Watch this space for notes from author Janice MacDonald — on the road, dashing off to another appearance, or working her way through her next writing project.
Note from Janice MacDonald #11:
On winter whereabouts and the importance of watching one’s step
(March 18, 2016)
I’m getting back to work and it feels great. It also feels good to know that we’ve booked a trip to get away from the ice and snow next January, because I am seriously afraid of ice these days.
In January, while walking from one building to another for a meeting, I slipped on a tiny bit of ice, fell and hit my head on the concrete walk, receiving a concussion. I was out of commission for a solid week of no stimulus, another week of half-days back at the office, and then – just as I was getting back to regular hours – my husband and I took our winter vacation. I then had to get over the inevitable head cold I always seem to acquire whenever I spend more than half an hour on an airplane. So, now I am finally back at work, writing for the public service every weekday and crafting a book-length work of creative non-fiction every weekend morning.
That concussion really frightened me, though. After all, more than seeing, more than hearing, more than anything, I value thinking. It was terrifying to think I couldn’t indulge in that exercise; something that I seem to do all the time (I am not claiming profundity, mind you, just a constant buzz of what ifs and oohs). Just imagine not being allowed to read or watch TV or check Facebook or fill in a crossword puzzle. Just imagine not being able to think up a new mystery!
I now find myself walking like an 85-year old penguin on any surface that isn’t utterly dry and even. It’s pathetic. I try to push myself, but find myself slowing down, detouring, or reaching for my stalwart husband’s hand.
The other day, while slowing down for a damp patch on the walk, I realized which literary character I had always identified with, from the time I was ten years old and read The Lord of the Rings for the first time: I was Strider, hidden hero and friend of hobbits. I so cherish the ability to stretch and step out boldly. My mother, once hurrying in my wake, compared herself to the Yearling, stumbling after her young boy. “Or Gentle Ben,” I joked, earning myself a cuff on the ear.
Walking is my preferred form of exercise, though I try not to think of it as exercise, for fear of tarring it with the same brush as gym classes and team sports. My character Randy Craig walks and uses public transport probably because I have spent so much of my life doing the same. I didn’t bother learning to drive a car till I was twenty-five, and I still would rather walk if possible.
So we do. We walk to work; we walk to the theatre and the symphony; we walk to the Southside to our favourite frozen yoghurt shop; and when we go on vacation, we walk everywhere we can, to get a true sense of where we are. During the last three vacations we’ve taken, I’ve had to toss out my walking shoes on the way to the airport – worn out and used up, there doesn’t seem much point in packing them back.
So, thank goodness we’re moving into relatively ice-free times here in Edmonton, and that my brain seems to have recovered itself fully from its bruising. And thank goodness for weekends, when I can wake to lovely quiet time in which to write, and then plan for a nice long tromp through the river valley.
Watch your step and have a happy Spring!
Note from Janice MacDonald #10:
On Randy Craig and the quest for an “authentic” sleuth
(November 25, 2014)
My husband and I have been binge-watching some television series recently, and we’ve noticed that it somehow feels much easier to live in the world of a British series than it does an American one. Much of this I think has to do with the level of authenticity offered. British actors, on the whole, seem less airbrushed, don’t you think?
Authenticity may be an odd thing to wish for in fiction, and yet even though we know it’s make believe, there needs to be a knell of truth to the experience. That is why Randy Craig ages over the span of her stories, from a young-ish grad student in her first adventure to a middle-aged woman in her latest. It’s also why she worries about her choices and decisions, and why she doubles back on herself on occasion. Many of those elements of characterization are incremental layers to the formula, as well. It is important to take the audience along on the quest, but a quest that goes in a straight line is satisfying to no one, neither detective reader or football fan. Real people second guess themselves five or six times a day, if not an hour. (I almost erased this whole page three times already.)
Vulnerability in our heroes is something we embrace warily. We think we want Superman. More often, though, we veer to the tortured Batman. Contemporary detective fiction is a world without the astonishing Auguste Dupin, Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot or Philo Vance — who seem impossibly outrageous if placed in a modern context — and without their stalwart if duller sidekicks. It is a world in which ordinary people pit themselves against extraordinary circumstances. If you are lucky, a writer will enhance that formula with explorations of that detective’s psyche, circumstances or political position in the world. That is when it becomes really fun to immerse yourself in their world.
I’m not saying we need to read a shelf full of anti-heroes, that characters have to be representative of some great political ideal, or that we can’t make our detectives into attractive figures. If you’re asking a reader to live with them for a while, though, it helps to make your characters into someone they’d like to have a cup of coffee and some bread pudding with. I’m looking for someone who isn’t airbrushed and who, like me, will have to walk off that last dessert.
Note from Janice MacDonald #9:
The Smell of of the Grease Paint
(September 6, 2014)
Janice’s award-winning crime writer pal, Barbara Fradkin, recently invited her to contribute a guest blog post to Type M for Murder, an outstanding site run by Barbara and other top Canadian mystery writers. The short piece — now live on the site — looks at the strange disconnect that occurs when the author must leave the fictional world she has created in a new book and enter the fray of promotional rounds to make sure the darn thing actually sells. Read “The Smell of the Grease Paint” now at Type M for Murder.
Note from Janice MacDonald #8:
Life Lessons from the YWCA
(May 30, 2014)
On Thursday, May 29, 2014, I attended the YWCA of Edmonton’s 2014 Women of Distinction Awards, having been nominated in the “Arts and Culture” category. It was a lovely party — a genuine honour to be nominated, a thrilling experience to be in the presence of so many incredible women, and a delight to spend the evening with a posse of very vocal supporters. It also jogged some of my earliest memories of the organization.
When I was four, my mother signed me up for swimming lessons at the YWCA downtown, in a building which is long gone now. The swimming pool was in the basement, and I recall exposed pipes alternating with lines of little trident flags on a rather dark, low ceiling. I am not sure if there was even the height necessary for a small diving board in that pool.
There were bleachers along one side, though, and my mother sat there along with other mothers, breathing in the chlorine, reading her book, and waiting for this particular Saturday morning chore to be over so she could do the many other things crammed into her short weekends.
I am not by nature a floating sort of person. I wasn’t when I was smaller and I still am not. I have to work to stay buoyant. While I am hard-wired to learn new skills with eagerness and joy, try as I might, the whole getting across the pool without touching the bottom of the pool never happened. The lessons went on, and I grew more and more sad every Saturday morning. Still, on we went, splash splash with the legs, cup and pull with the arms. Knowing how to swim could save a life, after all.
The last Saturday of the series of lessons was to be a celebration, and each class was to show their abilities to the full complement of parents in bleachers. The whole day-long roster of lessons were brought together to perform in a circus-themed performance. We had costumes and music. Of course we did. Those were the days that tulle was invented for, and if you weren’t twirling a baton, you were tap dancing like a grim little trouper.
Our class of little Esther Williamses were to be lions. We would dog-paddle in a line to the centre, swim in a circle and then dogpaddle, and stretch out into starfish. We had orange tulle ruffs for our heads, and we were told to look fierce. I was great at the looking fierce part, but the teacher wisely tapped another reluctant floater and me to be the central cubs. While the real swimmers did their circle, she and I — who had trailed along with our paws fiercely parting the water, but our feet walking boldly along the bottom of the pool, stood in the centre of the swimmers and gamely growled and pawed the water.
My mother was sitting there, giggling, and the woman next to her said, “Which one is yours?” Mom pointed and said, “One of those two in the middle.” The other mother said, “Oh thank God, mine is the other one1” When it was all over, I think we went out to lunch, to celebrate what my mom used to call “the art of showing up.”
So, while I eventually learned to tread water and do a passable crawl that could take me the length of a pool, I didn’t learn that at the YWCA. But the Y was where I learned one of the big lessons: how to grin and look fierce, even when you’re not managing the right steps. And knowing how to do that can save a life, after all.
Note from Janice MacDonald #7:
Far and Wide
(October 29, 2013) In this short article — originally written for the October 2013 issue of Crime Scene, the newsletter of the Toronto Chapter of Sisters in Crime — Janice explains with trademark wry humour why her mystery series, like her life, is set in the “slightly mean” streets of Edmonton. Click here for the answers!
Note from Janice MacDonald #6:
I have been to a marvelous party…
(June 16, 2013) There is very little glamour in writing a book, if you happen to be me. I drag myself out of bed on weekend mornings at 5:30 a.m. Dressed in comfy pants, a cozy sweater and fuzzy socks, I brew a pot of French Market Chicory Coffee (thank you Ron and Jeff!) and curl up in one of the chairs in our living room to knock out five pages minimum. When I eventually have a decent draft to send off to my editor, she and I volley it back and forth (she’s in Winnipeg, so I end up face-to-face with her maybe once every couple of years) and at long last I’ll see cover art and page proofs, while rising to knock out five pages on the next manuscript.
In between, my husband updates the website, my friends meet for lunch to commiserate about our compulsion to pursue writing careers, and I buy other people’s books, read about other people’s books in glossy magazines and listen to national broadcasters gush about other people’s books. Oh yes, and I clock in at my day job, which is challenging, stimulating, and filled with wonderful colleagues. Which is a good thing, eh?
But every once in a while, the magic happens.
And last night on June 15th, at the Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site, I felt like a princess. The new book, Condemned to Repeat, was piled up in a glorious display on the Rutherfords’ shiny dining table, people I love and respect kept piling in through the door, and party food and drink was laid out in the tea room. The new book begins at Rutherford House, with a mystery dinner theatre event based on a magicians’ reunion, so our friend Stephen Dafoe (who in an earlier incarnation had been a touring professional magician) whipped up a short magic act to entertain after my reading. After the entertainment, I signed books at Premier Alexander Rutherford’s desk… it was all very heady.
Kelly Hewson, my best friend from grad school, drove up from Calgary to help us celebrate. All my friends from work were there. People I admire, who have shaped me into who I am, were there in droves: Tom Peacocke, Jim de Felice, Margaret Van de Pitte, Nancy Gibson and John Whittaker, and many more. Family like Randy Williams, Larry Reese, Ruth Kindree and Jossie Mant were on hand. And friends! Stalwart pals through thick and thin showed up to share in the celebration.
Sharon and Steve Budnarchuk, who own Audreys Books and have been so supportive over the years, managed the sales and food. Sharon Caseburg, my darling editor, spent time and energy conspiring with Olga Fowler of Rutherford House Provincial Historic Site to put the whole event together. Masani St. Rose-Toth and her husband Justin provided glorious fruity iced tea.
Also, excitingly, several fans of the series I didn’t know till last night were there and introduced themselves to me. There were more than sixty people there, and various people who couldn’t make it sent lovely notes and promises of lunch dates ahead. I wore splendid red shoes and shiny red nail polish and my new Simon Chang dress and was toasted and feted and awash in good cheer. I could hardly sleep last night, reliving and reverberating.
And this morning, I rolled out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to work on the next manuscript. It’s okay, it’s what I do. Another few thousand words, another few drafts, another few revisions, some more solitary Saturday and Sunday mornings, and there’ll be another marvelous party.
Note from Janice MacDonald #5: The Calm Before the Storm
(November 3, 2012) I have one weekend to go. I intend to get in the car with my husband, drive out of town to our friends’ house for a relaxing evening of good food, wine and board games. We may play a bit of music together. I know we’ll laugh a lot. And I will enjoy every minute. And boy, will I need it.
Because next week, I am getting my manuscript back from my editor. It will be accompanied by about 24 pages of close, single-spaced notes. They will be prefaced with a paragraph telling me how much she enjoyed the story. Because she is a very nice person, she has in fact already written me two short emails to that effect.
It’s what comes after that paragraph that will take a whole lot of energy to get through, and then a whole lot of work to deal with. Because it is never much fun dealing with critiques of your work — even critiques meant to make your work the best it can be. I am and have always been a carrot responder. Sticks hurt my feelings and leave me feeling completely deflated.
However, I will read through all of her notes, and I will set my alarm to ungodly-thirty A.M. each Friday night, and I will resign my weekends for the foreseeable future to rewrites and nail-biting and swearing under my breath. I will work my way through all 24 pages, shifting and changing the words I sweated over, moving situations and plot lines about and even cutting the occasional beloved character. I will also craft tortured paragraphs of justification for every phrase I cannot bear to lose, worrying that it won’t be enough of an argument to sway my editor, who will have grown to resemble Grendel’s mother in my mind’s eye (she’s actually a very attractive young woman with shiny hair and great shoulders).
The book, which my publisher paid me an advance on, and liked so much that he entrusted it to a gifted, qualified, expensive editor, will at various points in these next few weeks seem like both the best thing I have ever written and the worst pile of verbiage anyone scraped off their shoe. I will wonder why it is I ever thought I could write. I will cry a bit and be an enormous irritant to my husband. I will be distracted while commuting. I may burn dinner.
I will also dance about a bit when I laugh anew at the funny bits I cannot wait for people to read, I’ll thrill to the exciting bits that pop, and I will thank my editor for making the suggestions I needed to tighten, to tauten, to clear away the dross. (What little there was, of course.)
And I will be so happy when spring arrives and the books come off the press and I hold one in my hand and whisper, “Thank you, Sharon.”
Note from Janice MacDonald #4:
This Magic Moment
(July 4, 2012) Why do writers write? It’s certainly not for a chance at immediate response, though when it does come — like it did today, in the form of a colleague popping over to my cubicle to say, “I just finished your latest and loved it. I’m starting on the one about computers now” — it’s lovely. It’s not for the money, either, though I am pretty sure most writers make more money than I do. And it’s certainly not for glory or respect; after all, one of my own children has never read any of my books.
But I’ll let you in on a moment that explains why writing is the whole reason, in and of itself.
Looking for a setting that made sense for the mystery novel storyline I’m presently working on, I recalled a place my mother once taught back in the days of teacherages and one-room schoolhouses. I knew the original site was no longer there, but needed to know what was along that road, so that I could fabricate with impunity (loose translation: make shit up) and then pop in one of those nice little poetic licence commentaries at the end about how I’d made everything up. My husband and I made plans to take a drive out that way to look around.
While waiting for my husband to wake up on the holiday Monday, I decided to write the passage the way I wanted it to be, figuring it would be easier to edit later than waste time. I decided that as well as inventing a standing schoolhouse that would now be a museum/meeting hall, I needed a historic marker on the highway, one of those pullover sites that contain a garbage pail and a sign detailing the important event that took place in the vicinity — perhaps even a map. My mom used to make a point of stopping to read these markers, all over the country, and it’s become a habit with me, too. I decided I would have Randy Craig and her friend Denise pull into the layby to get away from a tractor pulling a huge load of hay bales and find something important. Randy would read the map on the sign, and things would come clearer by the minute. I got eight pages written in the silence of the early morning.
Around 9:30, after a quick breakfast, we headed out and drove into the blue Alberta day. It took us just over an hour to get to the highway we were aiming for. I grinned when we passed MacDonald Road, thinking that if I was someone who believed in omens, this would be a good one. A little later on, near where the school would have stood, had it still been there, we noticed a small historic marker arrow. We pulled off the road, and there it was: the historic marker sign — with a map. It wasn’t quite as I had described earlier in my imagination. And there was no garbage can. But as I stood there, taking photos and trying to quell the shivers I get when my worlds mesh, a tractor hauling a truckload of hay bales drove slowly by.
That’s the magic of writing.
Note from Janice MacDonald #3:
April — The C(r)oolest Month
(April 20, 2012) April is a month of endings in the university world. The academic year comes to a shuddering halt, with students desperately trying to hold it together over final exams and instructors equally desperate, trying to get marking done and grades in within-five-calendar-days. It is the month when most people walk down the sidewalks, dodging puddles and making sure they don’t meet anyone else’s eye in order not to see or show the crazy person in there behind the iris.
April is also a month of beginnings, at least in my family. My grandparents were married in April, as were my great-aunt and uncle — the first double wedding in the Peace Country. My parents were married in April. I was married (twice) in April, and the second one stuck. Even William and Kate were married in April, not that they are actual members of our family. Pip Pippa. William Shakespeare, Hans Christian Anderson and Samuel Beckett were all born in April. The trees in Edmonton begin to bud in April and if you clear the mulch and leaf mould away, there are tulips shooting through right around now. Bunnies turn brown. Lambs frolic. It’s no wonder people indulge in redecorating and massive cleaning projects at this time of year — everyone wants in on the regenerative process.
Unless, that is, you’re already in the middle of the first draft of a book, a book that is decidedly not set in the springtime. Which I am. Having learned the hard way from the great editor, Jennifer Glossop, I always write with a calendar firmly in mind as the story goes along. So, this April, I spent two days with a kerchief on my head and dustcloths exploding out of my pockets, deep cleaning and rearranging the living room furniture. It looks great, I think, and no doubt appears to be a sacrifice to new beginnings. But this time it’s not.
The reason behind all that sweeping and shifting and stevedoring and sneezing was so that on weekend mornings before the family wakes up, when I tiptoe down the stairs to write, I can sit with my back to the window that looks out on the apple tree and the bird feeder. I can pretend I’m lodged, along with my characters, in the darkening days of Hallowe’en and that new beginnings aren’t busting out all over. That way, I figure I can keep my mind on the task and my eyes on the prize… a tidy ending.
Note from Janice MacDonald #2: The Ominous Rise of the Book Trailer
(April 3, 2012) Once upon a time, an overly tall, inelegant, self-conscious girl backed away from the world of theatre because the lure of writing prose seemed so much safer and less judgmental. For months and indeed years, she pecked away in sublime anonymity at her keyboard, unbothered by the need for eyeliner or beauty balm or retinol. Exercise could be embarked on for the sake of her arteries and chosen on the basis of whether it was fun, instead of working ten extra pounds off for a camera or to get into a slinky, one-digit size. Shopping could be a glorious Value Village adventure; the basilisks of the boutique shops could be avoided.
Books were published, radio interviews were welcomed, the occasional signing appearance was endured. Panels and conferences where she met readers or other authors were even rather fun. Every now and then, though, a newspaper photo or television segment reminded her of the reasons why the solitary writing life was such a blessing.
So, imagine her horror to discover a relatively new phenomenon… the book trailer. For those of you even less in the loop than our solitary scribbler, I am not referring to a mobile library van. A book trailer, mimicking a movie trailer, is a filmed commercial promoting a newly published or upcoming book. Who thought these were a good idea? Gore Vidal? Naomi Wolf? Tori Spelling?
In this world of music videos, YouTube and television supremacy, I can understand the impulse to sell books through visual means, but surely just this once, we can avoid the audio-visual sales technique? After all, people are already trained to “wait for the movie.” Shilling the world of the fabricating imagination through the medium which replaces it with presupposed parameters cannot be a healthy fit. And before I get any backlash from auteur filmmakers, let me see you getting on the other side of the clapboard first.
My children will remind me that in the past I have ridiculed cellphone texting, snowblowers and mechanical pencils. They are likely right and for all I know you will likely see me one of these days, through the magic of YouTube, promoting my latest mystery. It’s a new world; I get it. However, if I’m going to have to start competing with the literary equivalent of Christina Aguilera, I’m going to have to invest in a different moisturizer and get cracking on those upper arm exercises. Because it seems like aspiring to be the literary equivalent of Rosemary Clooney just ain’t gonna cut it anymore.
And for what it’s worth, I still buy wooden pencils.
Note from Janice MacDonald #1:
The Perils of Book Promotion
(February 17, 2012) The easiest part of writing a book is actually writing the book. Once it has winged its way to the publisher, been edited back and forth several times, received a cover, been printed and sent to bookstores, you are suddenly required to become what most writers became writers to avoid in he first place: social.
Sometimes you are asked to read a passage from your book — which can be tricky for mystery writers, as you don’t want to give too much away. Sometimes you appear on a panel that has marginal ties to the themes in your book, where you have to deliver expert opinions and vacillate between hoping you are not ignored by questions from the audience, and wondering if you actually can come up with any answers. Mostly, you are asked to appear and sign books, which can be very nice when you run across people who have liked your other books and are pleased at the chance to speak with you. When no one knows who you are, it is best to have an idea of where the self-help section in the bookstore is, and whether or not there is a public washroom, as those are the only questions you may be asked.
Whatever the case, public situations call for a great deal of thought and preparation. As my friend and mentor, Cora Taylor, once summed it up, “What to wear, what to wear, what to wear?” Although most of us schlub about in old university sweatpants and comfy, oversized flannel shirts when at home writing, the public assumes that we will appear exotic and interesting. Only some of us can pull that off with any sort of consistency.
Shirley, a poet friend of mine, has a great store of “writerly earrings” which I drool over. Cora, queen of Young Adult novels, sweeps in with various layers of silks and leathers. Candas, my speculative fiction-writing bestie, has a crazy mock fur coat that only she could pull off. Conni, the playwright, does scarves better than anyone I know. And me? Well, I guess you’re just going to have to come out and see! (Check out the Appearances section on this site for upcoming promo events.)