Interviews, all rounded up...

 Interviewed by CTV News Anchor Mutsumi Takahashi

Interviewed by CBC HomeRun's Jeanette Kelly

From Motivate to Create (Nate Hendley's Blog) October 17, 2012:

Interviewed by Nate Hendley

Beverly Akerman is the author of an award-winning new book called The Meaning of Children.

What motivates you to write? Is it the promise of money, fame, power, recognition, self-fulfillment or something else?

Oh, fame and power, absolutely, lol! How did you know? No, really, I write because I just feel these stories inside that simply have to be told. Don’t forget, I came to writing recently after working for 20 years in science. So I think I must have been holding in a lot of feelings for a very long time (though no one in my family will believe I’ve ever held in much of anything, feeling-wise, I’m sure!).

Much of my work stems from personal experience, even though it’s fiction (my kids laugh when I say that, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). For instance, when I write about young Anglo lovers afraid of speaking english at Saint-Jean Baptiste Day celebrations [in Quebec] in the early ‘70s, that’s a piece of history that people should know, but may not. I write to conjure up my grandparents (“Tumbalalaika”), remember a foster sister who we were sure was abused by her father (“Sea of Tranquillity”), to honour a friend who might have questioned his daughter’s paternity (“Paternity”) but did not, in actuality. One of my favourite stories in this collection, “The Woman with Deadly Hands,” I wrote in answer to the question “can one ever read too much?” No one would know that’s the meaning of the story, but it is, at least to me (I only figured this out well after I’d written it). Stories are like Rorschach tests: there are certainly major themes and issues that move most readers, but there are always things people can assign their own meanings to. That’s the beauty of art.

Do you have any “tricks of the trade” that help you kick-start the creative process?

You know, I like to be moved by something. If it doesn’t make me feel like laughing or crying, it’s not really what I want to write fiction about. When my kids were young, my mom would take us all to storytelling and plays put on at the Centaur Theatre in Montreal. It was done in the round, and just the sight of all the kids, paying such rapt attention … I found that so moving, it made me cry. I want my readers to feel that way when I show them something. The other big thing, I’ve found, is to unsettle myself. Travelling does that. I’m not a big traveller, so when I go to a writing conference, it really puts me on a sort of emergency footing. That peels my nerve endings back a bit, makes me more open and vulnerable. So I would recommend getting out of your comfort zone sometimes. And writing about what really moves you.

In your opinion, is talent overrated? Does society put too much emphasis on skill and not enough on will?

No, I don’t actually think talent is over-rated. I think youth—particularly young male writers--are over-rated. I used to think that was maybe just because I’m a middle-aged woman, but the recent work by Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) and their American sisters at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts who have massively documented the systematic ignoration—hmm, is that a real word?—of women writers in the literary press have proved to me that it’s not just sour grapes. The gender imbalance in reviewing the work of women writers is a shocking shame. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons my book did not get its due: a woman writing about children? “Bleah.” Even though it’s about so much more than children, I’m sure that may well have diminished its appeal. At The National Post, for example, nearly 70 percent of the literary reviewers were male and nearly 80 percent of the books reviewed were by men in the period surveyed. It was worse at The Walrus and almost as bad at The Globe & Mail. Of course, now that the book pages are being torn from the papers, it won’t matter quite as much, will it?

Can you tell me a little bit about your book, The Meaning of Children?

Reviews of the book have been highly favourable; my work has been compared to Alice Munro’s and Grace Paley’s. One reader recently compared it to Jonathan Safran Foer’s work, too.

My stories capture pivotal underappreciated moments in the world of girls and women, in childhood, adolescence, parenthood, or life as a whole. Disparate decades and narrative voices woven together by themes of sex, death, and social prejudice. And love, always love … a girl discovers a fear of heights as her parents’ marriage unravels; a thirty-something venture fund manager frets over his daughter’s paternity; an orphan whose hands kill whatever they touch is accused of homophobia; a suicidal daycare worker has a very bad day; a mother of two can only bear to consider abortion in the second person; the wife of a retirement-aged professor finds him unconscious near his computer … The Meaning of Children speaks to all who—though aware the world can be a very dark place—can’t help but long for redemption. Women particularly love this book; I call it intelligent fiction with a beating heart.

Many of my stories are available free online; you can find the links on my website.

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From Inspiration Forum UK, September 2012

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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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 novel 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 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 has 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 ( 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
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!

July 2011 Reprinted, with kind permission, from

Author! Author! An Interview with Beverly Akerman

After over two decades in molecular genetics research, Beverly Akerman realized she’d been learning more and more about less and less. Skittish at the prospect of knowing everything about nothing, she turned, for solace, to writing. The results are impressive: She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (fiction and nonfiction) and National Magazine Awards. Her credits include Maclean’s Magazine, The Toronto Star, The National Post, The Montreal Gazette and CBC Radio One’s Sunday Edition, myriad literary and scientific journals and other publications. And, now, she has a collection of short stories titled The Meaning of Children, published with Exile Editions.

In The Meaning of Children, Beverly presents us with 14 stories that approach the world’s complexities through a child’s eyes (Beginning), grapple with the sorrows and ecstasies of the child-bearing years (Middle), and probe truths that emerge near the end of life’s journey (End). The Meaning of Children speaks to all of us who—though aware the world can be a very dark place—can’t help but long for redemption.

You are a master story teller Beverly. What, in your opinion, makes a great short story and what did you have to pay attention to as a writer?

Everyone’s time is precious, particularly my reader’s. So if I want people to read something I’ve written, there has to be something in it for them. Like, a good story.

I write literary fiction (or try to), but I think some readers (and writers!) have decided that means stories where nothing much happens. Well, in my stories, the kernel is an event that creates a significant emotional response in the reader. I don’t want to spend all my time in a character’s head when I’m reading a book myself, so I’m not going to write stories where the protagonist spends all her time moaning and groaning about her lot. I don’t believe in anomie. I don’t believe in books about nothing more than young people f*cking.

Emotion is important and at the crux of everything. So emotional experiences matter. Paring down the prose matters. Beginning, middle, end. The character has to change (or miss a grand opportunity for growth), and the reader has to know that.

Getting a book of short stories published with a prestigious publisher like Exile Editions is everyone’s dream. Tell us a bit about getting them on board.

I’m really pleased to be published by Exile for a number of reasons. They’re a small literary publisher with a solid gold reputation—they’ve published some of the great writers of our time— Yehuda Amichai , Pablo Neruda , Morley Callaghan , Austin Clarke , Lauren B. Davis , Michael Moriarty , Joyce Carol Oates , Boris Pasternak , to name a few. But the secret reason I’m thrilled with Exile (I’m a diaspora Jew—even the name “Exile” pleases me!) is that it was founded by Barry Callaghan, who is Morley Callaghan’s son. The current publisher is Michael Callaghan, Barry’s son and Morley’s grandson.

But that’s not the secret.

The secret is that Morley Callaghan is fundamental to my having become a writer. And in more ways than one.

First of all, his 1951 masterpiece, The Loved and The Lost, has always stuck with me. This great novel of the immorality of racism takes place in Montreal , and the protagonist is a man named Jim McAlpine. TLATL is one of the first CanLit novels I remember reading as a really young person. My last science job ended in 2003, when I left a biotech company called Ecopia. Some time during the last year or so that I worked there, a new VP was recruited from the States, a man named Jim McAlpine.

"A day is full of possibilities… " Beverly says. (Photo taken by author; dawn in Ogunquit, Maine)

Now I hadn’t thought of TLATL for years, but the moment I heard the new VP’s name, my first thought was, “that’s the name of Callaghan’s protagonist in TLATL.” I dug up my old copy of the book and brought it into work, where it sat in my desk drawer for months (I never worked up the nerve to show the biochemist Jim McAlpine; I figured he’d think I was a loon!). Every time I caught sight of it, I puzzled over the coincidence of the names and why it meant so much to me. Eventually, I realized that I had to quit science because what I really wanted to do was write.

So Morley Callaghan taught me two absolutely vital things: that the place I lived could be interesting enough to sustain a Governor General Award-winning novel—remember, this was before I’d ever read anything by Richler!—and that a novel I hadn’t looked at for a couple of decades still meant that much to me.

There was one more really fundamental thing that put me on the path to being a writer: the death of my father-in-law, Gerry Copeman. Gerry and I didn’t get along that well, though we’d made our peace. But when he died, I plunged into a crisis: I understood—emotionally, as opposed to rationally or intellectually—that my time on this earth was finite, and I’d better use it doing something I’d always dreamed of doing—which was writing fiction.

Let me take another stab at answering your question, though. I submitted to Exile more than once. I just kept at it. They had my manuscript for close to 2 years, without a contract. The length of time I found very trying, I can’t deny it. But, if there’s a message here, it’s to believe in your work and not give up.

And, by the way, as far as submitting short stories goes, I submitted like mad. And I pretty much completely disregarded any demands not to submit simultaneously—that is, I submitted each story to many lit journals at the same time. That’s supposed to be a no-no. But really, if I needed to face 10 rejections before an acceptance (and that’d be an easy road for most of my stories!), and each journal took six months to answer me, that’d be five years before I got a story accepted…at that rate, I’d’ve been DEAD before having a significant body of stories in print!

May 2011: From alpha globin genes to short story magazines: Singularity Magazine 

Vincent Tan of Singularity Magazine (the magazine "for curious artists and scientists") was kind enough to interview me for his May 2011 issue...thanks again, Vincent!!

1) Before we talk about your book, The Meaning of Children, tell us more about your work in molecular genetics research.
I did my McGill University MSc with Charles Scriver at the Debelle Laboratory for Biochemical Research, which is a department in The Montreal Childrens’ Hospital. The title of my thesis was Alpha Globin Genes in Quebec Populations. Adult hemoglobin is made of two chains, so-called alpha and beta (two of each, actually). Hereditary anemias—like thalassemia and sickle cell anemia—are caused by mutations (which can be point mutations or deletions) in either gene. Because the normal person actually has 4 copies of the alpha gene (two from each parent), most alpha mutations are due to deletions. So basically I used Southern blotting to analyze how many alpha globin genes there were in people from Quebec groups at varying risk for hereditary anemia. My thesis was deposited in 1987, before PCR technology became widely used. My first job was in Nahum Sonenberg’s lab in McGill’s biochemistry department. He focused on translation initiation; that’s where I became really proficient in DNA cloning and sequencing. From there, I worked with Roy Gravel (who had just come from University of Toronto to head up the MCH’s Research Institute; ’90-‘96). He worked on gangliosidoses—I published work on Tay Sachs disease mutations in non-Jewish populations. And from there, it was back to work with Charles and also Dr. Eileen Treacy (’96-99). I spent 10 months in the lab of Andrea Leblanc at the Lady Davis Institute—working on enzymes involved in programmed cell death, called caspases. From there, I headed off to the private sector, to a now-merged biotech company called Ecopia. They were looking for new antibiotics by scanning bacterial genomes. After three years there, molecular biology and I called it quits.

2) You sequenced your own DNA. What made you do it? More importantly, how did you go about doing it? Can everyone do it too?
I needed a control for a Tay Sachs disease patient whose DNA I was sequencing, so I used my own (probably not a good idea but people do that all the time, or at least did so back then). I don’t think you could do this at home: for one thing, in those days, you needed to use radioactive material. So ordering it and using it safely meant doing it in a laboratory. And it was only short segments of my DNA, not all of it. But it is a true quirky fact that I’ve done it, so it amuses me to include it as part of my biography.
Vincent Tan & alter ego
3) Moving from molecular genetics to fiction writing seems like a big jump. What's the story behind it?
Well, I think I had been moving beyond science for a decade, but gradually. Then something really acute happened: my father-in-law, Gerry Copeman, died of lung cancer in 2003. Gerry and I didn’t get along that well, though we’d made our peace. But when he died, I was plunged into a sort of crisis: 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 was writing fiction. So I quit working in science and started writing. I have a wonderfully supportive family.
4) The short stories in your book all revolve around children. What's the significance?
I didn’t start out to write stories on any particular theme, beyond that they were about issues that I was interested in, felt strongly about, was moved by. Then, after four or five years, I had written all these stories and I had to find a way to unite them, to put them into a package in some way that made sense other than that they were written by me. I ended up with a book that has three parts—Beginning (which features first-person point of view stories of children), Middle (stories of people in the child-bearing years), and End (which features older people, or stories that take the long view of life). I’ve also been thinking a lot lately of where my two careers intersect. In biology and genetics, evolution by natural selection is as close to written in stone as any concept. But the point of evolution—and selective advantage via sexual reproduction—is to produce a ‘better’ next generation, one more suited to the prevailing circumstances. In other words, it’s about doing your best for your offspring, albeit in an unconscious or extra-conscious way. So children are very central to all of this, or offspring, anyway. I also had three children with my husband while I was doing all that lab work. I’ve been intrigued to experience all those parental feelings on a personal level.
5) Of all the 14 short stories, which one did you find the hardest to write? Why is that?
The hardest ones are the ones that aren’t published yet. Probably because I have yet to get them right!
6) If you had to write a children's book, instead of a book revolving around children, what is the first idea and storyline you think of?
I’d love to write more funny stuff, so I’d want to write something about misunderstandings or kids getting into mischief. Science mischief, maybe, I hadn’t thought of that before, so thanks for this. I feel that I may have written too many sad or dark stories. Maybe I just had to get them out of my system, though.
7) Where can we get more information about you and your book?
You can read about my triumphs and tribulations by finding me on Facebook, ‘liking’ my book’s Facebook page, or on Twitter at @Beverly_Akerman.

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