Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Meaning of Children: An Interview with Beverly Akerman by Darryl Salach

The Meaning Of Children: now available on Kindle!

1.) You spent twenty years working in molecular genetics research, before deciding to become a writer. Why the sudden urge to become a writer and how difficult a transition was it?
The urge wasn’t sudden, though it might appear so from here. I always intended to be a writer “some day,” but I never entertained it as a way to support myself or my family. And I remember feeling I had to amass some experience in life, wondering what I would have to say as a 20-year-old. Maybe that was just that ol’ deflating self-doubt. But in 2003, my father-in-law died and I suddenly—viscerally—understood that my time, too, was finite, that I better seize this day and do the things I’ve dreamed of doing. Because sometimes “later” doesn’t quite work out.

2.) I found an interesting line in your bio that reads, "Beverly Akerman realized she'd been learning more and more about less and less." What did you mean by that exactly?
What I meant is that genetics used to be the study of individuals, traits, and populations. Then it became the study of chromosomes. Now it’s the study of molecules. In other words, the areas of concern grow more minute as time passed. I grew tired of trying to believe in the importance of the vanishingly small. Also, despite the passage of a generation, cures for genetic disease are still few and far between. We can prevent a lot more disease, usually through selective abortion. But worldwide, the largest use of therapeutic abortion is sex selection. I guess I stopped believing in the value of what I was doing. No matter how well-intentioned. It started to feel like, “the hurrier I went, the behinder I got.”

3.) Did you have a mentor or someone that helped guide you through the early days of your transformation into becoming a writer, and how valuable was that to you?
I’ve been fortunate in having a number of wonderfully generous writing teachers; I won a Quebec Writers Federation mentorship with noted poet Robyn Sarah, and studied for brief periods in the US and Canada with Luis Urrea, Nancy Zafris, Brad Kessler, Neale McDevitt, Mikhail Iossel, Tess Fragoulis and many others. In taking my work seriously, these writers helped me to take my aspirations seriously. They helped me learn to shush that internal yenta, that nudgy little voice that said, “who do you think you are?” That has been very important and empowering. Still is, in fact.

4.) What was the genesis behind putting together your collection of short stories The Meaning of Children and how long of a time period did it take to write the stories for the book?

I started publishing my short stories in 2006. By 2010, I had over 20 out there, many winning or placing in contests. The next step was to publish a book. Maybe it should have been a novel, from a marketing point of view (agents and publishers seem to think no one reads short stories…unless the author’s name is Munro). I started submitting a huge collection which included unpublished work. No dice.
So I looked at them all again and tried to find some commonality, some thread other than that they were all written by me. I realized how central children were in my work and decided to structure the book in three parts: ‘Beginning’ features first person point of view stories of children, ‘Middle’ tells of those in the child-bearing years, and ‘End’ is about older people, or stories that take the longer view of life.
And bingo! Of course, life is an uncontrolled experiment, isn’t it?
I started negotiating with Exile Editions. And then Enfield & Wizenty told me I was one of three finalists for their 2011 Colophon Prize.

But it was too late to back out of the first negotiation (I hadn’t signed anything but…well, let’s just say it was complicated). The three E&W finalists would win publishing contracts (the only difference was the size of the advance). I recently discovered the overall winner was W.P. Kinsella, for his first novel in decades (Butterfly Winter). Pretty impressive company to be in.

5.) How difficult was raising three children of your own, and were those mothering years paramount in giving you the ability and proper perspective in order to be able to write these kinds of stories?
As a student of genetics, I’ve always been taught that life is all about producing the next generation…As a feminist, I always intended to have meaningful work and not let motherhood stop me. The truth is, women can have it all—just not at the same time.

Having children is one of the most significant experiences of the human adventure. At the same time, despite all these wonderful supports available in Canada and in Quebec—paternity leave, $7 a day daycare—it is still hard to combine full-time work and motherhood. Very hard. My husband, former MNA Russell Copeman, travelled a lot in his job—we estimated he was gone about three whole YEARS of the first decade when our kids were growing up. That put a lot of pressure on me. So I have a fine-tuned appreciation of the under-appreciated bailiwick of women.
Mothering—and the other nurturing professions largely filled by women—are still systematically devalued in our culture. And that’s a damn shame. I read the papers and it frustrates me that there are so few front section articles where the featured newsmaker is a woman.
Which is another way of saying that being a working mother is absolutely essential to who I am, and the kind of book I’ve written.

6.) Do you have a personal story from your collection that you feel closer to than any of the others, and if so why?
I feel close to all the stories, they’re all my “babies.” And all, in their way, semi-autobiographical. Even the fantastical one, “The Woman with Deadly Hands.” I wrote part of that one naked in the Super 8 Airport Motel in Portland, Oregon, after I woke early from a disturbing dream. I continued writing it later that day in the San Francisco airport while awaiting a connecting flight (don’t worry: I’d put on some clothes by then!). As writers, we’re always told to read, read, READ! Which I do. But can one read too much? That’s what the story is about. To me, anyway.

7.) All of your stories have a recurring theme to them: sex, death, guilt, and social prejudice. How difficult was it for you to capture the complexities of these themes and emotions through a child's eyes?
I wouldn’t say ALL my stories deal with these themes…but childhood is fraught with sex, death, guilt, and bigotry. We live in a great country but it’s by no means perfect. And we shouldn’t over idealize childhood. It isn’t all Care Bears and unicorns. By the time my kids got to elementary school, half the kids in their classes were already children of divorce. Of course, where I live, most parents never even marry in the first place.
It’s not for me to say how difficult it is to capture complex situations through a kid’s point of view. I had a pretty mature grasp of a lot of the world as a kid. I can recall talking about the Vietnam War and the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings with my Dad when I was 9 or 10 years old. Kids are smart and often deep. One of my own children, while working through his bar mitzvah project, told me couldn’t believe in God because of the Holocaust.
It may comfort adults to believe children aren’t aware of big picture issues, but they are. Maybe those who don’t realize this just haven’t spent enough time with kids. And my kids are upper middle class kids, never been beaten (or seen their mother being beaten), never gone hungry…

8.) Do you see life possibly getting any easier for children in today's world and the generations of children to come?
I think children suffer when adults are under more pressure. We live in a very pessimistic society compared to when I was growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. At the same time, by most conceivable measures, we’re better off now than a century back—I mean, a century ago, half of Canadian children were still dying by the age of five. But you wouldn’t know that from reading the papers or watching the news. Because fear is the best marketing tool there is. Check out Michael Moore. We could use a good dose of optimism.

9.) What was the last book you read that you felt inspired by in some way, and why?
One of my current projects is to reread the books I was assigned in school as a kid. So I’d choose Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Big issues and a writer who tried to make a difference with his stories. Chris Cleave’s Little Bee is a more recent book in this inspiring vein. I also can’t speak highly enough of To Kill a Mockingbird, a book as much about parenting as about racism (though I didn’t see that at all as a 12-year-old; one of my bugaboos is that we give kids books to read that aren’t really appropriate. Another is that schools are still giving kids the same books to read that I got 30 years ago—but I digress). 

My favourite book of all time is Barney’s Version . Richler so perfectly crystallized the concerns of his character’s point in place and time. I admire Lionel Shriver so much for her fearless take on motherhood in We Have to Talk About Kevin, a much braver book than Room or The Book of Negroes, IMHO. I’m not big on mindless anomie, navel gazing, or young people fucking.

Finally, The Loved and The Lost has always stuck with me. TLATL is the first CanLit novels I remember reading as a really young person. This great novel of the immorality of racism also takes place in Montreal; the main character is Jim McAlpine. My last science job ended in 2003, when I left a biotech company called Ecopia. Some time during the last year or so I was there, a new VP was recruited from the States, a man named Jim McAlpine. 

Now, I hadn’t thought of TLATL for years at that point, but the moment I heard the new VP’s name, all I could think of was that this was the same name as Callaghan’s protagonist in TLATL.

I dug up my old copy and brought it to work; it sat in my desk drawer for months while I tried to work up the nerve to show the biochemist his literary namesake. I could never do it. Every time I caught sight of the paperback, I puzzled over why the coincidence of the names meant so much to me.

Eventually, I recognized this was part of the reason I had to quit science and try writing. It’s a nice bonus that Exile Editions is run by Morley’s grandson Michael Callaghan. I’m a sucker for stuff like that.

10.) In your opinion, what makes a good short story? Is there a particular formula that you try and stick to when you write?
I don’t believe in formulas, per se. But the writer has to be moved by her own subject or she won’t be able to bring the reader along with her. A story is a shared emotional journey, after all. And I do believe in moving the reader. I’m sick to death of stories that make me want to kill myself at the end—I mean, real life can be hard enough, why do I need to read about the world ending for some fictional character, too? Of course, I also write about the world ending, but I try to write from a place of hopefulness, if that makes any sense. Which may sound strange because so many of the stories in my collection are dark. But I keep hoping to understand what happened in life, to myself or my characters (who are just proxies, in a way).
I love a story with a moral wrapped in humour. One of my favourites isn’t even in the collection. It’s weird and whimsical, about Santa Claus, Brian Mulroney, and Karlheinz Schreiber.
“Based on a true story,” as they say. But I just couldn’t see it fitting into my “Beginning,” “Middle,” and “End” structure. Maybe if I’d had a little more time to discuss it with my publisher…calling our production schedule compressed misses the truth by at least an order of magnitude.
Anyway, “Now It Can Be Told: The Hardboiled Stress of Being Santa” is up at Joyland.ca and I hope people will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it…and rereading it. It features footnotes and links, but the final one isn’t quite working on the Joyland site. Here’s the url that the last word of the story should be linked to: 
Hope it gives you a few laughs. It did me!

11.) How difficult was it finding a publisher for The Meaning of Children and what's your experience been like with Exile Editions?

It’s my first book so I guess I can’t really judge how difficult it was. More difficult than I’d hoped, anyway. But the market is undergoing such changes, the loss of bricks and mortar stores, the advent of e-books…Exile have been great. I’ve had launches in Montreal and Toronto and there’s been talk of a small reading tour. I’m hopeful for the future; maybe it depends on awards and such…it’s still early days yet.

One thing, though: I’ve taken a gamble and kept all rights EXCEPT Canadian print. I’m hoping to find an agent who can bring the print and e-books to all other markets; I’m dreaming of film... Please cross all crossables for me, and help me spread the word!

12.) The Meaning of Children has been longlisted for a 2011 ReLit Award. How does that kind of recognition make you feel and to what extent do awards help open doors for writers?
I am thrilled to be longlisted for the ReLit; last year Lisa Foad, another Exile writer, won the ReLit for short fiction. She also edited my collection, so I’m sure that’s helped.
I’ve always believed in submitting to contests—spent a small fortune doing it, over the past few years. But I think it’s been worth it: I’m a winner of
--the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick’s David Adams Richards Prize,
--the Professional Writers Association of Canada’s Short Article Award
--The Vocabula Review’s Well-Written Writing Contest
--an Editor’s Choice Award, Best New Writing 2011/Eric Hoffer Award
--a Fishtrap Fellowship
--Gemini Magazine’s Flash Fiction Contest
--the Fog City Writers Short Story Contest
And I’ve placed or been a finalist in
--the Sheldon Currie Fiction Contest,
--TWUC’s Short Prose Contest for Developing Writers (twice)
--The Potomac Review’s Fiction Contest
--The Glass Woman Prize.
I’ve also been nominated for the Puschart Prize in both fiction and nonfiction, received funding from The Banff Centre for the Arts, The Canada Council, and the Playwrights Guild of Canada to attend a residency, give readings, and see my first monologue professionally performed. I’ve travelled to Banff, Fredericton, Winnipeg, Ohio, and Oregon, solely for my work as a writer.

These contest accolades have helped me create a substantial literary CV. There is so much rejection in this business—the feedback from these contests has made a huge difference. It’s been a wonderful ride so far.

13.) What inspires you creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Kindness and compassion, people being moved by the work and devotion of others.
How much some of us do, so unselfishly, for others. The feeling of being in this
together—I guess it’s just that ol’ John Donne thing: 
No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Seeing kids enjoy things. My mother used to take my kids to see plays put on occasional Saturday mornings at The Centaur Theatre–the rapt look on the funny little faces in the audience used to make me cry. Probably still would. Luckily, my kids are grown and I don’t have to humiliate myself in public to the same degree anymore.

But I’m still trying to move people.

14.) How important is it for you to read your stories in front of a live audience, and to what extent do you think that experience helps you with your writing?
I LOVE reading my work aloud! It helps that I’ve got one particular piece—“Pie”—that’s a monologue and in a Southern drawl. Which I can do…people are always somehow surprised by my readings, I think. 

Here’s a link to a reading I gave as part of a residency at The Banff Centre for the Arts.

I think it gave me real credibility to be able to get up there and slay the audience. I mean, I’m “just” a middle-aged woman. Not a sexy young thing, not a flavour-of-the-month. “Just” a writer with the courage to pull some wonderful stories out of my hat…er, psyche. When people enjoy my work right there in front of me, it gives me an incredible boost.

16.) What words of advice would you give people out there working a job they might be tiring of and wanting to try their own hand at becoming a writer?
First of all, marry well, someone who truly supports you (actually, that’s good advice no matter WHAT you want to do!!) I don’t want to be glib about this—I’m earning a fraction of what I did as a researcher. And I never really earned all that much money at that…but I think people should really try to find the thing they were meant to do. You’ll know it when you find it. And when that feeling goes away, find something else that does it for you. ; I could never do what I’m doing without hubby’s financial help.

Other advice: take courses and workshops, find a writing group, and a professional organization like PWAC (http://pwac.ca/) that can help you make contacts. (I’m also a freelance writer—my work has appeared Macleans, The Toronto Star, The National Post, The Montreal Gazette, and on CBC Radio One, as well as in many other lay publications and learned journals.)

If you haven’t already, read these “rules” for writing fiction, put together by The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one.
Finally, if you’re unhappy, try changing some of the things in your life: I changed jobs and moved house a number of times before I faced up to the cause of my malaise. Get a good therapist, if you have to.

Finally, you’ve got to BELIEVE you can do it. I can’t stress that enough: if you’re going to plunge into a realm that’s 99% rejection, you better really believe you’ve got the goods. Or you’ll be demolished by it.

17.) What's next for you? Are you working on a new book and when should we expect it to be published?

I’m trying to get this book into the hands of an agent who will bring it to the US (and other) market(s). I’ve sent the book to a film maker who sent me back a really nice note instead of laughing in my face. I keep dreaming/hoping/believing. And trying to figure out how to write a novel…believe me, I’ll be more than happy to let you know when it’s going to be published!

[The Meaning Of Children is available in fine bookstores across Canada and online at Amazon.ca, Chapters, and through Exile Editions]

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