the five books that have stuck with me

I have not been officially tagged by anyone – except, indirectly, by the act of reading Chuck Wendig’s list – but I never needed much of an excuse to talk about my favourite books. I’ve also reduced the list from the top ten to the top five books that have stuck with me, because it turns out I have quite a lot to say about each one.

1)  Oath of the Renunciates, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. This is a complicated choice, given the recent accusations that Marion Zimmer Bradley physically and sexually abused her daughter. But I cannot deny that this book stuck with me in a way that no other book ever has.

Also, technically, this is two books – Thendara House and The Shattered Chain – but I first encountered the hardcover omnibus edition called Oath of the Renunciates in the basement of the library in the small town where I lived during my teenage years. I was fourteen years old, and unhappy, and I read this book over and over and over again. It was formative in a way that books can only be when you encounter them at fourteen.

Oath of the Renunciates is sword and sorcery about women, and only about women. A whole subculture of women who choose to live without men. A wide variety of women – midwives, travel guides, mercenaries, bakers, priestesses, and so on. I hadn’t ever encountered that before.

Most of all, though, the lead character goes through the process of realizing she is sexually attracted to women. I wasn’t ready, at that age, to admit even to myself that I might feel the same way, but seeing those feelings, that process reflected back at me by characters I admired was hugely important. It widened my world, and it made the idea of being lesbian or bisexual less scary. And this, this book, this reaction, is why it’s so important to have diversity in science fiction. This is so much more important than ‘it gets better.’

This book was SO important to me, in fact, that I can’t actually read it anymore. It is irretrievably linked with my teenage years, and trying to bring adult sensibilities to that relationship just doesn’t work.

2)  Hellspark, by Janet Kagan. By rights, all three of Janet Kagan’s books (Hellspark, Mirabile and Uhura’s Song) should be on this list, but I’m going to let this one stand in for all of them. I love every word Janet Kagan ever wrote, and I’m crushed that she passed away and there won’t ever be more than three of her novels.

I met her once at a convention in New York. I was there to see the media guests – Claudia Christian and Nana Visitor – and I didn’t even realize there would be author guests as well until I got there. I kicked myself the whole time for not bringing my copy of Uhura’s Song with me for Janet Kagan to sign. I bought a copy of Hellspark and she signed that instead. (For K – Rise with the sparks!!! Cheers, Janet Kagan. PS – I love your outfit!)

I tried three or four times to read it, and kept miring down in the prologue. I couldn’t get into the book at all. And then one day I picked it up and managed to push through into chapter one, and the book just opened up like a sunflower.

I realized that the reason I was having trouble with the prologue was actually the same thing that made the book amazing. Janet Kagan’s aliens were alien, with alien body language and thought patterns and customs. The prologue was told from the point of view of one of those aliens, and I was having a lot of trouble connecting with how different he was. In chapter one, the point of view character changed, and the new narrator was much more accessible and able to ‘translate’ for the reader.

I devoured Hellspark after that. I love this book. In it, as in all of Janet Kagan’s work, her love of learning and language and science – biology in particular – is wonderfully, accessibly, enthusiastically woven through. Not only did I learn things while being thoroughly entertained, this book changed the way I look at the world. You can’t ask more from a book than that.

3)  Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery. And its sequels – all of them. And the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. And Louisa May Alcott. And Frances Hodgson Burnett. I read a LOT of historical fiction as a child, and something about that Victorian sensibility has stayed with me. It’s something about the self-sufficiency of the women in these books. All my crafty hobbies, my delusion that I know anything about horses, my dream of one day growing my own food from my own garden, my yearning to learn to make jams and preserves and quilts, they all stem from my love of these books and their worlds at a very young age.

These books gave me strong female role models at a time when it was harder to find them in science fiction and fantasy. Not to mention that Anne Shirley and Jo March were both young writers.

When I first started writing, it took me a long time to shed the Victorian wordiness I had picked up from these books. I’m sure it has had a lasting impact on my ‘voice’, though I’m too close to see it anymore.

4)  Summon The Keeper, by Tanya Huff. I met Tanya Huff at Ad Astra (a literary science fiction convention in Toronto) the same year I met Janet Kagan. I had been to a number of media conventions by that point, but hadn’t ever been to a literary con before. It blew my mind that published authors would get together and talk to me (not personally, but you know what I mean) about writing in general and writing science fiction in particular.

I sat down in one of the panel rooms on Saturday morning, and stayed there for hours as the guest panelists came and went in front of me. I soon realized that Tanya Huff was by far the most entertaining panelist there, so instead of letting the discussions come to me, I sought out her panels and basically followed her around the convention for the rest of the day. We bonded over a discussion of Star Trek vs Babylon 5 in the afternoon, and then again when she broke a beer stein over my head (well, next to my head, and it was accidental – long story) in the evening. We’ve been friends ever since.

I bought a copy of Summon the Keeper at that convention, the first one of Tanya’s books I ever read. The book was just as funny and clever and entertaining as Tanya herself, and I have since read my way through every single book she’s written (and even made a minor guest appearance in one of them). I think her Valor series are my favourites, but Summon the Keeper has stayed with me most in the form of the friend I made that day.

5) To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. I have bought so many copies of this book it’s possible that Connie Willis owes me royalties. I hand them out like candy to anyone who will stand still long enough.

I love this book. It has exactly my wordy sense of humour, it’s smart and complicated without being impenetrable, it’s set in both the past and the future, and there’s even a little romance in there. It is so thoroughly researched I learn things just from reading it, and I think the book could qualify as a master class in plotting all by itself. (It is also the reason that Victorian furniture makes me laugh, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Last year I was in Oxford for work, and all I could think of the whole time was this book, which is partially set there. I found myself taking photos of various places and landmarks mentioned in the story and emailing them to a friend who loves the book as much as I do. It’s been probably 15 years since I first read it, and yet it is clearly still firmly lodged in my brain.

What are the books that have stayed with you most? If you’ve already blogged, you can link back there in the comments. I’m always curious about how books can shape people. So much power in those little black squiggles.


Circus Life – an introduction

When I was twenty-two years old I ran away with the circus.

One day, that will be the first line of my memoir, I think.[1] For two years and seven months I lived on the road, with no fixed address, travelled all over western Europe with a hundred and fifty other people who became my whole world.

It was a time in my life that changed me and defined me in ways that I’m still trying to understand more than a dozen years later. I hate goodbyes, and yet I’m far too good at them. I can’t stay in one place, in one job, for any length of time without getting restless, and yet I long for a home and a family and some stability. I’ve built a life that I’m happy with, and yet I still check the circus’ job listings on a weekly basis.

I’ve tried to sit down and write about those years of my life half a hundred times. I struggle because it’s too big, because there are too many digressions, too many explanations, too much backstory. How do I even start to turn those three years of my life inside out to let other people in? Do I start at the beginning? Start at the end and look back? How much information is too much information?

And, more crippling, there’s a part of me that feels like I don’t have a right to tell this story. I worry about what the people I shared those years with will think. That they’d scoff that I might have anything to say about our adventures. I worry that I disappeared from the collective memory and that that means I don’t get to lay claim to it.

Because, I’m an introvert. Clinically. Chronically. Any time one of those memes comes around Facebook – How introverted are you? or whatever – I tick every single box. I observe the world more than I interact with it. I internalize it. I need alone time at the end of the day to recharge. So when I was on tour, I didn’t go out partying as much as the others, or chat at the dinner table as much, or sit in the hotel bar after work as much. I wasn’t out to make a mark on the circus; I let it make its mark on me.

We used to say, ‘it takes a certain kind of person to go on tour,’ and that kind of person is usually pretty extroverted.

But… when I was twenty-two years old I ran away with the circus. I was paid to travel through Europe for nearly three years. I lived in a series of hotels, moved every six or eight weeks, picked up two languages, and packed my whole life into three suitcases. It was amazing, and adventurous, and lonely, and difficult, and exciting. And I have stories to tell.

The blog format frightens me a lot less than sitting down to craft a full-blown memoir. So for my half-a-hundred-and-first attempt, I’m going to tell some stories here. In bite-sized pieces. I’m going to begin at the beginning, and digress as much as I want to. Maybe a few people out there will be kind enough to tell me when I stagger over the line into too much information. And we’ll see how it goes.


1. The eventual second memoir, about my time working in Canadian theatre, will be titled, “’Do You Have Your G-String On?’ And Other Tales from Backstage.” (BACK TO POST)

I sold my first story!

Over the summer I sold my first story! It’s a creative non-fiction piece called “Character Sketch” about a woman I fell in love with while I worked on tour with the circus. It will appear in the fall issue of PRISM International, a CanLit (Canadian literary) magazine, which should come out in October.

I’ll post again if and when there is a link to the issue on their website and/or a sighting of the hard copy out in the wild.

Needless to say, I am very, very excited about this. There may have been dancing in the kitchen.

This was also my first experience working with a professional editor, and I enjoyed it enormously. I was really nervous when I first opened the file with her comments in it – I was worried the sensitive bits of me might shrivel up and die if it was harsh, and more worried that I might not be a good enough writer yet to fix whatever problems she found.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find comments about what the editor liked in particular, what she thought worked well, in among the handful of grammatical corrections. The changes she requested were minor and mostly involved adding bits of information for clarity. She really helped me to make the piece better, and I am hugely grateful for that.

In moderately related news, I haven’t been keeping up on my blog posts about other submissions I’ve been sending out this summer. So, to update: I sent out three short stories (one of them twice) and they were all rejected. Just so I don’t get too big for my britches.

I’ve done another draft on one of those stories and will hopefully send that out again shortly. There’s another draft in the works on one of the other two as well, and then I need to look for another potential home for it. One day soon I’ll be able to celebrate my first fiction sale, too.

Writing Around a Day Job

In August, writer Tom Pollock contributed a guest post to one of my favourite blogs, Terrible Minds, on the topic of writing around a day job. Given that’s something I’ve been struggling with all summer, I was curious about his recommendations, and it turns out I have a few things to add.

Mr. Pollock’s first piece of advice is: Plan Your Time.

“If you’re effectively trying to do two jobs at once, then time is likely to be your scarcest resource, and like any scarce resource, you’ll need to budget. Plan your week ahead, know when you’re writing.  Have a routine.”

A very good piece of advice indeed, except when it’s impossible. Not every job is structured and stable. Not every job is 9-to-5. Not every job is left behind at the end of the day. Mine isn’t.

Now, fair warning, my situation is unusual. My ‘day’ job is in the theatre. I love what I do, and I have no intention of giving it up, but the hours can be all-consuming and irregular (the drama school application pack called the schedule ‘anti-social’). Which means a routine is something I just can’t create.

I work six days a week, and since March I’ve worked upwards of 55 hours in those six days. But the configuration of those 55 hours within the week is different every time. I can’t say I’ll write for two hours every Wednesday night, because I might never get two Wednesday nights off in a row.

(This is also why taking classes of any kind – dance, yoga, writing, whatever – is challenging to the point of impossible. Hobbies are for the down time between contracts, and you just hope that the start and end dates of the classes line up with your schedule.)

The other issue I have with Mr. Pollock’s advice is that time is not the only resource that’s scarce. Even working nutty hours, I can find the time to write if I need to. I managed it up until July and wrote three short stories in that time in addition to keeping up my do-it-yourself writing course. The resource that is most scarce for me is energy. Mental real estate. Passion.

And it’s not about laziness or lack of commitment, it’s about being wrung out. It doesn’t help that I’m an introvert by nature. Being around other people requires energy, and I burn through everything I have in a 12-hour day. What is left, then, to put down onto the page?

And, going back to the question of routine, I can’t always plan for how much emotional investment a day will require. Let’s say I decide to write for two hours on Wednesday evening. Great. Some days the show goes well, and I bounce out of the theatre with a bundle of energy to sink into my story.

But if during the matinee on that Wednesday we have an understudy go on at the last minute because the principal actor got trapped in traffic on the highway (last month), or there’s an accident backstage (two days ago), or we get nailed by a huge storm and spend the whole show bracing for a possible power outage (last night), or the lead fucks up a line onstage and takes it out on everyone backstage when he or she comes off (oh, so often), or an actor is performing while sick or injured and requires extra care… Any energy, any bounce I had at the beginning of the day is gone. I’ve spent my passion at work, and there is none left for my writing.

And exhaustion is cumulative. I managed to keep writing from March through into July, but by then my reserves were spent and there was nothing I could do but hang on by my fingernails until the schedule eased up again. Which it did, two weeks ago. I’ve been building my reserves back up for those two weeks, and only in the last couple of days have I been able to start writing again.

In short, sometimes all the planning in the world still can’t make it happen.

So what did I want to add to Mr. Pollock’s advice?

Know your limits and work around them. I know my schedule is going to ebb and flow in this way, which is one among several reasons why I’m not writing a novel. I can start and finish short stories and blog posts in smaller bursts of time. I’m less likely to run out of momentum in the way I would on a longer project.

Keep good notes. Even if I’m not writing, I try to jot down ideas as they pop into my head. My brain often kicks up the best stuff while it’s busy with other things. I keep a file for each story I’m working on and collect the notes there so it’s all in one place when I’m ready to come back to it.

Don’t force it. Discipline is one thing, torturing yourself is another. If you’re running on empty, give yourself a break. For me, the very last thing I want is to end up dreading writing the way I dreaded doing homework in school. If writing is your passion, you’ll come back to it when your energy levels rebound.

And I’m curious now about how other people balance writing around jobs that don’t fit the standard 9-to-5 mold, jobs that require a piece of your soul. Paramedics? Parents? Lawyers? Shift-workers? How do you handle it?


the next great adventure

It turns out you can take the train from Paris to Milan – that’s three countries, seven-ish hours, and zero connections – for the princely sum of £20. As my colleague said when I mentioned this to her, “We live on the wrong continent.”

That train journey is now at the centre of my next great adventure, which will take me from London to Paris to Greece with no aeroplanes involved. (Well, except for the one that will get me from Canada to the UK and back again.) I’ll travel through France, across the Alps, down the coast of Italy, and across the Aegean Sea (by boat, not train for that last). It will take three days, all told, which includes two seven-hour train journeys and an overnight boat. And I can’t wait.

I love trains. I get motion sick on every damn thing that moves EXCEPT trains. I love that I can see the landscape unroll around me. In my travel around Morocco, one of my favourite moments was perching in a window seat on the train journey from Marrakech to Casablanca, getting to see the country without intruding on it.

Taken out the window of the train between Marrakech and Casablanca, November 2009

Taken out the window of the train between Marrakech and Casablanca, November 2009

I didn’t think this epic trip would actually be possible when I started googling. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to visit Paris or tour around Greece, and when I started to check if I could somehow do both I stumbled on the website of The Man in Seat 61.

“Flying has lost its glamour.  Many of us now want a more rewarding, low-stress alternative to flying, which brings you closer to the world you live in and reduces your contribution to climate change.  It’s time to rediscover real travel by train or ship, where the journey itself is an adventure.”

Which pretty much sums up how I feel. The journey itself is the adventure. The website broke down the exact trip I wanted to take into easy steps, with all of the relevant links provided. Like a gift from the gods. And it may have also provided ideas for enough future adventures to last me the rest of my life.

So I’m in the depths of planning and personal logistics at the moment, but that may just be the best part. Because right now, the adventure can be anything I want it to be. It’s a daydream. It’s anticipation.

I’ll keep you posted as I nail down the nuts and bolts. But in the meantime, where do you dream of going? What’s your next adventure? Are there any other rail travel junkies out there?