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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Soul Weather

In my book on Virginia Woolf, I'm going to do an entire chapter on readers.  Woolf wrote many essays on readers, two volumes of literary essays for "the common reader," and had a well-developed theory about how readers and writers work together.  She thought that though they might never speak to the writer, a reader and her or his opinions aided the development of art in some ineffable way.  Through studying these essays, I've come to one of my own most important conclusions about a work of art--that vexed object. Analytic philosophers have tried and tried--at least since the time of Aristotle--to define the work of art but have failed.  Yet interestingly, there's a fair amount of agreement, though it's by no means complete.  For me, that's the beauty of it.  When we disasgree we have to talk.  And when we talk about these things, something important happens.

Blogging has meant many things to me, but perhaps the most important is the conversation it sometimes establishes between readers and writers.  I was more or less told by Brindle & Glass that to market a novel in the 21st century one needed to have an online presence, so at their instructions, I've been blogging.  Because I try to write a post a week, I look at my world and think a bit more carefully.  But now I have a chance to really get the conversation going.  B&G has given me permission to post fragments from the novel I'm working on, Soul Weather.

It's difficult to describe the impetus for a novel--perhaps particularly for a book like Blue Duets that simply grew--and needed quite a lot of deliberate shaping as a result.  When the wonderful creative writing teacher and author Keith Maillard (you seriously want to read his Difficulty in the Beginning novels) came to visit my gender studies class he told one of my students, who had herded him from our classroom to the lounge across the hall, that you don't write a novel by simply beginning to write.  You need to begin shaping and questioning and thinking even before you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.   He explained all the difficulties I'd had with  Blue Duets.  So I'd resolved never to do that again.

Soul Weather  was born, so to speak, when two events collided in my imagination.  I use the verb "collided" purposefully; something out of physics, not biology, happened.  First, my wonderful colleague Michael Trussler once told me that Heidegger says that mood is our primary interface with the world; and indeed, when I read Being and Time last winter there it was.

But what influences our moods more than the weather?  And what happens to our relationship with the world when the weather has changed enough, as it has in Regina over the last three or four cold rainy springs and early summers and this last cloudy winter, that we no longer feel at home?

Here's what Heidegger collided with:  one beautiful summer night when Bill and I were out walking, we noticed a group of young people out on the porch roof of a house in our neighbourhood.  I think we suspected this was being used by students, but their cheery waves to us (cheered by what, exactly?  There are rumours....) confirmed it.  I thought a novel about a group of twenty-somethings, some in university, some beginning new jobs, would be interesting. I have this sense that we're not inviting this generation into their adult lives very well; unemployment and underemployment among them remain high.

So this collision produced a question:  what does it mean to be at home?  What does it mean to be at home on the planet, in your skin, in your future, in your culture's ideas and technology?

This novel will not be a peroration, a rant, a sermon.  But it remains connected nevertheless with my own concern about climate change and the way it's going to change everyone's daily lives.  I don't think we pay enough attention to this relationship to nature as we go through our days wired for sound or for connectivity, attached to our iPods and cell phones rather than to the world around us.  Yet weather gets under our skin, even if we're not particularly paying attention.

So I wanted one of my main characters to represent this connection in some profound and interesting way.  Lee has just finished her MFA in ceramics--which explains my frustrated attempts to work on a potter's wheel.  Artists, like English majors, don't find their ways naturally into day jobs, so she can stand in for this generation's struggle to be at home in their adult lives.  Lee's mother died when she was twelve, and on the night her MFA exhibition opens, her dad announces he's moving to Swift Current to become an organic gardener with his new girlfriend.  Would Lee please sell the house?  How could she be less "at home"?

I'm not sure where Dirk came from.  But here's his backstory:  he works for a cbo in Regina, but in his spare time he buys up small houses and renovates them as rental properties.  He knows the facts about homelessness, about how reassuring it is to have a stable place to live, and he's doing something in his small way to address that problem in Regina.  One evening when he comes back from fixing the plumbing at one of his houses, his wife tells him he always smells different when he comes home from other people's houses--like someone else's cooking or soap.  A couple of weeks later, she packs up the kids for an Easter visit to her sister in B.C., and doesn't come home again.

So Dirk wants to turn his family home into another kind of home, and wants Lee to help him do this.  He thinks Lee's dad is being a kind of shit for leaving her with so much responsibility and uncertainty, so he offers Lee this arrangement.  She can help him paint the house and collect some students to live in it in exchange for free rent.  That means she won't have to work quite so hard to support herself and can find her way as an artist.

That's the opening scenario of Soul Weather.  Why am I telling you this?  I'm on sabbatical, as I think I've told you many, many times, and while I work on my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, I'm also going to work on my novel.  In fact, Friday I'm leaving for two weeks at St. Peter's Abbey.  In September, I'm going to the Banff Centre for the Arts for a couple of weeks.

So I'd like to start a conversation with you about this novel by putting up sections of it now and then.  I'd like your reactions, positive and negative.  I'd also like to share the creative process.  So here's the deal.  I'll give you teasers and you tell me what you think.

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