Review

“Beware of the bareness of a busy life.” Socrates

I quote him often, but this time, I’m wondering what Socrates means by bareness. I’m currently neck deep in the craziness of life. Less than three weeks away from the festival, lots of small details still being sorted out, and I’m juggling time, commitments and responsibilities. Where the heck is this bareness?

I don’t have time to think about it and I’m not going to write about it either.

Instead, I’ll share a review that recently appeared in the University of Victoria’s Malahat Review about my novel, The Brink of Freedom.

Good, bad or indifferent, I am very thankful for reviews.

Someone has read my words, took notice, and felt it was important enough to write about it. How could I not be grateful?

Emily McGriffin wrote the review . I take this time to thank her for reading my novel, understanding it so completely, writing about it and giving me a bit of light in the bareness of my busy, busy life. Thank you, Emily!  

© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Stella L Harvey

Tracker

“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” Rabindranath Tagore

At the moment I'm knee deep. Yes, I’m trying to cross, but the expanse seems too far. Not sure I can take another step without some help.

But I digress. Let me start at the beginning.

A student I mentored a few years ago gave me a Fitbit. You’ve likely seen these things on people’s wrists. They look similar to a watch, but rather than tracking time, they track steps walked, heart rate, and among other things, your quality of sleep. My student’s son set it up for me because I was intimidated by the gadget. Here was another bit of technology, something else I had to figure out.

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Firsts

“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King

“I’ve got an idea.” These are the words that strike fear into anyone who knows me. They frighten me a little too. But I persist because I’m curious and stubborn and want to know what will happen next. How far can I go with my inkling?

I like beginnings. A fresh project, whether it’s a piece of writing or a completely new addition to my festival, comes with an inherent gush of creativity and inventiveness. It’s a time I’m flush with hope of what is possible and completely blind to how I’m going to bring it to fruition. I feel quite smug and cozy in my naiveté.

And then I sit down. What was once so compelling and complete in my head seems to grow tentacles of doubt that I can basically sum up into one niggling, obstinate question: what the hell do you think you’re doing?

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Lions and Sheep

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Alexander the Great

I had just had a California roll and looked forward to a quick cross-country ski at Lost Lake before heading home. It was a beautiful day, the kind we, who live in Whistler, brag about. The sky was clear blue and a light breeze teased at my cheeks.

A few kilometers into the trail my hands got incredibly itchy. My stomach started to protest and I found it hard to catch my breath. Pretty soon I felt as though I needed to peel my skin off, my lip was swollen (across my face, apparently) and my breathing became even more laboured. It got worse from there.

I wouldn’t know until I was in the emergency room that I was having an anaphylactic attack.  By that time, I didn’t know my name or where I was, let alone what I’d ingested and really the nurses and doctors who worked on me didn’t care either. I was aware of a lot of activity around me. I remember someone putting something into my arm. Instantly everything came back into focus.

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Every Day

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

I read the ekathimerini most days. This is the English version of the on-line Greek newspaper. As the name suggests, it is published daily.  

The paper gives me a glimpse into what is happening in Greece.  It makes me feel closer to the country I love. Most days the picture isn’t pretty. The headlines seem to tumble over themselves with the same dire messages: more cutbacks, fewer jobs, higher taxes, and additional poverty. In between the gloom, there are rare stories of hopefulness, a reminder of a once great nation

When I speak to my cousins or aunts on the phone, they paint a dismal picture of the Greek situation as well. “It is not good here. Things get worse every day.”

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Writing and Publicity

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out into the public.” Winston Churchill

My novel, The Brink of Freedom has been on the shelves since the beginning of October. It had already received a certain amount of media attention. This is always incredible for an author who toils alone, uncertain in the end if anyone will notice. Last week The Brink got a little more of a boost on the CBC weekend program, North by Northwest.

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Long Awaited, It Has Come

“Roots are not in a landscape or a country or a people, they are inside you.” Isabel Allende

It came this week. As did the tears the moment I saw the foreign writing. I took a breath, tried to control my emotions. Where had all this sentiment come from? I couldn’t articulate it. I have had difficulty at the best of times explaining to others why I have wanted what had just arrived. It’s a feeling. One of wanting to belong.

The faux-leather cardboard was cool in my hand. I stroked it, afraid to glance inside. Was this really mine? Had it finally come? It had been months, and if I think about it, likely years.

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Writer’s Block

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult

Last week’s twitter chat hosted by the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University provided tips to combat writer’s block. A whole host of writers participated with some sound advice: rereading favourite authors, staying at your desk until the fog cleared, walking away from the work for a while. I have tried all of these tips with a good deal of success. This discussion got me thinking about other advice I’ve been given and the tricks I have built into own my practice to keep me writing. Let’s face it, writing is bloody hard, anytime, but particularly when the sun is shining and there are so many other things to do.

A few years ago we hosted author Richard Wagamese. He read at the main festival and participated in our Authors in the Schools Program. Richard told the grade 12 students in his session (all had read his novel, Indian Horse) that he had never experienced writer’s block. Asked how that was possible he said, “One word follows another, then another.” It sounded so elegantly simple.

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Dreamers and Doers and Those Who Provide Support

We rise by lifting others.” Robert Ingersoll

This is the fifteenth anniversary of the Whistler Writers Festival, a cause for celebration and reflection. As I look back, I think about the first festival in 2002. Twenty participants, one guest author, all gathered in my living room. Those who came from Vancouver and beyond (2) and the guest author, stayed in our house. We felt like a family, all under one roof. I love that feeling and always thought it would remain this way − small and intimate.

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Fear and All that Jazz

“Courage is knowing what not to fear.” Plato

In a conversation with my father this week, he mentioned he’d walked to the store in his neighbourhood to buy some groceries. He’d been to the bank and since the store was close by, he thought he’d get a few things. I’m pretty protective of my dad. He was the same way with me when I was a child. Man, I used to curse him for that. How old am I, I’d rail. You don’t have to treat me like a kid.

Now he says the same thing to me. I don’t know why. Look at the facts, I tell him. You’re 87. Your memory comes and goes. You’re frail. I don’t want anyone to take advantage of you.

His rebuff to all of this: Why do you insist on reminding me how old I am.

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Behind-the-Scene Angel

“When the world says, ‘Give Up.’ Hope whispers, ‘Try it one more time.’” Unknown

About a hundred years ago, a newcomer arrived in town. She didn’t really feel that she belonged (big city girl and clumsy at the best of times, let alone when she’s got two boards strapped to her feet and is careening down a mountain), but she had to find her way because the man she loved, loved the place.

So she decided to start something new, something that she was passionate about. There didn’t seem to be anything like it town so she figured why not. She knew that everything takes money. So she nervously made a pitch to support that wild idea of hers. To this day, she remembers her sweaty hands, how her voice cracked when she spoke.

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Who Is This Man?

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” George Bernard Shaw

He sits quietly with his daughter and listens to her as she cries over some slight inflicted by another child. I watch from behind, at a safe distance. His arm is around her, her body tucked in close to his. I can’t hear their whispered conversation, but whatever he has said has reassured her. His daughter is soon playing again with her perceived transgressor. All is forgiven or at the very least put into perspective.

The other day while planning an outing with other family members, he negotiated going on a hike rather than a bike ride because his wife didn’t have a bike and wouldn’t have been able to go along. He spoke with every family member, made his case and eventually secured agreement. Everyone enjoyed the hike, no one more so than his wife.

This reminded me of other times. Out for dinner with family, his wife at work, he ordered, and then delivered a meal to her. Why hadn’t I noticed his generosity?

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2016 Summer Book Recommendations – Part 2

“Wisdom begins in wonder.” Socrates

Last week, I listed and provided a brief summary of the fiction titles I recommended for summer reading. I know, none sounded like light reads, but they are all well worth the investment of your time, energy and in particular, your heart.

I have begun to read more non-fiction of late and here are some recommendations I’d like to share. Some of these books use humour to tackle tough topics, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Promise.

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2016 Summer Book Recommendations – Part 1

“We shouldn’t teach great books: we should teach a love of reading.” B.F. Skinner

Each year at this time I provide you with some of my book recommendations. As I write this, the sun is warming my back as I sit at my desk. Fluffy white clouds roll over the mountains. Summer has arrived. There’s no better time to discover a good book.

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara

“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.” Bernard Meltzer

Four young men meet in college. Each is talented: one is an actor, one a painter, one an architect, and one is a lawyer. They move to New York where they hope to realize their dreams. And so starts the novel, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara.

At the beginning I found it difficult to relate to the characters. They are young, selfish, and shallow. They like to party. How would I ever come to care about them? I nearly put the book down after 30 pages, told myself I’d given it enough time, but I hate giving up on a book. Failing to complete often says more about me than it does about the book. So I persisted, told myself I’d give it another five pages, then another ten. One more night. If it doesn’t pick up. That’s it.

Then something changed. The landscape began to shift. “You know he cuts himself.” Jude’s doctor says to Willem. At that point the novel takes on a different hue.

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Star Pupils

“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” Pablo Picasso

“What would you like the media to capture about the refugee crisis that isn’t being captured now?” This question came from a grade 11 student this week.

I had just finished a presentation to her class. I’d outlined my writing process and flashed pictures of places I’d been and the research I’d done while writing my novel. I also spoke about my motivations for writing this particular story of refugees who fall between the cracks of international law, and at times, compassion.

No one had asked me this particular question before. It stumped me a little both because of the depth of the question and its source. I’d obviously underestimated how informed and engaged teenagers were. It wouldn’t be the first time this happened this week either. Shame on me.

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Young Readers

“I am still learning.” Michelangelo

I have been doing a bunch of presentations for grade 11 and 12 students in the Sea to Sky corridor over the past few weeks. It’s an honour to be asked and while I’m always excited to meet people who have read my novel, I can’t help but be anxious too. A bit of nervousness is always good. I’m okay with that. It pushes me to do my best. Still, these particular audiences are different. To start with they are younger.

Will they understand what I was trying to do? Is the subject matter too harsh, too dark for them? How do I make this experience a positive one? That was only a sample of the concerns running through my mind.

I typically give a short PowerPoint presentation about my research and why this particular topic, the refugee crisis, compelled me to write a novel. A reading, then a question and answer period, follows. During each reading, I have felt the silence of an audience completely immersed in the text. There is no fidgeting, no scrap of chair against linoleum, and no whispers among friends. The kids are listening.

In one school, we have gone a little further with the presentation and reading model.

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Carnegie

“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” Henry David Thoreau

“Would you be okay with speaking at any of our branches?”

“Yes, of course. Happy to go anywhere,” I replied to the email from the Vancouver Public Library. They were inviting me to speak about my novel. I was thrilled.

Those words came back as second thoughts as I tried to find a parking spot on the edge of the downtown east side in Vancouver−known as one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada.

Throngs of people lined the streets leading to the Carnegie Branch of the Vancouver Public Library. Some were seniors, others were addicts, still others looked like they were living rough−eyes hollow and distant, faces scrapped and scratched, lips cracked and dangling cigarette butts. The smell of marijuana, alcohol and rot was the kind that fixed itself to your clothes, your skin. It’s almost impossible to see Vancouver’s famed beauty in these streets. And yet this is Vancouver too.

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No Pitch Goes Unheard Here

“I never put off till tomorrow what I can possible do – the day after.” Oscar Wilde

I will do a few today, just a few. They should know. It’s only fair. No one should be left hanging, waiting. I wouldn’t want to remain in limbo, forever anticipating. I scroll down the list of those highlighted emails. There are about 150 of them.

To be fair, I have acknowledged each and every one. Immediately. It’s a point of pride. If someone writes to me, I respond. Thanks so much for getting in touch. I’m just in the middle of …, will get back to you, no later than… Please feel free to contact me anytime if you’re wondering where I am in the process.

Most thank me for the quick reply. I can hear the eagerness in their written words and feel even worse. I won’t be able to find a spot for every enthusiastic soul.

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Roots and Wings

“There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“How is it that someone who doesn’t cook opens a restaurant?”

“I had money. I wanted to run a business.”

“But a restaurant? What made you think you could do that?”  

“I thought it would be a good business. It was crazy. I should have taken more time to think about what I wanted to do before I jumped into anything.”

God, when hadn’t I said those exact words before? Except this time they were coming from my father. This conversation was a snippet of one of the many I’ve had with him over the last couple of weeks. I’ve always known the specifics of our history: how and when we immigrated to Canada, what my parents did to support us, and how they struggled with integrating into a new culture.

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Painting Paradise

“You have your brush, you have your colours, you paint the paradise, then in you go.” Nikos Kazantzakis

Organizing an event of any kind, large or small brings with it a number of considerations, not the least of which is where to find the money to fund it. In my paradise (as it pertains to organizing the Whistler Writers Festival, and the Writer in Residence and the Author in Schools Programs) funders come onboard and give generously because they believe in our cause, see our need and want us to succeed.

As you have probably deduced, I’m a dreamer.

January of each year begins with writing grants, compiling lists of potential business donors, discussing strategies, populating countless spreadsheets and writing plans that realistically outline how much we’re going to need, where it’s going to come from and what benefits the community will realize.

Despite the reams of documents we prepare, there are no guarantees we’ll get any money. This year we saw funding cuts from two of our major sources. One had funded us to the same maximum amount for years. This year they cut us back.

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Why I Bother

“Every calling is great when greatly pursued.” Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Why do I bother? I've asked myself this question daily, sometimes hourly. It happens anytime I sit down to write. First there are the questions: Why is this important? Who do I think I am? What the heck are my characters doing now? How does this fit into what I'm trying to do? The relentless questions are typically followed by feelings of worthlessness.

As insidious as undetected pinpricks in a garden hose, my insecurities seep out: I can't do this. I'm not good enough. It takes me some time to get a grip. The only thing that helps is to stay put, in front of the laptop, focused on the work, and asking myself, over and over again, what am I trying to say. This last question is helpful.

A friend of mine echoed similar feelings when we talked about writing earlier this week. She had just finished reading the novel, All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. "It's such wonderful writing. You're blown away. But then you wonder what's the point of your own writing." My friend is a very talented writer. And hard working too. She squeezes revising and editing her novel in and around her day job and her responsibilities as filmmaker, wife and mother. She's more than committed to her craft. Still when you read something so incredible, it's difficult not to question yourself and your own abilities.

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Not For the Money

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” Pablo Picasso

“So how much do you make?” I’m attending a book club meeting in Vancouver. I’d been invited here to discuss my novel. I don’t know anyone in the group. They found me through a friend of a friend of a friend.

I accept all invitations for presentations to book clubs or schools or festivals or anywhere really. You want me to come, I’m happy to oblige. I’m honoured by the interest people show in my work. And besides I have the gift of the gab (born with it) so any occasion to engage in discussion is good.

Despite this, I’m nervous. Yes, believe it. I hate to disappoint and each event is a performance. I prepare for hours: read and reread the piece I will deliver, think and rethink possible questions, imagine and reimagine where the discussion will go.

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A Door Cracks Open

“Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open.” Alexander Graham Bell

I argue that I can’t let it go. “It’s been fifteen years. How do I walk away?”

I do want to give up. This feeling has been true for quite some time, but of late, it has intensified.

It’s just become too unmanageable. My energy is waning. Besides how many more original ideas can I come up to keep things fresh and interesting? I don’t have any viable answers, but that doesn’t stop the questions from coming.

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Caregiving and Responsibility

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” Abraham Lincoln

My maternal grandmother raised me and was my primary caregiver for the first four years of my life. She died after giving my brother his middle-of-the-night feeding. My mother raised my son. I was in university when I had him. I went into labour in my afternoon class, finished the day, went home, then to the hospital. I told myself I didn’t have time for this even as the nurse was rolling me into the delivery room. Papers had to be finished, an exam was coming.

I took four days off and went right back to school, refusing my mother’s pleas to take a year away from my studies. To be fair, my ex also helped raise our son. I did as well, after school and on weekends. Still I have always felt I had abandoned him.

I’m not proud of deserting my son. I don’t regret my education or my career, but I wonder to this day why I felt I had only one option available to me back then. But that is likely a topic for another blog or perhaps a psychiatrist’s couch.

In families like mine grandmothers shoulder the caregiving responsibilities and instil the family’s values. Even though I only had my grandmother in my life for a short period of time, I have never forgotten her or the lessons she subtly taught. Don’t fight with your sister and brother. Share. Take care of your family.

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Storytelling

“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” Aristotle

“So what happened?” The doctor asked. He looked to be no more than fifteen and had a manic yet caring presence. We’d been watching him running in his clogs from one bed to another only minutes before he walked into our cubicle. He seemed to take a lot of time with each patient. But perhaps that was my impatience showing. We’d been sitting in the same spot for nearly an hour.

My dad sat in his undershirt, his dress shirt off. His chest, arms and the top of his head were covered in bruises and bandages. His broken collarbone stuck out in such a way that I could see the fracture without the need for an x-ray. Still the x-ray flashed on the screen behind him, the break confirmed in case I had any doubt.

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Still Missing Her

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Mother Teresa

Do you remember being a kid? I know. I know. It’s been a long time for me too. Still I get flashes of memory. They come at the strangest times with no obvious trigger. My hand gripped in my mother’s. The first day of school. We were both dressed in our finest. We were new to the country and neither one of us spoke the language so we had no other way to impress or, more correctly, to show that we were good enough to belong. I suppose we figured if they liked us, we’d be accepted.

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Walls

“Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics.” Jane Addams

I was at a social gathering the other night. Our friends had told those who we were meeting for the first time that I was a writer. They asked me thoughtful questions about the writing life, my novel, and many questions about the business of writing. I thought perhaps they were emerging writers themselves, but no, they said, “we’re just avid readers.”

I love engaged readers. And I should have stayed at that level of polite chitchat. After all it was incredibly generous of these strangers to ask about my work, but these days, I can’t seem to shut up about the refugee crisis in Europe. The platform doesn’t seem to matter. Whether it’s a get together with fellow writers, or a social event as the one I described above, or a coffee with a friend, or an early morning conversation with my father, my discretion and tact button seems to malfunction.

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Once A Presentation

“This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” Plato

Last week I read from my new novel, The Brink of Freedom, at an event hosted by the office of the Greek Consulate General of Vancouver and the Hellenic Community Association of Vancouver. It was an honour to be invited and to hear the Consulate General, Ilias Kremmydas introduce my novel and compare some of the novel’s story line and its characters to various characters from bygone Greek tragedies. As a writer, it’s always wonderful to have my work read so carefully.

I read for about ten minutes. In the silence of the room, I felt the encouragement and attentiveness of the audience. Could a writer ask for anything more?

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Hope

“Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.” Epictetus

The other day I felt pretty low. My publisher had just let me know that she hadn’t heard back from a broadcaster regarding an interview I’d hoped to do prior to a major event I was doing in Vancouver. In addition, a festival I had hoped to be invited to couldn’t find a spot for me. Where have I heard those words before? I’ve usually said them when I couldn’t place someone at my own festival.

Intellectually I know there are only so many spots to go around, and yet, the rejection still hurts. Rather than being rationale (not my strong suit anyway), I blamed myself, or rather my lacking, for these rebuffs. I’m just not a big enough name, a big enough draw, the book sucks, I suck.

And I spiralled downward from there.

On the heels of all that, I had to also attend a book club meeting I’d been invited to months before. As depleted as I was emotionally, I had made a commitment and rallied myself to fulfill it. Besides, who else was reading my novel?

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