up regularly at readings. Most of Sarah’s stories emerged from the fabric of her life, and when she’d been promoting her previous books she’d answered similar inquiries as accurately as she could, recounting real-life incidents and explaining how she’d woven them into imagined events to create the scaffolds of her manuscripts. Among the members of her audiences, there were often would-be writers who apparently believed that the acquisition of certain rituals or tricks – ones to which only successful writers like Sarah Elliott would be privy – might lift their own fiction from obscurity. They ate up her responses, which often turned into wide-ranging discussions involving half the audience. Indeed, over the ten years since her first book had been published, Sarah had established a reputation for being a “generous-to-other-writers” writer, largely on the basis of the thorough and articulate answers she patiently delivered at readings, talks and conferences, and online as well, when she was asked about her work or about the writing life in general. 

But the spark that had become The Borrowed Knapsack – her newest novel – had been the rage and embarrassment she’d felt in the wake of a relationship in which, for more than a year before it ended, she’d invested too much hope and a stupid amount of money. When she’d started writing this manuscript, which — ironically — a couple of reviewers had already described as her most tightly-plotted work to date, she’d been seething, seeking vengeance. Fomenting rage had propelled her half way through the first draft. 

She was still furious and ashamed about everything related to Wyatt; she was not about to talk about him to anyone, certainly not to the media or the reading public. But knowing that her readers would be suspicious or disappointed if she didn’t give them something concrete, before the book had even been published she’d reached into her past and managed to come up with a true incident she could use as a response to the “where’d you get your ideas” question for this book. It felt more honourable to her… and safer… than she’d have felt if she’d invented something.

“Well, that’s another story,” she said now, her voice well modulated. “It wasn’t an incident that happened to me directly: I was really just a bystander. But it had a dramatic effect on me. The memory has haunted me ever since, but when I started to work on this”— she raised her copy of The Borrowed Knapsack — “I didn’t focus on the memory itself the way I usually do, but on the feeling the memory gave me.” She looked across the audience, noticing that a couple of people were writing down what she said. “The incident really has nothing to do with the book, but I can tell you about it if you like.” 

There was a chorus of “Yes!” and “Please!” (What else were they going to say?) so she replaced the book on the lectern and, in a confiding tone, continued.

“Okay. Well, early in the summer when I was ten, my dad was invited to speak at a conference in Prague. My mom decided to go with him, and they arranged for me to stay with some friends of theirs — the Thistles, also academics — who had a cottage in Muskoka. My parents probably figured it would be a great little holiday for me, but I barely knew the Thistles, and they didn’t have any kids, and the weather was cold and wet. Mrs. Dr. Thistle was working on a paper, and I was told that she must not be disturbed. Mr. Dr. Thistle read books and listened to music on head phones and went out for walks in the rain without inviting me to join him. I’d brought along a few things to do — books and pencil crayons and whatnot — and I was allowed to help with the meal preparation and the dishes — but most of the time I just sat around, quite bored. I considered it a catastrophe that they had no television.”

She heard small chuckles from here and there and felt the audience settling in to listen, as though she were still reading from the book. She let her mind go back to the time she was describing.

“A few days after we got up there, I woke one night to the sounds of a man and woman yelling at one another. The noise was coming from somewhere outside, at the front of the cottage which faced the road. My small bedroom windows looked out on the lake, so it was all too muffled for me to make out many words. But the tone was clear: it sounded like the people who were yelling wanted to kill one another. I was terrified — too scared to even get out of bed. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Thistles — yelling didn’t seem to be their style — but in truth I’d never heard adults raging like that at one another so I couldn’t be sure. I remember pulling my bedclothes up over my head and then trying to peek out from beneath them. After five or ten minutes, red and blue lights started pulsing high up on the trees outside my window, and then the yelling stopped. Suddenly it was silent.

“Then I did get up, and I tiptoed down the hall. I found the Thistles in their housecoats in the darkened living room room, silhouetted against the big front window. They were standing next to one another – almost touching but not quite. The cottage across the way — a much bigger place than the one we were in – was all lit up, and there was a police car, lights flashing, on the road that ran between us and it. Behind the police car was an ambulance, its lights flashing too. I couldn’t see any people out there. I asked if everything was okay, even though it obviously wasn’t, and the Thistles whirled around like I’d scared them half to death. When they recovered, Mr. Dr. Thistle said that everything was under control and that I should go back to bed. So I did.

“I have no idea how I ever managed to fall back to sleep! The next morning I asked the Thistles what had happened. Mrs. Dr. Thistle said that one of the people who lived across the way had had an accident, and had been taken to the hospital.

“‘Unfortunately,’ she added.

“‘What kind of an accident?’ I asked.

“‘We’re not sure about that,’ she said, looking at her husband.

“‘What about the yelling?’ I asked.

“‘The yelling?’ Mr. Dr. Thistle asked, as if himself had heard nothing of the sort.

“‘They were probably just worried about her,’ Mrs. Dr. Thistle said at the same moment, and again they exchanged glances. “Sometimes people shout when they are in distress,” she added in a quieter voice. 

“‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘They’re just renters. Not anyone we know.’

“I tried to protest this explanation but got nowhere. The next day some other friends of the Thistles showed up in a boat — they were staying across the lake, and they had a couple of kids my age. The sun came out, the lake got all blue and sparkly, and the rest of the week turned out to be a lot more fun than the first half had been. I was either too busy or too worn out to think much about the night-time shouting match until the day before my parents were coming to pick me up. Two cops showed up at the door around dinner time, wanting to talk to the Thistles. I remember being scared that it had something to do with my parents, but it turned out that the man from the cottage across the way had been found dead in the lake that morning by some other cottager out fishing. Near the bottom of the cliff I describe in the passage I’ve just read to you.” 

Sarah took a sip from the bottle of water on the lectern.

“And that’s all I knew about it for several decades.” 

“Wow,” said Toby Green, stretching up to lean into the mike. “What an awful experience.”

“Not knowing any details was the worst part,” Sarah responded, nodding. “My parents said they knew nothing about it, but I think they must have. They probably decided it was not something that should be discussed with a child. Years later I looked the incident up online, and found out it had been a domestic-abuse situation. But at the time my imagination just went wild.” She paused. “I guess nothing’s ever wasted on a writer…. or on a ten-year old who reads too many Nancy Drew books and will eventually become a writer.”

There were nods and bits of laughter here and there.

“So that’s where you got the seeds of The Borrowed Knapsack,” Toby said.

It was awkward with both of them trying to use the same mike. Sarah waited until Toby had moved back a bit, then said, “Well obviously what happens in the novel isn’t the same as what happened the week I was at that cottage. But I used the same setting for the piece I’ve just read you. It helped me keep that feeling front and centre.” She looked up at the audience, and delivered a tip in case anyone had been wanting one. “I often find that if I have plot problem,” she said, “if I just ask myself how the scene might be perceived or imagined by a nine- or ten-year old, the answer to ‘what happens next?’ will come to me.” 

Toby invited another few questions. The first few were fairly straightforward and then a woman who looked to be in her sixties near the back wondered why Sarah’s main character had said she didn’t want to be married to a paraplegic. “Sounds a bit ableist to me.” 

Sarah nodded, took a breath, and then responded. “It’s not intended to be,” she said. “It’s just the way she talks. It’s the way people talk.”

“But don’t we have an obligation to set an example?” The woman asked. “As writers?”

“I think our obligation is to tell the truth,” said Sarah. “Even when we’re writing fiction. If people talk that way, characters talk that way.”

“Did you think about that, when you were writing it?” The woman wanted to know.

“I did,” Sarah answered. 

Someone near the front turned around and said to the woman at the back, “If we are setting examples all the time, there will be no conflict. No story. Crime writers couldn’t allow their villains to murder anyone, for God’s sake.”

There was a bit of laughter. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the woman. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m wondering where you draw the line. What if she’d said, ‘I don’t want to be married to a fat person’? Would that be acceptable to you?”

A few people volunteered their opinions. Sarah stayed out of it, and Toby managed to wrap the whole thing up before it could go off the rails.

Then Toby said that people could purchase a copy of The Borrowed Knapsack and Sarah’s earlier novels, as well as books by a few other local authors, at the sales table in the lobby outside the lecture theatre. She expressed gratitude to Sarah for agreeing to stick around to sign books if anyone wanted her to do that. She concluded by saying that since the lecture hall was closing in half an hour, everyone who felt the least bit thirsty could re-assemble in The Half Horseshoe, a pub two blocks away.

It was more like forty-five minutes before Sarah finished signing books and as she headed out, still escorted by the diminutive Toby Green, she was surprised to find Constance Browning and another writer she now recognized as Jayda Banks waiting for them near the exit doors. Jayda was a Black poet in her mid forties who was highly regarded in the literary community.

“We figured you’d be going to the pub,” Constance said. “We thought we’d walk over with you.” She added, gesturing at her companion, “I’m sure you know Jayda?”

“I know who you are, of course,” Sarah said, extending her hand to shake Jayda’s. “We’re Facebook friends, aren’t we? But I don’t think we’ve met.”

Smiling warmly, Jayda said with a trace of a Caribbean accent, “I loved the reading. I’m so happy Constance invited me to come along.” 

Jayda was much friendlier in person than she was in the photographs Sarah had seen of her online, most of which had been taken when Jayda been discussing political issues and looking somewhat fierce. She had beautiful white teeth, silky looking skin, and today her long braided hair was pulled up in a knot atop her head.

Sarah indicated Toby. “I imagine you both know Toby Green?” 

All three of them confirmed that they did know one another. 

Even though they had never met before either, Constance had not bothered to introduce herself to Sarah. Sarah decided that this was perhaps because she assumed that everyone knew who she was, which was probably true  — she was famous by Canadian standards, and had been for more than a generation. Or maybe she’d just forgotten that they hadn’t met before. 

Constance was taller than the three other women by half a head — a full head taller in Toby’s case. She must have been five nine or ten, Sarah though. She was wearing a full-length camel coat over her suit, ankle-high leather boots and a crocheted cloche hat that matched her scarf. Now in her late sixties, she’d lost none of the unique Browning aura that made it seem – even when she was in the middle of a crowd – as though she stood alone, isolated from the rest of humanity by the magnitude of her talent. 

“Shall we?” Toby asked and the four of them pushed out into the chilly late-October afternoon. There was a stiff breeze and they put their heads down and walked quickly. Leaves scurried about their ankles. When they reached The Half Horseshoe, they paused together just inside the door to gather themselves again before heading down to the lower level. There, several tables had been pushed together by others who’d arrived before them.

“I’d hoped to have a moment with you on the way over,” Constance said to Sarah as they went down the stairs behind Toby and Jayda. “Perhaps we could sit next together.”

“I’d like that,” Sarah said. “Could you grab a seat for me? I’m going to hit the washroom first.”

“Of course,” Constance said. Several of those already at the table were pointing at empty chairs, inviting her to sit near them.

When Sarah came out of the washroom, where she’d touched up her makeup, fluffed her hair and double-checked her outfit — a dark green turtleneck, a short plaid skirt and high brown leather boots that exactly matched her attache case and were the most expensive pair of footwear she’d ever owned — she saw that Constance had found a seat near the back of the group against the wall. There was an empty chair beside her. Toby was sitting at the opposite end of the group of tables, and Jayda was about half way down on the side across from Constance. There were several pitchers of beer and a lot of glasses on the tables, and several conversations seemed to have taken root. There were about twenty people all together.

Sarah put her steel-coloured puffer coat and her attache case on a chair that faced a table behind them, and sat down next to Constance.

“Are you tired?” Constance asked.

“Not really,” Sarah said. “The adrenaline’s still going.”

“It does that,” Constance said with a smile. At that moment a waiter came over to see if they wanted anything besides draft beer. Constance asked for a wine spritzer. Sarah, drawing a clean glass and one of the pitchers toward her, said she was happy with the beer.

Over the course of the next hour, several self-declared fans of Sarah’s or Constance’s or both leaned across the table to talk to them, or got up and came around to chat. They wanted to discuss specific books that Constance or Sarah had written, or to tell Sarah how much they’d enjoyed the reading, or to chat about their own manuscripts. In no time, it was almost six and half the people — including Toby — had left. A few of the others were deciding whether to order something from the food menu or to find another place to eat. 

Sarah had at least an hour’s drive across the city, so she extracted her wallet from her attache case, pulled out a twenty to put onto the middle table toward the beer, then started to get her things together. Constance was also getting ready to leave. 

As Sarah was helping Constance into her coat — which was as lovely to the touch as it was to the eye — she asked Jayda if she was ready leave as well. Jayda smiled up and said she’d stay and grab a bite with the others.

“Thanks for suggesting this,” she said to Constance, then added to Sarah, “It was nice to meet you.” 

“You, too.”

As Sarah followed Constance toward the exit, the older woman said over her shoulder, “We still haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“True,” said Sarah. “Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere.”

“I have my car,” said Constance. They were approaching the pub’s glass-windowed exit doors, and Constance gestured to the south. “I’m on College Street. I imagine you’re somewhere closer.”

“I’m in a lot, a block or so that way,” Sarah said, pointing north. It was dark now but the wind was still blowing leaves and litter around outside. Snow was in the forecast. “Do you want a lift to your car?”

“I need the exercise,” Constance said. “But thanks.” She paused. “Maybe we could meet for coffee sometime soon.”

“Sure,” Sarah replied, surprised, turning from the doors to look at Constance. “That would be great.”

Constance was looking evenly back at her. She had lovely grey eyes with dark lashes, and a faint brushing of aqua on her lids. The lines that age had added around her eyes and mouth didn’t diminish her attractiveness. Sarah had noticed before that the appeal of people who were intelligent and engaged was often somehow enhanced rather than diminished as they got older. Their lines added gravitas, she supposed.

“How about Thursday?” Constance asked, now rooting around in her handbag for her keys. “That’s the next day I’m in town.”

Obviously Constance had something specific she wanted to discuss. Sarah was curious, but she didn’t ask.

“You don’t live in the city?” She asked instead.

“Ajax, near the lake,” Constance said.

“That sounds nice,” said Sarah. 

“It’s a lovely spot.” She said, nodding. “Why don’t we meet at the AGO? I’m a member, and they have lovely pastries.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario was right downtown, difficult to get to on a weekday afternoon. If it had been anyone else, Sarah would have insisted they meet somewhere else — Ajax itself would be easier for her to get to. But this was Constance Browning.

They agreed to find one another near the coat check at three p.m. on Thursday, and exchanged cell-phone numbers in case there were any changes. Then they headed off, in opposite directions, into the early night.

© Mary W. Walters

Submitting Stories to LitMags, Part II: Getting them back

Just over six months ago, I wrote a brief post about how I’d shaken some of the Covidious dust from my writer self and sent five short stories out to magazines. They had been sitting here in my computer doing nothing to benefit me, after I had gone through all the agonies and joys of bringing them to life.

I said I would report back.

Here’s the report:

  • One story came back in November, a rejection with some positive feedback and some useful comments that I will use in the revision.
  • Another story also came back in November, a rejection along with an invitation to submit to the journal (Crazyhorse) again. I sent the story out to another journal in January and it was turned down in May.
  • One came back in March with a nice note basically saying that they’d love to tell me why they rejected the piece, but they “receive so many submissions…” blah blah blah.
  • One was accepted in March. “A Change in the Climate” is forthcoming from Prairie Fire. Not sure when, but this delights me as I respect Prairie Fire a lot. The last story of mine that they published ended up in a Journey Prize Anthology.
  • One story is still being considered. Sigh.

I am currently working on a new novel, The Green House, and I have decided to release it in instalments here on The Militant Writer. Watch for the first chapter soon.

In the meantime, you might be interested in my forthcoming adventure with psilocybin, which you can read about here.

Submitting Stories to LitMags

I have had five completed short stories languishing in my computer (yes, that’s what they do there. I checked) for several years, and this weekend I have determined to get them out again to seek their homes in appropriate journals. It is a very demoralizing experience to mail out stories. I used to find it exciting, but that was because I used to be certain everything I wrote would be accepted immediately. I have been humbled. But here we go….

Wish me luck because clearly it requires some of that, as well as work and talent. I have no control over the luck or the talent, but I have put in the work!

I’ll keep you posted.

I Finally Read The Iliad

If The Iliad is any indication, the Trojan War was a complex and messy affair. Even on a fundamental level, it featured the lopping off of so many heads and arms and legs and the impaling of so many torsos and throats and bellies that navigating the battlefield must have been a nightmare. Just think of all the bodies and parts of bodies strewn across the beach, the rivulets of blood running to the sea, the fallen horses and upended chariots. Hector of Troy is rumoured to have killed 31,000 Greeks all on his own. If he fought seven days a week until Akhilleus (Achilles) brought him down, he must singlehandedly have done in an average of at least ten Greeks per day. And that’s just the body count for one warrior (albeit a fairly accomplished one) on one side of the hostilities: there were thousands upon thousands of warriors.

The combatants did get a few breaks from battle: hostilities were paused to allow the retrieval of bodies and armour, to accommodate the funerals and games of athletic prowess that marked the deaths of particularly notable heroes and – before the surviving warriors took up arms again – to attend to inspired speeches by the commanding officers. Between skirmishes, temporary housing had to be constructed – the Greeks couldn’t spend the entire war sleeping on their ships – and the troops needed to be fed. There was the inevitable drinking and carousing.

Just to add to the excitement for those on both sides of the conflict, every initiative they undertook was subject to interference by a host of manipulating, petty, quarrelsome and impulsive gods and goddesses. Just when you thought you were getting somewhere, a deity would send in a plague or deliver a thick bank of fog so you couldn’t see who you were fighting, This led to a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of war.

No wonder it dragged on for so long.

Why I Finally Read The Iliad

My friend John Aragon has been so keen for me to read The Iliad, and I have been neglectful of his recommendation for so long, that he finally made the desperate move of mailing me his own copy (1974, Doubleday, Robert Fitzgerald translation), along with another book as a companion: Helen of Troy by Margaret George. I have just finished reading both of them.

I have always assumed that The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid would be very difficult to read: primarily because the few people I know who have actually read them have generally had several more degrees than I do (n=1) and (I assume, therefore) divert themselves by reading books like Finnegan’s Wake, The Canterbury Tales and the complete works of Franz Kafka.

I am pleased to report that, despite being an epic poem composed in dactylic hexameter, a characterization that might needlessly frighten off a few of the literature-phobes among us, The Iliad is not difficult to read at all. It is, in fact, not only action-packed and bloody, but beautifully written: worth reading for the pure wonder of the language. I was not expecting that. Since I didn’t read it in the Ancient Greek, I don’t know whether to credit the author or the translator for the marvellous turns of phrase, but you can’t make silk purses out of pigs’ ears, and common knowledge suggests that things get “lost” in translation rather than “found,” so I am inclined to give a lot of the credit to Homer himself.

I could cite almost any passage in the book as an example of the fine detail and surprisingly light touch of Homer, not to mention his vivid imagination.

At one point, Zeus (who was helping out the Trojans at the request of Akhilleus at the time) turned his attention away from the war, believing that for the moment, “No other god would come.” Big mistake, for Poseidon (“the strong god who makes the mainland shake”) had been watching the battle and noticed that Zeus had looked away. (Notes on this passage: Ida is a mountain. Priam was the king of Troy, so Troy was “Priam’s town.” The “Akhaíans” are the Greeks, who are also sometimes referred to in The Iliad as “Danáäns.” Samos is an island.)

And here is a section that again reveals Homer’s poetic turn of phrase as well as his compassion – which not only encompasses the fighting mortals but also imbues his depictions of the gods with depth and realism. In this segment, the Greek soldiers fight on despite their devastation at the death of Patróklus, the best friend of Akhilleus, whose body still lies on the battlefield.

“… folded in a ragged cloud of stormlight….” How wonderful is that?

The Plot

Most of us know the story of the Trojan War, which was precipitated when Helen – the beautiful wife of Meneláos, king of Sparta – ran off with Paris Alexander, the young Trojan who was one of King Priam’s many sons. By the time the Greeks finally arrived to rescue (or recapture) her, Helen had been living in Troy for many years: she’d been there so long, according to Margaret George’s telling of it, that she felt more allegiance to Troy than to Sparta. But finally, Meneláos and his older brother Agamémnon managed to call in enough promises and debts from the rulers of surrounding states to amass hundreds upon hundreds of ships (a thousand, according to Christopher Marlowe), all jammed full of warriors eager to help avenge the insult to Sparta and to Meneláos brought on by Helen’s “abduction.” (Note: even though she left her nine-year-old daughter behind, there is every indication that Helen went with Paris willingly.) (If there even was a Helen.) Despite the fact that Sparta was no more than a week’s voyage from Troy, the war – which took place primarily on the beach between the Aegean Sea and the high walls of the Trojan City – would last eight years, by which time the Spartans and their supporters became well entrenched in their own quarters near the walled city.

How I envision the beach on which the Trojan War was fought. There would have been many more large boats and one fewer small one, I expect.

Homer’s poem covers only a few weeks near the end of the conflict. He concludes the tale before what is probably the most famous scene of the War, that being the acceptance by the citizens of Troy of a giant wooden horse which they allowed to be admitted through the gates because they believed it was a gift from the departing, defeated Greeks. A brainchild of Odysseus, the gigantic horse was, instead, filled with Greek warriors who, in the middle of the night, climbed out of it and ran to the gates to let their fellow warriors in. Troy was sacked – the city destroyed, the Trojan men all killed, and the women killed or captured. Apparently Virgil deals with this confrontation in The Aeneid, and Homer refers to it in The Odyssey, and through time many others have written about it, painted it, and depicted it in other ways, but it is not mentioned in The Iliad, which ends after Akhilleus’s death.

The focus of Homer’s story is the conflict between the brilliant warrior Akhilleus and Agamémnon: commander of the Greeks, Meneláos’s older brother, and a fearsome warrior himself. When Agamémnon decides to take possession of Briseis, a young woman who is the daughter-in-law of a king who Akhilleus has received as one of the spoils of war and grown fond of, Akhilleus becomes furious and refuses to help fight the Trojans. It is not until Hektor, another of Priam’s sons and the greatest of Troy’s warriors, kills Akhilleus best friend Patróklus that Akhilleus is moved to action. Patróklus has been wearing Akhilleus’s armour when he dies, which sets up the story’s climax.

The Begats: A Warning to Fellow Readers

If you have decided that you, too, might like to read The Iliad, I don’t want you to give up at Book Two. For that reason, this is a warning to you that Book Two is an outlier, the latter half of it (about 12 pages in the version I read) being actually quite boring. It consists of a list of all the “lords and officers” of the ships, identifies their family histories, mentions the states they came from, and includes such (unnecessary, to my mind) details as what kind of work they did when they were not at war, the terrains of their home country, even what they were wearing when they arrived at Troy for battle. Homer says, “The rank and file I shall not name; I could not, if I were gifted with ten tongues and voices unfaltering, and a brazen heart within me,” and for that we can be grateful. In the meantime, even with just the lords and captains, he does go on and on. (Note: “Aías” is pronounced “Ajax,” a name you will probably recognize. There are two Aíases in The Iliad, one big and one small.)

Well, you get the idea.

When I came across this lengthy list, which reminded me of passages of Genesis, I was tempted to quit reading. But then somewhere online I came across an explanation of why Homer had included all of this apparently useless information: it would have been a high honour for the families and countrymen of those who had turned out in support of Agamémnon to be mentioned in Homer’s book, so it was almost compulsory for him to create this list. It would be a historical record that that would be pulled out and read with pride at family brunches for untold generations. Still, if Homer had been in my writing class, I’d have told him to spread this information out a bit – scatter it between other scenes – to avoid turning off his readers so early in the story.

Anyway, don’t let Book Two deter you. You can always skim that part. And after that is over, you’ll be off and running.

Of Gods and Men

One of the accepted principles of The Iliad is that the gods were active participants in the the Trojan War. In fact, they started it, Aphrodite having caused Helen to fall in love with Paris in fulfilment of an earlier prophecy. Some of the gods were on the side of the Trojans, some were on the side of the Greeks, and some switched from one side to the other. Their hearts were not in the battle the way those of the mortals were: for the most part, they treated the whole thing as though the combatants were mere pawns in a game they were playing with one another – as gods are wont to do.

The mortals, on the other hand, were fully engaged in the combat, passionate about their fellow combatants, and driven to acts of heroism. Dying courageously could bring honour to their states and families; whether they lived or died, if they fought valiantly enough, songs and stories would be sung and written about them until the end of time.

Leda and the Swan, a 16th-century copy after a lost painting by Michelangelo (National Gallery, London). Public domain.

When one of the mortals died, it was cause for deep mourning, and the deaths of significant players called for rituals and ceremonies. These included retrieving the bodies and the armour of the fallen from the battlefield, collecting wood for the huge pyres on which those bodies would be burned, and organizing “funeral games” (like mini-Olympics, appropriately) to honour the fallen hero. The gods, on the other hand, sat atop Mount Olympus or in other places that offered them better views of the action, arguing amongst themselves over who was more worthy of success in skirmishes, and settling bets and disputes by dropping down to interfere in the activities of the humans. They did have their favourites, particularly those to whom they were related: Thetis, mother of Akhilleus, was a sea nymph, and Helen herself was the issue of a coupling between the mighty Zeus – who took on the form of a swan for the occasion — and her human mother, Leda.

In all cases, Homer is careful to make sure that the activities of the gods can be interpreted in two ways: he lets us know exactly what the deities are up to, but their manipulations can also be viewed as benign natural events – as in the memorable scene when an eagle flies over the battlefield and drops a serpent into a crowd of soldiers, or the time when Athena disguises herself as a male beggar to give guidance to a captain.

There are one or two exceptions to the curtain of invisibility Homer generally draws to conceal the gods. When Akhilleus decides he must avenge the death of Patróklus by killing Hector, he needs new armour, so Zeus sends Akhilleus’s mother (“silvery-footed Thetis”) to get the “bandy-legged god” Hêphaistos to create it for him. The work Hêphaistos carries out in his forge – designing a shield, a cuirass, a helmet and greaves, and decorating the shield with detailed scenes taken from across the heavens and the earth – is described in what are some of the most beautiful passages in the book.

Or maybe it looked like this. I mostly got my mental image from the film called Troy, starring Brad Pitt, which I watched a few months ago.

Literary Devices

After reading about half of The Iliad, I began to recognize several mechanisms that Homer deploys regularly in his storytelling. One is his use of appositives to describe both gods and men. For the major players, he repeats these often, as though they were part of the individuals’ names. Some are fairly straightforward – “Nestor, charioteer,” “Apollo, lord of archery,” and “Hektor of the shining helmet,” for example – while others are wonderfully lyrical: “Diomedes, lord of the war cry,” “Meneláos, deep-lunged man of battle,” and “Aphrodité, lover of smiling eyes.” With Zeus — king of the Olympian gods – Homer pulls out the all appositive stops, describing him by turns as “Zeus, whose joy is lightning,” “Zeus, the storm king,” “Lord Zeus who drives the clouds of heaven,” and “Zeus who bears the stormcloud.” The various turns of phrase both reinforce and heighten the image of this powerful deity.

Another of Homer’s favoured devices is his use of metaphor. On almost every page, he takes the opportunity to compare the scene he is describing to one from a different context. His metaphors are often extended, complex and (of course) poetic: “As when a river in flood / from mountain snowfields reaches the flat land / whipped by a storm of rain, it sweeps away / hundreds of withered oaks, hundreds of pines, / and casts black tons of driftwood in the sea, / so Aías in his glory swept the field, / wrecking both chariots and men.”

Even without metaphor, Homer is a master of description. He shines particularly when it comes to finding new and interesting ways to describe how men are gored and decapitated and dis-armed (literally). My eldest grandson, already obsessed with Greeks and Romans, is going to love the battle scenes when I give this book to him. (They’re a bit graphic for an eight-year old, so I’m holding off for a few years.)

Homer is often unexpectedly funny -– capturing the petty arguments between the gods and goddesses and between the warriors on the ground so well that it sounds almost contemporary. (“Sack of wine,” Akhilleus says to Agamémnon, “you with your cur’s eyes and your antelope heart! You’ve never had the kidney to buckle on armour among the troops, or make a sortie with picked men [….] Leech! Commander of trash!”)

A replica of the Trojan Horse, located on the waterfront at Canakkale, Turkey, which is near where Troy once stood. Photo: Adam Jones 

There are innumerable variations on the tale of Helen of Troy and the Trojan War, depending on whether you are watching movies, cartoons or plays, viewing art, or reading books. (Wikipedia offers an extensive list of some of the writers and artists who have treated the subject in the past two thousand years.) For a long time there was dispute over whether the Trojan War ever actually happened, but it seems that it is now accepted that Troy endured a war that lasted for a decade and ended in the city’s destruction. There is, of course, no evidence that specific gods or mortals played roles in that destruction.

But in these times of fake news and half truths, maybe it doesn’t matter whether some or all of it is fiction. There are so many references to the Trojan War in subsequent culture of all kinds – and to the gods and heroes of ancient Greece in general – that the story might as well be true. The fact that The Iliad is a riveting narrative told by a master poet (and then conveyed to us by a variety of translators) is a bonus.

I could have read The Iliad from the perspective of the times we live in now, through the lens of political correctness, bemoaning war and the objectification of females, but I see no point in doing that. Instead I consider my approach to be in line with those cute teenage twins who are busy over on YouTube listening to “our” music (Phil Collins, Prince, and Janis Joplin, to name a few) for the first time. I take it as I find it, and when it’s great stuff, it works for future generations.

The Iliad is great stuff. I am looking forward to The Odyssey.

The Perfect Parent

by Mary W. Walters

Polly Prewitt was a perfect parent, or as close to one as any human being can reasonably expect to get considering the materials parents have to work with. She’d suspected this for many years, although she was careful not to speak of it to anyone, including her husband, for she was also sensitive to other people’s feelings. But it gave her a certain satisfaction to know that her children would be far-better-adjusted adults for having been raised by as conscientious a parent as she.

When friends discussed their children’s bed-wetting problems, she gave little clicks of sympathy and quietly savoured the fact that her boys had both been trained before their second birthdays, and without a single tear or relapse. When other people mentioned the abysmal eating habits of their offspring, Polly gently let it be known that her boys ate what she gave them or did not eat at all. She made no fuss about it with them, she said, and they ate: spinach, tofu, the whole works.

Polly nurtured her pride by reading covers of magazines in stores. “Are you passing on gender stereotypes to your children?” Nope, she mentally responded. Her husband William did the dishes every other night and made dinner for them all on Sundays.  Polly had taken a course in automotive mechanics specifically so the boys would never get the idea that Mothers Cooked and Fathers Fixed Cars. And she had not said a single word against it when Ricky demanded a doll last summer. She wrote it down on her list and bought it for him at Christmas; that way he learned he did not get everything he wanted at the moment he asked for it. It was a cuddly doll, a male baby doll, anatomically correct. The fact that by Christmastime Ricky was in kindergarten and refused to play with it – the other little boys had told him that dolls were for girls – was beside the point.

Jamie had learned that One Takes Responsibility for One’s Actions when he kicked the front wheel of his bicycle off centre in a fit of temper and could not ride it until he’d saved enough from his allowance to pay for the repair.

Her boys were in good shape, she thought cheerfully. And so was she.

And then one day she was standing in the checkout line at Safeway, frowning to herself at the boxes of sugar-coated cereal in the cart of the woman ahead of her, when a brightly coloured magazine caught her eye. She looked up. There, in bold red letters on the cover, was a question that stopped her cold.

“Has your child learned to deal with loss?” it said.

Loss? Loss? She’d never even thought of that, and here was Jamie almost nine and Ricky already past his sixth birthday. She snatched a copy of the magazine and tossed it, front cover down, into her cart.

She read the article covertly before the boys came home from school. She read it twice. The writer urged her to allow her children grief in little ways, so they would be better able later to handle major loss. A pet, the author said, is a perfect medium for teaching such a lesson.

“Do not ever attempt to replace a pet until the grief has been worked through,” the article advised. It went on to point out the identifiable stages of grief: denial, anger, finally acceptance.

Polly’s boys had missed all that, and she would certainly need to set the matter right. What if something terrible happened to her or William or, God forbid, to any of their school friends, and she had not prepared them for it?

All right. A pet, she thought, as she watched Ricky and Jamie brush their teeth that night, before she read them their story. Jamie preferred to read to himself, but she insisted. She knew that reading aloud fostered closeness between parent and child.

A dog would be too much trouble, she decided, and by the time it was ready to teach its lesson in grief, the boys would probably be living elsewhere, attending university or sweeping streets. (Whatever life course they chose was fine with her.) A dog, or a cat, would simply take too long.

Polly couldn’t stand rodents, so mice were out, and birds could live for years.

“Fish!” she said, firmly closing the book in the middle of a chapter.

“What?” said Ricky.

“Nothing” said Polly, opening the book again.

Next day, when their father had taken them to swimming lessons, she went to Sears and bought a big glass fishbowl and a guppy that looked suspiciously pregnant. She bought fish food and received instructions in the care and feeding of fish. She did not admit to the salesclerk that her intention was for the fish to die. In fact, she knew she wouldn’t be able to help sustaining its little life for as long as possible. Polly was an honourable woman.

The boys were delighted with her offering. The bowl was given a position of prominence on the coffee table in the living room. Ricky and Jamie watched the little brown being swim around for hours on end. Ricky asked at one point if he could take it out and play with it, but Jamie told him that fishes can’t live outside the water. Ricky didn’t want the fish to die, did he? Ricky solemnly said, “No.”

Polly looked on, approving.

She did not tell William of her plan because he’d only ask her at breakfast how her “ghoulish death experiment” was coming along, or words to that effect. He was capable of ruining everything when he didn’t understand her motives, and she had suspicions he would not understand them this time. There are things a parent has to do alone.

Polly changed the water regularly and fed her little charge, and it thrived. After a week or so, the boys lost interest in it, and so she gave it a name to foster their feelings of warmth and attachment toward it. “Jean,” she called it, a suitably androgynous name. The guppy had not yet produced any little guppies (which would have been a bonus: two lessons for the price of one), and William said all fish were rounder in the middle than they were towards the ends. She let the boys feed it, but even that bored them rather quickly, and they told her that since she’d bought it, she could feed it. Responsibility for one’s actions coming back at her.

______

Polly had almost decided that Jean would become a permanent part of the household, and a permanent addition to her daily routine, when she went downstairs and found him/her belly up.

Polly sighed and, her expression appropriately mournful, went up to tell the boys.

“I have some bad news for you,’’ she said when she went into their room. “Our little Jean is dead.” (“Tell them the truth!” the article admonished. “Do not tell them the creature has gone to sleep or gone to heaven. Be honest!”)

“No kidding,” said Ricky, and he began to hum the Oscar Mayer song as he pulled his pyjamas off.

“Can I see it?” Jamie asked.

That was better. “Let them see the body of the pet,” the article went on. “Let them confront their grief, hug the pet and cry.” Hugging was out, but the principle remained.

“Of course. You both can.”

She led them down to the living room and stood back to observe their reactions.

“Hm,” said Jamie. “What’ll we do with it?”

“We can bury it out in the garden, if you like. Together. The three of us.”

“Great!” Ricky said, and he ran off, half-clad, to get his shovel from the sandbox.

“Naw. I’ll be late for school and I promised I’d bring the soccer ball. Let’s just flush it.”

So Ricky and Polly buried the little bit of fish, and Jamie left for school. (Denial, Polly thought. He’s not confronting this issue. It takes time to come to terms with loss.) Ricky seemed more interested in a worm his shovel had unearthed than in the farewell to Jean, but Polly was satisfied. At least he had been present.

She waited for the boys’ reactions, but they never once mentioned the death of the fish. At last she took the fishbowl, clean and polished and very empty-looking, and she put it on the kitchen table to emphasize their loss. It was cruel, but it had to be done.

“Can I have it for an ant house?” Jamie asked.

“No! I want to collect bugs to keep in it,” Ricky said. “How come he always gets everything?”

Ants. Polly turned the possibility over in her mind. At least Jamie would have a commitment to his ants. He’d wanted them, and the loss would be greater for his having been the instigator. Ants it would be.

“Well, Ricky,” she said. “Jamie spoke first this time, and I’ve told you often enough before that life’s not necessarily fair.” She looked at Jamie. “Go ahead and start your ant colony, but I’m going to carry this out on the sun deck. I won’t have them in the house.”

It took less than a week for all the ants to escape, and they did not seem to have set up any domestic arrangements in the bowl at all during their brief stay. Polly found Jamie on the sun deck after school one day, staring glumly at the pile of dirt he had poured from the fishbowl onto the indoor/outdoor carpet. She did not mention the mess. He had enough to deal with, poor little tyke, having to confront all of this so early on in life. But it was good, she thought, as she saw a tear roll down his cheek.

She went out and sat beside him. “Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.

“I feel sick,” he said.

“That’s the sadness, dear. Nothing lasts forever, you know. All things must go away or die at some time or another.”

“No, Mom. That’s not it. My stomach hurts,” Jamie said, and then he threw up on the lifeless anthill.

It turned out to be chicken pox, and he was home for a week.

_______

“Now, bugs!” Ricky clapped his hands when he saw the fishbowl sitting clean and once again empty on the kitchen table.

“All right. But this is your last chance.”

“Last chance for what?” asked William, looking up from a forkful of shepherd’s pie.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just tired of pets, that’s all.”

Ricky collected a ladybug and two little green things and a fly before he, too, was stricken with chicken pox. He’d covered the top of the jar with a piece of plastic wrap with holes poked in it and thrown in a leaf or two for food. He’d given each bug a name and spent a long time watching his captives in the bowl. He’d left them on the sun deck when he began to feel unwell.

One morning, spotted but recovering, he recalled his menagerie and went downstairs to find them dead.

“Humph,” he said and went back to bed, leaving Polly to rinse the bowl once more.

In the afternoon, she found a piece of paper on which Ricky had written his name backward. Reversed writing was, she knew, a sign of deeper problems. Ricky was reacting. She leaned the paper against the empty fish/ant/bug bowl.

“Tell me why you did this” she asked him gently when he came down to supper.

“Did what?”

“Wrote your name backwards. Did you notice you had done it?” Ricky shrugged. “Jamie bet me a nickel that I couldn’t.”

“That’s it! I’ve had it!!” Polly, the almost-perfect parent shouted. She ran downstairs and wrote a caustic note to the perpetrator of the nonsense in the magazine.

“Loss” she noted in conclusion, “is not a big problem for well-adjusted kids. If everything else is going smoothly, they do not react to it at all.”

She felt better then, almost restored, and she went back to the dinner table.

“You’ve been awfully tense lately,” William said as she carried her plate to the sink and submerged it in the soapy water.

“I just got a little carried away with something,” she said. “It was no big deal. As I’d suspected, everything around here is just fine. And I,” she said, lifting the empty glass bowl into the air, “am turning this into a terrarium.”

“What’s a… ” Jamie said, as the bowl slipped from her hands and smashed to smithereens on the kitchen floor.

There was a stunned silence as the four of them studied the remains of the bowl.

Then, tumult.

“What d’ja do that for?” Jamie shouted. “I wanted that bowl to keep my rock collection in.”

Ricky started to cry. “I wanted to get a turtle.”

Polly stared at them in astonishment. “Keep your voices down, you crazy kids,” she said. “It’s just a bowl. I can get another one tomorrow.”

She stopped and watched their shuddering shoulders and listened to their sobs.

Then she said quietly, “No, I guess I can’t,” and went to get the broom.

(c) Mary W. Walters. Originally published in Chatelaine magazine. Also published in Cool, a collection of short stories by Mary W. Walters, River Books (2000).

Want Booksellers to Stock Your Books?

A To-Do list for Authors Who Want Booksellers to Consider their Self-Published (and Traditionally Published) Books

  • Invest time and money in editing and design before your book is published. Booksellers are in business to attract customers and to keep them coming back. “Books absolutely need to be professionally produced, from editing to design and binding,” says Jessica Paul at Munro’s Books in Vancouver.
  • Price your book reasonably: check out similar books to yours and set the cover price within the range of comparable titles. Deborah Hines at Audreys Books in Edmonton says many authors price their books too high.
  • Learn about the bookstore before you approach the staff about stocking your book. Make yourself familiar with its particular “personality,” and be ready to explain how your book is going to fit with it. Best of all, become a regular customer long before your book is published, and get to know the staff.
  • Some bookstores do not want to talk to self-published authors until after the author has read the store’s information guide about consignment sales. Ask if such information is available. If you do approach a bookseller in person, avoid times when they are busy with customers.
  • Do not ask your aunts and cousins to call the store to request your book before you offer it to the bookseller. It is also very bad form to have your friends and relatives pre-order books and then cancel their orders when the books arrive at the store, thereby leaving those books available for sale. Booksellers are not stupid, and they have long memories.
  • Know that your book will be taken on consignment. Expect that the bookstore will receive 40 percent of the cover price of any book it sells.
  • Don’t pester the staff with questions about how many copies of your book have sold, and don’t expect to be paid every time a copy sells. Like publishers, booksellers do accounts and cut cheques on pre-determined schedules: they will tell you what their terms are, and you need to conform to them.
  • Develop a marketing plan that will bring local buyers to the store – to find your book and to buy books by others. Try to get local media interviews and reviews. Arrange talks and readings in your area. Become a guest on podcasts. Encourage your real-life and social-media friends to buy your book from the independent bookseller rather than online. Present your marketing plan and a brief bio to the bookseller along with the book.
  • Expect that if no copies of your book have sold within a specified time period (e.g., three to six months), you will be asked to collect your stock or see it donated or recycled. Don’t whine or argue. Just act like the professional you are, and hope for a better result the next time. If you have built a positive, professional relationship, when your next book becomes a bestseller, the bookseller may be interested in stocking this same book again. If you have offended them, you may be out of luck.
  • Keep in mind that the bookseller is doing you a favour, not the other way around. Your book may be your baby while you are writing it, but you need a business-like approach to every aspect of marketing it. Placing it in bookstores is no exception to this rule.
This list is Part Two (click here for Part I) of an article originally published in a slightly different format in the Fall, 2018 issue of Write! Magazine, the newsletter of The Writers’ Union of Canada. Booksellers wishing to print and distribute copies of this article to give to authors are welcome to contact me for permission.

How to Win Over Your Local Independent Bookseller

Strategies for Writers Shared by Bookstore Owners Themselves

This article was originally published in a slightly different format in the Fall, 2018 issue of Write! Magazine, the newsletter of The Writers’ Union of Canada. Booksellers wishing to print and distribute copies of this article to give to authors are welcome to contact me for permission.

More than ten years after the popularity and viability of self-publishing took off, most post-publication options available to conventionally published authors remain almost inaccessible to those to choose to publish their own books.

Very few self-published books are reviewed in traditional media, and with the exception of an agency or two, their authors remain ineligible for grants and conventional awards. But the literary world is changing. In 2015, The Writers Union of Canada – long the bastion of authors of traditionally published books – voted to admit to membership self-published writers who have “successfully demonstrate[d] commercial intent and professionalism”. Libraries in at least two Canadian cities – Vancouver and Victoria – are taking active roles in helping local self-published authors to find their audiences.

Times are changing in the bookstore sector, too. I recently contacted five independent booksellers from Nova Scotia to British Columbia to discover their current thinking about self-published books, and I found that most have at least developed some kind of store policy to help them manage the increasingly frequent requests from self-published authors to stock their books. Their responses to such requests vary widely – from reluctant to warm-hearted – but none is outright banning all self-published books, as many were doing even a few years ago.

However, the accommodation these booksellers extend to self-published books and authors remains exactly that: accommodation. When it comes to ordering, billing, and returning books, it is much easier for them to deal with traditional distribution outlets than with individual authors: the former require less “paperwork,” and involve fewer egos. In the vast majority of cases, when booksellers stock self-published books, they are doing so out of kindness more than from any anticipation of significant profit. And yet, many of them told me, far too many self-published writers approach bookstores with expectations and attitudes that range from presumptuous to rude.

Booksellers say that most authors, whether traditionally or self-published, have very little knowledge about how independent booksellers operate. Much of what I learned will be of use not only to self-published authors, but to any writer who finds they are expected to contributed significantly to the promotion of their books – which, today, is almost all of us.

Bookselling Basics for Writers

The following basics are among those of use to would-be petitioners:

  • Booksellers love books. Some of them are also writers, but all of them are avid readers. Often they have actually read most of the books they stock, and they know many of their authors. They also know the likes and dislikes of their customers. Over time, their bookstores have developed a particular character that is unlike that of any other. Curation, care and attention are what distinguish independent booksellers from the mass-market outlets that treat books with the same level of affection they accord to refrigerators.
  • Bookstores do not have unlimited space, which means that of all the books they would like to carry, booksellers can only stock a fraction. Since it is almost as hard to make a living from selling books as it is from writing, bookstore owners also need to consider which books will actually sell – rather than merely stocking books to make the authors happy.
  • Authors whose books are considered to be of sufficient merit to be stocked by an independent bookseller are privileged to bask in the reflection of the store’s reputation. That same reputation is undermined if the authors’ books are poorly written, edited and produced.
  • Booksellers who deal with self-published authors will sell their books on a consignment basis. They will typically retain 40% of the cover price of books sold, which is the same percentage they retain with traditional publishers and distributors, and the balance will go to the author. Books that do not sell are returned to the author.
  • Booksellers are extraordinarily busy, and it is always of more value to them to use their time to talk to prospective customers than to prospective vendors – whether publishers’ representatives or individual self-published authors.
  • Booksellers are human. If you exhibit no interest in them or their bookstore until the day you stop by, plunk down a stack of books, and explain that your title is going to sell like crazy and they’d be fools not to take it, their response may be less warm than you might like.

Booksellers’ Perspectives: A Range of Responses

Some highly curated bookstores continue to refuse approaches from self-published authors almost every time. Ben McNally at Ben McNally Books in Toronto says, “We basically say ‘No’ to self-published authors, but then we usually say ‘No’ to Simon & Schuster and Random House as well. We are in the business of selling books, not displaying them.” Any exceptions McNally makes are going to be for books that fit their very particular niche.

Michelle Berry, herself an author and also the owner of Hunter Street Books in Peterborough, ON and a widely published fiction writer herself, explains that she has set up a bookshelf specifically dedicated to the display of self-published books, and she provides their authors’ contact information to customers who are interested. She has found this a viable approach since she is the store’s sole employee and her time is so limited.

Lexicon Books in Lunenburg, N.S. – where two out of the three owners are also published writers – does stock a significant number of self-published books, mostly non-fiction, some children’s literature, primarily local. They do not accept books that have been published by Amazon’s self-publishing arm, due to Amazon’s business practices.

Co-owner and author Jo Treggiari says that Lexicon Books sees itself as a community centre, and welcomes group activities on its premises, like book discussions and readings. Staff members as a group review and select self-published books carefully, typically accepting only those by authors from the area, or ones on subjects that are so specific to the region that traditional publishers would be unlikely to accept them (e.g., a book on Nova Scotia mosses, or a memoir by a local fisherman).

Similarly, Audreys Books, a large independent bookstore in Edmonton that has been championing Canadian books and authors since 1975, also describes itself as a “cultural community centre,” and has now assigned a staff person to acquire and manage its inventory of self-published books. Deborah Hines says that half a dozen self-published authors approach the store each week, and she estimates that there are between 40 and 60 self-published books on their shelves at any given time. Authors must drop their books off along with an information sheet, and give Hines and her colleagues time to examine the book and make a decision on whether or not they will stock it. Like other bookstores, they prefer to stock self-published books by local authors, or those with a particular local slant.

“Authors should have a marketing plan,” Hines says, “so that people will come in and buy the books we stock. Otherwise, no one is going to notice them.” Audreys will also host a book launch, for a modest fee to cover costs.

Munro’s Books in Victoria, arguably Canada’s best-known independent bookstore, has also developed a list of guidelines and a questionnaire for its Consignment Program. Jessica Paul, assistant manager at Munro’s, recommends that authors not approach the store in person, but that they request the guidelines, complete the form, and then wait for a decision.

“The biggest piece of advice to self-published authors,” Paul says, “is to acknowledge and then treat their book as either a ‘vanity’ project (i.e., really of interest only to friends and family, which means that we are not likely to want to stock it), or to come at it like a publisher would, with a marketing and publicity plan. They should also keep in mind that getting a book on a bookstore shelf is not a publicity plan.”

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Coming Soon: “To-Do List for Authors Who Want Booksellers to Consider Their Books”
Thanks to Doyali Islam for editing this article pre-publication in Write.

Amazon Author Pages: Build Your Presence in the USA, the UK, Germany, India, and beyond

Let’s Get Visible (IV)
How to Sell Your Book No Matter Who Published It (7)
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Figure 1

Figure 1: Sample Link to my Author Page from Book Description page

Through its Author Central program, Amazon provides a great opportunity to expand your presence by linking information about you to all editions of all your books – not only on the amazon.com site in the U.S., but also on Amazon sites in other countries. It takes a bit of time to get yourself set up on these platforms, but maintaining your presence once the pages are set up requires very little effort.

While you are at Author Central, you can check out your sales figures through Nielsen BookScan and Amazon Sales and Author ranks, and read all of your Amazon reviews in one place. All of which can be depressing experiences, but there they are. (See Figure 2, below)

Start with your Amazon.com Author Page

Start by completing the Author Page on amazon.com (Amazon’s U.S. site). Once you have done that, readers who are looking at the “About the Author” section of your book’s title information on Amazon will be invited to check out your Page and to “follow” you (see Figure 1, above).

In order to set up your Author Page on Amazon, first go to Author Central. The page is user-friendly, and setting up your Author Page is the first thing it explains to you. Follow the link, follow the instructions, and you’re done. When you’re finished, your Amazon Author page will look like this (except, of course, that it will feature you instead of me).

A few things to note:

  • Anyone with a book listed in the Amazon “catalog” can have an Amazon Author Page.
  • You can set up links to your blog site on the Author Page, and intros to your newest posts will appear there after you post them on your blog.
  • If you have any videos you want to share, you can post links to them on your Author Page as well.
  • There is a section on the Author Page where you can add speaking engagements, readings and other events. I don’t use this section because since I am not Stephen King I don’t think that it would be worth my time to post in it, in terms of who would see the notices. Posting about my upcoming appearances on Facebook is more likely to attract the attention of people who might attend – i.e., those who live in my city and might even know my name. (I also have a section for events on my website which I don’t always remember to update either.)
  • You can post a link to your Amazon Author Page on Facebook, Twitter and anywhere else you want to: Amazon provides the url in the upper right corner of your Author Page. You cannot, however, post a clickable link to your website on your Author Page: at least as far as I’ve been able to determine. (If you have done it, let me know.)
  • You can link all of your books to your Amazon author profile, including those from different publishers, as long as the books are available on Amazon. If you have changed your name or your books are out of print, you may have trouble with the links, but I have found that in the past couple of years, Amazon has become increasingly helpful when I run into any problems. They have a specific page on which you can email them with any problems relating to Author Central here.

Increasing your World-Famousness, Amazon-style

Once you have completed your amazon.com Author Page, you can fill in the same information on the Amazon Author Central site in the UK. If you are multilingual, or want to try posting your bio in English in non-English-speaking countries (I haven’t done this… at least not yet), you can set up a page on the amazon sites in Germany, France and Japan through their Author Central pages:

For other countries that have Amazon sites (including India and Spain, for example. Hey! I just found out that my Rita book has a five-star review in India! I never would have noticed this if I hadn’t written this blog post!), the information from Author Central at Amazon.com should be available to readers automatically. The one exception I have discovered to this practice is on amazon.ca, the one located in my own home country. I find amazon.ca very aggravating for many reasons, not just this one, and prefer to deal with amazon.com

Figure 2

Figure 2: Recent Amazon Sales Rankings

Although having an Author Page in German would probably be of more use to someone whose book had been translated into German than to one whose book hadn’t, it doesn’t hurt to spread your name around. If you have the time and inclination and decide to set up an English page for yourself on the Japanese Amazon site, let us know how it goes. And it’s definitely fun to check out your sales figures from time to time – and watch them climb, we hope, in relation to your various marketing efforts.

____________________

Next time, I’ll be talking about getting yourself an author profile on GoodReads. In the meantime, I apologize to all of those who have tried to contact me in the past few weeks when I was out of town and then side-tracked: I forgot for several weeks to check the email address to which comments on this blog are sent for approval. Argh. Particular apologies to Michael Lowecki who left wonderful messages all over the place and must think me very rude. I resolve to do better in future. :)