Thursday, December 13, 2007


I'll be signing copies of Double-blind Saturday December 15th from 7pm-9pm at Coles in the Avalon Mall, St. John's.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Your character will see you now -- oh, by the way, your narcissism is showing.

So there I am a few years ago, before I’d found a publisher, working on various projects, when Annie Ferncase decides to profile me for the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador newsletter, Word. The article goes online in 2004. The article mentions Double-blind, which was then in progress, and its protagonist Josh Bozeman.

I’ve whined before about how much I sank into that character, that voice. Not as much in 2004 and 2007, but enough so that when I got e-mail from Josh Bozeman I jumped back from my computer. Logic was quick – “Michelle, you knob, there are probably lots of guys out there with that name” – but fright was quicker.

I told the real-life Josh that the book wasn’t published, but should that change, I’d let him know and send him a copy.

A few weeks ago I did that – and it was eerie – utterly fucking weird – inscribing a copy of Double-blind to a real Josh Bozeman.

This real-life Josh Bozeman can be found here: Please note, I’m neither endorsing nor condemning Josh or The Blue Site – he’s commenting on the events in his country and exercising his right to freedom of speech. I will say it’s been very interesting to be in contact with him.

Insufficient apple

For the second year in a row, I got to sign a copy of one of my books for Daisy Ellsworth.

I was in Miss Ellsworth’s grade two class at Vanier Elementary in 1978-79. She was tall and blonde and had large blue eyes, a few freckles across her nose and cheeks, and unlike many women teachers in the 1970s, wore pants. She may have worn dresses or skirts, but I remember the smart outfits of flared pants and a blazer. Her voice was a bit low for a woman’s, much like mine, but not butch. Just together. The students would sit on the carpet while she read to us or pointed out phonics on a flip chart – I am very grateful I got some phonics in school before this language teaching method was thoughtlessly discarded – and I’d feel all faked out in my dress and knee socks and hair clips. I’d look up at Miss Ellsworth and promise myself that some day I’d be like her.

Miss Ellsworth did – and does – believe that children are inherently creative and must be given ample chance to exercise that creativity. I don’t know how much of this was curriculum and how much was Miss Ellsworth, but we did a lot of creative writing. A lot. She taught us diamante poetry. Concrete poetry. Ballad. Free verse. And short stories – everyone was expected, over some days (it feels now like about a week, but I can’t swear to that) to develop a story and then read it to the class. In the late fall, I wrote a free verse poem about skating; in it I compared snowflakes melting on the lips to mother’s milk. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, where that simile came from. I just knew that if it startled Miss Ellsworth, it might be good. Then, just before Christmas, I got an idea for a story that broke the one-page barrier. A page and a half! And in my favourite blue Hilroy exercise book. A protagonist, her little brother, and the mean older boy next door as antagonist. There, that day, that story, that desk in a classroom smelling of flip-chart markers, dusty carpet and white glue – that’s when I knew. The story stuff, these poems, that was my life.

Likely I’d have figured out the writing thing eventually. My point is, I figured it out at age seven. In a safe and supportive classroom, where no one was mocked for taking risks. I figured it out at age seven because I was lucky enough to have Daisy Ellsworth for a teacher.

Then my family moved between grade 2 and grade 3. I didn’t see Miss Ellsworth again until 2006.

I had some other good teachers over the years, but for the most part I hated school. Social murder. Grinding boredom that sounded like the distant chainsaws in autumn. A sentence. Year after year. I did well academically – not counting grade 12 physics and math -- mostly because I could and because it meant people would then leave me alone while I went after what I really wanted. I also made myself obnoxious. If I was going to be mocked for taking risks, I’d arm for quick defense.

That is not something I learned in Miss Ellsworth’s class.

Many years later, in 2006, I’d published my first book, The shadow side of grace, and I’d mentioned Miss Ellsworth in an interview when asked who taught me the most about writing. I’d tried in 1999 to track her down but couldn’t. Then she showed up at one of my signings. We knew each other immediately. And when I stood up to hug her, I was startled that I’d grown as tall as her. She also came to a signing for Double-blind this fall, and it was deeply satisfying to inscribe a book for her.

Lots of people have these stories, of teachers who really reached them. I’m just not sure we hear them enough. And I’m not sure I can properly thank Miss Ellsworth.

Friday, October 12, 2007

First draught

My dayjob office is in an old building on Water Street, St. John’s. I have a grand window view, a door with an ornate and functional slot engraved “LETTERS,” and a hot water radiator that puts out the beat heat – electric baseboards this time of year smell of summer’s dust, slowly roasting.

The building is a designated heritage site, as it should be. Amongst other things, the original brickwork is intact and should most certainly not be disturbed.

No architect, me, but I’m guessing there’s little to no insulation between the inner and outer walls. We had frost this morning, and the air is as cold and sharp as concrete when it tears your skin.

So behind me is a delicious baking heat. Besides and in front of me is an insistent cold draught – no comfort here. My legs are chilled. Me toes are nearly numb. My hands were icy until I wrapped them round the rad.

Is this the cost of history? Knowledge that’s necessary and blatant but hardly soothing?

Profound, Michelle. Don’t give up your dayjob.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Weaving in Limbo

Third month of Prozac is here. Not that I’m crossing off the days to count the pills, but I am tracking change, Not going to call it recovery yet – not going to attempt to define “recovery” either, not when melancholy is part of the human condition – but I am feeling better.

Or perhaps that should be “stronger.”

The sinkhole of weird emotional pain – imagine being scalded, non-stop – remains, but with meds I can get perspective. I can also get out of my own way. Psychomotor retardation, that heavy and dense compulsion to not be compelled, to simply stay put because nothing could possibly be worth the gargantuan effort it takes to move, now only settles on me in the evening, like dust in darkness.

So, the use of this depression? The craftsman in me wants to use every last scrap, every woodshaving, even the sawdust, file it on a shelf for later. Must salvage, must put together, must create.

A character in my next novel, Sky Waves, has manic-depression, or bipolar illness as it’s sometimes called – as though the illness were as simple as two poles, or as though depression were as simple as one. Her addictive manias propel huge ideas and plans, but she for all her drive she lacks focus and discipline. This lack is not a character flaw, as is long thought, but a symptom. She’s damaged by other things, too, rendering her delicate and brittle. While I’ve had clinical depression before, I’ve gotten some new understandings this time round – or some deeper understandings. Every scrap will go into this book.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Word on the Street in Halifax

Hey, I get to visit the tiger in the Halifax airport again.

I've been invited to read at Word on the Street in Halifax on September 23rd. Here's a link to what's happening:

No word yet on whether Halifax has officially changed its name to Halifax City.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Monday, September 10, 2007

As sweet

My name is Michelle Butler Hallett. (Or, in sillier moments, I go up to Cabot Tower when there's lightning to yell "My name is Frankenstein!")

I was Shelly Butler growing up. I switched to Michelle, my legal name, when I went to work at VOCM one summer, and there was already a Shelley in the department. I kept Michelle throughout university – again, because it’s my actual name. My immediate family still calls me Shelly, as do some of the people I went to school with.

I got married just before my first published story appeared in 1994. I’d submitted it as “M.L. Butler,” but a friend of mine asked me what I was hiding. I wondered, too, and asked to have the byline changed to Michelle Butler Hallett.

I gave long thought to my surname. I dislike the name Butler. It sounds harsh, especially the way I say it, with a squat short U and a breathy ER, little phonetic struggles that usually come after stuttering on the B. I considered legally changing it long before I got married. Then came the wedding. If I just used Hallett and then dropped my H, the phonetic mess “Michellallett” comes out. Then the feminist in me said “What about your identity?” Oh yes, my precious identity. I may not like the surname I was born to, but it is part of who and what I am.

So, as is a married woman’s privilege in most provinces of Canada, I’m Michelle Butler Hallett simply because I say I am. Tomorrow I could become Michelle Butler. Or Michelle Hallett. It’s just a nuisance of paperwork for me.

Butler Hallett, no hyphen. Now, this lack of a hyphen – another deliberate choice – causes some problems. Most software programs won’t accept a two-word surname without a hyphen, so the hyphen gets stuck in there. No hyphen means bookstores and libraries file me by the final name to appear on the cover and cataloguing data, which is Hallett. (The designer who did the cover for Double-blind has “Butler Hallett” on the spine, which, as far as I’m concerned is correct: it’s my name. My publisher files me under B as well.)

When my children needed passports, my husband wanted their surname to be Butler Hallett. He feels even more strongly about this than I do. He, too, wished to be identified as Butler Hallett. It turns out I can add or drop Hallett as I please, but my husband and children must hyphenate to add Butler. And pay a lot of money.

They’re all Hallett on their passports.

The girls are Hallett in school, too, with Butler considered a second middle name. Which is fine … though I did have a pang labelling their school supplies last week: Madeleine Hallett. Alexandra Hallett.

Hallett is a fine name, a very old name, and one I’m proud to share. My daughters are very like the Halletts I know: bright, musical, emotional. And they know who they are. Yesterday my sister gently teased my daughters for not liking a food that my sister and I adore. —You’re no Butlers.

My older daughter smiled sweetly. —No. We’re Halletts.”

Until you tick them off. Then they’re Butlers, Mommy’s girls: stubborn, passionate and fierce. God help ya.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Saturday, September 1, 2007

98 chapters

Sky Waves, my next novel, has an odd structure. The chapters will come at you out of strict linear order, but storylines as played out in linked chapters are in linear order. Each chapter is connected to the one preceding and the one following, just as people here in Newfoundland and Labrador are often connected to one another. The chapters are short and should feel like listening to sky waves, those AM broadcasts you can pick up at night from places you could never pick up during the day. And there are 98 chapters, because this novel is also a drew – that is, a row of 98 meshes in a fishing net. Historically the novel goes from Marconi on Signal Hill in 1901 to the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. It has an ensemble feel, several narrators and narrative consciousnesses, which is refreshing to me after suffocating under first-person narrator Josh Bozeman in Double-blind. The trick with Sky Waves now is to knit the chapters together – knit the drew – so it actually makes sense to someone besides me. Slow. Steady. Lamplight.

An assigment

So I got a request some months ago to write a story for an upcoming anthology. I was delighted – still am – and took it on. After all, the request was that the story be "dark." I can do dark.

Discovery: when I try to write dark, I produce self-parody. On some meta-narrative level, where I do not care to play, it’s actually kind of funny. So far I have a baby born with broken legs, mirroring the broken legs of the father, who is far far away being tormented as part of an endgame wth its roots in the 1991 Russian coup and present-day oligarchic privatization and gun-running to Chechnya. All narrated by a woman who’s taken refuge in a church basement in rural Newfoundland.

Could I be over-thinking here?

If the story were a horse, I’d shoot it.

Block. Delete. Start again.

Nuisance factor

Some people think that my wearing the long and very colourful earrings my daughters made for me is some kind of bravery, some triumph of love over nuisance.

Not a bit of it. My daughters made me those earrings. And I will wear them.

True nuisance factors:
1) Paying the light bill after finishing the shopping for back to school.
2) Sweat. Yes, sweat. Don’t know if it’s the Prozac, the heat, or some past-35 sudden egg expiry I don’t know about, but I break into unaccustomed sweats. A simple walk gets me lathered. Next time I’m at the gym, I might drown.
3) Failure and its phantoms. It’s one of the delusions – perhaps that’s too strong a word – one of the mirages of depair in depression. The thinking goes like this: I haven’t yet mopped the bathroom floor today or vaccummed the stairs. My mother would have had this done by 10 o’clock on a Saturday. The dusting’s not done, either. And I’m still, after nearly four weeks on Prozac, feeling like my blood is lead, struggling not to lie down and turn my face to the wall. Therefore, I’m a failure. Oh, and I’m not getting better fast enough, so I’m letting everyone down – and suddenly even my mental health is part of a to-do list.

Yet I am not a failure. A messy housekeeper, yeah. (Messy, not dirty – big difference.) And I’m depressed, but I’m not hopeless.

Partially because my daughters know the name of my book.

And they made me earrings.

Fully dilated

Okay, that’s a bit graphic, but when you’re giving birth, dilation matters.

Okay, okay, strained metaphor. Bite me. I’m a proud Mama, fit for indulgence. Very soon, I’ll be showing off my new "baby" – Double-blind is due to exist as copies sometime this week. It should be in stores shortly afterward.

Proud? Yeah. Scared? Completely. I’m feeling very protective of this book right now, like my baby is suddenly ready for school and has to fight its own battles now.

But also relieved. Long labour on this one. I first heard Dr. Bozeman in my head in late 2002 and started drafting the novel in 2003. I never expected this one to get published. It’s so pulpy and downright idiotic in places, which was an aesthetic risk, but the Cold War was often idiotic. Of course, that’s no excuse if the book turns out to be badly written …

Unknowns. Excitement. Bitten nails.

Come on, baby. Get born.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Dog, homework, novel, mind (ate)

Can I blame my novel? Or is this a random collapse, reasoned as a windstorm or a barking dog?

I am clinically depressed. I expect this bout started in May, after I’d finished Double-blind and taken ARCs to Book Expo. I remember feeling utterly lost that weekend, not just a little fish but quite unmoored. I’m not a party girl, and crowd after crowd wore me. But I should have been happy.
The depression bore down. A death in June hit me hard. Another trip to Toronto and then Ottawa in July was difficult; I tired so easily, wanted only to stay inside or be alone. I forced myself out into the sun, into social gatherings.

In August I went camping with my family in Gros Morne. Respite: family time, devotional time.

Then I crashed. Weird disproportionate sadness. Shattered sleep. A tentacled desire to keep still. Weeks without writing. Just before I was go to Winterset in Summer as part of the New Voices panel.

I was due in Eastport on a Thursday. I started meds that Tuesday. Driving out, I pulled off just west of Clarenville to beat my head against the steering wheel while some demented despair took me. Deciding on (alleged) coffee at Irving nearly defeated me. Some automated face worked: I spoke, answered questions, listened. But all I wanted was to lie on the bed and keep still.

Participating in Winterset in Summer on Saturday took all my strength. I read, was part of a panel, received an unexpected sum on money to put towards the expenses of writing my next book – all amazing things.
All miles above.

Back to probable cause. I expect I’m wired funny, prone to melancholy – there’s certainly a streak of it in the extended family. But this particular collapse: fatigue. Not just the straining schedule I’ve kept, either, but the damn book.

Narrating a novel first-person through someone committing monstrous acts who yet does not see himself as evil is a tricky business. Dr. Bozeman is fictional, yes, and so is his story, but there’s precedent. Bloody precedent. Cameron and Mengele are perhaps the best-known examples of doctors experimenting unethically on patients, but they’re hardly alone.

Remember junior high English class, getting the list of the big conflicts, the big themes? Man against himself. Man’s inhumanity to man. While I’ve made a study of man’s inhumanity to man – hey, I’m an amateur historian – I don’t choose to tell these stories. They choose me. Stories scream. Like colicky babies.

Sure, it’s enough to drive ya mad.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Martyrdom of The Bab

On July 9, 1850, a man known by the title "The Bab" was martyred in Tabriz. The Bab is considered by Baha'is to be one of the Twin Manifesations of God for this age.

Whatever your feelings on religion, the stories of The Bab, and of Tahirih, are compelling. A good spot to read about them both is here:

Dead weight loses to radio waves

I staked Dead Reckoning through the heart and then cut the cord that was wrapped round my neck.

And it feels good.

This insane idea I somehow had to finish an old flawed project before I could move on to the newer ms that was screaming for attention – fluttering in the winds, rags small and raindrops. Gone.

Do I need to tell you the new ms has exploded, like leaves on trees in June? Like a crocus?

The new ms uses radio waves and a bit of superstring theory to hold its shape. It’s framed within the moments of Marconi’s three dots in 1901 and the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005. Set in NL, mostly.

Signal to noise.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Dead Reckoning: Might burnt it yet, or, Get out the violins and the hankies so we can all have a weep

Burn it? As I had the guts.

Dead Reckoning, this gallstone of a novel I’ve been struggling with since 2001, wants to come out. I’m not sure it’ll ever be fit to be seen. Drafts five and six exist as first-person and third-person limited-variable versions respectveily of the same story, told in a linear fashion – that beginning-middle-end thing I get on my high horse about. I’ve shattered the narrative, for thematic and image reasons, but underneath that I need strong through-lines and character development – of devolvement, depending on the character.

So it’s hard to work on for the narrative strategy. The subject matter – violence, power, festering rage, alienation from conceptions of God – isn’t easy, either. And it’s set in the early eighteenth-century: yes, by, I’m a dialogue expert there.

A painful chronic condition has acted up, too – dandy, should have quite the edge on today. Which could help.

Gotta go deep.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Double-blind: unwittingly playing with the family jewels

No, I have not read all 702 pages of the recently released "Family Jewels" files, a collection of misdeeds to which the CIA had admitted:'s_family_jewels©right=0&release_dec=RIPPUB&classification=U&showPage=0001

Summaries of the report indicate there are documents pointing to, amongst other Cold War delirium, testing electronic equipment on US telephone circuits and the funding of behaviour modification research on "unwitting" US citizens.

"Unwitting" is crucial here. That means the subjects didn't know. Were not informed. Could not possibly give proper consent.

This brings to mind the CIA's funding of Ewen Cameron's behaviour modification research on Canadian psychiatric patients – unwitting and unprotected.

But before Canadian readers here get too smug, we do need to remind ourselves that the Canadian government stepped in with funding for Cameron after the CIA pulled out. Stand on guard for thee.

All of this high-strung lethal foolishness is in the background of my novel Double-blind, which is narrated by Dr. Josh Bozeman, an American psychiatrist contracted under a program like MK-Ultra, working in Newfoundland.
Dr. Bozeman's fictional research includes behaviour modification and some farther paranormal activity. His big struggle is with his own empathy. His big question is "Who could forgive me?"

So. Some jewels are out. Some mistakes were made. My big question is "What do we learn here?"

I've learned that knowledge eats sleep.

Here's a bit about Double-blind:

It's the 1970s, the final icy winter of the Cold War. American psychiatrist Josh Bozeman finds himself in St. John's as part of covert research group SHIP, the Society for Human Improvement and Potential. But SHIP defines "improvement" and "potential" as anything that can be forged into a weapon.

Enter Christy Monroe, one of Bozeman's favourite patients, a nine-year-old girl with an extraordinary psychic gift. She becomes Bozeman's subject in a SHIP double-blind experiment where the whole reality is dangerously obscure, blurring the lines between patient and doctor, duty and conscience, sanity and madness.

Twenty-five years later, Bozeman is drawn into an even darker paranormal agenda that sends him back to Newfoundland as the principal player in an endgame that could have mortal consequences for Christy, or for his own soul.

Double-blind is a feverish story of complicity, empathy, and the extremities of duty and love

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ferryland Lightouse -- reading on June 16th

So I was on the same bill with Michael Crummey – an honour. My husband and children came out to see the lighthouse but would not be staying – I didn’t think the younger one had the attention span, and I didn’t feel like using my characters’ profanity in front of them. So they went off to have supper, but not before clambering around the restored lighthouse.

We couldn’t have asked for better weather. Sunshine, warm winds, whales playing offshore – and quiet. After the previous weekend in Toronto, I needed this: big ocean, clean sky. Our blood is salty.

Feeling better than I had in weeks, I read the story “Late lunch” form the shadow side of grace, then gave ‘er with the opening of Double-blind, which is narrated first-person by an American psychiatrist, originally from the south. I had no business writing that novel from Dr. Bozeman’s POV – man, it was fun – and even less business reading in his voice, but the prose just falls that way. The rhythms. I’m no actor, and I need to work on control, but reading Bozeman as Bozeman felt like flying.

Fine line between bravery and foolishness.

Doubt and Depression, demons at large

You can pick your friends, but your demons pick you.

Doubt was in the living room with his feet up. Depression was outside having a smoke. I lopped their heads off last week, but both demons have this dandelion quality to them. Seeded. I’ll see them again.

Clinically depressed, as in needing and accepting medical intervention? Not this time. Teetered close, though. Looked like a raggedy darkness creeping under the door.

What does it feel like?


Like a dental abscess. A kidney stone. A razor cutting open a bruise. Like all of this, while at the same time the sparks that make you you are battered to powder, which then blows away. Some dim awareness you inhabit a shell. Some limp desire for numbness, until that, too, dries up. Love is farther away than stars. Then the wound consumes you. Depression exists. You do not.

So that’s why I lopped off his head. A trip to Ferryland helped.

Book Expo Canada: big pond, little fish. Endangered? Hardly.

Now, I was warned that Book Expo could make me feel small. After all, I’m just one little-known (okay okay, next best to unknown) writer with a small press. But we were also up there with advance review copies of Double-blind; surely, I muttered to Doubt and Depression, two familiar demons who have dropped by for the summer, surely that amounts to something.

Book Expo looked like a cross between a fair and a mall, but it smelled like a corporate boardroom. Stalls were fancy to varying degrees, and in the first feeding frenzy of Saturday morning, people grabbed books off shelves, happily ignoring signs that read “For Display Only.” (I wondered what happened to the concept of “Ask first.”) Lineups for signings snaked round. Big-arsed publishers had thick plush carpet over their share of the hard floor–ever harder, hour after standing hour. I worked in malls years ago. I don’t envy the fatigue and ache that infests you after standing around, walking the sales floor and counting the minutes until your first break … all before opening the doors to let customers in.

So what happened at Book Expo? I didn’t see many orders being placed, but that seems to be done ahead of time now. It’s a bit like getting lost in a bookstore for the first time, when you can’t see over the shelves but know Mom is somewhere close by. I did see lots of hugging, air kisses and lots of lining up. Traffic seemed steady through the centre, sparser on the far edges. One person I chatted to commented on my accent, or perceived relative lack of one and pointed this out as though it were a high compliment. Joy. People still do that?

I had two signings for Double-blind, one Sunday afternoon, one Monday morning. I also had lineups, which I was not expecting, but hey, free books, right?

I’d never had lineups at a signing before. I’m more accustomed to the Sit Next to Your Books and Look Friendly While Everyone Avoids Eye Contact scenario. My second signing for The shadow side of grace was at Coles in the Village Shopping Centre. The Village is a … quiet mall. Coles is at the back end. And it was a gorgeous fall Saturday. I was sure tumbleweeds passed by, or maybe that was lint on my glasses. Then, she came. A little old lady. Fierce of mien. Sharp of eye. She strode past the table. Stopped. Strode back. Picked up my book as though she were Ahab and the sun had just offended her. Turned it over like it was a beetle in the sun. Peered over her glasses at the price. Slammed it back on the table. “It’s too expensive, dear; you’re just starting out.”

Having a line-up at a signing is a bit like driving on the Queensway in Ottawa: you’re baffled on either side and focused only on where you’re going. No lane change here, baby. You want to chat with everyone, find out their name, figure out if they’d like the book personalized or just scribbled on, and thank them. Gratifying and draining all at once.

Did I feel small? Sure. I’m one of thousands of people in this country who can string a sentence together with a bit of skill. Hoop-de-doo, yay for me, got another book coming out.

Yeah. Got another book coming out. Doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was seven.

Small. But not squashed.

Launch: The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction

The Vagrant Revue of New Fiction launched in Halifax on May 28th. I got to visit the very orderly city of Halifax and twack around Agricola and then downtown. The Vagrant Review is an anthology, with writers from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador represented. The editorial policy was literary merit, not provincial representation.

It was probably the swankiest, and certainly, the busiest launch I’ve attended, but then I’m no ravin’ maven of parties given for books.

Check your indy bookseller for this one. Vagrant, an imprint of Nimbus, is repped by the Literary Press Group, and there disturbing stories – surely I’ve misunderstood – that Chapters Indigo ordered no spring titles from LPG.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

CV2: "Poets Who Swing Both Ways" -- excerpts online

Excerpts from the latest issue of Contemporary Verse 2, "Poets Who Swing Both Ways," are online here:

I am totally stoked about being in this issue.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Downtown notes

My new dayjob has me in downtown St. John’s, one of my favourite places. It’s old St. John’s, at least some of the building pre-dating the Great Fire of 1893 – some, but not many. The architecture on the stone buildings is a bit Georgian, a bit Gothic. Shannon Patrick Sullivan in his novel The Dying Days portrays an invisible St. John’s, one made of memory – memory without marker. Walking around downtown or Bowing Park, you can see why he’s done that. Downtown is already crackling with the arts, oil money and misery; behind this sticky present is an obscured past. Wooden houses were hastily built after the Fire. Downtown looks old but hurried.
I tell visitors to park their cars elsewhere and just walk around downtown. You miss a lot when you’re looking for a parking space.

Here’s what I’ve found in the past few weeks.

1. In my cups 1: Britannia Teas
2. In my cups 2: Hava Java
3. Omens for my ears: Afterwords Bookstore
4. Metamorphoses: Say Nothing, Saw Wood and Recent Works

In my cups 1: Britannia Teas

Growing up, I used to sneak cups of tea when my parents were out of the house.

Once puberty hit with all its feminine joys, my mother – who always drank tea with her mother, an English war bride – officially introduced me to the healing powers of a "good cup of tea." Better than Midol, I can tell you that. It was King Cole, maltier than either Tetley or Red Rose, steeped at least 5 minutes with one bag to the mug, and then lightened with – hey, sing along, you know the words – Carnation evaporated milk.

Kelly Jones, owner of Britannia Teas, now open at 199 Water Street, used to drink 5 cups a day with her Nan in Brittania on Random Island. It’s not hard to understand why the Japanese have developed an elaborate ritual around the preparation and serving of matcha tea. It’s a very social act, making tea for someone else. Easy for us, with running water and electricity to boil the kettle. Harder when making tea meant drawing water and building a fire.

Britannia Teas is an uncluttered tea shop. I say "uncluttered" because many of the shops I’ve visited in Ontario are so crowded with china and glass that I’m afraid to move. At Britannia Teas, you’ve got room to have a good look.

That’s not the only thing Ms Jones has done well. Most of the tea is loose, which makes for a better cup. Much of the tea in regular tea bags is what’s called "fannings." That means broken leaves and dust. Loose tea leaves expand in hot water and make for a more flavourful and cleaner cup. Yes, cleaner. Next time you brew Tetley, look how cloudy it is.

The loose teas at Britannia are in dark canisters, protecting the leaves from light. I visited an expensive tea shop in Ottawa last year and nearly cried when I saw all the tea in clear glass jars. Sure enough, the small amounts I bought were stale and tasteless. So how do you know what the tea at Britannia Teas looks like or smells like? Ms Jones has put out a small sample canister of each. Brilliant.

The variety is amazing. Two Assams, three Darjeelings ... and that’s just the black teas. Several green teas, both Chinese and Japanese, are available, and there’s even an Earl Grey Green with a Newfoundland connection. The organic Lapsang Souchong must have been withered over a real pine fire, like it’s supposed to be, because you can smell distant pine on the smoke.

Best of all, there’s a selection of teas for children. Mostly fruit-based, these caffeine-free herbals will make any child feel more grown up and part of their broader community. The rooibos (pronounced ROY-boss or ROY-bus) varieties are also appropriate for children (who might be sneaking the regular stuff when you’re out of the house). Rooibos is a reddish bush that grows only in South Africa. It’s full if anti-oxidants and can be very soothing; South African mothers give it tepid in bottles to colicky babies. My older daughter drinks rooibos day and night. Britannia Tea’s Hunny Rooibos will likely go over well with children, or anyone with a sweet tooth. The Rooibos Chai lets you know you’re alive.

If you’re nervous about brewing loose tea, Brittania Teas have many infusers and teapots to make it easier.

Bagged varieties include the incredible Yorkshire Blend and the even better Yorkshire Gold. This is what Tetley wants to be in its fondest dreams. These black teas brew up dark and "proper," as my Yorkshire Nan would have said. They’re malty and bright, and on a foggy bonerot of a day, they could save your life. Britannia Teas also stocks the Yorkshires loose.

Kelly Jones and Danielle Irvine know their teas, and they’re ready with recommendations.

Life is short. Go get some tea.

In my cups 2: Hava Java

Hava Java on Water Street is my favourite coffee spot. I’m also eating lunch there a fair bit, which is not fiscally responsible but is at least good for me – lunch at your desk deadens the soul. The sandwiches, available from noon to 2 on weekdays, are enormous. Red and green peppers are always available, and the cheese is real cheese.

Hava Java also has the best oat cakes in town – when you can get them. A barista told me once the oatcakes are like unicorns, rarely sighted.

Last Friday morning, my husband and younger daughter stopped in to get me a coffee, and my daughter lucked out into a free broken cookie. She came to see me with crumbs all over her face and her baseball cap on backwards: — Mama, look. The ladies gave me a cookie.

My favourite thing about Hava Java is the people. Suits line up next to scruffs. Customers are all treated the same. Unlike in other coffee shops, I’ve never been made to feel I’m too ugly to be allowed in the place.

The coffee is good, the prices are fair, and the atmosphere is kicks like caffeine.

Omens for my ears -- Afterwords Bookstore

Afterwords Bookstore, Duckworth Street

I’ve been going here since I was a teenager. My Nan would always give my sister and I part of her "spoose’s allowance," as she called it – that does sound better than "spouse’s allowance," her portion of my grandfather’s pension – and I’d try to save mine for a trip to bookstore. Afterwords was the first secondhand bookstore I ever visited. The addiction took. Most of my library is second-hand paperbacks with loose pages and cracked spines. I wasn’t thinking royalties then. I just had to devour books. Before I had children, I’d buy books before food.

So any visit now to Afterwords is very like visiting a favourite relative. The house hasn’t changed much. New curtains, maybe, but it’s still the same house with stacks of treasure begging time.

I’ve got a weakness for earrings, too. Guess what else you can get at Afterwords?

But these were special earrings. I bogged earlier about re-structuring my novel ms Dead Reckoning. The outline is done, and in my head I’m winding the narratives lines around a belaying pin, just as on a square-rigged ship you’d "make up the lines," or wind the ropes in a sort of figure-eight (hug, hug, kiss) round the pins.

The earrings are figure-eights with a straight line dangling down the middle. My husband has since bought them for me. Omens for my ears.

Metamorphoses -- Say Nothing, Saw Wood and Recent Works

Say Nothing, Saw Wood by Joel Thomas Hynes
and Recent Works at Gordon Laurin
at the Resource Centre for the Arts, LSPU Hall

The beauty of live theatre is its very risk. Real people not too far from you, with real people’s flaws. Lines might be lost. Lights might fall from the ceiling. Language might alienate. Or, the story before you might compel you utterly, drawing you out of your own life and into someone else’s.
These risks are magnified with a one-person show.

Say Nothing, Saw Wood achieves more than the seamless intimacy you’re hoping for at the theatre. You’re brought into the guts of a terrible story – "terrible" with its root in"terror" – until you wind down to a truly powerless individual’s repellent violence.

And yet – the script and the performance build empathy. You understand precisely why Jude Traynor does what he does. This understanding goes beyond mere sympathy, which is tinged with noblesse oblige, pity and narcissism, with "I only like and approve of characters who are like me." Any progress humanity might make will depend on compassion and the willingness to listen, to try to understand what it’s like to be someone else, regardless of whether you like or identify with him. That’s the beauty and the risk of live theatre, and part of what’s happening in Hynes’s play.

Recent Work is an exhibition by Gordon Laurin. When I saw the 27 identically-sized panels on the walls at the RCA Gallery, I had my usual shithead reaction, one that comes out of fear: Great, abstract art, I won’t get any of it.


From Gordon Laurin’s Exhibition Statement:

"My interest is to create a forum where our relationships to the natural world can be considered through forms that are inspired by the earth’s natural events and cycles like rising tides and eroded shorelines."

His panels are crushed mica and resin. At first it seems only the colours change from panel to panel. But these abstractions, like stacks of book, beg time and thought. The colours wave and after a moment, move. The mica is grit ... or rocks ... or broken beer bottles on the beach. Or.

I need to go back.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

"Poets Who Swing Both Ways"

The new issue of Contemporary Verse 2 (vol 29, issue no. 4) features "poets who swing both ways," that is, poets who also, or mainly, write plays, fiction, non-fiction. Contributors include Alison Pick, Daniel David Moses, Francine Allard, Richard Harrison, Maurice Miereau and Jane Silcott.

I lucked into this issue, kindly shoved toward submitting by George Murray, with two poems, "Demoblized" and "Meet again." Both my pieces are monologues. My poetry comes in different voices -- there's the playwright in me -- and is relentlessly narrative -- there's the novelist. Being called a poet makes me feel like a bit of a fraud, like I should own up to something, explain I'm really an escaped copywriter or a deluded English major.

Or I could just shut up and write.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Dumb luck, dumb writer

Research. Yep, thought I was good at it. Feeling pleased with myself this morning -- that should have been the warning bell -- thinking Double-blind is done-ish, when I saw that today's feature article on Wikipedia was on American military brats as a subculture. Scanned through it, patted myself on the back for getting influences and psychology in ...

discovered that the bugle call played at the lowering of the flag at 1700 hours (5:00 pm to civilians) on American bases is "Retreat."

My narrator, an American army brat who would know, says he heard "Taps."

I researched this years ago. And I still shagged it up. The novel's not gone to press, but the opening chapter was due to be printed in a sales kit this morning.

Caught it, just in time.

Dumb luck.

Complacency will kill ya.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Seven

Help select the Seven Wonders of Newfoundland at Product of Newfoundland:

Structure, smashed

Dead reckoning is a method of navigation, dependent on latitude and sun. The night sky is not consulted. Set your course straight and sail the line.

My ms Dead Reckoning is about power: who does what to whom, who gets to tell the story of it.

Draft after draft, it has failed as a novel. Or rather, I have failed it.

The protagonist is a girl who is mistaken for a boy in early eighteenth-century Bristol. For convenience and later self-preservation, she maintains the disguise, not that it fools everyone. Several people want to own her and use her, including two thieving pedophiles, a disgraced spy, a spymaster, a shipwrecked Englishman and self-styled fishing admiral.

An encounter with an old tormentor sparks violence, complicity and a sickening fall.

So what’s the best way to tell it?

This time, in pieces. Not multiple first person, but shards of third-person, scraps of testimony.

I want the story at your feet like splintered wood and dropped glass.

Shag linear. Shag dead reckoning.

No chart. Umm ...

Vagrant Review of New Fiction

The Vagrant Review of New Fiction is due out mid-May. This is Vagrant's first anthology, and it's a collection of short stories by emerging Atlantic Canadian writers. I was lucky enough to get a story in it, and I'm lucky enough to be going to the launch party. Can I wear my jeans?

VRONF is edited by Sandra McIntyre and Mary Jo Anderson.

Contributors are:

Brent White
Janet Parker Vaughn
Lee D. Thompson
Darcy Rhyno
Elizabeth Peirce
Sarah Mian
Nina Lassam
Amy Jones
Joanne Jefferson
Joey Comeau
Rhian Calcott
Michelle Butler Hallett
Erna Buffie
Judy Bowman
Russell Barton

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Coming soon ...

from the cover for Double-blind:

It’s the 1970s, the final icy winter of the Cold War. American psychiatrist Josh Bozeman finds himself in St. John’s as part of covert research group SHIP, the Society for Human Improvement and Potential. But SHIP defines "improvement" and "potential" as anything that can be forged into a weapon.

Enter Christy Monroe, one of Bozeman’s favourite patients, a nine-year-old girl with an extraordinary psychic gift. She becomes Bozeman’s subject in a SHIP double-blind experiment where the whole reality is dangerously obscure, blurring the lines between patient and doctor, duty and conscience, sanity and madness.

Twenty-five years later, Bozeman is drawn into an even darker paranormal agenda that sends him back to Newfoundland as the principal player in an endgame that could have mortal consequences for Christy, or for his own soul.

Double-blind is a feverish story of complicity, empathy, and the extremities of duty and love.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Best typi yet

More mistakes from revising Double blind ...

A particularly crude and manipulative character in a moment of rising tension says: "You think you've cured him? You've done duck-all."

Laugh. Find new spot to beat head.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Boopers and typis when the fat lady writes

Amongst the howlers discovered after the Double blind ms went out for blurbs:
  • the narrator and protagonist is eleven in 1946 and then nineteen in 1959
  • a super-duper top secret code on which the weight of a man’s very soul depends changes four times in two pages
  • the narrator’s air conditioner is not broken, yet the hot air is suffocating
  • and, best of all, the narrator spends time in Montauk on Long Island, yet somehow the first time he hears a foghorn or sees the Atlantic ocean is when he comes to St. John’s a year later

Beat head off wall. Rinse. Repeat.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Twisting the moustache

Monsters look like good guys.

That is the cause of the wretched confusion in an exploited child. A figure they’ve been told they can trust is the person hurting them. How do you reconcile that?

The child blames himself and endures.

That monsters look like calm good guys is part of what Hannah Arendt, referring to Adolf Eichmann, called "the banality of evil" – just following orders, just doing my job. (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil)

Another part of that banality is the larger society in which the evil happens. What do we accept? What do we deny?

A great question for the twentieth century is about Nazi Germany. How could such an advanced culture a Germany’s give rise to such depravity? The same question can apply to Canada when examining the abuse of mental patients at the Allan or the Duplessis Orphans, the alienating horror of the residential schools, or the brittle denial of problems at Mount Cashel–to name a few.

Part of the answer lies in absences.

I think of evil as not existing in itself, but as the result of the absence of compassion. Just as darkness is not a thing itself but the absence of light.

If you have no compassion for another person, no doorway to empathy, then the other person has become less than human to you. Monsters live this way, cause harm. Then go home to their families and raise happy kids.

But if I refuse compassion for a monster, either an abstract one or one who has hurt me, am I monstrous?

Can a society heal and advance without deeper empathy, without some dim understanding of the monstrous as part of the human condition?

Friday, March 30, 2007


I stutter, and I write. I love people, and I’m too fuckety shy for eye contact. My cultural matrix is oral, oral, oral: chatter and stories are weapons and medicine.

Communication’s a big deal for me.

Spark-gap transmission was the start of radio telephony. Huge amounts of energy, intelligence and dirty-handed frustration went into wireless communication. There’s a lonely desperation to Fessenden’s snow, Marconi’s kite, Tesla’s vision. There’s such joy when the message is received. Small wonder Marconi’s Morse code signal to Poldhu was the letters C and Q.

Seek you.

The link below takes you to John Belrose’s article on spark-gap transmission. The photo of Marconi’s condenser under construction reminds me of the light show towards the end of Peter Gabriel’s "Signal to Noise" on the Growing Up Live concert DVD. Most of Belrose's discussion passes me by. Bits of it stick. Some of the "listen" links are dead, but there are examples of how spark sounded – huge effort, little apparent noise. And there’s a sample of Belrose on spark-gap transmission re-creating Fessenden’s first (and the first known) transmission of words without wires.

"One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen?"

The hiss and fuss of spark sounds like someone stuttering.

Is it snowing where you are?

Monday, March 26, 2007

Going naked

One of these days I’m going to get a thong in a knot. Not sure yet about the necessary gymnastics. Just a small ambition to keep me busy while I wait for the valerian to kick in.

I thought I could coddle and hoard my precious Doubleblind revisions until some time in April, or even the end of March. Don’t know why I thought that, but I did.

Tough titty. The ms had to get out to the blurbers, writers whose work I admire and whose time is tight.

Revisions got done. Hurried, but done. All I have left now is deciding things like "crimson" versus "scarlet." (I hope.)

But here’s a gutfall I didn’t expect. It’s right up there with not being thrilled to see many copies of my first book, The shadow side of grace, on shelves. (What? That many? Lord, they’ll never sell. And so on.)

I never expected to be scared about my second book coming out.

Not just scared. Shaking.

I stand five feet, seven inches tall and weigh nearly two hundred pounds. A lot of that is muscle; far too much of it is still flab. Every bit of it has become one exposed nerve.

You can forgive a lot in a first book. You expect a new writer to prove something in the second. Prove she’s learned something. Prove he’s no fluke. Prove she can actually write. And not just re-write the first book.

Very little of Doubleblind comes from my own experience, but it’s still my guts on the page. What interests me. What worries me.

And it’s in first-person. About all I have in common with the narrator is that we both speak English.

Harlan Ellison, in his introduction to PAINGOD and Other Delusions (Ace Books, 1983 edition) quotes his friend Avram Davidson, who called Ellison’s introductions "going naked in the world" (page 10). Ellison goes on to argue that everything he writes is like going naked. He then quotes Irwin Shaw: "A man does not write one novel at a time or one play at a time or even one quatrain at a time. He is on a journey and he is reporting in: ‘This is where I think I am and this is what this place looks like today’" (page 11).

Flabby gut, floppy breasts. Bleah. I’m going naked.

This is where I think I am.

Put in my place by poetry

So I've bragged before that my younger daughter is a poet.

Two nights ago, I was getting undressed, she looked up at me and said: "Your breasts are big."

They're not huge, but they're certainly noticeable. I recalled long hours nursing this tough little preemie, feeling maternal and proud.

Brushing her hair, she continued. "Your breasts are floppy. Like dog ears, only shorter."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Planes waiting to land

Finishing Doubleblind. Champing to get back to a project called Sky Waves, which needs some intricate work. Not expecting an old and abandoned project to resurface in my head, repairs underway.

My "first" novel -- technically third, as two other mss are in a box and will never come out -- is called Dead Reckoning, and my failures with it have broken my heart. So I left it.

It won't leave me.

I should know better.

What's my motivation?

Notes from revising Doubleblind ...

So you're a wicked man and need an understrapper. How do you motivate him?

Fear and threats will only work so much. Eventually your moderate man will become resentful or may find a way to become a passive martyr. Or worse, he may become (dramatic chord here) less productive. And no organization, wicked or not, wants unproductive employees. How can you stay competitive with an unproductive martyr-in-waiting?

You could give him impossible choices within a designed framework and then appeal to his dormant morality, perhaps even encourage him to see himself as more humane than his colleagues.

Good old Skinner behaviourism.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

More s'posin'

To clarify: my character Keefer Breen is not evil. He does some shocking things, but what he does not do is regularly de-humanize other people. Keefer is driven by his compassion.

Josh Bozeman can and does dehumanize others. The moment you consider another person somehow less than human, you can do anything to them and prop up your justification in some pathetic ends-and-means argument. Josh suffers a certain emotional paralysis and is a much poorer man that Keefer for not loving.

But Josh doesn't know that, and he's telling the story.

Ink gets ya dirty.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

S'pose, b'y -- a moderate man

"Picked and prudent sentiments. You are the moderate man, the invaluable understrapper of the wicked man. You, the moderate man, may be used for wrong, but you are useless for right." --Herman Melville, The Confidence Man.

It's passivity masquerading as awareness that Melville's on about. Though he hardly makes it easy on his characters. You can argue that Starbuck in Moby-Dick is such a moderate man. How does that affect your sympathy for him?

Moderate men -- and by "men," I mean all humans, regardless of which bathroom they pee in -- stuck with the Milgram experiment.

Moderate men could smell crematoria but be surprised by their existence.

Moderate men obey without struggle, in a perversion of the human desire to submit to a higher spiritual authority. (This can get really tangly with atheism.)

From Milgram's article "The Perils of Obedience:"

"Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority." (Milgram, Stanley. (1974), "The Perils of Obedience". Harper's Magazine. Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority. Reproduced at Wikipedia entry "Milgram experiment.")

I'm exploring this with several characters, most notably Keefer Breen and Dr. Josh Bozeman.

Opening and closing my collection The shadow side of grace, Keefer is at once capable of looking for patients in his job as a hospital personal care attendant, and of smacking a dying woman across the mouth. The context of Keefer's violence -- this violence being the only resort of someone truly powerless -- is intolerable conflict. In a later story, Keefer sits with a dying man going through a crisis of faith. He uses his hands all through the story -- gently. Does this later act redeem the former?

Dr. Josh Bozeman is the narrator/protagonist of Double-blind. His violent acts, much more subdued than Keefer's, come more from his obedience, from his "simply" doing his job. He's more educated than Keefer, speaks standard English, albeit with a southern American accent, but he is no better a man. (Given the choice, I'd much rather spend time with Keefer.) Josh's struggle is to get beyond his obedience to a lower authority, but he litters his path with other people's pain.

While both of these characters need to be sympathetic to make their stories work -- there's got to be something likable about them -- I want them to be more than that. I want the reader to feel the deeper empathy, the coldgut recognition: "Yeah, I can see myself doing that. Not proud of it, but I can see it happening."

I am not proud of my moderate moments. I'm determined there will be fewer of them.

Monday, March 5, 2007

No, Max, I would find that very hard to believe.

So I'm revising a novel. Got a publication date, got a deadline. Got a full-time job besides and a regular tension headache from too much time hunched at keys.

Got a problem.

Double-blind is a hybrid. I want it marketed and read as "literary fiction," whatever the hell that is, but it's full of pulp. In some places it smells of the paranormal. It's a study of complicity refracted through one doctor's ethical collapse -- there's the literary fiction part, I guess -- and that collapse is shown through his MKUltra work. There's the pulp.

My dear doctor's final actions are taken when he's nearly seventy, straining credulity for some readers who have seen the ms. I guess my task now is to strengthen the litfic stuff to keep him a complex and developing character who can surf the pulp.

Complicating that is the destroyed reality of MKUltra. We don't have a clear picture of what went on in the name of Cold War research; the glimpses that have survived the shredder are terrifying. Ewen Cameron at the Allan in Montreal for a start.

Pulpy, yes, but with precedent. And somewhere in there, in writing this story, I still need to play.

Panties in a twist, as usual.

I'm losing sleep.

Insert dialogue here, or, sometimes I need a good smack

Last week, Thursday I think, was Dr. Seuss's birthday. My daughters' school celebrated by inviting students to bring in their favourite Seuss book. My older daughter's class spent time on, learning that Dr. Seuss's real name was Geisel and, best of all for them, making up stories using Seuss characters. Site visitors choose characters, backgrounds and music and get four panels to develop a story. My older daughter spent hours this weekend making up silly dialogue for Horton, the Who Mayor and others. Every ten minutes or so I was called to the computer so she could giggle through, er, read me another story.

Her stories were deliciously silly. She didn't need encouragement to keep going. I piled it on anyway.

But inside I was dubious, like a mother who won't allow her child to have a colouring book because it might somehow stifle creativity. (I've never banned colouring books. Turns out my two would rather draw their own pictures anyway.) What? Making up dialogue for someone else's characters? Isn't this, well, cheating somehow?

Then a great hammer came and hit me on the head. Or at least it should have.

One, my daughter's a child.

Two, the story maker is play.

Like making up dialogue for Star Wars action figures. Or for your plush toys. Or your Barbie dolls.

Or for Achilles and Odysseus.

Gotta play more.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Auras -- head space loom grow distort

My younger daughter is a poet. She's six and said once of a rainy day "The sky is cut." Yesterday morning she was brewing a cold, though none of us knew. She said, "Mama, when I got up, I didn't feel right. Like I grew. Like I was too tall."

By 11 she was glass-eyed and feverish. Advil and rest and lying on the couch in that defiant "I'm not tired" position brought a swift improvement.

I kinda like being feverish. Shouldn't, but do. That blurred edge of perception, the little gifts of prodrome. Or the hours before a hemiplegic migraine takes over. No serious pain with these, but my body splits: one side, usually the left, is normal or feels thin and withered; the other side blorts out as unbordered goo, a BarbaPapa in transformation. Limbs tingle, sleep thins out. Then the storm in the head, which is the nuisance cost for those glittering moments of metamorphosis.

Not sure what I'm taking from them yet.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

At Sea 40.38 N 52.45 W

Certified Extract From a Return of Death, General Register and Record Office of Shipping and Seamen, Tower Hill, London, E1

Name of Ship: Astrakhan

Date of death: 21 / 4 /24

Place of death: At Sea 40.38 N 52.45 W

Name and surname of deceased: James Phillip Jarwick

Sex: Male

Age: 29

Rating or Rank, Profession or Occupation: AB

Nationality, Stating Birthplace: British. North Shields

Last Place of Abode: 13 Mount Pleasant, North Shields

Cause of Death: Brain Fever

My grandmother, Ellen Jarwick, was an infant when her father died and never knew him.

Years ago, way before digital photography, my grandfather took an old portrait of James Sr and toddler James Jr, and another portrait of Nan as a baby with her mother, and got them copied and melded together to look like one portrait. This melded portrait was prominently displayed. I studied it for clues.

Who was James Jarwick?

A sailor who died at sea of brain fever.

A father who never sat next to his daughter.

The man in the portrait.

Far away.

Monday, February 19, 2007


William S. Burroughs started it, then Laurie Anderson picked it up and sang about it. I chant it sometimes: "Language is a virus."

Solid writing infects you. Feverish flashbacks to, say, Melville's Moby-Dick or Kafka's In the Penal Colony can be distressing, especially when they occur oh, at work or behind the wheel.

Basic imagery is even more unpredictable. I found Christopher Lockett's Untitled Newfoundland Zombie Project yesterday, took a gander. It's an in-progress screenplay, a zombie movie set in St. John's, NL. (Hell, why not? We've got Wal-Mart, Montana's Steakhouse and CNN. Zombies are a plausible next step.)

Diss the zombie genre all you like. I got infected. Dreamt about, yep, zombies all night. Tossed and moaned and tried to remember medieval siege techniques, calorie counts on food and just where I'd put my tire iron last. My dreams had baby zombies, and they floated, just like fetuses. Best way to defeat the baby zombies was to spray them in the face with Lysol.

Mother of two here, spraying Lysol at floating baby zombies.

Zombies are money worries for me. The Visa bill staggers up the back yard. The telephone bill strides over my parked car. The electric bill grabs me from behind.

Not sure about the baby zombies yet.

Humbling, to be infected by an image.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Long lost found war love, or, Nan was a war bride

How many Canadians are descended from war brides? How many of us exist because a woman tore herself from home and sailed to the other side of the world?

My maternal grandmother was a war bride from North Shields, near Newcastle, England. She met and married a St. John's boy who'd joined the Royal Navy. She crossed to Halifax on the RMS Scythia, a Cunard ship. Her "diner d'adieu" on March 25, 1946, was petite marmite, poached salmon with sauce hollandaise, roast turkey royale, French beans, braised celery, boiled and browned potatoes, plum pudding and brandy sauce, and ice cream.

This for women who'd been rationed each week to:

lb 3oz meat (offal and sausages not rationed)
4oz bacon
3 pints milk (or l packet of milk powder per month)
2 oz butter
2 oz margarine
2 oz fat or lard
2 oz loose tea
l egg per week (or l packet of egg powder, ‘makes l2 eggs,’ per month)
2 oz jam
3 oz sugar
l oz cheese
3 oz sweets
2 lbs onions (l942-44 only)
l6 oz soap (household soap, beauty soap and soap flakes)

Most of the women on board disembarked in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

More than one had a message waiting for her: "Not wanted."

The Scythia then turned around for St. John's. Nan arrived on March 28th. The streets were full of snow. She had no boots. Strangers offered her oranges. Her husband found her, carried her uphill.

Nan's maiden name was Ellen Jarwick. She kept contact with her brother until he died; when he called, he'd ask for "Our Nell." My mother kept contact with one of her cousins by sporadic letter.

A few years before she died, eaten out by Alzheimer's, she'd pace her living room, listening to random offerings of radio -- she never played the Vera Lynn records after her husband died -- and say she only wanted to go back to England. She died in St. John's.

I searched "Jarwick" on the net one afternoon.

Wouldn't you know. My long-lost cousin, Andy Jarwick, has posted a very detailed Jarwick family tree. It's taken him about ten years to find all the information. One square was blank: Nellie Jarwick.

He'd had no idea a branch of the family existed in Newfoundland.

An unlikely connection. But easy enough to make.

Spark-gap transmission / Michelle Butler Hallett

Spark-gap transmission / Michelle Butler Hallett
in progress

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