Sunday, November 18, 2018

going to the book fair / Salon du livre de Montréal 2018

How many people go to Montreal's book fair? I don't know but wow. There are more than 2500 authors invited for signings and other events.

Above is the view from my table,and here's me watching the streams and streams of people passing at 11 am on a Sunday morning!

The longest lineups are for children's books. For one author there's a lineup of parents and kids down the alley and up the stairway and around a corner three or four abreast. When R comes by to see if  I need anything, he asks if maybe I want to write a children's book.

I'm watching how many people meet my eyes as they walk past. I sometimes get a smile and even a Bonjour. A woman asks if my book is for adolescents or adults. Another asks what my book is about and says she'll keep it in mind. She comes back 10 minutes later and buys it. Nice!

I love watching the kids who walk past swinging or hugging the bag with the book(s) they've been allowed to choose. Some return my look solemnly. Some look away. Some smile. One asks her mom if I wrote a book too. Yes, I say. It's important for kids to know that ordinary-looking, talking, walking people write books. When I was young, I loved to read but hadn't the least idea who wrote books. I thought you had to be born in England and have a snooty accent. 

I get questions that have nothing to do with my book. "I have an 11-year-old and a four-year-old. Can you tell me which children's authors are at the Salon right now?" She's holding her phone and I suggest she pull up the site and look. We do that together. And then from left field: "Madame! Madame! Why is this book $39.95 here and in my bookstore in St-Hyacinthe it's $34?" I say I'm not the manager, I'm an author. I don't normally say that I'm an author. It sounds so la-di-da. (See snooty accent above.) But being here makes it okay somehow. The woman apologizes and leans in to hug me. Glances at my book but doesn't buy it.

The publisher stops by now and then to see if I need anything and to chat. I appreciate it.

A friend underhand-pitches me a piece of sucre à la crème--like fudge--through the crowd. To my surprise I catch it. Keep your blood sugar up, he says. 

I step across two seats when I realize that a new author who's come at noon is Sylvain Neuvel, who also lives in Pointe St-Charles. He was at the Salon yesterday too and said that he had another writer from the Pointe beside him. Good writing vibes in the Pointe these days! 

I stay long enough to cross paths with Eric Dupont whose recent book, La route du lilas, I've started reading and admire hugely. Before he even arrives, he has a lineup. The woman at the head of the line has a list of questions. I ask if she hesitated before undertaking to read a 600-page book. She's very surprised. The more pages are only the more pleasure! she says. The whole day so far has been an Alice tumble into a world where words and books reign.

But I'm ravenous for lunch and R recalls the smell of fresh bread when we were walking to the Salon from the Pointe, and we head off to find the bakery-café he's positive exists. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

visiting the swamp

What is it like for people who can never see their once-upon-a-time home again because they cannot return? I ask myself.

My own relationship with past homes is considerably softer, but still elusive.

I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. My parents had only just emigrated to Canada a year before I was born. They obviously hadn't yet assimilated North American values. In fact, as a child I often wondered why we were in Canada since I often heard my parents say that European quality--Qualität--was so much better. My mother found the neighbours schlampig. Say that out loud. You don't need to speak German to hear that it's not a desirable trait.

Our relationship with our neighbours, most of them from the Maritimes come to southern Ontario for work, was coloured by recent history. Not so long previously their fathers and uncles had fought against the Krauts, and goddamn! if we weren't Krauts living in their midst now.

You think that as a child I couldn't have understood these distinctions? I might not have understood what they meant, but I heard Kraut often enough and I was aware we were disliked. I knew I didn't look like the other kids with their pedal pushers and short curly hair. I had long braids and handmade dresses.

However, when I finally met my family in Austria, it turned out I didn't fit in there either.

It was easy when I finally decided to move to Montreal where I didn't "come from", but that's finally become home.

At some point in my timeline of growing up in Ontario, my parents bought land that included several acres of swamp. Behind the swamp was a forest where my father built a one-room cabin--no electricity, no running water--where we camped in the summers and spent weekends. Here it is in the late 1960s. It took several years for a humongous pond to be dug in one corner of the swamp to heap up enough land to get permission to build a house on top, more time again to build it.

When we moved into the house I was fifteen. It was the family home I returned to for visits and Christmas until the house and land were sold twenty-five years later.

Do I have fond memories of the cabin, the forest, living in a house surrounded by a swamp? No. I was a strawberry blond, pale-skinned target for mosquitoes, black flies, horse flies, deer flies, blood suckers. I couldn't figure out how to climb a tree. I wanted to be in a city.

The memories were a mine, though, when I began to imagine a life for Thérèse and Rose in my novel Five Roses.

This, too, is a surprise: among the different landscapes of my past, swampy land feels familiar, the unruly growth and wreckage of it even beautiful.

A couple of weeks ago R and I visited family in Ontario and I wanted to take a drive to the old house, though I was told that the couple who bought it didn't "keep it up".

The house looked abandoned even before I opened the outside screen door to knock and ask permission to walk around.

Here's the creek we used to float down in inner tubes or paddle kayaks or a square boat my father made from scrap lumber. Don't get bitten by a snapping turtle, eh? It'll take your finger off.

R remembered picking green beans and tomatoes in the garden that used to be enclosed by these trees--that used to be a hedge.

Here's the 30' high tower we used to climb. It was more solid in those days, although it was 30' in the air and you had to throw yourself over the wall from the ladder to get inside. Also dangle in the air while finding your footing to get down again. Mind you, it wasn't built as a toy. It was meant to... sight herons? I'm not really sure.

It's sad to see how decayed and abandoned the old place is, though equally impressive to see how tenaciously Nature reclaims its own. My father built a boardwalk to cross the swamp to get to the forest. This moss-covered wood is what's left of it.

And yes, by the way, I KNOW that swamp is more properly called wetland now, but I have my particular relationship with what I assure was and still is a swamp.

Making our way past the swamp to the forest, all my old landmarks rotted or overgrown by thorn trees and alders, I wasn't always sure which direction or how far to go. A distance that seemed far as a child isn't the same as an adult. In fact, it might be farther. In the forest I felt lost at the same time that I recognized the wet leaf scent, the softness of decomposing pine needles underfoot, the brush of the trees.

And here, faded but still nailed to a post, one of our old handmade signs.

The windows of our old cabin were smashed, the inside wrecked. The rope swing my father hung between two pine trees was gone. No trace of the driftwood fence, the outhouse, the benches, the birdbath.

Well, of course not.

Back at the house, walking around it one last time, I saw the bird's nest on the sill of my old bedroom window.