Friday 21 September 2012

The Meaning of Children: Latest interview, at Inspiration Forum UK

From Inspiration Forum UK, September 2012

Thank you, Fiona McVie!

Those books aren't just going to read themselves, you know...
Our Interview with Beverly Akerman 
Name Beverly Akerman

Age North of 40, south of 60. Okay, you win: I’m 52.

Where are you from? Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

A little about your self ie. your education, family life, etc.
Born and raised in Montreal. In fact, I’ve never lived anywhere else. Sometimes I feel a bit bad about that, like it’s a character flaw or something. I have three kids well on their way to being grown-up. One moved out of the house to live on his own just this summer…and it was my middle guy, the one who’s always been easiest to get along with and the most helpful. (Or maybe it just seems that way; hindsight, rose coloured glasses and all that. Still, he was the only one of the three who used to point to his bed at night when we’d be rocking him in the rocking chair. He did like his sleep!) My husband is still here at home with me. I’m happy about that, actually. He worked in politics for many years, while our family was young. So I worked full-time, mostly, and single-parented it half the time.

I was busy and exhausted, so over-programmed that I don’t have all that many memories of that period. Why do we do this to ourselves? I suppose you’ve heard the saying, “Of course women can have it all: just not all at the same time.”

I have BSc and MSc degrees in biology from McGill University and worked for over 20 years in molecular genetics research. But I’d always known I’d be a writer some day. (At least, I’d always wanted/intended/hoped to be a writer some day…)

Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I just had my longest ever giveaway on Amazon for the e-version of my award winning short story collection, The Meaning of Children, and it went really well. Over 4300 downloads, which I think is amazing for literary fiction. And the reviews—from periodicals as well as “real” readers-- are absolutely incredible as well. Words like “luminous,” “illuminated,” “haunting,” “a life-altering read,” “profound,” “a book of rare sensitivity and masterful creative writing”…You’d have to look on the book page to see them (it hasn’t quite caught on yet in the UK, I’m afraid) and on my blog.

Here are some links:

Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I'd always thought I'd be a writer some day. My first publication was a poem that won an honourable mention when I was nine and a half years old, something I wrote about in The Rampike last year, in the creative nonfiction piece "Aversion Conditioning, or Why I am Somewhat Conflicted About Poetry.” But I guess my imagination-my self confidence?-failed me because I could never seriously picture myself as a writer. So I put it aside, joked about needing to live life first in order to have something to write about (though maybe that isn't a joke), and tried to prove something (though exactly what and to whom I'm not quite sure) by distinguishing myself in math and science, the subjects everybody else seemed to think were the hardest.

I'd been keen on genetics since first learning about it in high school and in grade 10, when we were offered testing for Tay Sachs disease carrier status and one of my friends tested positive, I was well and duly hooked on DNA.

I majored in biology (human genetics) and went on to graduate work in genetics, where one of my most cherished delusions was that, once I finished the residency requirement and no longer paid by the credit, I'd be able to take all the English and creative writing courses I'd always dreamt of.

Guess how much time I had for non-science courses while pursuing a research degree in genetics?

That's right: none.

By 2003, I'd been in science for over two decades, mostly in McGill-affiliated labs. I'd been fairly successful, writing or co-writing 19 papers, mostly on mutations associated with several rare diseases. I also had a life--three kids and a husband who made a career in politics. But a funny thing happened as I waltzed through the genomes: the work had started to lose its meaning for me.

Something was wrong, I just couldn't put my finger on what, exactly.

And then my father-in-law, Gerry Copeman, died of lung cancer.

Gerry and I didn't even get along that well, although we'd made our peace, especially after the grandchildren arrived. But when he died, it affected me deeply, beyond the sadness of losing someone so close. For the first time, I understood-emotionally, as opposed to rationally or intellectually-that my time on this earth was finite, and that I'd better use it doing something I'd always dreamed of doing.

Which turned out to be, once I spent some time trying to figure it out, writing fiction.

So I switched gears, started taking writing workshops-the Quebec Writers' Federation has been stellar in providing learning opportunities for someone like me, unsure if she wanted to go back to university (and, more importantly, not convinced it would be helpful to have roomsful of young strangers tear up her work). I've been writing and submitting like mad ever since.

My first stories were published-online and in print-in 2006. Within a few years, I'd published more than 20 stories-in anthologies like the Aesthetica Creative Writing Annual 2012 and Best New Writing 2011, as well as literary journals and won or placed in a slew of contests. Links to my stories available online are on my blog. But let me direct you to a favourite of mine (and of my readers), “Pie.” It’s about love and loss, motherhood, baking, childrearing, and war.

And you can read it here:

Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I’ve probably always considered myself a writer trapped in a non-writing body…but I remember when I won the Fog City Writers Fiction Contest…I opened the email and screamed. Hubby came running, thinking someone had died. But it was just that I’d won a $1,000 prize. I think that was the moment when I thought, “Okay, it’s not my imagination, this really is good work.” That was October 10th, 2007 (I had to look it up).

Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
I’d read somewhere that bestsellers were typically titled “The noun of noun” and so I played with that. The thing is, when I sat back and looked at the pile of stories I’d writing, the theme of children wasn’t hard to spot. I also realized, after submitting the collection for a while and getting nowhere with it (I am extremely impatient about such things) that I needed to have an overall structure to the book. So I thought about it some more and realized I could divide the book into “beginning”—stories from a child’s point of view—“middle”—about those in the child bearing years--and “end”—about older people, or stories that take the long view of life. And pretty soon after that, it was accepted for publication in Canada by Exile Editions.

Fiona: Is there a message in your story collection that you want readers to grasp?
You know, I think about that from time to time. There are 14 stories and I’d say that each of them has its own message and meaning, which may differ from reader to reader (and reading to reading). That’s what makes them literary, I guess.

I think one of the overall messages of the collection is about noticing those small moments of growth and insight, and that being a kid can be hard. Being a grown-up can be hard, too. And being a parent, a mother…well, let’s just say I wanted to shine the light on some feelings that are deep but not that much discussed. And they aren’t all dark, but some of them are.

Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
Much of the book is quite realistic but I do have one story, “The Woman with Deadly Hands,” which, as you can tell from the title, is a bit of a fairy tale. But it’s a fairy tale for grown-ups. There’s sex in it, homosexuality, a deep dark secret, and a HEA ending (for happily ever after). Many of the themes, in fact, are similar to those in Fifty Shades of Grey, which is one of the reasons that trilogy appealed to me, though I don’t write soft porn. Probably more lucrative if I did!

Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I tell everyone that the book is fiction. My kids always roll their eyes (or smirk, or both!) at that. So I’d have to also say some of the stories are based on real events in my own life, or those of people I know. But if real life is the basis of a story, I still take it and move it beyond the quotidian. Something has to happen to that interesting character, IMHO. Or it’s not really a story.

Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most?
As a writer? Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version is pretty much perfect, in my view. It’s largely about Montreal, it features characters brash and larger than life, it’s a book about the love of a man for his wife and children, it’s poignant and moving and very, very funny. A writer at the top of his game. If I could write something that had all that—humour, love of family, poignancy—I’d consider myself a success.
One of the things that means the most to me about it is that it’s about the love of a Jewish man for his Jewish wife…which is a kind of long story for me. Let’s just say that most male Jewish authors do not write about lovely and lovable Jewish women. If you like, you can read up on that here:
and here (because that was one of the few changes in the story when it was turned into film)

Other books that are important to me: Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost. I was very young when I read it and it impressed me immeasurably because it showed me my own home, Montreal, could be the setting for an important novel.
Then there’s the usual: Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, both of which I re-read recently. The latter astounded me: these are books that are usually required reading for pre-teens here in Canada. So to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird was as much about parenting as about racism was a real eye-opener.

More recently, I’ve really enjoyed Lionel Shriver’s fearlessness in We Have to Talk About Kevin, and Michael Chabon’s tour de force The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay.

Fiona: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
I don’t think I could choose just one…there’s Colleen Curran, a playwright I’ve been studying with for the past few years. She is just incredibly motivating and supportive, and a wonderful all round bubbly person. She is a sucker for comedy and happily ever after (see her play Cake Walk or her novels, e.g. Something Drastic) but she has also written much more serious work (El Cladavista, Sacred Hearts).

Then there’s Neale McDevitt; I took writing workshops with him for about 18 months. He has a wonderful book of short fiction, One Day Even Trevi Will Crumble, quite a prescient title because I recently read that the fountain was out of commission for awhile after several chunks of it had broken away. Other writing teachers of who really stand out in my mind: Luis Alberto Urrea, and Nancy Zafris.

Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Right now I’m reading Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for book club and really enjoying that.

Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
All of them. Martin Crosbie, author of My Temporary Life, for example. Poet Samuel Peralta who is new to me, anyway. I’m learning so much on this indie experiment of mine.

Fiona: What are your current projects?
I’m still trying to figure out how to write a novel. I know how to start them, no problem. It’s keeping them going…that’s what I have to work on. I also have a couple of plays on the go.

Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
Oh, there are many of those! An entire alphabet soup of initials: PWAC, for the Professional Writers Association of Canada, which helped me earn a (bit of? Modest?) living as a freelance writer; the QWF (Quebec Writers’ Federation), which made all the lovely writing workshops available for modest fees, the WFNB (Writers Federation of New Brunswick) for running the David Adams Richards Prize Contest, and; my Canadian publisher, Exile Editions.

Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Yes: I wouldn’t have worried so much about no one wanting to publish it. I wouldn’t have said “yes” to the first offer; I would have investigated what a publisher was willing to do for me. I would have had more faith in my own talent.

Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? if so what is it?

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