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Snowdrift-Interview with Lisa McGonigle

Earlier this month I posted a review of Lisa McGonigle’s Snowdrift. (see her profile on Book Club Buddy here.) It’s a collection of emails she sent back to Ireland while living in the BC Kootenays. Lisa and I sat down together at Weeds Café in Calgary while she was in town on her book tour.

What follows is part of that interview.

FFF: The 2009 Fernie Writers’ Conference was a life-changing experience for you. How did it come about that you decided to attend?

LM: I had just finished up a season in Rossland. In the springtime, I didn’t have any firm plans as to what I was going to do. I went back over to Fernie. I just did a load of writing on these emails, and I saw a poster up for the Fernie Writers’ Conference…I thought maybe this is a writing project. I sent off the email I ended up reading at the conference and went to work in Calgary. A few weeks later I found out I  was awarded a scholarship to the conference.

FFF: What were your expectations of the Fernie Writers’ Conference?

LM: I had no idea what it was going to be like. I was afraid it was going to be all emotional and inner-child psychological writing kind of stuff, but I got down to Fernie and the first morning, I met Sid Marty , the most down-to-earth, straight-spoken person you could ever come across. It was brilliant, such a good experience.

FFF: To me, Sid is the kind of person that would sit back for fifteen minutes and just listen, then come up with the perfect thing to say.

LM: That’s exactly what he was like. It was such a diverse group of writers writing on our own individual projects, and Sid was really good at bringing discussion back and honing in on the details.

FFF: What was the format of the workshop?

LM: Everyone got their individual attention each day. Some worked on different pieces each day. One girl had a piece she was working on and she’d come back each day having edited and revised it. It was good to see how those pieces progressed.

FFF: To see how Sid Marty’s comments and input forwarded the work.

LM: Definitely.

FFF: What is one piece of advice you remember him giving you that’s stuck with you?

LM: For me, I think it was just the validation. I’d been writing all this stuff purely for friends absolutely not with an eye for publication. When someone like Sid says “yeah, there is something there,” it’s validating.

FFF: Tell me about the public reading at the Fernie Arts Station that got you a publishing deal with Oolichan.

LM: Sid told me I should read something, so I read the email about my friends Chris and Ally in Rossland. Then the next day I had my meeting with Susan M. Toy [the FWC provides formal and informal opportunities to meet with those who work within the publishing industry] who was a sales rep at the time. We went over to Mugshots and met with Ron Smith [owner of Oolichan at the time, and audience member for the readings]. Ron said, “Send me the manuscript to date.” I went back to Calgary and spent ten days polishing it and sent it off to him and got an email a few months later saying they were going to publish it. It was seamless. I feel very lucky.

FFF: Do you know what you’re going to write next?

LM: I’d like to write a book about Quebec.I loved Quebec when I was there. But my next book should really be my Ph.d thesis (laughs).

FFF: Thank you, Lisa.

Snowdrift – Lisa McGonigle

In Snowdrift, Irish lass Lisa McGonigle takes her readers on a powder-packed ride through Fernie, New Zealand and Rossland with a few side trips to Calgary and La Belle Province.

Snowdrift delivers on its promise to share McGonigle’s journey from university student to Kootenay ski bum.  Her story begins the way many ski bum stories begin – with the wish to drop everything and run away.

Like so many others, McGonigle is hooked after one season of snowboarding in Fernie. She follows convention and returns to the UK to complete her Ph.D on a scholarship at Oxford. After one term, she knows she has to return to the mountains. On Christmas break, she heads back to B.C. with her ski gear and a few changes of clothing and never looks back.

Snowdrift carries us along on Lisa’s travels in Canada and New Zealand as she searches for that “something more” that drives many to abandon the daily grind and find life “out there.” The reader is able to experience the highs – freedom, friends, fun – and the lows – mundane minimum-wage jobs and injuries – without leaving home. She takes the risks for the reader.

Though touted as a ski-bum book, its strength is based on that moment where one looks down the narrowing pipe of the future and says “I want more” and then following through. More than just a tale of powder and peanut butter, Snowdrift touches on many different aspects of taking the leap into a new life: visas, maps, accommodation, plane tickets, ski gear (duct tape and all) and making new friends.

Any of those challenges is daunting on its own, but McGonigle perseveres where others might just give up and stay home.

Not often noted in reviews or interviews, are strong sections of the book where McGonigle details a season in Calgary and a trip to Quebec. She discusses her newfound love of running, and takes the reader up and down many different paths as she prepares for different races, culminating in a marathon back home in Dublin, right where her journey began.

Q & A with Darcie Friesen Hossack, author of Mennonites Don’t Dance

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Darcie Friesen Hossack’s Mennonites Don’t Dance was recently shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Canada). Though not a finalist, Darcie’s book is definitely turning heads. Mennonites Don’t Dance has made its mark on the Canadian literary scene. We haven’t heard the last of Ms. Hossack.

If your book club is looking for a book to read, Mennonites Don’t Dance would be a great choice. The book is filled with rich,thought-provoking themes to discuss.

For more information on Darcie, check out her blog here. Her blog is filled with great posts on her journey to publish her first book. You will also find links to reviews and news on her Commonwealth nomination. And maybe a link to a recipe or two.

This past week, Darcie kindly agreed to answer a few questions about her book for Fresh Fish and Foolishness.

FFF: Mennonites Don’t Dance is the stunning culmination of years of toil and tears. How does it feel to finally have your stories find their way to the masses?

A: I’m looking at the word “masses.” The book sold out and is being reprinted (so if you’ve ordered online, or your local bookseller is shrugging his or her shoulders, it won’t be much longer!). Still, one print run maybe qualifies as a mass. Singular. I hope it continues to reach people.

That’s not really the question, though, is it? How does it feel? My emotions skip all over the place. The reality of so much work finally being realized in a bound book, created by a real publisher, will hit me and I’ll be exhilarated. Then I’ll panic that no one will ever hear about it. Or, when I know there’s a review coming, there’s the hand-wringing (just a little, I try to keep perspective) of wondering what will be said. Because all the reviews (so far) have been very positive, there’s elation and relief. No one works for ten years on eleven stories and doesn’t care what people think. I try to not let people’s opinions either make or break me, but it matters.

FFF: The stories are fiction, and are all linked to family. How did your family react to the release of your book? (Negative or positive anecdote)

DFH: There’ve been a lot of reactions, mostly positive. Some not, but not necessarily because of the book itself. It’s complicated.

The non-reactions, though, are the ones I don’t know quite how to file. They leave a lot to the imagination. But when I hear from my mom that a pair of Mennonite aunties (not my aunties, but someone’s) called one another to cackle over the scene in the title story where the feet of a soup chicken keep poking out of the pot, it makes my day as much as when someone is moved. Given that the stories are dark in nature, it’s a thrill when someone gets the jokes.

FFF: So many of the stories deal in one way or another with crushed expectations and disappointments. Yet, the stories are uplifting as well. How did you make that happen?

DFH: That’s grace. When there’s no hope, there is. Sometimes it’s offered and not taken, other times it’s darkness fading to light. I don’t know for sure, but it might be that you must experience grace in order to put it on the page. To recognize it, though, is also grace.

FFF: One of many things that is so impressive about the book is how even though it is sometimes billed as a “Mennonite” book, the themes of each story are actually universal and so fundamental that any of us could identify with the characters. Can you describe how your Mennonite roots inspired the writing of this book?

DFH: I’m Mennonite on my mother’s side. And while we lived in town, my earliest and best memories are of visiting my farming grandparents and aunts and uncles. My mom, sister and I visited them most weekends and I the culture, the food, the landscape, influenced and coloured my world more than I once thought. My grandfather’s faith, which he clung to through some truly faith-shattering times and events, is what I continue to appreciate the most, although I could sure go for a batch of roll kuchen right now!

FFF: In my review, I wrote that Mennonites Don’t Dance is Saskatchewan. The people reflect the land and vice versa. Do you think you could have written the same stories with a different setting, say in the orchards of the Okanagan, or in the Nickel Belt of Ontario? What did you have to do to keep the same feeling for the stories set in Calgary?

DFH: I can’t imagine taking the stories off the prairies and not having them, the characters, change to fit their landscape. The stories need grasshoppers or they wouldn’t writhe where then need to write. The coddling moth just isn’t the same sort of adversary.

The stories that are partially set in Calgary carry Saskatchewan with them, with characters either wrought or having found refuge there. Perhaps little would be different if the farms were in either Manitoba or Alberta, but Saskatchewan has its character that isn’t either or both. I’ve lived in three provinces, but these stories had to be Saskatchewan.

FFF: And last but not least, the food must be mentioned! Why is the food in the book so important to the characters?

DFH: Mennonites, whatever else we are, are eaters. Practically speaking, a lot of calories were once needed to break ground by hand and make a living from agriculture. Mennonite food, with all its fatty meats, its butter, cream, lard, the bread and sugar, is fuel.

Food is such a universal, visceral, experience. Whether people have positive associations with it or not. The lack of food, or the withholding of such a basic necessity, says more in a story (or of a life) than any frayed pantleg. When it’s given in abundance, freely, it speaks of love. Who can feel safe and valued if they aren’t, first, well fed? And if hunger is punishment, or a lesson, a person will end up perceiving the world and themselves in it, in a completely different way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always lived in cities. I work at a desk. I know perfectly well that I don’t need cream gravy and deep fried dough. But oh, it’s good for my soul!

FFF: Thanks, Darcie!

Mennonites Don’t Dance-Darcie Friesen Hossack

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Mennonites Don’t Dance is a finely-crafted collection of short stories by Darcie Friesen Hossack. Set in and around Swift Current (and Calgary) they are universal in that they deal with the expectations and hopes and disappointments and unkindnesses we’ve all experienced.

The stories are original and deep. Friesen Hossack can spin a fantastic yarn. What lifts her stories up and makes them so memorable are the characters and the rural and urban settings.

Mennonites Don’t Dance paints a vibrant, sweeping landscape of life on the prairies. Friesen Hossack has captured that déjà vu feeling that East Coast writers like Lisa Moore and Michael Crummey can evoke so well in their own books– I’ve been here before. The stories in this book, whether set in the past or present day, open a door to small-town Saskatchewan. Contrary to the wide-open-watch-your-dog-run-away-for-days stereotype of the prairies, Friesen Hossack captures very stiflingness of the place: the heat, the invisible fences and the ties that bind – to the land, to family. Never-ending cycles of seasons and planting and harvest. The constant wind. The fierce storms. That’s the Saskatchewan I know.

The characters that move through the pages of Mennonites Don’t Dance are unforgettable. Sometimes they are depicted in spare, broad-stroke lettering, and at other times in great cursive loops, embellished beautifully. The children stay with you. Wide-eyed and open-eared, they are the conduit through which many of the stories are told. But the loss of innocence, a recurring theme throughout this book, is not limited only to the very young.

Here, I think of my grandma. I recognize her father in Joseph, the absentee father in Poor Nella Pea. I see my grandfather in Jonah, the little boy who tries to find his place in the world in the haunting story Luna. And in the title story, there is Lizbeth, a young girl, breathless in the spin of a forbidden dance with a boy she likes. There, I find my grandma. Though my grandma never experienced the terrible tragedy Lizbeth faced, here is where the universality of the stories shines. Everyone has a tragedy. They just don’t speak of it. It’s a way of being enmeshed with life on the prairies.

Ashes is by far my favourite story. I was hooked by the lines:

“Tomatoes make Anke nervous. The way they become vulnerable to frost at the first hint of ripening.Their shameless read and soft flesh that yields to the slightest pressure, their gel-enveloped seeds.”

Those two lines to me, represent the whole story. You know something’s coming.

Yes, it is a story of the careful dance of a mother in law who must cope with a daughter-in-law who moves in and brings change to the “old ways.” But it is much, much more than that. This story will seep into the cracks of your being and you won’t be able to scrub the images clean.

Mental illness, a subject so taboo in society today, is forced into the open in more than one of these stories. Friesen Hossack is able to keep a delicate balance between a writerly respect and showing how people who suffer from depression and mental illness were and are treated with the very opposite of respect.

And the food. Let it be known – there is food. Lots of it. Homegrown food, the staples. Unpronounceable food. Food planted, grown and harvested by hand.

Mennonites Don’t Dance is Saskatchewan. From imagery you can almost touch to the stoic, soft-hearted characters, this book is will take you home, whether you’re Mennonite, or not. Whether you’re from the prairies, or not.

Beautiful Girl Thumb – Melissa Steele

Just the title of Melissa Steele’s short story collection leads a reader to expect something different and beguiling. Beautiful Girl Thumb is a collection of original and contemporary tales that will shock you, make you laugh, then, mid-giggle, will smack you upside the head with deep and true revelations. The writing itself is concise and direct, cracking open a world of strange but believable characters and situations.

Diplomacy is a tale of a teenaged boy, not-so-proud member of a group of adolescents who play war games and end up doing something terrible and utterly lacking in diplomacy.

Another notable tale, I’m Your Frankenstein, is a gem. It tells of the loss of friendship between “couple friends,” a sad story we think we’ve lived. Ha. Not with this almost literal rabbit-out-of-a-hat-ending!

We all know “that mom”, the Hilfiger mom who mows down anyone in her path to ensure HER child has a shot at the best after-school program, or the most sought-after music teacher. They Eat Their Young is a painful, yet accurate account of a mother who lines up overnight to ensure her child is registered in the best private school.Undoubtedly, many will also recognize the PTA mom depicted in this story.

The stories all deal with the same day-to-day crap that we all deal with — teenaged breakups, birth, block parties. Where Melissa Steele’s writing really shines is in taking her characters twisting them a quarter-turn into fascinating eccentrics. The people in these stories invite you in, make you part of their crazy, screwed up families. You can almost hear them sigh as they open the door. “Come on in,” they say.  “You asked for it.”

You won’t be disappointed. Enjoy the ride.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies-Dawn of the Dreadfuls

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For something a little different…
I received an advance copy of Dawn of the Dreadfuls by Steve Hockensmith to review on Fresh Fish and Foolishness.  Scroll down, there is a link to a message board where you can post to enter you name to win some Zombie graft.

Billed as a prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a mash-up version of Jane Austen’s PandP, Dawn of the Dreadfuls is a completely original novel, using a few of the characters created by Austen.

As an Austen fan, I wasn’t sure I was going to like having one of fiction’s most beloved characters become a warrior. I read on though, knowing from the first page that the author wrote it with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. He hilariously skewers English Society, with a keen eye to poking fun at every last convention of the times. The Bennets’ reputation is destroyed the minute they stand against the “unmentionables”, to the dismay of their very proper and high-reaching mother. The young Bennet ladies do not do what is expected of them. Balls and Lords, matrons and maidens, warriors and cowards are all easy marks for our intrepid heroine, Elizabeth. Read the rest of this entry

The Lightning Thief-Rick Riordan

Catch of the Day

The Lightning Thief
by Rick Riordan

I wanted to put up a review of this book before its theatrical release in February 2010. I hope that the movie will stay true to the book, but I don’t hold out much hope!

I picked out this book for my nine-year-old son, who I was pushing to move on from graphic novels and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  After some duress, he started to read The Lightning Thief before bed one night. I knew it was a hit when he woke up early the next morning to see what happened next. “You were right, Mom, it’s really good.”

Once he was finished, I decided to give it a try.  I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Read the rest of this entry