You may have noticed I haven’t been very active on social media lately. I’ve felt a call to slow recently, to ground back into this world. I tend to spend more time more in my head than in my body, and this means it’s easy to drift into outer space on the ethers of the internet. I need a figurative winter, I told a dear writing friend in late March. I need to shut everything off and write only for myself like a young Alice Munro at her kitchen table while the kids sleep.
So that’s largely what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working on the summer story of the WGA’s Westword Magazine – a piece about writers and alcohol abuse that features fearless Erin Shaw Street of Tell Better Stories. I’ve been studying the arches of The Hero’s Journey and The Heroine’s, the latter which I’m using to outline my current work-in-progress, Kicked. I’ve been reading (to myself) The Conscious Parent by Shefali Tsabary and reading (to my kids) Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank The Moon (Caily’s Favourite) and Elena Favilli’s Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls (Chloe’s favourite, but Caily enjoyed it so much she copied every quote into her diary). I’ve been tending to an indoor herb garden (can’t plant outside with the pup), and a sourdough starter (what’s the longest you’ve kept one alive?). Having recently discovered Castile soap, Soap Nuts, and Edmonton’s Earth’s General Store (you can can refill organic essential oil bottles from the bulk section!), I’ve been replacing chemical cleaners with DIY versions at a steady pace. I’ve also been going Greek at Yanni’s, camping, and pretending I’m cultured at All of Us, The Alberta Ballet’s spectacular tribute to The Tragically Hip. Right now I’m preparing for more camping trips, upcoming weddings, a rocker friend’s first solo show (get tickets to Liroy at Bohemia here!). I’m expecting editor comments on But for the Streetlamps and the Moon and All the Stars sometime this week and am looking forward to playing with that book again.
But I’ve come back to the blog this morning because I want to tell you about a friend and a book. I tried to write this as a review but can’t pen an opinion more interesting than her text so, instead, I’m going to tell you a story.
Almost exactly one year ago, I was lonely. I was also off of social media then, but was coming back to Earth in more of a plummet than a grounding. I’d recently been awarded the 2017 WGA’s Emerging Writer Award for my story, “Angels in the Snow,” and was on route to the bookstore where I’d be reading with other Alberta Literary Award finalists.
“I’d like to make a friend today, Universe,” I silently said.
After the readings, I introduced myself to Rona Altrows. She’d read from an essay which would eventually go on to win an Alberta Literary Award (the 2017 John Whyte Memorial Award) and be published in her anthology, Waiting.
“I also hid my pregnancy under a cape!” I told her. I’d moved across province in the first trimester but needed to find work to fill the seven months before baby time (the cape was the natural outcome of my over-thinking). Another woman heard our conversation and laughed. She’d hidden under a bump under a cape herself.
“We could start an anthology,” Rona joked. “Women in capes!”
“Oooh… I see superheroes and judges and witches!”
I hobnobbed with other finalists a bit more and then said goodbye to all, and walked out of Audreys, and checked the time on my phone… and realized I’d missed my bus home.
Damn, I muttered. A voice behind me asked what was wrong – there was Rona and her lovely husband, Bill.
“I missed my bus,” I said.
“Excellent.” said Rona. She linked her arm in mine. “Let’s have coffee.”
“Thank you, Universe,” I silently said.
I met Rona again at Audreys a couple of weeks ago, this time to celebrate the launch of her newest book, At This Juncture. I brought my little girls and they were excited to meet a “real” author. Cailena had created her own magazine about cats and was excited to show it to another anthology editor. Chloe brought money to buy toys. The event opened with a reading from writer and director Savithri Machiraju’s latest documentary about seeking identity in a new culture. Poet and novelist Wendy McGrath emceed, contributing a vibrant reading from her Santa Rosa trilogy.
Rona’s channelling of her character Ariadne Jensen was pitch perfect. Her reading was cheeky and funny: the protagonist has a plan to save Canada post, she writes to the service’s CEO. But she isn’t shy to point out the organization’s marketing failures first. No matter, Ariadne will get people writing letters again! An avid letter writer, she plans inspire others by offering her own correspondence as a freebie for those who purchase stamps. A woman of great imagination, Ariadne has “quite a collection of phoney yet credible letters – from historical people to people (she) made up in her head, from people (she) made up in her head to historical people,” and of course, Ariadne offers, she will include some of her own personal writings, “knowing full well that some customers are going to be most drawn in by letters that are contemporary.”
The book is a collection of these letters, grouped into sections such as “kin,” “work with me,” and “I can explain.” When considering these sections, the book’s frequent comedy takes on a philosophical tone. The book seamlessly sways between these contrasts, offering laughs one sentence and insight in the next. Many of the recipients of AJ’s letters are historical figures dating as far back to ancient times but others are as recent as Lady Gaga, or “the president of (AJ’s) alumni association.” And while the letters’ concerns are sometimes humorous, Rona (and AJ) isn’t shy to hit the hard stuff, tackling themes of self-harm, mental illness, and bullying with unique perspective. There is a whole section on “Leo,” the main character’s best friend, a young gay man recently estranged from his abusive mother. In this section, Ariadne writes for the benefit of her friend, petitioning the twenty-year-old’s parents, Pope Francis, and even Albertan law-makers, insisting upon the humanity she knows they must have.
While the book is enjoyable, educational, and obviously meticulously researched, what I as I writer most fell in love with was Rona’s playful tone. Flawlessly assuming the voices of historical and contemporary figures, Rona is a literary ventriliquist. I was relieved to learn after mentioning this to her that she did indeed have to work very hard to achieve that easy voice. She just makes creativity look so fun. Her book makes me want to pick up my pen instead of my laptop. Maybe I’ll buy stamps, but I think I’ll start with letters to leave on the pillows of little girls – a return to slow.
Read another great review of Rona Altrows’ At This Juncture here.